Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer

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Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer (AKA Betty Bates – Attorney at Law, Betty Bates – Lady at Law and just plain ol’ Betty Bates) is one vintage female crimefighter comic series that needs no apologies or caveats. Created by Stanley Charbot, pen name for Bob Powell, and sometimes drawn by artists Al Bryant, Nick Cardy and Alice Kirkpatrick, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer appeared in Hot Comics for ten years from 1940 through 1950. The early issues’ art is, frankly, pretty crude, though no worse than many other comics were at the time (peek at the earliest Batman issues for comparison). But with Cardy and Bryant wielding the pencils, inking pens and sable brushes later on, there are spots in the series that could rival even some of Matt Baker’s fluid panels.

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Consider: Betty Bates wasn’t just one more in a long line of assistants, secretaries or girlfriends. Bates was the D.A. In fact, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer was the longest running series led by a lawyer – man or woman – till Marvel’s Daredevil passed the ten-year mark, and it was one of the longest running non-super powered/non-costumed comic heroes of the golden age.

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But Bates doesn’t spend too much time in the court room, far too busy fighting crooks, looking for trouble or getting caught up in it. Using her wits and falling back on some handy martial arts skills when needed, she normally prevails on her own and without the aid of some hunky cop or boyfriend, though some stories include ‘Larry’, a reporter who’s obviously smitten with the lady lawyer.

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Two things leap out at you: The drawings foregoe the then customary ‘good girl art’ look, with its intrusive peekaboo bathing suit and undressing scenes. Similarly, though Betty falls into some bad guys’ clutches, it’s no more frequent than in any other crime comics or costumed superhero series, and no one could label Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer as a ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘women in peril’ comic. In fact, the stories are really quite good, several stand up well even today, and with ten years of material, there’s a lot to read.

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The Gwandanaland Betty Bates – Lady At Law Readers Collection is a hefty volume, with over 400 pages of Betty Bates stories. Strangely, they’re all black and white, though the comics were full color, of course (I’ve included some online finds here, the book too fat to open in my scanner). A couple came from awful originals, were scanned off of second-generation copies or perhaps just poorly scanned and not corrected, and I was pretty disappointed that the publisher would include such barely readable pieces. But with so many in the book, quantity made up for quality…I guess.

I don’t know why, but they also decided to tack on a few unrelated ‘bonus’ pieces: several Jungle Lil and Miss America stories, also with some mighty uneven scanning and in black and white. I’m not much for adventure pulps/comics, whether Jungle Jane’s, Jill’s or Lil’s, and 1940’s era costumed superheroes aren’t really my thing. But I’ll be bringing up the Miss America stories in another post nonetheless (you’ll see why). No idea why Gwandanaland added this material…the Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer stories really made for a nice fat book all on their own.

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Gail Ford – Girl Friday

Gail Ford

Homicide Bureau Inspector Madson’s able assistant Gail Ford is rarely seen slogging through routine office chores or clerical duties, more typically enlisted to go undercover to help the police solve vexing cases, palming herself off as everything from a greasy spoon waitress to a department store clerk, a personal maid or a fresh-off-the-bus rube just arrived in the big bad city.

Gail Ford – Girl Friday was created by Gene Leslie and first appeared in Crime Smashers in 1950. Or, depending on the source, she was created by Ray McClelland, and also appeared in Smash Detective magazine as one of that crime fiction pulp’s comics features. I’ll have to leave it up to vintage pulp and comics experts to confirm authorship and venues, none of which matters much to a non-collector like myself. But the 15 stories included in this Gwandanaland trade paperback are supposed to be from 15 consecutive Crime Smashers issues running from 1950-1953. A couple are credited to Pierre Charpentier and Keats Petree.

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Unlike some near-contemporaries like Adolphe Barreaux’ well-known Sally The Sleuth or Queenie Starr, Gail Ford – Girl Friday managed to chase crooks and solve crimes without losing all of her clothes. A smart investigator and quite the daredevil, she kept a revolver handy in her purse and knew how to use it, and had to trade blows more than once with menacing thugs, most of whom learned the hard way just what a high heel can really do when there’s a full-force Gail Ford kick behind it. She almost seems like a prototype for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, right down to the shoulder length Bettie Page style hairdo, complete with neatly trimmed bangs.

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The Gwadanaland book includes no intro, front or back matter, just scans of the comics pages themselves. But it’s a nicely printed book and the material is all quite crisp and readable, considering. The firm aims to publish largely forgotten public domain material, and I’ll be getting more from them for sure.

 

Undercover Girl (Well, One Of Them)

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An Academy Award nominee it wasn’t, and labeling Universal’s 1950 Undercover Girl a ‘film noir’ might be broadening the genre’s parameters a bit. Or not, depending on where you draw the line between ‘noir’ and postwar crime melodrama. Pretty sure there’s no connection to the popular comic character Starr Flagg – Undercover Girl from right around the same period, which was created by that human writing machine Gardner Fox with art by Ogden Whitney, first appearing in Manhunt starting in 1947, graduating to her own short-lived comic title in 1952.

Starr flagg Undercover Girl

Still, Canadian born actress Alexis Smith, perhaps best known to noir and crime film fans for The Two Mrs. Carrolls alongside Humphrey Bogart in 1945, wields a revolver pretty well in this postwar era crime-action film as a rookie cop out to nab the narcotics gang responsible for her father’s death. Or at least, she does it handily in the film’s publicity stills.

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Save Me From Dangerous Men

Save Me From Dangerous Men

S.A. Lelchuk’s Nikki Griffin loves books.

She can quote classic writers to grad students, has a huge storage locker crammed so full of books that she needs straps to keep the shelves from tumbling over. She even owns a Bay Area used bookstore, the kind of place that only seems to exist in novels, where quirky patrons congregate for hours, hold literary meetings, sip complimentary coffee and (hopefully) buy something once in a while.

But it’s also a destination for abused women. Somehow word gets around about Nikki Griffin. Because she tracks dangerous men. Men who hurt the women they claim to love. And Nikki is particularly skilled at teaching them what it feels like to be hurt and helpless, and making sure that they never, ever hurt those women again.

Lelchuk’s Save Me From Dangerous Men hooked me mere sentences into the opening pages, with a tense scene that set the pace for the entire novel. That the book eventually took an unexpected turn and found Nikki Griffin embroiled in something much bigger than another threatened or abused wife or girlfriend could’ve been a disappointment in less capable hands, but the author skillfully interweaves Nikki’s day job, her poignant backstory, her ‘side business’ along with a more conventional private investigation job she accepts with misgivings, which not surprisingly, spirals into global thriller territory.

When I bought this book the week before last, one of four that I carried to the register, the cashier asked if it was for me or someone else. It seemed like an odd question. I told her it was for me, and her face immediately lit up as she told me she’d just finished it, assuring me I would like it. A lot. And she was right. I guess she just wanted to share.

There’s no setup to segue conveniently into a sequel, but I get the feeling S.A. Lelchuk’s got another Nikki Griffin novel in the works. I sure hope so. A couple online reviews I read actually griped about the author being a man writing a woman’s book and in first person POV no less. Oh, screw them. We all hear “this one’s a real page-turner” bandied about a lot, but Save Me From Dangerous Men truly is, and Lelchuk has created a very memorable, troubled, vulnerable yet lethal character who gives the notion of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ another rich layer: part bibliophile, part investigator, part vigilante, but very, very human throughout. Look for this one and check it out…I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed.

I Still Miss Hayley Atwell

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Lesson learned: Never get hooked on a TV show. The damn networks will just cancel it once you’re fully invested.

Some handsome artwork above by Arne Ratermanis of Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter, complete with that wonderful red hat of hers.

Tinsel Town

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I never saw this five-issue series from Alterna Comics which apparently ran last year, and just happened to stumble across it recently at a blog. I’ve looked for it since with no luck. But a trade pb collecting the whole series is due out this summer, though not till the end of July (which could just as easily mean anywhere from August through Autumn). I suppose I’ll pre-order now.

 

Tinsel Town 1 Cover

 

Sure looks interesting: David Lucarelli writes a story drawn by Henry Ponciano set in the silent film era, when Abigail Moore dreams of becoming a police officer. Of course, women weren’t welcome then, but she takes a job as a studio security officer, where soon enough she’s mixed up in a noir-ish behind the screen mystery. Well, that cover art’s a little bright for ‘noir-ish, but I’m still eager to check this out.

Liar, Liar

Liar Liar

Most of the ‘stiletto gumshoes’ I favor are either shoot-first bad-asses or wily femmes who can finagle the truth out of any tight-lipped crook. Once in a while I’ll dip into something more…frothy? That’s what I expected from K.J. Larsen’s Cat DeLuca, but was pleasantly surprised to read something much more, a comical P.I. novel that wasn’t only trying to be funny, but actually pulled it off.

Cat DeLuca’s large and intrusive Italian family of more or less honest Chicago cops and ‘connected’ Bridgeport cousins may not approve of her career – owner of the Pants On Fire Detective Agency (as in “Liar, liar, pants on fire”) – but after her marriage to serial philanderer and chronic liar Johnnie Rizzo collapsed, nailing cheating spouses seemed as good a way to make a living as any other. The problem is, tailing adulterous husbands can prove dangerous when they’re more than it seems, and early in the first Cat DeLuca novel, Liar, Liar, Cat’s tricked into tailing another rover with a roving eye by a woman who’s really a crime reporter, and Cat’s caught in an explosive (literally) assassination attempt that puts her in the hospital…and that’s barely the beginning of her adventures following handsome maybe-crook Chance Savino. From there, Liar, Liar speeds along at a rip-roaring pace with hot diamonds, gun-runners, car thieves, two-bit street hustlers and crooked bigshots, wacky Italian family gatherings, nosey priests and kindly mobsters — more comedy than mystery, nearly slapstick in many parts, but all pretty darn good.

The Cat DeLuca series was five books, I think, and then seemed to stall for some reason. Don’t ask me, because it seemed tailor-made for a long run and should’ve had Hollywood sniffing around. Series like this one make me wonder just how many terrific books are lurking out there that I’ve missed and may never discover without prowling the shelves in the better used bookstores.

Author “K.J. Larsen” is actually three sisters: Kari, Julianne and Kristen Larsen who reside in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. How three siblings can co-write a mystery series without killing each other is a mystery in itself, but obviously it worked. Larsen’s Bridgeport neighborhood is a close-knit Italian community, which originally was a bit of a puzzler to me, Bridgeport and the locally infamous 11th Ward a solidly Irish enclave and home to the Mayors Daley (senior and junior) and a long list of Chicago/Cook County politicians, bureaucrats and power brokers. Time for me to bone up on my Chicago lore, apparently.

 

Stumptown

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One way for rabid readers to keep from going broke is to learn to love their public library. I have. The one closest to me is a charming and well-designed facility, though all that décor apparently left no funds for books. But the next library over is an enormous two-story treasure trove, and its graphic novel section could outdo many comics shops. That’s where I came across writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth’s great contemporary hard-boiled series, Stumptown.

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Dex Parios is my favorite kind of ‘stiletto gumshoe’: Wonderfully flawed. Army vet and inveterate gambler, Dex is both bad-ass and wise-ass, and occasionally a bit of a screw-up. It makes for a lethal combo.

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Sounds like near-future small screen options won’t be short of intriguing girlz-with-guns and lethal ladies, even though I’m still processing the sad news that Netflix cancelled the amazing Jessica Jones series with Krysten Ritter.

Cobie Smulders

ABC just announced a new Stumptown series by Jason Richman and Ruben Flesicher. Hard-boiled Dex Parios will be played by Canadian actress Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, better known as Cobie Smulders. Marvel universe fans know Cobie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from the Avengers. TV channel surfers know her as Robin Scherbatsky from syndicated-everywhere How I Met Your Mother sitcom reruns. Seems like a good casting decision to me, and I’m betting she can bring Dex Parios’ hard-boiled grit and glimpses of vulnerability to life on screen just fine. Looking forward to this one. And still enjoying Rucka and Southworth’s comics.

Stumptown Hardcover

Nancy Drew, High School Hipster

Nancy Drew by Tula Lotay

The prior post noted that the CW Network will soon launch a Nancy Drew series, starring Kennedy McMann as the iconic teenage sleuth. From what I can glean of the planned storyline, I get the feeling the series’ inspiration comes less from the classic ‘Carolyn Keene’ books and perhaps more from the Dynamite Entertainment Nancy Drew comics series that started last year.

Nancy Drew 1 by Tula Lotay

In writer Kelly Thompson’s reimagining of the Nancy Drew universe, the plucky girl detective’s in a hipster high school world with old pal Bess and gay punkette George forming her ‘Scooby’ gang of investigators. The interior art is by Jenn St-Onge (look for more of her work at the artist’s site, jennstonge.ca) with each issue released with multiple covers (that annoying trend among greedy comics publishers) and I’ve gone with the ones drawn by British comic and illustration master Tula Lotay. I’m only four issues into the series so I think I have some catching up to do, but it’s a good read for a “Teen+” marketed title, and it sure ‘feels’ a lot like what the CW is touting for its network Nancy Drew series.

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