Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics
Mike Madrid, author of The Supergirls, a history of comic book heroines, is now bringing us reprints of vintage stories featuring female heroes with Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics.
Madrid, in his introduction, defines “Lost” as “characters you may have heard of, but whose stories you never had the chance to read. Or they may be women who only made a few appearances and then disappeared.” Since the comics date from 1940-1947, the art style is old-fashioned and somewhat primitive, particularly since the comic stories are reproduced in black-and-white, without the camouflage of color. Madrid acknowledges they might be seen as “crude” or “simplistic”, but that’s part of their charm. This will appeal to fans of such rediscoveries as the Fletcher Hanks books — he contributes one of the tales here, “Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle” (in which she uses her magic powers to send a large number of lions flying through the air to attack a “Brazilian fifth column”). The stories focus on action and excitement at the expense of characterization or personal motivation, but heck, it was wartime.
The reprints are loosely grouped into such sections as “Women at War”, “Mystery Women”, and “Warriors & Queens”, and each begins with four pages of Madrid giving context for the stories we’re about to read. He also provides capsule descriptions of the heroines and where and when they appeared. Historians who want all the details will need to continue research elsewhere, and those interested in the subject likely know many of the cultural points already, but the overview keeps the book lightly readable.
The book opens on a high note, with Jane Martin, war nurse, illustrated by Nick Cardy (then Nick Viscardi). Artist credits are given where known, but writers aren’t mentioned, probably since there’s no good source for their names. Women are also represented on the creative side, with work by Barbara Hall and Fran Hopper. There’s a half-page of text listing a few more female names who worked in the era, although I felt the topic could have used a little more space. (That’s probably a whole ‘nother book.)
The reading can be murky, as happens when color pages are flattened to black and white, but I was more interested in focusing on how active these women were, flying planes, stopping saboteurs and foreign enemies, donning costumes to catch criminals, traveling the world to report the news. Some are detectives or scientists; others goddesses from lost civilizations. (Update: I’m told that the ebook version of this title will have all the reprints in color.)
I found this collection essential reading for anyone interested in the history of how women have been portrayed in comics, although ultimately, it’s frustrating, since it’s just a taste. I wanted a way to spend more time with these women, reading more stories. My favorite was the Spider Widow, a debutante who dressed up like a hag and threw spiders at people. Those interested in World War II popular culture will also want to explore this volume as examples of the kinds of entertainment people were enjoying during that time. (The publisher provided a review copy.)