Monday, September 2, 2013
One of two Goklen Age heroines named "Miss America," the first one appeared only the first seven issues of Quality's MILITARY COMICS, and then disappeared until she was revived by DC Comics.
The most interesting aspect of the first Miss America was the means by which she gained her powers. During the chaos of World War II, ordinary woman Joan Dale was visited by the Statue of Liberty itself-- or more likely, some "spirit of liberty" dwelling within the statue. The Statue gave Joan extraordinary transformation powers, and for her short career she used those powers against criminals and WWII saboteurs. She began her adventures wearing ordinary clothes but later donned a costume whose details were far from consistent.
A number of other heroes of the period gained fabulous powers from spirits of liberty or ancestors dating back to the American Revolution.
The Black Queen might have been the Spirit's first female foe, but arguably Silk Satin was the best, with the possible exception of P'Gell.
Silk begins as a crook, but thanks to falling in love with the Spirit, she eventually reforms and begins working as an insurance investigator. Despite her reformation, she frequently finds ways to outwit the brawny hero. This was perhaps compensation, as it was strongly implied that being a "shady lady" she had no real chance in being the Spirit's one-and-only; that Silk would always come off second-best to the bland "girl-next-door" Ellen Dolan.
Silk Satin was not martially skilled, but as the above scene shows, she was an above average roughhouser.
The early 1940s saw a very short-lived smattering of female-centric adventure-serials, and the only one that enjoyed a second iteration-- itself a rare event in the serial world-- was the "Nyoka" franchise, ostensibly derived from an Edgar Rice Burroughs entitled "Jungle Girl." In truth neither of the two Nyoka serials shared any elements of the Burroughs story.
The 1941 JUNGLE GIRL was a good basic serial, starring Frances Gifford as Nyoka Meredith, daughter of a jungle-dwelling doctor who gets mixed up with evil treasure-hunters. Evidently the serial made enough money to spawn a second in the series the very next year, though the writers rechristened her "Nyoka Gordon" and made her the daughter of an archaeologist working in North Africa.
PERILS OF NYOKA, as noted here, remains one of the best serials of the period. I observed that "director William Witney-- admittedly working with the highest budget Republic ever gave to a serial-- consistently keeps the action pumping at a high pace. Characters never walk when they can run, never run when they can leap, and so on." Nyoka herself is not a deep character, but she's one of the few kickass heroines of the 1940s, both in fights with male adversaries and her delectable foe Vultura. This version would seem to be the template from which Fawcett adapted their moderately successful comic-book feature.
The Black Queen, the first femme fatale in Will Eisner's celebrated SPIRIT comic, changes her modus operandi in her three appearances as much as did the Lee-Kirby HULK in its earliest incarnation.
She begins in 1940 as a "mouthpiece" to a noted criminal, getting him off for his latest murder through sheer legal legerdemain. She commits no actual crime, but the Spirit confounds her and sends her client up the river.
In her second appearance she graduates to criminal boss, and tries to hold the city of New York for ransom.
Finally, the Queen goes off the deep end. As shown above she dresses in something very like a superheroine costume-- probably the only time a SPIRIT villain did so-- and begins preying on victims by kissing them with her poisonous lipstick. This was her most interesting incarnation, but one may fairly hypothesize that Eisner was tired of her. At the episode's end she commits suicide to avoid the electric chair.
Not counting the character's appearances in a 1937-43 film serial, where her voice was contributed by Agnes "Bewitched" Moorehead, the first live appearance of Milton Caniff's "Dragon Lady" was in a 1940 film serial, "Terry and the Pirates."
Unfortunately, though actress Shiela Darcy had the looks to pull off the glamorous role, the script and direction for the serial were thoroughly routine. The Dragon Lady was not a wily Chinese bandit, but a stereotypical high priestess in a remote Oriental kingdom called "Mara." The titular Terry and his friend Pat are seeking Terry's lost father when they get mixed up with a bandit gang seeking to plunder Mara.
The Dragon Lady barely has a reason to exist in the serial. Her one action consists of giving the order to have one of the good guys executed, under the false impression he's there as a bandit. Actress Joyce Bryant, playing the main heroine of the serial-- one given the name of another Caniff character, "Normandie Drake"-- has no more in common with her namesake than Shiela Darcy's version of the Dragon Lady. But the Drake character gets into the thick of the action a bit more, for what that's worth.