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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I once dressed as a Playboy bunny for Halloween. I was a scrawny high schooler and, needless to say, did not fulfill the expectations of the costume. Buxom bosom, willowy waist, curving hips. Most superheroines fit the shape. It’s literally inhuman. When director Tim Burton zippered Michelle Pfeiffer into her Catwoman bodysuit for Batman Returns, they could only shoot a few seconds at a time before she passed out.

So I’m sending Ms. Pfeifer home (and Ms. Berry and Ms. Hathaway) and zippering in a different kind of body.

Superhero history—that body of art and literature that defines the genre—is also shaped like an hourglass. The thin middle space where the glass almost touches, that’s 1938. That’s Superman. After him, the glass widens into a spacious ball of imitation and evolution; every speck of superhero sand after 1938 slipped into existence though the opening of Action Comics #1.

The top half, all that wide open sand crowding down to spill through that one tiny hole, that’s superhero proto-history. The dozens and dozens of stories that developed all the tropes and clichés that later tumbled together into Superman.

The first superheroine to shimmy through that hour glass opening into a Golden Age costume was not (as is often assumed) Wonder Woman. The amazon in the star-spangled mini-skirt was preceded by another comic book amazon. Wilson Locke’s Amazona the Mighty Woman beat her by a year and a half, with at least seven superheroines between them: Russell Stamm’s Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, George Kapitan and Harry Sahle’s Black Widow, June Tarpé Mills’s Miss Fury, Al Gabrielle’s Black Cat, and three Will Eisner creations, Lady Luck, Flame Girl and Phantom Lady. And Amazona had at least two comic book predecessors of her own, Barclay Flagg’s Fantomah and Richard E. Hughes and George Mandel’s Woman in Red.

The pre-Superman runway is just as crowded.

Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle premiered in 1937, as did Watt Dell Lovett’s “The Astounding Adventures of Olga Messmer, the Girl with the X-Ray Eyes,” five months after Detective Comics #1 and less than a year before Action Comics #1. Olga, who like Superman also has superhuman strength and alien heritage, is the first superhuman heroine in comic strip form. She appeared in Spicy Mystery Stories, one of several softcore pulps by DC Comics publisher Harry Donenfeld.

I prefer The Domino Lady. Lars Anderson introduced the lady Robin Hood to Saucy Romantic Adventures in 1936. When not foiling lascivious blackmailers, she’s luxuriating in bed sheets and bathtubs. Like Olga, she would blush at today’s PG-13’s.

Also like Olga, Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer’s 1929 The Girl from Mars is a Superman precursor (before their planet’s destruction, Martian scientists shoot offspring to Earth), but the first superpowered female character goes to Ella Scrymour’s Sheila Crerar, Psychic Investigator, published three months before American women received the right to vote.

The teens witnessed three earlier lady thief heroines. Both Charles W. Tyler’s Blue Jean Billy Race and Edgar Wallace’s Four Square Jane avenge family wrongs, while actress Grace Cunard portrayed “The Queen of the Apaches” in the silent film serial The Purple Mask. They’re all variations on Frank L. Packard’s Gray Seal, a pulp series which also introduced the very first superheroine. The Tocsin, an almost supernaturally omniscient mastermind and mistress-of-disguise, sends her gentleman thief on his Robin Hood missions.

If Packard imagined his heroine in a flesh-baring unitard, he never committed the image to words. Which explains why I haven’t dressed as her for Halloween.

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