Sunday, February 13, 2005



Comics today return to
sexy heroines of old

The late ’30s brought women with
deadly curves and character

The slang phrase for it in the comix biz is "good girl art." Not that it is exactly art of "good girls" -- we're talking babes who are adventurous heroines in their own right; smart, sassy, athletic, funny and -- oh yes! -- pumped up into near caricatures of the female form. Like those ancient cave dolls devoted to fertility that are nothing but breasts and hips, the "good girls" (and their flip sides, the "femme fatales") make adolescent boys stop in their tracks and adolescent girls avoid looking into mirrors.

It's likely Milt Caniff's doing. When he created "Terry and the Pirates" in the late '30s, his female characters weren't the curiously asexual heroines of the period. No, they had motives and strong characters, and they also had curves, and there was just the suggestion of a sex life occurring beyond the boundaries of the panels.

By World War II, cheesecake heroines were busting out all over for the boys in the foxholes. Next to pin-ups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, GIs read comics featuring Sheena, the Jungle Queen (now reintroduced to a new generation of readers just recently by the popular Frank Cho); Sky Girl (who managed, every issue, to parachute out of a plane with her short dress billowing up); and superheroines Mysta of the Moon, the Phantom Lady and Lady Luck. They became icons of the American ideal, and pilots painted them on the noses of their warplanes for good luck.

There was no mistaking their brash sensuality. Headlights up front and a bumper behind, combined with elements of danger and easy-tear clothing. Oh, and always great hair, no matter how precarious the situation. After the war, the comic book "Torchy" pushed the envelope even further -- the title character invariably finished the episode clad only in her lingerie.

The easily appalled Comics Code Authority put the hammer down in the early '50s, and normal heterosexual behavior went back in the closet (ironically, right when Hollywood was heating up). The superheroines for the next 40 years also had impossibly pneumatic bodies, but there was a crucial difference in artistic approach. They were drawn as idealized physical types, pumped and buffed, Barbies in spandex, built not for lovin', but for kicking butt. Other women in the 'zines expressed their sexuality through soap opera-ish plot predicaments and saucy dialogue.

BUT LET'S get real. Male comic artists like drawing sexy gals (no straight lines!); the predominantly male comic-reading audience can rationalize any ridiculous plot contrivance as long as the pages contain great-looking babes (sorry, physically fit female characters) drawn by the likes of current fan favorites like Cho, Adam Hughes, Michael Turner, Jim Balent and Greg Land.

In many ways this return to unabashed sexiness in comics is a retro-reaction to both uptight political correctness (look at deliberately dumb venues like Maxim magazine and Spike TV) and an honest acknowledgment of what puts the "X" in comix. There are media signposts, naturally, primarily in amazing creatures like Pamela Anderson (in general) and the way heroines are portrayed in movies -- think about the difference between the sexy but psychologically damaged Michelle Pfeiffer edition of Catwoman and Halle Berry as Jinx in the James Bond "Die Another Day." Berry's first appearance in the film was a direct lift of Ursula Andress's introduction in "Thunderball," but four decades have turned the generic female co-star from eye candy into a butt-kicker to be reckoned with.

This is the sort of thing that runs though your head while browsing the superb "Danger Girl: The Ultimate Collection" package from artist J. Scott Campbell and writer Andy Hartnell (inks by the magical Alex Garner). It's expensive at $75, but wow! It's a limited-edition, signed-and-numbered, oversize, slipcased, two-volume hardcover set featuring the seven issues they did together plus a "sketchbook" of behind-the-scenes drawings and a cover gallery.

Like many multimedia designs today, Danger Girl is also a video game and a movie in pre-production. The deluxe package here also easily serves as storyboards, but it also tends to drown out the rather pedestrian plotting (essentially, a joyful homage to nonstop action film series like James Bond and Indiana Jones) and to showcase Campbell's deliciously rounded art. He has an amazing, sketchy style that skews camera angles and drives the action forward, and it's all done with a sense of great, naughty fun. ... Oh, who are we kidding? There's a plot? This reader was too busy staring to actually bother reading.

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