Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Patsy Walker and the revenge of the romance comic

When Patsy Walker gained the costume and powers of Hellcat in Avengers #144, the character was not, pardon the expression, made from whole cloth. In fact, writer Steve Englehart had rescued her from cancellation and obscurity by bringing her into the superhero comics of the day as a friend to his newly-transformed Hank McCoy, a.k.a. the Beast, created from X-Men comics. Patsy was the stand-alone survivor now of what was once the biggest comics genre of its day, a day when women readers, female adults, no less, were the surprising core of comics readership in America. From the site, "A very brief history of romance comics":

For the first and last time, adult women were major consumers of comics. (A)lthough the genre is largely dismissed by comics aficionados today, it was created by two of the most revered artists and writers of the time: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who kicked off Young Romance in 1947. Kirby and Simon had created Captain America in the early '40s, and Kirby is responsible for many famous superheroes, including Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. Success followed the pair into romance comics, and by 1949 there were 120 romantic titles on the market, most of which were intended for an adult audience. (In fact, comics with more explicit themes, which were very common before the code, often carried bright orange labels which read For the more ADULT Reader of Comics.) By 1950, there were 148 different titles, and by the mid-fifties pretty much every comics publisher was churning out romance comics.
The Hellcat herself was born of another female superhero character, the Cat, whose day had come and gone in 1973, when she was written by Linda Fite (who I believe married longtime Hulk artist Herb Trimpe?). That character lives on today as Tigra, occasional Avenger herself. As for Hellcat, in DEFENDERS #44 she joined the team with which she became most identified. She's the last of the b and c list characters I planned to visit in this part of my blog. She was written as having different attitudes than her sister characters who seemed rushed out to take advantage of the new social trend of feminism, in that, for one, she actually liked men and took pleasure in their company. It's possible this involved a little wish fulfillment, but her friendship with feminist-banner character the Valkyrie, her unique enmity with her ex-husband Col. Buzz Baxter (also a carry-over from her romance comics days), her determination, guts and humor made her more than a symbol, and something like a relatable character, albeit with a bit of Mae West charm. However, she did not really get a star turn in those days, and is probably largely regarded as some kind of Catwoman knock-off---but of course, no Batman. Much ultra-serious strangeness involving Hell and insanity has been visited upon the character. Were she mine to write, as when I wrote her into my TRANZ pastiche (listed under the Defenders in this very blog), she'd be a sly, very modern woman, a quick friend with a devil may care attitude. Most superheroes probably have a two-dimensional personality with some additional complications added for dramatic potential. Someone adapted her in a limited series as a sort of Sex in the City character. One can only imagine a day when more women are comfortable enjoying the lost art of the comic book. With soap operas fading from the networks, there's a wide-open place in the pop culture for a serial adventure with strong women characters and the dazzling range of personalities that come with the fairer gender.

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