It’s interesting to note how the changing roles of women in American society between the 1930’s and the 1950’s were reflected in popular culture. During the 1930’s, women in popular entertainment were often portrayed as getting into trouble and needing to be rescued; the Flash Gordon movie serials provide excellent examples – Dale Arden is on hand simply to be Flash’s love interest and the object of Ming’s lustful desires, but contributes little else to the story (at least in the first serial in the series; later serials gave Dale a slightly more active role). By the 1940’s, we begin to see bolder, brassier heroines (more about this in a moment) exemplified by Hollywood actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, the young Lauren Bacall, even Rita Hayworth and Myrna Loy (the latter of whom could pull off the delicate combination of “assertive” and “classy” simultaneously). During the 1950’s the pendulum had swung back toward the middle – sure, you get the always amazing Jane Russell (I’m no masochist, but if Jane Russell wanted to hurt me I’d let her), but at the other end of the spectrum we can’t forget that the most popular actress of the period was Doris Day: Miss “Stay Home and Tale Care of the Kids” herself.

The reason for the major shift toward bolder, less stereotyped women characters in the 1940’s was, of course, World War II. With thousands of men off fighting the Axis, a plethora of factory jobs needed to be filled in order to maintain America’s industrial production quotas (which had concurrently been raised precisely because of the war). America’s women went off to the workplace, and many of them were surprised to discover that they liked it. As a young woman during the war, my mother was an assembly worker in a plant which cranked out military aircraft. She was extremely proud of her work and service during that time and she spoke of it often; even today, the sight of this wartime image always makes me smile and think of my mom:

Rosie the Riveter wartime poster

My mom could whip your mom, plus Mussolini, Hirohito, and Hitler COMBINED.

Women’s changing societal role during the war years was also reflected in comic books of the period. Did I say “reflected”? The word “anticipated” would be a better choice, as some Golden Age comic books featured strong female characters well before America’s entry into the war (see my previous posts about Pat Patriot, who was a featured character in Daredevil Comics’ first year of publication – and who also happens to be a great personal favorite of mine).

But why? Why did some comic books buck the pop culture trend of the “helpless female” and often portray women as leading characters, capable of carrying the feature’s action on their own, and usually without the aid of super powers?

To answer this, we need look no further than the sales demographics for Golden Age comics, which were quite unlike the modern day industry. It’s been often published and repeated that the “typical” modern comic book fan is a male between 27 and 35 years of age, which goes a long way toward explaining why female comics characters look like surgically “enhanced” porn stars who dress like Victoria’s Secret models. A year before DC Comics’ 2011 “reboot”, the company had reduced Wonder Woman’s costume to a bustier she was all but out of, with a wide rubber band between her legs which (barely) covered her naughty bits. She looked like a patriotic hooker:

Wonder Woman

Diana was offended when she said “I can fight in this outfit” and Superman and Batman just laughed their asses off at her.

The above illustration shows a costume which actually covers a bit more than her typical outfit from those days, believe it or not.

In the 1940’s, comic books enjoyed a much broader audience. That’s not surprising when you stop and think about it: comic books were born in the mid-1930’s when some enterprising publishers took to reprinting newspaper comic strips in magazine form – and the newspaper comics contained something for everybody: action strips for the kids and dads, soaps for the moms, and “funnies” for everybody. During the Golden Age, anyone and everyone was a potential reader of a comic book, and the books’ contents often reflected this diverse approach. Golden Age comics were often “anthology” titles, which often would contain such varied genres as superhero, western, sports, jungle, war, comedy, aviator, and adventure stories in a single magazine (and some features were genre “mashups”, like Crash, Cork, and The Baron or Loops and Banks, both of which managed to combine adventure, comedy, and aviator elements in a single feature, occasionally throwing in “war” and “jungle” elements to boot).

Comic publishers were aware of the fact that a significant portion of their readership consisted of young girls, and (in those days at least) they knew that girls enjoyed a good adventure story just as much as boys did. Consequently, quite a few books featured the adventures of “gals with moxie” (as one might have expressed it at the time), women with no super powers but also with no shortage of guts, grit, and determination.

Over the course of the next several posts, The Big Blog o’Fun is going to be dedicated to just a few of these remarkable characters, featuring some really fun adventures in which the protagonists just happen to be female.

As I was (digitally) paging through the first issue of Blue Circle Comics a couple of weeks ago, I almost flipped past a story with a fairly mundane title: “Gail Porter, Girl Photographer”, probably because of some subconscious link with “Brenda Starr, Reporter”, a very popular “soap” style newspaper strip which ran daily for about two hundred-lebbenty years despite the fact that nothing much of interest ever happened in it. But I stopped, read the first page of “Gail Porter”, and I was immediately hooked:

Gail Porter, Girl Photographer - Blue Circle Comics 1944

Go on, try to tell me you didn’t think, “Wow, that’s pretty cold!” (or something analogous to it) when you read that page. I sure did. I always thought the whole “ruthless member of the press” thing was primarily a post-Watergate conceit, so I was immediately intrigued by this page.

Then I read on…

Gail Porter, Girl Photographer - Blue Circle Comics 1944

…and saw it was just a clever “bait and switch”. Somewhere out there the story’s writer is laughing at us – his masterful plot hook is still working nearly seventy years after the story’s publication.

As modern readers, though, we have to pause a moment when we see the trust the erstwhile jumper places in a member of the press. As a former journalism student who, later in life, was burned by a reporter who was supposedly taking notes “off the record” as she interviewed me but quoted me by name in her article anyway, I’m always appalled by the lack of journalistic ethics generally displayed in the present day. Things were apparently different in the 1940’s; evidently a promise was a promise then.

But maybe things in reality were no different then than now. Who’s to say? At least in the four-color world a person’s word still meant something in the Golden Age.

Gail Porter, Girl Photographer - Blue Circle Comics 1944

Now I’m really conflicted. Gail isn’t above lying her way into the nightclub, paying off the photographer in exchange for info, and sneaking up the fire escape in pursuit of her story. But her motives are good, right? She’s looking to bring down a notorious racketeer. On the other hand, is she doing it for the public good or for the sake of a great story which will enhance her reputation?

As with many things in life, it isn’t necessarily an “either/or” proposition. Firemen and EMTs save lives every day, but also get paid for their labors. I hate to delve into the realm of philosophy here (especially as it was my second-worst subject in college thirty years ago), but sometimes we have to go past simplistic “black and white” thinking to get to the heart of the matter; Gail’s motives are likely a mixture of altruism and self-interest, and there’s nothing remotely wrong with that. Not everybody is a selfless Mother Theresa; even the great Gandhi had an ulterior motive – part of the reason he as a public figure went to bat for the common people was to get laid, a lot (he liked having sex multiple times a day, and that’s by his own admission).

He could lose that diaper so fast you’d think it was fastened with velcro.

I know, I know…mental image you didn’t really need to experience and all that.

Going back to that previous page in the Gail Porter story, I really really like the Chester Gould influence on the way racketeer Howdy Nelson is drawn in the center panel on the page – it positively screams “Dick Tracy!” Very cool stuff.

Gail Porter, Girl Photographer - Blue Circle Comics 1944

The first thing I thought as I read this page was that fact that when you try to take a flash picture through glass, you usually get a lovely image of your flash reflecting off of the glass. My initial impression was that this was a gaffe, but there’s more to come in this story.

And talk about moxie! Go back a page and check out the panel of Gail standing in front of the building. It’s an eight story structure (at least!) and she’s riding down on a flimsy dumbwaiter that doesn’t even fill the chute from wall to wall. Would you do something like that? I dang sure wouldn’t! Again, very cool story construction – stuff like that is what makes this such a good adventure tale.

Gail Porter, Girl Photographer - Blue Circle Comics 1944

Another aspect of this story I enjoyed was the use of period slang: “razz”, “sister”, “sawbuck”, “swell”, “gams”.

Gail Porter, Girl Photographer - Blue Circle Comics 1944

And a really neat 1940’s adventure story comes to a close with a tidy little denouement which ties up the loose ends. The story’s crisp, fast-paced, just six pages long, with a gutsy protagonist who just happens to be female, and with nary a super power in sight. Great fun!

Blue Circle Comics, like many books which began publication late in the war, didn’t last long — it ran just five issues, but Gail Porter appeared in a new adventure in every danged one of them.

As always, thanks to The Digital Comic Museum for the page scans!

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.