Friday Female Comics Creator: Ruth Atkinson

Back in the day, and I don’t know if y’all can believe this, but back in the day, there used to be magazines for girls that included comics.  Crazy, right?  But it’s totally true.  One of them was Miss America, which started life as Miss America Comics, published first by Timely Comics and then by Marvel.  Both featured the superhero Miss America, a “socially aware teenage heiress” with superhuman strength and the ability to fly.

Sadly, superheroes were on their way out of fashion in the mid-1940s, and Miss America quickly took a backseat in her own magazine to teen romance comics.  But luckily for us, Miss America #2 introduced a romance character who would soon become a lasting superhero in her own right — the sassy, seriously wonderful Patsy Walker.

Patsy was written by Stan Lee but was created by female comics artist Ruth Atkinson.  She began life as a romance-comedy heroine and was quite popular, appearing in at least 7 titles.  But she soon grew beyond her own comics and became a lasting part of the Marvel Universe proper.

Patsy and Hedy made a cameo appearance in Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965), establishing them in the Marvel Universe. The superhero-team comic The Defenders #89 (Nov. 1980) further established that the earlier stories were fictional works published within the fictional Marvel Universe itself, and written by Patsy’s mother Dorothy Walker though based upon Patsy’s own life and friends. The Patsy Walker profile in Marvel Legacy: The 1960s Handbook #1 (2006) establishes that Walker indeed experienced many of the events from these stories.

Patsy Walker #95 and the science-fiction anthology Journey into Mystery #69 (both June 1961) are the first modern comic books labeled “Marvel Comics”, with each showing an “MC” box on its cover. (from Wikipedia)

By the 70s, Patsy was angling to get herself a superpower.  She became Hellcat, the feisty redheaded crimefighter who teamed up with the Avengers and the Defenders.  Hellcat would later have adorably weird adventures as the superhero assigned to Alaska (as part of the 50 State Initiative), written by the incomparable Kathryn Immonen.

Atkinson didn’t just make her mark on the Marvel Universe with Patsy, though.  She also created Millie the Model, yet another character who was still seen living it up in the first decade of the 21st century.

Sadly, Atkinson retired from comics when she married.  Even sadder, though, is the fact that her work doesn’t seem to be available in reprint anywhere.  You can find some information about the comics she worked on at atlastales.com.  A handful of issues are available on ebay, but they mostly appear to date from after Atkinson’s departure on the titles.  If you have a hot tip on where to find some original or reprinted Atkinson work, please let me know!

Millie and Patsy are both worthy of their own Style Friday post.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to get a suitably vintage-amazing outfit together.  In lieu, stop by my tumblr today, where I’ll be posting style-inspiring images of Atkinson’s work all day long!

Vintage Movie Monday: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Yesterday, while recovering from our exhausting but fun weekend at Wizard World Philly, Josh said the magic words to me: “I want to watch a movie from the 80s.  Like Dirty Dancing.”

Done and done!  DD is my hands-down, all-time favorite movie of ever, and I will always watch it.  Always.  From the era when, around 8 or 9 years old, I wore out our VHS copy watching it every week, to the time my college beffie bought it for me at Blockbuster because I was having a crappy week during freshman year, this movie owns my heart.

Rewatching it now, I’m surprised how well it stands up.  The plot is logical, the class issues are subtle yet effectively handled, and some of the most dramatic parts — like Penny’s illegal abortion — are given an excellent less-is-more treatment.  Better still, the soundtrack, equal parts 60s gems and 80s power ballads, actually works better now that nostalgia for both decades has set in.

Josh and I are notoriously difficult-to-please movie fans, but the only thing we took issue with was the unclear timeline.  Does the movie really happen in the last 3 weeks of the summer?

In the days of So You Think You Can Dance, the choreo in the final scene seems a little lackluster, but it’s executed well, and the sense of sheer fun still shines through.  The epic romance of it does too.  I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be lifted by 1980s Patrick Swayze?

Finally, here’s some random trivia for you: So You Think You Can Dance‘s resident disco choreographer, Doriana Sanchez, appears as a dirty dancer in the film.  Look for her in the polka-dot dress!

King Solomon’s Mines, Homosocial Male Bonding, and the Possibilities of Masculine Identity

What a difference a big budget film makes.

Earlier this semester, I Netflixed the classic 1950 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, for an article I was working on for The Film League.  I found it fascinating:  an imperial English love story set against the backdrop of Africa, using real Africans and footage of real safaris.  I also found it problematic in all the usual ways: an imperialist period piece using the legacy of imperialism to gain footage of “exotic” Africans, which in turn could spice up the otherwise ho-hum white, heterosexual love story, which itself uses Africa and Africans as both catalyst and afterthought.

Actually reading the book for my Victorian lit class was quite a different endeavor, even moreso than I initially imagined it would be.  For one thing, the love story is totally fabricated.  The novel actually follows three men into the wilds of Africa in search one’s lost brother (and the treasure).  This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t rehash another white person love story; instead, the “love” is the homosocial bond between the three men, who all represent various points on a spectrum of masculinity.  (I kept thinking about the male identity-trinity from Star Trek: The Original Series as reference point.)  Haggard rather self-consciously sets the three up as positive masculine role models, each representing several different possible masculine expressions from which his boy readers could choose.

The novel is famously free from any “petticoats,” narrator Allan Quatermain’s metonymically reductive description of white women.  Much as been written about the treasure map representing the female body to be penetrated (like Africa), and the terrifying depictions of African female identity.  But somehow — and this rarely happens — I find myself much more interested in Haggard’s strange masculinity project, and what it meant for Victorian ideas of manhood, and why on earth this was deemed unsuitable for a blockbuster film adaptation.

I don’t have any answers to those questions or problems, but they’re sticking in my mind, along with several others.  Why such vitriol against women?  Why reconstitute the family as homosocial male bonding mechanism in the final pages of the novel?  And why has this story above so many others stayed in our pop culture consciousness and been replayed over and over again?

The Rossetti Siblings and Troubling Sexuality

My Victorian lit class provided me with an interesting poetic juxtaposition: reading Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Christian Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” side by side. As a poet, I think, Christina is more well-known. I like her work better than her brother’s, but I also think they illuminate each other to a great degree.

Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To me, “Jenny” and “Goblin Market” are both about the commodification of sexuality in the Victorian marketplace, and the ways that it can twist male desires and harm women. They’re also tremendously weird poems with fraught sexual expressions. “Jenny” features the age-old client-who-thinks-he-treats-his-prostitute-right trope; “Goblin Market” is a fairytale mixed up with lesbian incest that posits the protective quality of radically homosocial female relationships.

In other words, this is stuff I really love.

The radical possibilities Christina provides for the redemption of the fallen woman at the end of “Goblin Market” struck me perhaps most of all. The idea that a fallen woman could be saved is pretty much unheard of in Victorian literature.

Because this was classwork, I also read a few assigned critical essays on the poems, and unfortunately, I thought some of them missed the mark pretty seriously. Your argument will never win me over by removing sex from the discussion, especially not when dealing with poems like these. (And articles about the “World Wide Web” written in 1998 are just embarrassing to read now.)

This is not to say that I fault the professor for picking bad secondary materials. Quite the contrary, I think reading articles one vehemently disagrees with can be both exhilarating and thought-provoking. My theories about the poems are stronger because I have negative examples against which to structure my thoughts.

I also got to write about the poems for class, which gave me an unexpected chance to put my love of the archives to use. I wrote about the shared use of the term “goblin” in the poems, the evolution of the word’s use in various drafts of “Jenny,” and how the word links the poems thematically.

This is all a little more academic than I usually get on this blog, but I’m interested to hear what others think about the Rossetti siblings as poets. Who is your favorite? What are your thoughts on the poems?

Literary Lady Lights: Kelly Link

There are few contemporary authors that I follow with the same gusto as Kelly Link. There are, I think, few who are doing anything as interesting as Kelly is doing. Her particular brand of speculative fiction — so full of weirdness, and yet so familiar seeming — is not only highly readable but also highly addictive. Once you read the world through her eyes, it’s boring to go back to plain old reality.

Her style is spare and matter of fact; it reminds me of literary fiction writer Amy Hempel, who likewise utilizes short declarative sentences to great effect. (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is the first and still the best Hempel short story I read. It’ll break your heart.) But Kelly’s understanding of youth, and the magical way it can feel, sets her apart for me; she combines the seriousness, writerly-ness of literary fiction with speculative and fantastical elements, without overdoing either. There is hope in her stories, along with the zombies, ghosts, wolf girls, fairies, and evil bunnies.

I recently sang Kelly’s praises over at The Film League, as part of our month on Dawn of the Dead:

There isn’t a lot of gore in a Kelly Link short story.  Nor is there a lot of blockbuster style action.  And yet, for my money, no one gets closer to capturing the unmitigated eeriness of Romero’s zombie-infected world.  These stories belong to the slowly lurching black and white nightmare of Night of the Living Dead, or the bizarre and panicked newsroom and the ravished tenement building of the first act of Dawn of the Dead.

Though I didn’t know it when I wrote that article, the connection has been made at least once before: WPR opened a horror segment, featuring Kelly, with a radio advertisement for the movie.

If you ask me, Kelly’s work deserves much more attention than it currently gets. Unfortunately, there was a break in her publishing — you can ready why here — and only a few stories have recently trickled out.

Many of Kelly’s stories are available to read for free at her site; I highly recommend “The Hortlak” and “The Faery Handbag” (which was, incidentally, the first Kelly Link short story I ever read, and the one that made me fall madly in love with her writing). Kelly is a champion of Creative Commons licensing, and has released several of her pieces, including her entire first story collection, Stranger Things Happen, for free online. (It no longer seems to be available through the website — possibly a technical difficulty that never got resolved — but if you hunt around the internet you can find it.)

She also runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, which has released some great books.

Loving and hating John Ruskin

Oh, Ruskin.  What’s a modern girl to do with you?

I don’t know that a work has ever enthralled and infuriated me like Sesame and Lilies did.  One part paean to a thing I love, reading books; one part social critique that still rings true today; and two parts essentialist Victorian hogwash that very nearly strains credulity.

Okay, the book is actually two lectures Ruskin gave in Manchester in 1865: “Of King’s Treasuries,” about the necessity of instructing (male) students in literature so that they may be better citizens, and “Of Queen’s Gardens,” about the proper ways to educate female children so that they may serve as support and moral compasses for men.

Beginning with the first lecture and then getting the shock of the second was difficult for me.  I am, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile, and I could read for hours about the pleasures of reading and the proper means for engaging with a literary education.  I am also, as a feminist child of the 20th century, accustomed to reading things directed solely at men and shifting them around in my brain so that they’re directed at me too.

Ruskin’s exhortation to students to read the best books they can during their short lives struck me in a particularly powerful way:

But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those are the book.

Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men:—by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and Life is short. You have heard as much before;—yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that—that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow?

Oh goodness, I thought, Ruskin is right!  I have to stop wasting time on the internet!  I’m losing the ability to experience books!

After this startling revelation of education advice, the second lecture came as quite a disappointment.  The problematic gender essentialism is rather too tricky to get into in a short blog post — scholars have been arguing Ruskin’s intentions and the proper feminist response pretty much since it came out — but it gave me enough pause that I felt I must mention it.

There is, we acknowledge, a severe danger in delineating male and female spheres of life and action, as well as a wildly unfair burden in asking women to be the moral standard for men and then holding them accountable when men fail. And yet, there is also something revolutionary in calling for parents to stridently educate their female children.

And not only in the material and in the course, but yet more earnestly in the spirit of it, let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity.

His preferred method of educating girls is one I would have delighted at:

Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.

Victorian conceptions of gender aside, something happens when you exhort young girls to read and take education seriously: some of them do so.  And some of them take it far beyond what Ruskin counseled or intended, and we have them to thank for suffrage, the ability to wear pants, and any other good thing that has happened in the intervening 150 years.

Nancy Mitford & the commitment to world-building

“World-building” is a term one hears a lot in discussions of scifi writing, but that tends not to come up when speaking about non-genre literature.  Sure, Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County, but I can’t think of many other examples of literary authors who went through the trouble of setting seemingly unrelated novels in a continuous created world.  (Feel free to shout out examples I’m forgetting or don’t know.  I’m sure there are some.)

I have never read a single piece on Nancy Mitford that commented on her commitment to world-building, and yet, it is undoubtedly present in her work.  Three of her novels are narrated by Fanny Wincham — The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred — though each focuses on a different family (the Radletts, the Montdores, and Fanny’s own, respectively).  These novels are frequently referred to as companions or sequels, and as such, it’s unsurprising that they all operate in the same fictional universe.

Though little remarked upon, Mitford’s seemingly unrelated novel, The Blessing, does actually take place in the same world as well.  The hints are so subtle as to be easily missed.  Grace’s French husband, Charles-Edouard, guides her through Père La Chaise pointing out notable graves, including that of the Frenchman with whom Linda Radlett had an affair:

Sauveterre (poor Fabrice, give me one flower for him, how he would have laughed to see me here with wife and child)…

Later in the book, Grace tours Eton with her former fiance, Hughie, who turns out to have attended school with Linda Radlett’s first husband:

… we had an awful time at m’tutor’s from a brute called Kroesig…

These distant acquaintances aren’t the only things Linda and Grace have in common.  They both share a passion for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Making of a Marchioness.  Linda places it in the Communist bookstore windows, and Grace is absorbed in reading it when she hears that her mother has died.

I haven’t yet read Don’t Tell Alfred, but as I understand it, the novel folds Grace de Valhubert into Fanny’s circle.  Mitford completes the circle, and ties all four novels back to each other gracefully and without fanfare.  Surely this a skill that deserves more attention in discussions of Mitford’s body of work.  Perhaps the attractive matching Vintage reprints of the novels will encourage it.

(And for those keeping score, Mitford’s novels come straight from my to read pile: my mom saw the blog and got them for me as a Christmas present.)

Literary Lady Lights: Edith Wharton

I just wrapped up a paper on food in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and while it may have made my relationship to dinner a little shaky, it only cemented my relationship to Wharton.

It’s my belief that Wharton is just as relevant to us now as she was in the early 20th century, and that we should undertake to rediscover her beyond the pages of endless dissertations.  Her work is perfect for our historical moment; we too are image-obsessed, post-war, nostalgic, and conservative.  We too are navigating the tricky transition between centuries, struggling to integrate new technologies without losing ourselves in the process, and looking to our rich for supreme entertainment and distraction.

The cultural zeitgeist around Wharton is a strange thing.  While she’s well-known, constantly referenced, and still being written about, she is also the type of author that few people these days have actually read.  They’ll nod their heads when one mentions her, but then confess to not remembering a single of her book titles.  And yet, they’re all around us.

Wharton and Gossip Girl

That CW teen drama Gossip Girl is a sophisticated, self-referential version of Wharton’s greatest works just may be the best keep secret on television.  But it’s true, and it has been since the beginning, as this New York piece so lucidly points out:

Von Ziegesar began by modeling Gossip Girl on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, that earlier tale of a closed New York society. Serena van der Woodsen, a beauty kicked out of boarding school, returns to her old school, only to be dogged by envious rumors of lesbianism and love children. Von Ziegesar’s first draft was horribly high-minded, a fusty Wharton imitation; she quickly trashed it and adopted the brassy tones of Gossip Girl, who ends her dispatches with the teasing sign-off, “You know you love me.”

The tv show has taken this jumping off point and swan-dived out into a delicious world of literary reference.  From the series’ first moments, wherein teenage Serena stands alone in Grand Central Station in an obvious callback to The House of Mirth, to season 2’s “The Age of Dissonance,” about a school play version of The Age of Innocence gone horribly post-modern and oh-so-right, not only is the Wharton stamp is all over the show, but that’s the show’s whole point.  You thought you were watching another rich-kids-behaving-badly soap; it turns out you were getting a first-rate education in the literary canon.

Wharton as YA lit heroine

A new biography posits Wharton as young adult heroine, a girl who flouted convention and the wishes of her mother to chase her dreams.   Katie Roiphe at The New York Times reads it as a wake-up call to the very teens cozying up to Gossip Girl every week, though her cry to “stop i-chatting and posting on people’s walls” is more embarrassing than anything.  Besides, who’s to say those girls aren’t dreaming up their own large scale projects on that new-fangled communication device, the computer?

Still, without having read the biography, I applaud the attempt to make Wharton known as a role model to YA lit audiences.  If it gets girls interested in reading her works, even better.

Ethan Frome meets… well, you know

By now, you’ve probably seen the hilarious video adaptation of Wharton’s short novel Ethan Frome, performed in original period dress and the style of an MTV scripted reality show.  If not, I can’t urge you enough to go watch it.  It’ll change your life.

(All the kids in my Wharton class spent the last week of the semester walking around in a daze, quoting it more to themselves than each other.  “I would effing die for you.  I mean, literally,” became our mantra; it may have looked like mental instability, but I swear it saved us from truly cracking up.)

The short film was created by a group called PERIODS., who number Mr. Spock himself, Zachary Quinto, among their members.  A second season of shorts begins in February, though there’s no word on whether they’ll adapt any more literary classics.

See also:

I found some very detailed posts about Wharton’s estate in the Berkshires, The Mount; Suzanne Vega wrote a lovely song called “Edith Wharton’s Figurines“; Studio 360 recently did a segment on The House of Mirth (in which Jonathan Franzen makes an ass of himself); and no trip to New York is complete without an Edith Wharton walking tour.

The Dregs of New York City: After Claude by Iris Owens

Iris Owens’ 1973 novel After Claude reminds me of another beloved NYRB Classic, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado.  Harriet, Owens’s damaged but hilarious narrator, is a little like Sally Jay Gorce gone horribly bad.  Too many years abroad, perhaps.  Sally Jay, for all her pithy wit, represents a girl with somewhere yet to go.  She has potential.  Not so Harriet.  Instead of a fresh, ripe avocado, she’s the dead ones littered around that rat Claude’s apartment.

“They are not dead.  Stop saying they’re dead.  Plants are very sensitive to suggestions.” I rushed to a hanging window plant and stroked its brown leaves.  “You’re alive, darling.  Don’t listen to him. He should be as alive as you are.”

Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart.

Harriet careens her way manically through the novel, winning one over to her side even as one is forced to confront the fact that she may just be totally batshit insane.  Despite her announcement in the very first line that she has left Claude, “that French rat,” over half the novel is occupied by Harriet trying very hard not to leave Claude’s apartment, let alone him.  When she does finally go — after barricading herself in with two weeks worth of tuna for lunch — it’s not free will.  They literally put her into a taxi and bundle her off to the Hotel Chelsea, the desolate marble shore on which the debris of 1970s New York society washes up.

All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces.  A yellowish lampshade next to the bed had succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs and displayed its diseased patches of brown.  There was no question in my mind that whatever had afflicted the room was contagious and would get to me next.

Iris Owens was very sorry for being so mean about the Hotel Chelsea.  An acknowledgment in the opening pages thanks the hotel’s management for allowing her to “use and describe the hotel with all the fictional liberties necessary to the characters and action of the book.”  (Let’s be honest, though: she wasn’t too far off.  I stayed at the hotel in 2002, and it still had the same dirty-beach-at-the-end-of-the-world feel.  The man who lived in the room next to ours left his door cracked one day, and the glimpse I got of the inside will never leave me.  In a room as big as a closet, one whole wall was covered with filthy doll heads.  Not kidding.)

Harriet is the best kind of unreliable narrator: one you can see straight through but want to believe anyway.  Her phobias, her endless grasping, her overblown martyr air — in the hands of a less skilled writer, they wouldn’t work such an insane kind of charm.  Luckily, Owens was tremendously skilled.  I’m not making up that Elaine Dundy connection, either.  Dundy’s husband, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, called the book “barbed, bitchy and hilariously sour.”  I can only hope Dundy read it too, and was pleased to see her certain type of American girl live on in this dark mirror.

In her introduction, Emily Prager notes that Owens once made her living writing pornography for Olympia Press, using the name Harriet Daimler.  It’s a skill that comes in handy here, as the final pages of the book descend from vicious victim ranting into a frightening but erotic demonstration of female pleasure.  Even Harriet’s biting wit is shelved momentarily, transforming that dirty pit of New York degenerates into an Anais Nin-style boudoir of sensuality.

Don’t worry, though, it doesn’t last long.  Harriet emerges, mask back up, to await her fate in a wrecked hotel room.

See also:

A tribute to Owens’s death includes responses to the book upon its original release; Bibliographing writes about the rerelease; the Telegraph details Olympia Press, including a rather racy quote from Harriet Daimler’s work.