Monday, November 2, 2015

The Original Lady Liberators!

If you blinked in the early 1970s, you may have missed an imposing masthead that marked the debut of a new Marvel character:

"Blinked," of course, being a figure of speech here, since a comic book published over a period of months gives you an opportunity to at least take notice of a new series; though in this case, Marvel would pull the rug out from under you before you'd have the chance to make up for lost time. Yet if the Cat's beady eyes did happen to get your attention in late 1972, you probably also noticed that you had your choice of not just The Cat but three new titles being released, all featuring themes with a certain demographic in mind.

Tapping into the women's liberation movement (at times used interchangeably with "feminist movement"), the three new books all cast their respective spotlights on their female main characters, each of them bucking the societal restrictions placed on them because of their sex and choosing to become more than they were.

In the case of Shanna O'Hara, a specialist employed at a zoo, her impetus to act on her frustration at the status quo was her outrage at witnessing man's inhumanity toward the animals in her care, leading her to relocate to the jungle.

And while the profession of nursing had been around long before Night Nurse hit the stands, Marvel appeared to be adapting it to highlight the struggles and choices a woman in the late '60s and early '70s faced in wanting to pursue a career. It also broadened its brush by providing three main characters, each with dissimilar backgrounds and motivations.

Putting a book such as Night Nurse on the comics racks seemed either ambitious or risky on Marvel's part--perhaps a little of both. For one thing, it appeared the company was putting all of its eggs in one consumer basket--female readers who felt the desire to assert themselves and to step outside of societal norms. But as a publishing company, surely the question arose: How do you sustain such a concept and sell it to all comics readers? Looking at the cover of this title's first issue, Marvel threw in everything but the kitchen sink in that respect: "All the glamour--the heartache--the throbbing excitement--of a big-city hospital!" "Torn from true life! More thrilling than tomorrow's headlines!" (No, I don't have a clue how anyone could know how thrilling the next day's headlines were going to be.) "Enter the world of danger, drama and death!" "The making of a nurse!" But all of these flailing sales pitches still have to boil down to one thing: How many of our readers are going to want to buy and read a comic book about nurses?

So you would expect page one of the first issue--the first page a person at the store is likely to lay eyes on after lifting the book from the rack--to put its best foot forward and offer a look at what a reader of Night Nurse could expect. A collage of our three nursing students standing resolute and ready to tackle the challenges that await them? A four-alarm crisis, with wounded being rushed into triage wards? A heated exchange between a no-nonsense doctor and a nurse intern who's sticking to her guns?


While it's likely true that Linda's strength of character in choosing a direction for her life that didn't involve the consent of her significant other was an issue for many young women in those early years of the women's movement, Night Nurse nevertheless had some of the trappings of a romance comic--which, in all fairness, were not really in play beyond the "it's either me or your job" aspect, but in this case leaves a hard-to-shake first impression. (One not helped by the teary-eyed nurse on the cover's corner who looks like she's sacrificing her heart's desire for her vocation.)

As for the Cat--well, while Shanna went after poachers in the jungle, this heroine was hunting her game in the big city.

In this introductory story, Greer Grant embodies many of the traits you would expect to find in a female character who, like her counterparts in Shanna the She-Devil and Night Nurse, is being groomed to take on a role of assertiveness, self-sufficiency, and self-determination, though with a difference: Greer, as she starts out, is quite content with her subservience, leaving her college studies when she's swept off her feet by a loving suitor who won't hear of her stepping outside of the role he envisions for her. It's only because of tragedy that she feels a need to change her circumstances--and from there, only a chance opportunity that leads her to feel the desire to be more than she is.

Interestingly, Greer's mentor, Dr. Tumolo, also feels hampered by her sex, despite her achievements in education and her heading a personal project designed to enhance the physical and mental potential of women. Her financial benefactor, Mal Donalbain, has his own ideas for Tumolo's research, and his attitude toward her is insistent while also being borderline oppressive, which appears to fall right in step with the general tone of the males being portrayed in this issue. And while a reader of this story (at least a reader of today--an important distinction) might well find that distasteful, it's also disturbing to read of a woman scientist who strongly feels that technology is necessary to empower a woman in society--which could be interpreted as holding the opinion that a woman has few other options available.  The term "self-starter," even having been in usage for roughly 80 years, is apparently a ways off from being associated with women.

Donalbain, unfortunately, has little else to hold the reader's interest as the story's villain aside from his arrogance toward women (other than a bizarre obsession involving Aphenphosmphobia). Just have a look at his "master plan," and try to avoid the urge to roll your eyes.

As we can see, Tumolo has had some success with her procedure, as the Cat makes her appearance to confront Donalbain (albeit as a prisoner). As we come to know more of the Cat's story, we'll learn that her objective here isn't to foil such a lame plan, which is at least one thing in her favor; after all, it's a fair bet that nobody likely wants to see a shmuck like Donalbain wind up in her rogues gallery.

Through flashback, we also learn further details of Tumolo's work in accordance with Donalbain's instructions--how he presents her with a test subject in the form of Shirlee Bryant, a compliant and clearly attractive "prototype" for the line of women he's interested in producing. Out of earshot of Donalbain, Tumolo confides in Greer that she's going to refuse to allow Donalbain to railroad her project in such a manner--but Greer suggests instead that she act as a legitimate test subject for Tumolo's procedure while Tumolo proceeds separately with Donalbain's choice. It proves to be a good call. In Greer, Tumolo finds the success that eludes the less motivated Shirlee.

Eventually, the point is reached where Tumolo and Greer realize that Shirlee is going to prove unsatisfactory in the experiment. But before Tumolo can put her foot down with Donalbain, she comes across Donalbain's own evaluation process for his subject.

Regrettably, Shirlee's trials end in tragedy, where she proves insufficient to the demands of her instructions and plummets to her death. Tumolo feels guilt-ridden as a result, and vows to Greer to report Donalbain to the police. But Donalbain had spotted Tumolo at the lab when Shirlee was killed, and he sends some of his men to eliminate her before she can act as he suspects she will. Greer, later, is witness to the fatal explosion that kills her mentor--and with her dying breath, Tumolo is able to implicate Donalbain.

Which is essentially where page 1 of this issue lets us off, which finds the Cat on her way to confront Donalbain on a mission of vengeance, having donned one of Donalbain's many spare cat costumes that Tumolo kept as evidence. With the enhancements of Tumolo's procedure, she does fairly well against Donalbain's thugs--and when she escapes her captors, she destroys Tumolo's equipment before moving on to Donalbain. You can probably guess the style the story chooses for her deadly approach, which seems particularly suitable for an individual who despises being touched.

With the death of both Donalbain and her mentor, the Cat seems poised to make her mark on the Marvel universe--assuming that's what she wants. There's really no reason that suggests she should assume the life of an adventurer, much less a costumed adventurer--and in addition, she's hampered by self-doubt, which would have been conspicuous for the story not to address considering that her first thought in costume was to take a "an eye for an eye" approach in dealing with Tumolo's killer.

In addition to the characters and concepts created for these titles, an effort was also made to staff their creative teams (including colorists and letterers in some cases) with women, presumably in order to increase the books' appeal to girls. Jean Thomas was tapped to write Night Nurse; Carole Seuling for Shanna the She-Devil; and Linda Fite, hired initially as a production assistant for Roy Thomas (and who would marry artist Herb Trimpe in 1972), assigned to script The Cat, with Marie Severin as artist. Yet despite the thought and effort that went into these projects, all of these fledgling titles seemed launched by Marvel with some trepidation, immediately assigned to a bimonthly publication schedule (and at times even taking three months to produce a new issue). Before you knew it (in the blink of an eye, so to speak), all three concepts fizzled, with both The Cat and Night Nurse cancelled after four issues, and Shanna ending with issue #5. If memory serves, Shanna somehow ended up in the Savage Land with Ka-Zar; while the Cat went on to become Tigra "the Were-Woman." As for Linda, our fretful nurse, rumor has it that she became fixated on Dr. Donald Blake as a potential romantic prospect.  Didn't Linda get the memo on Jane Foster?


david_b said...

I collected the entire **short** run of Shanna, primarily for Gerber's writing and the origins of Mandrill and Nekra. Loved the art.

Colin Jones said...

I've known about Shanna and the Cat since the '70s...but Night Nurse ???? She definitely didn't cross the Atlantic and become part of Marvel UK. And was Shanna and the Cat meant to be for girls ? British comics were rigidly divided between girls' comics and boys' comics but Marvel had none of that nonsense - I was just as happy reading Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman as I was reading the Hulk and Spider-Man, as far as I was concerned they were all part of the Marvel universe. I was also a big fan of the Three Investigators, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew - only about 3 or 4 years ago I discovered, to my amazement, that Nancy drew was meant to be for girls - I never knew !!! And I also recently discovered that Patsy Walker a.k.a the Hellcat was originally a long running character in U.S. girls' comics - the things you learn on the internet !!

Comicsfan said...

Right you are, Colin--Patsy Walker, along with Hedy Wolfe and Millie the Model, were part of a humor/romance comics chain of titles that went way back to Timely Comics. Patsy would later demonstrate in joining contemporary Marvel stories that she's aged quite well since that time--that is to say, hardly at all.

david_b said...

Colin, I grew up with the Three Investigators..!! Awesome stories, nearly every one of 'em.

I strongly recommend Shanna.., it made the Gerber/Mandrill story in DD/BW far more entertaining.

I read the DD issues as a kid, and enjoyed Shanna's guesting in that mag (what boy didn't.....?), but now reading Gerber's prior-written plotline in Shanna tied it all together much better.

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

Speaking of Patsy, I dug Hellcat in She-Hulk's recent V.3 run

Darci said...

I have to assume, reading your title, that you know about Avengers #83 (Dec 1970), starring the Lady Liberators. That team consisted of the Black Widow, Wasp, Medusa, and Scarlet Witch, led by Amora posing as the Valkyrie. Roy Thomas wrote it.

Roy first shows up as Editor in issues cover-dated Sept 1972. These three series started with The Cat and Night Nurse in November 1972, then Shanna in December. I've read that Marvel was emboldened to try these after it introduced Luke Cage in Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972).

Comicsfan said...

Darci, yes, the Lady Liberators have been duly covered here at the PPOC. Naturally, this post's title was no more than a play on words; in fact, the Enchantress had little to no use for the term "liberators" beyond its use to manipulate those she considered pawns, since her only goal was to obtain the means to return to Asgard.

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