Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics by Mike Madrid
Published by Exterminating Angel Press, October 2014. Trade paperback of 256 page at $16.95. Also available as an eBook.
Note: I read an advance uncorrected proof, so any part of the book may change by publication.
The cover: A woman with long brown hair wearing a shiny black top and bottom, with a purple cape hanging off her right shoulder, strikes a pose with attitude. Why? It probably has something to do with the smoking pistol in her right hand. She looks great, but I wouldn’t want to meet her under any circumstance. The illustration is credited to Paul Gustavson and it’s a killer, much as his subject is. The background is green like a snake with the title in bold caps, colored blue with a soft purple outline. This is more 1950’s movie poster than book cover. I’d pay to see a movie that used this as an advertisement. Overall grade: A
The chapters: After a foreword by William Kuskin, Ph.D., the book is broken into four sections by author Madrid. They are “Vicious Viragos,” “Beauties & Beasts,” “A Rainbow of Evil,” and “Crime Queens.” These are introduced by extremely well written essays by Madrid. Each explains the historical importance of each group of stories and characters and how they played a part in leading into the sirens that are in present day comic books. I’m fairly familiar with Golden Age heroes and their male foes, but outside of Will Eisner and Milton Caniff’s villainous women, I’m sadly lacking in knowing any. These essays filled some of the gaps in my understanding. I was especially impressed with “A Rainbow of Evil” since it focuses on non-white villainesses. Any work that increase my understanding and appreciation of comics is a welcome work. Overall grade: A
The stories: There are 22 stories reprinted in their entirety in this collection, and six were particular stand outs. The first was a story featuring the Marksman dealing with Fraulein Halunke, a German Nazi during the height of World War II. It’s interesting to see a woman in charge without being the B-movie cliché modern readers have come to expect. The conclusion of this story actually shocked me. “Her Highness” features a cartoony granny breaking every law she can to earn an unhonest buck. No matter what she does, good comes from schemes, prompting her to get out of town before her true intentions are learned. She ran for quite a while in several comics and I’d never heard of her. I was glad to learn about her. The character He She must be seen to be believed. It stuns me that this character ran in 1943. This villain battles Crimebuster, a character I’m familiar with, but I’d never heard of this foe and I’m so glad I’ve finally experienced him/her. This story is an absolute highlight of the collection. A pirate story comes with the heroic Hawk who fights the Skull Lady. I’d pay to see this story as a movie right now. The reveal at the end is better than most Hollywood finales. I was impressed to see Mava doing battle with Rulah: Jungle Goddess. She was no cliché African strong woman, Mava is an equal of the hero in every way. The final stand out was a “True Crime” story titled “Belle Guness: The Master of Laporte” that shows a woman who’s up to no good in every noir way. Absolutely fantastic. Again, these are only six stories; there are 16 others that you’ve never read that you now can. Absolutely fantastic. Overall grade: A
The final line: This is mandatory reading for any fan of comics. It expertly explains the roles of women villains and how they lead the way for the femme fatales that fans love to cheer and boo today. I can’t imagine any scholarly collection of comics being complete without this book. Overall grade: A
Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!”, he reviewed comics for TrekWeb, and he currently reviews Trek comics at TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for two years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.