Shanna the She-Devil (Marvel, 1972-73)
Art by: Ross Andru.
In 1972, Stan Lee made a decision several decades ahead of its time – to not only launch three new female-centered series, but to have women writers at the helm on two of them. Within months of each other, Claws of the Cat, Night Nurse, and Shanna the She Devil premiered, and within months after that, all three folded. The Cat and Night Nurse only saw four issues a piece, while Shanna bowed out after a mere five. It’s a moment in comics history that is under-recognized in discussions about Stan Lee’s progressive place in the medium, and a tantalizing glimpse at what Might Have Been had the comic-buying public been ready for it.
Carole Seuling was the writer for the first four issues, and her vibrant and modern spin on the Jungle Woman genre is evident from the first page. Shanna is an environmental biologist specializing in big cats who becomes so sickened with man’s needless slaughter of wildlife that she runs to the jungles of Africa with two leopard cubs, to protect nature and escape man’s ravenous capitalist appetite. She’s a PhD and a gymnast as well as environmentalist and feminist, who comes down hard on poachers, slavers, and the entire Western system of resource exploitation. The Jungle Woman archetype had a long lineage before Shanna, but Seuling succeeded in updating it with the environmental awareness of modernity, mixing the lavish escapism of the genre with a nascent sense of man’s reach having surpassed its grasp. This was 1972, when ecology was just finding its feet again after Ellen Swallow’s initial ecological studies had been grossly buried by a post-War America that couldn’t be shagged to give two damns about anything that stood between it and the grotesque consumption of consumer goods. Most mass media hadn’t worked its way back around to ecological indignation and yet here, in a comic book that lasted less than a year, those themes are at play thanks to Seuling’s unique approach to characterization.
Ain’t comics grand?
Some weird stuff happens in these five issues. The first is given over to stopping a set of poachers, and is by far the best issue of them all. Shanna’s wardrobe is given a sensible explanation and is, if minimal, better than any Shanna costume since. She is taking on an enemy that makes sense, and the action and message work perfectly together. Then, in issue two, I suspect some editorial suggestions made their way in – Shanna’s costume gets several times skimpier for no particular reason, and Shanna is now taking on a slaver who is, at the same time, trying to hijack a French moon rocket that has… heroin… on it? But it’s still great – Seuling directs attention to the fact that slavery isn’t over just because Abraham Lincoln said it was, and Shanna brings the hurt to the slaver’s organization in a most satisfactory way.
Issue three involves Minoans who have reestablished Cretan culture in the middle of Africa and in doing so have bred bulls that shoot Fear Rays from their horns. It’s weird and wonderful and, if it doesn’t have the broader themes that the first two had, it’s pure goofy fun makes up for it. Issues four and five revolve around the Mandrill trying to take over a few African nations with a crew of Mandrill-face-tattooed women and a creed of Hate that makes for some grandly villainous, Ayn Rand-esque soliloquizing about the virtues of hatred, but that otherwise comes from nowhere and proceeds likewise.
Shanna would have to wait another quarter century for a solo title, one drawn by Frank Cho in a manner that makes her revised costume appear stylish and understated, and without Seuling’s sense of balance between action and thematic depth. Shanna the She Devil is, in short, a smart and underappreciated comic that makes big issues blend with classic comic tropes in a way that keeps the whole galloping forward instead of stumbling clunkily on its own righteousness, a synthesis many of the Seventies’ “socially aware” comics aspired to but failed to unilaterally achieve.
Hey Kids, It’s a Power Meter!
Fierce: 10: Shanna can kick the living Hell out of you herself, but sometimes, for variety, she’ll stand by and watch her leopard sidekicks maul you to death. You don’t get a PhD without a body count.
Smart: 9: Shanna is introduced as a doctor of environmental biology, and that fact is reiterated several times. She’s one of the very few women in comics prior to the present era who has an advanced degree, and is shown applying it in her work.
Funny: 5: I find Minoan Death Ray Bulls thoroughly amusing, but that probably wasn’t the intent.
Costume: 7: The costume in issue one makes sense. It’s made of the pelt of her leopard sidekicks’ murdered mother, to help them establish scent identification when they were young, and to remind her of the evil that men are capable of when money is to be made. If they kept it, I think it would be a 9 or a 10, as one of the only female costumes that has its own story and rationale. But the hussying up of it in the latter issues drags it back down.
Aria: The Uses of Enchantment (Image, 2003)
Writer: Brian Holguin
Art: Lan Medina
After Image Comics got “I am muscled and on a rooftop – and YOU are muscled and on a rooftop – let us fight for several issues!” out of its system in the mid Nineties, it turned slowly to the formula which makes it today the most critically acclaimed of the comic publishers. While today Saga and its brethren bear the mark of confident independence, Image’s first forays were tentative and fragile creatures evincing different levels of professionalism and storytelling innovation that feel exciting still in their raw adolescence.
Many of these early 2000’s Image books were centered on a female protagonist and almost all are forgotten now (not to downplay the presumable hordes who are still keeping that candle burning for Athena, Inc.), annihilated in that slim crushing space between Spawn and Chew. But some neat things happened in there, one of which was Aria, which began as a series in 1999 and concluded in 2003 with the 4 issue mini-series Aria: The Uses of Enchantment which we’ll be looking at today. The starting premise of the Aria series, that magical creatures still exist in modern society, will be familiar to readers of the later Fables series, but takes a lovely turn into the melancholy of maturity that is entirely its own. It’s a story about resignation, disillusionment, and mortality wrapped in the trappings of a magical kingdom, where the protagonist has to shoulder the dual burdens of liberator and destroyer.
Kildare is a fairy, nine hundred years old and now living comfortably among men, who is summoned to a sumptuous feast in a hitherto unknown magical realm, existing in secret in the Catskills. Everything is perfect – the handsome king, his hedgehog chamberlain, a grand ball in the most luxurious tradition – everything save for the queen, who finds herself unable to feel… anything. That sliver of paralyzed emotion becomes the wedge which splits the kingdom apart, while Kildare is largely there in the role of catalyst. She has some powerful set-pieces facing off against the murderous Hunter of the woods, but primarily she is there to observe, to follow the process of disintegration, and to remember when all is done, and that characterization feels totally right. Your main character doesn’t need to be the cause and resolution of every single plot point in a book – sometimes it is sufficient for her to be a presence at happenings outside her control, to record and experience it all in our stead and then move on. That feeling of wise but helpless detachment is one of the most interesting things about this book, and gives Kildare her own immortality-weary interest.
Inside, the art is perfectly wed to the story. It is cold when whimsical and tragic when real, so that you never feel quite settled in either the magical or actual worlds portrayed. Something is off, but it’s not the offness you might first expect. Holguin and Medina unite to take the story somewhere unexpected and bittersweet that is off the beaten path for the Fairy Kingdom Not What It Seems trope. This was the last of the Aria stories, and with its mature treatment of fairy-tale elements, it set the tone for so much of the rich enchanted realms storytelling we have experienced in comics since. The issues are harder to hunt down now, but if you find them, they make for a rewarding return to the origins of fairy tale modernity, and a new take on what protagonists can do and be within a comic narrative.
What’s one POWER METER, when you can have two?!
Fierce: 8: Kildare can throw down if she needs to, but in this story she’s largely above the fray.
Smart: 7: Kildare and her unbalanced sister are shown in the beginning sorting through books, and knowledge gained in the enchanted library forms a crucial element of the story, but this book shades towards emotional rather than intellectual wisdom, and excels at it.
Funny: 4: The hedgehog chamberlain has an amusing interrupted Lumiere-esque musical number, but otherwise this isn’t a book aiming to stir chuckles.
Fashion: 9: This story takes place mostly in the enchanted world, and the costumes are what you would expect – elegant and flowing and frigidly perfect, as they should be. In other incarnations, especially in the Aria & Angela books, the 90s Image instinct for over-sexualizing female characters creeps up, but that’s not really an issue in this story. This is a tale about loss within whimsy, and the art elegantly reflects that atmosphere.
An Explanation of the Power Bar Rankings:
Fierce: Does this character solve her own problems rather than deferring to the authorities around her for guidance? Does she have a distinct personality that exists separately of her love interest? Does she stand up to institutionalized power structures because it’s right?
Smart: Is the character ever shown solving problems with her intellect, or engaged in a scientific/artistic pursuit? Alternately, are the characters in the comic as a whole crafted with an intelligent understanding of motivation and complexity?
Funny: Pretty self explanatory here folks.
Fashion: I initially thought about calling this the Costume Exploitation scale, as a place to call out terrible and objectifying costume choices, but there are ways to do character design well and sensibly, and Fashion seems the positive word for that. The question here is, “Did the artist take time to think about matching the costume to the personality of the character, or is there just sexual titillation for titillation’s sake?” In addition, “Is there something particularly visually striking or new about what this title is doing with the 90% of the character covered in clothes?” That might sound superficial, but I love clothes and never get to talk about them outside of yammering on about RuPaul’s Drag Race on Facebook, so it gets a bar.