Canteen Kate (St. John, 1951-53)
Created and Illustrated by: Matt Baker
In 1951, American television saw the premiere of I Love Lucy, a program showcasing a comic genius portraying a character six times too clever for anybody’s good. She concocted fantastic, elaborate schemes to escape the drudgery of mere existence, only to have them consistently fall apart at the last minute in spectacular fashion, a routine that kept the nation watching for six seasons, four of which it spent as the number one show on television.
That very same year, in comics, Canteen Kate appeared, focusing on the antics of a canteen cook named Kate in charge of feeding enlisted men in a Korean war zone. She’s a redhead (she’s referred to as blond once but the colorist clearly didn’t get that memo), stuck in a routine if useful job, who is always creating fantastic, elaborate schemes, not so much for her own sake, as to improve life for the GIs. Her Desi is a hapless private named Al Brown, whom she somehow always talks into aiding her latest venture, and who just as regularly ends each episode in the brig for his troubles. He is alternately a simpleton and a long-suffering sage, and his role as Kate’s partner in crime is irresistible.
Canteen Kate is everything that its near contemporary Jetta isn’t. Where Jetta specialized in gross caricatures of people being generally awful to each other, Kate is about people with the best of intentions attempting to make life generally better for each other in a horrible situation. Where Jetta’s humor revolved around repetitious puns and prat falls, Kate’s involves elaborately built scenarios of scheming and trickery on par with I Love Lucy’s best. Jetta the heroine is a more or less vapid excuse for a mini skirt who puts up with serial cheating from her boyfriend as a matter of course. Kate sees a world full of problems, and moves entire bureaucracies to solve them. Jetta was created by Archie regular and industry standard Don DeCarlo, and Kate by the first African-American artist in comics, Matt Baker, also the artist for Phantom Lady, who tragically died in his thirties.
It is not easy for a Fifties comic to still be funny, light, and enjoyable, but Canteen Kate is. Kate is independent and resourceful and, if a couple of her schemes focus on getting more attention from the GIs, the vast majority of them are aimed at improving the quality of life, from a caper to get an unused air conditioning unit for the canteen, to a plan to relieve the enlisted men of foxhole digging practice by commandeering an earth mover which she pilots Like A Boss. The men treat her as another one of the boys which is, again, a surprisingly positive message of battlefront cooperation between the sexes that you wouldn’t expect in an early Fifties humor magazine.
It does bear some of the marks of its time. The Japanese minorities who show up from time to time, while not the evil caricatures of wartime comics are nonetheless played up as money-grubbing opportunists constantly prefixing every noun with the word “honorable.” Kate’s costume is rather more minimal than it strictly needed to have been. Other than that, though, the comic is rather timeless. Just as I suspect humans will be watching VitaMeataVegamin clips so long as there are humans, these simple tales of one cook against the military will always be welcome.
Face Forward, Private, Power Meter at Two Clicks!
Fierce: 9: Though she does tire of being treated as one of the guys from time to time, Kate is a self-motivated machine who won’t put up with any merely military regulation between her and her latest plan. She handles earth movers, mine detectors, and firearms with fearless self-confidence.
Smart: 8: The boundary between Smart and Resourceful is tough to pinpoint, but the focus of this comic is definitely on Kate’s ability to find wildly unlikely solutions to the problems of barracks life, rather than on GI-chasing or keeping her hair perfect, and that’s refreshing.
Funny: 9: Compared to others comics from its time, this is easily a 10. Even now, the situations are of enough complexity, the outcomes occasionally surprising enough, to keep it in the ranks of light, enjoyable, and sincerely amusing reads. If you love screwball comedies from the Fifties of the Bringing Up Baby vein, you’ll love this book.
Art: 9: Baker’s work is iconic. He’s sexied up Kate’s working fatigues considerably, giving her a low buttoned shirt and gam-revealing rolled up trousers, but he’s equally willing to have her dressed in baggy uniforms if the story calls for it. Actually, cross dressing is a regular theme of this comic. Al ends up in a dress twice, and is remarkably chill about it, and Kate is forever impersonating male soldiers to work her way around the system. Baker’s sense of femininity maintains a sense of balance and class that DeCarlo’s decidedly did not, and it makes a huge difference to the flow of the narrative.
Models, Inc. (Marvel, 2009)
Writer: Paul Tobin.
Art: Vincenc Villagrasa, Ron Chan, Gary Martin, Terry Pallot.
Models, Inc. ought to be my favorite comic ever. It is a fashion-superheroics hybrid comic that reverently revitalizes heroines from Marvel’s deep past, placing them in a modern, fervently pro-gay setting that features mini essays throwing shade at Marvel’s manifold fashion faux-pas. It’s Hellcat meets Ru Paul’s Drag Race – an issue of Cosmo that breaks into occasional costumed fist fights. It’s written by Paul Tobin, who wrote some of the best Avengers stories you’ve never read in the pages of Marvel Adventures, stories my daughters and I still quote on a nearly daily basis to each other (“And here’s an awesome picture of you battling a pigeon with your face” gets said at least once a week at Stately DeBakcsy Manor). Fashion guru Tim Gunn makes a snarky guest appearance, fending off bad guys in Iron Man’s armor while spouting fashion-related one-liners.
I love all of these things. The cast is an all-female who’s-who of Timely-era Marvel regulars: Millicent Collins (Millie the Model), Hedy Wolfe and Patsy Walker (Patsy and Hedy: Career Girls), Chili Storm (Chili: Millie’s Red Headed Rival, now reimagined as an awesome-fierce lesbian), Jill Jerold, and Toni Turner, along with some waves towards the Silver Age greats – Mary Jane Watson, Janet van Dyne, even Nico Minoru from the modern era. Tobin has done a great job giving Hedy, Patsy, Millie, and Chili individual voices, which is one of the hardest tasks when bringing relatively mono dimensional Golden Age characters into modern times.
Hedy has a blog, “Crashin’ Fashion”, and the excerpts from it are some of the comedic highlights of the series. Chili is outspoken and proud of her sexual orientation, and wants to add the next level of Rawr by following in the super hero footsteps of Patsy Walker’s Hellcat. Millie keeps the whole ensemble together through a basic devotion to the idea that fashion can and must do good. And when the comic is navigating the intersection between fashion and super-heroism, the book is everything I could possibly want. It addresses the visuality of super heroism in a way that most comics are afraid to dare, and that is both very, very fun and important as a way of commenting on the iconography of comics in a narrative setting.
It ought to be my favorite, but yet isn’t quite. There’s a definite feel here that editorial pressure was brought to bear. Witness the fact that, in the trade edition, the front cover doesn’t feature any of the female heroes, but rather an image of Tim Gunn standing in front of Iron Man. It’s a great image, but it speaks to a certain reluctance to let the comic be itself. The main story, meanwhile, focuses on a murder-robbery mix-up which entangles Millie as a suspect, which features lots of nameless Men With Guns popping up from time to time. That’s great, because it lets us have some fun Hellcat moments with Patsy Walker, but at the same time, this central plot pulls attention to a bunch of relatively procedural moments and methodical stooge-punching which I’m sure made for easier blurb copy in Previews, but which take away from the casual, in-between-moments character-building that Tobin is so good at when he’s allowed.
There’s something great here, and now seems a good time to re-visit it. If we can make a comic about a girl in a squirrel costume, and one about a homicidal lady clown, we can damn well, in this age of Drag Race and 5-to-4 Supreme Court decisions (which, yay, by the way), make a sickening comic about fashion and super-fashion which lets the Marvel heroines of old shine in their updated world.
Power Meter, Millie’s Metric Rival
Fierce: 8: These are self-made women, who don’t put up with the somewhat straw-man chauvinism of the police force’s top cop, and who use their combined talents to solve a murder mystery. But that mystery takes up so much space that we don’t get to see the characters unfold as they could.
Smart: 5: None of the women are shown doing anything particularly brilliant.
Funny: 8: The bits of fashion sass that creep in everywhere are entirely enjoyable, and Hedy’s columns are a welcome bit of fashion reality in an artistic universe that often favors titillation over elegance and actual design. “HULK MIX SOLIDS!” is also a great article teaser.
Art: 5: A book called Models, Inc. should have eye catching fashion on each page. This is the world these characters came from – a world where housewives and daughters drew their own fashion designs, sent them into the comics, and then, if they were lucky, saw those clothes show up on the characters, with a fashion credit shout out to the lucky fan who conceived them. Some issues had dozens of different clothing changes just to fit in all the rich ideas from the readership. Even when the stories were lackluster, the community feel of the fashion was always a quiet joy. This series starts off promisingly, with some great and distinctive designs for each character, but slides into some looks that are pretty Meh, with a highly forgettable final runway panel.