The Original Spice Girls
Comic Strip Heroines in 1930s Softcore Pulp Fiction
by Tara Odorizzi for Guts & Glory
At the turn of the twentieth century, women began slipping out from under their husbands’ boots. Going to college, drinking and smoking, earning their own money, and riding bikes all the way to the ballot box, these ladies worked hard for independence and reveled in it. They breezed through speakeasies and danced through dives, necking openly and trading rubbers on the sly. They discarded the Victorian notion that an appetite for sex was inherent and specific only to men.
At the same time, the rise of the rotary offset printing press, hot metal typesetting and halftone printing dramatically increased efficiency and lowered the cost of magazine production, causing a surge in publishing oriented toward the middle and lower classes. Cheaper than the elitist “slicks,” which were printed on a smoother and whiter stock, the pulps had a reputation for printing genre fiction not worth much more than the paper it was printed on.
Not all pulps were the sort of gritty detective thrillers or cheesy science fiction romps that might first come to mind. The “girlie” pulps existed in the hazy middle ground between romance and soft core pornography. Featuring short stories, photos and paintings of saucy pin-up girls, and illustrations hot enough to make a Victorian blush, they were much closer in nature to steamy paperback romance novels. Women made up a substantial portion of the readership, and a lot of the content was dreamed up by women, who found work as writers and editors. They even published under their own names rather than adopting pen names.
Harry Donenfeld, whose claim to fame comes through his partial ownership of DC Comics and their launch of the original Action Comics Superman in the late 30’s, got his start in publishing as a printer. With a fortune made as a liquor runner during Prohibition, Donenfeld built a pulp empire by buying out publishing houses that couldn’t pay their production fees. He got his start with titles like Juicy Tales, Joy Stories, and Hot Tales but was quick to expand his domain, especially as the Great Depression sent many printers and publishers spiraling into debt.
With Frank Armer’s idea to mix the eroticism of the girlies and the action of genre pulp, the two struck gold with their Spicy Detective, Spicy Western, Spicy Mystery, and Spicy Adventure magazines. Nevermind the women: these were stories for real hard-boiled eggs, who preferred their dames tied up and whipped. The shift in tone is clear from the covers alone; the girlies featured images of smiling, fashionable women, while Spicy favored frightened ladies in shredded clothes, struggling with leering thugs and monsters. In this case, it’s safe to judge a book by its cover. Spicy embraced stories oriented towards men with fantasies of domination, sadism, and saviorism rather than light-hearted romantic slapstick.
Most issues consisted of short stories and sexy scribbles, but Harry and Frank also threw some comics into the mix, which further distinguished the Spicy line from the girlies. The comics were almost all driven by female leads. Unlike the ladies in the Spicy short stories, these characters had spunk, keeping their heads no matter how dire their circumstances. The ongoing plots gave the girls a fighting chance to show off their smarts as well as their good looks. Though these were stories written for men and by men, and the heroines are repeatedly manhandled, objectified, and stripped with wild abandon, they demonstrate as much strength and cunning as any of the male characters.
Aug. 1937 - Oct. 1938
Spicy Mystery Stories
Art by Watt Dell Lovett // Author Unknown
What little art remains from The Girl with the X-Ray Eyes is obscure and difficult to find, but Olga Mesmer is nevertheless well known amongst comic aficionados, often credited with being the first American superhero in comics, a precursor to Superman. Of course, there is much debate on the issue, considering she’s lacking in three areas common to most caped crusaders: a secret identity, a spandex costume, and a penis.
Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on, her story is still a sordid one. Born with x-ray vision that can penetrate solid objects, super strength, and a look that can actually kill, Olga’s irradiated blood is the result of experiments conducted by her mad scientist father, Dr. Mesmer, on his wife, the deposed Queen Margot of Venus. After Margot accidentally kills Dr. Mesmer and returns to her home planet, Olga is left to be raised on Earth by a skeez-ball who comes on to her as soon as she hits puberty.
Later, Olga finds a man with a nice face and a target on his head, who she saves from getting bumped off thanks to her inherited superpowers. With a name like Rod, it’s pretty clear what Olga was really after in taking him on as her sidekick. They travel to Venus on a hunt for Queen Margot, all with Olga in a dress that was made for falling off.
On Venus, they meet Queen Margot’s loyal servant and main squeeze, Shag (yes, innuendos abound). Though Margot is from Venus, she has the body of a human. Shag, however, is one of the Sitnaltans, a race of pointy-eared ogres who look like they eat steroids for breakfast. Of course, we all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love is blind, and roses are red, but I’m pretty sure this is an inter-species thing. Maybe Venus is very progressive, aside from the slavery.
Yes, that’s right: slavery! Queen Margot has kept the Sitnaltans as her chattel, forcing them to do who knows what. I’m not sure why the reader is meant to cheer for a dictatress with no regard for civil liberties, but I guess blood is thicker than politics in this case and Olga sides with her mother.
Overall, The Girl with the X-Ray Eyes caters to readers with a taste for the deviant, featuring whips, chains, and some light choking. As the only strip in this lineup featuring radiation, I’m a little disappointed in the lack of tentacles, but hey, we can’t all write erotic fiction like the Japanese, can we?
Nov. 1934 - at least 1941
Spicy Adventure Stories
Art by Max Plaisted // Written by Clayton Maxwell
While Olga was born powerful, Diana’s strength comes from her experience as a seasoned adventurer. She breezes around the world and across the galaxy from one hijink to the next. Whether it’s the sands of Arabia, the unexplored depths of Africa, a concentration camp in Siberia, or a temperate region of Mercury, you name it, Diana’s been there. Her sidekick is Ted Morton, a blonde, brawny stud of a man who has a knack for attracting nobility. Throughout their adventures, Ted and Diana are routinely separated and reunited, taking on other lovers when circumstances require it. Nevertheless, they always fall back into each other’s arms in the end.
Diana’s typical uniform consists of little more than a bikini top and loincloth, if that (her long hair can double as a vest). There’s no shortage of creeps who get a kick out of fondling her and the other lady characters, but they always get their comeuppance. In one story, she becomes queen of a nomadic band of Arabs and mans a machine gun to wipe out a much larger enemy tribe, proving to her team of misogynists that she is, in fact, a highly capable bad ass.
Bloodshed is about as routine for Diana as flinging poo is for a monkey. But unlike a monkey, Diana has principles. She’s out for more than just her own personal glory. Like the time she led a harem of women to freedom from their master, an Indian raja. Unfortunately, their desire for silky pillows and rich food became too much to bear, so the harem double-crossed her to go back to their lives as sex slaves. WOMEN, am I right?
Ted gets a bit more development than many of the other sidekicks in this selection of comics. His finest moment comes when an Amazonian Queen on the planet Mercury takes him as her number one sex slave. Her harem, a group of men with dainty mustaches and high cheekbones, explain the matriarchy as a matter of supply and demand. When the birth rate of males dropped many years ago, the women became warriors and competed for mates. Ted, uninterested in joining the harem, executes a daring escape by sucker punching the queen, stealing her hair, and running away in drag. It’s definitely the most fabulous getaway in this selection of stories, as long as you overlook the inherent sexism of the notion that women can only come to power when there aren’t enough men to challenge them.
Diana is by far the most capable of our heroines. She kills without hesitating or breaking a sweat, and saves others just as often as she needs saving, herself. She’s something of a Depression-era Lara Croft, only with less clothing and money.
Sally the Sleuth
Nov. 1934 - 1942
Writing & Art by Adolphe Barreaux
Sally the Sleuth, on the other hand, is more like if Daphne from Scooby Doo got her own softcore spinoff. The structure of the stories is fairly repetitive: Sally investigates crime, Sally finds criminals, Sally is captured by criminals and gets naked, police rescue Sally. While there are no rubber masks, hippy vans, or great danes, there are some pretty creative bad guys.
As the first of Donenfeld’s erotic comic strips, she’s one of the longest running characters from the Spicy pulp line, surviving a crackdown on obscenity and the demise of Spicy Detective in 1943 by transitioning into a classier wardrobe and a new title, Speed Detective. In the ’50s, she made a resurgence in Crime Smashers, minus the whips and chains.
Sally works at the Central Bureau for The Chief, acting as decoy, undercover agent, and sleuth. Her sidekick, named Peanut, is a kid with more than a passing resemblance to Dennis the Menace. His primary role is to bring the cops to Sally after she’s been stripped but before she’s been horribly maimed. Though she’s quick to solve a mystery, she always falls into the villain’s clutches and her clothes disappear, sometimes entirely without explanation.
Second only to the women in Polly of the Plains, Sally endures some rough treatment. Whether it’s a whip, a shiv, a bizarre torture device, a colony of killer ants, or even pneumonia, you name it, Sally’s been threatened with it. Like The Girl with the X-Ray Eyes, her stories must have catered to men hot for non-consensual BDSM, considering how often she ends up trussed and naked like a Christmas turkey.
On her beat, Sally meets the true scum of the earth, and tackles everything from human trafficking to cannibalistic psychopaths. Somehow, even after being stripped, bound, and beaten, she manages to end each story with a witty quip. Maybe the Central Bureau has a stellar psych team, or maybe Sally just has unbreakable nerves. Regardless, anyone else in her shoes would have some serious PTSD.
Ending each strip with a moment of levity dramatically changes the tone of Sally the Sleuth. It’s easier to see how outlandish the criminals are, no matter how sadistic their actions may be, and reinforces the overall “cartooniness” of the stories. Even as a cartoon, her keen instincts, cool-headedness, and courage make her an admirable detective and a fantastic heroine.
Polly of the Plains
Nov. 1936 - Dec. 1937
by Bill Everett & Joseph Szokoli
By far the darkest of the stories in this selection, Polly of the Plains is downright creepy. Lacking the punchlines of Sally the Sleuth, the globe-trotting of Diana Daw, and the science fiction of The Girl with the X-Ray Eyes, Polly of the Plains is just a whole lot of sadism with a heavy dose of racism. If you want to feel a little bit ashamed, give it a read.
It all starts when Polly, a rancher’s daughter with an east coast education, moves back west to help her injured father and is kidnapped along with her friend Jean by a half-Mexican bandit named Pancho. The two are tortured in a variety of cruel and creative ways, all while scantily clad. There is flogging, crucifixion, cigarette burns, and, like Sally, an assassination by ants. Unlike Sally, there’s no resourceful little Dennis the Menace to call the cops in the nick of time.
All of the villains are either Mexican or Native American and speak with painfully exaggerated accents. This is no surprise coming from a Depression-era pulp comic, but it feels like a stronger element to the story in Polly of the Plains than in the other comics detailed here, perhaps because of the heightened level of realism and violence.
Of all the women in Polly of the Plains, Señorita Diablo makes the biggest splash. A Mexican bandit who wears nothing more than a vest, a sombrero, a scarf around her waist, and a cool mask, she spooks even Pancho when she questions him about her missing sister. She walks the fine line between hero and villain, demonstrating no mercy when she offs her own croney after he shoots Pancho mid-escape. Although Polly and Jean have guts, they lack Señorita Diablo’s swagger.
Nevertheless, they still prove themselves as resourceful and strong-willed. Polly would give Annie Oakley a run for her money when she shoots a knife out of the air just before it hits her boyfriend, Jack. Later, she shoots and kills a “marijuana crazed addict” just before he has his way with Jean, who returns the favor with quick thinking and a lot of muscle by hauling Polly out of a bed of quicksand. Jean also shows her mettle after Pancho puts her through the wringer. He burns her with his cigarettes and ties her up in the hot sun without water during his interrogation, but she doesn’t spill the beans.
Polly of the Plains is different from the other Spicy comics in that it depicts the fear and emotion of the main characters in a more realistic light. Polly and Jean’s horrific ordeal isn’t laughed off, like in Sally the Sleuth, and although they find the strength and will to escape relatively unscathed, there’s no indication that they aren’t going to need a few years with an exceptional therapist after returning home.
In fact, they never actually return home. The series ends with a major cliff-hanger, leaving Polly as the hostage of a band of hungry Native Americans. Presumably, the story lacked the popularity of Sally the Sleuth and didn’t survive Spicy Western’s transition into Speed Western in 1937. Maybe it went a little too far, even for a Spicy comic.
The Spicy comics and the traditional girlies had one thing in common, aside from a penchant for sex and naked ladies: they all suffered at the hands of censorship organizations. In 1938, the rise of the National Organization for Decent Literature, a group with ties to the Catholic Church, coupled with another economic recession, brought down almost all of the traditional girlie titles. It’s perhaps a testament to the popularity and success of the Spicy line that it lasted into 1942, at which point it evolved into more generic pulp genre fiction.
Coincidentally, 1938 is also the year that Donenfeld bought Action Comics and began to set his sights on a certain goody two-shoed caped crusader from another planet (yeah, Superman, I’m looking at you), who would prove to be extremely financially lucrative. Had it not been for the popularity of the female comic strip heroines within the pages of his Spicy titles, would Donenfeld have given Superman a chance? Did they help set the stage for Superman’s success? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: Superman never had to deal with sex-crazed thugs shredding his tights just to get an eyeful, or disrespect due to the nature of his genitalia. Superman was born powerful, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound without ever putting in a hard day’s work. The Spicy heroines, on the other hand, survive torture, sexual objectification, threats of rape, and all manner of chauvinism as mere humans without special gadgets or even basic survival training, and that makes them worth celebrating.
All information gathered from the following sources:
Uncovered: The Hidden Art of the Girlie Pulps by Douglas Ellis
“Harry Donenfeld,” Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists by David Saunders
“Comics Predecessors” by Peter Coogan in The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester
“Olga Mesmer” from An International Catalogue of Superheroes
“A Brief History of the Pornographic Superhero” by Chris Gavaler on his blog, The Patron Saint of Superheroes
“Spicy Tales Collection” edited by Tom Mason on Win Wiacek’s blog, Now Read This!
For a huge archive of general pulp fiction magazines: