Not Batgirl. The other one.
I mean the one that actually has “domino” in her name, The Domino Lady.
The Domino Lady was an oddball entry even in an era notable for its cornucopia of decidedly oddball protagonists. (Seriously. Dime Mystery alone gave us, among others, Nat Perry, the hemophiliac detective, as well as Peter Quest, who was intermittently blind, and of course my favorite — Calvin Kane, the crippled and twisted “Crab Detective,” the genius whose legs were so deformed he couldn’t walk but instead crawled around on his “massively powerful arms.”)
The pulp magazines, in their heyday, boasted a variety of genres undreamed of before or since in popular fiction. Sure, there were science fiction and westerns and mysteries and high adventure, but there were also entire lines of pulp titles devoted to sports, aviation, history, “oriental adventure,” romance titles with varying sub-genres ranging from teenage heartbreak to slapstick bedroom farce, and even lurid stories of leering sadomasochism (generally referred to, charitably, as the “weird menace” genre.)
The Domino Lady, at first glance, seems like she’d fall into the “hero pulp” category along with the Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage and that whole gang.
But that wouldn’t be strictly accurate. Really the Domino Lady’s adventures are more of the “spicy adventure” type, with an occasional splash of the sadomasochistic tone of the “weird menace” pulps. This isn’t surprising given that her magazine was, in fact, one of the Spicys.
“Spicy” pulps were … well, not really pornographic, though I suppose some were more explicit than others. (Charles Beaumont once wryly observed, “The authors larded their narratives with suggestive dialogue and took care to describe ‘her silk-clad, lissome body,’ ‘a flash of white thigh,’ ‘breasts straining at their silken prison,’ etc., but the truth is that a diet of reading restricted to Spicy Detective Stories would do nothing to dissuade one from belief in the theory of the stork.”) Really they were about on a level with today’s Maxim or FHM, if those magazines published fiction. A bit naughtier than the other pulp magazines on the stands, Spicys generally cost a nickel more and were kept under the counter.
The Spicy line almost tiptoed over into the hero-pulp area once or twice, most notably with Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, and especially with Jim Anthony, SUPER-Detective.
Pulp publishers liked the idea of a continuing series character even if that character didn’t always star in the magazine, so it’s not surprising that Fiction Magazines tried to anchor Saucy Romantic Adventures with one. What is surprising is that they went with the Domino Lady.
What made the Domino Lady such a strange choice is that you never really saw a female hero lead back then. If you think today’s superhero comics are a boy’s club, that’s nothing compared to the pulp-hero landscape of the 1930s. You had Patricia Savage over in Doc Savage and you had Margo Lane in The Shadow, both of whom were sidekicks (and Margo hadn’t yet put in her first pulp appearance when the Domino Lady made her debut) and you had Jirel of Joiry, a sort of Red Sonja-type in medieval France, occasionally showing up in Weird Tales. And Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had her own magazine briefly because her comic was a success, but even she couldn’t make a successful jump to pulps and hers folded after a couple of issues. That was it.
What’s more, in the Spicy line of pulps women existed largely just to be menaced and tied up and forcibly disrobed. The idea that you could have one for the protagonist, especially one that wasn’t depending on a tough brawny boyfriend for the big rescue at the end, was unprecedented.
So all of those things combined already make this series a bit of an anomaly. What really tickles me about the Domino Lady, though, is the premise.
This was the setup. Freewheeling young socialite Ellen Patrick is vacationing in Europe when she learns of the murder of her father, crusading district attorney Owen Patrick. Owen’s mission had been to root out corruption in the Los Angeles city establishment and he’d apparently gotten too close to something. Ellen hastens back home to southern California where she finds that no one will take her seriously — the cops dismiss her as a ditzy blonde, and anyway no one really has any interest in rooting out corruption in L.A.
Very well — Ellen decides to take matters into her own hands. If no one is willing to listen to socialite Ellen Patrick, well, by God, she’ll damn well make sure they pay attention to the Domino Lady.
But here’s the cool part. Before embarking on her mission, Ellen doesn’t train in the gym or learn kung fu or even really put in any target practice with her little pistol. She just throws a cape over her white evening gown and slaps on a mask and hits the streets. She does carry a gun, but her preferred weapon is a syringe full of knockout drugs.
Truthfully, though, the Domino Lady’s real weapon was her smokin’ hot body. She’d often get out of a tight situation by suggesting to a thug that maybe they could get to be… closer… friends, and then as the guy started to grope his way towards second base, she slammed her syringe full of sleepy-juice into his neck. Ellen had a whole Mean Girls thing going on– the premise was, essentially, Paris Hilton becomes the Punisher. That was the Domino Lady. (Although she wasn’t particularly bloodthirsty– once she’d subdued the evildoer, she’d tie him up and leave him for the cops, usually with one of her black calling cards that read “Compliments of the Domino Lady.”)
The Domino Lady’s sex-kitten approach to her vigilante career assured that her adventures would carry the requisite quota of PG-13, ripped-blouse menace expected of the Spicy pulps, but even so she only lasted for six installments. The magazine itself, Saucy Romantic Adventures, only ran for five issues between May and October of 1936, and Ellen’s last adventure, “The Domino Lady’s Double,” appeared in the November 1936 issue of Mystery Adventure. All six were credited to “Lars Anderson,” but pulp historians are agreed that this was likely just a house pseudonym for a couple of different writers, and no one knows who they were. Given the custom at most pulp publishers, the chances are there was no specific creator for the Domino Lady, but rather that she was a concept thrown out at an editorial conference and given to one of the regular freelancers to develop. “Like the Phantom Detective, but she’s a hot babe who’s falling out of her dress all the time.”
But it didn’t stick. Six adventures for the Domino Lady and that was all, and the sixth wasn’t even in her regular book but got burned off as inventory in one of the publisher’s other titles.
Now, you’d think that would be it. And for sixty-plus years, that was it. Six months and out, no cult following, no seventies spinner-rack paperback-reprint revival, nothing. Which normally would relegate the Domino Lady to the same pile of failed series characters as other crimefighting pulp hopefuls like the Patent-Leather Kid or the spacesuit-clad Moon Man.
Except a couple of funny things happened on the way to the dust heap.
First of all, in the last decade and a half or so, the internet has made it absurdly easy for people of similar interests to connect. Sure, there have always been fans of the old pulps, even of the silly and obscure ones, and there have been collectors and fanzines and all of that — but nothing like there is now. It took a lot of money and time and aggravating hands-on production work to do a mimeo fanzine devoted to pulp magazines in the old days, and after you got through all that you still had to figure out how to get it in front of people who might actually read it. Today, all you need is an internet connection: ten minutes with blogspot.com and presto, you’re published. As for distribution, whatever your subject, if it’s of any interest at all, Google will bring your audience to you. (Hell, I just do this thing once a week and I’ve connected with all sorts of people that previously I only knew as names in a book– and that’s before Jonah picked us up and gave us the huge visibility of being on CBR.)
Secondly, technology has reached a point where it’s possible to do relatively inexpensive, short-run small-press books on a print-on-demand basis, get them looking professional, and sell them to people online without ever having to involve a book wholesaler or a retailer at all. And there’s a growing market of digital-only readers as well.
And finally, a lot of pulp characters have fallen into the public domain over the last few years. Which means that not only is it possible to reprint the old stuff without fretting over rights issues, but you can even do new material featuring those public domain characters if you’ve a mind to.
Those three factors have combined to give us the biggest pulp revival since Doc Savage and the Avenger were dominating the paperback scene in the early seventies. Suddenly we’re seeing all sorts of snazzy-looking new collections of old material.
Most of it small-press, marketed online, bypassing the old bookstore retail chains completely… and often including work by modern talents doing it as much for love as for money. (For example, quite a few of these small-press reprints feature Jim Steranko for the cover art and Will Murray for the introductions.)
This included all six of the original adventures plus a bunch of new illustrations from Jim Steranko.
With stories from Chuck Dixon, Nancy Holder, Martin Powell, and others, this was my introduction to the Domino Lady and it was a great place to start. The stories are tremendous fun and I really liked the illustrations as well — each story is accompanied by a lovely pen-and-ink from Ver Curtiss.
Probably my favorite was James Chambers’ “The Devil, You Know,” which started as a typical Domino Lady jewel-heist caper and then morphed into a wonderful sort of twisted occult duel with a deranged Satanist cult. All done in fine old “weird menace” pulp tradition, and Chambers also managed to expand on the existing Domino Lady mythology from the original stories in an interesting way.
But none of the entries in the book was ever less than entertaining. Also? Domino Lady: Sex As A Weapon gets my vote for the best pulp pastiche title ever.
And there are Domino Lady comics, as well. In the nineties Fantagraphics put out a Domino Lady pastiche from Ron Wilber, under the Eros imprint.
I have to admit this wasn’t really my thing — Eros as an imprint was just a little too explicitly naughty for me, and even though Mr. Wilber clearly has great affection for the pulps in general and the Domino Lady in particular, and his story is a great pulpy action adventure, the graphic sexual interludes come off looking like some sort of Eros Publishing contractual obligation. Moreover, the art here just really puts me off. Wilber’s style is reminiscent of something from the undergrounds, almost– it reminds me of Dave Sheridan or someone like that. It’s a bad fit for a character that really should be rendered more in the “good girl art” style of Adam Hughes or the Dodsons or someone in that ballpark.
Much better are the more recent efforts from Moonstone Comics.
Nancy Holder, one of the better Buffy novelists, wrote most of the Domino Lady comics for Moonstone, and she brought exactly the right blend of breezy flirtatiousness and pulp-noir action to the endeavor. The art from Reno Maniquis and Keith Williams is a little rough here and there, but it’s still a vast improvement over the Ron Wilber version of the character.
And, of course, in time-honored pulp tradition, the covers were a treat. I’m really not one for variants and all that, but I have to admit it’s hard for me to choose between some of these multiples.
So far, there’s been one mini-series and a one-shot, with the promise of more to come.
Not bad for a seventy-five-year-old female crimefighter whose only real weapon is her willingness to fake being slutty.
I just hope I’m doing this well when I hit that age.
See you next week.