Book Review: Dauntless Dames: High-Heeled Heroes of the Comics

After entering into a partnership last summer to distribute the back catalog of Sunday Press, Fantagraphics is now releasing the first new work under their agreement. As with other Sunday Press books, Dauntless Dames reprints classic newspaper comic strips at a massive size approaching their original printed dimensions. For this entry, the focus is entirely on Golden Age comic strips starring adventurous women, primarily from the era around World War II.

The book is edited by underground comix legend Trina Robbins and Sunday Press founder Peter Maresca. They contribute insightful introductions to each of the ten strip sections, providing background on the characters and full careers of each of the creators. The featured strips have varied publication histories ranging from less than a year to the seven-decade run of Brenda Starr. The editors wisely chose to include fairly complete story arcs rather than random representative strips from throughout each title’s run. This makes for a pleasant reading experience as readers can work through full chunks of story, even as it sacrifices some opportunity to show how each strip evolves through its run.

Each of the ten dames get roughly between 10-20 pages to shine, with the lead-off hitter Connie clocking in with the most at 22 pages. To most casual readers, the only recognizable character is Brenda Starr due to her newspaper longevity into this century, although Miss Fury might also be known to some since she’s still occasionally trotted out in new comic book adventures. The rest of the characters have essentially been lost to time, making this book a welcome introduction to their forgotten adventures.

Although most of the dames have career designations, such as Myra North’s nursing job and Flyin’ Jenny’s flyin’, they mostly seem to gravitate to investigative adventures that have little to do with their chosen professions. Romance is a component, but not the typical focus, aside from the regal Egyptian princess, Deathless Deer, and her bewildering fawning over a typical American man. That’s her featured on the cover art, undercover as a maid as she outsmarts bad guys to locate a Nazi code hidden in a diamond necklace, somehow fully fluent in English and guns despite having been asleep for 3000 years. Sure, the writing isn’t exactly a high point in any of these strips, but the fun quotient is stratospheric.

As for the art, I was most impressed with Frank Godwin’s lovely work on Connie. He came to comic strips rather late in life, which explains why his work is closer to the turn of the 20th-century style of illustrators such as Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), Johnny Gruelle (Raggedy Ann) and John R. Neill (Oz series) than the other younger creators in this book. His lush, realistic style foreshadows the emergence of the Golden Age titans of Sunday comics a decade later, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), making it certain that he was an influence on their work.

Other entries rising above the level of pulp comics are the lively, clear lines of Brenda Starr, Cairo Jones, and Torchy Brown. Torchy in particular is notable for featuring a Black female character created by a Black female artist. While the strip had limited distribution at the time, its inclusion here ensures that it will finally receive wider exposure. The rest of the strip art for the other characters is serviceable if unremarkable, making for pulpy delights as befitting work that wasn’t originally intended to last longer than the Sunday it was printed.

While almost all of the strips are in fantastic condition, indicating a reliance on syndicate proofs for source material, they do not appear to have undergone any substantial restoration. Since these are all Sunday strips, they’re entirely in color. The colors haven’t been remastered, they’re still the classic limited newsprint colors in their original dotty glory.

Prospective readers should note that this book is quite large. At 13” x 17” and 160 thick pages, the hardcover is somewhat ungainly to read and store. However, fans of previous Sunday Press entries and other super-oversized works such as IDW’s Artist’s Editions and Taschen art books will be right at home with this whopper. The dimensions are intended to simulate the original size of the full and half-page newspaper strips, although this book is actually quite a bit smaller than other Sunday Press books focused on the earliest 20th century strips such as Little Nemo and Land of Oz.

Dauntless Dames is a fascinating collection of little-known Golden Age comic strips presented in a stunning oversized format. It’s another impressive entry in the Sunday Press line-up and a fine opener for the ongoing Fantagraphics partnership, certain to garner some well-deserved Eisner Award attention next year.

Dauntless Dames is available on October 17th.

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Steve Geise

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