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CSBG Archive

Comic Book Legends Revealed #242

Welcome to the two-hundred and forty-second in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous two hundred and forty-one.

Comic Book Legends Revealed is part of the larger Legends Revealed series, where I look into legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can check out here, at legendsrevealed.com. I’d especially recommend you check out this installment of Novel Legends Revealed to see which series of novels inspired the invention of the taser (and even the name of the weapon)!

Let’s begin!

COMIC LEGEND: The boyfriend in Lynda Barry’s popular story “Head Lice and My Worst Boyfriend” is now a famous radio personality.


The great cartoonist Lynda Barry had a regular comic strip on Salon.com that she later put together to form her excellent and wildly successful 2002 release, One! Hundred! Demons!…

The concept of the series was to do a twist on the Japanese zen painting exercise called “One Hundred Demons,” where you paint your “demons” in an effort to get them out of your system. In this case, Barry turns her demons into funny, engaging and heartfelt comic stories.

Probably the most popular story from the book was “Head Lice and my Worst Boyfriend,” which was even featured in another book featuring different stories about heartbreak.

The basic gist of the story is that Barry first recalls a childhood trip to the Philippines, where she was told about head lice (she never had any lice as a child so she didn’t know anything about them) from a boy she had a crush on and how lice in the United States was different from those in the Philippines. He asked her to send him “white kuto”…

This leads into the following tale of her “worst boyfriend”….

So…that boyfriend?

None other than the host of Public Radio International’s This American Life, Ira Glass…

Yep, Barry (who is 54 now) dated Glass (who is 50) back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Glass actually moved to Chicago to be with her, and it is in Chicago that he got started at NPR, contributing features on All Things Considered and co-hosting the show The Wild Room.

In a feature on Glass by Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader in 1998, a lot of the details of his relationship with Barry were put out there in the open…

“When that article came out in the Tribune and I saw my name in there, and Gary’s [Gary Covino, Glass’ co-host on The Wild Room], I got this weird pang in my heart,” says Lynda Barry. “It was so weird to see our names in there with this person who changed my belief in human nature. I went out with him. It was the worst thing I ever did. When we broke up he gave me a watch and said I was boring and shallow, and I wasn’t enough in the moment for him, and it was over. I had to go around for a year saying, ‘Am I boring and shallow and not enough in the moment?'”

It was over, but she and Glass weren’t done with each other. She briefly collaborated with Covino and Glass on The Wild Room, and in fact coined the title. Glass recalls that Covino wanted to call the show “Radio Factory,” which he and Barry were able to agree was stupid. And when Glass went on The Wild Room to tell the story of why he’d let the Tribune cut his hair, she was the old girlfriend it got cut for. The Tribune had published a vapid Style section photo spread, with Glass as a guy with a ponytail who goes to a fancy Oak Street salon to make “drastic changes.” A caption said, “The final cut finds Glass ‘ready for Wall Street.’ He loves the new look and so do we.” Glass said on the air that he went along with this tomfoolery because the ponytail had been favored by an old flame who’d dumped him—and now it was time to stop pining and let her go.

“Get this,” says Barry. “He dumps me and does this radio piece about getting his hair cut. That is Ira to a T. You know what he used to call me? He used to call me his ‘little ghetto girl!’ We were reading the New York Times one morning a couple of weeks in, and he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know what the IMF is, do you?'”

Story continues below

But did you really like his ponytail? I asked.

“He could have had a six-inch wart growing out of the middle of his forehead in the beginning, and I’d have thought it was cute.”

Glass says, “I was an idiot. I was in the wrong. About the breakup. About the haircut story. About so many things with her. Anything bad she says about me I can confirm.”

Pretty interesting stuff!

Thanks to Miner for the article, and Barry and Glass for sharing!

Now for a bit of a break from routine – I have two legends involving the character of Ma Hunkel, but they’re too similar to run in separate installments, so I’m going to run both of them this week.

COMIC LEGEND: The Red Tornado was the first female superhero

STATUS: False Enough for a False

Reader Tal wrote in a couple months back to ask if it was true that:

Ma Hunkel was the first female superhero character in comics.

Surprisingly enough, it is very, very close to being true, but ultimately, no, Ma Hunkel was not the first female superhero.

Who IS the first female superhero probably depends on what is your definition of a “superhero.” I’ll get back to that in a bit.

First, let’s talk some Hunkel!

Ma Hunkel has a very interesting comic book pedigree.

In the early days of All-American Publications, they, just like National Publications (makers of Detective Comics and Action Comics), had a wide variety of comic book characters.

One thing they did NOT have, though, was superheroes.

Here’s the first issue of their flagship title, All-American Comics…

It was all comedy and standard action heroes in their comics.

One of the characters featured in the comic was a young cartoonist named Scribbly, who starred in his own strip by writer/artist Sheldon Mayer (who was practically a boy cartoonist himself at the time, at 21 years of age).

Well, in All-American Comics #3, Scribbly had an altercation of sorts with another young boy who lived in his building. He chased the boy (whose last name was Hunkel) all the way to the boy’s door, where the boy’s mother, “Ma” Hunkel, opened the door and solved the problem by “forcing” both boys to sit at the kitchen table and share milk and cookies. Soon enough, the boys were bosom buddies.

Ma appeared in two of the four Scribbly strips that issue.

Here are two of them…

She then remained as a major supporting character in the monthly feature, and all was fine and dandy.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, in 1940, in response to the great success that National was having with their superheroes, All-American began to get into the game, and in the Summer of that year, All-American Comics had a new character…

This new hero soon became the clear star of the book.

So much so that, four issues later, in All-American Comics #20, Green Lantern’s influence inspired the characters of Scribbly (this was something that All-American Publication characters did often, talk about how great Green Lantern was – see this Comic Book Legend installment, which sure seems more recent than nearly four years ago, for another superhero inspired by Green Lantern, )

And sure enough…

So, for a November 1940 cover date, that’s pretty darn early.

That’s months before Phantom Lady…

That’s a YEAR before Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics #8 (I’m featuring her first cover appearance here)…

And it’s likely about on par with Lady Luck (who appeared in the Spirit newspaper feature) (it’s hard to tell exactly WHEN comics came out as compared to newspaper release dates)…

However, there are two characters who appear to take the proverbial cake when it comes to determining who the first female superhero was.

And your answer of who the first female superhero was is, as I said above, dependent on your views of what MAKES a superhero a superhero.

The Woman in Red made her first appearance in Standard Comics’ Thrilling Comics #2…

Written by Richard Hughes and drawn by George Mandel, she is Trina Robbins’ pick for the first female superhero, and she has an excellent case.

Story continues below

Here is an excerpt from one of her earliest appearances, in Thrilling Comics #5…

That’s pretty much akin to an early Batman story, right?

But just before you say to her, “There’s nobody here, it’s just you and me,” note that she was beaten into print by Fiction House’s Jungle Comics #2, which introduced Fletcher Hanks’ Fantomah.

Here’s Fantomah’s first appearance…

Watch as she takes revenge on a pair of jerk poachers…

Fantomah’s got the powers – The Woman in Red has the look.

Who do YOU think is the first “superhero?”

Well, whoever you decide, they both came out before Ma Hunkel’s debut as the Red Tornado (and Lady Luck probably came out before Hunkel, as well), so no, Ma Hunkel was not the first female superhero.

Thanks to Tal for the question! And thanks to Don Markstein’s excellent Toonopedia for helping sort out the dates of the various characters!

COMIC LEGEND: The Red Tornado was the first cross-dressing superhero


From All-American Comics #21, here is the first full appearance of the Red Tornado…

As you can see, they make quite a fuss over the fact that everyone thinks Red Tornado is a man.

So that brings up the question – we know she was not the first female superhero, but was Red Tornado the first cross-dressing superhero?

And, again, the answer is, surprisingly enough, false – WAY false.

For you see, in the pages of Quality Comics’ Crack Comics #1 earlier that year (which I featured recently in a Comic Book Legends Revealed for their Molly the Model feature) there was a character by the name of….Madam Fatal…

Madam Fatal was not a particularly popular character, and was out of the book within 20 issues or so, and was not seen again until James Robinson and Paul Smith featured him in a cameo in The Golden Age #4 in the early 1990s (as DC Comics purchased all the Quality characters).

Isn’t it surprising that no one else has used him at all (besides a couple of offhand remarks by Wildcat about him in JSA issues)?

Again, thanks to Don Markstein’s awesome Toonopedia for helping sort out the dates of the characters!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database for this week’s covers! And thanks to Brandon Hanvey for the Comic Book Legends Revealed logo!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is cronb01@aol.com.

As you likely know by now, at the end of April, my book finally came out!

Here is the cover by artist Mickey Duzyj. I think he did a very nice job (click to enlarge)…

If you’d like to order it, you can use the following code if you’d like to send me a bit of a referral fee…

Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed

See you all next week!


Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

January 8, 2010 at 11:28 am

There was also a reference to Madam Fatal’s death in JSA (1999 series) #1; apparently only the touring cast of La Cage Aux Folies came to the funeral. (It’s not my joke; blame James Robinson and David Goyer.)

Yeah, that’s the offhand remark by Wildcat I was referring to.

And also, yeah…as far as jokes go…ouch.

Wow. Nice history trip, Brian!

I vote “The Woman in Red”, as I feel like “Fantomah” is more of a mystical character along the lines of “The Phantom Stranger” who isn’t really a superhero, as such…

You’ve also reminded me to track down a copy of “The Golden Age”…

Cheers, Brian!

Wow, Brian, three great stories this week!

I’m a Linda Barry fan and an Ira Glass fan and I HAD NO IDEA!

Don Markstein has been doing a great job tracking the various claimants to the title of first female superhero over at http://www.toonopedia.com. Though he’s come to the same conclusions you have, I recommend his page for those who want to read more about it.

Madam Fatal is such a brilliantly simple idea, and quite logical. Actually makes a lot more sense than dressing up like a bat, if you think about it.

Ah, but now I see that you credit the Toonopedia. I somehow missed that before.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

January 8, 2010 at 11:39 am

It must be said, however, that Madam Fatal has a far stronger claim on being outright transvestite or transgendered than Ma Hunkel ever did. From the story pages above, it seems Stanton actually lives his private life as Madam Fatal as well as using the outfit as a disguise, while Ma is more just going with other people’s assumptions . (Later in the Red Tornado episodes of Scribbly, she briefly lets the world think the Red Tornado was a gorilla to keep her secret safe.)

The sexual poliitics actually represented in many Golden Age strips — as opposed to much later deliberate mockery of the “have a gay old time” sort — bespeak some very odd stuff. Wonder Woman and her creator are he best-known examples, of course, but material like Madam Fatal and (in a different fashion) Hanks’s Fantomah and Timely Comics’s Black Widow, among others, make me wonder how these strips were perceived by readers in their time. Sadly, I doubt there’s really any good record of the reception of many such characters.

I never got the appeal of Lynda Barry, but MAN can I see her and Ira Glass together.

And I’m surprised Robin Williams hasn’t snapped up Madame Fatal for a Mrs. Doubtfire sequel.

Are those African Asian Arabs on that Thrilling Comics cover? Were they communists too?

Good stuff!

Seeing that Red Tornado material made me wonder: Who (or what) is the first superhero parody?


Now tell us the one about Alan Moore’s torrid affair with Terry Gross.

Also: Madam Fatal needs to come back.

“I’m a Linda Barry fan and an Ira Glass fan and I HAD NO IDEA!”

Me, too! That’s pretty funny. That’s one of the best legends in a while for me.

Oh for the James Robinson who wrote The Golden Age to return from whatever planet he disappeared to and replace the inferior clone he left in his place that churns out garbage like Cry For Justice.

The Lynda Barry/Ira Glass thing is literally blowing my mind.

And I love the history lesson on first female superhero, which obviously, is particularly interesting to me.

Matthew Johnson

January 8, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Note that Glass is reading one of the joke magazines from Matt Groening’s LIFE IN HELL (“Lonely Genius” magazine) in the strip.

Fantomah is the first comic heroine with powers. Technically the Woman in Red is the first costumed heroine in comics. Although it gets a little murky if you count pulp magazines or jungle girls.

Eddie Izzard has a routine about transvestites and super-heroes.

I was gonna make a joke comment, or philosphize about how things might go today (40’s vs today..what’s more progressive, really) …but I can’t be buggered right now, so just enjoy the clip :)

Wow, who’d have thought there was a whole story to a one-panel character in The Golden Age? Other than the tiny appearance by Superman, Batman, and Captain America in that story, I’m not aware of any other “Easter Eggs.” Has anybody ever annotated The Golden Age?

Not in the running for first cross-dressing superhero, but Julie Walker masqueraded at The Ghost Who Walks, The Phantom. the 18th Phantom was incapacitated, and his twin sister had to stand in for him briefly.

Wow…now this was some trippy stuff because not even a week ago my dad read my Golden Age book and was asking about that Madame Fatal character and I had no freaking clue. I assumed that it was probably a widow of an unnamed hero who was there for moral support.


Other contenders for first cross-dressing hero: Centaur’s Cat-Man by Tarpe Mills. He dressed up as an old woman in order to kill crooks with his cats’ poisoned claws and their Headless Horseman both of 1939. Likewise, the Headless Horseman and their Magician of Mars could possibly qualify as first female superheroes depending on how you shave the meaning, both debuting in 1939

Also, to pick a nit, DC didn’t buy the Quality characters. There’s no record of transfer of copyrights at the Library of Congress in DC. I’ve made the trip and checked. They bought the titles ie trademarks that Quality was publishing at the time which didn’t include that many of the superhero characters and took over the publishing of them. None of the Quality issues published prior to 1951were renewed and then some of those were renewed by DC (Dollman Quarterly #33-45) and others by Busy Arnold’s widow (Blackhawk & Plasticman) up to the date that DC took over the publishing. Madam Fatal and most of the Quality characters are thus public domain including the original Quicksilver, the Ray, Human Bomb, Black Condor, Firebrand, Phantom Lady (who wasn’t even part of Quality at the time of purchase anyway), etc. Ironically, one of the characters they have done the least with, Doll Girl is one they actually do own almost of all the copyrights to .

Sans powers or costume (beyond the bustle, grand hat and dress) Lady Bountiful may have been the first heroine to star in the funnies. She kicked things off in 1902.


Cross-dressing was not uncommon in old comics. Wonder Woman had at least three enemies (Dr. Poison, Hypnota, and the Blue Snowman) who were women pretending to be men. There was more than one story in which Jimmy Olsen dressed in drag.

I wonder if Madam Fatal was inspired by Lon Chaney’s character in the movie “The Unholy Three”. Chaney starred in two versions of the story, a silent version in 1925 and a talkie remake in 1930. Chaney played a ventriloquist who disguises himself as an old lady and operates a bird shop as cover for his crimes. Another film, “The Devil-Doll” (1936), starred Lionel Barrymore as a wrongly convicted man seeking revenge while dressed as an old woman.

FINALLY! I’ve been waiting for you to talk about Ma Hunkel ever since I started reading this column (although, admittedly, that was after I read your book, so I guess it hasn’t been all THAT long…). Ma Hunkel and the Red Tomato are my fav’rit Mystery Man^^ (Second? Green Lantrin, of course!)

Well, if not the first, could Ma Hinkle be considered the Longest Lasting female superhero? She still appears occasionally in JSA titles – when was the last time you saw Fantomah?

P.S. It’s the Philippines, not the “Phillipenes.”

Except she went for over five decades with barely a cameo and those in flashbacks. And, when you see her today it’s as a supporting character role, not as a superhero. Moderately better than Fantomah although she’s been fairly regularly reprinted the last several years. But, Wonder Woman is definitely the most enduring, from steadily being published in her own book for going on seven decades, as member of two different teams and with a teen version spin off.

And, you have to make sure that you are talking solely about female superheroes that DEBUTED in comics. Otherwise, you also have Domino Lady who started in the pulps in 1936 but has appeared sporadically in comics since then, currently by Moonstone.

Personally, I would really consider Sheena the first female superhero to debut in comics, the jungle setting and motif to be mere window dressing. She had a distinctive look, a distinctive name, action oriented adventures, put herself in harm’s way in order to fight crime and evil, surpassed everyone else in her stories in terms of physical skill and ability. Everything else is splitting hairs.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

January 9, 2010 at 9:32 am

I dunno…I tend tot hink of Sheena as a pulp character in comics form, for the same reason I can’t quite think of Tarzan as a superhero.

It’s an artificial and arbitrary distinction on my part, though, and I wouldn’t push for it much in a serious discussion.

To me, a superhero is a person WITH superpowers who fights injustice, with or without a costume, so Fantomah is my choice- assuming she’s really a do-gooder and not a cruel supernatural avenger (really, why is the Elephant Graveyard more important than humans, greedy or otherwise?) But the Woman in Red counts as the first Costumed Crimefighter so that’s good too. I can understand however that others will disagree since Fantomah is probably a ghost and not a real person, while LiR fills the superhero cliches better.

Of course, this begs the question: who was the FIRST female character with powers AND a secret identity in comics? Phantom Lady didn’t have her invisibility powers back then, did she?

And could it be true that those Quality characters are now public domain? No wonder DC had the Freedom Fighters massacred in Infinite Crisis! This is worth following up, Brian! ;)

“…this was something that All-American Publication characters did often, talk about how great Green Lantern was…”

So Geoff Johns is just following on that tradition then?

Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

I wonder if Stanton ever found his daughter?


January 9, 2010 at 2:12 pm

“Of course, this begs the question: who was the FIRST female character with powers AND a secret identity in comics? Phantom Lady didn’t have her invisibility powers back then, did she?” – Sijo

The original Black Widow first appeared in “Mystic Comics” #4 (Aug. 1940). She had super-powers and a costume, but some don’t consider her a hero. She was a dead medium returned to Earth by Satan to kill evildoers and bring their souls to Hell.

Three characters who might be considered true super-heroines (had a costumed identity and used fantastic powers for good) debuted in comics dated Aug. 1941. The Phantom Lady debuted in “Police Comics” #1. She wore a costume and used a “black light ray projector” device. Wildfire debuted in “Smash Comics” #25 and had powers over fire. The Canadian super-heroine Nelvana of the Northern Lights, the daughter of an Inuit god and a human woman, debuted in “Triumph Adventure Comics” #1.

I’ve probably read this a dozen times, but I STILL laughed at “I have head lice.”

I´d buy a Red Tornado Archive Edition. It looks like a lot of fun.


January 9, 2010 at 10:37 pm

“I´d buy a Red Tornado Archive Edition. It looks like a lot of fun.” – Anderson

Some Red Tornado stories were included in “The JSA All Stars Archives Vol. 1″ along with solo adventures of Johnny Thunder, Hour-Man, The Atom, Dr. Mid-Nite, Mr. Terrific, and Wildcat.

I’d agree that Tarzan is not a superhero. Keep in mind, he was created in 1912, over two decades before this time. He has the physical qualities, but not the altruism. He (and the pulp Ka-zar) are practically misanthropes. They have nobility and fight evil, but because of circumstances put them in those positions. He’s a proto-superhero or possibly a “man of strength” like Hugo Danner or Hugo Hercules. However, later jungle men and women took on more characteristics of what would be the stock and trade of superheroes, such as actively keeping the peace and fighting bad guys because it was the right thing to do as opposed to personal vengeance. So, I’d consider most of the jungle lords and ladies as being a sub-genre or a specific archetype of the broader superhero genre just like the magicians Mandrake, Zatarra, Chandu.

What a fantastic article!
I love Lynda Barry, and One! Hundred! Demons! is a masterpiece. It’s great to see her finally do TRUE autobiographical work. Never dreamed the boyfriend was Glass.
I always found it interesting that in that same issue of All-Star Comics that had the Wonder Woman debut we also see Shiera Sanders putting on Hawk gear. Extra special thanks for the Fantomah and Woman In Red reprints!!

@Bicycle-Repairman: Yes, I’d heard of Black Widow, but as an agent of SATAN is hard to think of her as a super HERO. I don’t think Phantom Girl counts because she gets her “power” from a device that anyone could use. Wildfire and Nelvana sound like better choices (Though I’ve never heard of Wildfire before.) I’ll have to research them, thanks.


January 10, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Wildfire was a minor Quality Comics character. She only appeared in “Smash Comics” #25-37 and was never depicted on the cover. Roy Thomas purportedly wanted to use her in “All-Star Squadron” but DC already had a character named Wildfire in the Legion of Super-Heroes, so Thomas created a new female version of the old Quality hero Firebrand and gave her flame powers similar to Wildfire’s.

There’s more information about Wildfire at http://www.toonopedia.com/wildfire.htm

So THAT is why Thomas had Firebrand replaced with his sister! I always thought he did it because Firebrand was too good a name for a nonpowered hero. It’s great to find out these behind-the-scenes tidbits. Thanks, Repairman! :)

Loves me that Sheldon Mayer dialogue. Probably the best kid strip scripting in comics. Did he do much else between “Scribbly” and “Sugar and Spike?”

Laundry Machine

January 19, 2010 at 1:49 am

Kim Deitch wrote a Madam Fatal story in an issue of Corn Fed Comix in the early seventies.

[…] Fans of This American Life read on Read on to find out about what kind of boyfriend the young Ira Glass was. Warning: explode() [function.explode]: Empty delimiter in […]

[…] Holy shit! Ira Glass was Lynda Barry’s shitty, ponytailed boyfriend?! […]

Wow, Ira Glass is 54 and looks 44. She’s 50 and looks like she just turned 65.

Re: Red Tornado

Leotards under shorts and singlets were standard acrobatics outfits for men and women back then. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that absolutely nothing changes about her bosom shape when in costume.

It’s allllll about assumptions, and not at all about cross-dressing. Very funny indeed, and a good play on all the heroic men pretending to be fops in order to protect secret identities. Everybody knew Ma was a good fighter, the height was the same, the chest was the same. But change into an acrobat girl’s outfit and a pan, and they can’t see her at all.

Wow, Ira Glass is a smug, arrogant, self-centered, insufferable twit! Who’da thunk it? :-)

[…] week, a blog post was bandied about the twitter-sphere confirming that the myth that WBEZ’s Ira Glass was indeed Linda Barry’s inspiration for […]

ham ham

[…] Stanton never did find his kidnapped daughter by the way. The story would have the daughter being transferred from villain to villain , but the plot would never be resolved by the time that Crack Comics decided that maybe a little crack goes a long way. But hey, at least Madame Fatal can legitimate claim that he was the very first cross-dressing comic hero. […]

[…] year before Wonder Woman, whom most people would name if asked who the first female superhero was, she got beat by The Spirit‘s Lady Luck and Fletcher Hank’s Fantomah.  She can’t even be considered the first ever superhero crossdresser.  Although, when in […]

Wow, there was a WAY earlier Dr. Strange….

M-Wolverine: Yep, that’s the guy who was brought back as “Tom Strange”/”Doc Strange” in Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series and Terra Obscura miniseries.

[…] Linda Barry and Ira Glass dated in the 80s and HE is the villainous boyfriend in her comic One! Hundred! Demons! […]

[…] by Herself. Drawn & Quarterly has a preview. Incidentally, did you know that Lynda Barry used to date This American Life’s Ira Glass? I’ll probably drop this in every time a Lynda Barry book comes in because it reminds me that […]

[…] #3 (June 1939) in a feature entitled Scribbly. More than a year after her debut, she would create her Red Tornado persona in All-American Comics #20 (November […]

“The Lynda Barry/Ira Glass thing is literally blowing my mind.”

… ew…

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