web stats

CSBG Archive

Friday With The Domino’d Daredoll

Not Batgirl. The other one.

I mean the one that actually has “domino” in her name, The Domino Lady.

This was an oddball series even for the 1930s pulp era.

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.)


There literally was something for everyone back then.

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.

Mask, cape, gun.... why NOT put the Domino Lady next to all the other costumed crimefighters of the 1930s?

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.

The Spicys ranged across all genres, and varied widely in tone -- some were deadly serious and others were tongue-in-cheek romps. The one thing that was certain was that in every story, a lady's blouse would be ripped off.

“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.

Both Dan Turner and Jim Anthony were very much in favor of the ripped bodice as an interrogation technique -- like all the Spicy heroes, they were all about the female nudity -- but in fairness, super-detective Jim Anthony often peeled down to swim trunks himself as well.

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.

Even when the ladies had a starring role they almost never got the cover, and when they did they were generally victimized. Here are two rare exceptions. Jirel of Joiry is actually a lot more dangerous than you'd guess from the WEIRD TALES cover, whereas in the pulps Margo was a lot less competent than this SHADOW cover would lead one to believe.

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 interesting part is that the Domino Lady didn't really train or anything. Instead, she brought a sort of Mean Girls socialite-nasty to crimefighting, and it really worked for her.

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.


Some of my favorite examples of public-domain reprint goodness. The anthology reprint series HIGH ADVENTURE, especially, is one of my favorite things ever.

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.)

And the Domino Lady’s no exception. Bold Venture did an amazing collection of her original adventures a couple of years back, Compliments of the Domino Lady.

Thanks to Jim Steranko, the Domino Lady is aging very gracefully. Ellen never looked this good in the SAUCY ROMANCE days.

This included all six of the original adventures plus a bunch of new illustrations from Jim Steranko.

Whoa.

And Moonstone Books did one of their delightful anthology volumes about the Domino Lady, as well: Domino Lady: Sex As A Weapon.

Get the hardcover if you can, it's got some very cool extras.

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.

Part of the fun of the Moonstone anthology is that several of the writers chose to have Domino Lady team up with other heroes. Here she is with the Black Bat and the Phantom -- she also meets Airboy and Sherlock Holmes in these pages. All of this pleased my inner Wold Newton fanboy no end.

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.

This was clearly done with affection, but the art was a little on the ugly side for my tastes.

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.

MUCH better. This is working for me.

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.


With hot babes from the pulp era, it's all about the covers.

So far, there’s been one mini-series and a one-shot, with the promise of more to come.

I'm hoping Moonstone does a collection of these soon.

And of course the Domino Lady’s a big part of Moonstone’s upcoming “Return of the Originals.” (CBR’s full story on this is here.)

I have to admit that I'm geeking over all these pulp guys teaming up. It's the Wold Newton fanboy thing again.

Not bad for a seventy-five-year-old female crimefighter whose only real weapon is her willingness to fake being slutty.

Preview art from RETURN OF THE ORIGINALS. Here's the Domino Lady with the Phantom Detective. Neither one of them ever looked this good in the pulps, that's for damn sure.

I just hope I’m doing this well when I hit that age.

See you next week.

17 Comments

Cool stuff.

I would totally see a movie with Paris Hilton as the Punisher. I’m so sad.

I picked up that Spider Robot Titans of Gotham book at a local dollar store. You’ve poisoned my brain!

Sex as a Weapon is awesome as a title!

I haven’t ever read any old pulp stories aside from some of the science-fiction, and I never heard of the Domino Lady until now. But these stories do sound interesting. I love girly heroes much more than the ultra-macho types (including the macho ladies). Even the ludicrousness of fighting in an evening gown doesn’t bother me if it fits the mood of the story.
The Eros stuff does look kind of ugly. I don’t mind explicitness, though, as long as it stays away from cruelty and S&M type things.
I had no idea Steranko was still doing art.
Was the Domino Lady the inspiration for the Blonde Phantom? I don’t really know anything about her, either, except that she carried a gun and wore evening gowns and a domino mask.

Was the Domino Lady the inspiration for the Blonde Phantom? I don’t really know anything about her, either, except that she carried a gun and wore evening gowns and a domino mask.

Unlikely. They were working the same turf, but the Blonde Phantom came about ten years later, in 1946. It’s possible Stan Lee knew about the Domino Lady, but I doubt it. I think he was riffing on an idea he’d used in MILLIE THE MODEL but decided to do a ‘serious’ version of it.

Incidentally, our other Greg looked at both the new Domino Lady and a new take on the Blonde Phantom here a couple of years ago, when they were current. He didn’t like the Domino Lady as much as I do, but I’m much more forgiving of the old-time pulp clichés than he is.

I’ve really enjoyed some of the recent reprints of the Shadow novels from Nostalgia Ventures, each one having two complete novels with the old interior illustrations, some period extras and modern “behind the scenes” extras, like about how the author worked on two stories at once on different typewriters at times, and wearing out typewriters within a year. Maxwell Grant was very prolific — gotta stay ahead of those other guys! There really were few roles for women in them though, aside from the usual victims, suspects and gangster’s gals. Still, if you only know the Shadow from the old radio show, he’s much better in text, with more intricate plots and a much more fierce approach to fighting crime! Like the old Moon Knight tagline said, “If you meet him, you’re either in trouble, or you’re going to be!!”

By the way, mystery expert Doug Green has a press called Crippen & Landru that’s about to re-publish the adventures of that guy you called a failure, The Patent Leather Kid. You didn’t mention he was created and chronicled by the Perry Mason guy, Erle Stanley Gardner, who still has a lot of fans.

I wonder if Travis knows “Sex As A Weapon” was the title of a 1986 minor hit for Pat Benatar?

…that guy you called a failure, The Patent Leather Kid. You didn’t mention he was created and chronicled by the Perry Mason guy, Erle Stanley Gardner, who still has a lot of fans.

Well, compared to Perry Mason, yeah, the Patent-Leather Kid was not exactly boffo box office. Gardner tried dozens of series characters before he finally hit on Perry. But the fact that a small-press concern is reprinting the Kid certainly proves the point about the pulp revival.

I actually like the Patent Leather Kid stories I’ve seen. Essentially the Green Hornet before there was a Hornet.

Great column – I’d only just heard of the Domino Lady before, so this was a really informative as well as enjoyable read.
And I know this has probably been said a million times before on this and a million other blogs, etc., but I just have to say that the cover art on those old pulps is so gorgeous. In fact, the new cover art you show, as good as some of it is, doesn’t even hold a candle to the old stuff in my opinion. And I also agree with you, the Ron Wilbur pieces look almost grotesque, so your observation about its “underground” look seems appropriate. I think that kind of art would only work if the stories have a more satirical bent which, based on your description, doesn’t seem to be the case.

“you had Jirel of Joiry, a sort of Red Sonja-type in medieval France, occasionally showing up in Weird Tales.”

Don’t forget the original Red Sonya of “Shadow of the Vulture,” who preceded Jirel. Unfortunately, she only appeared in one story as co-protagonist, so she may not count. Robert E. Howard also created Dark Agnes around this time, but unfortunately the world didn’t seem to be ready for her, and she wouldn’t have her stories published until the 1970s.

Greg,

Re your inner Wold Newton fanboy… There is a cameo reference to her in THE EVIL IN PEMBERLEY HOUSE.

And she’ll appear alongside The Avenger in a tale I’ve written slated for Moonstone’s third Avenger anthology.

Best,

-Win

So what did you think of Battle For L.A.? I liked the art and the characterization, but the actual plot was sorta ‘meh’ for me.

Ha! That was great.

Re your inner Wold Newton fanboy… There is a cameo reference to her in THE EVIL IN PEMBERLEY HOUSE.

And she’ll appear alongside The Avenger in a tale I’ve written slated for Moonstone’s third Avenger anthology.

Now I gotta go look that cameo up. I didn’t even know there was a second AVENGER collection, but the first one was way cool. Nice to know there are more on the way.

So what did you think of Battle For L.A.? I liked the art and the characterization, but the actual plot was sorta ‘meh’ for me.

Well, I was too busy grinning over the fact that it existed at all. I thought about the same as you, I suppose, but my frame of reference is really the original stories and this was so much better than those…. these new pastiches almost always leave the old stuff in the dust. Part of it’s hindsight, part of it’s the benefit of bringing modern techniques and craft to the job. It’s the same reason Adam Garcia’s new Green Lama stories are the best ones anyone’s ever done about that guy.

Look at it this way — there are two ways to react to the new Charlie’s Angels movies. The first is to say, “But they’re completely dumb.” The second is to say, “Well, yeah, they’re completely dumb, but did you ever see the original for God’s sake? Jesus, these are so much fun compared to the old show!”

So on the one hand, yeah, Battle For L.A. was pretty standard stuff if you’re looking at it in comparison to the best of JLA or Avengers or something…. but on the other hand, it was easily the best Phantom Detective story I’d ever read. It’s all about the frame of reference.

I wonder if Travis knows “Sex As A Weapon” was the title of a 1986 minor hit for Pat Benatar?

If Moonstone does another Domino Lady prose anthology — and I wish they would, though I have no idea if the first one did well for them or not — they should really call it Domino Lady: Love Is A Battlefield.

the graphic sexual interludes come off looking like some sort of Eros Publishing contractual obligation

Back when he was doing Ironwood for Eros, Bill Willingham commented (perhaps jokingly, perhaps not) that he was contractually obligated to depict an sex act on every page, and would have his pay docked for every page that was sex-free. His answer to this was to have tiny little illustrations of fairies having sex on the borders of each page.

“whereas in the pulps Margo was a lot less competent than this SHADOW cover would lead one to believe”

Actually, Margo Lane does not appear on that cover. Margo Lane had black or brown hair, the 1994 film notwithstanding.

A friend pointed me to this article and I really enjoyed it. The old pulp stories, like cliffhanger serials and EC comics, are some of my favorite inspirations for my own fantasies. I started role playing a character I call Domino Doll in the last couple of years in part because of this rebirth of the character you discuss in the article. I too very much enjoyed the Sex as a Weapon collection and am very pleased with what Moonstone is doing with the character. This stuff is much more my sort of thing than most modern comics although I do like the new Stephanie Brown Batgirl.

I differ with you however in as much as I really got a kick out of the Ron Wilbur series. I have a complete collection of those. In fact I liked his artwork which I thought very much reminded one of the Spicy Adventures style only better! For an Eros comic it was actually rather subdued as far as explicit sex goes, but then that’s not saying much I admit. But different strokes for different folks and all that. Thanks for the fun article about one of the most enjoyable characters out there today… or yesterday.

Great article. Didn’t know much about the character (even though I’ve drawn her quite a bit), but now I do! :)

Great article. I became a fan of the Domino Lady with the Steranko edition, and I have since started collecting original art commissions, such as DL with Doc Savage (by Bob Larkin), DL with the Green Hornet (Jeff Butler) and DL with Athena Voltaire (by Steve Bryant). I also bought the original art from Ver Curtiss of DL with Sherlock Holmes from the Moonstone anthology.

Leave a Comment

 

Categories

Review Copies

Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.

Browse the Archives