With a fifth, the ebook, coming as soon as Amazon completes processing it.
With a fifth, the ebook, coming as soon as Amazon completes processing it.
I’ve got a book coming out at the end of the month: The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4000-Year History of the Superhero. You can get glimpses of it through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, but I felt that I should make a sample of it available through my blog. So here’s an excerpt of Costumed Avenger: two sections, about two formidable women:
Long Meg of Westminster
“Long Meg of Westminster” may never have existed. The stories of her being from Lancashire, working in a tavern, and serving in the army of Henry VIII in the 1540s have no evidentiary basis, and Long Meg would certainly not be the first folk hero to have sprung purely from the people’s imagination. But regardless of whether there was a flesh-and-blood woman who went by the name “Long Meg,” the English of the sixteenth and seventh centuries believed in her reality, and made her into a folk heroine, in popular ballads, fiction, drama and poetry.
In 1582 a pamphlet of her life was published. In 1590 a ballad about her, now lost, was licensed, and that same year appeared the anonymously-written The Life of Long Meg of Westminster; no copies of the 1590 edition of The Life of Long Meg survive, but a 1620 biography by that title is extant and is likely the same text. In The Life of Long Meg the Amazonian protagonist, beginning as a sixteen-year-old, uses her size and strength and fighting skills to fight corruption and wickedness and–yes, crime–on behalf of the poor and oppressed, rescuing penniless maidens from a usurious carrier, rescuing a poor debtor from a bailiff, casting down an arrogant nobleman in a fistfight, and–most importantly for our purposes–saving some Lancashire girls from robbery at the hands of two men. She beats the men into submission and makes them vow to never hurt woman, nor poor man, nor children, nor rob packmen nor carriers or distressed persons. One exception she grants: rich farmers and country chuffs, who she directs the robber to focus their energies on. “Clearly, Meg is not only a figure of heroism but of righteousness triumphant.”82 Meg goes on to fight the French on the battlefield, marries, saves a young man from a cruel miller’s anger, and, as an older woman, robs a crooked friar while disguised as a man.
Later writers cast her in less complimentary terms, although Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West: Or, a Girl Worth Gold (1631) has its cross-dressing, piratical heroine hold up Long Meg as an example to be striven for, but the favorable legend of Long Meg persisted well into the nineteenth century, with The Life of Long Meg being reprinted in 1805 and 1880. Her relevance to this history is as a proto-superheroine, with her more-than-normal strength, codename, costume (her male’s attire), and her selfless activities, and if she lacks the specifically urban orientation of Moll Cutpurse, Long Meg nonetheless stands as the first modern proto-superheroine, the first inhabitant of the readers’ and listeners’ contemporary world. Long Meg isn’t a knight or Amazon from centuries ago; she is a product of the modern world, and provided her readers and listeners with the idea that fighting evil and crime could take place in the modern world. Too, unlike the many cross-dressing warrior women of popular ballads of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century,83 Long Meg is primarily an independent crime-fighter rather than a soldier or sailor, with a heroic mission all her own. Her adoption by writers as an abuser of abusive and boastful, arrogant men, and her use as a role model for other fictional women warriors, obscured this side of her.
Mary Frith (circa 1584-1659) was a remarkable woman. That so much of her life is obscured by stories about her (many circulating during her lifetime) and by later interpretations of her life, does not detract from how unusual she was. Purse-snatcher at sixteen, second-story woman at twenty-five, cross-dresser and “roaring girl” (the female version of the “roaring boy,” who was known for public drinking, fighting, and petty crimes), part of London’s female transvestite movement of the early seventeenth century, celebrity at twenty-six, public figure for the rest of her life, licensed fence and familiar of the members of the underworld, inmate at the infamous Bethlehem Hospital for the insane—just the facts of her life make up a colorful litany of adventure. And that’s not even taking into account the fictionalized versions of her life, beginning with T. Middleton and T. Dekker’s play The Roaring Girle; or, Moll Cut-Purse (1611) and continuing up through the present, as each new generation of readers and scholars rediscover Frith’s life and reinterpret and recast her for their own purposes.84
What is more relevant to this work is not the reality of Frith’s life and career as a member of the demi-monde, but her fictional self, the mythic “Moll Cutpurse.” The Roaring Girle presents Frith—known to all the world as Moll Cutpurse—as a habitué of the underworld but not a member of it, and (more importantly) one who protects—violently, if need be—the honest and innocent from the tricks of the criminals. She dresses in men’s clothes, carries a man’s weapons, and smokes tobacco. The Roaring Girle was quite popular in its day, and the legend of Moll Cutpurse was added to in the anonymously-written The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse (1662), which turned her into “a royalist cross-dressing Robin-hooder who eventually seeks redemption,”85 a “popular outcast defending the poor and oppressed against rapacious lawyers.”86 This character, the Moll Cutpurse whose crimes are on behalf of a greater good, would become propagated further in Alexander Smith’s History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), overshadowing for good the real Mary Frith’s exploits and permanently solidifying the concept of Moll Cutpurse, Robin Hood-ing highwaywoman, a concept and character which lasted throughout the century.
Moll Cutpurse is of course a proto-superhero. She has the requisite fighting skills of every hero, a codename, and a dual identity (one she reluctantly accepts), but more importantly has the heroic, selfless mission and a costume (her male clothing). Moreover, she is important in the history of the proto-superheroes because she marks the beginning of the transition of the proto-superhero from a hero of every environment to a specifically urban hero. Moll Cutpurse, like her real-life source Mary Frith, is a creature of the urban environment; though later authors like Smith would show her equally active in the countryside, Cutpurse is primarily known as an urban woman, active in the greatest city (by far) of the country and the largest city in Europe of the time. If the legend of Robin Hood popularized the concept of the costumed vigilante, Moll Cutpurse took the legend and brought it to the modern city, the location for the great majority of modern superheroes.
82. Patricia Gartenberg, “An Elizabethan Wonder Woman: The Life and Fortunes of Long Meg of Westminster,” The Journal of Popular Culture 17 no. 3 (1983), 51.
83. Simon Shepherd makes the point that “we have met before the woman who tames a braggart male’s sexual aspirations by physical punishment. We have met before the sudden, theatrical, release of long female hair. These are the archetypal attributes of the warrior woman.” Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (New York: St. Martin’s, 1981), 70. As Shepherd goes on to explain, the story of Long Meg predated Spenser’s Faerie Queene by eight years and may–only “may”–have been influenced by Italian epics; rather, Long Meg is part of the English tradition of fictional warrior women and real women posing as warriors in warriors’ garb, the foremost example of which was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Tilbury in August 1588 to encourage the English troops to resist the Spanish Armada. During the visit, Elizabeth was dressed as an Amazon queen, complete with truncheon, gauntlet, and gorget. Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama, 22. Shepherd emphasizes Long Meg’s experience in the campaign against the French, and casts her experience fighting crime and evil as “a form of lower-class resistance against the dominant order of society.” Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama, 73. This aspect does not in any way preclude Long Meg being a proto-superhero.
Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) is revelatory with regards to the sheer number of cross-dressing women warriors who appeared in the ballads of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century. Women dressed as men and going to war were popular subjects for the British of those centuries–for the Americans less so, but to a still significant degree–and what Dugaw calls the “Female Warrior” was a recognizable character type (even a cliche) in British and American popular culture during those centuries. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that superheroines appeared not long after superheroes–women warriors in costumes were a part of the zeitgeist. But, as mentioned, the cross-dressing women warriors of the popular ballads were soldiers and sailors rather than crime-fighters, and lacked the heroic mission that is necessary for proto-superheroes and proto-superheroines.
84. Some modern novelists, like Ellen Galford, in Moll Cutpurse, Her True History: A Novel (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1985), claim Frith as a lesbian—an assertion that can’t be proven or disproven, given the ambiguity around Frith’s sexual life, and a statement that, like a lot of other critical claims, says more about the author and the tenor of the times than it does about the subject addressed. A more considered judgment is made by Terry Castle, in The Literature of Lesbianism: “of Frith’s amorous inclinations we know nothing, though her masculine tastes and apparent antipathy to marriage suggest a possibly unorthodox sexual makeup.” Terry Castle, The Literature of Lesbianism (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 155.
85. Bryan Reynolds and Janna Segal, “The Reckoning of Moll Cutpurse: A Transversal Enterprise.” In Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, edited by Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2004), 77.
86. Gustav Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, In Life and Literature,” Shakespeare Studies 28 (2000), 46.
From the African-American newspaper The People’s Voice (August 5, 1944). Gleason is best known for his comic books during the Golden Age; his most notable character was Jack Binder’s Daredevil. But as this interview shows there was substantially more to Gleason than just superheroes.
As a writer I’m naturally selfish with my story ideas. Don’t like sharing them until I’ve written them up fully, whether as a short fiction or as a novel. But sometimes I have ideas for stories and books that I know I’ll never make use of, because I lack the time and resources to write them (a history of organized crime in Kansas City) or because I’m not suited to write them. Like the following.
So John Walton’s The Legendary Detective, a pretty good history of private detectives (the real thing, not the fictional ones), has a long section on women as private detectives, and then a shorter one (though even more intriguing) on African-American private detectives. And in the middle of that section he casually drops this bombshell:
Q. J. Gilmore combined his National Negro Detective Agency with his day job as traveling secretary of the Negro National League’s Kansas City Monarchs baseball team (where Jackie Robinson would later start his professional career). His agency superintendent badge survives at Ben Harroll’s P.I. Museum in San Diego, California.
Unfortunately, Walton’s is the only print source I’ve been able to find that mentions Gilmore’s private detective agency. I’ve found no newspaper articles or (more crucially) newspaper advertisements for the National Negro Detective Agency. If not for the badge, there’d be no evidence for the Agency’s existence whatsoever. But the badge exists, and so we have to take it as a given that the Agency did as well.
According to Leslie A. Heaphy’s The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960 Gilmore also ran his own undertaking and funeral business and was a member of the Elks. A little more digging turns up the photo to the right, which is of Gilmore’s business in “early Denver.” Gilmore was born in 1881, so his time in Denver (which ended in 1918, see below) would have stretched through his twenties and most of his thirties–plenty of time for him to have established his own undertaking and funeral business. In 1918 he left Denver for Kansas City.
A brief search on Google brings up some promising hits:
Quincy J. Gilmore [second from the left–Jess] was Traveling Secretary for the famous Kansas City Monarchs baseball club. The years 1920 thru 1942 were a remarkable time for the Negro National League and Mr. Gilmore. The 1st Negro Leagues World Series was won by the Kansas City Monarchs in the year of 1924.
For a much fuller treatment of the life and times of Quincy J. Gilmore you can use Google to find the article (7th link) under Grassroots Editor, A Journal For Newspeople/International Society Of Weekly Newspaper Editors, Written By Jason Berger. This article mentions the only known book to discuss in detail the story of Quincy J. Gilmore who arrived in Kansas City, MO in 1918 and is believed to have died there either in 1946 or 1948. The book is called The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (1985) By Janet Bruce.
The Grassroots Editor article is here–it’s too long to reprint in its entirety, but it’s well worth reading. The highlights:
So, to sum up: Gilmore was heavily involved with the Monarchs, the Elks, the Negro Leagues, possibly/probably with Kansas City’s flourishing underword in the 1920s; ran a funeral parlor and billiards parlor; and happened to run his own private detective agency by night.
Someone needs to use this guy in a t.v. show or novel or comic book series or something.
This is a collection of horror short stories published in Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada during World War One. There are some classics in the collection, but also some stories that people won’t be so familiar with, but should be.
You can buy it here.
You know about Mary Fields, I assume? I’ve written a collection of weird western short stories about her. “Weird westerns” are those westerns which verge into the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and especially horror. My take on this is a set of eight stories starring Fields set on the Montana frontier in the mid/late 1890s, involving ghosts and the like. They’re pulp-influenced, but with a modern sensibility, if that makes any sense.
This next one is a historical fantasy. Back matter text:
“In the year 1200 everything was going wrong, all at once, around the world. Once-mighty empires were on the verge of ruin, crops were failing, previously-legendary monsters were suddenly commonplace. In the West, some of the mighty remembered the letter they had received, thirty-five years ago, from “Prester John,” a mighty emperor in the far East. In the letter Prester John had claimed to rule 72 kingdoms, many magical, and have over a million men under arms. Naturally, those in the West believed that Prester John could aid them and stave off the dark forces threatening them. Even the Muslims of Sultan Al Adil I in Damascus came to believe that Prester John could be the source of salvation for the Faithful. So the Sultan called a great conclave, inviting the great empires of the West to send representatives, all with the purpose of choosing envoys to go to Prester John. Those representatives came, but so did many other men and women, from empires in the East, in Africa, and in the Americas, men and women drawn to Damascus by their gods’ messages or by dreams or omens. The conclave, when it finally came, had men and women and others from all the major powers of the Earth, and all agreed that an embassy to Prester John would be the best way to bring help to the beleaguered kingdoms of the world. But no one, not even the wisest of the attendees, could have anticipated what happened next, nor the many obstacles and unpleasant surprises which lay in wait from the on the road to Prester John.”
This one is alternate history steampunk espionage. Back matter text:
“It’s 1914, in the China of another Earth. On this Earth, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was the Boxer War, and ended with a complete defeat of the Chinese and the occupation of China by the Eight Nation Alliance. On this Earth, steam-powered dirigibles prowl the skies, and steam-powered mechas are a part of every advanced nation’s army. On this Earth, in its Shanghai, the head British spy is Anthony Hall, an aging widower. Assisted by his local aide-de-camp, Li, Hall runs the British spies of the middle of China, carrying out schemes against the Russians and the Japanese, the two main enemies of the United Kingdom. Hall’s best friend is Evelyn Featherstone, a half-Chinese freelance spy. Their lives irrevocably change when one of Hall’s best agents is murdered, sending Hall on a long chase to discover the murderer, and when Featherstone is blackmails a business executive into betraying a secret. This brings Featherstone to the attention of the Japanese government, which hires her to carry out a very special job. Hall and Featherstone find their professional lives intersecting and their professional goals clashing, and against the backdrop of impending war they must find a way to survive what the Fates throw at them while also preserving their friendship.”
Coming out next Feb. 28, from Praeger.
Will be weekly, and devoted to sharing the awesomeness I find while doing research. You can subscribe here.
my review of Chris Gavaler’s On the Origin of Superheroes is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books web site.
“SUPERHEROES, as characters and as a genre, are frustrating to study. Once any sort of critical apparatus is applied to the “superhero,” this figure becomes extremely difficult to define. Does he or she have to have superpowers? Batman doesn’t. Does he or she have to wear a costume? Several don’t. Does he or she have to have a selfless mission? Not all do. Do they have to appear in superhero comics? Again, one can find exceptions. In the face of this difficulty, superhero scholars have devoted entire books to attempting to define this aggravatingly fuzzy and nebulous character type.”