AMAZONS IN TIME!
Happy 75th birthday, girls! (You're in pretty good shape for senior citizens!)
With the new, "reimagined" Amazon Space Rangers TV series entering its second season, and the 75th anniversary of the characters being this year, people are beginning to take an interest in the Amazons' origins. This page was created to inform some of the Amazons' newfound fans about the long and fascinating, but largely forgotten, history of ASR.
1927: Caryatid ComicsThe Amazons were born in the late 20s as a bi-weekly comic by short-lived Caryatid publishers. Right from the beginning, the girls were an unusual case. Caryatid was typical of studios of the time in that it hired a number of female inkers, letterers and colourists who did uncredited work on any number of titles, along with many of the lesser "clean-up" jobs. But rumours have persisited that, in an unofficial capacity at least, Caryatid was a highly unconventional corporation at the time. In fact, given the somewhat chaotic nature of the short-lived company (it folded in 1933) and an unusually high rate of alcoholism among the creative talent, it seems likely that senior editor Len Taggert's later assertion that "Basically, the skirts ran the place"1 was probably true.
Outwardly, though, Caryatid was just another of the many pulp SF comics publishers of the era, publishing such titles as TALES OUT OF TIME and BIZARRE FANTASY COMICS. Their most popular title, though forgotten as the rest of the company's output today, was CRASH LANDERSON: SPACE HERO, a fairly typical Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon-style space adventure. Credited to writer/artist Abraham Dammilshaw, it has been the focus of controversy for several decades over to what degree Dammilshaw deserves the credit. While he presumably created the character, many feel that, though not on the record as such, CRASH was one of the first SF comic books to be wholly drawn and written by a woman--specifically April Rose Dammilshaw, Abe's assistant and later his wife.
April claimed credit, to varying degrees, for her husbands' work in the 20s and 30s, sometimes going so far as to claim she came up with the idea for the character. The debate has raged among comic historians for quite a while2, but most do note a change of style in the later Crash issues. The claim is further supported by offhand comments made by Abe himself, and the fact that April is universally recognized as having created AMAZON SPACE RANGERS in 1927.
The Amazons made their debut in BIZARRE FANTASY #236, in a story credited to Abraham. The story was, however, very clearly that of a woman, and of one ahead of her time. Until Wonder Woman came along a decade later, comicdom would never see such strong female characters. While it is true that Missy is captured and manacled to a wall by her alien captors (which would become a recurring motif throughout the series), the Amazons were remarkable in that they functioned as competant and effective fighters, who defeat their opponents both with their wits and their prowess with the ray-gun. There are some limits, of course: the girls are not portrayed as having any physical prowess (they are easily subdued by the scrawny Felderd) and at home on Earth they engage in typically female activites such as knitting and (in Roz's case) participating in a bathing beauty contest. Still, it is the Amazons personalities that make the 16-page story seem so far ahead of its time. Trish is no-nonsense and intelligent, and at one point Roz actually flirts with one of the guards (sexually brazen at the time.) Few were surprised when Abraham admitted, years later, that his brush never touched a page of that first AMAZONS story.3
The core concept and characters are surprisingly similar to the current series. The Amazons are drafted into the Galactic Hegemony's secret task force, with the reasoning that no one would suspect these unassuming girls were in fact secret agents. Amazon-1 remains, though Trish is not the pilot (that honour falls to the robotic Sapper-9, who operates like a bland limo driver). The girls' boss is Universal Comissioner Hendricks, who appears to explain the plot in every issue and is rarely ever seen again. The most significant difference, besides the absence of Theglo and Crash, and the fact that the story is set in the future rather than our present, is Roz: here a sultry southern brunette with tanned but white skin (again, this is 1927).
The issue was a surprising success, and launched its own series. The caveat, seemingly imposed by Taggert, was that no one would buy a comic in which girls continually defeated male villains, and indeed much of the "feminine touch" of that first story was to go by the wayside for a few months. Whether the title was handled by Abe during this period remains a source of contention, but it's clear that the two Dammilshaws were waging somewhat of a stylistic tug-of-war over the stories' content. One issue the Amazons were brave and resourceful problem-solvers, the next they were melting into the arms of a domineering male presence...and of course, Missy was constantly having to be rescued. Some might say that the series' forward thinking came largely from this back-and-forth, in which the Amazons had to be alternately sexy and controlled, typically feminine or androgynously businesslike. The Amazons became intriguing, complex characters almost by accident.
Then there was Trish's eventual boyfriend, Lagash. A very strange and ambiguous figure, he seems again to have been the result of the Dammilshaw's struggle to impose their respective viewpoints. Sometimes he plays the part of the hero, rescuing the amazons whenever they get into trouble too big for a woman to handle; at other times he's a cryptic background presence, almost malevolant (though never overtly so). His affiliation is never explained; we never even learn if he's a human being or not. Was there a greater plan for this character, some mystery that was never revealed? (NOTE--with POSSIBLE SPOILER--to fans of the current series: the show's writers have indicated that Lagash, introduced to the modern-day show on "Unearthly Delights", will be a recurring character, and that they have "big plans" for him. Obviously we'll just have to keep watching...)
The series ended its run two years later, just a few months before the Great Depression. Sales had never been great, and it was Taggerts' opinion that he had misjudged and the popularity of BIZARRE FANTASY had been the sole factor in the success of the Amazons. Certainly they would have been nothing but a footnote to pop culture history, if not for a few factors. One was the comics' historical interest; another is the fact that the Dammilshaw's stories (Abe died in 1975, April in 1989) were really pretty good, especially by the standards of the time. And the last one was another of a seemingly endless confluence of coincidences...
1Comic Collector's Annual Roundup, 1985
2The most ink devoted to the debate was in SCIENTIFICTION magazine in 1972, which featured interviews with both April and Abraham. The writer of the article concludes that April was "solely responsible for writing and drawing Crash Landerson for at least the last few years of Caryatid's existence."
1935: Atomic PicturesHollywood. Since its heyday the visions it produces for the silver screen have always been tinged with motives besides mere entertainment. The casting couch has always had an inadvertant impact on pop culture, and so it was in 1935 when Atomic Pictures launched the first and only Amazon Space Rangers movie serial.
In the last year of Caryatid Comics, crippled by the depression, Len Taggart turned to Hollywood to help bolster his company's image (as well as its finances). Back then, Hollywood liscencing wasn't the gold mine it is today but merely a way of earning a quick side profit. Still, Taggart wasn't a great businessman, and he probably slipped up in selling the film rights to all the Caryatid characters as a package to Hollywood producer Herman K. Ratzelweiss. Taggart had approached Ratzelweiss with the intention of selling just Crash Landerson, but the slick producer managed to buy up his entire catalogue at an only marginally inflated price. It's thought that he did this mostly for the rights to "The Saucermen Are Here", a short story in TALES OUT OF TIME #47 (which did indeed become a serial in 1934); certainly he did nothing right away with the Amazons. But "fortune is ever restless," as Lagash said to Trish in issue #31...
The sordid details are not, of course, part of the public record, but it seems Ratzelweiss had promised up-and-coming Hester McWinn a starring role in his next serial, after she played the femme fatale in the latest Crash Landerson serial, "Crash Landerson and The Hounds of War" (1935). Ratzelweiss was also dating McWinn, which makes it strange that the lead role--that of Captain Trish in "Amazon Space Rangers Beyond the Moon"--was actually played by Pamela Prudence, a hitherto unknown starlet. McWinn played Roz, certainly not a minor role, though McWinn was vocal about her displeaure. Since Ratzelberger went on to marry Prudence, it's not hard to see where the bone of contention lay (so to speak). Certainly, by all reports, the two actresses hated each other and fought constantly, which may be yet another reason Ratzelweiss never made another ASR serial. The only reason he made this one, it seems, was in a desperate attempt to keep both women happy. The studio wouldn't finance an original story with two female leads, but since ASR was an existing property they were willing to give it a shot.
In the 8-part serial, the Amazons (Missy is played by Ella Daniels) are deputized by "Space Command" to recover a priceless mineral from the Planet of the Lost. Once there they fall into a trap and, having escaped, uncover a conspiracy to destroy the interstellar government building. Sapper is portrayed as a clunky midget-in-a-suit robot, Amazon-1 is clearly a model on a string, and the aliens are either fake-looking puppets or people in cheap costumes. Nevertheless there's an undeniable energy and fun to the production.
Prudence's marriage to Ratzelweiss lasted only two years; she went on to play minor roles in a number of B movies, mostly westerns, until her premature death in a car accident in 1942. Her death is doubly saddening, since despite the low quality and minimal production values generally associated with Ratzelweiss's efforts, Prudence actually gives the finest performance as Trish until Crystal Cummings (see below). McWinn, while undeniably easy on the eyes, is stiff and unconvincing, whereas Daniels is just bland.
The serial is not available on video, though the success of the show has led to some talk about a reissue.
Part 2 Coming Soon: 50s Pulp, 70s Style, and 80s Crap!
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