Tag Archives: feminism

Lady Death [2019]

Lady Death cover

Published: Commando #5217

Artist: Manuel Benet

Writer: Andrew Knighton

I am always on the lookout for Commandos that follow the new Commando trend of having female protagonists. This is the first Commando I have read that not only has a female protagonist (a whole army unit of them in fact!) but is decidedly feminist in tone as well.

Plot

In 1941, schoolteacher Svetlana Korzh signs up for the army against the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The recruitment officer is sceptical about her doing so: “A woman’s place is at home…. Women can’t shoot.” However, Svetlana’s equally sceptical fiancé Vasily Zimyatov (now in the infantry) has given Svetlana plenty of backbone and shooting practice in dealing with such attitudes. She declares she can shoot better than any man around here, she will be an asset to the army, and to prove her point she seizes the officer’s own rifle and puts a bullet through a weathercock. Across the Soviet Union, other women have also had to persuasive to have the military let them fight, from fighter pilots to partisans.

Lady Death 1

Svetlana is assigned to an all-women sniper unit and is soon proving one the best. Svetlana is soon making friends who will impact the story. One is Galina Chaykavsky, a former secretary who proves courage comes in many forms by always looking calm and stylish no matter what their trainer Captain Leontev puts them through – and it’s just as tough as what he puts the boys through. Another is Zoya Tikhmirova; like Svetlana she’s a former teacher who suggests they use their teaching skills to help with training. However, Leontev just says stick to soldiering. Zoya is also distinctive for expressing hatred of Stalin (very dangerous!), but considers the German invasion (aided by Romanian allies) a worse evil and that’s why she’s fighting.

Soon Svetlana’s garrison are fighting at the Siege of Odessa, which goes badly for them. Svetlana saves an injured Lieutenant, Yuri Valeev, from death. Zoya is not happy about her saving “one of Stalin’s stooges”, but is promptly reminded of her own words: “better Stalin than the Germans”. Svetlana and Galina press on with Odessa as snipers. They pick off Romanian soldiers, including a vital captain, and press on to attempt sniping a Romanian colonial.

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But a German sniper, Ludwig Weber, spots these “little ladies of death”, and picks off Galina. Svetlana goes after the German sniper, but he is gone; the only clue to his identity is a peppermint wrapper, and the distance he shot from indicates he is a brilliant shot. In fact, she eventually learns he is the best German sniper on the Russian front. Svetlana vows she will kill this sniper with a taste for peppermint and avenge Galina. But in the meantime, all she can do is continue her own sniping, and soon her count is almost as high as Weber’s.

Meanwhile, Zoya falls in love with a Russian soldier, Maxim, and soon marries him. Svetlana’s own romance, Vasily, returns as well. Determined to protect Vasily, she sets up a sniper nest near his patrols. She does her best with her sniping to help Vasily against a Romania offensive, but Vasily’s infantry is soon overwhelmed the far superior Panzerkampfenwagen IV tanks. Soon Vasily is one of the last men standing. He recklessly charges a tank with a grenade, but a sniper kills him instantly. Though there is no peppermint wrapper this time, Svetlana automatically knows who that sniper was. Now Svetlana has double the reason to take ol’ Peppermint down. And it’s double the grief, which she has no time to even address with all this constant fighting. But right now Svetlana is forced to flee, and she seeks refuge in an army truck, where Yuri finds her and gives the impression he is falling for her.

Lady Death 3

Svetlana returns to her sniper unit. But the newer female snipers are not as skilled as Svetlana, and the peppermint sniper, whose name is now known to her, is picking them off like flies. Svetlana has been giving them sniping tips, but now she demands a general give her permission to give them better training at sniping, and if he doesn’t she’ll do it anyway. Being too busy to seriously argue with a strong willed person, he just shrugs and lets her do it. “What harm can one woman do anyway?”

The all-female sniper squad is soon improving tremendously under Svetlana’s training and teaching skills. So is the Soviet counter-attack on Odessa, which has now entered the city itself, and it’s turning into rubble.

As Svetlana seeks out a sniper spot, an all-too-familiar peppermint wrapper falls down from above. She promptly takes a shot at Weber, but misses (not like you, Svetlana!). She heads to his sniper spot, but he is gone. Weber then shoots her from a new position and hits her in the arm. After bandaging her arm Svetlana makes her way into the catacombs, where a partisan fighter finds her and helps her get back to her lines. She has to be shipped out to an army hospital, where a visit from Yuri is the only bright moment in what she finds is a frustrating wait for recovery and getting back to her unit. And by this time, killing Weber is a real obsession.

At last Svetlana hears news of Weber, who is now an even bigger problem for the Soviets than ever. She heads out to pick him off, and this time she succeeds. But she is surprised to find that finally getting revenge did not bring her the peace she expected.

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Removing Weber makes Svetlana famous and she becomes known as “Lady Death”. Strangely, that is what Weber himself calls her just before she kills him. Perhaps Svetlana was developing a similar reputation among the Germans to the one Weber had among the Soviets. Svetlana keeps on sniping and training new snipers right through the push into Germany.

On the last day of the war Yuri proposes to Svetlana but she declines; she still wants to feel the satisfaction of carving her own way through the war and isn’t ready to consider marriage again just yet. But now the war’s over the army has no place for women. Svetlana receives the Order of Glory and discharged. She heads to university to get a Masters in Education.

Thoughts

As said before, this story definitely has a strong feminist tone. We see it in how Svetlana not only has to prove she deserves her place in the army but has to fight chauvinist attitudes among her superiors as well. But the real reason she can get into the army is the necessities of war, which has driven many Allied countries to allow women into positions traditionally occupied by men. Once the war is over, not even the strong-willed Svetlana is allowed to stay in the army; like all other WWII working/fighting women she is expected to just go home to mother and be a homemaker.

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It’s not often we see feminism in the British titles. Even girls’ titles didn’t seem to touch on feminism much. Some stories did of course, such as Mandy PSL #105 “They’re Letting Girls into St. Justins!”, where an administrative error unwittingly admits girls to an exclusive boys’ school. But the girls are there now and they are determined to stay, even though they really have to fight against boys and even teachers who don’t want girls in their school. Another is Debbie’s “Janet and Her Travellin’ Javelin”, where Janet Malcolm has to defy her grandfather, who believes a woman’s place is in the home, in order to become a javelin champion.

Galina and Zoya are more fleeting, but they have their moments to give them what depth the 62 pages can allow. Before Weber cuts her time so short, Galina turns vanity into an act of courage by always keeping herself stylish, no matter how tough the army makes things. Zoya is distinctive for her brave hatred of Stalin, and she also provides light relief in marrying Maxim, whose ridiculous moustache invites a lot of teasing. The wedding, amid the hardships of war (wedding dress made out of a parachute, army rations for the wedding dinner), and Maxim and Zoya seizing the moment, knowing full well war could take either or both of them, is also an act of courage. And both make it to the end.

Weber illustrates why German snipers were so feared during World War II. However, he doesn’t get much chance for development and only his peppermint fondness gives him a bit of roundness. He seems a bit careless, leaving those peppermint wrappers lying around. One of those wrappers almost gets him killed because it gives him away.

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The main villain, Weber, is more fleeting than other Commando villains and takes up fewer panels. The story is not all focused on the pursuit of him either. It takes pauses to look at the characters more, whether it’s Zoya’s wedding or training new recruits as snipers. It doesn’t all dwell on the pursuit of Weber. But the threat of Weber is always there, an underlying current that pressures the story towards its resolution.

The story also devotes panels to illustrating the horrors of war and some of the effects it is having. We see the city of Odessa being turned into rubble, horses having to learn to take the carnage in their stride, partisans luring soldiers into catacombs and ambushing them, and Vasily’s unit bravely fighting overwhelming odds against enemy tanks until only one man is left. For the soldiers there is no time for grieving or dwelling on the horrors – you have to press on and fight. The story does not go into war weariness and we don’t see anyone cracking up under it. But when Yuri proposes to Svetlana, she finds her heart has been lifted for the first time in the grim war years she was fighting and pursuing revenge.

It is a bit sad that Svetlana turns down Yuri’s proposal. But after what she had been through and what she had to do to prove herself, becoming the homemaker expected of her after the war would have felt a comedown. We are delighted that Svetlana is going to pursue a degree instead, and pursue it with as much determination as she did to get into the army. We also hope she will continue shooting and pass on her skills to others, as she did with the sniper unit.

What sort of stories did Jinty not cover?

Any comic has to have a focus, a remit of what will be covered and therefore inevitably what will not be covered. The choices made, however, may be revealing in themselves, or may raise further questions as to why one thing was included and another skipped over.

Non-fiction

UK girls comics did not generally include non-fictional comics stories such as biographies. They did include some text items that were non-fictional in nature – snippets of information about sports, history, the origin of names, current pop stars – but not done as ongoing comics stories. Other classic British titles had done this – The Eagle included some biographical strips, for instance; and other children’s magazines had covered non-fiction rather more thoroughly (for instance Look and Learn’s whole raison d’etre was to be educational). Why not cover non-fiction? I imagine that the editors at the time wanted to very firmly steer away from the diactic, ‘good-for-you’ image of The Eagle and Look and Learn, both of which were the sorts of titles that tended to be bought for you by well-meaning parents. [Edited to add: Girl did print some non-fiction stories, such as one in 1959 about Marie Curie, subsequently reprinted in Princess Tina. See this comment on the UK Comics Forum for further details.]

In more recent years, The Phoenix’s “Corpse Talk” has gone back and mined this vein very effectively, showing that biographies can be done in comics form amusingly, interestingly, and well. (Creator Adam Murphy also does some strips about science using a similar format.) Even at the time, it would have been quite possible to do at least some non-fiction without it being boringly didactic, had the will or interest been there. I have just been reading some biographical material about Caroline Herschel, and her story would fit amazingly well in a ‘slave’ story: she was cabined, cribb’d, confined by her mother and her eldest brother, made to work long and hard hours on tasks as the equivalent of a maid, not allowed to stay in bed when ill, and so forth – to be subsequently rescued by her kindly older brother William Herschel, and eventually to triumph as William’s scientific assistant and indeed as a discoverer of comets in her own right! Similar tales could no doubt have been spun about the obvious eminent women such as Florence Nightingale and Boadicea, but also about the less obvious ones such as Aphra Behn and Mary Seacole (though as a black woman it would have been particularly unlikely for the latter to have been written about, sadly).

So, Jinty and similar comics weren’t ones that you read in order to learn; and nor were they ones where factual content was sneaked in under the radar, either. Sneaking it in could have happened: in boys’ war comics of the time, accuracy on details like uniforms, badges, battles, and weapons was prized by the readers and striven for by the creators. (More recently, my two young kids are getting a kick out of “Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures” on the telly: plenty of learning-through-fun there.) History, geography, science, maths, languages were prized in Jinty mainly as set-dressing when a story called for it, if at all; and the level of research and accuracy was not high, as has been noted previously.

There were some small, local exceptions to this – some areas that Jinty covered that it did care about getting right, and which you could have a reasonable expectation of learning from as a reader.

  • Sports: at one point there was a dedicated sport section, teaching you finer points of passing the ball in netball, using the parallel bars in gymnastics, and covering aspects of more exotic sports like water polo. Even aside from that dedicated sports section, there were a lot of stories featuring sporty protagonists who were given or gave tips on table tennis (“Ping-Pong Paula”), competitive cycling (“Curtain of Silence”), or netball (“Life’s A Ball For Nadine”).
  • Crafts and cookery: each issue had a page or two on how to make a little present from odds and ends, how to revitalise an old skirt, or how to prepare some easy recipe.
  • Trivia: origins of names, the story of mince pies, snippets of amusing anecdotes about, yes, Boadicea or Queen Anne.

Overt political and social issues

As a publication intended for an age range of around 8 – 12 years, you wouldn’t expect much in the way of political discussion unless there was a specific radical intention (as with the creation of Shocking Pink magazine slightly later). There is however in Jinty an utter absence not only of political comment or explanation, but even of reference: no cheeky images of the current prime minister or mention of recent or current events such as the Three Day Week or the IRA bombs. The monarchy does get a look-in with a patriotic celebration of the Jubilee and the Royal Wedding (but then, to do otherwise would be to make a republican statement in itself).

There is also very little overt coverage of wider social issues, such as feminism, racism, colonialism. Without wishing to say that we are now in some paradise, the Britain of that time was clearly a more discriminatory society; Jinty was not in the business of providing substantive challenges to this. Very overt acts of racism would no doubt have been opposed, if they had ever come up – but for instance the paki-bashing that some readers’ families might well have condoned was invisible in these pages and hence never in fact challenged. Related issues do get the occasional airing, though: for instance “Bound For Botany Bay” has some statements about the evils of slavery in a setting that is comfortably far-off in time.

It is not exactly surprising that Jinty was not proactively anti-racist or anti-colonialist; it would have taken a radical mindset to challenge these social issues, and this was a mainstream publication. What about feminism – as a comic published with girls in mind, did any women’s rights issues sneak in under the radar? Not very overtly, I’d say; there were some stories that touched on girls not being treated fairly or being laughed at by boys as incapable of X or Y, but these were mostly treated as individual problems rather than systemic ones. In “Two Mothers For Maggie”, the protagonist complains of being expected to do housework and baby-sitting when she has her homework to do and the stepfather has finished his work for the day; but the issue there is framed as one of poverty not primarily of sexism. In “Black Sheep of the Bartons”, protagonist Bev wants to do boyish sports like judo, but this again is painted as a personality quirk, especially in contrast with her gentle and delicate younger sister who is far more ‘girly’. It might also be played for laughs: there was an early “Jinx of St Jonah’s” story where Katie Jinks  and her friends had a bet on with the nearby boys’ school where they each had three gender-swapped stereotypical tasks to do (making shelves for the girls, making dresses for the boys); they all failed fairly equally and we are supposed to laugh at them for stepping out of the gender roles.

The aspect of Jinty which leads most clearly to a real feminist point is, paradoxically, the fact it was part of such a separate publication stream from boys’ comics. So many of the characters are girls you could almost imagine it is set in one of the parallel worlds devoid of men, favoured by a certain strand of feminist science fiction. The outcome is that there is a great multiplicity of female roles available as models for readers: villains who are misguided, evil, powerful, petty, misunderstood, or plain off their head; protagonists who are vain, strong, smart, brave, clumsy, deft, sporty, bullied, powerless, and sometimes even clever (the latter not so often, sad to say); friends who are loyal, fickle, blind, shallow, and sometimes smarter than they seem. This is in stark contrast to today’s media world in which girls are assumed to read stories with male protagonists but not vice-versa, women are expected to watch films with male characters but not vice-versa, and the story-telling that we’re supposed to accept as progressive is one where the female character is ‘strong’ or ‘kick-ass’ but still far from actually being rounded and fully-developed.

There are some other social issues that sneak in slightly surprisingly. Environmentalism gets a look-in in various stories: there are a couple of anti-motorway or anti-car stories (“The Green People” and “Guardian of White Horse Hill” feature local protests against the building of motorways through sensitive areas, “Save Old Smokey” is anti-car). More drastically, “The Forbidden Garden” is set in a dystopia where the earth is poisoned and nothing can grow naturally. Animal Rights, too, get a look-in: “The Human Zoo” and “Worlds Apart” both feature sections where animal rights protestors are seen as rightly protesting terrible treatment of animals (even if the protesters are also shown as causing as much harm to the animals as they cause good).

However, the big social issue covered that might be surprising to modern readers is inequality. Lots and lots of stories had fat-cat villains, wealthy uncaring capitalists, rich  family members who were greedy or miserly, cruel and heartless. Stories like “Bound for Botany Bay” made much greater play of the evils of class distinctions than they did of the evils of racism and slavery; and stories like “Ping-Pong Paula” and Tammy’s “Ella on Easy Street” were pretty clear that it was better to be poor with a loving family than rich with a distant one. Maybe this is part of a ‘poor little rich girl’ trope prevalent in children’s stories? Maybe it resulted from the core market of readers who were less well-off than was the case for some of the earlier, more middle-class comics? But also, the Britain of that time was actually a less unequal society than it is nowadays. WWII didn’t feel that long ago, which had also driven some reduction in inequalities. Did this mean that it was more possible to have villains who were fat-cats, capitalists, because inequality itself was less acceptable?

Growing up, sex, and romance

Again not surprising as an omission given the age range, but boyfriends are pretty much completely missing in Jinty. Older girls or young women may have boyfriends or even fiancés – sisters, young teachers – but the protagonist herself does not. In one near-exception, “Pam of Pond Hill”, Pam’s friend Goofy is someone she is teased about, and the word boyfriend is used in that teasing, but there is no kissing or cuddling involved in that relationship. So although the protagonists are depicted looking as if they are some years older than most of the readers, the concerns addressed are much more focused on intense friendships and rivalries than on romantic or sexual relationships.

The characters are often drawn with enough of a developing body to require a bikini top or bra and pants rather than the more demure vest and slip of more traditional times, but this is not addressed explicitly in the story. No Judy Blumes to be found in these pages! The letters pages sporadically included an agony aunt element, but even then this focused more on interpersonal relationships with other girls than it did puberty, periods, bodily hair, and boyfriends. Girls moved onto older magazines such as Jackie and Just Seventeen (these may or may not have had a comics element) and it was in those pages that they learned some of the subjects now taught in British schools under acronyms such as PSHE.