[EDITED 11/13/2015 7:33 PM EST] As I sit here tonight listening to the news reports about the barbarous attacks in Paris, I find it fitting that the post below went live today. Mlle. Marie is a fictional character, written and illustrated by Americans, but there were real French women in the Resistance who were more daring, more fierce, and more determined even than Marie, and tonight, even as gun battles still raged, fires still burned, and cowards held innocents hostage, Parisians marched down the Boulevard Magenta towards the Stade de France – towards the explosions – Le Tricolore held high. Families are opening their doors to offer strangers sanctuary, while men and women and children of all ages risk their lives to help the wounded, comfort the grieving, and to light a fire against the darkness. These are the descendants of those who inspired the creation of Mlle. Marie, and tonight they inspire the world, and we stand with them, saying again, Lafayette, nous sommes ici. Vive la France!
Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
In 1959, DC’s line of war comics was going strong, and on the verge of becoming one of the most profitable, and reliable, group of titles in the entire DC stable. In the June issue of Our Army at War, Robert Kanigher (the editor and main writer for the war line) had penned a story called “The Rock and the Wall” and assigned it to artist Joe Kubert, thereby giving birth to Sgt. Frank Rock. Marking not only the creation of one of the most well-known characters in American comics, Our Army at War #83 also began a turn in war comics away from the traditional anthology format, with several different, unconnected stories featuring non-recurring characters in each issue. Following the advent of Sgt. Rock, each of DC’s war titles gained a headliner who would appear in every issue, becoming the ongoing core of each book. Two months after the debut of Sgt. Rock, Kanigher and Jerry Grandenetti gave Star- Spangled War Stories (SSWS) its own lead, the deadliest, most effective leader of the French Resistance: Mademoiselle Marie.
Nicknamed the “Battle Doll” (1930s & 1940s slang for a beautiful woman), Marie first appeared on the cover of Star-Spangled War Stories #84, one arm helping an injured paratrooper to his feet while the other used an M3 submachine gun to return fire against attacking Nazis. All this while dressed in her soon to be trademark ballet flats, pencil skirt, tight turtleneck and red beret. Her black hair was cropped close, her face perfectly made up, and she accessorized with a bandolier of extra magazines. Keep in mind that this was the cover of a war comic. In the United States. In 1959. A point at which Rosie the Riveter’s “We can do it!” had largely been replaced in American culture by “the boys are back, so they’ll do it! Time for you ladies to get back home!” This was something unique.
So where did Marie come from, and why did Kanigher and Grandenetti think she might make a good headliner in a genre whose main audience was pre-teen boys? In part, Kanigher was simply trying out different ideas and looking for one that would “stick’ in terms of readers and sales. However, Kanigher was also writing and editing Wonder Woman, and had created Black Canary (1947) and Wonder Girl (1958) before Mlle. Marie, so he was also well aware of the potential of female heroes (though it must be said that Kanigher’s long stint on Wonder Woman was not exactly the peak of the character’s feminist arc, with WW all too often being more concerned about her relationship with Steve Trevor than anything else). Additionally, the America of the 1950s was fascinated with French culture. From An American in Paris (1951), to Moulin Rouge (1953), and Sabrina (1954) American movies romanticized French culture. French filmmakers had taken film noir to new heights and the French New Wave was influencing more and more American artists. Paris had reemerged as the world center for fashion, art, and culture, and a prosperous United States, with its booming consumer culture, was hungry for all of it. Kanigher and his wife vacationed in France regularly, so it is likely that he too was something of a Francophile. Thus, consciously or not, Mlle. Marie may have been an attempt to ride this cultural wave, and to potentially broaden the reader base for Star-Spangled War Stories. After all, as the writer for Wonder Woman and a veteran of the romance comics boom of the fifties, Kanigher was well aware of the young female readers market.
In any event, Mlle. Marie was an incredibly powerful character, leading a band of resistance fighters who specialized in sabotage and guerilla attacks against the occupying Nazis, Marie would slip into French cities in towns in disguise to glean information and to take the mood of the common people (all of whom were always staunchly anti-German, of course). In her first appearance, Marie has to deal with an American paratrooper who balks about working with “a girl,” but Marie quickly puts him in his place, and reminds him that she is actually the commanding officer in the field. Indeed, she refuses to allow even the death of her father in a Nazi raid on the Resistance hideout deter her from completing her mission. For 8 issues Marie would continue in the same vein, reminding her comrades in an wincingly Maurice Chevalier-esque accent that “Zis is war!” and that all the old rules about gender roles have been thrown right out of the window.
Indeed, Kanigher uses Marie to ruminate on the upheavals the war caused and the strange opportunities it provided for groups which were usually marginalized. In “A Medal For Marie” (SSWS 86), Marie is awarded France’s highest military decoration, previously won by her father in World War I, and her grandfather in the Franco-Prussian War, but only available to Marie due to the German occupation of France and the relaxation of gender-norms in the Resistance. She leads her little band of fighters brilliantly, hitting the Germans hard at every given opportunity while evading the Gestapo all the while. Her adventures in SSWS 84-91 are (cheesy dialect aside) some of Kanigher’s absolute best work. Unfortunately, with SSWS 90’s presentation of the “War that Time Forgot” featuring US troops fighting ravening dinosaurs, Mlle. Marie’s time as a headliner came to a rapid end. ‘Tween boys dug dinosaurs more than pencil skirts, and the war against the lizards would dominate the title until 1968.
Yet unlike so many characters that are launched and found wanting by the readers, Mlle. Marie did not disappear. Instead she began to pop up regularly in the other war books (all edited and, incredibly, written by Kanigher until the late 1960s). Occasionally as a damsel in distress, but more often appearing with her fighters just in time to save Sgt. Rock and Easy Co., Jeb Stuart and his Haunted Tank crew, ace pilot Johnny Cloud, or Captain Storm and the Losers from certain death at the Nazi’s hands. She became a fan favorite recurring character, and, perhaps inevitably, the primary love interest of Sgt. Rock. Even so, the two heroes met as equals, and their relationship (brought to a remarkable consummation in Sgt. Rock #412 [October 1986]) was very well done in the “none of us are likely to survive so why not take a little joy when we can” style.
Marie’s latest appearance was in the 2010 one shot Star-Spangled War Stories featuring Mademoiselle Marie, written by Billy Tucci and penciled by Justiniano & Tom Derenick, and proved to be by far the outstanding issue of the series, though a larger relaunch failed to appear. Yet the fact that it Marie was chosen rather than the critters on Dinosaur Island, or the lethal Unknown Soldier who became SSWS’s headliner in 1970, speaks to the characters appeal, and staying power. Mlle. Marie is so outstanding, and so memorable that only eight issues as a headliner and some thirty other appearances over the course of fifty years have been enough to ensure her place as a beloved character to generations of fans, and a core part of the historic DC war line. In these days when Showcase Presents seems bent on reprinting every issue of the various war comics, perhaps it is not too much to hope that Mlle. Marie’s stories, now often hard to find (particularly when it comes to SSWS 84-91), will also be collected, and she can take her place as a feminist character well ahead of her time, and as a woman who could always find ammunition and lipstick in occupied France, and knew when to use them both.