Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Huntress #1 (April, 1989)

A young woman with a strong Greco-Roman heritage and a family with influential ties is of college age when the murder of her father completely alters the course of her life. She seeks revenge through intensive secret martial arts training and gymnastic skills. She does this while wearing an appendage-bearing monochromatic leotard and killing mobsters with ancient weaponry. This anti-heroine forms an alliance with a well known if controversial nighttime urban vigilante with whom she shares a tortured history. She also had a traumatic childhood which may have made her borderline psychotic. If you were reading a blog called "Marvel Onslaught" and the lady was Greek, I would have just described the highly influential Elektra Natchios, who starred in a critically acclaimed mini-series in 1986. Since this is a DC blog, our girl in the Italian Helena Bertinelli, star of a highly influenced and critically ignored short-lived ongoing series in 1989.

The issue began with a four & three-quarter page silent sequence involving a mugger/potential rapist stalking and assaulting a young woman while brandishing a knife, The attack was halted by the appearance of the Huntress, who turned the hunter to prey, and left the creep hanging in a fire escape ladder with his arms pinned behind him.

The comic's artist was experimenting with pencil shading to better suit the material, and avoided the type of cheesecake shots used during his original run on the character. In fact, despite her revealing costume, the Huntress' body is almost asexual in its lack of womanly contours. The heroine returned the victim's purse, and noting her name as "Helena Karabatos," was set adrift on memory blissless back to her own childhood.

Schoolgirl Helena Bertinelli visited a candy store owned by familia, where she was allowed all the sweets she wanted, if only she would take a little package to her papa. On the way home, a creepy guy in sunglasses talked her into getting into his car. Hours later, Guido Bertinelli was screaming at his men for failing to protect his little girl. One such fellow, Donald Campbell, argued that this was more likely a rogue kidnapper than another mob family making a play. Guido barked, "Cut the crap, Don! You're just one of a goddamn army of lawyers I bought and paid for. You're not the family consigliori! Stop tryin'a'act like one!"

Carmela Bertinelli was sick with worry, so Guido broke off his tirade to comfort her. The police pulled into the driveway, and presented an eerily grinning Helena at the front door. Her clothes were in tatters, and when her mother asked "what did they do to you," she received no answer save the smile. Helena continued trance-like to her room, shoved her stuffed dolls off the bed, at sat alone in the darkness.

Helena Bertinelli was sent away to school, where she received a fine education and constant supervision from a bodyguard. By the time she reached university, Helena was chafing under her protection. While spending spring break with her parents, a dinner was interrupted by a masked, green-clad assassin calling himself Omerta the Silencer. The killer believed he'd gunned down everyone in the room with his muted automatic pistol except Guido Bertinelli, whom he took with him. "A job well done. A masterpiece. Like all great artists... I prefer to sign my work," in blood, on a wall. However, he had overlooked Helena.

The surviving Bertinelli met with a family lawyer to collect her legal inheritance. She explained that after her childhood attack, she rehearsed playing dead in the event a similar tragedy would again befall her. She also lamented, "My father was not that fortunate. The police seemed to enjoy telling me that when they found his body... it was... mutilated... missing its hands... eyes." The councilor didn't want to dwell on that, instead noting that Guido had considerably more underworld assets Helena could investigate, but she dismissed that.

When Helena exited the office building, Omerta took shots at her from a rooftop. Helena ran in a zig-zag line down an alleyway before diving into a taxi. Bertinelli headed back to school to collect her things and go into hiding. Her curiously androgynous female gymnastics coach was in the room while Helena was packing. "You're a brilliant student. I've worked hard to train you to Olympic potential. You're throwing away your whole future..." Helena explained that her family and past were dead, that she had no friends on campus because of her family's fearsome reputation, and that her life depended on moving on. However, one element would remain, as her most recent bodyguard tracked Helena to her dorm. Unnamed in the issue, Tony Angelo took Helena into hiding, and supplied her with training in the fighting arts, as well as common and exotic weaponry.

"Helena Bertinelli is gone. She was a facade, masking a great deal of pain... The stoic, the sharp tongue... all broken down to provide fuel for a new self. Helena thought that she was intimidating. She couldn't scare anybody. It's time to invent someone who can... The ultimate alias... fearsome destroyer. To track down the animals who prey on the innocent, I must stalk them first... I am no longer the quarry. I am The Huntress."

I edited the crap out of that last paragraph, and I do mean that, at least subjectively. Somebody was clearly reading a lot of Frank Miller, who himself was an often comically rich follower of Mickey Spillane, a very stylistically distinctive but technically undercooked hardboiled novelist.

I bought this issue off the stands twenty-one years ago, when my negative reaction was more gut level. Despite the shading, the art is still too broad and cartoonish to be suitable for such a dark story, which is why Miller teamed with Bill Sienkiewicz on his version. Wasting so many pages at the beginning of a debut issue is criminal, especially when you only allot one page for a training montage, and forget to name important characters like Helena's mother, her mentor and the shady lawyer.

Speaking of names, then and now, I've always assumed Helena Mark II was named after the actress Valerie Bertinelli. Not only can't I spell it, but the mental image of the ever sunny sitcom/Lifetime movie of the week star is not the best association for a hunter of the most dangerous game. It doesn't help that this book is chock full of stereotypical Italian mooks whose phonetic dialogue is straight out of a third rate Godfather knock-off. Then there's the "rape as motivation" angle, which made a sick kind of sense in the '70s when you still had the struggle between sexual liberation and centuries of repression getting in the way of the modern female identity. By '89 it was just a gross vestigial element taken from crap Linda Blair rapesploitation. What is this, "They Call Her Hawk Eye?"

Continuing on that thread, an eight-year-old Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered and soon began training through adulthood to become the world's greatest crime fighter. At around that same age, Helena Bertinelli was molested and... developed a bit of an attitude into her teens? As a young adult, she saw her parents murdered and... made legal arrangements? I don't understand how I'm supposed to applaud someone who becomes a super-heroine only after every other option is taken out of her hands. I realize that she had to get trained and everything, but maybe initiating that transformation from childhood would have supplied a reason to rape a little kid beyond it being something someone though Alan Moore might have written in their shoes.

How about the Huntress' heritage? People were fans of this character in part because she was the product of Batman and Catwoman. These parents were replaced by a mafia don and his wife. I realize that comics up to that point were mostly filled with WASPs and quasi-Jews, but do Italians really want to be represented by a mobbed-up super-hero? Didn't they have Asian triads or Latin posses in 1989 to supply the same set-up with a less familiar/stereotypical racial component? I think the mob background was one of the only good things to come out of this Post-Crisis revamp of the Huntress, but couldn't her parents have still been exceptional in that field? Like her father was an analog for Diabolik and her mother was an Interpol agent seduced by the life? Something besides copping a squat on everything known about the character besides her first name, favorite color, and love of crossbows? The first time I read this story, I was only a casual fan who had picked up a handful of Huntress stories, and I still thought this was lame.

An inauspicious debut, and the last issue of the book I would read in its original run. "Code of Silence" was by Joey Cavalieri, Joe Staton, Bruce Patterson & Dick Giordano.


LissBirds said...

"do Italians really want to be represented by a mobbed-up super-hero?" Hey, we take what we can get. I didn't watch it, but I could tolerate it when people talked about the Sopranos. I draw the line at The Jersey Shore, however.

I just think of how other nationalities--like Russians, for example--have been depicted in comics, and then I don't have a much of a problem with Helena's mob ties at all.

Was Helena's history ever rewritten so that her parents died when she was a child? Or was that just created for the cartoon? (I still have a copy of Huntress: Year One sitting around, which I never got a chance to read.)

Diabolu Frank said...

I'll be covering Huntress: Year One in coming weeks. I wonder how readers responded to that, because to my mind it's the best origin story Helena's had yet. I think you'll like it.

The believe the retcon of the massacre from an adult to child Helena goes back to the Chuck Dixon/Michael Netzer mini-series of the early '90s, but don't quote me on that. I only ever remembered the child version, so revisiting the original account here came as a surprise. Did the Huntress ever appear on Batman: The Animated Series, or was that origin from Justice League Unlimited? The latter, right? I don't think the tail wagged the dog this time.