The First Cross-dressing Comic Book Superhero

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

Madame Fatal is hardly up there in the pantheon of famous and beloved comic book superheroes. Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four probably never lost any sleep over this rival comic hero possibly replacing them in their fan's hearts.

'Madame Fatal (sometimes spelled "Madam Fatal") is a fictional character and superhero active during the Golden Age of comic books. Madame Fatal was created and originally illustrated by artist/writer Art Pinajian. The debut of the character was in Crack Comics #1 (May 1940). This was a crime/detective anthology published by Quality Comics. Madame Fatal continued in the series until issue #22, but was not at all popular or well-received.

The character later appeared in a few DC Comics, after they had purchased the rights to the character in 1956, along with a bulk buy-out of all the Quality Comics characters. Even so, Madame Fatal was never much seen except for a few brief appearances and passing mentions from other comic book characters.

Madame Fatal is notable for being a male superhero who dressed up as an elderly woman to fight crimes. As such, he was the first cross-dressing comic book superhero. (Interestingly, later that same year, The Red Tornado became the first female cross-dressing superhero (superheroine?). The Red Tornado proved to be much more popular and successful than Madame Fatal.

O.K, the basic premise goes like this: Richard Stanton is a highly intelligent, highly athletic, successful, world-famous actor. He is dapper, middle-aged, blonde, Caucasian (aren't all superheroes?) and smokes a pipe. His daughter is kidnapped and he needs the help of police, who get nowhere at all. During the kidnapping ordeal, his wife dies of a broken heart. So, Stanton (as do many other superheroes during their genesis) decides to don a disguise, take on an alter ego, and take matters into his own hands.

He adopts the identity of a red-cloaked, elderly woman who carries a red walking stick. The red cane is used as her main weapon, and this, along with his (her?) superior intellect, athleticism, and deductive crime-solving abilities, helps Madame Fatal become a crime fighter and superhero. Using this disguise, he is able to save his daughter.

Richard Stanton decides to retire from acting and devote his life to conquering crime and criminals as the red cane-wielding Madame Fatal. The Madame Fatal character was ridiculed, because of the cross-dressing angle, from the very beginning.

An article in Cracked lists Madame Fatal as one of the "7 Crappiest Superheroes in Comic Book History." Many modern readers interpreted the cross-dressing of Madame Fatal as a thinly-disguised attempt to actually portray comic's first gay superhero, although this angle was never expressly acknowledged.Creator Pinjian's actual intentions regarding the character are unknown. 

Madame Fatal had a short life span. The character was very briefly mentioned in later comic books, but there have been thinly-veiled references to Madame Fatal over the years. The most recent time Madame Fatal was mentioned (or seen) was in DC Comics in 1999.

The character was the butt of a gay joke (no pun intended, I swear). A scene in an August 1999 issue of Justice Society of America depicts the funeral of the first Sandman. Wildcat wonders whether his own funeral "will be like the time they buried Madame Fatal here, and no one turned up for the funeral but the touring cast of La Cage Aux Folles?" That would seem to imply the fact that Madame Fatal is dead in the DC Comics universe.

Madame Fatal probably suffered the most gut-wrenching type of death any comic book character can experience. More excruciating than death by gun, knives, clubs, or being lowered into a pool of acid. Madame Fatal suffered the very worst type of death -death by unpopularity.

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Cross-dressers aren't necessarily gay. Plenty of heterosexual men get a kick out of frilly underwear next to their hairy buttcheeks.

Disguising oneself as an elderly woman in order to catch criminals doesn't exactly fall into the category of cross-dressing. We normally think of cross-dressers as wearing things like ladies undergarments, or full-out slutty outfits, not old lady dresses.

As for the Cage Aux Folles joke isn't strictly speaking a "gay" joke, but more a reference to the crossdressing, although you could argue the point that the gay bit was part of the joke.
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Quality Comics was one of the premier publishers of its day. Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Kid Eternity, and many more innovative characters and some of the very top artists in comics history (Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Lou Fine, etc. I have only a few issues of their product, but it was great quality stuff, fully the equal and as often as not better than DC or Timely (later Marvel).
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That was a fabulously written article, Eddie! I had heard of Madame Fatal, but was not aware of all the interesting aspects of his/her character. Wish this super-hero would have fared better. Too bad. Always loved the idea of good people fighting evil, and winning.... cross-dressing superhero or not. Here's hoping for more articles from you, Eddie. Really enjoyed this one.
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Great Article.... who'd have known. Never read a Madame Fatal comic book, but enjoyed reading this article about her/him .... Thanks E. Deezen, very informative, great writing and I look forward to more.
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