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The World’s First Cross-Dressing Superhero

by Hrag Vartanian on January 15, 2013

Madam-fatal-title-card-HOMEI received an email this week about an unknown artist Arthur Ashod Pinajian (aka Art Pinajian), who, the email described, was:

“a boy growing up in an Armenian community in West Hoboken, NJ., Pinajian was a completely self-trained cartoonist. During the Great Depression he became one of the pioneers in a new medium: the comic book. In 1940 he created ‘Madam Fatal,’ the first cross-dressing superhero, for Crack Comics. After World War II, he enrolled at the Art Students League in Woodstock, NY. For 22 years, his life revolved around Woodstock, albeit largely reclusive, while he passionately pursued his painting.”

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Don’t mess with Madam Fatal! (via Pappy’s Golden Age)

I was intrigued — the first cross-dressing superhero?

According to the Again with the Comics blog, Madame Fatal was a transvestite of the Golden Age (late 1930s–early 1950s) of comic books:

That old lady was more than “she’ appeared to be. Madame Fatal was a MAN, man! Comics’ first cross-dressing superhero made his dubious debut disguised as that thing least likely to strike fear into the hearts of evildoers: an elderly matron with a Shakespeare-quoting pet parrot! In times of trouble, retired actor/female impersonator Richard Stanton would spring into action using his wits, physical strength, athletic skills, and a full complement of women’s … undergarments to foil crime as the tranny tornado, MADAM FATAL.”

Appearance changes

The character lasted 22 issues of Crack Comic’s 64-page anthology comic book, debuting in issue no. 1. Madam Fatal wasn’t the only character Art Pinajian created, but it was probably his most memorable. His character has an intriguing origin story:

His/Her origin story begins as a white-haired old woman comes to the aid of a neighbor who is being shaken down by a thug from the John Carver gang. Showing surprising strength, Madam Fatal sends the goons running, then returns home, reporting delightedly to her pet parrot that she’s finally caught up with John Carver. The next day, she arranges a false traffic accident with Carver, when she confronts him with HIS true identity:

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Madam Fatal predates the more famous female cross-dressing heroine Red Tornado by a few months, and while Madam Fatal (also written Madame Fatal) has been referenced in a few comic books in the decades since her publishing death, the character has never been fully revived, though the character is currently owned by DC Comics — does anyone else smell movie potential?

According to Wikipedia:

… the later depictions of Madame Fatal living alone, and as Stanton was a former stage actor who lived alone, many modern readers believe that the cross-dressing character was actually a thinly-disguised homosexual, though this was never expressly acknowledged in Crack Comics, nor are Pinajian’s intentions known.

A few years ago, Cracked.com called Madam Fatal one of the “7 Creepiest Super Heroes in Comic Book History,” but we think she’s pretty great. You can read the Madam Fatal strips from Crack Comics #1 and #3 online at Pappy’s Golden Age.

A painting by Pinajian dated 1963. (click to enlarge)

A “rediscovered” painting by Pinajian dated 1963. (click to enlarge)

Now back to the original email I received about Pinajian.

His painting’s are undergoing a “rediscovery” after decades of languishing in obscurity. Art historian Peter Hastings Falk is presenting Lost and Found: The Pinajian Discovery at the Antiquorum auction house (41 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) from February 13–March 10.

While the paintings seem nice enough, and comparable to other work of the period, the story of how the work was saved after Pinajian’s death in 1999 is pretty incredible.

According to the organizers’s email:

“After Pinajian’s death in 1999, five decades of accumulated artwork were found stacked up in the one-car garage and attic of the Bellport, New York, cottage he shared with his sister. He had left instructions for his collection to be discarded in the town dump. At the last moment an artist cousin refused to let the garbage truck haul away the paintings. Instead, Professor William Innes Homer [1929-2012], then dean of American art historians, was asked to examine the life’s work of the unknown artist and was stunned by what he found: a large body of extraordinary abstract landscape and figurative paintings by a highly gifted artist who was completely unknown in his lifetime. Homer urged Falk to head the project.  Soon a team of art historians was conducting research into the life and art of Arthur Pinajian.”

It’s all too common that artists disregard their own accomplishments, but thankfully (in this case) others stepped in to save the legacy. And while Pinajian may be better known as a painter now than he was during his lifetime, I think I will always remember him as the man who created Madam Fatal.

h/t Nancy Agabian & Deborah D.

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