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B-Movie Magic

Celebrating The Silver Screen’s Tough Broads and One Mutated Super Hero

Alex Fine

By Gary Dowell | Posted 6/7/2006

Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen; The Toxic Avenger: The Novel

Dominique Mainon and James Ursini; Lloyd Kaufman and Adam Jahnke

Limelight Editions, paperback; Thunder’s Mouth Press, paperback

People who claim they don’t like monsters or girls with guns are flat-out lying—simple statement of fact. And two new books delve into these Teflon subjects with impressive style and verve.

Ass-kicking chicks deserve a good book treatment—and not merely a slapped-together, half-assed coffee table encyclopedia photo book. Dominique Mainon and James Ursini tackle this broad, involved, and fascinating subject with enthusiasm and insight in The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen. They don’t just document the growing fascination with the warrior woman archetype in mass media, they also examine the beginnings of female action leads in the late 1950s and the rapid development of such roles in the late ’60s and ’70s, as well as the current wave of warrior women, up to and including such recent releases as Aeon Flux, Sin City, and Kill Bill, with an authoritative style that’s thankfully free of pretension and stuffiness.

Modern Amazons is designed to be thorough, divided into chapters organizing its subjects into subgenres and examining their permutations—classic Amazons, comic-book super- and anti-heroines, sexploitation, blaxploitation, gunfighters, Hong Kong cinema, vampire slayers, sci-fi war maidens, and super spies—lavishly illustrated with more than 400 photos of pop-culture icons like Wonder Woman, Xena, Pam Grier, the infamous Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and so many others in action, plus sidebars covering weapons, trivia, and trends. It concludes with a filmography of more than 150 titles. Granted, some of it is fluff, but it’s good, well-researched fluff.

Jean-Luc Godard once said all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but Mainon (a writer, martial artist, and guerrilla artist) and Ursini (a film historian and co-editor of the Film Noir Reader series) feel it takes a little more than that. They go beyond cataloging their subject matter, exploring how women’s film roles have expanded from love interests, distressed damsels, victims, and femmes fatales and crossed gender lines; how the early performances of Raquel Welch and Pam Grier helped pave the way for Jessica Alba, Jennifer Garner, and Milla Jovovich (see Chapter 3: “Fur Bikinis and Jungle Love”). The tone ranges from tongue-in-cheek to serious and analytical; a subchapter titled “Final Notes: Occupational Hazards of Superheroines” is a particular eye-opener, especially when detailing a phenomenon known as “Girlfriend in a Refrigerator Syndrome.”

The only conspicuous absences are the less cuddly, vengeful spirits from horror movies like Carrie and Firestarter, inexplicably passed over in preference of a passage on the Japanese animated series Sailor Moon. Nonetheless, Modern Amazons never loses sight of the fact that women regularly kick ass.

Less academic but just as entertaining is Thunder’s Mouth Press’ The Toxic Avenger: The Novel, by Troma Entertainment co-founder and president Lloyd Kaufman and scribe Adam Jahnke. This novel is pretty much designed for Troma fans who have seen the 1985 movie, its three sequels, and the cartoon show spin-off, yet can’t get enough of the greatest superhero to come out of New Jersey. And you know who you are, you twisted freaks.

For the uninitiated, the book adapts the original movie, which is about Melvin Ferd—a bullied, sad-sack mop boy in a grungy gym in thoroughly corrupt Tromaville, N.J.—who winds up face-first in a barrel of toxic waste after a prank goes awry. In one of those twists of fate that only occur in comic books and B-movies, Melvin mutates into a superstrong, invulnerable, butt-ugly superhero who cleans up the mean streets of Tromaville and scores with a blind girl.

In terms of story, the book offers little surprises, sticking very close to the plot of the movie and throwing in a few background details about Tromaville and its characters. What makes Toxic Avenger such an enjoyably goofy read is Kaufman’s desire to deflate literary pretensions, much in the same way he’s poked fun and blown raspberries at the film industry for the past three decades.

Avenger has more footnotes than an annotated volume of the complete works of Shakespeare, all of them aimed at tweaking the narrative, the readers, the creative process, popular fiction, and any other convention that should stray into Kaufman’s field of fire. He takes a few shots at himself, in the form of faux editor’s notes, and the chapter describing Melvin’s traumatic plunge into toxic waste, supposedly written by J.D. Salinger (seriously), is so convincing it almost makes you wonder if the legendary recluse actually put pen to paper for the first time since 1965.

Kaufman knows who makes up his target audience quite well, and gives them what they want—specifically, gobs of bloody violence and X-rated sex. Plenty of both are scattered throughout the tome, and in one chapter he goes so far as to lend readers a, ahem, helping hand by bolding and italicizing the wanking material in order to make it easier to find. It results in such choice passages as: “Plotnick just has his panties in a bunch because he actually has to do some police work for a change. He’s covering his ass. He doesn’t have anything on us.”

On Amazon.com, one customer reviewer describes The Toxic Avenger as being “as true as A Million Little Pieces and even funnier than Lord Jim.” He’s exactly right, and given Troma’s knack for working an angle and milking an opportunity, there will no doubt be more Toxic Avenger spin-off projects. Can Citizen Toxie: The Musical be far behind?

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