Posts Tagged ‘Terry and the Pirates’

One brief announcement: I’m gonna be visiting a few blogs in coming weeks. Charles Yallowitz of Legends of Windermere will be hosting me Sunday, so look forward to that. On January 19th, my dragon character Tetheus will drop by Lisa Burton Radio on Craig Boyack’s Entertaining Stories.

It’s all to support my collection, Aunt Ursula’s Atlas. You have  bought yours, right??


Throughout history, there have always been special words to describe a woman who had a forceful nature. Harridan, bitch, nasty woman… My personal favorite has always been Dragon Lady.

We all know that dragons are so mean, right? Bold, fierce, rapacious. Or maybe just a little bit outspoken. All the things that a woman is not supposed to be.

Although English does contain a few references to an aggressive woman as a dragon or dragoness earlier than 1900, the specific term “dragon lady” springs from the character in Terry and the Pirates. (See my last blog post.) While supposedly a villain, Dragon Lady is one of those special characters who the public really took to their hearts.

Perhaps it was the slinky outfits she wore. Perhaps it was the mystique of the Orient or the woman’s determination to make her own way. Her image was wildly popular and influential. It’s said that numerous planes in World War II had Dragon Lady nose-cone art. Dragon Lady’s character evolved from a pirate queen to a freedom fighter. Even on the occasions when the good-guys captured her, they invariably found some reason to let her go. So in the reader’s mind she remained a supreme woman, undefeated and triumphant.

As the term “dragon lady” made its way into common use, it could be applied to any woman who made a mark on the world stage — especially if she was Asian. Wives of Asian leaders and actresses playing action roles were equally styled as dragon ladies.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the flogging. The label “dragon lady,” which was intended as a put-down, morphed as much as the Dragon Lady herself had. Nowadays, “dragon lady” is as much a term of respect as an insult. You can say that dragons are vicious, malicious and cruel — or you can say they’re tough, determined and smart. Like the phrase “nasty woman,” used by Donald Trump to annoy Hillary Clinton, “dragon lady” has taken on a life of its own.

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Terry and the Pirates was a long-running (1933 – 73) comic series by the noted American comic artist, Milton Caniff. It was basically a boy’s adventure story set in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Young Terry Lee and his pal, the intrepid reporter Pat Ryan, busted gangs and scooped headlines in places where the actual authorities feared to tread. From the outset, one of their recurring foes was the Dragon Lady, a.k.a. Madam Deal. (Her birth name was Lai Choi San. I have no idea if that could be an actual Chinese name, or if the author simply made it up.)

At the time the series began, Americans regarded Southeast Asia much as contemporary Americans do the Middle East: a lawless and barbaric place where anything might happen (usually something bad). Anyone of Asian descent was subject to the most grotesque caricature. This is impossible to escape in the popular entertainments of the time, such as Terry and the Pirates. The Dragon Lady was definitely part of that package: sleek, seductive and coldly evil. Although she’s supposed to be Chinese, her image is reminiscent more of Greta Garbo than anyone Asian.

The Dragon Lady was a powerful figure in the Chinese underworld. She was boss of the pirates that Terry and Pat were always meddling with, not to mention drug smuggling and who knows what else. But as the series went on, the character grew beyond that role. Tensions were mounting toward World War II, and there was a lot of talk about the “Yellow Peril” (Japanese ambitions in the Pacific). After war actually broke out, the Dragon Lady’s role changed significantly. She became a resistance fighter trying to drive the Japanese out of China. This wasn’t completely altruistic, since the Japanese occupation was interfering with her underworld empire. Still, she became a “frenemy” who worked alongside Terry and Pat more often than not. She and Pat Ryan were in love, and she also shared moments of warmth with Terry. However, those feelings were never strong enough to interfere with her criminal lifestyle.

Check back with me on Tuesday for more about the Dragon lady.


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