When Luck was a Lady

Brenda Banks and Lady Luck

Never say ‘complete’. I have further wanderings in the Golden Age to come, with several others of DC’s old titles, but before that, I am going off-reservation a little with a look at the life of Klaus Nordling’s Lady Luck, aka society girl Brenda Banks.
This series is distinct from others I have gone through in two ways. Firstly, although most of the stories are taken from Smash Comics, published by Quality Comics, the series originally appeared in, and was reprinted from The Spirit Section, the informal title for a 16-page weekly comic book tabloid insert distributed as part of twenty American Sunday newspapers.
The Spirit Section was dominated by The Spirit, of course, with two four page features to round it off, Bob Powell’s ‘Mr Mystic’ and, from 1940, Lady Luck. Eisner created and designed the veiled crimefighter and wrote the first two stories before turning the feature over to Dick French to write for artist Chuck Mazoujian. The feature was later taken over by Nicholas Viscardi (better known later as Nick Cardy), all working under the house name Ford Davis. Script and art was taken over in 1942 by Klaus Nordling, who signed his own name to the series. The series was cancelled in 1946 but was only absent for two months until brought back for seven months by Fred Schwab.
So immediately we’re looking at a character created to entertain a more adult audience, a newspaper audience that would likely not let their children read comic books but which would allow them to access the ‘Sunday Funnies’.
The other difference is that, with the exception of some very late seven and eleven page stories created by Nordling for Quality Comics at the very end of her career, Lady Luck only ever appeared in four page stories. And four pagers impose a certain limited style on a character.
So far as I am aware, no origin story was ever written. Irish-American Society girl Brenda Banks, a beautiful young blonde whose father owned a very successful mine, just appeared fully-formed as non-powered crime-fighter Lady Luck, an intelligent, wide-awake, athletic young woman with a well-developed talent for judo and the odd telling punch. As Lady Luck, Brenda wore a short-sleeved, knee-length green dress with a wide hem, a short, waist-length cape, a flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hat, and gloves of the same shade (the gloves had four-leaf clover designs on their back and in the beginning, the Lady’s hat was hung round the brim with luck symbols).

A close-up

And if you thought Denny Colt’s blue domino mask was an insufficient disguise, Brenda Banks relied on a gauzy pale-green veil ‘concealing’ her nose, mouth and jaw: hey, if Clark Kent gets away with it with glasses and a kiss-curl, who are we to question Miss Banks’ methods?
Unlike previous DVD-Roms I’ve enjoyed, my Lady Luck concentrates upon the one feature. There are no whole issues of Smash Comics with characters like Eisner’s self-rip-off, Midnight, to read, just Lady Luck. The DVD-Rom contains just five files, the first of which holds one Nordling story from the First American Series Lady Luck book published in the Eighties and the rest Nordling stories from Smash. There’s no real continuity between stories – at four pages there’s no room for it – though some tales are clearly set out in sequence.
The Lady has a surprisingly large supporting cast. These include her oversized chauffeur, Peecolo, who talks in an ethnic Italian, another occasional assistant, the jockey-sized Pinky, and her father’s Swedish maid Helga, all of whom know her double-identity, and the weedy impoverished European aristocrat Count DiChange, forever seeking to propose to either Brenda (for her money) or Lady Luck (for her veiled beauty – hey, there’s no veil across those legs) but somehow never getting the chance.
Later on, the Count gets identified as Raoul and is trusted with Brenda’s alter-ego.
There are of course others, especially among the Police and the women’s auxilliary Lady Luck Brigade, who frequently see both Brenda’s identities, but somehow no-one ever twigs, not even in one adventure where she operates without hat or veil.
The first of the files contains exclusively Nordling stories. As I said, they’re all four pages long, which doesn’t really allow for discussion of any single story or stories. But the stories are fun and indeed frequently amusing. Nordling’s art is clear and simple, realistic in so far as Lady Luck is concerned, but bordering on cartoon caricature with almost everybody else. He’s less detailed than Eisner but he adopts a similar approach to naturalistic body positioning within the determined comic.
As these stories were being created during the Second World War, the hostilities, and the threats of both German and Japanese take up a considerable portion of Lady Luck’s time, alongside the criminals she so regularly foils. A couple of times, her dual-identity is threatened with exposure, necessitating complex plans to throw the would be exposer off the trail, especially the persistent ‘Colonel’ Smath.

A splash page

In general, the page limitation keeps everything brief and brisk, and certainly Nordling can get a far more entertaining story out of four pages that Green Arrow and Aquaman ever got out of six, but it’s true to say that he miscalculates several times and has to chop stories a bit confusingly short. There were one or two stories where I was left wondering what was supposed to have happened, and the first ‘Colonel’ Smath story ended without an ending, as if there were supposed to be extra pages to complete it.
I’ve said previously that most Golden Age comedy strips don’t amuse me, ‘Scribbly’ honourably excepted. I should also have excepted The Spirit from that generalisation and the same goes for Lady Luck, which had me giggly at its effervescent presentation many times. And I’d like to mention that that in 154 pages, there wasn’t the slightest suggestion from anyone, least of all the Police, that the Lady shouldn’t be doing this because she was a broad. In the 1940s, no less.
The second file contained a further few four pagers from Smash Comics but was mainly comprised of the five issues of Lady Luck. This was a continuation of Smash, picking up its numbering after its cancellation with issue 85, for five more issues entirely devoted to the Lady in Green. These were brand new adventures created by Nordling, consisting of seven to eleven pages, but the surprise was that, though Nordling kept to the same formula, the extra space took the pace way down, encouraged some stories to get too complicated and was fatal to the laughter.
The art was still of the same quality and you’d happily look at both Brenda and the Lady, but nothing could match the antic idiosyncrasy of the classic four page short.
The third file goes back to the beginning of the series, reprinted from actual ‘Spirit Sections’. It’s credited to ‘Ford Davis’, and it’s a horse of a different colour to the classic Nordling period. Lady Luck’s costume is subtly different, including a tight, wrap-around jacket and a longer cape, extending down to her pert bottom, but the biggest difference is that the Lady wears no veil to blur her features, and several people do comment upon her strong resemblance to heiress Brenda Banks.
More importantly, the element of humour is missing. This Lady Luck may well be bright and effervescent but she and her stories are quite serious, even after Viscardi introduces Peecolo, courtesy of Brenda’s parents return from a long holiday that’s enabled her to operate freely, without concern for her comings and goings from home.
The first couple of available stories show her coming up against the Police in the form of Chief ‘Handsome’ Hardy Moore and Sergeant Feeny. To them, she’s an outlaw, presumably because she’s a vigilante, whereas she never does anything crooked, just breaks the rules to bring in crooks and save people.
Almost immediately, Lady Luck goes globe-trotting, endless exotic adventures abroad, usually involving her having to swim for it once a week, albeit with no detrimental affect on her hair. Scripter French manages to fit his stories into four brief pages without strain: indeed, he could have wrapped several of them up in three without being too simplistic.
Art-wise, there’s none of Nordling’s tendencies towards Eisnerian cartooning: characters stay within ordinary human form and Brenda/the Lady are drawn in a slightly attenuated fashion that emphasises their slimness and height.
As America enters the War, Brenda’s father Bruce is sent to south America for his Government. His daughter accompanies him, as does Lady Luck (‘gosh, you do look like Brenda Banks!’) who gets appointed head of security!

The penultimate issue

It’s not until the fourth file, again taken from original Sunday pages, that Klaus Nordling arrives to partner ‘Ford Davis’ on 22 March 1942 and so does Lady Luck’s veil. And Nordling’s semi-comic approach is there fully-formed, in a first panel claiming that this page is secret and is not to be read. The difference is delightful. Admittedly, there’s some overlap with the Smash Comics reprints and the stories are by no means continuous – Nordling’s debut sees Brenda Banks ‘killed’ and Lady Luck wondering how to take advantage of the possibilities, but the next story is three months later, so no, I don’t know.
The final file was more from the Sundays, but only as far as very early 1946, short of Lady Luck’s cancellation, and nothing from Fred Schwab’s coda-like run. A pity, it would have been good to have a representative from every stage of the series.
So not a conventional kind of look, with reference to any stories, because the character doesn’t suit that kind of approach. Nor has Lady Luck been revived at any time after the Forties, except for a one-off appearance, at the hands of Geoff Johns, which I wouldn’t wish on any innocent character, in a one-off Phantom Stranger issue during the New 52, in which she became of supernatural character. No, I say, no, you blackguard!
No, reading these stories as they accumulated, I thought I’d like to see Lady Luck as a TV series, period-set to enable the grotesques to appear without getting too heavy, and some level-headed actress to play Brenda Banks and Lady Luck dead-straight. If they could capture Nordling’s tone, it could be terribly fun, like Tales of the Gold Monkey always was. Lady Luck may well be a forgotten and minor character of the Golden Age, but she’s a lot less deserving of that oblivion than many others of the time.

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