Know Thy History: The Dragon Lady (from Terry And The Pirates)
What does the name Terry And The Pirates conjure up? Perhaps you’re thinking adventure on the high seas. Likely there will be a bunch of salty dogs, parrots, and eye-patches. Everyone would perhaps be wearing either red-and-white striped shirts or white frilly blouses. They’d also be going “Arrrr” all the time. And likely, one of those pirates would be named Terry. Not exactly the most threatening name for a pirate, amirite?
Well… you’d be wrong. The comic wasn’t set in the 17th to 18th century, when pirates like Captain Kidd and Blackbeard roamed the seven seas, strapping prisoners to the mizzen masts or making them walk the plank. Instead, the comic was set in the modern day … or the modern day of the era that it was written in. 1934 and onward, to be specific. It wasn’t set in the Caribbean, either. Terry And The Pirates took place in a world that was considered foreign and exotic to Western readers: the mysterious land of China.
Terry And The Pirates is considered the primary influence on Johnny Quest, which in turn was the influence behind The Venture Brothers. And why not? The hero is an American kid named Terry Lee, and he’d joined by a square-jawed journalist named Pat Ryan. It doesn’t take too much to see the parallels between those two and Johnny and Race Bannon. Terry and Pat are looking for treasure in China, but their progress is hampered by the local pirates.
One pirate in particular managed to capture the imagination of Terry And The Pirates readers. Creator Milton Caniff deserves his reputation as one of the most legendary comic artists. His panels were full of small details and the panels never failed to be cinematic. But if there’s one thing he’s known for above all, it’s his depictions of sexy ladies. And the most famous of those sexy ladies was the female Chinese pirate known as The Dragon Lady.
A lot of Terry And The Pirates is rather offensive to our more culturally sensitive eyes, especially with regards to the depiction of Chinese people. Take the character of George Webster “Connie” Confucius, for example. Remember when Jar Jar Binks debuted, and everyone complained how he was an embarrassing racial stereotype? My guess is Lucas lifted most of his traits from Connie. He’s a bumbling, buck-toothed, big-eared dope who spoke in broken English. You know, the one of the “Velly solly” variety.
And yet, Caniff is almost completely redeemed by his inclusion of The Dragon Lady, a.k.a. Madam Deal, a.k.a. Lai Choi San. Sure, she speaks in terrible English at the beginning, though her diction dramatically improves with her popularity. She still has a hard time wrapping her tongue around the word “American,” though, saying instead the clipped “Melican.” That doesn’t change the fact that she’s seen as a super-competent foe, one who eludes our heroes, the authorities, and rival pirates with ease. Plus, she just knew how to dress. Her powers were so legendary that the phrase “dragon lady” eventually entered American slang as both “an overbearing or tyrannical woman” and “a glamorous and often mysterious woman.”
If you’ve only been aware of comic book portrayals through Batman’s “Quiet or papa spank!” panel or all those comics where the hero warns the shrinking heroine that this is no place for a lady, then The Dragon Lady’s depiction may surprise you. Witness as she shows off her nifty collection of torture devices with the cool demeanor of someone showing off her collection of Swarovski crystals.
“Good heavens, sorry if this place is such a mess. Oh, that? That’s just my torture rack.”
She was shown as a mastermind, playing sides off against each other and coming out ahead. That is, until our red-blooded American heroes managed to outsmart her schemes. But just in case you thought the Dragon Lady was the sort of person that let her henchmen do all her dirty work for her, you should know that she is well-versed in the art of kick-assery.
Pat Ryan — the strapping two-fisted brawler of Terry And The Pirates, remember — is out with a love tap. Meanwhile, The Dragon Lady managed to fend off several would-be assassins in an ill-fated coup for control of her operations. And when it’s done, she back to lounging on the cushions as if nothing ever happened.
The Dragon Lady may have been the series’ signature evil villain, but she was also one that managed to win the respect of the good guys from page one. You’ve got to image Pat was secretly rooting for her to win. Every time Pat had a chance to turn her in to the authorities, he almost always opted to just let her go. Because, damn, she wasn’t the sort of lady you ran into every day. For him (and, by extension, Milton Caniff), the “tyrannical woman” connotation was not exactly a negative one.
Pat would eventually get tied to Burma (also a fiesty, spunky dame). Meanwhile, the Dragon Lady remained a cold, calculating strategist, though her allegiances changed with the times. When WWII broke out and the Japanese invaded China, Caniff felt that he should address this development in Terry And The Pirates. The comic took a dramatic change. Terry was aged a few years and became a pilot in the USAAF. Meanwhile, the Dragon Lady would become the leader of the Chinese resistance force. While she’s now on the side of the heroes, she proves to be no less ruthless.
In the real world The Dragon Lady would also be first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of the American countrymen. Aviators, especially. Perhaps soldiers admired her cold-blooded demeanor and her fighting spirit. Or maybe it was something else far more obvious. Her image would grace the side of several bombers, a testament to her popularity… and also to how many young servicemen wanted to see her boobs (probably NSFW, unless you work at the WWII classic airplane restoration center).