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ProFile Friday: In Memorium

Isabelle Daniel “Barbara” Hall Fiske Calhoun, best known for her work (as Barbara Hall) on “Girl Commandos” and “Pat Parker, War Nurse” during the Golden Age of Comics, died this past Monday, April 28, 2014 at age 94 in a nursing home in White River Junction, Vermont, not far from the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her daughter Ladybelle and son in law Brion were with her for the last days of her life. She died peacefully and without struggle. Drawing and painting remained her main interest in her final days. “Art is prayer,” she frequently said

Hall was born in 1919 into an old Southern family. Her ancestors had fought the British during the Revolutionary War, and later fought on the Southern side in the American Civil War. She studied painting in Los Angeles, moving to New York City in 1940. She showed her portfolio to Harvey Comics in 1941, and was hired to draw the comic “Black Cat”. Her next strip was “Girl Commandos”, about an international team of Nazi-fighting women. This comic was developed from “Pat Parker, War Nurse”, about a “freelance fighter for freedom.” When stationed in India, this nurse recruited a British nurse, an American radio operator, a Soviet photographer, and a Chinese patriot. Hall continued this strip until 1943. Girl Commandos was taken over by Jill Elgin. On January 8, 1946, she married writer and playwright Irving Fiske and became Barbara Hall Fiske.

Hall continued her art career as a tempera and pastel painter. Together with her husband, she began an alternative living group/artists and writers’ colony in Rochester, Vermont, called Quarry Hill. (Later it became known as the Quarry Hill Creative Center.) She and Irving Fiske had two children, Isabella (Ladybelle) and William.

In the Sixties, through her daughter, Ladybelle, she met and became friends with many well-known underground cartoonists, including R. Crumb, Trina Robbins, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, and others. Ladybelle met Art Spiegelman in 1966 through Trina Robbins and also, concurrently, through a group of Spiegelman’s fellow-students at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In 1978, Ladybelle, Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly, and some other Quarry Hill residents created Top-Drawer Rubber Stamp Company, which featured art by Crumb, Spiegelman and many other cartoonists and artists. This hand-made art rubber stamp company provided employment for several Quarry Hill residents for a time.

Barbara Hall Fiske designed several images for Top-Drawer including angels, an image of William Blake (Quarry Hill’s favorite poet and artist), and more.

Hall divorced Fiske in the 1970s, created Lyman Hall, Inc. (after a collateral ancestor who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence) to run the Quarry Hill property, and took the name Barbara Fiske Calhoun after her second marriage in the 1990s.

One of her “Pat Parker, War Nurse” stories was reprinted recently in Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics edited by Mike Madrid.

Happy 4th of July!

Miss America: Golden Age originals by Pauline Loth, re-imagining by Ramona Fradon.

Breaking News in the World of Women’s Comics History!

What started out as an offhand Google search in the midst of combing through the 1940 Census turned into a series of e-mails between myself and quintessential comics “herstorian” Trina Robbins and has concluded with a victory in the race against time in preserving women’s place in Golden Age comics history.

To wit, Frances Deitrick Hopper, one of the many female artists behind comics publisher Fiction House’s adventure heroines, such as Gale Allen, Jane Martin, and Mysta of the Moon, has been “rediscovered” alive at the age of 90 in New Jersey.

Until now, her life after her last comics credit in 1948 has been a mystery to historians— one of many in the comics field and perhaps never thought to be solved.  But in an attempt to find her hypothetical obituary turned up something better (at least for my research purposes): the obituary of her husband from 2010, stating that at least at the time, she survived him.

Alas, I am a responsible adult now with a real job, and I couldn’t be chasing down leads to possibly living nonagenarians in questionable health, so I went to the person who has the best job in the world, which is to do exactly that, Ms. Trina Robbins.

Using information from Dr. Hopper’s obituary, Trina got in touch with Fran Hopper’s daughter, a retired pediatrician in Massachusetts.  And earlier this afternoon, I got a very excited e-mail from Trina, informing me that she had just gotten off the phone with none other than Fran Hopper herself, alive and well and still sharp as a tack.

I eagerly look forward to Trina’s upcoming book, which she informs me will contain images and information furnished by Mrs. Hopper.  And just maybe we can dream of a Fiction House reunion between Fran Hopper and Lily Renee.

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