Friday, May 13, 2005

Amazon Queen of the Bayou

Hey, Pogo! Comic Art Friday done come on Friday the 13th this month!

Have you ever wondered what superheroes do on their days off? In the imagination of comics artist Peter Krause, Wonder Woman likes to head down to a quiet bayou and pretend she's Claudia Jennings in 'Gator Bait.

Many of you are much too young for the name Claudia Jennings to mean anything to you. But for a few years in the 1970s, she was the Queen of the Drive-In — that's drive-in movies, kids, where your parents used to sit in a car and watch (or pretend to watch) cheesy films on a humongous screen in the middle of a giant parking lot.

Born Mary Eileen "Mimi" Chesterton, Claudia Jennings was one of the few starlets to begin her career as a Playboy centerfold (Miss November 1969 and Playmate of the Year 1970 -- at least, that's what I'm told...) and go on to a non-pornographic film career, even though most of her flicks did involve her getting nekkid at some point. She appeared mostly as trailer-trash RAPs (Redneck American Princesses) in low-budget exploitation pictures with titles like Truck Stop Women, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Moonshine County Express, and the aforementioned 'Gator Bait, wherein Claudia changed forever the way young men would think about denim vests and cutoffs.

Despite her (to put it charitably) limited range as an actress, Claudia twice narrowly missed out on starring roles that would have vaulted her to the forefront of mainstream entertainment. She was the second choice to Lynda Carter when the latter was cast as Wonder Woman in the '70s TV series. She also was passed over after almost being cast as Kate Jackson's replacement in Charlie's Angels — ABC executives were concerned about handing so prominent a prime-time role to a former Playboy Playmate, and insisted that the appropriately surnamed Shelley Hack (then appearing in ads for a fragrance called Charlie) be cast instead.

My key Claudia Jennings memory, however, has little to do with her acting. In October 1979, when I was a freshman at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Claudia was killed in an automobile accident barely a stone's throw from our campus. She had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel of her convertible while driving to her ex-lover's home to collect her belongings. She was two months shy of her 30th birthday, which would have been the day after my 18th.

For those of us who always imagined what the late Ms. Jennings would have looked like in the famous tiara and eagle-emblazoned garb of our favorite Amazon, this gorgeous artwork by Peter Krause may be as close as we get. I don't know whether Krause (best known as the penciler of DC Comics' The Power of Shazam!) had Claudia in mind when he created this custom drawing for his colleague, colorist Buzz Setzer, but the clothing, the setting, and especially the haunted eyes certainly suggest her influence.

And that's your Comic Art Friday the 13th.

(A special thanks to Buzz Setzer for allowing me the privilege of adding this marvelous treasure to my Wonder Woman gallery.)

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