For those not in the know, Honey West first debuted in a series of hardboiled mysteries written by a husband and wife team that assumed the pseudonym G.G. Fickling. The late, great Anne Francis later embodied the blonde bombshell detective on ’60s television, where Honey acquired a pet ocelot named Bruce.
Elaine Lee draws mostly from the prose rather than the television series to write “Murder on Mars;” although Bruce does accompany Honey in her foray to discover the killer of B-Movie actress Zu-Zu Varga. We would be disappointed if he didn’t.
Lee nails Honey’s attitude as well as the overt steaminess and spice presented in the Honey West novels. Criminals often force Honey to undress, or she lose articles of clothing when trying to escape. Once, she played strip poker as a stalling tactic. The Honey West novels, however, were not marketed in adult book stores. Fickling was serious about the detection and the detective, who took over the business after her father was murdered.
Lee follows suit by presenting a plethora of suspects and buries the clues to keep the reader guessing. Numerous inside jokes also manifest. For example, a familiar-looking robot from Anne Francis’ past waylays Honey during the investigation. The name Zu-Zu alludes to the famous ’30 B-Movie star ZaSu Pitts. Her surname Varga may also refer to Alberto Vargas — perhaps the greatest pin-up artist ever to wield a brush.
In “Murder on Mars,” Elaine Lee emancipates Honey. Honey engages in sexplay with one of the suspects just because she likes sex and thinks he’s worth a good teeth-rattling, to quote Honey’s spiritual descendent, Laura Holt. The sex scene may shock a few readers, but nobody would blink an eye if a male private investigator had a sexual dalliance with a female character in a novel. Lee attacks a double-standard using Honey, a symbol of feminism before such a phrase was coined, as her weapon.
Lee’s partner in crime serves her well. Artist Ronn Sutton brings to mind a “cleaner,” less sadomasochistically-inclined Eric Stanton. Ronn’s full-figured ’60s women are tonics, and Sutton carefully considers stylish period fashion as well as chintzy B-Movie costuming to boost the visual content. Admittedly, Sutton doesn’t replicate Anne Francis’ look, but I’m not sure that was the plan in the first place. Sutton is, however, consistent with his version of Honey West, and he harnesses certain characteristics from the actress that have become associated with how people envision Honey West: Anne Francis’ striking beauty mark for instance, her functional, yet attractive haircut, the black catsuit she frequently wore on the series.
The artist furthermore does his research for the setting and backdrops. As a result, little things like metal ice trays and Coca-Cola bottles pepper the panels as reminders of the period. Sometimes these hints serve to further obfuscate the mystery. Is the perfume Zanzabar a clue or merely a nod to another era? Certainly, the Red Herring Grill matchbook is a warning.
Unlike some artists, Sutton doesn’t seem at all embarrassed when presenting the sex scene. Although shadows do envelop Honey and her conquest in strategic places, they, along with Ken Wolak’s lilac skin tones evoking flesh in the dark and the reds that segue to the cliffhanger, genuinely enhance the sensuality of the scenario.
The scene’s not explicit. The imagination certainly can run wild between the panels, but the sequence crosses the line drawn in the sand by the PG-13 rating. It is definitely one of the hotter scenes I’ve seen in comics, and the book benefits by accepting the audience’s maturity and giving Honey West greater sincerity that distinguishes the title from just-another-spin-off. To be sure, I’m not advocating salaciousness in the Spider-Man titles or a libidinous Nancy Drew. Rather, there’s a right way to employ such a scene and wrong way. It’s appropriate in some places but not in others. Lee and Sutton have good judgment.
While I wouldn’t recommend Honey West for kids, any mature fan of the character, the television series or mysteries will get a kick out of Elaine Lee’s and Ronn Sutton’s “Murder on Mars.”