From December 2013

Secret histories and outlaw suffragettes: an interview with Tony Wolf, creator of “Suffrajitsu”

We’re pleased to be able to present this December, 2013 interview with Tony Wolf, the author of the upcoming graphic novel series Suffrajitsu.  Tony’s books will be part of the Foreworld Saga created by Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo and others.

Both Bartitsu and the elite Bodyguard Society of the British Suffragettes play key roles in the Suffrajitsu trilogy, which will be published by Jet City Comics.

SOME LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD …

Tony Wolf headshot 2

Q – Tony, this is your first graphic novel, but not your first book – how did you come to be asked to write this series, and did your prior work have anything to do with it?

TW – I’ve written and edited quite a lot of historical non-fiction, mostly on esoteric Victorian-era martial arts topics – that’s been my major research interest over the past fifteen years or so.  The project most directly relevant to the graphic novel was a children’s history book called Edith Garrud – the Suffragette that knew Jujitsu, which I wrote in 2009.

I actually kind of moved sideways into scripting Suffrajitsu out of my participation in brainstorming for another Foreworld project.  I think it was in late 2011 that Neal (Stephenson) first mentioned the graphic novel deal with Amazon and asked me to contribute something on the theme of the Suffragette bodyguards.

Q – How did the writing process compare to your prior books/anthologies?

TW – It was a joy in that after so many years of antiquarian research into these themes, this was my first real opportunity to get creative with them.  There was this sense of a dam, not completely bursting, but definitely exploding at certain key points.

Q – Tell us what you can about the series in your own words.

TW – Well, the events of the first book are based very closely on historical reports of actual incidents, although it’s become a kind of “secret history” in that the Suffragette Bodyguards were almost completely forgotten after the First World War.

We’re introduced to the main characters and their situation as political radicals – outlaws, really – in 1914 London.  By that time, both in real history and in my story,  the battle for women’s rights had reached a boiling point.  The suffragettes’ protests and the government’s reprisals were becoming more and more extreme.  Persephone Wright is the leader of a secret society of women known as the Amazons, who are sworn to protect their leaders, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, from arrest and assault.

Q – And that really happened, correct?

TW – Persephone is a fictional character but yes, there really was a secret bodyguard society attached to the militant suffragette movement.

The Amazons are Bartitsu-trained bodyguards and insurgents, saboteurs –  the most radical of the radicals.  They’re all under constant threat of imprisonment and worse.

Something happens in the first book that is a major divergence from actual history and that’s what spins the story off into the alternate timeline of the Foreworld universe.

Q – Where did you get the inspiration for the storyline when it veers away from history?

TW – It was clear that it would take a dramatic event to move the story into the events of the second book … I can’t say much more than that!

Q – But I understand that both historical and fictional characters appear as principal figures?

TW – Yes indeed.  Many of the characters, like Edward Barton-Wright, are lightly fictionalised versions of their historical selves – as well as I “know” them from research – transposed into the Foreworld timeline.

The real Amazons were literally a secret society and even now we only know the names of a few of the actual women who were involved.   I took that as artistic licence to bring in several “ringers” from both fiction and history.  Judith Lee, for example, was the protagonist of Richard Marsh’s popular series of  “lady detective” short stories during the early 20th century.  Flossie le Mar, another member of my imaginary Amazons team, was a historically real person – she was a pioneer of women’s self defence in New Zealand – but she also had a sort of dime novel “alter ego” as the adventurous “Ju-jitsu Girl”, so it was a very easy decision to make her one of the Amazons.

Q – Are any of them purely invented and, if so, what purposes do those characters fulfill?

TW – The only major character that I entirely invented is Persephone Wright herself.  Even though she was partly inspired by several real suffragettes, including Gert Harding and Elizabeth Robins, I wanted the freedom of creating an original protagonist.

Persi actually surprised me several times – she’s much more of a Bohemian than I’d first imagined, and there’s a fascinating tension between her free-thinking inclinations and her disciplined drive to protect people at any cost.  She’s roughly half hippie and half samurai.  I think she’d often really rather be off partying at the Moulin Rouge or writing poetry in a Greenwich Village tea-room, but damn it, she has her duties.

Q – What do you hope will come out of the series?

TW – My dream scenario is that it will inspire readers to create their own stories set in the world of the Amazons; anything beyond that will be gravy.

Q – Do you have any trepidation about being a male author writing a graphic novel with mostly female protagonists?

TW – No, but I’m aware that some readers will have me under the microscope on that account.  My only agenda is that I think it’s amazing that a secret society of female bodyguards defied their government, putting their physical safety and freedom on the line over and over again, to secure the right to participate as equals in a democracy.  Their story was absolutely begging to be told in some medium or other and I’m honoured to have been given that chance.

One thing I tried hard to do, allowing that this is a work of alternate history fiction, was to portray the Amazons as fallible human beings.  For example, some of them have habits and attitudes that have become deeply unfashionable over the past century.  They’re also more-or-less outlaws and have that very specific ethical/political perspective of the end sometimes justifying the means; none of them are entirely “wholesome”.  Actually, none of them are “entirely” anything.  As far as I’m concerned, their foibles, ambiguities and unique perspectives make them worthwhile as characters.

Likewise, I’ve been careful to try to convey that it wasn’t just a simple matter of “righteous women versus oppressive men”.  Historically, many men energetically supported women’s suffrage – the newspapers nicknamed them “suffragents” – and many women were vehemently opposed to it, especially as the cause became more radical.

Q – Would you have been a suffragent?

TW – Absolutely!

Q – How has the process of working on Suffrajitsu been for you?

TW – It’s been an intensive, ground-up self-education in the nuts and bolts of scripting a graphic novel.  You’re constantly playing Tetris with the plot and dialogue to work everything in within strict boundaries – only so many words to a speech balloon, so many speech balloons or captions to a panel, panels to page and so-on. My editors and João Vieira, the artist, have been very patient with me as I’ve worked those things out.

Obviously, there’s a huge amount of sub-plot and back-story etc. that I simply couldn’t fit in.  We’re currently developing the Suffrajitsu.com website for the series, which will help with all of that and hopefully allow for some ongoing, active engagement with readers.  There will also be some free short stories to whet readers’ appetites for further Suffragette Amazon adventures.

Q – Do you have a favourite character or a favourite moment in the series?

TW – Oh, that’s hard … my inner 13-year-old has a real weakness for cool badasses so perhaps the mysterious Miss Sanderson is a favourite in that sense.  Similarly, (name of the villain redacted because spoilers) … the fact that he was actually a real person is somehow both appalling and deeply satisfying. If he hadn’t really existed, I would have had to invent him.

I do have a favourite moment, come to think of it, but that comes late in the third book.  I haven’t even seen the art for that sequence yet, so it’ll have to wait for a future interview!

Q – Finally, then, when will the stories be released?

TW – We don’t have definite dates yet, but the website will probably be officially launched in November and the first book is scheduled to be published during early 2015.  All of the stories will be issued first as individual e-books via Kindle, then later together with some bonus material as a printed collector’s edition.

Q – That’s something to look forward to!  Thanks for your time.

TW – Thank you!

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Kitty Marshall: Suffragette bodyguard

In the Suffrajitsu graphic novel, Kitty Marshall is portrayed as the youngest member of the Amazon bodyguard team.  In real life, she was one of the very few members of Mrs. Pankhurst’s undercover security team whose activities were recorded for posterity …

From Jujitsu Suffragettes, by Emelyne Godfrey, BBC History Magazine Nov. 2012.

Kitty Marshall as visualised by artist Yasmin Liang in Book 1 of  the graphic novel "Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons".
Kitty Marshall as visualised by artist Yasmin Liang.

Katherine Willoughby Marshall, a member of Emmeline’s bodyguard team, later recalled:

“Our orders were that as the clock struck nine we were to jump out and attack the seven policemen and detectives, who had been placed in front of the house where Mrs Pankhurst was a prisoner. Behind our taxi was also another lot of bodyguards, and as the clock struck nine, out rushed the bodyguards who had remained at the house. The blue car was directly in front of the front door, and all of us fell on some policeman or detective. I chose a big man with a large mackintosh cape. I knocked his helmet over his eyes and brandished my Indian club about his head. Out came Mrs. Pankhurst and into the blue car, which was driven away by a smart woman driver, hell for leather…

The bodyguard (and) I got into the waiting taxi and away it went with orders to drive as quickly as possible to Piccadilly Circus. The taxi driver was very interested and wanted to know what it was all about, so I told him that we had helped Mrs. Pankhurst to escape. He said he had never seen anything like it and was very intrigued to have been in the rescue.”

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“Sandwina”, the Woman of Steel

Katharina Brumbach (1884-1952), better known by her stage name, “Sandwina”, was born into a family of Austrian circus athletes and strength performers.

As a teenager she received extensive physical training that augmented her natural gifts towards great strength. By the time she made her official debut in her family’s circus act – offering 100 marks to any man in the audience who could defeat her in a wrestling match – she already stood close to six feet tall and weighed in the region of two hundred pounds.

Her stage name was purportedly adopted after she defeated the famous strongman Eugen Sandow in a weightlifting contest during the very early 1900s (“Sandwina” being a feminine variant of “Sandow”). She and her husband, acrobat Max Heymann, developed a double act in which Sandwina played the role of a soldier going through a rifle drill, manipulating Heymann as if he were a rifle.

Sandwina

By 1911 the couple were touring vaudeville and circus circuits throughout the United States and Europe, with Sandwina performing numerous impressive feats of strength including bending iron bars, breaking chains and supporting enormous weights on her shoulders. She became particularly famous in America, where she was seen as an exemplar of several popular cultural trends including eugenics, physical culture and women’s suffrage. Circa 1912 she became the vice-president of a suffrage society within the Barnum and Bailey Circus, although she was quoted as saying that she feared suffrage might “masculinise” women.

Retiring from the circus life, Sandwina and her family opened a popular tavern and restaurant in Ridgeway, New Jersey, where she continued to perform feats of strength for their patrons every Saturday night. She also took a hand in training her son Teddy, who became a prominent professional boxer, during the 1920s and 30s.

A New York Mirror newspaper article of December 15, 1947 recorded an incident in which a “bruiser” had entered Sandwina’s bar, berated everyone in sight and then started aggressively for Max. Under such circumstances, Sandwina – known to all in the neighbourhood as “Mama” – was known to say to her husband, “Papa, open the door …”. She knocked the bruiser out cold with one punch and ejected him from the premises. Apparently, this sort of thing happened often enough that the local cops had developed a customary word of caution for Sandwina the strongwoman:

“Mama, don’t hit him too hard!”

Sandwina, the Woman of Steel appears as a member of the Amazon bodyguard team in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel series.

The Mighty Sandwina, aged 63 years, bends a steel strap into a pretzel.
The Mighty Sandwina, aged 63 years, bends a steel strap into a pretzel.
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“Woman’s Handiest Weapon”: the stiletto hatpin (1904)

From The New York Times, 1904:

The Hatpin Inflicts a Severe Wound and Can Be Got Ready for Action in a Moment

“What shall we do in case we are attacked by some thief or ruffian?” is the question women have asked in every part of the country. The man to whom the question is put will generally answer: “Carry a revolver.” But women dread revolvers. Few women possess the nerve necessary to use a pistol with effect when attacked. Then there is the objection to a revolver in the possession of a woman that she would be averse to suspecting the motive of every man she met and would probably fail to draw the revolver until too late, for fear of making a foolish mistake. What, then, can be provided for her that will be formidable to a foe, yet absolutely safe, so far as she is concerned, and ever ready at hand, whether wanted for use or not?

The answer to the puzzle has been provided by those who make women’s hatpins. A hatpin has been designed that is intended primarily for use as a weapon of defense. It is in reality a stiletto, masquerading as an innocent hatpin. It is made of fine steel, that will bend, but will not break, as sharp as a needle, and hardened at the end so that it can be used with deadly effect as a dagger, and a handle that enables a woman to grasp it for use as a weapon and hold it so that it cannot easily be pulled from her hand.

“When attacked from behind, she grasps a hatpin. Turning quickly, she is able to strike a fatal blow in the face.”

There are two ways of holding this hatpin. It can be held with the thumb pressed against the top or with the button grasped in the palm of the hand. In either way it is a weapon not to be despised. The method of using it to the best advantage when attacked is to aim at the face of the highwayman. A woman armed with one of these stilettos is able to do more damage in a few seconds than a man unarmed. The wicked little blade is so small that it is impossible to grasp it to wrench it away from her, and yet so keen is it that, thrust home by a woman frenzied by fear, it is likely to pierce through any ordinary clothing into a vital part of a highwayman’s anatomy.

There are times in most women’s lives when a suspicious looking character comes into the offing and prudence whispers: “Beware of him.” While most women would shrink under these circumstances from pulling out a revolver, it is an innocent act to put the hand to the hat and draw out one of her stiletto-like hatpins. With this in her hand the nervous woman is ready for the stranger, whatever his Intentions. If he is an honest man he will probably take no notice of the woman’s action. If he is a thief, it is more than probable that he will mark the act and let the woman pass unmolested.

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Defence Against the “Hooligan”: Bartitsu Methods in London (1901)

An article by “S.L.B.” from “The Sketch”, April 10, 1901:

Last year, a very interesting exhibition of self defence was given at St. James’s Hall, and was the subject of prolonged discussion by many of the people present. Mr. Edward Barton-Wright, who gave the demonstration, was honoured with an invitation to repeat it before the Prince of Wales, but he met with a bicycle accident and the exhibition became impossible. It may be that the style of self-defence introduced to public notice would have failed to attract attention by reason of its novelty alone, but Mr. Barton-Wright had not mastered it without the firm intent to give it a fair chance before the public. He proceeded to found a Club at 67b, Shaftesbury Avenue, where physical culture may be studied under Professors of all nationalities, some of the best of the world’s athletes and sportsmen being engaged as instructors. To-day the work is in full swing, stimulated by the uprising of the “hooligan”.

In his early days, Mr. Barton-Wright was an engineer, and his duties took him into strange lands and among ill-disposed people. He had to go slowly, and to learn that the knowledge of boxing under the Queensberry rules, his sole accomplishment then among the arts of self-defence, is of little or no use against men who attack their opponents with feet as well as hands, from below the belt as well as above it, from the back as well as face-to-face, and with bludgeons, life-preservers, knives and other persuasive weapons. The straightforward stroke that, catching the ruffian upon the “point” or “mark”, disables him from further attempts, is of little or no good when it cannot be delivered, and in every city he visited the young engineer found more and more to learn.

Soon he was seized with the bright idea of combining the self-defence of all nations into a system that, when properly acquired, should enable a man to defy anything but firearms or a sudden stab in the dark.

The chief point to bear in mind was that an adequate system of defence must be able to meet any form of attack; the man who endeavours to disable you by kicking you in the stomach is entitled to as much respect and consideration as he who strives to garrote you, or to try the relative resisting powers of a loaded stick and your skull.

The Bartitsu Club, through its Professors, over whom Mr. Barton-Wright keeps an admonishing eye, guarantees you against all danger. In one corner is M. Vigny, the World’s Champion with the single-stick: the Champion who is the acknowledged master of savate trains his pupils in another. He could kill you and twenty like you if he so desired in the interval between breakfast and lunch – but, as a matter of fact, he never does. He leads you gently on with gloves and single-stick, through the mazes of the arts, until, at last, with your trained eye and supple muscles, no unskilled brute force can put you out, literally or metaphorically.

In another part of the Club are more Champions, this time from far Japan, where self-defence is taken far more seriously than here. The Champion Wrestler of Osaka, or one of the shining lights among the trainers for the Tokio police, dressed in the picturesque garb of his corner of the Far East, will teach you once more of how little you know of the muscles that keep you perpendicular, and of the startling effects of sudden leverage properly applied. The Japanese Champions are terribly strong and powerful; at a private rehearsal of their work, given some two months ago on the Alhambra stage, I saw a little Jap. who is about five feet nothing in height and eight stone in weight, do just what he liked with a strong North of England wrestler more than six feet high, broad, muscular and confident. The little one ended by putting his opponent gently on his back, and the big one looked as if he did not know how it was done.

There is no form of grip that the Japanese jujitsu work does not meet and foil, and in Japan a policeman learns the jujitsu wrestling as part of his equipment for active service. One of the Club trainers was professionally engaged to teach the police in Japan before he came to England to serve under Mr. Barton-Wright.

When you have mastered the various branches of the work done at the Club, which includes a system of physical drill taught by another Champion, this time from Switzerland, the world is before you, even though a “Hooligan” be behind you. You are not only safe from attack, you can do just what you like with the attacking party. He is as helpless in your well-trained hands as a railway-engine in the hands of its driver. The “Hooligan” does not understand the principles on which he works; you do, and, if it pleases you to make his machinery ineffective for further assaults upon unoffending citizens, you can do so in a way that cannot be believed until it is seen. No part of South London need have terrors for you; Menilmontant, La Vilette and the shadier side of the Bois are as safe for you in Paris as the Place de l’Opera. I find myself wishing that the Bartitsu Club had been in Shaftesbury Avenue as recently as some five or six years ago, when shortly after midnight the slums of Soho would send forth ruffians at whose approach wise men sought the light.

The work of the Club makes a strong appeal to Englishmen, because they are naturally of an adventurous disposition and have a great aversion to the use of any but natural weapons of defence in the brawls that they are bound to encounter now and again. There is a keen pleasure in being able to turn the tables on a man who tries to assault us suddenly and by means that he relies upon to give him an unfair advantage. I am well assured that a few of Mr. Barton-Wright’s pupils sent into a district infested by “Hooligans” would do more to bring about law and order than a dozen casual arrests followed by committal with hard labour, with or without the “cat”. And there is an element of sport in the Bartitsu method that should appeal to any “Hooligan” with a sense of humour.

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Neal Stephenson foreshadows “Suffrajitsu”

An excerpt from an interview by Douglas Wolk for the io9 website on May 30, 2012:

I ask Stephenson about the cane-fighting subgroup that drew Greg and Erik Bear into the project, and he’s off into explanatory mode again. (I’m not complaining. I could listen to Neal Stephenson explain stuff all day.) “It’s an interesting thing,” Stephenson says, “because from a distance 19th-century martial arts looks kind of dorky — it looks like Monty Python. It ties into everything we believe about the Victorians: that they were out of touch with their bodies, that they didn’t really understand medicine very well, and that they were uncomfortable with physical activities. But once you get into it, you find that these people really knew what they were doing in terms of physical culture, in terms of self-defense. Victorians were really serious about staying fit.

Part of what makes this an interesting story is how, in the 19th century, jiujitsu was adopted by women. This guy Barton-Wright brought jiujitsu to London. He came back from Japan and created a club called the Bartitsu Club. He taught the mixed martial art of jiujitsu, bare-knuckle fighting, savate, stick fighting and a few other things. He brought in a couple of teachers from Japan, and would take them around the music halls—have them challenge huge, burly guys and throw them around. This had an unintentional side effect that suffragettes would see these performances, and decide they wanted to learn self-defense: ‘I want to defeat a man!’ Jiujitsu as a ‘husband-tamer’!

We want to do a side-story quest thing about the jiujitsu suffragettes. The image that we’re all dying to get into a full-page spread in a comic book is this lineup of Edwardian women with the flowered hats and the long skirts and the bustles, and they’re all walking eight abreast down a London street, swaggering toward the camera and approaching a bunch of bobbies… if we could get that image in some medium, that would be a good thing.”

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The extraordinary Toupie Lowther

May “Toupie” Lowther (1874-1944) was a woman of many parts. Born into a very wealthy family, she was educated in France and returned to England as a fluent French speaker, an excellent singer, skilled composer and all-around athlete who quickly made names for herself in both competitive tennis and foil fencing.

If Miss Toupee (sic) Lowther had not devoted most of her leisure to sport — sport of a strenuous, masculine type — one could almost picture her leading a public movement in favour of “Woman’s Rights.” For she is essentially a lady of strong personality, destined to command, and her knowledge of men and women is so wide, her disregard of petty restrictions so pronounced, that apparently nothing would stop her if she once made up her mind publicly to support a policy of emancipation.

In the latter connection, her father, Captain William Francis Lowther, once challenged Captain Alfred Hutton, who was perhaps the most prominent and influential fencing master in England, to bout with his daughter. Although nothing came of the challenge, which may well have been issued partly in fun, a commentator noted that:

As all the world knows, (Toupie) is one of the most brilliant lady fencers in Europe. Coming from a stock of vigorous patriots who have fought their country’s battles at the point of the sword, she was early trained in the use of the rapier and the sword-stick, and, possessed of a lithe and hardy frame, it is small wonder that, at the age of eight she could engage in a fencing-bout with her elders with all the confidence of an expert. Fencing is not an art for namby-pamby girls or, indeed, for any girl who does not command more than the average amount of spirit and pluck, and Miss Lowther is, above all, a woman of indomitable nerve.

Her other sporting enthusiasms included driving, motorcycling, weightlifting and jiujitsu, which she pursued with sufficient enthusiasm that one writer worried that it might interfere with her fencing.

With the outbreak of the First World War Toupie became one of the organisers of an all-women team of ambulance drivers who undertook many dangerous missions to transport wounded soldiers near the front lines of battle in Compiègne, France. For this service she was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1918.

Toupie was a friend of writer Radclyffe Hall and her partner, sculptor Una Troubridge, until after the publication of Hall’s controversial novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. The novel’s female protagonist, Stephen Gordon, was probably based to a large extent on Toupie Lowther, and this seems to have caused a rift in the friendship. It has been speculated that Toupie may have objected to having been publicly “outed” as a lesbian and transvestite via the Gordon character, although her sexual orientation seems to have been no secret among her family and friends.

For much more detail on Toupie’s life and adventures, please see the excellent biographical website Toupie Lowther – Her Life – A New Assessment.

Toupie Lowther is also a supporting character in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy, in which she serves as Suffragette leader Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst’s chauffeur/getaway driver and as a member of her personal bodyguard of women.

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“I am a woman, but no weakling” – Judith Lee, lady detective

He stopped – there was silence. The bell rang again. I was just about to suggest again that he should go and see who was at the outer door when – he leapt at me. And I was unprepared. He had me by the throat before I had even realised that danger threatened.

I am a women, but no weakling. I have always felt it my duty to keep my body in proper condition, trying to learn all that physical culture can teach me. I only recently had been having lessons in jiu-jitsu – the Japanese art of self defence. I had been diligently practicing a trick which was intended to be used when a frontal attack was made upon the throat. Even as, I dare say, he was thinking that I was already as good as done for, I tried that trick. His fingers released my throat and he was on the floor without, I fancy, understanding how he got there. I doubt if there ever was a more amazed man. When he began to realise what had happened he gasped up at me – he was still on the floor – “You … you …”

The above is quoted from the short story Mandragora, part of the Judith Lee detective series written between 1912-16 by Richard Marsh. Among the first protagonists of the still very popular lady detective genre, Judith Lee brought several unusual talents to her role as an amateur sleuth, including an almost uncanny ability to read lips and a willingness to physically apprehend evil-doers, thanks to her training in physical culture and jiujitsu. Certainly, she was among the first heroines in Western literature to have studied Eastern martial arts.

Isolda cried, with what he probably meant to be crushing dignity:

“Brayshaw, put this woman outside at once!”

The command seemed to be addressed to the barrel-shaped person. There was dignity neither in the manner of his approach nor in the words he used.

“Now, young woman, out you go! We’ve seen your sort before. We want none of your nonsense here! Not another word – outside! I don’t want to touch you, but I shan’t hesitate to do so if you make me.”

I smiled at the barrel-shaped man. The idea of such a creature putting me out of the room was really too funny.

“I will recommend you, Mr. Brayshaw, not to touch me, unless you wish to discover what an extremely ugly customer a woman can be.”

He tried to touch me, stretching out his hand with, I fancy, the intention of taking me by the shoulder. I am quite sure that, before he knew what had struck him, he was on his back on the floor.

“If you will be advised by me, you will allow me to make the remarks that I intend to make without any interruption; because, in any case, I intend to make them.” –

– Richard Marsh, Isolda

Several of Judith’s original (circa 1914) adventures are linked to from the Bunburyist website. She is also a supporting character in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy and you can read about her first encounter with the Amazons here: Judith Lee – her new and wonderful detective feats – The Wrestler and the Diamond Ring.

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