Know Thy History: The Red Tornado (Ma Hunkel)
She was too late to be the first female superhero. Though she debuted in 1940 a full year before Wonder Woman, whom most people would name if asked who the first female superhero was, she got beat by Thrilling Comic‘s Lady In Red and Fletcher Hank’s Fantomah. She can’t even be considered the first ever superhero crossdresser. Although, when in costume, she was often mistake as a man, previous Know Thy History subject Madam Fatal managed to beat her to the honor by questionably fighting criminals while dressed in old lady clothes.
Oh well. That’s a lot of near-firsts, anyways. The Red Tornado, a.k.a. The Red Tomato, a.k.a. Abagail Mathilda “Ma” Hunkel can claim that she starred in one of the first superhero parodies.
True to her makeshift costume of longjohns and a cooking pot for a helmet, Ma Hunkel’s origins were similarly humble. When she first debuted, she didn’t even star in her own comic. She appeared in an issue of All-American Comics, playing back-up to Scribbly, a comic book about a young cartoonist written by Sheldon Mayer.
But then, All-American Comics got into the red-hot superhero game, and they managed to strike it big with a name that you’ll probably be sick of before this year’s through: a handsome fella known as The Green Lantern. This hero fights crime in brightest day and darkest night … and inspires housewives to take up careers in crimefighting as well.
With Ma Hunkel finally getting the spotlight, the comic would be renamed “Scribbly & The Red Tornado”, with the “Scribbly” part getting smaller and smaller and the “Red Tornado” part getting bigger and bigger over time. Hunkel would eventually be joined by two pint-sized sidekicks: “The Cyclone Kids”, one of whom was her daughter, Sisty. However, the kids would never figure out that their “mystery man” hero was Sisty’s own sweet ma.
Sheldon Mayer, by the way, would continue to try to popularize Scribbly, bringing him back in the 1950’s during the teen comic craze. It lasted 15 issues. He also was responsible for penning the first ever superhero supergroup: The Justice Society of America.
The Red Tornado never made official membership to this iconic superteam. She, uh, split her pants on the way to the HQ. Sadly, it would be the less interesting robot Red Tornado who would be the one getting the coveted JSA membership.
Despite not appearing regularly in comics for over half a century, Ma Hunkel remains well loved. She can be spotted among the Justice League in DC’s Kingdom Come series standing alongside her granddaughter Maxine, a.k.a. Cyclone. She managed to return to comics in 2004 as a caretaker of the JSA museum (seems she’d been in Witness Protection the entire time). She got a nice cameo in Season 9’s Smallville as a member of the fugitive Justice Society, finally scoring that honor denied her comic counterpart.
Plus, let’s face it, she’s just awesome to cosplay.
Incidentally, if there’s a scene in the new Green Lantern movie where a slightly husky woman is inspired by our hero to put two eye-holes in a cooking pot… well, let’s say it’ll go a long way to forgiving the atrocity that is the costume.