Liberty Bessie is a 2019/2020 French graphic novel in two volumes. It takes place during the 1940s.
It is :
- An aviation story. Which is a traditional genre in Francophone comics.
- With chunks of war story (with the Tuskegee Airmen, then the Italian Resistance).
- With somewhat pulpsCheap, often lurid novels in the US during the 1920s and 1930s.-like adventure elements reminiscent of the first Indiana Jones movie.
As often in this genre, the planes, cockpits, landscapes, cityscapes, etc. were meticulously researched and artfully rendered. Vincent Beaufrère’s art creates a pretty cool contrast between the slightly manga-styled characters, the painterly environments and the technicality of the vehicles.
So far it’s only translated into German, as is frequently the case. But I wouldn’t be amazed if it saw an English language release one of these days, though. It’s a lot more common than it used to be, strewth.
In any case, this profile has no significant spoilers.
- Real Name: Bessie Bates.
- Known Relatives: Farell Bates (father), Helen Bates (mother), grandparents (name unrevealed).
- Group Affiliation: None.
- Base of Operations: Mobile (originally Tuskegee, AL).
- Height: 5’3″ (1.60m). Weight: 100 lbs. (45 Kg.).
- Eyes: Brown. Hair: Dark brown.
Powers & Abilities
Bessie is a licensed pilot with a few hundred hours of flight time under her belt.
She’s driven and talented, and with experience will likely become an exceptionally skilled pilot.
She also spent many, many hours doing chores at airports – especially basic plane maintenance. This has kept her in solid shape, and made her more knowledgeable about mechanics than most pilots.
She also seems to have received first aid training as part of her aviation licence.
Bessie is smart, brave and resourceful. She also is used to roughing it, is fluent in French, and has strong people skills.
The general education she received was poor, due to the time and place. But she manages through general intelligence and asking questions.
During her adventures, Ms. Bates acquires a Sikorsky S-38 amphibious transport biplane .
This late 1920s model was particularly rugged, and handy to fly over areas without modern infrastructures.
About 100 were built, and several were used by US armed forces during WW2.
It had a curiously high profile, being flown by so-so celebs such as Lindbergh or Howard Hugues. It’s thus one of the designs that still comes to mind when people think of a flying boat.
Bates’ S-38 has a distinctive black-and-white zebra stripes paint job. This is identical to the Osa’s Ark, flown by Martin and Osa Johnson to film popular 1930s documentaries about African animals.
Bessie’s S-38 likely isn’t the Osa’s Ark. Since the Ark was conserved and is still flying as of the 2010s.
So it presumably was another pilot hiring out his S-38 in Northern Africa during the 1930s, who attempted to ride the Johnsons’ coat-tails by imitating the paint job.
A S-38 can carry up to two tonnes of cargo, and can do 125mph (200 km/h). It has a 600 miles (1,000 km) range and 18,000 ft. (5,500m) ceiling. The engines are a pair of 420hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasps.
African-American music was still segregated back then, as “race music” or “race records”.
But AFAIK 1948 is the first year where we start having billboard listings. Mind, it tells us what people-who-could-afford-records were listening to, rather than folks in general, but that’s better than nothing. And there were jukebox stats, too.
One 1949 Black tune that sold well was a club-style, soft blues song by Tony “Charles” Brown .
Mr. Farell Bates was born circa 1920. He was fascinated by aviation, and a huge Bessie Coleman fan.
(Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), was a Black and Cherokee woman from Texas. Incredibly enough, she managed to earn a flight licence – the first woman from either of her heritages to do so. She made a living as a barnstormerA stunt flying performer., and advocated for an end to racism in aviation.)
He named his daughter Bessie, and sought ways to become a pilot.
Early on, he apparently fantasised about moving to France. This was where Ms. Coleman had obtained her licence, since that was impossible in the US.
The entire family thus learned French. A friend from New Orleans (possibly Cajun, but more likely Haitian-American) helped teach them.
More realistic opportunities opened in 1940, with the creation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee, AL .
Mr. Bates passed the stringent tests, and was trained as a fighter pilot. He and his colleagues learned with PT-13D Stearman Kaydet biplanes .
He later joined the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Squadron , another all-Black Air Force unit.
Despite racist harassment and attempts at disbanding them, the Tuskegee airmen proved particularly valorous.
However, Farell Bates and his P-51C Mustang , the Liberty Bessie, went missing in action during a mission over Sicily during Operation Torch .
Despite this loss, his daughter remained determined to become a pilot.
Living in Tuskegee was of course an asset. Another 332nd EOS veteran named Roscoe also took her under his, well, wing so she’d get her licence.
Roscoe had been supposed to fly on the day Farell died. But he had a bad fever, and Farell had volunteered to fly in his stead.
Roscoe thus felt that he was in part responsible for Farell’s death. And helping Bessie was an attempt to repay this debt.
Learning to fly
To earn money for her licence, Bessie worked at the airport during her teenage years. Back then, everything was under Jim Crow segregation , and so there were separate facilities and procedures for “coloured” personnel.
In a way, that helped. Since to the Black mechanics, pilots, instructors, etc. Ms. Bates was the daughter of a war hero. They often let her tag along in the cockpit, which meant she could familiarise herself with a surprising range of transport aeroplanes.
In 1948, she obtained her licence at the yoke of a Lockheed Electra 10 – the same general model Amelia Earhart famously flew.
But I ain’t got wings
However, Bessie couldn’t find a job for months. Not only was she a young Black woman, but with the demobilisationReleasing troopers from service at the end of a war. there were plenty of experienced pilots around.
In 1949, the Bates grandparents received a parcel with their son’s dog tags. This was strange :
- The dog tags were practically pristine. They clearly hadn’t been in a catastrophic plane crash, and Bessie began to wonder whether her dad might still live.
- The dog tags had been sent from Paris, France. Which made little sense since Mr. Bates had gone MIA over Sicily.
Ms. Bates decided to leave for France and investigate.
She convinced Roscoe to help. He was piloting transatlantic flights every week, and back then it was trivial for the crew to have a free guest in the cockpit.
Bessie also reasoned that it might be easier for her to find short contracts as a commercial pilot in France than in Alabama.
As it happened, she did land a job with a tiny company, to co-pilot a C-47 Douglas Dakota . This way she could save to fund her search.
But her new employer seemed… shady.
Bessie is smol and about 21 or 22. She wears her hair in a straightened, wavy bob. There are freckles on her cheekbones, though they don’t contrast much against her skin tone.
Most of the time she’ll be either wearing a flight jumpsuit, or big-hemmed 1940s blue jeans and a B3 bomber jacket. She also wears her dad’s dog tags.
In hot weather, she’ll wear a fabric headband over the front half of her skull to keep her hair out of the way. It’s presumably silk, to avoid damaging her edges.
Plus a large pair of men’s 1940s aviator sunglasses, which are too big for her.
She has a robust presence, and is often smiling.
Her French is presumably strongly accented, though we can’t guess how.
Though she didn’t have much access to a general education, she’s unusually articulate in both French and English. This too may have been part of the familial self-education, as part of her father’s dream of becoming a pilot.
Ms. Bates is exceptionally focused, highly goal-oriented, and downright mule-headed. Once she has decided that something needs doin’, it’s going to get done come Hell or high taxes.
She has a lot of practice maintaining a positive and nice attitude despite adversity. And in functioning on her own amidst hostile conditions and people while still looking pleasant and polite.
Aviation is her life. Most of her existence is spent in the air or at airports.
Other Universes History
(This section proposes ways of using this character in other fictional universes).
Having started her adventures in 1949/50, Bessie operates at the tail end of the Golden AgeSuper-hero comics from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.. Pretty much the interregnumThe span between two reigns. before the Silver Age.
She wouldn’t have fitted well with surviving DC publications, such as Strange Adventures.
However, Blackhawk was still going on over at Quality Comics (it folded at the close of 1956). Mind, a female Blackhawk was still a decade away and a Black Blackhawk 35-ish years away. So it would be an “untold tales” sort of thing.
After that, she might have become a panafrican partner of Kolu M’Beya.
She prolly works better as a for-hire pilot for adventurous European comics characters, such as Bob Morane, Spirou, Tintin, Blake & Mortimer, Gil Jourdan… *assuming* an anachronistic portrayal of a Black woman.
(Ahead-of-their-time portrayals of Asian characters in Franco-Belgian comics start fairly early, with 1937+’s Chang in Tintin – based on Chinese sculptor Zhang Chongren . But for Black characters, the earliest example Sorbonne researcher Pierre Cras notes is from a 1969+ cowboy series, Comanche.)
The gigantic Franco-Belgian aviation saga Buck Danny would also fit… with the same caveat.
DC Heroes RPG
Tell me more about the game stats
|Dex: 02||Str: 02||Bod: 03|
|Int: 04||Wil: 04||Min: 04|
|Inf: 03||Aur: 04||Spi: 04|
|Init: 009||HP: 020|
Charisma (Interrogation, Persuasion): 04, Medicine (First aid): 02, Vehicles (Air): 04
Buddy (Max the French aeroplane mechanic), Familiarity (Aeroplane mechanics), Language (French).
Misc.: Ms. Bates faces racism and misogyny and misogynoir and ageism and classism issues. However this gets less bad (if not swell by any means) in Europe, where she has the prestige of being an American right after WW2.
Zebra-Stripe Sikorsky S-38 [STR 07 BODY 10, Flight: 07, Swimming: 02, R#02].
Bessie’s French buddy Max Devercors has Gadgetry: 05 (realistic rules) when it comes to aeroplane mechanics and maintenance.
Like Bessie, as long as he’s mostly free to do what he wants and gets to work with planes, he’s happy.
Bessie operates in a low-flash, somewhat realistic (but using some pulps storytelling conventions) genre.
Violent conflict happens, but it’s something you try to get out of rather than win. The emphasis is more on travel, and dialogue.
During the story, she therefore spends most of her Hero Points on Character Interaction – until the final sequence.
If the Attitude Adjustment is worse than Suspicious (usually due to prejudice) she won’t push it. The odds are too poor.
But in more favourable circumstances her HP spending makes her excel at, as they say, making friends and influencing people.
Source of Character: Liberty Bessie Vol. 1 (Un pilote de l’Alabama) and Vol. 2 (Sur la trace des Maylaros).
Writeup completed on the 27th of May, 2021.