One night, dressed as a black panther for a costume party, socialite Marla Drake sees a fugitive from justice and leaps from her car and into action for the first time as Miss Fury, the first female superhero created by a woman. Marla Drake had inherited a magical, possibly cursed panther skin from her uncle, a world traveler and, clearly, serial sneak thief. The skin was sacred and, like many a white explorer before and after him, Marla’s uncle swiped it. He also didn’t bother to tell Marla anything about the panther skin’s nature before willing it to her. I assume his will also required her, as his heir, to spend one night in his spooky mansion full of cursed objects he had stolen from other people. And Marla was just the kind of dame who’d do it. But I’m not sure his will did, because I only have the pretty sweet volume of comics historian (and creator of Vampirella’s costume) Trina Robbin’s Tarpé Mills & Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays 1944-1949: The First Female Superhero Created and Drawn by a Woman Cartoonist. (San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2011) and not the more recent, Miss Fury Sensational Sundays: 1941-1944 (2013).
Tarpé Mills (1912-1988), the creator of Miss Fury, was born June Tarpé Mills in Brooklyn, New York. After attending the Pratt Institute, Mills got her start in fashion illustration and then moved into writing and drawing stories for comic books. Her first comic, “Daredevil Barry Finn,” was published in 1938 by Centaur publishing. “She soon left fashion illustration altogether for other comic book series such as, ‘The Purple Zombie’ and ‘Mann of India,’ for Easter Color’s Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics, and ‘Fantastic Feature Films’ for Target Comics, published by Novelty Press” (7). Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics is an excellent name, by the way.
But newspaper strips were where it was at in the the 1930s and it was difficult work for comic creators to get. Mills successfully made the transition to the more prestigious format. In April, 1941, national newspapers began publishing Black Fury. The strip’s name was changed to Miss Fury not too long after. Like many female creators, Mills was concerned that if readers knew her comic was written and drawn by a woman, they would pass the book by. As Trina Robbins writes, “From the beginning, Mills signed her comics with her sexually ambiguous middle name, a French-sounding version of her Irish grandmother’s maiden name, Tarpey. She gave the reason in a newspaper interview, ‘It would have been a major let-down to the kids if they found out that the author of such virile and awesome characters was a gal’ (8).
And Mills’ characters are pretty awesome, especially Marla Drake, who after a difficult debut continues to do the right thing. Her panther skin could be worn like a catsuit with little ears, claws and all. And so, one night, Marla decides it will be a hoot to wear it to a costume party. En route, Marla sees a man who resembles a known fugitive. And panther-hearted as she is, she decides to stop him. Unfortunately, when the fight’s over, she’s caught the wrong man. Even more unfortunately, she has, in fact, caught a police detective. Whatever else it might be, this black cat suit is bad luck. Captured by one of her enemies, Marla thinks,
Somehow, I’ve had nothing but misfortune since my uncle left me the black leopard skin! It had been a wtich doctor’s ceremonial robe and was regarded as a symbol of justice by the tribe. They claimed it had strange powers and worked miracles—’though often as blessings in disguise!’ If the things that have happened to me are blessings, they certainly have been well disguised (20) [Emphasis Mills’]
Whether is the nature of the skin itself to be unlucky or if it’s having stolen something sacred from a group of people that causes it to be cursed, isn’t really clear. Beyond managing to entirely cover an adult woman, give her kitty ears and neat feet, the skin’s powers are nebulous. But But the blessing in disguise with her first attempt at crime-fighting is that Marla Drake has just met crime-fighting cute one of her love interests, Det. Dan Carey. Carey will form a love triangle with Gary Hale. Hale is also connected to Marla’s femme fatale nemesis, the fabulous Baroness Erica von Kampf. After her rough start, Marla continues to fight crime and smash Nazi plans. At first the newspapers call her, “Black Fury,” but later, after Marla Drake defeats a male imposter, newspapers in her world and the comic strips in ours call her, “Miss Fury.”
Miss Fury exist in that interesting era between adventure comics like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and the beginning of superhero comics. She wears a costume without being a hero with superpowers. She’s no Superman, but she’s a little more complicated than the masked heroes like the Shadow and the Spider. There’s still the pitfalls of Forties comics and depictions of race and traditional people. But with that in mind, it’s a fun and well-done comic. Miss Fury has a great costume and the comic itself has an excellent noir sensibility–and just a little hint of Queerness. And all through her adventures and romances, Marla is fabulously attired in the latest fashions of the 1940s (and early 1950s).
Marla resembled Mills herself. She even went as far to give Marla a fictionalized version of her own cat.
“Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates, loked nothing like Terry Lee or the more dashing Pat Ryan. Chester Gould bore no resemblance whatsoever to his creation, Dick Tracy. Although many comic strip creators identified strongly with their characters—Dale Messick dyed her hair the same shade of red as her ficitonal reporter, Brenda Starr, and every one of Frank King’s family vacations were retold as Gasoline Alley adventures—it’s unlikely that any other cartoonists have as openly put themselves into their strips. Mills even gave a cat to her fictional creation that was identical to her own beloved Persian cat, right down to the name—Peri-Purr” (8).
And, yes, if you were wondering Peri-Purr also fights the good fight.
Mills’ work reminds me a bit of Jackie Ormes (who I wrote about last month), especially Ormes’ long running adventure series, Torchy Brown in “Heartbeats.” Both drew characters who very much resembled themselves—Ormes and Torchy; Mills and Marla Drake. Both wrote about heroines having adventures. Both were interested in Brazil. Both worked in fashion and illustration. (And I’m really starting to appreciate the eye a fashion illustrator can bring to comics). And both took pleasure in drawing a variety of up-to-date fashions for their characters, from lingerie to evening gowns. Mills took advantage of the comics’ color to create interesting prints.
The Baroness had a far better evil trousseau than most comic book vamps, who had to make do with a low cut, backless black or red sheath marking the femme fatales of her day. The outfits, as much as the dialog, lets you know who and what the characters are.
For her part, Baronness Erica von Kampf’s deadly, perfect bangs hide a swastika branded on her forehead. Because Golden Age comics are hardcore. And Marla Drake is adventurous, self-possessed and smart. And she has the wardrobe to match. She’s a single woman—and a single mother raising the Baroness’ child for a while—who is control of her life, even when she’s kidnapped by Bruno or sees her ex being hassled by the mysterious and bunny-murdering Dr. Diman Saraf’s goons.
Whereas, at one point it does indeed take an entire platoon of marines to rescue her from the Germans, she herself is no slouch at the rescuing game. She gamely shinnies up vines and down chains to rescue a child from the clutches of a mad scientist and carries an unconscious woman from a burning building. In catfights with villainesses, she kicks their guns away with one swipe of her high-heeled shoe, or beans them on the noggin with whatever she has on hand: an ice bucket, a plate or a telephone (11).
And as with Torchy Brown, there are paper dolls.
Because Mills drew Miss Fury looking like herself and having adventures all over, I suppose I should address whether Marla Drake is a “Mary-Sue,” a stand-in for the artist that is both wish fulfillment and completely implausible as a character. But I think my interest isn’t with an artist’s relationship to their characters, so much as “Does the character work within this story?” I recognize it might seem like I’m tapping out of a discussion of Mary-Sue’s. That’s probably because largely I am, though not as much as I’d like to. I think the term has limited usefulness and that it mostly ends up intentionally or not, dismissing female characters and female creators in particular, especially when they write characters who can do amazing, heroic things. Or even just be basically competent.
Are there awful characters who are clear stand-ins for their creators out there? Sure. But it seems like even their awfulness deserves more thoughtful in art criticism than a gesture of dismissal or that criticism is just a matter of putting everything into its slot. “Adventure comic.” “Mary-Sue.” Stuff like identifying genre and tropes is just the beginning of thinking about art. But a woman in 1941 creating a superhero in her own image is pretty interesting and even inspiring. It reminds me of women, girls and trans folk in Mills’ aftermath making zines, minicomics and webcomics in which they imagine themselves as the heroes of their own stories. So Marla Drake looks like Tarpé Mills, but it’s not necessary to know that for Mills’ stories to work. Marla Drake/Miss Fury is a good character. She’s thoughtful. She’s observant. Her fights and solutions are believable within the story’s established world and rules.
When Miss Fury was cancelled in 1951, Mills went on to work in advertising. I’ve looked around the internet a bit, hoping to find some evidence of her ad work, but didn’t have any luck. Anything other than Miss Fury is eclipsed in search results, which makes sense since Mills was the first woman to write and draw a female superhero. Miss Fury went to press six months before Wonder Woman (8). Mills was one of the first women with a syndicated cartoon carried by national newspapers. (Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr was syndicated in 1940. In 1931, Ormes’ Torchy Brown in ‘Dixie to Harlem’ was syndicated by The Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper serving the African-American community). And while Mills was presumably kicking it with Peggy Olsen and Don Draper on Madison Avenue, Timely Comics, the forerunner of Marvel, collected Miss Fury storylines into an eight-issue comic book series and held the rights until Miss Fury ultimately became a public domain character. Mills returned to comics in 1971 with, “Model with a Broken Heart,” a seven page comic for Marvel’s Our Love Story. And in 1979, she began work on a never published Miss Fury graphic novel, Albino Jo, the Man With The Tigre Eyes. Robbins includes art from the book in Tarpé Mills & Miss Fury.
Dynamite Entertainment is currently publishing books with Miss Fury alternately teaming up with other pulp heroes in titles like Gail Simone’s Swords of Sorrow (2015) and Chris Roberson and Alex Ross’ Masks (2012-3); Cullen Bunn and Evan Casallos’ Masks 2 (2015); and a solo run in Rob Williams and Fritz Casas’ Miss Fury (2013-4). Miss Fury has also appeared in Marvel anthology comic, Girl Comics; J. Michael Straczynski and Christ Weston’s The Twelve (2007) and has a “photo” in Jeff Parker and Gabriel Hardman’s Agents of Atlas. Malibu comics had a Miss Fury series that told the story of Marla Drake’s granddaughter, Marlene Hale, who I assume Marla willed the panther skin to without any explanation. Just like happened to her. Marlene gains powers, as so many superfolk do, by falling into a vat of mysterious chemicals. Miss Fury herself hearkens back to the cat-suited villainess Irma Vep in the 1915 film serial, Les Vampires. And now you can see Miss Fury’s influence on her descendents from Hellcat to maybe Catwoman and Catman, at least in Gail Simon’s first run of Secret Six, where he got his powers from a cape, and maybe even the Black Panther, at least in his sense of style.
Carol Borden appreciates a hero with a villainous sense of style.
This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on March 24, 2016