Tarpe Mills and Miss Fury

A “Tales From the Archives” special report by Bob Reyer

 

The April 3rd release of Dynamite Entertainment’s Miss Fury #1 by Jackson Herbert and Rob Wiliams returns comics’ first costumed heroine, Marla Drake as Miss Fury, to the lead role for the first time since her newspaper strip ended its decade-long run in 1951! With that re-launch on the horizon, let’s fire up my patented Way-back Machine and get acquainted with the glamorous Ms. Drake, and her equally stunning creator Tarpe Mills, who was one of the only female writer/artists working during the Golden Age of Comics.

June Tarpe Mills was born in 1912 in Brooklyn into a home headed by a widowed mother, and filled with June’s sister’s orphaned children. She worked as a model to support her family, and to help pay her way into Brooklyn’s prestigious art school, the Pratt Institute. She would work as a fashion illustrator before turning her hand in 1938 to the burgeoning world of comic books, with work on such titles as Daredevil Barry Finn, Catman, and The Purple Zombie, using the sexually-ambiguous nom de plume Tarpe Mills as “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”.

This anonymity would cease with the April 6, 1941 debut of The Black Fury, as the strip was initially known. Utilizing an art style that was equal parts high fashion and high adventure, Ms. Mills would introduce readers to socialite Marla Drake, who upon discovering that she’d be wearing the same outfit as a rival to a masquerade, instead donned an African witch doctor’s ceremonial panther skin catsuit quipping “At least no one else will be wearing the same thing”! En route, she encounters two seeming ne’er-do-wells whom she subdues with a stylish combinations of punches, kicks, and the whip-like tail of her costume.

Quickly adopting the name “Miss Fury” (with the strip soon following), Marla Drake would come into contact with criminals, spies & terrorists, Nazis, and her main antagonist, the Countess Erica Von Kampf, who would turn up like a bad penny again and again over the strip’s 10-year run. Marla would also have romantic interests in the forms of on-again/off-again fiance Gary Hale and Detective Dan Carey, and as a single woman would even adopt a toddler whom she rescued from the clutches of an evil scientist and his nefarious experiments!

During this time, Miss Fury’s writer/artist Tarpe Mills would become as well-known as her creation, with newspaper and magazine articles highlighting the beautious Ms. Mills as the model for her own four-color avatar (not to mention the inclusion in the strip of her own cat, Perri-Purr, and his often vital role in sniffing out trouble!). Polls taken at the time showed newspaper readers across the gender lines were fans of the exploits of Miss Fury, and at the strip’s height, it was published in over 100 newspapers, and the Timely Comics reprints of them sold well over a million copies an issue!

Eventually, serious health problems would overtake Ms. Mills, which would force her contributions to be lessened, with the work augmented by substitue writers and artists, and the diminished quality would lead to Miss Fury’s cancellation in December of 1951. Tarpe Mills would be out of the limelight, working in commercial art for the rest of her professional life, resurfacing only briefly in 1971 with a short tale for Marvel’s Our Love Story, and some new paintings of Miss Fury for some mid-70s reprints of the old strips. Near the end of her life, Ms. Mills began work on a graphic novel featuring one of Miss Fury’s supporting cast entitled “Albino Jo, the Man With the Tigre Eyes”. It was unfinished at the time of Ms. Mills’ death in 1988, and sadly, as she died alone in her Brooklyn apartment, someone broke in and stole virtually all of her original artwork.

Thanks to the good folks at IDW, we can revisit the world of Marla Drake through their 2012 collection “Tarpe Mills &  Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays 1944-1949″, with strips selected by Trina Robbins, who also wrote a marvelous introductory essay on the life and career of a true comic original, Tarpe Mills, whose detailed artwork shines due to the meticulous restoration done to these nearly 70-year-old strips, as does the intricate plotting of her stories through this long-form reprint of entire story arcs, some many months in the original telling. This is a “Must Buy” for fans of adventure comic strips, or anyone interested in the history of super-heroines, as here is where it all began!

SOURCES & FURTHER READING:

Tarpe Mills & Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays 1944-1949  Selected by Trina Robbins (2012/IDW)

Miss Fury #1-3  (Reprinting Timely Comics #1-3) (2007/Pure Imagination Publishing)

The Great Women Super-Heroes   Trina Robbins (1996/Kitchen Sink Press)

The Supergirls   Mike Madrid (2009/Exterminating Angel Press)

Super-Hero Comics of the Golden Age   Mike Benton (1992/Taylor Publishing)

ps) Ms. Trina Robbins may still have some copies left of Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays ; check with her at: http://trinarobbins.com/Trina_Robbins/Trina_Robbins/Welcome.html

Soundtrack:

This piece was written whilst listening to the 1968 album Home Cookin’,  by that master of the R&B sax (and once almost the employer of your Obedient Servant!), Junior Walker, seen below playing the poignant “What Does it Take?”, the million-selling single from that Motown LP.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFAC-7FOQ8U[/youtube]

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3 Responses

  1. James Hammond

    A beautiful and yet bitter-sweet slice of life.

    It’s a genuinely pleasant surprise to see how quickly she was accepted into the industry. I feared that the story would end (and I dare say she felt the same way) with her being blackballed when her gender was outed.

    Instead, this heroin was only a victim of health problems and the shrinking of the industry in the 1950’s.

    I’d hoped to find out more about her; whether she found love, had children or just lived a happy life but there’s not even an obituary to be found.

    But I’m proud to say she had a fine taste in cats and is now part of my pantheon for the all time greats.

    To Tarpe Mills, You will be remembered.

    • Bob Reyer

      James,

      Thank you for the lovely and touching comment.

      My greatest reward here at Talking Comics is that in some small way I can help our modern readers and listeners to discover the charm of older material in general, but in particular this important character and her pioneering creator, and then to receive such a moving piece of confirmation of my goal is twice the prize.

      Thanks again, James!
      Bob

  2. Bob Reyer

    James,

    I’ve been in correspondence with Ms. Trina Robbins and she would like to add:

    I’d love to leave a comment for James Hammond, explaining that there was little prejudice against women comic creators in the 1940s — that came later — and that my book details much more information about Tarpe Mills.

    I do not have high hopes for a Miss Fury remake. All remakes of comics heroines so far — especially by independents — have been awful — the heroine’s bustline has increased while her costume has shrunk alarmingly. (The only exception is my Honey West comics, where I have made sure that the artist draws her in a decent style) I wish there were some way to prevent Dynamite entertainment from desecrating the work of the wonderful Tarpe Mills but alas! it’s public domain.
    Best,
    Trina

    Back to me; Trina’s expansive introductory essay to the IDW collection is just brilliant, and though it may not answer all of your questions, it will make you an even bigger fan of Ms. Mills and Miss Fury…and Ms. Trina Robbins, too!
    Bob
    ps) You should also check out Ms. Robbins’ “A Century of Women Cartoonists” which is chock-a-block with great info! rrr

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