Tarpe Mills and Miss Fury
A “Tales From the Archives” special report by Bob Reyer
As I spoke about on this week’s show, I’m a devotee of Miss Fury, comics’ first costumed heroine, whose newspaper strip debut predates even that amazing Amazon, Wonder Woman! As I’m sure that there are quite a few of you out there who are unfamiliar with Marla Drake as Miss Fury, let’s fire up my patented WABAC 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 substitute 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 two “Tarpe Mills & Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays” volumes that bring together all of the strips from 1941 through 1949, highlighted by Trina Robbins’ marvelous introductory essays 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 1941–1944, 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)
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.