Comics’ first lady of justice wasn’t Wonder Woman, and the first bad girl in black wasn’t Catwoman. Before either of these two-fisted ladies thrilled readers, there was Miss Fury. More importantly, there was Miss Fury’s creator Tarpè Mills. Mills went down in history as the first female comic creator to ever guide the adventures of a female adventure character, and interestingly enough, Mills patterned Miss Fury after herself. At the time of Miss Fury’s creation, superheroes were bursting from the pages of comic publications into daily and Sunday newspaper strips. Miss Fury defied convention, certainly not for the last time, and started out as a Sunday strip before being published by Timely (now Marvel) in 1942. The strip introduced audacious, but never overt, sexuality, lesbian overtones, lingerie cat fights, provocative villains, politically charged adversaries, and Mills’ incredible sense of artistic design. Miss Fury was the target of many Christian groups, and one Boston paper even banned the strip because of some of Fury’s risqué outfits. Many newspapers ran stories and photos of Tarpè Mills alongside the strips, because her mysterious beauty that inspired her dynamic creation was such an exploitable sales element. Mills was one of a kind and so was her heroine, and now Dynamite has spearheaded a revival of this great and tragically forgotten character.
Mills’ brainchild was originally called the Black Fury which was quickly changed to Miss Fury. Whatever you call her, to understand Miss Fury, one must first look at Tarpè Mills. Mills was inspired by the work of Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates, to pursue her own comic career. One sees the Caniff influences all over Mills’ work. From her memorable villains to her lush renderings of sexuality and the urban conflict that constantly surrounded Miss Fury, Mills’ world was beautiful to look at and her ideas seemed endless. While her prose was a little expository and clunky (like many Golden Age writers) her sequential storytelling was second to none. Her pictures told a much more coherent story than her words, and she was not afraid of titillation, as Miss Fury’s alter-ego’s lingerie was as utilized as much as Wonder Woman’s lasso or Batman’s cape. Mills frequently found narrative reasons for Fury to get involve in brawls wearing as little clothing as possible. Yet, a careful reading of these strips (and never was a word so aptly used) shows an innocence and subtlety almost unheard of in today’s comic marketplace. Mills never descends into exploitation; instead, she was the ultimate good girl artist, creating drawings more appropriate for the sides of some B-52’s fuselage than they would be for some adolescent’s masturbatory fantasy. Again, the most amazing thing about comics’ first powerful sex symbol was that Mills based the character on her own appearance. Through Fury, the artist had a unique opportunity to step out of society’s expected gender role and kick some Nazi ass.
Miss Fury, Tarpè ’s stand in, was secretly socialite Marla Drake. Mills even named Drake’s cat, Peri-Purr after her own beloved pet, and vicariously penned the Sunday strips with an energy and verve equal to any of Mills’ male counterparts. She filled her strips with villains as provocative as her heroine, with Nazi saboteurs wielding swastika branding irons; a corpulent cross dresser that was obsessed with a perfume named Whiffy, fetishistic thugs of every stripe, a morally ambiguous ex-Nazi sex pot named Baroness Erica Von Kampf, and a one armed German General Bruno.
Mills tried to keep Fury grounded as much as possible. Fury didn’t have super-powers but was granted a skin tight black suit made from the skin of a leopard which was the ceremonial costume of a witch doctor. It was said the suit allowed its wearer to perform miracles, but anything Fury did was totally human. She used her wits and athleticism to beat the baddies. Fury’s fighting style reeked of fetishism and sadomasochism as it was not uncommon for Fury to take down a baddie with her spiked stiletto heels or through various forms of bondage-like restraints. Fury was unique in that she didn’t wear her signature costume very often. The story reason Mills was gave was that Fury claimed that when she wore the costume terrible events followed that took their toll on her soul. Fury’s friend and advisor the albino Brazilian shaman Albino Joe (because comics are awesome) warns her that “with every favor gained through black magic, go two misfortunes,” so instead of donning the suit, Fury relies on her wits, observations, and athletic prowess to stop the bad guys. The real reason for Fury often going without her costume was that Mills was an avid fashion maven and loved to draw Marla in the latest trendy fashions instead of the simple, form-fitting, black suit.
Mills’ Sunday strips became a hit, so much so that Marvel Comics, then known as Timely, published a solo title for Miss Fury consisting of reprints. Fury was one popular lady. Even though Christian groups attacked the strip, it was still a common sight for American servicemen to paint Miss Fury on the sides of their plains. Fury was in the heart and minds of Americans everywhere. With the strip’s sense of risqué daring and Mills’ evocative style, the character helped forge the way for many female protagonists to come, but none of them had the sensuality or sense of daring as Mills’ creation. Miss Fury has been all but forgotten until recent years. IDW recently published an immense tome of Mills’ strips with a fascinating and moving forward by Trina Robbins. Miss Fury herself appeared in Marvel’s The Twelve as one of the heroes that stormed Berlin at the end of the war. This functionally makes the character a small part of the Marvel Universe, a fitting place for comics’ first female adventurer. The character is in the public domain, a fact that Dynamite has taken full advantage of with their new series.
So how did it do?
Miss Fury #1
Written by: Rob Williams
Illustrated by: Jack Herbert
It’s always a tough job to rekindle interest in a character forgotten in the annals of history. Many classic characters carry the cache of nostalgia, a fact that Dynamite has taken full advantage of with the Shadow, Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, and Flash Gordon. Yet, as was mentioned earlier, Miss Fury has become a footnote, albeit a fascinating one, in comic book history. Writer Rob Williams does a fine job bringing readers up to speed on who Miss Fury is. Williams decides the best way to present Marla Drake to a modern audience is to “Captain America” her: to have her jump forward in time. This contrast between the past and the present will allow Williams to explore her in a modern context while keeping a spotlight on a time where she truly shined. The character won’t seem so risqué to the modern world, but we still get to see Miss Fury at her naughtiest in her familiar time period. It will be very interesting to see how Drake reacts to the modern world, but having the story take place in two time periods allows Williams to still show Fury as a kicker of Nazi ass and not lose her rogues gallery of twisted Reich loyalists.
After researching Miss Fury and seeing her only in the context of comics’ Golden Age, it was strange seeing her wield exaggerated modern weapons in the modern era. But by putting Fury in a new situation and juxtaposing her with modern comic images (like the oversized gun) Williams illustrates how a character from a simpler time is forced to find her purpose in a place she might not necessarily belong. Miss Fury #1 keep readers disoriented with Fury’s time jumps, a conceit designed to help readers relate to the time lost heroine’s own confusion. Jack Herbert’s rendition of Miss Fury captures Mills sensuality. While he captures the past nicely, he also creates a thoroughly modern looking comic to further contrast the modern era in which Fury is in and the past to which she belongs.
Some of the flashback scenes are pure Mills, as we get to see Drake in a bubble bath and steaming up the social scene with Mills-inspired evening wear. Williams knows who his character is and how she fits into her time, and it will be interesting to see how he fits her into today’s world. So far, I think Tarpè Mills would be proud of where her creation has landed, with her stiletto heel planted firmly on a Nazi throat.