Once upon a night in April 1941, Marla Drake discovers that her friend will be wearing the same dress to a masquerade. Not to be outdone, she improvises with a skin-tight black cat suit. Thus disguised, she goes to the ball. But, along the way…
A killer! Marla uses her claws, her stiletto heels, and powder blown from her makeup case to disarm the villain. Much wit, spunk, and humor later, he is tied up and left by the side of the road for the police. Marla has a ball to attend.
Women were not drawn as superheroes in 1941. Women did not draw superheroes in 1941. Miss Fury was the first female comic heroine, long before Wonder Woman. Her creator was known as Tarpe Mills.
June was her first name.
June Tarpe Mills was born in New York, 1918, in a man’s world where women were portrayed as weak, demure, and helpless. They managed households, children, and meals. They could not vote at the time. But June wanted a life bigger than the role of damsel in distress.
June studied art at the prestigious New York Pratt Institute, while working as a model to support her family. She also did graphics for advertising firms, which led her into animation, and her first comic assignment:
Barry Finn, Daredevil.
Catman and Purple Zombie followed, powerful superheroes she created under the gender-vague name: Tarpe Mills.
“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!”
But again, June was no weak-kneed female, and on the 6th of April, 1941, she stepped out of the shadows with her alter ego:
She looked like Tarpe Mills and probably embodied her personality: Marla Drake was strong-willed, independent, and always impeccably dressed.
“I believe June lived vicariously through Miss Fury,” writes Bill Finn, whose family was close to Tarpe Mills. He is among those committed to keeping her legacy alive.
“June manifested her hopes and wishes in Marla Drake and Miss Fury – a strong female able to survive and thrive in a man’s world, independent in thought and action, and in control of her own destiny. She went on daring adventures, traveled, fought Nazis, saved the world.”
She empowered girls and sent a strong message to boys as well: A woman could be sexy and smart and independent. Miss Fury embraced her sexuality, dressed in red ball gowns and heels, and in those, donned parachutes and jumped out of fighter planes!
Also, unlike Wonder Woman, who followed six months later, Miss Fury’s main superpower was one that was attainable: In most scenarios, she relied on her wit, fast reflexes, powers of observation, and resourcefulness to fight evil.
“Marla is not an unrelatable super-genius, a highly trained tactician, nor a token femme fatale member of a boys’ club. She’s simply smart and courageous, with a strong sense of fairness and drive to take action.”
She is kind, good, funny, intrepid, just like June, who created a world where such characteristics really could make a difference.
“We can see the goodness and fairness we want in the world in comics. Good over evil. Righteous prevail. Comics provide escape, much like today’s video games,”
and, in the real world, they can change the way a society thinks.
“The strongest superheroes, male or female, are those whose confidence, abilities, and sex appeal reveal themselves not through artificial projections of fantasy but through ideals that inspire people to be better.”
Miss Fury and June Tarpe Mills were that kind of heroines.
At the strip’s height, Miss Fury was published in more than 100 newspapers. It ran for ten years, and at one point sold over a million copies. During World War II, her face graced Allied bombers in Europe and the South Pacific. But June herself would die, virtually unrecognized in 1988.
In 2019, she and her work were finally memorialized in the Eisner Comic Hall of Fame at ComicCon SanDiego. Her trailblazing message remains as pertinent to our society today:
“We have not progressed enough in the way we view women. [They] continue to be repressed through pay inequity, glass ceilings in the workplace, and a culture that allows a President to denigrate them with no consequence.
We need to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. We need strong women at executive levels, on the boards of directors of major corporations. We need more women in government. We need a culture that embraces each person for their talents, regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation.”
We need Miss Fury to make a comeback. We need more June Tarpe Mills.