Comics Herstory: June Tarpé Mills
June Mills, better known in her early days by her pen name, Tarpé Mills, was one of the first women to write action comics. She was both a writer and artist, and is credited as the first woman to create a female action hero with Marla Drake, also known as Miss Fury. Her other characters included Devil’s Dust, the Cat Man, Purple Zombie, and Daredevil Barry Finn.
Mills hid her gender by using her middle name, rightfully believing that her gender would be a significant barrier to the comic industry at the time. Only after Miss Fury gained significant popularity was it revealed that Mills was a woman.
The first Miss Fury strip debuted on April 6, 1941. Originally called The Black Fury, the comic ran as a Sunday strip distributed by Bell Syndicate. The main character, Marla Drake, was modeled after Mills’s appearance and began her journey as Miss Fury when she dressed in a ceremonial panther skin that belonged to an African witch doctor. Despite these racist origins of the character, the strip was more controversial for its depiction of Marla Drake. Mills, previously a fashion illustrator, paid careful attention to Drake’s outfits, often drawing her and other female characters in revealing clothing. Mills was criticized for the characters’
immodesty, and after a strip showed Drake in a bikini in 1947, thirty-seven newspapers refused to continue its publication.
Drake had no superpowers, but used her agility and the panther suit’s claws to fight crime. She had her own villains, several of which were Nazis as the comic was published during World War II. During this time, Drake’s cat, Perri-Purr, became a symbol (in unofficial capacity) of the Allied soldiers. Miss Fury herself was painted on at least three bombers during the war.
When Mills fell in poor health, other artists and writers supplemented her work until the comic’s cancellation in 1951. Miss Fury broke down another significant barrier for women in comics, however. Her characters were inspirational and unique, and Marla Drake would become the inspiration for Patsy Walker. Drake’s legacy also lived on in the other incarnations of Black Fury, some of which were men and some of which revived her character in comics published in 1991, 1994, 2008, 2013, and 2014.
Mills died in 1988 after a long illness.