JANUARY 12, 2012
DC DIRECT, THE MERCHANDIZING ARM of publisher DC Comics, produces a line of collectible busts called “Heroes of the DC Universe.” Apparently, the category of “Heroes” includes not only classic superheroes such as Batman, the Flash, and Green Arrow but also villains like the Joker, Darkseid, and Larfleeze the Orange Lantern. Flip a few dozen pages farther through the DC Direct catalog, though, and you come to a separate line of statues called “Women of the DC Universe”; this is where you’ll find busts of Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Supergirl, Vixen, and other female members of DC’s vast cast of superpowered beings. In other words, “heroes” are defined as men, including mass murderers, while women are what they are.
I’ve a hunch that whoever in the DC marketing department created these two discrete product lines was working on a notion that separating out the ladies was some kind of honorific, a pedestal to show off their unique skills and forms. But it’s a glittering example of the problematic position of female superheroes, who are usually created and written by men for a largely male audience, while also often serving as models of female power and independence. Even the fact that we routinely call them “female superheroes” more often than “superheroines” or just “superheroes,” reflects the issue; like girl bands and lady judges, the “female” in “female superheroes” is still a modifier to the real thing.
DC’s leading lady is, of course, Wonder Woman, a warrior princess born of an all-woman Amazon civilization created by the gods. She first appeared in December 1941; her real-life male creator, William Moulton Marston, invented the polygraph machine and was an enthusiastic scholar of the psychology of bondage. Combining his interests, he granted Wonder Woman a Lasso of Truth that forces honesty out of those it ensnares. Needless to say, there is no limit to the interpretations that comics fans and analysts have lent to this complicated origin of the superpowered female, which is both wildly progressive and disturbingly fetishistic. That this contradiction burdens female superheroes 70 years later isn’t as surprising as it should be.
But, contrary to common belief, Wonder Woman was not the first female superhero. She was preceded by more than half a year by Miss Fury, who starred in her own Sunday comic strip for 10 years beginning in April 1941. Miss Fury was created, written, and drawn by a woman, June Tarpé Mills, who published under the more sexually ambiguous Tarpé Mills. Had Miss Fury entered an enduring canon like DC’s, it’s possible that the template for female superheroes, as well as for superhero comic readership, would have depended more on the influence and perspective of actual women.
It is therefore welcome that IDW Publishing has released a doorstopper collection of Tarpé Mills’s best Miss Fury strips from 1944 to 1949, edited by writer and historian Trina Robbins, who also provides an introduction. The strips tell the story of heiress and socialite Marla Drake, who gains enhanced powers from a mystical black leopard skin left to her by an adventurer uncle. But what’s most striking about Miss Fury’s powers is how seldom she uses them. In the collection’s nearly 200 strips, Marla dons the costume only a handful of times, heeding the warning of her friend — the Brazilian albino Indian and world traveler called, appropriately, Albino Joe — that “with every favor gained through black magic, go two misfortunes.” In most cases, she relies on her wits, reflexes, and powers of observation to thwart danger, reserving the catsuit for life-or-death situations. In an email interview, Robbins confirms that earlier strips not included in the collection do make more use of the suit, and speculates that Tarpé Mills, as a former fashion illustrator, “may have gotten tired of drawing her heroine in the panther skin and preferred putting her in the fashionable clothing of the day.”
Be that as it may, in Miss Fury, Marla’s primary “superpower” is human resourcefulness, aligning her less with Wonder Woman than with the nonpowered but formidable heroes of DC’s Bat-family and Marvel heroes such as Hawkeye, Nick Fury (no relation), and Misty Knight. It’s an approach that, even in often totally unrealistic comic book scenarios, tends to produce role models rather than marvels. When comics readers and critics talk about the need for “strong” female characters, it’s intellectual and emotional human characteristics they’re talking about; Wonder Woman can fly and physically destroy almost anyone, but it’s her compassion and commitment to justice that truly define her as a hero.
In addition to imbuing Miss Fury with physical strength and ass-kicking ability — which she has, in spades — Tarpé Mills builds the character by consistently referencing and utilizing Marla’s innate competencies. It’s not heavy-handed; 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.
Even Marla’s physical victories are almost always made possible by a keen attention to detail that gives her the edge — she notices a fire hose that allows her to catch her fiancé’s assailants off guard; she fends off the evil scientist Diman Saraf with a hurled metal basin, but only after explicitly calculating and anticipating his movements in her mind; she thwarts a group of smugglers when the police are at a loss because she deduces key features of a building that clue her in to their escape plans. The strip’s action often interrupts Marla reading a book, and she becomes engrossed in the huge library of mysterious billionaire Edred Alaric; before a fishing trip in Florida turns ill fated, she manages several impressive catches. It is these frequent reminders of Marla’s extracurricular interests and strengths, rather than any amazing or irreproducible acts, that make her a credible hero.
Though Mills ostensibly hid her gender and wrote a high-adventure comic rife with guy stuff like smuggling, espionage, mad science, and gruesome murders, Miss Fury has much in it that seems designed to appeal to women as well. For one thing, the outfits are fabulous. As Robbins suggests, Mills clearly took great pleasure in dressing Marla, scheming villainess Erica Von Kampf, and other characters in elaborate gowns, lingerie, and smart but finely detailed sportswear. Modern superhero comics tend to focus on the intricacies of high-tech costumes at the expense of civilian clothes; Miss Fury, by contrast, is midcentury clothes porn.
It’s also, as much as anything, a romance comic, with many weeks at a time focusing on the love triangle between Marla, her former fiancé Gary Hale, and suitor Detective Dan Carey (or on Baroness Erica Von Kampf’s opportunistic entanglements with a series of exasperated villains). The romance is driven by classic farcical misunderstandings and passions: Gary, a war hero, leaves Marla when her secret life as Miss Fury drives them apart and is subsequently tricked into engagement with Erica; Dan is the police detective searching for Miss Fury when she is wrongly accused of a crime spree but who unknowingly falls for Marla in her civilian guise.
Superhero comics have long embraced romantic drama — the X-Men franchise being one of America’s longest-running soap operas — but one of Mills’s amusing, and perhaps slyly subversive, tendencies is to heap the bulk of the temperamental angst on the men. While the ladies briefly lament failed affairs and then go about their daily business, the men are downright tortured, with panel upon panel of expository thought bubbles indicating mixed signals and betrayal. In one strip, Dan Carey erroneously believes that Marla has passed him over for her former lover; he hands his bouquet of flowers to a young boy on the street, saying: “[H]ere’s a present for your best girl, your mother! She’s the only girl you’ll be able to depend on.” In other strips, normally pragmatic and calculating villains like Diman Saraf (the mad scientist who raises Erica’s unwanted child) and Colonel Prussia (the former Luftwaffe ace, now a fugitive deserter) lose all rationality and effectiveness while stewing over suspicions about Erica’s true affections and agenda. In Erica’s case, the men’s suspicions are justified — she operates entirely in her own interest, casually murdering or abandoning anyone who is no longer financially or politically useful (the exception being the brutal German General Bruno, her true love, whose supposed death she secretly cries over in an uncharacteristically sentimental scene).
And then there’s the sex. Miss Fury was an extremely erotic strip for the 1940s, which is interesting to consider in the context of current debates about superhero comics as a place for fantasy and objectification. (Case in point: when DC Comics recently relaunched its entire line of titles in an attempt to attract new readers, controversy erupted over the scant number of women creators involved and the ultra-objectified representation of several favorite and previously more nuanced female characters like Catwoman and Starfire.) The sexualization of Tarpé Mills’s characters is much more incidental than overt; there is no explicit sex in Miss Fury, and the closest she gets to suggesting that her characters actually copulate is through general romantic situations and, at one point, a paternity issue. But there is plenty of visual raciness, particularly where Marla and Erica are concerned. Early in the collection is a delicious 10-panel catfight between the two, during which they struggle on a rooftop in lacy lingerie. It’s sexy and suggestive, and clearly drawn for stimulating purposes, even though the parallel plot is unrelated to sex; there are also full strips in which the actions or internal monologues take place while, for no reason in particular, one of the women changes clothes. There is a voyeuristic aspect to these scenes that some could consider gratuitous — but at the same time, the women are never in sexually compromised situations, nor portrayed as yielding sexual power to a man.
Tarpé Mills also touches on homosexuality with the character of Charles, aka “Whiffy,” a fashion designer and smuggler so nicknamed by his associates because of his tendency to wear far too much perfume. Whiffy’s prim, sour mannerisms give him the air of a stereotypical gay villain, and he is revealed to be a convincing cross-dresser who uses his extensive wardrobe to pull a con. But even this hoary trope gains some nuance when it is further explained that Whiffy was a member of the French resistance during the war, and that disguising himself as a woman had enabled him to escape the Nazis, who had had more than one reason to hunt him.
It’s this kind of subtle integration that characterizes Mills’s approach to social issues and current events. One ongoing plotline is Marla’s adoption of Darron, the abandoned son of Erica Von Kampf and Gary Hale. Marla is unaware of the toddler’s parentage, but she rescues him in Brazil from the brutal guardianship of Diman Saraf, who plans to use him in a deadly experiment. She is initially denied custody of the boy because she is a single woman, which breaks her heart; but her courage and heroism in the rescue eventually win over the authorities. Marla is then, for the duration of the series, an unmarried woman with a child: a rather progressive scenario for a 1940s adventure strip. And because she has a job with a clothing designer, she enlists the help of her friend Francine, who offers to be Darron’s governess after losing her job in a war plant because of returning servicemen — a significant issue facing working women after the war.
Where Mills’s work lacks any subtlety whatsoever is in her narrative approach, which, like many comics before the modern era (generally considered to be the period post-Watchmen, from the mid-1980s to the present), relies heavily on exposition through characters who would have no reason to express the things they think or say other than to tell the reader what is going on. For a reader in 2011, when show-don’t-tell is storytelling’s mantra, this can feel awkward and limiting. But in contrast to her blocky plotting, the flow of Mills’s sequential art feels completely organic; the characters’ forms themselves have a pinup quality, but the action from panel to panel is almost cinematic, with natural poses and facial expressions that make the strip feel less like a series of stills than a moving reel. The art is so fluid as to be easily underappreciated, as things sometimes are when they work as they’re supposed to, leading unconsciously to the truest representation.
The same can be said for Miss Fury herself. 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 creators, and therefore readers, to be better people. Miss Fury was a sexy, brutal, madcap adventure strip that, like most comics both then and now, enjoyed a large male audience. But, like the best contemporary superhero books, and unlike those currently stirring debate, it attracted those readers because it had the authenticity to attract all kinds.