For Women’s History Month, we are publishing Celebrate Her—an essay series honoring women who deserve more public praise for how they have inspired us individually and empowered their communities: Scientists, activists, and artists. TV directors, comedians, and actors. Burlesque dancers and wrestlers. Those who have passed on and those who are still with us. In this essay, Kirsten Murray, a comics editor, celebrates 1940s illustrator June Tarpé Mills—the first woman to create a female superhero, Miss Fury. Read the rest of these essays here throughout March, and read about even more incredible humans in our Women Who Made Herstory series.
You won’t find June Tarpé Mills in huge superhero anthologies that aren’t focused explicitly on women. She’s missing from so many of them, which is shocking considering her contribution to comics: Mills was the first woman to create a female superhero. Her heroine, Miss Fury, made her debut in April 1941—eight months before Wonder Woman saw print. Together, Mills and Fury would set the bar for pop culture’s heroic women. Fortunately, comics historians like Trina Robbins have championed overlooked women in the industry through excellent publications, bringing their history to light so we can celebrate them.
Originally a fashion illustrator, Mills began making comics in 1938. She penned stories for some of the era’s most popular titles, creating dashing, brave male heroes for the funny pages. As Robbins recognizes in her research, Mills worked hard to land a career in cartooning. Living with her widowed mother and her sister’s orphaned children in Brooklyn, she began modeling to support her family and pay her way through art school. To break into the male-dominated comics industry, she adopted the nom de plume “Tarpé Mills,” believing the name was ambiguous enough to mask her gender.
Pen names have long been used in creative industries to help cut through gatekeepers’ biases. The comics world remains largely exclusive today. Non-white creators are constantly faced with hurdles in the industry, and the legitimacy of women’s interests is regularly questioned. I’ve been quizzed about superheroes for wearing clothes featuring Marvel characters. I’ve had basic trivia I didn’t ask to hear explained to me in the same manner in which an adult may describe quantum physics to a toddler—despite my postgrad degree in comics studies. And gosh, do I wish this one were a bad joke:
While working as a comics editor at a publishing house, I was once called to a meeting about a title I was overseeing—not to contribute ideas, but to get beverages for the (male) attendees because the “tea girl” was absent.
My male peers probably don’t remember interactions like these, or even realize their impact. But during bouts of imposter syndrome and self-doubt, these are the moments that rattle around my brain.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique experience. Some men—particularly cis, straight, white men—seem to feel that comics are exclusively theirs. They continue to make others feel uncomfortable entering “their space.” Female creatives are still woefully under-hired by mainstream comics publishers. We’re constantly asked to prove ourselves and legitimize our fandom, experience, or critiques. Gale Simone recently took to Twitter to encourage anyone who had been accused of being a “Fake Nerd Girl” to share their stories and received over 2,600 responses, each reply telling a frustratingly familiar tale.
Mills may have felt compelled to hide behind a false name, but she could channel her own fantasies of female empowerment through the strength and style Miss Fury possessed.
Miss Fury’s story began when socialite Marla Drake hastily changed into a panther-skin catsuit to avoid wearing the same outfit as a rival to a masquerade. The catsuit—complete with claws, ears, and whip-tail gave Marla incredible strength, leading her to adopt the alias “Miss Fury.” Over an eight-year run, Miss Fury proved herself to be just as capable as her caped male counterparts, defeating countless criminals and Nazi spies. The high-fashion adventure strip became wildly popular, being published in over 100 newspapers and reprinted collected editions. Consequently, Tarpé Mills’ identity was revealed.
Mills was the only woman working in the noir genre at the time, and magazines and newspapers found great pleasure in highlighting the similarities between the creator and her creation. Hope Nicholson notes in The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen that this is no surprise given Mills was just as glamorous and strong-willed as Marla Drake. Mills became infused with Miss Fury, building the character in a way that only a woman living in post-World War II America could. Miss Fury held onto her willful independence in an era when women were being removed from the workplace and returning to the home. Marla Drake also became a single mother after rescuing a child during one of her crime-fighting missions as Miss Fury. Single moms are still unfairly represented as being incapable, but Marla Drake continued to be a confident superhero, juggling motherhood with crime-fighting in an era where even the idea of single motherhood was completely taboo.
Feminine qualities became sources of strength as Miss Fury disarmed enemies with powder puffs, pocket books, and high heels—relying on her smarts as much as her physical power.
While she had romances, men were often the lovelorn side-characters who needed rescuing. She also fully embraced her sexuality, often drawn in lingerie or while undressing—never in an exploitative way, but to reveal her confidence in her femininity. Mills delighted in dressing Miss Fury in the highest fashions of the era. The artist’s eye for haute couture placed her far ahead of her male contemporaries who rarely dressed their women in anything other than a basic red dress. She eventually ditched the catsuit altogether, with Marla Drake able to leap from buildings and punch bad guys without a magic suit.
Mills’ understanding of women and womanhood made the strip appealing to all audiences, but it particularly resonated with women and girls who sent Mills mountains of fan mail. There’s no denying that women respond well to seeing themselves portrayed in media. After seeing Captain Marvel, I left the movie theatre feeling as if I could smash spaceships and punch the patriarchy. As a species that thrives on storytelling, being able to tell and consume tales that reflect our own experiences or show what we can be is incredibly important. A 2012 study by Victoria Ingalls explored how gender impacts the creation of fictional heroes, only to discover that just eleven heroines from all popular media were originally created solely by women. June Tarpé Mills blazed the trail with Miss Fury.
There’s something empowering about living through another character—that’s why cosplay is so popular and fandoms are so fiercely loyal.
Through her own comic strip, Mills was able to hold onto power in an era when women generally had none.
June Tarpé Mills and Miss Fury might be missing from most of the history books, but their legacies live on through the strong female characters we see today, through the incredible women who tell their stories, and through every woman who perseveres in a man’s world, no matter what.