Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: TARPE MILLS AND MISS FURY, edited by Trina Robbins (IDW/Library of American Comics, 2011)

I have Ron Goulart's fine history of comics in the 1930s and 1940s, THE ADVENTUROUS DECADE, to thank for motivating me to this purchase. Goulart discussed MISS FURY as one of the "superhero-flavored" newspaper strips that syndicates bought in the wake of the monstrous success of comic-book heroes of the Golden Age. Included in Goulart's book was a Sunday page of a rooftop catfight between two beauteous babes. After then seeing the eye-grabbing cover to the IDW volume, which reprints MISS FURY strips from writer-artist Tarpe Mills' prime period of 1944-1949, this was something I simply had to experience at length, on the order of THE MISADVENTURES OF JANE.

In her introduction, Trina Robbins dubs brunette socialite Marla Drake, aka the skin-tight-panther-suited Miss Fury (originally Black Fury for a rather gnarled reason), "the first female superhero created and drawn by a woman cartoonist." Well, Tarpe Mills was definitely female -- indeed, she bore a striking similarity to Marla and even gave Marla's pet cat Peri-Purr the same name as her own cat -- but calling Miss F. a "superhero" is a stretch worthy of McCovey. Marla is more accurately described as a heroine who gets mixed up in adventures and only VERY occasionally puts on her panther suit -- for example, when it is important for her not to be recognized. The "key strip" of 5/31/42, reproduced in this collection, explains why Marla did not use the suit that often; she claims that "nothing but misfortune" has followed her ever since she got the costume from her explorer uncle. Miss F.'s "powers" in said suit are very similar to those of the early Batman: throwing handy objects at villains, kicking the occasional baddie with a claw-tipped foot, swinging on ropes, shimmying up and down walls. The main point, however, is that she only becomes Miss Fury when she has no choice in the matter.

The strip itself is an excessively delirious mish-mash of soap opera, international intrigue, and WWII-era science fantasy (e.g., "dynasonic wave machines" that can shatter cities, anti-aging potions, all-dissolving acids). The protagonists and antagonists appear to be operating within one-sixteenth level of separation of one another. Quasi-evil ex-Nazi adventuress Baroness Erica von Kampf and one-armed German General Bruno have the nasty habit of turning up like bad pfennigs. Marla's love interests, such as the dashing Detective Dan Carey, likewise pop in and out. Mills makes admirable efforts to keep the proceedings contemporary in interesting ways; one postwar plot involves the smuggling of art treasures pilfered by Nazi sympathizers, while the "dynasonic wave machine" story (which is never resolved, alas) and similar far-fetched scenarios suggest that MISS FURY would have taken a decided turn towards sci-fi had it lasted past the early 1950s. (We might also have seen Darron Drake, Marla's adopted son, become a kid sidekick somewhere down the line; unfortunately, Darron never got beyond toddler-hood before the strip was terminated.)

Mills' art can hardly be faulted; it is gorgeous, if a bit stiff, and stuffed to the panel borders with well-delineated backgrounds and accurately depicted clothing styles of the era. Mills' writing -- not her plots, necessarily, but her WRITING -- is rather less successful. MISS FURY ran on Sundays only, so Mills always had to make sure that the late-arriving audience knew what was happening, at least at some level. However, the amount of exposition in the strip is immense, making even the likes of LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE look like GARFIELD. This was never intended to be a kid-friendly strip, but I can see a lot of adults having trouble keeping up with the downpours of dialogue. Interestingly, on those rare occasions when Miss Fury gets into action, the dialogue becomes much terser and more "comic-book-like." This leads me to believe that MISS FURY would have been more successful had Mills, who started her professional life working in comic books, remained in that medium, as opposed to "graduating" to syndicated strippery. She definitely would have benefited from the aid of an experienced writer who could have helped her to pare her exposition down to only what was absolutely necessary. Drawing a comic book version of MISS FURY would also have forced Mills to put Miss Fury into action more often, which, given the attractiveness of the character, could only have helped the character's popularity. There is something amiss when a strip with a titular heroine can literally run for months at a time with the heroine making only a few token appearances and the villains getting all of the "face time." Of course, given that MISS FURY was one of the racier strips of its era, with plenty of flesh, lingerie, and violence on display, a comic-book version would probably not have survived the effects of the mid-50s Comics Code.

Mills' work, far more so than that of the typical superhero artist, is very much a product of its time. After MISS FURY, Mills did one romance-comic story in the early 70s, and her strained effort to make characters look vaguely contemporary resulted in protagonists that resembled hippie vampires. She also started work on a graphic novel that was never finished, part of which is reproduced here, and it, too, looks badly out-of-date, though at least Mills can finally "get away" with showing nudity. It's unfortunate that Mills couldn't or wouldn't try to learn new tricks, but, if you read with a sense of history -- and a stomach sound enough to digest reams of exposition -- her magnum opus MISS FURY remains very enjoyable, albeit not quite the "barrier-breaker" that the cover blurb presents it as being.

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