I think June Tarpé Mills is the only person I would ever risk traveling back in time as a person of color to have dinner with. This of course is based on the few scarce but flattering quotes and photos of her available, but sailing through her collected work as “Tarpé” Mills on Miss Fury this week only strengthens that assertion. Mills represents this rare type of creator who wrestles down and eventually masters a medium in hopes of telling “her” story in the most effective way possible. Through that struggle, she lives and develops on the page right along with her characters.
The strip itself is an elusive beast, luring in readers in with its elegant models and lovable cast, but never quite delivering what they expect. It’s a wonder the title character became such an icon to troops overseas given how infrequently she was “on-screen”, much less in-costume. Mills’s plots are packed tight with winding conspiracies, double-crosses and romantic triangles. But even when her protagonist isn’t there to observe the action, her growth as a woman is always the driving force behind it.
It’s a messy growth process though, drawing parallels to Mills’s own life, even apart from the famous use of herself and her cat as models for Miss Marla Drake and Peri-Purr. The black leopard-skin Drake dons, much like Mills’s sexually ambiguous pseudonym, begins as a means of control in life. For Drake, it’s initially to distinguish herself from a fellow socialite wearing the same dress she’d bought herself for a costume ball; but it eventually enables her to defend herself against a wanted killer and save a friend from a Nazi blackmailing scheme. For Mills, the pseudonym allows her work freedom from the marginalization and rejection most recognizably female creators suffered in the 40s and still do today.
Unlike the Batman anti-heroine she would later inspire, Drake derives little excitement from her accursed disguise and wishes to be rid of it more often than she relies on it. The fact of it manifesting into a literal curse, where every fortune it brings begets two subsequent misfortunes no doubt reflects the plight of the successful Sunday strip artist, met with merciless deadlines and hounded by her own early dissatisfaction with her drawing—as noted in Trina Robbins’s introduction to the first released volume. Her mistakes (supposedly corrected with paste-ups in post) are unnoticeable thanks to Lorraine Turner’s flawless color reproduction, but Mills’s confidence in her drawing, for better or worse, seems as much in line with her storytelling choices as it does with her character rendering.
Miss Fury‘s first years bristle with Mills’s post-graduate enthusiasm. The twelve-panel grid doesn’t budge an inch to contain it, but it only emphasizes Mills’s dynamic compositions within. When the frames aren’t tilting or speed lines zipping, Mills is also more prone to picturesque scenes of silence than she would be going forth. The 1944-1949 collection is noticeably more conservative, as if Mills developed her own “22 Panels That Always Work” template before Wallace Wood’s own deteriorating health would force him to abide it religiously. The panels become crowded with text and encased in shadow. The occasional silent panel is saved for a loud climatic action or extreme closeup. Most amusingly however are characters, such as art theft syndicate leader Monsieur Charles (pronounced “Sharles”, you disgusting philistine), who visibly reek of evil, with wavy black lines rising off of them like overripe garbage fumes.
In short, the furious action sequencing gives way to mood lighting as the plots become more domestic and expressions more reliant on stone-faced stoicism. Ironically, no matter how far across the globe Miss Fury goes, her world grows ever smaller as she runs into lost loves and familiar faces at every turn, often appearing as though she circles two or three men her entire life. The coincidences that occur in order to throw Marla into the conspiracies once the costume fades out altogether wax hysterical toward the end, but Mills brings a healthy dose of class consciousness, particularly with her relationships to Era and Francine.
Era, who is practically queen of a Brazilian resistance group that Marla stumbles into, takes offense toward her fiance’s fleeting fancy toward her, which is played for comical relief . . . until it’s not. Marla is genuinely unaware of how she’s leading Chico on, but is even more tone deaf as to why it isn’t within her right to do so.* Francine, who starts out as Marla’s maid, sells the apartment when she fears Marla won’t return from Brazil and struggles with employment once the troops come back to fill their pre-war positions. When we next see her, she’s fully independent and voluntarily offers Marla lodging at her new place as well as care for her adopted child.
It’s an amazing hat-trick that Mills engenders sympathy for all of her characters regardless of which side they play for. Her favorite villain, a monocled Nazi deserter called Bruno, probably born and raised within the military regime structure, has a brutish nobility in that everything he does is in the interest of soldiers he commands. The worst of the bunch, Miss Fury’s arch-nemesis Erica Von Kampf, is essentially the same unfortunate opportunist as the seemingly irredeemable Cersei Lannister was at A Game of Thrones‘s start. Her involvement in any plot however always ensures a good comeuppance-driven laugh by its end.
By time the 1944-1949 collection concludes—following an extended hiatus due to the strip’s temporary cancellation—all of Mills’s experimental elements have balanced out, resulting in a lush, Caniffian brushstroke and a storytelling mode incorporating everything from the first five years’ forward fashion to final five’s expert shadowplay. She is at peak form when, sadly, she isn’t at peak health. Still, any page from this classic run would stand proudly alongside, if not outright surpassing, most examples from the male artists of comics’ Golden Age.
* The impression I got was that Era viewed she and Chico’s marriage in as much a political light as a romantic one. Chico was a sort of gallivanter but also a natural born leader who inspired the resistance in a way only matched by Era’s wrath. To have Marla step in with her white privilege and sweep him away a crucial time, in her eyes, meant the end of the resistance.