Miss Fury (1941-1951)
Written and Illustrated by Tarpé Mills.
In the history of the super heroine, two roads lead from 1941. Within months of each other, the two first real female super heroes emerged that year, and they couldn’t have been more different. We all know about Wonder Woman, the Amazonian goddess created by lovable charlatan and bondage enthusiast William Moulton Marston for DC Comics. After a promising, if surreal, hyper-feminist start, the death of Marston brought on a series of less than inspiring successors who saw her as little more than a dame with a nice set of gams. Meanwhile, over in the newspapers, a woman named Tarpé Mills had created a very different sort of super heroine several months before the release of Wonder Woman.
Her name was Marla Drake, a young woman just shy of twenty three years old, heiress to a fortune and to a curious panther costume. No god-powers, no invisible vehicles, no magical truth-evoking sex paraphernalia, no bullet-deflecting armbands. Just an ordinary woman with a costume and a consistent desire to do good when she could. That persistent sense of normalcy overcome is what makes her so consistently interesting, and why it is a rather large shame that female super heroes ended up going the way of Wonder Woman rather than that of Marla Drake’s alter ego, Miss Fury.
Miss Fury was, quite simply, a phenomenal work, stretching from 1941 to 1951 with one significant break in the late Forties. If Wonder Woman is the Superman of super heroines, gifted with a stunning array of abilities that, in sum, tend to detract from her interest as a character rather than to add to it, Miss Fury is Batman – a normal person trying to thread the intricacies of the evil that men do. Sometimes the heroes turn out to be nursing a complicated streak of villainy, and sometimes the villains show unexpected humanity and weakness. Even the most incidental of background characters has a fully realized story and intricate set of motivations. What’s more, Mills realized that Miss Fury didn’t have to be in Each And Every Panel, that her world and villains needed space to develop on their own if we were going to care about these characters and the things that happen to them, and feel excited about the times when Drake finally dons the Miss Fury costume.
From a storytelling perspective, it was one of the richest experiences available at the time (and, for that matter, still). From an artistic perspective, in many ways it hasn’t been equaled since. Mills was a fashion designer before turning her hand to comic creation, and each panel sizzles with a profound and un-ironic love of clothing and design. Really, you don’t realize how bad the everyday clothes are in other comics until you’ve been reading Miss Fury for a while. The loss of that richness of visual detail is something we’ve come to accept, and perhaps we wouldn’t have if Miss Fury had been the comic to outlast Wonder Woman.
Even with my professed weakness for a stylish cut of cloth, however, what I like best about this comic is how Miss Fury handles her male counterparts. They are all, in one way or another, in love with her, but also have absolute respect for her abilities and accept her direction when she takes control of the various sticky situations that emerge. Fury doesn’t do any stupid, self-destructive things for the sake of Her Man’s Work and Advancement, and generally treats everybody around her with the same level-headed tact and fundamental friendship. Male friends come up to her apartment, they talk about intriguing criminal cases, and then they leave again, with narry a “Leave the planning to the men, Dollface” in sight. Every panel radiates the idea that, gasp, men and women can work together on issues involving international diplomacy and global economics as absolute equals without stopping to agonize over the following of traditional gender roles.
In short, it’s a comic about a woman and her array of odd but deeply realized friends, stopping ex-Nazis and deathless Russian scientists, all while dealing with the responsibilities of single motherhood (Marla adopts the child of her nemesis at one point) and the complexities of being a vigilante when villainy fails to be as clear-cut as the movies make it. It’s one of the best things in comics, and it’s a scandal that we hear about it so seldom.
Everybody Loves Power Bars!
Fierce: 10: Miss Fury will PUNCH a fool, and look SICKENING doing it.
Smart: 8: While Miss Fury herself is above average smarts, the brains of this book come in the deep and compelling character development, particularly after the war.
Funny: 2: Miss Fury is still too busy PUNCHIN’ that fool to be funny.
Fashion: 10: Mills was a fashion designer, and it rings through elegantly on each page. Miss Fury’s panther costume is pretty skin-tight, but in an era of tiny skirts and bustiers by way of costume, her full body leotard is, if anything, a conservative choice.
Fortunately, IDW has re-released the first 8 years of the strips across two gorgeous volumes, with an introduction by female cartoonist historian extraordinaire, Trina Robbins. Get them, both of them. Do it now. Not to be confused with the Dynamite re-launch of Miss Fury in more recent times, about which more …. Later.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015)
Written by Ryan North.
Art by Erica Henderson.
Seventy-four years and an ocean of Lessons Learned later, we have The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a comic by Ryan North and Erica Henderson which is on just its fourth issue, and already showing its promise as a healer of wounds long standing in the comicsverse. After issue one, it felt like the book of the year, the one that takes everybody back, male or female, fresh reader or veteran, to everything they love about comics as a genre. Each person I talk to has a different story to tell about what Squirrel Girl reminds them of, but for each one it’s a recalling of something happy and optimistic that they’d thought lost.
Doreen Green is, like Peter Parker before her, somebody that just about anybody can relate to. She goes to college to study computer science, but not the flashy stuff. Instead, she has a passion for pursuing the super boring Maintaining Cross Platform Support material that everybody who starts with visions of being the next Tony Stark eventually devolves towards. It’s that real excitement for normalcy that makes the book so infectious. She drinks the stuff of regular life and of super life down with equal glee, from checking out her choices of college clubs to reconfiguring Iron Man’s armor to include a roomy tail section.
Her power is the ability to talk to squirrels, and that’s it. And yet she has an innate and boundless self-confidence equal to any challenge, a tough, I Can Take on the World optimism that you can’t help but cheer on in its total Candosmanship. But when it comes down to facing off against the bad guys (including, in just these four issues, Kraven and GALACTUS), her real weapon is psychology married to indomitable hutzpah. She problem-solves the lives of the villains she’s up against rather than fighting them, and the resulting nods to the history of Marvel comics are as delightful to the old guard as they are Fresh and Shiny New to the uninitiated. And if none of these characters ring a bell, well, luckily for you Squirrel Girl carries a shiny pack of Deadpool Marvel cards to keep everybody straight, or at least as straight as Deadpool could be expected to manage.
And she’s balanced. Doreen Green has a tongue-tied crush on a guy she meets while moving in, a perfectly normal partnership with Tippy Toes the squirrel, and a room-mate who has a bit of mild mannered heroism of her own. She’s not tripping over herself to prove how Trendy she is every third panel (cough), and never does it occur to North to use an Agonizing Back Story as a substitute for character development. Meanwhile, Erica Henderson’s art is the perfect complement, somehow managing to encompass Galactus eating a giant nut-based planet and two roommates talking about registrars seamlessly in the same delightful style.
There is a flood of new female super hero comics available now. Some feel like a crass cash-in on the reigning Zeitgeist. This one feels like a creative team singing a love song to their favorite things about comics, and if anything shows that Tarpé Mills’s spirit of well-rounded and engaging storytelling is alive, it’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
ANOTHER POWER BAR?! NO WAY!
Fierce: 9: Squirrel Girl’s victory list includes Dr. Doom, Thanos, and WHIPLASH! Whiplash, yo!
Smart: 9: It’s a light but wonderfully clever book about a smart computer science student who happens to talk to bushy tailed rodents.
Funny: 10: Pretty much every panel is a gem, and the tiny narrator additions at the bottom are icing.
Fashion: 8: There HAVE been, mostly lamentable, attempts to sexify Squirrel Girl’s outfit. This is not one. And that is good. Squirrel Girl is drawn a bit on the heavier side, with a gap in her teeth, and a mostly sensible outfit, and these are all things that we could stand to have more of.
An Explanation of the Power Bar Rankings:
Fierce: Does this character solve her own problems rather than deferring to the authorities around her for guidance? Does she have a distinct personality that exists separately of her love interest? Does she stand up to institutionalized power structures because it’s right?
Smart: Is the character ever shown solving problems with her intellect, or engaged in a scientific/artistic pursuit? Alternately, are the characters in the comic as a whole crafted with an intelligent understanding of motivation and complexity?
Funny: Pretty self explanatory here folks.
Fashion: I initially thought about calling this the Costume Exploitation scale, as a place to call out terrible and objectifying costume choices, but there are ways to do character design well and sensibly, and Fashion seems the positive word for that. The question here is, “Did the artist take time to think about matching the costume to the personality of the character, or is there just sexual titillation for titillation’s sake?” In addition, “Is there something particularly visually striking or new about what this title is doing with the 90% of the character covered in clothes?” That might sound superficial, but I love clothes and never get to talk about them outside of yammering on about RuPaul’s Drag Race on Facebook, so it gets a bar.