Brainiac On Banjo #108: The Purple Zombie! – Women’s History Month

Thanks to several decades of following Trina Robbins’ research, I’ve been a Tarpé Mills fan since… well, probably since dinosaurs started making oil.

Mills is best known as the creator/writer/artist of the costumed newspaper comic strip hero Miss Fury (1941 – 1949), which, for the record, debuted six months before Wonder Woman. But prior to that, she worked for a variety of neophyte comic book publishers, creating such features as Diana Deane / White Goddess (1936), Devil’s Dust, The Cat Man, Daredevil Barry Finn (1939), and The Purple Zombie (1940). It is this latter creation that now brings my fingers to the keyboard.

In addition to my affection for Mills’ work, I have a serious thing for stories that are insanely weird and bizarre. The Purple Zombie was so weird it makes Herbie The Fat Fury look like Mark Trail.

Here’s the short version: a pair of scientists come up with a way to create zombies, but one is an evil scientist and the other wants it to be used for the betterment of humanity. Zombies For Peace! Right on! The bad guy does not kill the good guy, although he does try. He gets killed in the process and P.Z. divines the good guy as his master. So, the good guy drafts P.Z. into joining the 1940 anti-fascist movement which, at the time, was pretty much limited to fighting Nazis and the Spanish civil war. By the way, in Spain the American antifa was called “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade.”

P.Z. swiftly encounters another weirdly ambitious scientist who has invented a legion of robot metal skeleton monsters and engages them in combat with our hero. In short order, the Purple Zombie beats them up. It turns out this scientist is antifa as well (we had a much better rep in 1940) so both scientists and the armed metal skeletons and the Purple Zombie go off to fight the Right. Oh, and they go back in time for a couple adventures as well. You know, the Round Table, the crusades, that sort of thing.

Hey, I said “makes Herbie The Fat Fury look like Mark Trail,” didn’t I?

The Purple Zombie ran in the first twelve issues of Heroic Comics. Tarpé Mills retired the feature about a year after Miss Fury started appearing in the papers, so I gather allocating her time became an issue.

I realize that The Purple Zombie wouldn’t fly today. For one thing, due to the efforts of John Landis, Max Brooks, and Bob Kirkman we have a focused vision of how zombies are supposed to behave. It appears zombies are incapable of independent thought and their emotions are limited to hunger and mayhem. P.Z. is more thoughtful and much more considerate than many humans I’ve known. Given contemporary sensibilities (with which I do not take exception) P.Z.’s depiction might be considered racist by some. Well, reality-testing pop culture does have a sell-by date.

Tarpé Mills made a very brief reappearance to the four-color world in 1969 at Marvel Comics – the first to reprint her Miss Fury back in the 1940s – in Our Love Story #14. The Purple Zombie has yet to make a reappearance. But as we all know, in comics nobody dies forever and I’m sure P.Z. will return just as soon as somebody wants to rejuvenate the big guy. That, of course, is what makes the public domain so nifty.

If he does return, though, the new crew might want to consider giving the Purple Zombie a new “real” name. Mills called him “Zoro,” and I know several intellectual property lawyers who would be thrilled to chase that ambulance.

Modernizing the Purple Zombie would be necessary and would likely do what the pre-World War II newsstand could not: kill him off. But Tarpé Mills raised some serious concerns regarding Zoro’s zombiehood in her final story, which was a slightly sophisticated concept for 1942.

There are several different reprints of the twelve-part run. The one I read came out nine years ago from RangerHouse Archives and is available for download at Comic Book Plus. It runs 82 pages and contains some great narrative material, including a first-rate essay by Alex Jay.

Tarpé Mills is, at last, famous – at least within our little donut shop. But that fame is attached to her best-known and longest-running series. Her earlier work showed an amazing range within the fledgling medium, particularly when it comes to the weird and the wacky. I’m a big fan – check her out.

2 thoughts on “Brainiac On Banjo #108: The Purple Zombie! – Women’s History Month

  1. Purple Zombie is lots of fun but what is most interesting here is all the stuff that is crammed into 12 eight to 9 page stories (if my aging memory is correct) I mean compare that to a normal comic today where the 15 or whatever pages often doesn’t get you very far!