Not Seen but Not Forgotten: The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil

Since the Invisible Scarlet O’Neil’s debut in 1940, there have been many other super powered heroines, but Scarlet was the first. Mike Gordon examines the origins of the character and the career of her creator, Russell Stamm

Scarlet’s April 8, 1945, Sunday page

Who was the Invisible Scarlet O’Neil? Quite simply, she was the first superpowered female character to appear in comic form. After the successful debut of Superman in 1938, the newspapers and magazine stands were full of action heroes. However, it was not until two years later that creators would place women in the starring role.

Will Eisner’s Lady Luck arrived in newspapers in 1940 and The Woman in Red by Richard E. Hughes and George Mandel was featured in Thrilling Comics the same year. Both were costumed action heroines to be reckoned with, but neither was endowed with any special powers. It was not until the first Invisible Scarlet O’Neil strip was published in the Chicago Times on June 3, 1940, that the world witnessed what a woman with a power could do.

Russell Stamm in the 1960s

Scarlet was created by Russell Stamm, born in Chicago on April 16, 1915. His uncle was Stanley Link, creator of the comic strip Tiny Tim. Link took an active interest in his young nephew’s work and introduced him to Sidney Smith, creator of The Gumps. In 1934, Russell went to work in the art department of the Chicago Tribune and served as an assistant to Link. The next year, he earned the coveted role of assisting Chester Gould on Dick Tracy. After five years, he decided it was time he created his own strip. Exactly how and why Stamm came up with the concept of Invisible Scarlet O’Neil is a mystery. Super heroes were fashionable, but they were all males. Perhaps Stamm saw that the genre was in need of strong female role models and designed her to help fill the gap.

Having worked on Dick Tracy for years, Stamm chose not to have his heroine violently shooting it out with criminals. She was a raven-haired beauty with the heart of an angel. Scarlet helped people in a mild manner, and she was particularly drawn to children and the less fortunate.

As the name of her strip suggests, Scarlet O’Neil only possessed one super power: invisibility. She acquired this ability as a young girl, curiously, by putting her finger into a weird-looking ray of light emanating from one of her father’s experiments. After a while, Scarlet discovered that she could become invisible or visible by pressing a highly sensitive nerve on her left wrist.

Marjorie and Russell Stamm in the 1950s

Much speculation suggests that Stamm modeled Scarlet on his wife, but that suggestion remains unconfirmed, even from Marjorie, his wife. However, she confirmed to this author that he did think “it would be neat to be able to make oneself invisible.” Stamm’s son, Russell Stamm Jr., provided some insight on why her wrist was the key to her power: “Dick Tracy used to have a watch…that could do a lot of different things,” he told me. “When my dad thought of the invisible thing, I asked him once [why] the wrist, and he said, ‘I got so used to drawing that wristwatch I just figured I’d have her press her wrist.’ ”

Though the only power Scarlet possessed was invisibility, that singular ability would take the character pretty far. Within a few months of her debut as a daily strip in the Chicago Times, she also appeared in Sunday strips, and her adventures were reprinted in Famous Funnies comic books. Her debut in issue #82 featured a now-iconic cover by Harry G. Peter, best known as the key Golden Age Wonder Woman artist. By the mid-1940s, Scarlet appeared in more than 100 newspapers around the world by the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate, part of Field Enterprises. She would also be the main subject of a couple of Better Little Books (the descendant of the legendary Big Little Books) and an illustrated prose novel published by Whitman Books. Figures of Scarlet and other characters from her adventures were available as paper doll cut-outs and unpainted plaster figures. She was a back up feature in Black Cat Comics and eventually starred in her own monthly book from Harvey Comics. Her comics were reprinted in Australia by the Daily Mirror, and in Mexico she was known as “La Invisible Escarlata.”

During the ’40s, Scarlet had a lot of competition—not only from male action heroes but fellow females as well. She might have been the first action heroine with superpowers, but she was soon surrounded by a bevy of benevolent beauties. Her cohort included Miss Fury, Black Cat, Pat Patriot, Miss Victory, Mary Marvel, Liberty Belle, Phantom Lady, Blonde Phantom, Moon Girl, Sun Girl, Namora, Venus, Black Canary, and without question the most famous heroine in comics history, Wonder Woman.

Scarlet managed to distinguish herself from her peers in a number of ways, the main one being the tone of the strip by the creator. A promotional piece issued by the Chicago Sun-Times said it best. “Action—without blood and thunder! Adventure—exciting but human! Fantasy—but with a humorous twist!” Scarlet was not a wealthy adventurer, an expert acrobat, a skilled fighter, a sensual seductress, a sharp-witted detective, nor an avenger of the death of a loved one. She simply used her powers to help people. That’s not to say her stories were plain and boring; in fact, they were anything but! It is to Stamm’s credit that Scarlet’s stories were as diverse as the times allowed. In one of her first adventures, she saves the life of a child in a burning building. The next adventure finds her in a beauty contest where another contestant is using an instantly fattening candy to eliminate the competition. Later, she faces some Axis spies and a wild ape, interferes in a fixed football game and travels to Washington, D.C., and sneaks a peek at the president of the United States. All within her first year of publication!

A panel from the Feb. 24, 1946, strip

Stamm’s ability to adapt Scarlet to the times led to the success of the strip throughout the 1940s. However, things were changing going into the next decade. Trina Robbins, author of “The Great Women Superheroes,” stated in an interview for The Untold Origins of Invisible Scarlet O’Neil book, “The 1940s was a great time for strong women characters in comics, as it was for real-life women. The country was at war, and while the men were overseas, women stepped in to fill their jobs, doing things women had never done before: driving trucks and buses, making ships and planes, even flying the planes, and this new ‘We can do it’ attitude was reflected in comics. Then the boys came home and wanted their old jobs back, and the mood of the country changed. Suddenly women were encouraged to marry, start families, and stay home. Again, this was reflected in comics, and the image of strong women disappeared for over 30 years.”

For these reasons and more, female action heroes struggled to survive in the early 1950’s. Phantom Lady, Miss Fury, and Blonde Phantom ceased to be in print by 1950. Black Canary had her last adventure in All Star Comics in 1951. Venus ended in 1952. Mary Marvel and her publisher Fawcett Comics were gone in 1954. By 1955, the only female action hero to star in her own comic book was Wonder Woman. Stamm tried desperately to save Scarlet by removing the word “Invisible” from the strip’s title in January 1950 and adjusting the strip for a new audience. Though she continued to be featured in dramatic endeavors, she did not frequently use her powers of invisibility. Most of her tales during this period were similar to that of a soap opera rather than high adventure.

The cover of the syndicate’s promotional brochure

Many reasons lay behind the decline in Scarlet’s popularity. Reader interest in superpowered characters (particularly female heroes) had been decreasing since the end of the war. Many readers were discovering the wonderful world of television. Newspaper editors were confused trying to figure out their readership, which led to some conflicts with comic strip creators. Stamm himself was growing tired of creating straight adventure stories and tried to remodel the strip, but he met resistance from his editor.

One change that was approved was the introduction of a new character, “Stainless Steel, Public Hero Number 1.” The character was well received, so much so that the title of the strip was renamed Stainless Steel in 1955 and the syndication jumped from 126 to 148 newspapers worldwide. A Time magazine article quoted the press release from the syndicate: “Stainless Steel has shoved the lady right out of the ink bottle.… From now on, it’s Stainless Steel!” Scarlet dropped out of sight, so to speak, in the strip in the middle of 1954.

Stamm hired an assistant, Emery Clarke, to help with the strips. He had met Clarke during his time with the Army Air Corps film unit, and in the 1950s, Clarke spent months living and collaborating at the Stamm family home. Clarke’s work eventually earned him a name credit on the Sunday strips. Despite the success and the assistance, Stamm was growing weary of the editorial conflicts and asked to be released from his contract with the syndicate. Field Enterprises agreed, and in 1956 Stainless Steel came to an end.

Russell Stamm Jr., photographed in 2007

Stamm’s career was hardly over. He decided to embrace the new medium of television and opened Russ Stamm Productions in Chicago, creating designs, storyboards and animation. He produced some of the first Jolly Green Giant and Charlie the Tuna commercials and created the Hostess Cup Cake Twins. His company earned numerous awards and he worked right up to his untimely death, from a heart attack, on August 2, 1969.

After the newspaper strip was renamed in the mid-1950s, Scarlet O’Neil was gone from the printed page altogether. As quietly as a pressing of the wrist, she disappeared and has not been seen much since. In 2008, Russell Stamm Jr. penned a new story featuring Scarlet in a modern setting. The graphic novel, featuring art by Wendell Cavalcanti, was published in summer 2011. Stamm hopes that the character will be able to reach even wider audiences than she did all those years ago.

Side by Side With Stamm

During World War II, Russell Stamm met illustrator Emery Clarke, and the two teamed up to work on the Invisible Scarlet O’Neil strip until the end of its run in 1956.

Prior to working with Stamm, Clarke had a great career as a cover illustrator for pulp magazines and was particularly recognized for his work on Doc Savage. In the mid-1930s, Clarke was part of a studio that included such talents as John Falter, R.G. Harris, Richard Lyon, Graves Gladney and Rudolph Belarski. By the late 1930s, Clarke had moved away from the pulps and was providing covers for mainstream magazines such as Look and Saturday Evening Post. His career was interrupted in the 1940s as he was drafted into service.

After the war, Clarke served as Stamm’s assistant for more than a decade and would be credited on the daily strip in the early 1950s. After the end of the run, he moved to Westport, Conn., and became an instructor at the Famous Artists School. He retired to Virginia and died on November 17, 1990.

Russell Stamm Jr. remembers, “Emery used to come to our home in River Forest, Ill., and stay for at least three months at a time working with my dad to work the strip at least two or three months in advance. He played the guitar and loved playing with me and my brother all the time. We did sports, walked the dog in the woods, and had another uncle for those months each year he came. Emery was a great talent, incredibly intelligent, and one of the nicest humans one could meet. My dad had absolutely the utmost respect for him and truly loved the guy!”

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