I was flabbergasted. I thought I was the only human alive that could possibly know who Scarlet O’Neill was. After all, the book I own was printed during WWII with substandard paper which crumbles to the touch. Each time I turn a page, the corner clips itself off. Even if people had some how heard of this character, I reasoned, they probably haven’t seen anything in print. Oh, how wrong can an uneducated individual be? Uneducated in what, you ask, if you are like me and thought Scarlet a will of the wisp memory? Comics. You know, serial comic strips, like Peanuts, Garfield, The Strange World Of Mr. Mum. (If you’ve ever heard of the last one–we need to chat!) I know nothing about the comic world, be it comic strips, comic books, or the new term, graphic novels. The only piece of info I have–loads of people collect loads of comic books. They increase in value like books, if rare enough, and I may have owned a couple Caspers and Lulus, plus a giant stack of Classic Junior–fairy tales. Scarlet O’Neill wasn’t within my vast experience with comics, or The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
I first encountered the see-through super hero the same way I discovered Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and a variety of juvenile books–through my mother. She read them, handed them down–or so I thought. The Drews, and Boltons, yes, but my mother was a bit old in 1945 to have been reading this level of book–although what does that say about me re-reading it now? More likely the next door neighbor’s daughter who had the oh so dramatic name of Desiree, gave Scarlet and Brenda Starr to me. She was responsible for some of my most treasured childhood toy memories. Even back then, the pages were yellowing and brittle. Nevertheless, I delved into the various exploits Scarlett was up to, most rather tame compared to other comic book heros, I suppose. She rescues little dogs, helps out wrongly accused hit and run drivers, and scares the bejeesus out of people who need a good lesson. She managed all of this with the touch of a finger-hitting a specific spot on her arm. This would turn her invisible, and back again–something she does with great regularity and sometimes in plain view!
At that time, I’d no idea she was a comic strip. The strip stopped running in 1956, so she wouldn’t have been in the newspapers flung on our lawn each day. Now, Brenda Starr was a different case entirely. Her strip was going strong and I read her each day, hoping she’d ditch which ever man she was mooning over this week, and find the hunk with the black eye patch, and finally live happily ever after. I never thought it out–if she rode off in the sunset, no more strip! (She finally did leave–although not with Basil St. John—the strip ran over 70 years and only ended last January, 2011.)
I loved Scarlet’s little adventures. In rereading I can understand why. She’s spunky, resilient, resourceful, independent, single, relentless in her goals, and naturally beautiful–the last being the only typical characteristic of the day. For a girl inundated with ‘ring around the collar’ commercials, and expectations that whatever one may think they’ll do in life, they will eventually end up a wife and mother, scrubbing stains, it must have been a bit inspiring. Naturally, being invisible was a major plus, something not attainable for the rest of us.
I never forgot Scarlet. I’d see copies of the book I read long ago, and wonder what happened to it–did I, in turn, pass it down to some cousin? I hope so, Scarlett deserved the attention. As I started the article, I googled for whatever teeny scrap of info about her may be out there. Surprise surprise! Apparently Scarlet is quite famous. She has a facebook page, a website, and a new strip–written by the son of the originator, Russell Stamm. Well, I guess I wasn’t the only individual impressed by her powers. And I have to say, this fact is quite startling, as well as pleasing at the same time. Part of me thought I had some rare wonderful gift to bestow upon my readers, and am miffed that it isn’t the case. Most of me realizes how cool it is that a character who symbolized independence and strength to this little girl, perhaps has done the same for many many other little girls. Of course, it may be the world of comics alone that has kept her alive–the love of a super hero in any form.
She was the first female super hero in comic strip form. Her’s a snippet from a bio page on Scarlet’s website about her creator:
“Stamm’s uncle was Stanley Link, creator of the comic strip Tiny Tim. Link took an active interest in the young cartoonist’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.”
No one knows what prompted Russell Stamm to create an invisible heroine. And only briefly, in the first strip, is the origin of her powers explained. Her scientist father created a ray of some sort, Scarlet stuck her arm in the ray, and became invisible, only learning later how to control the power.
The comic was launched on June 3, 1940, in the funny pages of the Chicago Daily Times. It was most popular during the war years, when women were working in the factories doing what men usually did. Once over, men took back the jobs, women were sent to the kitchen, and Scarlet’s popularity plunged. A male character was introduced into the strip, gaining more popularity than Scarlet, so by the time of its swan song, she barely appeared. Stamm went on to create animated commercials–some of the first Green Giant and Charlie the Tuna were his.
But the seeds were sown! Females could be super heros, just like men, even if they decide not to be as violent. Scarlet’s character was rounded by Stamm for this reason:
“Having worked on Dick Tracy for years, Stamm chose not to have his heroine violently shooting it out with criminals. Scarlet helped people in a mild manner and she was particularly drawn to children and the less fortunate.”
Good enough for me!
To visit the Scarlet O’Neill website, go here: