Cover of the novelized version. Artist: Russell Stamm.


Original medium: Newspaper comics
Syndicated by: The Chicago Times
First Appeared: 1940
Creator: Russell Stamm
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Scarlet O'Neil didn't maintain a secret identity, and she wasn't the least bit bombastic or flamboyant — she didn't even wear a skin-tight costume. What's more, she wasn't even a …

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… comic book character, at least not at first. Nonetheless, depending on how you define the word, she might have been the first female superhero in comics.

Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, which was the title of Scarlet's daily newspaper strip, debuted in The Chicago Times (later distinguished by syndicating Jack Cole's Betsy & Me) on June 3, 1940. Her Sunday version started January 5, 1941. Of all the putative superhero women, only The Woman in Red (who had no super powers), Lady Luck (ditto; and anyway, she beat Scarlet into print by only a single day), and Fantomah (who was beyond the pale) saw print before her. Which, if any, was first to meet the necessary criteria is a matter of which criteria are considered necessary.

Scarlet got the power of invisibility from a ray her father, a scientist, was experimenting with. She curiously put just her finger in the ray, and suddenly disappeared, clothes and all. Fortunately, she discovered that a certain nerve in her left wrist could work as a toggle for the power — touching the nerve turned her invisibility on or off. This origin story was told in the first episode, in the form of a quick flashback to events years earlier, so she could get right into action.

Scarlet's adventures were a little light on Nazi spies, Japanese saboteurs, master criminals and the like. In fact, they were kind of light, period. Russell Stamm, the cartoonist who created her, was a former assistant on Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, but chose a less severe approach for his own strip. The art was more rounded and "friendly" looking, and the stories less hair-raising. Instead of shooting it out with vicious killers, Scarlet's typical adventure, especially near the beginning, involved helping children in trouble. She did take on some dangerous foes, but her strip was less an action-packed comic, than a send-up of them.

Invisible Scarlet O'Neil got into comic books in 1941, when Famous Funnies, which had been the earliest modern-style comic book, began reprinting her newspaper adventures. She scored a cover first time there, in #81 (April, 1941). She continued there for years, but only rarely turned up on the cover. Harvey Comics put her in a comic of her own for three issues in 1950 and '51, then ran her one last time in 1952, in an issue of Harvey Comics Hits (the latter under the title "Tales of the Invisible", and packaged to look like a horror comic). Whitman published two Big Little Books about her during the '40s. Also, in 1943, she joined Terry & the Pirates, Tillie the Toiler and a select few other prominent strips, when Whitman adapted her exploits into a novel.

Scarlet's invisibility motif became less important as time wore on, and was eventually dropped altogether. Even the title of the strip became Scarlet O'Neil in 1950. The following year, a character named Stainless Steel was introduced, and he quickly rose to prominence until he became the star. The title was changed again in 1955, to Stainless Steel, but it didn't stay that way for long. The strip ended in 1956, when Stamm opted to pursue opportunities in the television industry, and comics' original invisible woman was never seen again.


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