By Otto Binder, Al Plastino, Jerry Seigel, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
Superhero comics seldom do sweet or charming anymore. Modern narrative focus concentrates on turmoil, angst and spectacle and although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, sometimes the palate just craves a different flavour.
Such was not always the case as this superb trade paperback compendium – spanning Action Comics #252-284 (May 1959 to January 1962) and also available in eBook editions – of the early career of Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El of Argo City joyously proves.
Also included and kicking off proceedings is the delightful DC House Ad advertising the imminent arrival of a new Girl of Steel. Sadly missing, however, is the try-out story The Three Magic Wishes’ – written by Otto Binder and illustrated by Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye from Superman #123, August 1958 – which told how a mystic totem briefly conjured up a young girl with super powers as one of three wishes made by Jimmy Olsen. Such was the reaction to the plucky heroine that within a year a new version was introduced to the Superman Family…
Here, then, the drama commences with ‘The Supergirl from Krypton!’, the third story from Action Comics #252 introducing Superman’s cousin Kara, who had been born on a city-sized fragment of Krypton, which was somehow hurled intact into space when the planet exploded.
Eventually Argo City turned to Kryptonite like the rest of the giant world’s debris, and Kara’s dying parents, having observed Earth through their scanners and scopes, sent their daughter to safety as they perished.
Landing on Earth, she meets Superman who creates the cover-identity of Linda Lee whilst hiding her in an orphanage in small town Midvale allowing her to learn about her new world and powers in secrecy and safety. This groundbreaking tale was also written by Binder and drawn by the hugely talented Al Plastino.
Once the formula was established Supergirl became a regular feature in Action Comics (starting with #253), a residency that lasted until 1969 when she graduated to the lead spot in Adventure Comics. In ‘The Secret of the Super-Orphan!’, at her new orphanage home she makes the acquaintance of fellow orphan Dick Wilson (eventually Malverne) who would become her personal gadfly (much as the early Lois Lane was to Superman), a recurring romantic entanglement who suspects she has a secret. As a young girl in far less egalitarian times, romance featured heavily in our neophyte star’s thoughts and she frequently met other potential boyfriends: including alien heroes and even a Merboy from Atlantis.
Many of the early tales also involved keeping her presence concealed, even when performing super-feats. Jim Mooney was selected as regular artist and Binder remained as chief scripter for most of the early run.
In Action #254’s ‘Supergirl’s Foster-Parents!’, sees an unscrupulous couple of con-artists easily foiled, after which Linda meets a mystery DC hero when ‘Supergirl Visits the 21st Century!’ in #255. Her secret is almost exposed in ‘The Great Supergirl Mirage!’ before she grants ‘The Three Magic Wishes!’ to despondent youngsters and teaches a mean bully a much-needed lesson.
The Man of Steel often came off rather poorly when dealing with women in those less enlightened days, always under the guise of “teaching a much-needed lesson” or “testing” someone. When she plays with Krypto, ignoring his secrecy decree, cousin Kal-El banishes the lonely young heroine to an asteroid in ‘Supergirl’s Farewell to Earth!’ but of course there’s paternalistic method in the madness…
‘The Cave-Girl of Steel!’ then sees her voyage to the ancient past and become a legend of the Stone Age before Action #260 finds her transformed by the mystical Fountain of Youth into ‘The Girl Superbaby!’
The next tale introduced feline fan-favourite Streaky the Super-Cat in ‘Supergirl’s Super Pet!’ after which ‘Supergirl’s Greatest Victory!’ delivers a salutary lesson in humility to the Girl of Steel. Binder moved on after scripting ‘Supergirl’s Darkest Day!’ in which the Maid of Might rescues an alien prince, after which Jerry Siegel took over the storytelling as ‘Supergirl Gets Adopted!’: a traumatic and sentimental tale which only ends with the lonely lass back at Midvale orphanage.
I’ve restrained myself so please do the same when I say that the next adventure isn’t what you think. ‘When Supergirl Revealed Herself! (Siegel & Mooney from Action#265) is another story about nearly finding a family, after which Streaky playfully returns in ‘The World’s Mightiest Cat!’
Supergirl encounters fantastic fellow super-kids in Action #267’s ‘The Three Super-Heroes!’ but narrowly fails to qualify for the Legion of Super Heroes through the cruellest quirk of fate. Picking herself up she then exposes ‘The Mystery Supergirl!’ before Siegel & Mooney introduce Mer-boy Jerro who becomes ‘Supergirl’s First Romance!’
‘Supergirl’s Busiest Day!’ is packed with cameos from Batman and Robin, Krypto and Lori Lemaris all celebrating a very special occasion, after which Streaky makes another bombastic appearance as the wonder girl builds ‘Supergirl’s Fortress of Solitude!’.
Otto Binder wrote ‘The Second Supergirl!’, an alternate world tale that was too big for one issue. A sequel, ‘The Supergirl of Two Worlds!’ appeared in Action #273 – as did a novel piece of market research. ‘Pick a New Hairstyle for Linda (Supergirl) Lee!’ involved eager readers in the actual physical appearance of their heroine and gave editors some valuable input into who was actually reading the series…
Siegel & Mooney then soundly demonstrate the DC dictum that history cannot be changed in ‘Supergirl’s Three Time Trips!’ before ‘Ma and Pa Kent Adopt Supergirl!’ offers a truly nightmarish scenario, rapidly followed by a return visit to the Legion of Super Heroes in ‘Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends!’, whilst Action #277 featured an animal epic in ‘The Battle of the Super-Pets!’
The next five tales in this volume form an extended saga taking the Girl of Steel in totally new directions. On the eve of Superman announcing her existence to the world, Supergirl loses her powers and – resigned to a normal life – is adopted by the childless Fred and Edna Danvers. Tragically it’s all a deadly plot by wicked Lesla-Lar, Kara’s identical double from the Bottle City of Kandor. This evil genius plans to replace Supergirl and conquer the Earth. This mini-epic – ‘The Unknown Supergirl!’, ‘Supergirl’s Secret Enemy!’, ‘Trapped in Kandor!’, ‘The Secret of the Time-Barrier!’ and (following the results of the Hair Style competition) ‘The Supergirl of Tomorrow!’ ran in Action #278-282 and solidly repositioned the character for a more positive, effective and fully public role in the DC universe. The epic also hinted of a more dramatic and less paternalistic, parochial and even sexist future for the most powerful girl in the world, over the months to come…
The young heroine still in very much a student-in-training, her very existence kept secret from the general public and living with adoptive parents who are completely unaware that the orphan they have recently adopted is a Kryptonian super-being.
The accent on these stories generally revolves around problem-solving, identity-saving and loneliness, with both good taste and the Comics Code ensuring readers weren’t traumatised by unsavoury or excessively violent tales. Plots akin to situation comedies often pertained, as in ‘The Six Red “K” Perils of Supergirl!’
Peculiar transformations were a mainstay of 1960s comics, and although a post-modern interpretation might discern some metaphor for puberty or girls “becoming” women, I rather suspect the true answer can be found in author Seigel’s love of comedy and an editorial belief that fighting was simply unladylike.
Red Kryptonite, a cosmically-altered isotope of the radioactive element left when Krypton exploded, caused temporary physical and sometimes mental mutations in the survivors of that doomed world and was a godsend to writers in need of a challenging visual element when writing characters with the power to drop-kick planets…
Here the wonder-stuff generates a circus of horrors, transforming Supergirl into a werewolf, shrinking her to microscopic size and making her fat (I’m not going to say a single bloody word…).
The drama continues and concludes – like this initial Silver Age compilation – with the next instalment ‘The Strange Bodies of Supergirl!’ wherein Linda Lee Danvers’ travails escalate after she grows a second head, gains death-ray vision (ostensibly!) and morphs into a mermaid. This daffy holdover to simpler times presaged a big change in the Maid of Might’s status but that’s a volume for another day…
Throughout her formative years Kara of Krypton underwent more changes than most of her confreres had in twenty years, as editors sought to find a niche the buying public could resonate with, but for all that, these stories remain exciting, ingenious and utterly bemusing.
Possibly the very last time a female super-character’s sexual allure wasn’t equated to sales potential and freely and gratuitously exploited, these tales are a link and window to a far less crass time and display one of the few truly strong and resilient female characters parents can still happily share with even their youngest children.
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.