Supergirl: The Silver Age volume 1

By Otto Binder, Al Plastino, Jerry Seigel, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7292-0 (TPB/Digital edition)

Superhero comics seldom do sweet or charming anymore. Narrative focus nowadays 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 compendium of the early career of Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El of Argo City – gathering material from Action Comics #252-284 and spanning May 1959-January 1962 – joyously proves. Also included to kick 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 distaff hero 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.

Crashing on Earth, she is met by 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 early tales involved keeping her presence concealed, even whilst performing super-feats. Jim Mooney became regular artist as Binder remained chief scripter for 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 nearly 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 far less enlightened days, always under the guise of “teaching a much-needed lesson” or “testing” someone. When she ignores his secrecy decree by playing with super dog Krypto, 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!’ sees her voyage to Earth’s ancient past and become a legend of the Stone Age before AC #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!’ supplies 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 before incoming Jerry Siegel began his own tenure by scripting ‘Supergirl Gets Adopted!’: a traumatic yet sentimental tale which ends with the lonely lass back at Midvale orphanage.

I’ve restrained myself so please do likewise when I say the next adventure isn’t what you think. ‘When Supergirl Revealed Herself!’ (Siegel & Mooney, Action #265) is another story about nearly finding a family, after which Streaky returns in ‘The World’s Mightiest Cat!’ as prelude to Supergirl finding fantastic fellow super-kids in Action #267’s ‘The Three Super-Heroes!’ She narrowly fails to qualify for the Legion of Super Heroes through the cruellest quirk of fortune, but – after picking herself up – exposes ‘The Mystery Supergirl!’ prior to Siegel & Mooney introducing fish-tailed Mer-boy Jerro as ‘Supergirl’s First Romance!’

Packed with cameos like Batman & Robin, Krypto and Atlantean Lori Lemaris, ‘Supergirl’s Busiest Day!’ sees her celebrating a very special occasion, after which Streaky enjoys another bombastic appearance as the wonder child builds ‘Supergirl’s Fortress of Solitude!’ before Binder wrote ‘The Second Supergirl!’ – an alternate world tale too big for one issue. 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 provided editors valuable input into who was actually reading the series…

Siegel & Mooney soundly demonstrated DC dictum that “history cannot be changed” in ‘Supergirl’s Three Time Trips!’ before ‘Ma and Pa Kent Adopt Supergirl!’ offered 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 amazing animal epic in ‘The Battle of the Super-Pets!’

The next five tales 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. Sadly, it’s all a cruel and deadly plot by wicked Lesla-Lar, Kara’s identical double from the Bottle City of Kandor. This evil genius wants to replace Supergirl and conquer 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: solidly repositioning the character for a more positive, effective and fully public role in the DC universe. The saga also hinted of a more dramatic, less paternalistic, parochial and even reduced-sexist future for the most powerful girl in the world, over the months to come; although the young hero is still very much a student-in-training, her existence still kept from the general public as she lives with adoptive parents who are completely unaware the orphan they have 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 Silver Age 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. It 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 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 major change in the Girl of Steel’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 did in 20 years, as editors struggled to find a niche the buying public would appreciate, but for all that, these yarns 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, displaying one of the few truly strong and resilient female characters parents can still happily share with even their youngest children.
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