The Silver Age of DC comics is notorious for its heavy reliance on gimmick based storytelling. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of depressed sales for the superhero genre. In a crowded marketplace filled with cowboys, romance, horror and crime titles, fantastical larger-than-life covers were a popular tactic employed by superhero editors as an eye-grabbing means of liberating as many young reader’s pocket money from their hands as possible.
Although magic featured at the heart of many of these stories, DC writers also concocted a standard reliable mechanism for the contrivance of wacky adventures, in the form of Red Kryptonite. Kryptonite was supposedly inspired by comments from one-time Golden Age Wonder Woman writer, Dorothy Woolfolk, as a way of de-powering the increasingly extravagant superpowers of the Golden Age Superman. By the Silver Age, however, Kryptonite had become a universal panacea for every writer’s block and blank script page with a deadline looming. Variants of Kryptonite were introduced with different effects: the red variant in particular became a scriptwriting miracle substance because of its ability to cause temporary mutations — tailor made for eye-catching covers.
This section breezes through some of the more extraordinary transformations in early Supergirl adventures, and where better to begin than a Silver Age staple: infantilisation.
Benjamin Franklin once stated that there are only two things in life that are certain: death, and taxes. In Silver Age DC Comics, however, we can also add the assertion that at some point the hero will be reverted into a baby. It happened so often, that the probability tends as close to 1 as makes no difference.
The Girl of Steel had only been in costume for a few months when the fickle finger of DC scriptwriting fate landed on her, and she was transmogrified into a babbling infant. The story, The Girl Superbaby (Action Comics #260, Jan 1960), uses a magical fountain of youth to turn teenage Kara into a toddler, then has the sleepy tot stow away in the trunk of a car owned by some jewel thieves. Without realising, baby Kara’s childish mishaps throw a succession of spanners into the carefully laid plans of the dastardly villains, eventually leading forest rangers to the crook’s cabin hideout.
Fortunately Supergirl reverts back to her teenage self before the thorny issue of a super diaper change becomes a necessity.
A couple of years later, and a two parter leading up to Superman revealing his cousin to the world features a cornucopia of Red Kryptonite inspired transformations.
In Action Comics #283 Supergirl is hit by the effects of several Red Kryptonite meteors. As is the norm with Red-K, each chunk alters Kara in different ways, the rocks neatly lining up to take successive turns in effecting her. Soon after returning to Earth, Linda Lee finds herself ballooning up in size — fortunately she is visiting a fairground at the time and manages to disguise herself as a novelty carnival inflatable. Later, as Linda and boyfriend Dick Malverne enjoy a night out at the flicks, Linda is transformed into a werewolf.
Later still, and Supergirl shrinks to microscopic proportions, which just happens to be convenient for a Fantastic Voyage style adventure inside a sick hospital patient (Dick Malverne’s adopted father), including fisticuffs with a deadly virus. Luckily for Kara, doctors mistake her help for the affects of a miracle serum: “The Sparacolicin Serum was successful!”, exclaims one doctor, “What a shame our supply was the only amount of it in existence, and the formula has just been destroyed in a fire!”
The following issue, Action Comics #284, rounds off the adventure with a real tour de force of freaky transformations, starting with Kara acquiring a second head. Kara’s Linda head (brunette wig) sensibly wants to stay hidden until the effects have worn off, but her Supergirl head (blonde hair) is full of curiosity to explore the visiting carnival. Supergirl head wins out, and Kara confidently strides around the various sideshow attractions, as her Linda head frets over all the attention she’s creating. Fortunately the good people of Midvale can always be relied upon to miss the blindingly obvious, and assume that Linda’s second head is just a freak-show phoney.
Her next transformation sees Supergirl’s deadly heat vision become uncontrollable. After accidentally killing her adoptive parents, the mail man, Krypto, and her pet goldfish, Kara is relived to discover she is in fact under the influence of a super hallucination. But no sooner has the effect worn off, than the final chunk of troublesome Red-K transforms Supergirl into a mermaid. Her fishy appearance vanishes just in time for her grand revealing to the world, luckily.
But the Silver Age wasn’t the only place to find bizarre transformations; the Bronze Age Supergirl also had one or two runs-ins with DC writer’s freak show antics. The most notable, and surreal, example was the time when Supergirl became a Medusa after coming to the aid of Vandyre University’s resident expert on Greek myth, Professor Garth. In the ensuing chaos Supergirl accidentally turns Garth’s muggers, and then half of the Justice League of America, into stone.
Yup, everyone was literally petrified of her!
As the 1970s rolled on, gimmick based stories became (thankfully) few and far between — Kryptonite of all kinds was abolished in an attempt to burn bridges with the novelty Silver Age past. Unfortunately the gimmick-addiction was too strong; within a few years DC writers had already fallen off the wagon, sneaking the convenient space rock back into Superman’s adventures.
If seems that for as long as writers face a blank page and a deadline, comics will have Kryptonite. And as long as comics have Kryptonite, readers will enjoy wacky gimmick based stories. The shadow of the Silver Age looms long.