Strange phenomena #2: The Interchangeable Female
To the uninitiated, the Silver Age of comicbooks can sometimes be a weird place, inhabiting a space somewhere between conventional fantasy and childlike fairytale. Of course in a medium where characters can fly and travel faster than the speed of light we shouldn’t expect ultra realism, but even so there are some stretches of the imagination found within the yellowing pages of pre-Crisis comicbooks that don’t so much demand of the reader a willing suspension of disbelief, more a full-blown frontal lobotomy. Some of the tropes that reoccur in this period (and especially, it has to be said, in DC stories) are so outlandish that it beggars belief that even the junior audience the books were intended for didn’t find them bizarre in the extreme.
Perhaps the most peculiar (and questionable by modern sensibilities) is the phenomena of the interchangeable female.
The interchangeable female is a storytelling device that enables any given female to replace any other female with minimal, or no, use of a disguise.
To be clear, we’re not talking here about how Linda Danvers and Supergirl are clearly the same person with different hair. Much like Clark Kent’s glasses, we accept other character’s inability to see past Linda’s wig as a characteristic foible of comicbook storytelling — a leap of the imagination that’s part of the whole superhero genre.
No, what we’re talking about here is the concept that all the females in DC’s Silver Age are actually clones, indistinguishable from one another (even by the Man of Steel) except for a difference in their hair styles.
An example will serve to demonstrate: in Lois Lane #35 (Aug 1962), Lois is talked into wearing a blonde Supergirl wig by an evil wig maker (don’t ask!), only for the reader to treated to the delightful revelation (as the villain’s dastardly plan swings into action) that Lois isn’t Lois disguised as Supergirl, but Supergirl disguised as Lois disguised as Supergirl. And all of this by mere application of a wig. Go figure..!
The obvious ramifications are that Supergirl and Lois are indistinguishable, except by their hair colour.
Okay, to be fair this practice wasn’t constrained to just the women: there are indeed odd examples of the Man of Steel effortlessly impersonating the villain-of-the-month with just the addition of a pencil moustache, but in these cases the character being impersonated was usually a guest character, deliberately depicted from the start as resembling Kal-El. Superman never donned a wig and claimed to be Perry White, or Jimmy Olsen. And yet the Superman women (Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lucy Lane, Linda Lee, Lori Lemaris, …) all seemed to be able to effortlessly impersonate each other, without masks or prosthetic makeup.
We are, of course, dealing with a storytelling medium largely consumed by pre-pubescent boys, so it is only to be expected that there is a somewhat dismissive attitude towards female characters — but it’s a whole different order of magnitude from writing characterisations that render the females interchangeable in terms of dialogue and plot, and actually suggesting all the women are so generic that they are physically interchangeable too..!
Perhaps the most egregious example occurred during Supergirl’s early run in Action Comics. In Action Comics #279 (Aug 1961) Lesla-Lar, evil scientist from the Bottle City of Kandor, devises a cunning plan to swap places with Kara Zor-El. As Kara whiles away the hours trapped in Kandor, under the hypnotic suggestion she is Lesla-Lar, the real Lesla-Lar is getting up to all manner of hijinks as both Supergirl and Linda Lee Danvers in the outside world — including teaming up with Lex Luthor. This she manages to do without recourse to masks, makeup, or wigs — even Superman cannot tell the two women apart. A year and a half later, in Action Comics #297 (Feb 1963), Lesla-Lar escapes again, except this time she replaces Linda’s telepathic friend (and Lex Luthor’s sisiter) Lena Thorul. Again, without need for a disguise. This means that Lesla-Lar is a doppelganger for both Kara Zor-El and Lena Thorul, and by extension Kara and Lena must also be doppelgangers.
Years later, when Kara and Lesla-Lar have their final pre-Crisis showdown in the pages of Superman Family #206 (Mar 1981), the Machiavellian Kandorian (who has been transformed into a sentient form of energy thanks to an unfortunate encounter with General Zod) tries to suggest that she and Kara are twin sisters — but Kara is having none of it: “That we’re identical is a cosmic coincidence! Evidently her new form has driven her insane!”
It’s not a cosmic coincidence Kara, it’s the fact that both of you were born in the Silver Age of comicbooks..!