Back to school
Dorothy Woolfolk (née Roubicek) was, by many accounts, a real character.
She had been a female editor in the male-dominated comicbook business since the early 1940s. Her early work for All-American Publications (the original home of Wonder Woman) would bring her into the orbit of DC Comics when said company merged with National Comics, to eventually become the company all comic lovers know today. Dorothy moved around during the 1940s, performing stints at Timely Comics (aka Marvel) and EC Comics, but she is best remembered for her work on DC titles, including Lois Lane, Young Romance, Wonder Woman — keen eyed readers may (just possibly!) have spotted a trend in the types of work she was assigned…
After time out to raise a family, Dorothy returned to DC in the early 70s — it was only a matter of time before they paired her up with Supergirl. But as it turned out, the superwoman of DC and the Supergirl of Argo City were to have but a fleeting relationship. Just one issue, to be specific, to launch the Maid of Might into her own self-titled comicbook — but it would be an issue that would leave in its wake a very different Kara Zor-El to the one Dorothy had inherited from Kara’s Adventure Comics run.
Once rebooted, Supergirl would be handed over to editor Robert Kanigher, who also came with quite a reputation among his DC peers.
Although a respected DC writer with a solid list of credits, some accounts claim that Kanigher could be difficult to work with, not least because of his apparent hot temper. Kanigher’s lengthy stint on Wonder Woman (nine years) would remould the heroine as a romance character, in more sense than one, mixing tales of Diana Prince swooning over Steve Trevor with the junior adventures of Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot on Paradise Island as they fought improbable fairytale-like monsters.
Linda (and Supergirl) had had boyfriends since moving to San Francisco, but full-on romance had not been a central part of her adventures. In the new series, however, romance was going to become a much bigger deal, and both Woolfolk and Kanigher were very practised at delivering just what was needed.
The art team too, with pencils by Art Saaf and inks by Vince Colletta throughout most of the series, knew how to deliver what was the necessary. The female Vandyre students (including Kara) are depicted as pretty, without being overtly sexy, while the males are all athletically built, with square jaws. Even Linda’s university professors look like they spend as much time in the gym as the research lab.
To get the required throughput of male bodies for Supergirl to swoon over each month, DC decided to have Linda return to college, specifically Vandyre University in San Francisco. In the early 1970s the city was a focal point for a lot of social and political movements that would have an impact far beyond just the west coast of America. For example, this was the era of The Castro, a district of San Francisco that had become strongly associated with gay activism, eventually giving rise to Harvey Milk’s political career. A few years earlier the Summer of Love had descended upon the city, bringing with it challenging ideas about sex, equality, and communal living… plus copious amounts of mind altering substances. Its influences were still being felt throughout the early 1970s, particularly on university campuses.
With a not insignificant population of 15,000 students, readers might have expected Vandyre University would be at the intersection of a lot of these contemporary issues: gay rights, anti-war protests, feminism, drugs… etc…
But they’d be wrong. (This was DC Comics, after all..!)
Bodies of knowledge
Supergirl’s first story of this new run is an interesting one, placing the Maid of Might as detective in a good ol’ fashioned murder mystery thriller.
No sooner has Linda settled in to her new college dorm, than students start showing up dead on the Vandyre campus — a tad disconcerting. This being DC Comics, Supergirl ignores the possibility of any LSD infused over-exuberance, and jumps immediately into looking for a crazed serial killer.
The standard thriller plot takes an unusual turn, however, with the introduction of Wanda Five, Linda Danvers’ new college room mate. Wanda is a troubled young woman, plagued by ESP premonitions; she foresaw the first murder, but arrived on the scene too late to prevent the dirty deed. With Wanda’s help, plus some detective work, the Girl of Steel learns that he culprit is a deranged playwright who has been killing off former drama students — presumably just penning a bad review didn’t adequately express the depth of his distaste for their work.
Ignoring the wacky conclusion, seemingly pilfered from the waste-paper basket of the Scooby-Doo production office, this opening story is quite the competent thriller. It also displays most of the ingredients that would inform the tone of the issues to come: there’s intrigue and mystery, the involvement of Vandyre staff or students at a heart of the plot, and a smidgen of the supernatural thrown in for good measure. But no romance… yet.
In the early 1970s the real life horror of San Francisco’s Zodiac Killings were still fresh in the public’s mind, and the murderer was still at large (famously, he was never caught.) It’s a gather gutsy move by DC to open Supergirl’s first self-titled comic with a serial killing story set in the same locale. Perhaps the interweaving of a supernatural element was an attempt to distance the tale a little from the infamous real life crimes?
At the end of the story Linda gets a visit from fellow Vandyre students, Sheila Wong and Terry (Teresa) Blake — Linda’s first ever non-Caucasian friends! Yaay! But before we all join hands and burst into a spontaneous chorus of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony), it must be noted that Shelia and Terry don’t make too many appearances in future issues. Aside from football players and gang members, DC’s universe was still incredibly WASP-ish in this era.
With Dorothy Woolfolk kicking the series off with a gutsy start, it was over to Wonder Woman veteran, Robert Kanigher, to carry forward the momentum.
The Garden of Death (Supergirl Vol. 1 #3, Feb 1973) picks up the murder-mystery and spookiness themes once more, but with romantic heartbreak added to the mix. As Valentine’s Day approaches, Bob Lewis drops by the Vandyre campus theatre. “Linda this is the third time you’ve stood me up on a date… because of rehearsals“, fumes an irate Bob. “Oops…“, thinks Linda as Bob storms out, “I just lost a terrific date! And I was so anxious to have Bob really dig me…” But there’s little time to chase after Bob, as Linda has already been alerted to a distraught student across the other side of campus.
Supergirl swooshes majestically in through the open dorm window of Mary Ann Brooks (it is always so nice of Vandyre students to leave their windows wide open, even when there’s a thick layer of February snow outside), to discover the tearful student glued to a television news report. Albert Brooks, her father, has just been arrested for the murder of Mafia boss, Lucky Coin Lacey. No sooner has Supergirl joined the Police at the murder scene — Mary’s family home — than her superpowers start to unearth dead bodies hidden all over the place. Things to not look good for Albert.
Suffice to say Kara clears Albert Brooks of suspicion, and unearths the truth behind the bodies, so everything ends well… except for Kara. While cheerful students attend the Valentine’s Day dance, a tearful Supergirl lies forlorn on the grass outside, alone, and wishing things had worked out between Linda and Bob Lewis.
Each issue of Supergirl would bring another boyfriend for Linda, as the Girl of Steel’s everyday identity slowly worked her way through the supposed 10,000 or so male population of Vandyre. In most of the stories the romance element is nothing more than an afterthought, adding a little spice to an otherwise non-romance plot, but in a couple of instances it takes centre stage.
In The Borrowed Brain (Supergirl Vol. 1 #4, Mar 1973), Linda falls for David Grahm, a suave and sophisticated post-graduate student in Criminal Sociology. But David is a man with a secret, for his student life is merely a cover to mask his dastardly criminal activities. Fate throws David a curve ball when an accident in a swimming pool leaves him in a coma — a desperate Supergirl consults her Kandorian friends for help, and they recommend a Kryptonian brain cell transplant.
Now, there’s a law of Kryptonian storytelling that states that whenever any part of a Kryptonian is transplanted into a mere mortal, no matter how small the part is, said human always immediately gains full superpowers. No, it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s best not to think about it too much! Therefore, once David recovers from his brain surgery (conducted by Supergirl herself), he quickly dons a costume and lead-lined mask, then sets out to resume his criminal career with the aid of his new super abilities. Supergirl swings into action to deal with the super-rapscallion, leading towards the inevitable shock revelation at the story’s close.
And so Kara is left heartbroken once again.
(Interesting aside: David seems to think the student population of Vandyre is 20,000, but it was just 15,000 a few issues previous. Seems a serial killer on campus did nothing to quell student applications.)
A few issues later, in The Sinister Snowman (Supergirl Vol. 1 #7, Oct 1973), Linda saves a young man named Tony Martyn, and — as always — falls madly in love with him. When Tony vanishes while undertaking Peace Corps work in the Himalayas, Supergirl races to the rescue, but little does she know that lady magician Zatanna is likewise smitten with Tony, and also on his trail. The two women eventually run into each other and realise they are love rivals. After a fight with a giant snowman (don’t ask!) the pair track Tony down, only to discover he has neglected to tell them that he is already engaged to be married to someone else.
And so Kara is left is heartbroken… once again!
You can sense the pattern.
As noted, not all stories had romance at their core, and two non-romances in the series stand out for particular attention.
The first story, The Devil’s Brother (Supergirl Vol. 1 #5, Jun 1973), is a rather tepid affair that sees Supergirl kidnapped and blackmailed into helping Dax, a cruel leader from another dimension. Dax wishes to put down a student rebellion at Nbraka University on his home world, but the pesky students are threatening to blow up a nuclear power plant if he suppresses their protests. Fortunately Dax has a cunning plan: as Kara is the spitting image of an ancient goddess the students admire, he kidnaps one of Supergirl’s friends, Rowena, and holds her hostage until Supergirl can lure the students into a trap. Supergirl pretends to go along with the plan, but at the last moment she turns the tables on Dax, and ensures the students prevail.
The very next issues sees something with a lot more edge: In Love and War (Supergirl Vol. 1 #6, Aug 1973) puts Supergirl in the midst of gang warfare, as deadly rivals, The Hustlers and The Flaming Serpents, square off against each other on the streets of San Francisco. Flaming Serpents leader, Rick, tries to turn his back on the violence by channelling his loyal gang’s energies into helping a local community centre, but old scores need to be settled and some members of The Hustlers aren’t prepared to let Rick walk away unharmed. Supergirl ties to negotiate a truce, while also keeping an eye out for attempts on Rick’s life.
Both The Devil’s Brother and In Love and War deal with youth issues of the time — student activism and street gangs — but only the latter example acknowledges the grittier side of American youth culture in the early 1970s. The gangs are family-friendly representations of hoodlums, being not dissimilar to the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story (sans the strange compulsion to burst into song every fifteen minutes.) Compared to real street gangs, they are mere parodies — but the very fact that they are in a DC Comics story at all is an achievement.
Supergirl’s first self-titled run comprises a solid ten issue series of stories, using a set formula of romance, the supernatural, and mystery, pitched unashamedly at the young female audience.
Mostly avoiding tales set away from Earth (just the one) or any reference to Superman (just two cameos), the series instead creates a self-contained bubble community, the Vandyre University campus, and uses its inhabitants as the basis of most of the adventures. Yet strangely, for such a hermetically sealed environment, the series dispenses with a regular cast of characters, instead relying on a constant supply of guests (usually Kara’s latest romantic squeeze) to fuel the plots.
One noticeable aspect of this series is how little space Linda Danvers actually gets: typically Linda appears for the set-up for a story, but once she’s shed her everyday clothes and adopted the red and blues of Supergirl, she remains in costume for the remainder of the tale. This is very much a comicbook about the Girl of Steel, not about her earthly alter ego.
Looking back on this first self-titled Supergirl comic, it seems to stand in stark contrast to what had gone before (and what was to come later.) Perhaps that is one of its strengths: it is a compact little set of tales, of a consistent quality, and (more importantly) with a consistent style, that avoids aliens and giant robots and Kryptonite, to instead put emotions at the centre of the stories. And for all its sometime failings, and its over-reliance on romance, this character-centric type of storytelling gives the series a very readable quality.
The first nine issues of Supergirl (volume one) were published at regular intervals from November 1972 to December 1973, but for the final issue readers would have to wait until August 1974 — a full seven months later. By then, Supergirl’s adventures had already moved over into a new super-sized DC publication that pulled together the happenings of all of Superman’s supporting characters, such as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, into one giant comic.
The decision to merge Supergirl into a giant Superman Family anthology title was probably more to do with economics of printing and distributing magazines in the early 1970s, and less to do with the popularity of Supergirl with fans. Yet Supergirl’s journey within the pages of her new home would be a rocky one — thankfully she would emerge out of the other side of Superman Family as a much stronger character… as we’ll see in the next chapter of her story.