It is apparently a myth that bras were burnt at the famous protests outside the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pageant, which is just as well for Linda Danvers, as her bra was probably made of indestructible Kryptonian super-fabric. That might have been a tad embarrassing..!
Linda, and her alter ego Supergirl, had made it through the 1960s in a wholesome bubble of apple pie, white picket fences, and authority figures who were always to be trusted. She’d dodged the Vietnam protests, and steered well clear of any drug addled hippies, but even a girl who can outrun a speeding bullet could not escape the inevitable social changes happening all around her.
Innovations such as ‘the pill’ and workplace equality legislation had freed the 60s generation of women from some of the inequities of their mother’s generation, and by the early 70s the tidal wave of feminism that had grown steadily throughout the 60s was breaking ashore with a crash. At the same time commercial forces were reshaping the comic marketplace away from the cosy world that DC had inhabited since the end of World War II. Marvel Comics had gained significant success by pitching away from the children’s market, towards a new educated teen and young adult demographic. Adam West’s Batman show had become a sensation with tv audiences by mocking the very conservative heroics that DC had made their hallmark. DC’s style was passé, Marvel was where the kids wanted to be. Times were changing, and DC had to change too.
As the decade turned, the all-powerful Mort Weisinger was coming towards the end of his tenure as the real Man of Steel behind DC’s Superman. Already other DC staffers, like Carmine Infantino and Julius Schwartz, were keen to shake things up. Infantino, being an artist and designer by trade, wanted to break free of the staid picture-book house style, while Schwartz (who would succeed Mort Weisinger as head of ‘Superman’) wanted to drop gimmicky stories, and introduce more character based tales.
Both of these factors would have an effect on Kara during this next chapter of her life.
This chapter takes us through Supergirl’s Adventure Comics era, a journey that starts out in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, and ends in the era of Ms Magazine with Supergirl being given her very own comicbook title (Adventure Comics #381, Jun 1969 — Adventure Comics #424, Oct 1972.)
This was a period of transition for the Girl of Steel. Linda’s clothes got more trendy, and her skirts got shorter. Supergirl’s iconic costume, too, became subject to the whims of fashion. Linda took her first steps into the workplace, and her relationships with boyfriends got a lot more complicated. Supergirl’s enemies, likewise, became a little less two dimensional, and she was forced to use more brains and less brawn when a long-running story arc saw her powers become unreliable. Slowly, bit by bit, a little of the anti-authoritarian counter-culture swagger started to creep into Kara’s attitude.
By the time her Adventure Comics adventure was over, Kara had transformed from a big sister for the prepubescent girl market, to a feminist soul sister for the trend-concious teen market. The old Linda Danvers was gone: demure, respectable, modest — in its place stood a thoroughly modern Linda: opinionated, questioning, head-strong, and hip.
This is the story of the conservative college student who became a sassy career girl, and her superheroic alter ego who began to appreciate that the fight between good and evil has many shades of grey lurking beneath its surface.
“After 10 whole years, Supergirl gets her own magazine!“, trumpeted the cover of Adventure Comics #381, “This is her FIRST book length novel!”
Devotees of Supergirl following her in the jump from the rear pages of Action Comics to the front pages of Adventure Comics must have wondered what just hit them.
Action’s swan song tale, The Hated Girl of Steel (Action Comics #376, May 1969), featured abducted scientists and brain draining aliens (y’know, because aliens can build interstellar warp drives, but they still need to steal ideas from planets that have only just invented colour tv!) — all depicted with old-school charm by Kurt Schaffenberger. By contrast, Adventure’s debut plot was more cloak and dagger: undercover action and corrupted young women. It was pencilled by Win Mortimer and inked by Jack Abel, using a less cartoony style. Mortimer’s facial expressions are truer-to-life, while Abel’s inks throw down harder shadows in the figures and bold dark areas in the backgrounds. The impression is a fresh alternative to the children’s storybook look that Supergirl had been treated to thus far.
The story, entitled The Supergirl Gang (Adventure Comics #381, Jun 1969), is suitably ambitious. Supergirl learns that a team of hi-tech cat burglars are actually Stanhope students from respectable homes. As nobody from a respectable middle class home would ever get so much as a parking ticket, it is clear to Supergirl that these girls must be innocent.
The girls claim amnesia about their crimes, but Kara discovers that each girl is enrolled in night school classes in criminology, run by Jonathan Maxom at the mysterious Sleuth School Inc. Enrolling herself, Linda learns that the course mixes the study of criminal techniques, with hand-to-hand martial arts training. One student in particular, Miss Barbour, seems to be very practised in the latter, and it isn’t long before Linda and Miss Barbour (secretly Batgirl, also undercover) are trading karate chops for a place on the advanced group team that Linda suspects is responsible for the crimes. (And no, it is never quite explained why Miss Barbour doesn’t fracture her hands karate chopping at Linda’s invulnerable body.)
Superman makes a brief cameo when the cat burglars attempt a further crime, but retreats when he sees a message etched into a sidewalk by his cousin: “It’s all right, I know what I’m doing! — Supergirl” A very confident message from a very self-assured heroine.
This opening tale pitches Kara almost as an Emma Peel style super-agent, with a superhero identity on the side — an undercover formula that would be used time and again by television heroines like The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman in the years to come. It is hard to tell whether there was a concious effort to give the story a harder edge, but certainly the new art style helps to differentiate the story from what had gone before. In Action, it was hard to follow Schaffenberger’s over-emotive cartoon-like facial expressions and minimal use of shadow, and not infuse a story with a certain degree of charm, colour, and fun. Likewise, in Adventure, it is difficult to see the more realistic features of Mortimer’s characters, coupled with the bolder and harder shadows of Abel’s inks, and not add some extra gravitas to the proceedings.
Over the coming issues there was a distinctive schizophrenic approach to Supergirl’s artwork style, with each issue containing two separate Supergirl stories shared between Schaffenberger’s cartoon-like style (inherited from Action Comics) and Mortimer/Abel’s harder and more realistic style.
A classic example of the two styles at their best came in Adventure Comics #383 (Aug 1969). It opens with an unsettling tale by the name of Please Stop My Funeral (Mortimer, with Murphy Anderson substituting for Jack Abel), in which an apparently dead Supergirl attends her own funeral as a ghost, unable to be seen by or interact with the people she loves. Then, in Supergirl’s Day of Danger (Schaffenberger), an attempt to give Kryptonian invulnerability to a human results in Kara feeling every slapstick punch thrown at test subject Tony Walston. Two different art teams, two different styles of story.
After first few issues the series settled down into a steady mix of unremarkable gimmick and heartbreak plots (not unlike the Action Comics series), but with the occasionally slightly more edgy fare thrown in to spice things up — some of them more spicy than DC perhaps intended.
The super-love that dare not speak its name
It might be tempting to assume that all of the gimmick and romance based stories are throw-away slush, but that’s not always the case. (Okay, admittedly, yes! — most of them are throw-away slush! But…) One example, The Heroine Haters (Adventure Comics #384, Sep 1969), dabbles with the whole women liberation agenda, but does so in a way that (perhaps unintentionally) raises more questions than it answers.
A computer predicts the perfect mate for Kara: a superhero named Volar from a planet called Torma. Torma has a rather unenlightened attitude towards women’s equality, but even so Supergirl travels to meet Volar, and (as she always does) falls madly in love with him. Sadly, although Volar seems to be the one man on his planet who is quite respectful of women, Supergirl’s affections are not reciprocated. The reason is simple: Volar is secretly a super heroine — a woman hiding behind a male disguise in order to gain the respect she needs to do her heroic deeds. Suffering Sappho! — as a certain Amazon might say — the Girl of Steel had fallen in love with another woman..!
Another slightly edgy story cropped up a few months later. Lex Luthor’s Outlaw Nephew (Adventure Comics #387, Dec 1969) was the first instalment of a two parter that saw Lex Luthor discover that his kid sister, Lena, now has a small child with mental powers well beyond those of its mother. The infant can manipulate heavy objects by just thinking — just what Uncle Lex needs for his nefarious criminal activities. Lex absconds with his nephew, but when Supergirl finally tracks the pair down (Adventure Comics #388, Jan 1970) the infant innocently levitates the pretty green rocks (Kryptonite!) he’s found in Uncle Lex’s lair towards her. A powerless Supergirl reverts to her Linda identity to complete the rescue.
The story is a standard comicbook tale of hero versus villain, but the presence of an innocent child at the heart of the plot gives it an unsettling twist. Sixties America may not have been as aware of the dangers of child sex abuse, but it was very aware of so-called stranger danger — a child vanishing off the street, to be found sometime later in a shallow grave. Lena’s pleading with Supergirl to help find her son launches the second part of this tale with quite an emotional punch.
There’s a sense here that perhaps the DC creative staff are wrestling with how to adapt the Supergirl to attach an older female audience. There’s certain an increase in romance plots, but harder elements are also starting to creep into the stories, disguised behind the fantastical façade of Kara’s superheroic adventures. A dramatic shift in Supergirl storytelling was imminent, and in some ways these stories can be seen as testing the new ground.
Before the change, however, there was just time for one final notable gimmick story. The Mysterious Motr of Doov (Adventure Comics #394, Jun 1970) has the double distinction of drawing directly from an non-DC children’s fictional work, while also being the final proper appearance of Streaky the Super-cat.*
The story sees Supergirl and Streaky teleported to another realm by a twister close to the Stanhope campus, where they befriend various strange characters who aid them on a journey to find the mysterious wise man known as the Motr of Doov. If the plot sounds familiar, it is because the story is unashamedly paying homage to The Wizard of Oz, with Linda as Dorothy, and Streaky as Toto. The final panel even sees Linda back at Stanhope, thumbing a copy of the book.
This could so easily have been another throw-away gimmick story; just a transparent rip-off. But instead the readers are treated to an imaginative reinterpretation — transformative, even — that cleverly references its source and pays it due respect. A Supergirl makeover was in the offing, but this story is a clever, if somewhat quirky, way of leaving this section of Kara’s adventures on a high.
* An imposter Streaky makes a brief cameo six month later, but this is the final appearance of the real feline.
The first indication of more serious change came with two stories in the same issue, Adventure Comics #397 (Sep 1970), which saw the début of former Wonder Woman artist/editor Mike Sekowsky taking over writing, editing, and pencils (inks by Frank Giacoia and Jack Abel.) In his very first issue as editor, Sekowsky banished Supergirl’s iconic costume to the trash, and introduced a brand new recurring adversary.
Now Comes Zond sees Supergirl’s costume torn and tattered after an encounter with a black magic cult. Fortunately, thanks to the Comics Code Authority’s own peculiar brand of magic, the holes are all strategically placed to maintain Kara’s modesty. Even more fortunately, Diana Prince — aka Wonder Woman — keeps a supply of spare Supergirl costumes in her apartment, for reasons that are never quite explained (perhaps boyfriend Steve Trevor is prone to a spot of bedroom role play?) The new costume, however, isn’t the same as the old: it’s a much more mod affair, with mini-skirt, thigh length boots and opera gloves. Ooh la la..!
Then, in Supergirl Meets Nasty, Lex Luthor’s niece Nasthalthia (aka Nasty) visits the Stanhope College campus, convinced she can expose one of the students as the secret identity of Supergirl. Life clearly hasn’t dealt poor Nasthalthia a kind hand — with a aptronym like Nasty she probably didn’t have much choice but to join her uncle in his criminal exploits. However, one can’t help thinking her plan might been a little easer if she’d told everyone her name was something less conspicuous, like Naughty, or Slightly-Unpleasant, or Actually-Quite-Nice-Once-You-Get-To-Know-Me..!
Very quickly, the gimmick based stories started to disappear. Just two issues after the revamp the series make the bold move of flirting with racial prejudice in a tale entitled Johnny Dee — Hero-Bum (Adventure Comics #399, Nov 1970). Jonny Dee is a black football player for Stanhope College*, blackmailed into throwing matches by a gang of thugs. The story itself makes no direct mention of skin colour, but it is hard to see Jonny and his girlfriend menaced in the dead of night by hooded figures without realising there are allusions being made to much bigger social issues. In a comical (but revealing) twist to end the story, a police officer is seen fining Supergirl for the damage to public property and obstruction to traffic she caused while apprehending the criminal gang. The days of superheroes and law enforcement working hand-in-hand were over, it seems.
Three issues further on again, Love Conquers All — Even Supergirl (Adventure Comics #402, Feb 1971) sees the first part of a three issue epic that would haunt the Girl of Steel for the remained of this chapter of her life. Female super-villain, Starfire, sends male super-lothario, Derek Ames, undercover to Stanhope College to seduce Supergirl, armed with a drug that will rob Supergirl of her superpowers. The conclusion of part one sees a drugged up Supergirl apparently slain in a hail of bullets.
Fortunately for Supergirl (and DC Comics) Starfire’s formula is understrength. The Girl of Steel survives, but her powers are now intermittent. Starfire kills Derek, but when his brother Rodney shows up Starfire frames Supergirl for the death. Seeking revenge, Rodney lures Supergirl into a trap in Paris where Starfire awaits with a boosted formula.
In the space of just a handful of issues Supergirl had been radically changed. Out went the gimmicky plots and the old Argo City costume; in came longer and more dramatic storylines, and a whole new modern look. With her superpowers now on-the-fritz, Kara now relied on brains as well as brawn. But there was one final change that would burn the last remaining bridge to the Supergirl of old, and it wasn’t to survive for long.
* it seems someone forgot that Stanhope is an all girls college.
What Kara needed to be a respectable feminist in the early 1970s was a career, and so Adventure Comics #406 (May 1971) finally saw Linda graduate from Stanhope College… after just six and a half years (don’t laugh, she’s a slow learner!) With help from cousin Clark, Linda leaves the cosy world of fictional locales like Metropolis, Midvale and Stanhope, and gets a job in the real world — or as real world as 1970s San Francisco could be — as a camera operator with K-SFTV.
Nasty, now certain that Linda is Supergirl, is one step ahead: Linda shows up for her first day at work only to discover Lex’s niece has wangled herself a job too, and (worse still) bagged the best desk.
Almost immediately the action takes a turn for the supernatural, with Phantom of the Opera style theatrics, followed by haunted house antics. While on assignment for K-SFTV, Linda spots a young girl at the bedroom window of the ramshackle mansion home of a local recluse (The Face at the Window, Adventure Comics #408, Jul 1971). Returning as Supergirl, the girl asks for help in locating her parents, trapped elsewhere in the house. Supergirl finally locates two skeletons walled up in the basement, and the the little girl promptly vanishes — she was the deceased daughter of a couple subsequently murdered by the mansion’s owner, it transpires.
After this brief flirtation with the supernatural, the Adventure Comics series quickly settled down into a mix of blockbuster action, thinly disguised social commentary, and the ongoing problems of Linda’s everyday life. Linda had a thing for K-SFTV’s self-assured station manager, Geoff Anderson, but her affections were never noticed; so instead she took to dating Johnny Drew, an affable young co-worker. Meanwhile, never far away, Nasty’s forced charm hid her true Machiavellian intentions. And if her Linda personal life was complicated, then Kara’s Supergirl career was likewise beset by problems, as her on-again-off-again superpowers presented ongoing problems.
Joe Orlando took over as editor with Adventure Comics #410 (Sep 1971), which also happened to be the first appearance of Supergirl’s soon-to-be iconic hotpants costume. During Sekowsky’s tenure readers had been invited to submit trendy costume ideas for Supergirl to wear — this prompted a succession of groovy outfits featuring gloves, mini skirts, thigh length boots, and even a gravity defying swimsuit. Under Orlando’s editorship, however, Supergirl’s look quickly standardised on the hotpants outfit alone. It is lucky that Kryptonians don’t sweat, as Kara was wearing that one outfit day-in and day-out for the next decade: as a costume for her Supergirl activities, and as underwear for Linda Danvers.
Sekowsky handed his art duties over to a succession of artists. Many different DC regulars provided the pencil work, but Bob Oksner was most frequently given the job of inking the finished pages. Oksner excelled at drawing very pretty ‘girls’, with petite figures and cute faces. Strangely, his art style seemed to work well with the stories that were to come.
The final year of Supergirl’s Adventure Comics run is dominated by high concept ideas: Supergirl is blackmailed into participating in a galactic gladiatorial style contest (Adventure Comics #412, Nov 1971), Supergirl tracks down a stolen skyscraper (#414, Jan 1972), Supergirl visits a dimension where women rule over men (#417, Mar 1972), Supergirl battles a giant ‘Kong’ robot across the streets of San Francisco (#422, Aug 1972), Supergirl becomes prey to a pair of mind control glasses (#423, Sep 1972), and so on… But mixed in amidst these (highly entertaining) bubblegum plots are a handful of more thought-provoking tales worthy of special mention.
Pre-dating Steven Spielberg’s E.T. by a decade, The Alien Among Us (Adventure Comics #411, Oct 1971) sees an extra terrestrial crash land in San Francisco, causing panic in the city. Supergirl pointlessly argues with the authorities, who are convinced the creature is a threat and want to track it down and kill it. Attacked by everyone it meets, the creature hides in the basement of a house, where it is befriended by a small boy with a crippled arm. The police finally track the alien down and kill it, but not before the creature fixes the boy’s disability as a thank you.
The Walking Bombs (Adventure Comics #413, Dec 1971) pits Supergirl against a mad scientist, Robert Meekly, who is angry at the materialism of modern life. Meekly had spent many years in prison after stealing from his employer — a bank — to fund medical care for his young son. Now, years later, he launches giant walking bomb robots to destroy every bank in the city. But Meekly then learns that his son works at one of the targeted banks, and sacrifices his own life to stop the robot reaching its target.
Beyond their sad endings, these two stories have something else in common: they muddy the waters over good and bad. Robert Meekly is clearly wrong to do what he did, but the reader can sympathise with a father outraged at medial corporations putting profit ahead of the health of a small child. The authorities needed to respond to the general public’s panic, but their solution is driven by fear and mistrust, to the point that they make themselves the villain.
These stories, and others such as Like a Death’s Head in the Sky (Adventure Comics #415, Feb 1972) that deals with the topic of nuclear armageddon, offer fleeting glimpses of a real world beyond the comicbook. They are fragments of social commentary that sparkle like gems amidst the fantasy, and serve to demonstrate how the comic industry was slowly starting to change into something beyond just disposable pulp reading for young children.
In 1972 Gloria Steinem chose Wonder Woman to adorn the cover of the first full issue of Ms Magazine — a magazine for women, actually written by women. A few years before her Ms appearance the Amazing Amazon’s comic adventures had seen her fawning over Steve Trevor and fighting a succession ludicrous pantomime villains — now she was a feminist icon. In just a few short years Wonder Woman could be fighting it out in the tv ratings with other women-fronted vehicles like The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels. Female lead protagonists were still a far cry from equality (many would argue we’re still waiting for equality), but at least women had progressed from being just the girlfriend or the sidekick.
By giving Supergirl the lead in a comic, DC was bowing to the inevitable. Changes in society at large had encouraged many women to expect more from life than their mother’s had been allowed. Kara couldn’t remain as just a butter-wouldn’t-melt college student, in a fantasy America of apple pie and white picket fences. TImes had changed — the comicbook industry was changing — and Kara needed to change too. So she did!
How different the Adventure Comics Kara is from the young girl who crashed in Midvale a decade before. Gone are the days of uncertainty and doubt, worrying if she’ll ever match up to the high standards of the Man of Steel — she’s now a practised and very capable crimefighter, confident enough to tell her big cousin to stay the heck out of her adventures. And her milieu had evolved too; her relationship with politicians and police is now more awkward, her enemies are now more complex (although still as fantastical), and her personal life is as fraught with work woes and relationship problems as any young woman in the real world.
The apparent success of Supergirl’s Adventure Comics run prompted DC to launch Supergirl into her own brand-new self-titled comic. But to do this they decided to reboot the character once again, with a new setting and a new cast of regular characters. And for the first time put her life, Kara would come under the control of a female editor.
A female superhero. A female editor. What could go wrong?!