May you live in interesting times
At long last the Girl of Steel was free to expose herself to the world.
Erm… no… not in that way — the bikinis and plunging necklines came a little later..!
This was still the era of Superman comics influenced by Mort Weisinger’s tenure as editor. While DC’s comicbook rivals were reaching for a hip young audience with deeper characterisation in plots and extreme exaggeration in their art, Uncle Mort encouraged (demanded!) simple gimmicks and twist based plots, depicted using a clean art style with static poses reminiscent of a children’s storybook.
Weisinger’s reputation was one of fearsome domination and control: he’d allegedly played a key role in side-lining Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from their own creation after World War II, and in the years that followed he kept a tight reign over DC’s Kryptonian line of comicbooks. The pre-war DC had profited by publishing all manner of racy magazines, and allegedly flirted with organised crime; but Superman had given the company the opportunity to be both highly successful and respectable, and Mort Weisinger saw the former as being firmly dependant upon the latter.
So DC’s heroes stayed safe and family-friendly, even as comicbook’s young audience started to rebel against that very staid conservatism that Weisinger represented. Supergirl had been born into a time of shifting attitudes and norms. She may have finally earned her place as a first class member of the DC superhero pantheon, but as the most junior member of DC’s Kryptonian stable of characters, could she survive as all around turbulent change swept through youth culture?
In this chapter we look at the period running up to Supergirl being given the lead in her own comicbook — the period when she was still a support feature or guest star in other people’s comics. It’s a groovy journey through the Swinging Sixties. When it began (Action Comics #286, Mar 1962), The Beatles hadn’t yet reached US shores, President Kennedy was still in office, and Jim Crow laws were still largely unchallenged. By its end (Action Comics #376, May 1969), Neil and Buzz were off to the Moon, there was growing social unrest in opposition to the Vietnam War, and Flower Power was about to blossom into the Summer of Love.
Okay, to be honest, this period isn’t a particularly interesting one for the Supergirl character herself. While the outside world changed radically, and the comicbook competition (that would be Marvel) surfed a wave of popularity that tapped directly into the attitudes and values of 1960s youth, DC kept its Superman books straight laced and conservative. But that doesn’t mean there’s little to discuss — quite the opposite! Almost all of Supergirl’s long-standing relationship, both friends and foes, would be forged during this time. Kara’s character may not have changed radically, but everything around her did..!
But enough waffle. It’s time to turn on, tune in, and drop out… here come the fab Supergirl Sixties…
Nobody could accuse Kara of being afraid of a challenge, and when it came to her first true superhero story, having graduated out of invisibility, that’s precisely what she got.
Convinced that Supergirl is nothing more than a hoax, Lex Luthor puts the Maid of Might to the test (Action Comics #286, Mar 1962). Breaking out of prison using an invisibility formula consisting of mouth wash, a glass of orange juice, and two asprin tablets (I kid you not — try it for yourself!), Lex enacts a string of ingenious and dastardly dilemmas for the Girl of Steel. Fortunately Kara’s ingenuity matches his, as she manages to sidestep them all. It is left to some careless driving and a Kryptonite Ray-Gun with a hair trigger to finally upend Superman’s arch foe. Lex lies close to death, fatally wounded by his own weapon, but Supergirl locates a rare element from Atlantis to reverse the damage. The reanimated crime lord is less than happy at being humiliated by a mere girl, however.
Kara’s public début adventure demonstrates a lot of the best characteristics from her previous invisible period: she’s brave, resourceful, clever, but also compassionate — up to a point. There’s no macho bravado on show here: Supergirl expresses genuine alarm at some of the threats Luthor throws in her way, but she never gives up or lets her fear get the better of her. In the penultimate panel a gathering of crime bosses fret over how to handle their new super-nemesis — clearly Supergirl had advertised herself as a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately this bright start wasn’t to last. Subsequent months saw a secession of unremarkable or downright silly stories. In one tale, entitled The Man Who Made Supergirl Cry (Action Comics #288, May 1962), Phantom Zone prisoners blackmail Linda’s adopted father into manufacturing a formula that will allow them to escape their inter-dimensional prison. The miracle ingredient? The tears of a young Kryptonian girl, of course! (And you thought Luthor’s invisibility formula was silly!) So Fred Danvers spends the story doing unspeakably callous things to Kara, to make her cry. The story is silly, but it also has a cruel streak a mile wide — Fred smashes up Kara’s cherished possessions and fools her into thinking her adopted mother has just died. Not nice! It’s a wonder the Girl of Steel didn’t kick Fred into the middle of the next century when she found out the truth. (Literally!)
Fortunately better times were just around the corner.
Super best friends forever
What did every young girl want in the 1960s? (Aside from Paul McCartney!) A horse, of course (of course)..!
Comet was once a centaur named Biron in Ancient Greece, but some unfortunate encounters with magic transformed him into a full horse and gave him super powers, including telepathy (Action Comics #292 and #293, Sep/Oct 1962). Shifting to the present day, Linda Lee Danvers repeatedly finds a handsome white stallion invading her dreams and daydreams. She visits Dude Ranch, where she is shocked to find the very horse she imagined masquerading as an unruly stallion named Comet. Using telepathy, Comet reveals his true identity to Linda, and the two are soon sharing super adventures together.
Eventually, another erratic magic spell causes Biron to become human whenever Haley’s Comet enters the Solar System (Action Comics #301, Jun 1963), and inevitably Linda falls madly in love with his human form, unaware of his true super-equine identity.
Now with a horse (Comet) and four on/off love interests (Jerro the Merman, Biron, Brainiac 5, and Dick Malverne), all Kara needed to be the envy of every young girl reader was a trusted best friend; a BFF (Best Friend Forever) as all the hip cool cats today say. So DC drafted in Lex Luthor’s troubled kid sister, Lena Thorul, to befriend Linda Lee Danvers in a tale entitled The Girl With the X-Ray Mind (Action Comics #295, Dec 1962).
When Lex turned bad, the Luthors had changed their name to Thorul (as if nobody could work that one out!) and started afresh without him. Tiny tot Lena was too young to remember her much older wayward brother, but Lex had still left his mark on his baby sister thanks to an experiment that had gifted Lena with ESP powers. Now, you would have thought a best friend with telepathy is the last thing anyone with a secret identity would want, but not so ever-the-optimist Kara Zor-El. Linda Lee Danvers and Lena Thorul became firm friends almost immediately upon meeting, and remained so for many years to come.
Unfortunately, although Lena was ignorant of her family secret, the FBI were not, and this scotched her life-long ambition of becoming a federal agent. Lena tried to prove herself to the FBI, getting herself into trouble with the same criminals her brother consorted with, and requiring the assistance of Supergirl. Meanwhile big brother Lex watched on anxiously from his prison cell.
Both Comet and Lena — a horse and a loyal girlfriend — are clearly attempts to pander directly to a pre-pubescent girl audience. DC, true to its editorial policy at the time, was eschewing the teen market to chase the class of girls who might, in previously times, have tuned in to listen to Bud Collyer, or watch George Reeves, as the Man of Steel. DC was sticking to a familiar audience: the kiddies that had provided a foundation for its profitable licensing and merchandising operations.
This policy applied across DC’s superhero output. During this same period — the early 1960s — Wonder Woman comics were devoting much of their page count to Diana Prince fawning over Steve Trevor, and the adolescent adventures of Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot (yep, that’s Wonder Woman as a baby!) The Amazon princess was seen fighting genies on flying carpets, giant singing slime monsters, a furious egg, and a two dimensional paper man (see Wonder Woman issues #130, #151, #158, and #165) — and that’s far from an exhaustive list of the wack-a-doodle crazy adversaries Diana was facing off against on a monthly basis. If Supergirl was to survive long enough to front her own comic, she needed to do a lot better than Wonder Woman.
Shortly after their first meeting, Linda’s new best friend forever, Lena Thorul, played a key part in a story that re-introduced Supergirl’s only one true foe thus far: Lesla-Lar.
In The Girl Who Was Supergirl’s Double, Dick Malverne accuses Lena of being the secret identity of Supergirl. Shockingly, rather than deny it, Lena confesses that it is true! In the next issue it is revealed Lena isn’t really Lena, but a newly escaped Lesla-Lar masquerading as Lena.* Yes, Supergirl’s old foe had escaped Kandor once more and was up to her usual identity theft tricks — the real Lena was sound sleep in Lesla-Lar’s lab inside the bottle city. Lelsa-Lar releases some dastardly and villainous Phantom Zone prisoners to assist her, but to her astonishment they turn out to be both dastardly and villainous! They vapourise Lesla almost immediately upon exiting the Zone, and begin scheming their own world domination plans without her. (Action Comics #296 to #298, Jan-Mar 1963)
It was a sad, wasteful, and entirely unnecessary ending for the only super-adversary that Supergirl could thus far call her own. Lesla-Lar may have been a one trick pony, with her identity stealing hi-jinx, but she had real potential to develop into a worthy adversary for the Girl of Steel.
Perhaps realising almost immediately that they’d gaffed, the DC creative staff raced to introduce some decent super opposition. Four months after Lesla-Lar’s untimely demise, Vostar emerged from Atlantis, slightly soggy and smelling of seaweed (Action Comics #302, Jul 1963). His evil schemes involved using mind control technology to turn Supergirl and Comet against each other, but when Comet transformed into a human, Vostar’s influence was broken.
Then, two months after Vostar, a direct replacement for Lesla-Lar made her début in the form of Black Flame (Action Comics #304, Sep 1963).
Black Flame claimed to be Supergirl’s great great (etc…) granddaughter from the 41st Century, who had taken up a life of ruthless piracy and skulduggery across the space-time continuum. Stunned by the family connection, at first Kara seeks out hugs and kisses from Edna Danvers, but then bravely decides to poison herself with Gold Kryptonite, thereby stripping herself of superpowers and making it impossible for Black Flame to inherit them. A mocking Black Flame reveals that she is really Zora**, a Kandorian evil scientist who idolises Lesla-Lar. A powerless Kara is left at the mercy of the evil Kandorian.
But fear not: Supergirl’s Gold K was a fake (yaay!) Supergirl had noticed a small dental filling in Zora’s teeth, and surmised that Black Flame must hail from a place where people are not superhuman — Kandor being the likely candidate. Not only has our heroine beaten her treacherous opponent, she’s given the readers a valuable lesson in dental hygiene too — truly a super girl!
Kara now had a clutch of potential suitors, and a small but growing gaggle of enemies: it was only natural the DC writers would eventually realise that there was mileage in putting these two concepts together by creating a string of smooth talking, but scurrilous, Lothario characters to break the Girl of Steel’s heart.
But before any of that could happen, Kara was due the surprise of her life…
* Yes folks, both Lena and Lesla are doppelgängers, just as Kara and Lesla are. You think that’s crazy..? Read this..!
** Later known as Zora Vi-La.
The year 1964 was to change the basic foundation of the Girl of Steel’s existence in comics. The narrative thus far had been clear: Kara Zor-El was an orphan, the only escapee from a destroyed space city, who had rebuilt her life on Earth as schoolgirl Linda Lee Danvers. But all of this was about to change, thanks to two key events.
The first began in The Untold Story of Argo City (Action Comics #309, Feb 1964), when Kara suffers nightmares of her parents telling her they are still alive, beckoning to her, and begging for her help. Haunted by the visions, she travels into the Phantom Zone to seek answers from Jer-Em, the mad prophet who’s actions had set in motion the events that ultimately destroyed Argo City. Defying the mental bombardment of his fellow Phantom Zone prisoners, Jer-Em manages to splutter, “Your father and mother are exiled… zone… phantom… survival…”
At the Fortress of Solitude, Supergirl and Comet use Superman’s Chronoscope to peer into the past. Painfully, Kara watches the demise of Argo City, and sees Zor-El (her father) try to construct a Survival Zone ray-gun that will transport the city’s inhabitants into the safety of a parallel dimension. The device fails, so Zor-El sends Kara off in a rocket ship to Earth. But then, expectantly, the ray-gun bursts into life. The malfunction was only a temporary one. Without time to save anyone else, Zor-El and his wife Alura (spelled in this story as Allura) enter the parallel dimension, from where they are now beckoning Kara.
Having confirmed that her birth parents are still alive, Kara waits a whole month before she acts: or at least, until the next issue of Action Comics. In Supergirl’s Rival Parents (Action Comics #310, Mar 1964), Supergirl tries to use a thought-casting helmet to communicate with her parents (where does she get this stuff?!), but receives only garbled messages about the Survival Zone being caught in a cosmic gulf stream. Ignoring the minor fact that a gulf stream is a weather phenomenon named after a particular type of land formation, Supergirl constructs a machine in her parent’s basement to extract her birth parents into the real world. But the machine fails, and it is up to engineering genius, Fred Danvers, to provide the necessary tweaks of the controls to save Zor-El and Alura.
Finally, fighting back tears of joy, Kara Zor-El embraces Alura, as a proud Zor-El looks on!
Kara quickly spends all the time she can with Zor-El and Alura, but Fred and Edna Danvers immediately feel a great loss. They are being forced to surrender their cherished adopted daughter. Sensing their pain, Zor-El and Alura volunteer to start a new life in the Bottle City of Kandor, and Kara agrees to stay with the Danvers, promising to visit her birth parents in their new home frequently.
The second event happened eight months later, in a tale entitled Supergirl Goes to College (Action Comics #318, Nov 1964). The title pretty much tells the reader all they need to know: Linda graduates from school and earns a scholarship to attend the prestigious Stanhope College — “For perfect conduct in all classes, and for modesty, and an excellent character…”
You’d have thought that, being of such excellent character, Linda would have been thrilled to be attending college, but instead she frets about how it will hinder her career in lycra: “College will complicate my career as Supergirl”, she explains to her adopted parent, “But I can’t reject the scholarship without arousing suspicion!” So Linda decides to go off to college, not to improve her mind, but to provide better cover for her secret identity. It is left to Fred Danvers to hint that there might, just possibly, be value in getting an education for its own sake: “A wise decision. Your examples will encourage other youngsters to continue their education!”
Well said Fred.
Dick Malverne drops Linda off at the college gates, and the pair promise to continue to see each other, despite Dick attending State Tech a few miles away. Stanhope, it seems, is an all-girls school. Almost immediately Linda is thrown into a world of sorority rituals and über-bitchy rich girls, and straight away her dual identity is in threat of being exposed. So much for college helping to keep her secrets!
The change from school to college was clearly intended to allow the DC writers to give Supergirl steamier romance-based stories. Up until this point all Linda and Dick had done was hold hands — not even taking their relationship to the fabled first base — but that was going to change now that Linda was away from home as a college freshman.
Love is in the air
When a story’s splash page announces the title Supergirl’s Wedding Day! (Action Comics #307, Dec 1963), readers could be forgiven for expecting a standard DC gimmick based story with a twist at its conclusion. What no fan could have predicted, however, was that this story would the first prominent example of a formula that was soon to become a staple ingredient in Supergirl adventures.
Linda is shocked to find her new Science teacher, Michael Barns, seems to exhibit superpowers. Barns reveals himself to be Tor-An, a fellow escapee from Argo City. Kara and Tor-An begin to date, and despite the suspicions of both Jerro and Comet, a smitten Kara soon agrees to marry him. Only after the ceremony is over does Tor-An reveal that he is really an escaped Phantom Zone prisoner, bent on revenge: “You’ll be disgraced forever! And since Kryptonian law forbids divorce, your cousin Superman will always be related to a super-criminal!”
It’s a tale almost as timeless as the hills: boy meets girl; girl falls for boy; boy is revealed to be a visitor from beyond the stars; girl leaves Earth with boy; boy turns out to be evil; girl uses superhuman abilities to trounce boy. Over the coming years so many handsome aliens found they way to Midvale that Kara might have been forgiven for wondering if there was a giant flashing neon-lit arrow pointing toward her home town somewhere out in space.
In The Man Who Broke Supergirl’s Heart (Action Comics #320, Jan 1965), an android is constructed by an alien to be Supergirl’s perfect mate, in the hopes of luring her into a trap to steal her superpowers. Then, The Secret of Supergirl’s Suitor (Action Comics #326, Jul 1965) sees Linda fall in love with another android, this time one of Zor-El’s synthetic humans used to test the gateway into the Survival Zone. When a fast-talking cosmic rogue named Raspor turns up in Midvale in The Villain Who Married Supergirl (Action Comics #338, Jun 1966), the Girl of Steel falls for him too, even after she learns he may have been responsible for Krypton’s destruction. And as if things couldn’t get any weirder, in Supergirl’s Secret Marriage (Action Comics #357, Dec 1967), Linda Danvers suddenly learns she has unknowingly been happily married for a year to a space traveller named Joaquin Jarl.
But it wasn’t all androids and aliens — Kara dabbled with Earth boys too. In one notably egregious example, Linda tries every trick up her Kryptonian sleeve to teach Stanhope College love rat, Gary Sparks, a lesson. But her plans backfire when she discovers that he is two-timing her. Outraged, she sets out to win him back, even at the cost of her secret identity (Action Comics #369 and #370, Nov/Dec 1968).
Amidst all this gimmicky slush, however, one story does stands out — if only because one wonders how it got past the powerful gaze of Uncle Mort (probably because it wasn’t published in one of the regular Superman titles.)
The Revolt of the Super-Chicks (Brave and the Bold #63, Dec 1965) makes a token gesture to acknowledging the shifting sands of youth culture that were already in full swing by the mid 1960s. Fearful that superheroes are perceived as part of the ‘Establishment’, Supergirl renounces her crime fighting career and moves to Paris to become a swinging, hip, socialite. “My mind’s made up! That square chick Supegirl is going out to find glamour and romance — something every girl needs!”, she tells a shocked Superman. He responds by sending Wonder Woman to Paris to talk some sense into his rebellious cousin, but soon Wonder Woman too falls for the Parisian charm, and both gals start living it up in the City of Love.
This being DC, of course, both women eventually realise they cannot escape their responsibilities as crime fighters, and turn their back on romance to return to a life in costume. The story ends with Superman thanking Wonder Woman for talking sense into Supergirl, as both women share a knowing wink with the reader.
There’s very little in this period of Supergirl’s history that reflects the outside world as it truly was. It is almost as if Supergirl is trapped inside some mythical fairytale world, albeit an American fairytale world of apple pie and white picket fences.
During the 1960s Supergirl had moved out of the shadow of her big cousin — by the end of the decade Superman was only an infrequent guest in her adventures. Supergirl had progressed from brave young girl, to a self-assured young adult. Linda had changed too, although not as much as real young women in the world outside the DC fairytale. She’d acquired her own gallery of friends and foes, and she’d also been through some tough adventures — largely thanks to the influence of one man.
By the late 1950s, Superman creator Jerry Siegel was looking back on a string on failures after his one success with Superman. An ill advised contract with DC, and an even ill-er advised lawsuit against DC, had left Siegel with little income from his Man of Steel, as debtors banged on the front door. DC threw Siegel a few script commissions, largely to avoid the embarrassing headlines of him ending up homeless — but to their surprise he turned in some very popular plots. Unlike his 1940s scripts, these new Siegel stories were much deeper, exploring issues of sorrow, loneliness and regret; perhaps a reflection of his own troubled journey. Superman and Supergirl could only be hurt by Kryptonite and magic, but editor Mort Weisinger quickly realised there was mileage in hurting the heroes emotionally too, so he commissioned more and more scripts in a similar style. And the kids seemed to lap them up.
We see Siegel’s influence right the way through Kara’s 1960s journey; from tears of pain when Fred Danvers pretends that Edna Danvers is dead, to tears of joy when Zor-El and Alura step out of the Survival Zone, to tears of regret with each intergalactic heartbreak. These emotional stories, more than any other it seems, helped to keep the Girl of Steel popular during this turbulent decade. During the 1960s increasing levels of disposable income for the under-twenties created a brand new creature we now know as the teenager. With money in their pockets, and a willingness to spend spend spend, the teens were able to carve out their own powerful niche within America’s consumer society, a niche with a head-strong sense of music, fashion, and politics. Yet DC’s superhero comics remained squarely aimed at children. As the 1960s continued, however, DC couldn’t ignore the runaway success of rivals Marvel Comics. Marvel had an art style that emphasised drama and emotion, its plots echoed the angst of the 60s teen, while Stan Lee’s editorials fitted precisely the zany camp humour that was fashionable at the time.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Mort Weisinger released control of DC’s Superman titles. Carmine Infantino, as art director from 1967 onwards, had already started to redefine the DC house style to be less cartoon-like: a looser line, a more natural anatomy, more dynamic poses, and more dramatic frame composition. In 1971 Julius Schwartz succeeded Weisinger was Superman editor and began to abandon the regular gimmicks, such as Kryptonite, to create longer and more character-driven stories.
Finally, the times, there were a-changing… A more modern art style awaited, gritter stories, and a Linda Danvers with more style and more attitude. The 70s were the decade of women’s equality, and Supergirl was about to prove that she was the match of any man, as we’ll see in the next part of her story.