She’d been around for ten years, initially as Superman’s secret cousin, hidden away in Midvale Orphanage until he was certain she knew what she was doing which, given how he was used to treating Lois and Lana, was not a recipe for total disaster, oh no gollum. After four years, and an adoption by Fred and Edna Danvers, her cousin revealed her to the world, instantly becoming the world’s favourite blonde teenager. She’d gone on to Stanhope College, still wearing her brunette wig, still loyally backing up Cousin Kal in Action Comics. And in June 1969, Supergirl transferred from Action to Adventure Comics, bouncing out the Legion of Super-Heroes to claim her first real solo slot. The Legion – all 26 of them – had to exist in the back-up slot in Action. She would lead Adventure for the next forty-four issues, into the Bronze Age.
Whereas there is a pretty firm consensus as to the beginning and end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age, there’s no such unanimity about the transition from Silver to Bronze. I’ve chosen for the purposes of this series of posts to make the transition from the Legion to Supergirl as the marker: you are welcome to suggest any alternate time.
But by 1969, people who had started out as fans had started to have scripts and art accepted at DC. Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich had preceded them at Marvel. But some of the medium’s respected writers of the next couple of decades were starting out, taking over from those veterans whose attempt to secure a future for themselves led to their gradual ejection from DC.
I didn’t think much of the first story, which saw Supergirl going undercover at a ‘Sleuth School’ that was training shapely females (don’t look at me, that was the scripter’s word) to carry out robberies under hypnosis. It was just a bit too herky-jerky, with a poorly timed conclusion that revealed that Batgirl was also undercover with the same goal, not to mention a trip to the Batcave when Batman and Robin were ‘out’, without tripping a single alarm. But it was Supergirl’s first book-length story ever.
When placed against the next couple of issues, it quickly started looking like a classic. But there was an intriguing story as the lead in issue 384. Her room-mates’ use of the Campus Matchmaker computer inspires Supergirl to use her cousin’s supercomputer at the Fortress to pick out an off-world hero for her. Minus thirty points for such a condescending introduction, but plus fifty or so for having Volar’s planet be a Chauvinist heaven, in which all the women are brainwashed from birth to see themselves as fit only to be servants to men. Supergirl is determined to show how stupid that is, and Volar is on her side until one day he turns on her and drives her off the planet because the serum that gives him his powers can no longer be reproduced. Supergirl is happy to accept Volar for whatever he is after he stops being strong, handsome and dreamy, until she learns the truth of what Volar is and leaves humiliated and heart-broken. Because Volar is like her – a girl. Yes, there’s a weird mixture of sexual politics in here, and a lesbian undertone buried much deeper than it used to be in old Wonder Woman comics.
On the other hand, emboldened by Supergirl, Volar decides to carry on superheroing, as a girl, and start to change ‘his’ planet the long, slow way.
Yet I should be aware that this is the tail-end of the era when Supergirl’s series was a way for girls to enjoy superhero comics, with romances, dates and heartbreaks. Yes, it is patronising, to our eyes fifty years on, and the stories are tedious when they’re not being silly. But this is because they were intended for an audience of which I never formed part, and I should bear that in mind.
But that was until issue 396, for with that issue, Mort Weisinger stood down as editor of Adventure Comics. The role was given to Mike Sekowsky, former Justice League of America artist and one of the new editors that Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was bringing in from the pool of artists. Sekowsky had already taken over Wonder Woman and promptly removed her powers, turning her into a Diana Rigg-like human agent: what might he have planned for the Maid of Steel?
In one word: Change. To begin with, Sekowsky took over pencilling Supergirl and, from the look of it, writing the feature itself. His first story began with a bored Linda Danvers going shopping (?) for new fashions, with one of the groovy dress-shops she hit being the one where the non-super Diana Prince now worked. Next up, a new magical threat on campus shreds Supergirl’s staid old costume. With Ms Prince’s assistance she came up with a change of style that was hip, groovy and utterly horrible: a tabard-like miicro and thigh length red boots ought to look seriously hot but far from it (the new costume was chosen from reader’s suggestions over the past few months, and judging by the alternatives depicted on the cover, this one actually was the best, my life!).
The back-up story fared better by introducing a new regular creep in Nasty. This nick-name was short for Nastalthia, a name I’ve only ever heard elsewhere in Milton Caniff’s Terry and The Pirates (if you’re going to steal, steal from the gods). Nasty was out to discover Supergirl’s secret identity for her Uncle: Uncle Lex Luthor, that is.
The next issue introduced a new logo for the ‘New Supergirl’ but only one Sekowsky story, the lead being a particularly naff reprint from Supergirl’s High School days. And there was another reprint the next month, but as this was an unpublished Golden Age Black Canary tale with prime Infantino art, it was the highlight of the issue.
And so to Adventure 400. Only two other DC Comics had reached the number by 1970, only four titles had run longer. Sekowsky celebrated by delving into the past for the return of Supergirl’s old foe, the Black Flame, a comeback that fell flat for one latterday reader who has to ask Black Who?
It might be a new era for Supergirl, with Sekowsky confounding the old expectations to the point where expectations left town, but that didn’t avert the double nadir of issue 401, in which the Supergirl lead turned out to be a dream, and a new back-up, Tracey Thompson, debuted. Who or what was Tracey Thompson? She was an inquisitive girl with a less-inquisitive friend. Have series been built on lesser information than that? Probably, but I wouldn’t want to read them.
Anyway, Tracey and Betsy lasted exactly two episodes before being abandoned whilst Sekowsky started to churn things up even faster. In issue 404, Supergirl was fed a pill that turned her powers on and off and two issues later she graduated from Stanhope College, inadvertently revealed her secret identity to Nasty, moved to San Francisco to join a TV news team and found Nasty joining her there, intent on exposing her. Also, her new costume got burned up: guess it wasn’t as popular as the letter columns suggested.
Issue 407 introduced a newer, and even uglier costume, whose military style top and red pants made it look even bulkier and more awkward than the first. It also reminded me that I’d once owned this comic.
I’d definitely stopped buying all comics, American or British, after September 1970 and wouldn’t resume until January 1974. This issue would have reached Britain sometime around June/July 1971. But once I started again, and accelerated by discovering my first comics shop in Manchester, with back-issues, I kept stabbing at filling in the gap. I had a few Supergirl Adventures, a product of collecting the later and short-lived Supergirl title. This was the oldest I recognise.
By the time of the back-up story in issue 408, Supergirl’s red pants had turned to blue, and I was already sick of Nastalthia’s constant needling of Linda Danvers about being Supergirl.
The next month saw the adoption of a new 48 page size format, and a then-massive leap from 15 to 25 cents. This was an adventurous policy by DC, trying to avert an increase to 20c for the same old package by leaping past it to give more for the money, the more in this instance being selected Legion reprints. It was supposed to be a joint venture, agreed with Marvel but, after just one month at this size, Martin Goodman pulled his last great shark-move and pulled back to 32 pages at 20c, undercutting DC and further cutting into their market.
As for the original material, I was surprised to find a back-up story that not only cut Sekowsky out with script by E. Nelson Bridwell and art by Art Saaf but provided Supergirl with yet another new costume, and this time an attractive one, being basically a backless blue bathing suit with a fair amount of the sides cut away, plus cape and red boots. Decidedly sexist and decidedly hot.
The swimsuit outfit only lasted one half-length back-up because it was replaced in the following issue by the costume Supergirl would wear for the next decade plus, the loose long-sleeved blouse with the miniature Super-logo on the left breast, the red frilly tennis-knickers and the lace-up moccasins. And there was a change in editorial leadership as Sekowsky was replaced by former EC Artist Joe Orlando, who would take Adventure into some strange places, as we shall see in the next instalment.
But, oy! The stories that Orlando started with. Plain, dull, even stupid stories by John Albano and Bob Oksner, with clean, neat art but not heart and silly premises. Sekowsky had at least tried to do something new. Only the new costume worked.
I’m sorry to go on about the costume thing but issue 412 featured a rogue Supergirl impersonator wearing the tabard-and-thigh-boots outfit whilst the real Supergirl wore an all-blue all body sleek costume that looks like the one Melissa Benoit wore into Crisis on Infinite Earths but the story was an horrendous mish-mash, dragging Supergirl into space for a careering fight with no logical development to it. Adventure had literally lost the plot.
The Legion reprints went out the window in favour of an eclectic mix of characters – Animal Man, Zatanna, Hawkman, Robotman – whilst the sleek, form-fitting blue costume stayed for an issue before the blouse and tennis knickers one was back in issue 414, another of my former back-issue acquisitions, which I remembered well, especially for its cover.
Ridiculously, yet another costume, an off, impractical, sleeveless square-necked blue top with red mini-skirt was used in the front of issue 415 before the long-term look came back in the back. That however was the end of the Constantly-Changing-Costumes, but not of the uninspiring stories. Frankly, only the changing back-ups, mixing new work and unexpected reprints, was worth attention, as these certainly went in for oddities.
But DC’s run at 48 pages was always going to be limited and this came to an end with issue 420, and announcements as to a cutback to 32 pages and 20 cents. The last Supergirl story was an oddball tale set in space, a whirlwind effort of love, War and death that nowhere anchored itself to reality. It used Dylan Thomas for its evocative title, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, a line the story bent itself to accommodate. I searched it out as a back-issue on reading a letter-of-comment giving it extravagant praise and was once mightily impressed. Now, I’m just wondering how such a ragged thing ever got published.
I was familiar too with the next story, a farrago involving black magic that tied itself to a spurious significance by turning the evil witch into Supergirl’s easily-eliminated death-wish, but I remember it mainly for the truly astonishing art, by the impossible but somehow gloriously effective team of Mike Sekowsky and Bob Oksner, a combination no more compatible than than Pablo Picasso inked by Norman Rockwell. But it worked.
Then it all finally ran out of time and place. Adventure 424 was a mainly down to Earth adventure about a Syndicate stool-pigeon that took an incongruous turn into outer space but this was the last time these flying by the seat of the pants stories would appear in Adventure. Some memorable art from Tony de Zuniga ended with Linda Danvers throwing a fit of pique, walking out of her job, her life in San Francisco, her rivalry with Nastalthia and her unrequited love for her boss Geoff, the guy who, three months earlier, had gotten her past her death wish and become closer to her than any man before: not that close, obviously.
Supergirl cleared the decks to go into her own title (which would only last thirteen issues) and Adventure was given a two-month hiatus, presumably because nobody had any idea what to do next.
What they did do next will be the subject of the last part of this series.