Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Debut of Not-Quite Supergirl

By many accounts, Mort Weisinger could be something of an egotist and a bit of a jerk towards his employees, but by golly the man accomplished a lot in his career.

As a teenager, he (along with Julius Schwartz and Forrest Ackerman) founded the very first science fiction fan magazine. Later, he and Schwartz become literary agents for SF writers such as Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder.

Weisinger later edited a number of SF pulps, including Thrilling Wonder Stories and Captain Future. In 1941, he moved to DC Comics, co-creating a number of characters that included Aquaman and Green Arrow.

He was editor for both the Batman and Superman titles for quite some time, though he eventually dropped the Bat books and concentrated on the Man of Steel. 

And it’s a particular era—the late 1950s and early 1960s—during his tenure as Superman editor that we’ll be periodically covering on Wednesdays. Weisinger wanted to keep DC’s flagship character fresh and accessible, so he insisted that new elements be added to the Superman mythology on a regular basis. He also maintained a fairly tight continuity within the Superman universe (though, at the time, the continuity for the DC universe as a whole was pretty loose).

Weisinger “rationalized” Superman’s growing number of powers by explaining that Earth’s yellow sun and lower gravity was responsible for making him super. Prior to this, Krypton had often been referred to as a planet where everyone had super powers. At the same time, Weisinger also had a fondness for stories in which Superman lost his powers and had to really think his way out of danger.

We’ll be looking at some of the key additions to the Superman mythos that were added under Weisinger’s watch.

An important one, for instance, was the addition of other survivors from Krypton. Even discounting the Super Pets (though we’ll be getting to them eventually), the population of surviving Kryptonians shot up rapidly in the 1950s. There were the Phantom Zone criminals, the city of Kandor, and a reformed juvenile delinquent named Dev-Em. Kal-El was no longer the Last Son of Krypton and I’ll eventually do entries on a number of his more notable fellow survivors.

The most notable of them being Supergirl, of course.

Supergirl’s first appearance was in Action Comics #252 (May 1959), but she had actually had a try-out of sorts the year before in Superman #123.

In a story written by Otto Binder (who’s grasp of comic book “logic” has rarely been equaled by other writers) and drawn by Dick Sprang, Superman saves an archeologist trapped in a cave. Jimmy Olsen was there as well and the archeologist gives him a souvenir—a totem that supposedly grants three wishes once every hundred years. “Pure superstition, of course” laughs the archeologist.

Someone needed to remind this guy that he was living in a COMIC BOOK UNIVERSE!

Of course the darn thing works. Jimmy wishes up a Supergirl to be Superman’s assistant and companion.  She’s pretty close in appearance to what the “real” Supergirl will look like—a pretty blonde in a feminine version of the iconic costume.

Which leads me into an enormous temptation to make a blonde joke, since this Supergirl was something of a ditz.

Actually, that’s unfair. She was, after all, literally a new-born person and it was her inexperience that had her misusing her powers and causing unnecessary damage while helping Superman with various emergencies. Then she almost blows Clark’s secret identity because she doesn’t yet understand it’s a secret identity.

But when she finally gets the hang of the job, she shows herself to be a real hero, sacrificing herself to save Superman from some Kryptonite.

Otto Binder is one of my favorite Golden Age writers. He had a wonderful talent for building bizarre stories that still had their own internal logic. He had a quirky and somewhat gentle sense of humor as well. The Captain Marvel stories he wrote for Fawcett during the 1940s often showed these traits.

They are also apparent in this first “almost-Supergirl” story. It’s a fun and funny tale, though not without some nicely emotional moments. And we can presume that readers of the time liked it, since a permanent Supergirl followed soon afterwards.

I should also mention that Binder gives
Lois Lane
her own Crowning Moment of Awesome when she has an opportunity to undo Jimmy’s wish and erase Supergirl out of existence. She’s tempted to do this because she sees Supergirl as a rival for Superman’s affections. But in the end, she can’t do the dastardly deed.

It’s a nice moment for Lois, who doesn’t always come out looking that good during this time period. If she’s not scheming to get Superman to marry her, she’s trying to blow his secret identity to get a good story out of it. In either case, you usually ended up wanting to smack her one—and it was only those very occasional moments of nobility that made the darn girl tolerable.

The rest of the issue deals with the other two totem wishes. Crooks steal it and wish away Superman’s powers until they are tricked into revoking the wish. Then Jimmy wishes Superman back in time for a visit to with his Kryptonian parents, We’ll look at THAT last part in a later review, when we talk about a few stories that take place on Krypton.

But next time we return to the Superman universe, we’ll examine the first appearance of Kara Zor-el, the REAL Supergirl.

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