Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The World's Greatest (Mainstream Superhero) Graphic Novel Ever!

You can talk about your Dark Knights and Blackmarks all you want. (Personally, I lay the blame the suck-titude of modern comics at the feet of the Dark Knight.) You can look at Buzzfeed's list of the superhero graphic novels you absolutely must read right now! (One of which is a compendium of nu52 faux Wonder Woman. As if!) You can point out that the book we're about to talk about wasn't quite the world's first graphic novel, though the cover claims it is. Other ones had come before, often utilizing reprinted material.

But the greatest superhero graphic novel of them all was Action Comics #360 (80-Page Giant #G-45). Correct me if I'm wrong, but this was the FIRST graphic novel starring a mainstream superhero!

Mar.-Apr. 1968. Author: Jerry Siegel. Artist: Jim Mooney. Editor: Mort Weisinger. Fabulous cover art: Curt Swan and George Klein.

The book was the epitome of the child-friendly, charming/crazy Silver Age. Within its (now torn with re-reading) covers lay the story of how Superman's young cousin, Supergirl, was finally deemed ready to go public.

For years since Supes had uncaringly dumped the frightened, orphaned youngster at an orphanage in a strange land, Supergirl, aka Kara Zor-El, aka Linda Lee, had been learning her new powers and operating as Superman's "secret weapon." We readers had been fascinated by the chutzpah she displayed with her fledgling career.

She had robots of her own, just like her cuz, and had a super cat, Streaky, to balance his having Krypto the super-dog. (Shortly thereafter she'd acquire Comet the Super-horse, who was a little more than just a pet.) (Hey! You stop thinking that! I'm saying that every now and then he turned into a human man, who romanced Sgirl.)

Our cover gives away the plot points that lie within, showing that Kara's going to go through several milestones before the climactic ending, in which she's presented to the world with accolades. Bad cover, for giving away the ending! Naughty!

The book begins with Kara in her secret ID of Linda Lee, performing a quick super-save and then fretting that she's been spotted. But it's only Krypto, who leads her to Superman, who has a big communications/teleportation station set up on a deserted coastline. (No, I don't know why he doesn't use his Fortress, other than that Supergirl will need the ocean nearby soon.)

He shows Kara a video he's going to broadcast to the world about her and her exploits... just as soon as he returns from this other-dimensional place he has to teleport to. But immediately afterward, a convenient cloud of convenient kryptonite conveniently wraps around Earth. Kara's too weak to fly off, but dives into the ocean, where she's pulled into safe depths (so water can shield green K rays? I don't think so!) by Jerro, the teen-aged merman from Atlantis, whom Kara has a crush on.

The people of Atlantis relay a warning that surface criminals have learned of the kryptonite cloud, guessed that this will keep Superman out of action, and have thus launched crime waves. Supergirl spends the rest of the chapter remote-foiling their plots from undersea, knowing that her actions will be attributed to Superman.

After she has done this, the K-cloud conveniently disperses, Superman returns, and the Big Reveal is ticking down.

But Supergirl's lost her powers.

Superman determines that this is a permanent effect of some kind, and quickly dumps Kara back at the orphanage, claiming that he'll do EVERYTHING he can to return her powers to her.

Now Kara, I mean Linda, must learn to function as a human.

We soon find out (thank you, panels that introduce characters by having them think their life story and circumstances) that it is Kandorian scientist Lesla-Lar, a double for Supergirl, who has used her science to destroy Kara's powers. She is jealous. We'll come to discover that she wants Supergirl's potential fame for herself as well as powers so she can take over the world. Bwah ha ha.

Meanwhile, Fred and Edna Danvers happen along one day to Midvale Orphanage, spot Linda, and say, "Wrap her up. We'll take her home." Home with them she goes (since she doesn't have to pull her usual trick to make potential parents choose someone else, because they'd just interfere with her Supergirl training), to be adopted and become Linda Lee Danvers. The Danverses don't even have to fill out any forms or go through any background checks, much less learn to know the child before they adopt her. The actual legal adoption seems to go through immediately, too. Ah, what an innocent time.

Really, this is important stuff, especially to us girl readers!
Fred is the one to tell Linda that her pigtails are "strictly kid stuff." This is on her first evening home. What a guy. But Linda is talented and restyles her brown wig into a chic, modern 'do that wore very nicely for years.

As Linda goes to bed that night, Lesla-Lar uses a transporter/shrink ray to bring her to Kandor (to my mind there are problems with a mere human surviving that environment, but it never bothered a bunch of other mere-humans, so I won't mention it), and sets a brain-wash helmet on her head to make her believe she's Lesla-Lar. Then Lesla takes Linda's place in the outer world.

Interestingly enough, young teenager Linda/Kara manages to keep up with the super-genius' workload (though she never notices any evil experiments). And like every Kryptonian criminal EVER, Lesla masters her mammoth new powers instantly.

Super-Kryptonian futuristic-science genius Lesla spies on Fred Danvers' work designing early-style Earth rockets (so THAT's what he did for a living!) so she can steal his ideas. She has superpowers on Earth, so she steals Supergirl's suit and then partners with the jailed Lex Luthor to help him do some nasty stuff. We'll find out later that there's actually a reason for her to do this: she wants him to bear the blame for her bad deeds once her own plan comes to fruition.

But Kara has been monitoring Lesla from Kandor (those nosy Kandorians were always stalking Earth people!) and runs to tell the authorities. Lesla overhears just in time and switches with Linda, who thinks her time in Kandor was just a dream.

On a school trip to the Daily Planet in Metropolis, Linda is drawn aside by Cousin Clark, who tells her that he's going to try just one final time to return her powers to her. Gosh, that guy gives his all, doesn't he? Lesla switches places, so it's to her that Superman reports that his experiment didn't work, so Linda is SOL. But "Linda" has him do some silly stuff with rock dust and his heat vision and inhaling fumes from same, that "cures" her.

Her thoughts betray her plans: she'll have Luthor kill Superman with kryptonite, and then she'll "accidentally" kill Luthor while apprehending him. That will leave her "free to conquer or destroy Earth," as she pleases.

See, if I were her, I'd just have taken away Superman's powers same as I'd done Supergirl's and then... What's that you say? "Shut up"? Well... okay.

But now Superman is all hot to make the Supergirl announcement to the world, but he has to fiddle with some experiment in his fortress first. Krypto joins them in the arctic, and apparently Krypto has no idea what Kara smells like, but recognizes that Lesla uses a different PERFUME than does Kara.


Krypto then uses his super-vision to spot Kara in Kandor (she's been hired as an actress on a Supergirl movie being filmed) (how convenient; I mean, ironic!), and Krypto uses some kind of exchange ray — no, really, Krypto aims it, hits the right buttons, etc. — and Kara (in costume from the movie) switches with Lesla-Lar.

Kara immediately loses her balance and bonks her head, creating confusion I suppose. Since Kara doesn't have powers, the grand announcement is nixed. Superman dumps her back home.

Days later, Linda has fun at the beach, catching up with her old friend, Dick Wilson, now adopted as Dick Malverne, who has turned into a hottie. Now she doesn't have to pretend to be weaker than he, and he likes it.

That night, Linda goes to the well at her house to dump her super outfit forever, but she dons it one final time—and discovers she has super powers! Not only super powers, but, as the night goes on and she rescues her cousin, she finds she's invulnerable to green Kryptonite!

Turns out (awp!) that Mr. Mxyzptlk had been puttering around Linda's neighborhood, thought it was hilarious that a girl would wear a super-suit, and magicked her with powers, as well as the anti-green-K spell. Tee hee! He says his name backwards and doesn't stick around to see the crazy results of his spell. ("But this SPECIAL spell won't vanish when I do, as my magic usually does!" he helpfully informs the reader.)

If he can create such an unending spell, why doesn't he do it more often? Right. "Shut up!"

The spell prevents Lesla from undoing Kara's powers again. The Kandorian police arrest her for using "forbidden rays" and destroy her evil lab.

This time Superman's excuse for delaying the announcement is that he has to go into the future to see the Legion of Super-Heroes. While he's gone, Supergirl cleans up the local space area by getting rid of three red Kryptonite meteors. However, Mxy's spell had been specific to green K, so she's affected by the red K, conveniently one at a time.

That's right, kids, this is what germs look like.
(As a child, I thought this bit was super-cool.)

She becomes fat for a little while (not the usual 48 hour effect), then shrinks to microscopic size just in time to battle killer bacteria in Dick Malverne's father's veins, and then becomes a super-mermaid. Again she visits Jerro, to find that a local mermaid has the hots for him, and is heartsick that Kara has his full attention. She runs off and into trouble and Kara saves her, just in time to turn back into a human and bid Jerra adieu, to the wanna-be girlfriend's delight.

On the way back home, Kara has to detour because a falling chunk of green K (man, that stuff was EVERYWHERE!) caused her pain. Superman returns from the future just then, revealing that he'd overshot his time exit and had seen Mxy bespelling Kara. Now that the magic has worn off (for whatever reason), Kara's natural powers have returned.

Superman plans the Big Reveal at 9 that night. (With the on-again, off-again powers of late, I'm surprised he doesn't postpone it to see if Kara will lose her powers again.) The Danverses decide to hit a movie in Metropolis, and Linda goes along since it will kill time. On the way, one of those poorly-constructed Earth-1 bridges collapses under the Danverses' car, and Linda has to leap out and save everyone. Linda says she can't explain, but cousin Kal arrives and tells her it was okay for her to save her parents. What a guy!

He explains Supergirl to the Danverses, giving us a recap of Kara's origins on Argo City, the chunk of old Krypton that survived for years after the main planet's destruction. The Danverses swear to keep Kara's secret ID, she sets up a secret tunnel at home for access, and Superman tears up, recalling his years with the Kents.

But FINALLY it's time for the Big Reveal! It's really milked, but after all these years of waiting, Supergirl fans could really revel in the thrill of it all. We see reactions from people around the world: excitement, jealousy, viewing it as a hoax. Jailed criminals say, "If that young girl captured us, the other cons would never stop razzing us!" and forget about their perfect escape plans.

Was this comics' first full-page, non-title-page panel?
Click to see this larger. (Hope that works.)

The Danverses are so proud of their new daughter, but they say nothing to anyone. The UN gives Kara a standing ovation. Kandor puts on a skywriting show in her honor. Atlantis as well as some planets also do all kinds of special events for the occasion.

As Superman goes off into the future again, Supergirl is left alone to guard Earth. Within three panels a dimensional rift opens in the sky and a gigantic red monster falls into the ocean. It has a protective aura that's like a force field, so when Kara tries to stop it, she just bounces off.

She sends a rocket 1000 years into the future (or would that be 1000 years minus the difference between her age and Superman's?) to ask that green-skinned hottie, Brainiac 5, for help.

He sends a ray gun back in time, but the monster stomps on it, destroying it. But Supergirl had examined the gun with her X-ray vision and now reconstructs it at super-speed. The gun shrinks the monster so Kara can pick it up, place it in a bottle in Superman's Fortress, and then forget to feed or water it. Poor lonely thing.

We see the Legion monitoring her, and they now uncover their monument to her that holds the date of the Great Reveal. They hadn't wanted her to know until now.

There are more huzzahs for the heroine: 21-gun salutes, a meeting with the President (Kennedy!) and Jackie not-yet-O. Superman opens a wing of his Fortress for her use.

The story ends with Linda Danvers lounging on her bed, looking forward to her new life as a public hero.

Cool stuff. The issue even has a text page detailing milestones in Supergirl's life, which goes up to her graduation from high school and enrollment at Stanhope College. These events had taken place after the original stories that comprise this book had been published.

So this was an 80-page (or thereabouts) story detailing Kara's progression through several life-changing turning points, culminating in her achieving what she'd worked for years: becoming a successful, public superhero. That she accomplished this with a lot of exciting celebration and a few boyfriends hanging around was just icing on the cake, and made the reading experience that much more unforgettable for her fans!

Original material:
Chapter 1: "The Unknown Supergirl" Action Comics #278
Chapter 2: "Supergirl's Secret Enemy" Action #279
Chapter 3: "Trapped in Kandor" Action #280
Chapter 4: "The Three Red K Perils" Action #283
Chapter 5: "The Super-Mermaid" Action #284
Chapter 6: "The World's Greatest Heroine!" Action #285

Chapter 7: "The Infinite Monster!" Action #285

CONTEST! Enter my contest at Goodreads for a chance to win a print copy of the wacky soft sci fi book, Applesauce and Moonbeams!


Richard said...

I always loved that cover.

That full page of Supergirl's introduction to the world and the montage panel of reactions afterward highlight the special quality of Jerry Siegel's writing at its best: he fundamentally cared about people and their emotional responses to events in his stories.

Also, Stan Lee may get all the credit for pioneering the multi-issue storyline over at Marvel, but it was really Jerry who introduced them to the Silver Age. He did it in this story, which played out over six consecutive issues of Action Comics in 1961, and then the "Death of Lightning Lad" saga in Adventure. How about that?

Martin Gray said...

Wonderful stuff...but I still find Fred Danvers rather worrison in his introduction.

Carol A. Strickland said...

I'll have to re-read the Lightning Lad saga. (Either the Lightning Lass intro during that, or Supergirl's discovery of Comet, was the first comic I ever read!)

Richard said...

Oops, I said six consecutive issues, not realizing you also posted the original issue numbers...and they aren't consecutive. Numbers and how they work are a mystery to me.

Uncle Screensaver said...

Thanks for this! I've been so down with the announcement of Supergirl's comic being cancelled, so much so that I was ready to take down my Supergirl shrine, but you've cheered me up enough no to.

This was a time when DC front-lined Supergirl and seemed to care about Kara when it was shown she was a popular addition to comicbookdom. Despite all the convoluted cheesy stories, not to mention sexism, there was a wholesomeness that is sorely missed now. My grandmother and mother got me into comics (my mom used to spend her allowance on Wonder Woman and Supergirl comics - so much for people claiming "gilrs don't read comics") at age three and it grieves me that today's children can't be given most comics. It's sad that we can't have heroes smiling too much anymore. Superman has to be full of rage and glowing red eyes and Wonder Woman blood thirsty with a sword always on the ready.

I never knew it was technically the first graphic novel, so this also made my day. Thanks again for making me smile for the first time since I read Kara is cancelled. :)