There are a lot of stories out there about Silver Age Superman Editor Mort Weisinger, who shepherded the Superman comics for 20 years, from 1950 until 1970: he was a bully, he was jealous and petty, he took credit for the work of others, he abused his writers (a favorite story tells of a disgruntled writer becoming so enraged at Weisinger that he tried to throw him out of a window), the tales go on and on. But one thing that can’t be taken away from Weisinger are his editorial instincts. Under his tenure, the Superman mythology grew to its most expansive and mythologically rich, taking what had been a single character alone on Earth and giving him a family, a backstory, and a heritage unlike anything seen in comics to that point. More to the point, Weisinger was willing to make these sweeping changes and have them stick, each building on the other to create a full tapestry of characters, concepts and locales in which Superman could operate. Everything from the Fortress of Solitude to Krypto the Superdog to the Bottle City of Kandor came about under Weisinger’s editorial hand (with much of the writing done by the great Otto Binder, who had come to DC after years writing CAPTAIN MARVEL for Fawcett), and the riskiest and overall best addition to the Super-family came in 1959 with the introduction of Supergirl.
Weisinger was a lot of things, but he was no dummy. He knew that introducing a teenage sidekick for Superman, and a girl at that, was a risky proposition. Would the addition of another Super-character dilute the concept too much? Would young, primarily male readers accept a female character as Superman’s confidant? Weisinger decided to test the waters first with a prototype version of the character, appearing in SUPERMAN #123 (August 1958).
In “The Three Magic Wishes: The Girl of Steel,” written by Otto Binder and drawn by Dick Sprang, Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen is given a Native American Magic Totem by an archaeologist in gratitude for Superman’s saving the man’s life, and Jimmy is told that, according to the totem’s inscription, once every hundred years the totem can grant three wishes, by rubbing the totem’s jewel under a full moon. Naturally, Jimmy the Super-Pimp wishes for a female companion for the presumably lonely Superman, one with the same powers as him so he doesn’t have to fear for her safety. Just like that, a beautiful young blonde Super-Girl appears, and flies to be at Superman’s side.
Superman and Super-Girl seem pleased with the arrangement, but Lois doesn’t take it well. In fact, she discovers a second inscription on the totem that reveals that rubbing the jewel a second time will reverse the spell, but can’t bring herself to take Super-Girl away from Superman.
Meanwhile, the bloom is coming off the rose for Superman, who’s beginning to discover that having a Super-shadow following him around is beginning to be an inconvenience, as the inexperienced Super-Girl tends to cause as much havoc as they’re trying to quell. The neophyte even accidentally gives away Clark’s secret identity to Lois (although maybe if he’d taken the time to explain to her beforehand she might have been a little more discreet — after all, she’s only been alive for a couple of days…)
However, the dangers of being Superman catch up with him not long after, as he becomes the target of the most unlikely and least well-thought-out assassination attempt ever, when a pair of criminals surreptitiously following Superman in a Cessna wait until he’s busy lifting train tracks over a flash flood, then drop a big hunk of Kryptonite on him from overhead. The Kryptonite wedges in the tracks, and Superman is trapped. Luckily Super-Girl flies in and retrieves the Kryptonite, cheerfully telling Superman that since she wasn’t born on Krypton, she’s immune to the stuff.
As it turns out, Super-Girl was lying, and sacrificed her life in order to save Superman. Dying of Kryptonite poisoning, Super-Girl crawls back to Jimmy Olsen’s place, and asks him to rub the jewel on the totem, returning her to oblivion before the end comes.
Naturally, Superman is pretty torn up about all this. Actually, he’s not, and is instead busying himself with salvaging his secret identity, doing so by quickly asking Lois to marry him, figuring correctly that Lois would reject the proposal, reasoning that if Clark were really Superman, he’d never propose. Yes, healthy relationships abound in Metropolis…
I’ll spare you the tale of what Jimmy does for Superman with the other two wishes, but suffice to say that neither one works out any better for the Man of Steel. Next time, Jimmy, just order yourself a pizza and a nice sports car and be done with it.
Clearly, fan reaction to Super-Girl’s life and death must have been strong (Mort Weisinger had been one of the first editors in comics to institute a letters page, so he was always trying to look past just the sales numbers to see what the young readers reacted to), as just about a year later, the following full-page ad (unusual for the time) appeared in all the Superman books:
Next month, ACTION COMICS #252 (May 1959) hit the stands, with a cover that said it all. Supergirl had arrived, and this time she was here to stay.
In “The Supergirl from Krypton,” written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino, the readers, and Superman were shocked at the sight of another Kryptonian rocketship crashing to Earth, and even more shocked at the rocket’s occupant cheerfully popping out to say hello, a cute blonde teenager in a Superman uniform.
As she tells Superman, she’s also from Krypton, explaining that when Krypton exploded, a large chunk spun off into space intact, containing her home, Argo City, intact and alive under a bubble of air. (Later retellings would amend this to being a city surviving beneath a protective dome, a notion a little easier to accept.) Unfortunately, as with all other remnants of Krypton, the very ground beneath them quickly turned to deadly Kryptonite, endangering their miraculous survival. Argo City’s leading scientist, Zor-El, thought fast and laid down a protective layer of lead beneath their homes and sidewalks, preventing the deadly radiation from affecting them.
Life went on for years on the floating city, with Zor-El and his wife Allura giving birth to a daughter, Kara, and living happily until the day a meteor shower punched holes in Argo City’s lead protective sheeting.
With Kryptonite radiation slowly poisoning the air, Zor-El hurriedly constructs a rocket to save young Kara, now a teenager. With their telescopes, Allura discovers Earth and the existence of Superman, and sews a Super-uniform for Kara so that Superman will know that she’s from Krypton. Barely in time, Kara is loaded into the rocket and fired toward Earth.
Coincidence of coincidences, Zor-El just happened to be Jor-El’s brother, making Kal-El and Kara first cousins, a sweet little touch that gives the long-orphaned Superman a new family here on Earth. Now, in my earlier Superman column, I have a little fun with the fact that Superman, having finally found a bit of family here on Earth, doesn’t immediately take her in to live with him, and instead just drops her off at the Midvale Orphanage. In fact, it went something like this:
Here’s where the story kinda falls apart for me. Follow along here:
Fifteen-year-old Kara has just lost her family and everyone she’s ever known; her entire life. Through an amazing twist of fate, Superman turns out to be her cousin, a blood relative, on a foreign and alien world. Superman promises to “take care of you like a big brother, cousin Kara.” The overjoyed Supergirl says “Thanks, cousin Superman! >choke!< You mean I’ll come and live with you?”
And Superman, the hero of Earth, the model of morality, says no.
He just says no.
“Hmm … No, that wouldn’t work! You see, I’ve adopted a secret identity on Earth that might be jeopardized!” You heartless bastard.
Instead, Superman drops off Kara in an orphanage, where she’s stuck in a dump of a room with a broken bed and a cracked mirror, and forced to wear a godawful brunette wig with pigtails as ‘Linda Lee.’ (Yes, more double “L”s.)
Even as a kid, whenever I’d read a Supergirl story, I’d always wind up thinking, “Man, Superman’s a real jerk. Here’s poor Kara living like poor white trash with all the orphans, while he’s cooling his heels up in his fat pad at the Fortress of Solitude building robots of himself. What a punk.
Seriously, though, editor Weisinger was in a bit of a pickle with this situation. He can’t really have Kara come live with Clark Kent. Not only would this affect all of Superman’s appearances in every Superman magazine they publish, it was taking a big risk, if the new character didn’t work out. And then what? Kill her off? Out of the question. (Sure, they killed off the first one, but since the argument could be made that she was never real in the first place, it’s not as tough as killing off a real live 15-year-old girl.) And besides, you have to look at these issues through the lens of the era. It might have looked improper for some to have Superman living with a teenaged girl, and in the 1950s, single-parent households certainly weren’t as accepted or as common as they are today. So giving Kara the “Linda Lee” secret identity and a new home at Midvale was probably the most realistic and acceptable option.
However, and here’s where Weisinger’s instincts were dead-on, it also made the most sense from a storytelling perspective as well.
As Superman explains to Kara, the plan is to keep her existence on Earth a secret while she learns to properly use her superpowers. What this also does is give Supergirl a setting and life entirely separate from Superman’s, allowing her to have solo adventures without the watchful Super-eye of Kal-El always being on her (although he does seem to be using his telescopic vision to spy on her a fair amount, as we’ll discover). Editor Weisinger and writer Otto Binder also seemed to realize that the Supergirl strip gave them a chance to try to cultivate an audience with young girls in addition to their already sewed-up boys’ audience, and smartly altered the tone and tenor of the Supergirl feature in ACTION COMICS, alternating the usual fare of outer-space adventures and stories about protecting her secret identity with tales of Supergirl helping out other kids at the orphanage, and working to assist Superman in secret. In addition, a little more romance was added to the series as well, as Kara begins to meet boys, although they weren’t all just kids from down the block. Let’s take a look at a few highpoints from Kara’s early adventures in ACTION COMICS.
A common theme in these early Supergirl adventures had to do with Kara trying not to be adopted, for fear of her new parents discovering her secret identity. Usually Kara would get out of it by bungling things with her superpowers to make herself appear clumsy, or learning something about them via her X-ray vision, then saying the wrong thing so they wouldn’t like her. A sort of pre-emptive teenage rebellion. However, in ACTION COMICS #254 (July 1959), Supergirl’s luck runs out, and she’s adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Dale, who seem like a nice enough couple by the folks at Midvale Orphanage. Unfortunately, Kara’s new parents are carnies who work the sideshow circuit.
Even worse, they’re carny grifters, who adopted Kara to use in their scheme to sell “power tonic” to unwitting yokels who’ll see the young girl performing faked-up feats of strength.
And not to harp on it or anything, but where’s Superman when his cousin is getting adopted by a couple of greasy snake-oil salesmen? Naturally, Kara quickly figures out that her new parents are a couple of swindlers, and uses her superpowers to put them out of business (including a bit of super-ventriloquism, one of Superman’s more arcane powers that the neophyte superhero picks up rather quickly) and since they now can’t afford to support her, it’s back to the orphanage for Linda.
Kara finds herself doing the old secret-identity dodge with another kid at the orphanage, Dick Wilson, starting with ACTION COMICS #256 (September 1959), in “The Great Supergirl Mirage!” When Dick realizes that Linda Lee is doing her homework at super-speed, then sees a photo of a flying girl in a Superman costume, he begins to put two and two together, and embarks on a Lana Lang-style crusade to prove that Linda Lee is Supergirl.
Just when Linda is at the end of her rope, the arrival of a Supergirl robot, courtesy of an eavesdropping Superman, puts Dick’s suspicions to rest, while at the same time making one wonder just how often Superman is spying on Linda from afar with his telescopic vision.
Superman’s long-distance snooping comes up once again in “Supergirl’s Farewell to Earth,” from ACTION COMICS #258 (November 1959), again by Binder and Mooney. When Kara meets Krypto for the first time, the two begin to play, until Super-Killjoy shows up and chastises Supergirl for revealing herself to Krypto, claiming that the dog could follow her back to the orphanage and jeopardize her secret identity. As punishment, Superman decrees that Supergirl must be exiled from Earth for one year.
Talk about your toughlove. So he shoves Kara in this big plastic tube and chucks her into deep space to a distant planet where she’s to spend her yearlong sentence. It’s a nice enough place, but still…
After a few days, Kara’s exile is interrupted by a visit from Krypto, who shows up bearing a note from Superman that deadly Kryptonite dust is nearing the planet, and that she must return to Earth and to the orphanage for one day.
So she does, concocting a story about being lost in the swamp for days. When a reporter questions her about why there are no mosquito bites on her skin, Linda apparently panics and reveals her identity as Supergirl to the disappointed reporter, who turns out to be none other than Clark Kent. It’s all been a test to see if Kara can protect her secret identity. Before Clark can leave, Kara tells him that she knows he’s Superman, having tried to crack his glasses with her x-ray vision to prevent him from checking her invulnerable arm for bites. When the lenses, made from Kryptonian glass, don’t crack, Kara deduces his secret.
Naturally, Kara assumes this means the end of her life in hiding, with no one in the world knowing of the existence of Supergirl. Not so, as Superman wants to keep her in reserve as his secret weapon to help out if he’s ever trapped by his enemies. While this is admittedly a little paranoid for a guy who can juggle planets, it works much better from a narrative standpoint, as the Supergirl character now seems more validated as a valued assistant to Superman, rather than just his uncle’s kid who he dumped in an orphanage. It does, however set up a dynamic we’ll see time and again in the Supergirl stories, as she’ll perform some miraculous feat and save Superman’s bacon, and once he congratulates her, she’ll excitedly ask “Does this mean I can reveal myself to the world?” To which the answer is always “No, not yet…” In the very next issue, after Supergirl has just spent days posing as the new superhero “Mighty Maid” in order to make the world think Superman was falling in love and leaving the planet (a role that required Superman to spend a disturbing amount of time kissing his 15-year-old cousin, if you ask me), she asks again, and well, you can guess the answer…
Man, he can be a tool sometimes…