As I spoke about yesterday, there were about 150 comics in the long box I got in my big Windfall Comics score, all of the super hero books. One of the most plentiful titles was ACTION COMICS. Which makes sense–ACTION was one of the biggest selling books of that era, and yet interest in these Mort Weisinger-edited stories really hadn’t broken through fandom in a big way yet in 1988. It would take a few more years before nostalgia would drive up the back issue prices for them. Either way, though, it was a massive bargain getting these for only 33 cents a copy. This issue, #290, was the oldest in the box and where we’ll begin our look at these classic books. It features a Curt Swan cover typical of its era (Kurt Schaffenberger appears to have done some revisions to the Lois Lane figure to bring her more into line with how she was being depicted in her own title.) It’s not concerned with any particular menace or a foe to be overcome. Rather, Superman is forced to contend with a problem–in this case, half of his body has been rendered mortal and vulnerable by Red Kryptonite, those fragments of his homeworld that had passed through a strange radioactive cloud on their way to Earth and whose radiations would have a different transformative effect on the Man of Steel each time he encountered a chunk. Red Kryptonite transformation stories would seem to have been popular with Mort’s readers as he cover blurbs this issue accordingly.
The inside front cover runs this house ad, touting not only the strength of the DC line of titles and characters but also the fact that its books were all approved by the Comics Code. This issue hit newsstands on May 29, 1962 according to records, but even this many years after the Anti-Comics Senate Hearings of the 1950s, there was still concern about the content of these books.
As with most comics of this era, a given issue usually contained more than one story. This issue of ACTION COMICS has two, a lead-off Superman adventure and then a back-up tale starring Supergirl. Along the way, there were an assortment of additional Public Service pages and a letter column, as well as some cool ads. You got a pretty good package of material for your twelve cents in 1962. Even the paper stock was a lot crisper and whiter than what we had grown accustomed to by the 1970s. I can’t turn up a writer’s credit for this Superman story (but no doubt Mark Waid will be along any second to provide one) but the artwork was produced by Curt Swan and George Klein, a killer combination. Klein had a beautifully clean and slick inking line that really captured the nuances of Swan’s pencil work and which worked well with the open art style preferred by DC at this time. There wasn’t a whole lot of noodling, everything was just crisp and sharp and perfectly drawn. Story pages were more akin to diagrams than action images.
Editor Weisinger built up his Superman family of titles into the best-selling line of comics starting in the late 1950s, and he did so by aiming his wares at the very youngest spectrum of the audience. While Mort’s books could be enjoyed by an older reader as well, the stories were put across in such a way that every single element was clearly explained in a manner that even a child could understand and relate to it. This also applied to Mort’s characters, most of whom routinely exhibited emotional behavior more in line with that of a child than a rational adult. This tended to make everybody from Superman on down act petty and banal as often as not, but it was part of the secret connection that Weisinger forged with his readership. His Superman stories weren’t so much about physical challenges as they were about emotional ones, always pitched at a level that a kid could relate to. Similarly, these books treated the artwork as a succession of still pictures, capturing and illustrating the events of the story without any need or desire for movement. Clarity was the name of the game here, and it was sometimes carried out to a ridiculous degree. That said, Mort’s books sold, so while it’s easy to scoff at his approach, it absolutely worked for the young audience of his era in a big time way.
This opening story is a good example of the form, as the only thing that is in jeopardy during the course of it is Superman’s ever-to-be-guarded secret identity. As the cover indicates, Superman and his super-dog Krypto are exposed to Red Kryptonite, the effect of which removes their super-powers from one half of their bodies; in Superman’s case, his left side is now vulnerable and will remain so for 48 hours until exposure to the substance wears off. Superman has a full day of events scheduled ahead of him, and Lois Lane is going to be dogging his steps, trying to prove that her suspicions that he’s really Clark Kent are accurate. So he needs to conceal his half-power loss from her until the situation remedies itself. Lois is sharp enough to pick up on the fact that Superman seems to be favoring his right side, and so she’s watching him like a hawk as he performs a series of super-deeds, always needing to contrive some way in which to compete the tasks in front of him single-handedly. Which he of course does, using a series of elaborate contrivances to maintain his secret. As can be seen above, he tricks Lois after she cuts a locke of hair from his vulnerable left side by wearing his clothes backwards and hastily crafting a mask of the back of his head to wear over his face–so when Lois goes to cut the theoretically-invulnerable side, his hair can still be cut. I don’t know how stupid and oblivious Lois needs to be not to notice that the sleeping figure of Clark is wearing a reverse mas and has no face, but you often had to simply roll with whatever these stories told you if you were going to enjoy them.
Next up came this great ad for a pair of Giant Annuals (so named despite the fact that DC often released more than one devoted to each title in a given year.) These were something of a cash cow, an innovation of Weisinger’s that spread to the rest of the line. In 1962, these reprints of earlier stories didn’t pay any sort of reprint fee to the original creators, so the A & E costs to produce them were super low, and branding them as Annuals meant that they tended to remain on sale for a much greater period of time. In other words, they were something of a cash cow. But they were also a great reading value for consumers who hadn’t experienced the tales they reprinted before. That BATMAN Annual in particular contains some prime stuff from a decade earlier.
Mort had also instituted regular letters pages into his titles, the better to communicate directly with his young audience. The level of discourse in Mort’s books tended to reflect the median age of his readership: where the pages put together by Julie Schwartz and Stan Lee tended to emphasize any letter that was written by an older correspondent, Mort’s pages were filled with communications in some instances from some relatively young writers. And their questions and opinions tended to reflect that. As with most all of DC’s books in this period, not only weren’t the stories themselves ever credited, but even these letters page responses are done by an anonymous “Editor”. The letter here concerning the language used by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in a recent issue is like a little time capsule into the era all by itself.
The back-up feature is a Supergirl story of equivalent length to the lead-off Superman tale. As such, she’s really the co-feature here, not simply a second stringer. Supergirl had been introduced about four years earlier as a way of broadening the appeal of ACTION COMICS to girls, and her adventures are notable in that they’re on a par with the sort of material that Superman might be coping with in the lead stories. Supergirl wasn’t considered any less of a hero due to her gender, and while the situations she’d grapple with would inevitably be a bit more “girly” than those faced by her cousin, they were pitched at exactly the same level. As depicted by Jim Mooney, who drew her adventures for several years, Supergirl was also never a figure of prurient interests. She was never sexualized in any way. Part of that was the Comics Code, of course, but part of it was also the era.
This story was written anonymously by Superman’s creator Jerry Siegel, and is another Red Kryptonite adventure. At this stage in her development, Supergirl’s existence had been revealed to the world at large–she was no longer operating in secret as her cousin’s secrete weapon until she could prove herself. To commemorate this, Phantom Girl from the futuristic Legion of Super Heroes presents her with a figurine of herself. Unfortunately, the figure contains some Red Kryptonite, and its effect is to temporarily duplicate Supergirl’s super-powers in anyone she kisses. As luck would have it, she winds up kissing both her prospective boyfriend Dick Malverne and her underwater suitor Jerro, and is forced to shepherd the both of them until their powers wear off. They’re both good kids, so this isn’t as difficult as it may seem. She also gets some last minute help from the Supergirl Emergency Squad, a group of fans from the Bottle City of Kandor who have resolved to emerge from their citadel and lend her a secret hand whenever she needs it. There is one bit in this story that’s of its time, where Linda’s foster mother, who has also gained super-powers from her daughter’s kiss, loses them, and says that it’s all right, she prefers to be rely on her husband for protection anyway. Ouch.
Finally, the issue closes out with a trio of ads and features that are all worth looking at. In addition to showcasing the newest of the Giant Superman Annuals, this one focused on the doomed planet of Krypton, the first one also includes a plug for the famous Palisades Amusement park, along with a coupon granting free admission and two free rides–a pretty good bargain if you happened to live near New Jersey. The second page had a filler comedy strip as well as ads for other Superman family titles then being released. As opposed to other editors, who would typically run small reproductions of their covers in their ads, Mort instead chose to write up “Coming Super Attractions” which would pitch the high concepts of his upcoming stories in an irresistible manner. This particular entry plugs the first appearance of Legionnaire Ultra Boy. Finally, the third page was a public service page devoted to good citizenship. The DC titles of this era routinely ran such one-page spots teaching its audience about tolerance and understanding. These were the special interest of editor Jack Schiff, who oversaw and even wrote most of them.