Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that pink is a great background color for the cover of a super hero comic book. And yet, it got used with some regularity back during the beginning of the Silver Age, most often in my memory on editor Mort Weisinger’s Superman titles such as this one. In fairness to Mort, it does make Superman pop and provide contrast with those green kryptonite chains. But the impression is somehow soft. It lacks drama. I will say that there is something that I find very appealing about Curt Swan’s Superman covers of this period. They’re more about situations than being viceral, and they’re laid out with storybook simplicity and inevitably feature clean lines and exquisite drawing. This one was apparently inked by John Forte according to the GCD. And it was another book that I got in my Windfall Comics purchase of 150 Silver Age back issues for $50.00 in 1988.
The inside cover starts things off right by introducing DC’s new mascot character, Johnny DC, whose body is made up of the DC bullet itself. It’s a pretty fun illustration, a rare instance where characters from across the entire DC line are depicted side-by-side, including the comedy features. It looks to my eye to be the work of Mike Sekowsky, who was then illustrating JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, possibly inked by somebody else. In particular, that rendition of Hawkman is desperately trying to channel the Joe Kubert incarnation of the character, with Kubert’s lush brush line.
ACTION COMICS had evolved a little bit with the switch-over from a 10 cent to a 12 cent cover price. Where once three stories per issue was the norm, by this time, ACTION was featuring only two longer tales: a Superman lead adventure and a Supergirl back-up. The Maid of Steel had proven popular with the audience, and her stories would occasionally be given the cover treatment (though Superman was always on hand whenever that happened.) The story in this issue was written by Robert Bernstein and illustrated by Curt Swan under the pen of his best inker of the period, George Klein. I find it interesting that the story starts off with a caption that instantly rules out Red Kryptonite as being the cause of Superman’s sudden rampage. By this point already, it had become a well-worn story engine, enough so that Bernstein and Weisinger must have felt that their regular audience was going to suspect it from the opening salvo.
This story was a variation on a common theme: that of Superman turning bad and using his powers for mayhem and destruction. Every conflict in the Weisinger titles was pitched at a level where even the youngest child could understand and relate to it, so that, when Superman occasionally comes to his senses, he has no memory of his wrong-doing and is sheepish about his actions. It’s a very kid-like response. What’s actually going on is that Superman is being manipulated by members of the Superman Revenge Squad, that cabal of interstellar criminals whose plots had been foiled by the Man of Steel, and who were constantly seeking vengeance. It’s not enough for them to simply kill Superman, they want to destroy his reputation as well by causing him to act destructively using a telepathic projector to mess with his mind. Once he becomes aware of what is causing his behavior, Superman tries assorted strategies to foil the Revenge quad, but one by one is most notable options (such as his Superman robots) are taken off the board.
In the end, even Superman’s own closest friends are forced to take steps against him. The Man of Steel agrees that he’ll give himself up only to Perry White, who shackles him in public with kryptonite chains just as on the cover. But Superman effortlessly snaps the chains, causing the Revenge Squad who are monitoring him to believe that he’s lost his mind. He hasn’t, of course–this is all a part of Plan “P”, one of Superman’s many emergency rescue plans concocted with his friends, in this case editor White. Using the Revenge Squad’s confusion for cover, Superman is able to free the Superman Emergency Squad from the Bottle City of Kandor, and they attack the Revengers, who blow themselves up rather than face disgrace by reporting thier failure to their home planet.
What follows is a brief intermission with both the 2/3 page comedic Jerry the Jitterbug comedy strip by Henry Boltinoff and a trio of cool Coming Super-Attractions pimping out the latest releases from elsewhere in the line. This is followed by a single page letters page. This particular installment starts off with a lengthier and more literate letter than was typical for this page, which often catered to very young kids, Weisinger’s prime audience.
As mentioned previously, the back-up story stars Supergirl, and it was written by Leo Dorfman and illustrated by Jim Mooney. It introduces a character into the series who will be a regular participant in it for the remainder of its run; Lena Thorul. Lena had actually been introduced a year earlier in a one-off Lois Lane adventure where Lois thought she was the reincarnation of a witch. The truth was different, but no less disturbing: Lena is actually the sister of Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. What’s more, she’s been gifted with Extra-Sensory Perception abilities thanks to coming into contact as a girl with a strange “space-brain” with which her brother was experimenting. After Lex broke bad, his family moved away and rearranged the letters in the family name into the anagram Thorul. Lex, though, loves his sister, and is dedicated to keeping her in the dark about her relationship to the most hated man in the world, himself.
Lena wants to use her strange gifts to help mankind, and she applies to join the F.B.I. But the agency rejects her out of hand, and when Supergirl investigates why on behalf of her new friend, she learns that Lena’s background is a blank–even the F.B.I. can find no record of her. To remedy this, Supergirl travels back into the past, where she witnesses first hand the origins of both lex Luthor and Lena’s ESP powers. While she’s gone, though, Lena is recruited by the Bank Busters, a notorious gang of criminals who want to use her talents to help open safes and commit crimes. Having been rejected by the law, a masked Lena seemingly throws in with them. Hearing about this through the underworld grapevine, the incarcerated Luthor summons Supergirl and begs for her help in keeping his secret little sister on the straight and narrow.
But Lex needn’t have worried, because of course Lena’s seeming heel-turn was a ruse, an audition for the F.B.I. to show how effective her talents could be in apprehending criminals. Supergirl provides a little bit of backup, but this is Lena’s win, and the Bureau chief is impressed by her actions and reassured by Supergirl about what she’s discovered about Lena’s background–though she doesn’t reveal Lena’s relationship to Luthor to the F.B.I. In the last panel, though, Lena picks up a feeling of her friend Linda Danvers whenever she looks at Supergirl, making teh Maid of Might worry that her friend’s powers might tumble to her secret identity. It’s clearly the set-up to a running situation, one that would play itself out in later episodes’ of the series.
And the issue closes out with an ad for two more of those great oversized DC Annuals, in this instance dedicated to the two biggest players in the line, Superman and Batman. As usual, this ad was hand-lettered by the great Ira Schnapp, whose flair for design made each one of these ads something of an event (and often more appealing than the comics they were hawking.)