The New Mike Sekowsky: Appreciating His Radical Years, Part Three: That's Really Super, SupergirlA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
Continuing our series on the rebellious comics by the vastly underrated Mike Sekowsky (part one appeared here and part two appeared here), we look at his radically strange run on Supergirl in Adventure Comics.
By the time Mike Sekowsky took over the "Supergirl" series in Adventure Comics in 1970, it was clear that end of the road had come for Mort Weisinger's classic years on the Superman family of titles. All of the family of books seemed long in the tooth, as the Super Boy Scout fell out of fashion in the antiheroic early '70s. DC embarked on radical changes for the entire Superman family of titles. Jack Kirby was given Jimmy Olsen to write and draw; Lois Lane became more independent and picked up the gritty back-up series "The Rose and the Thorn"; Superman/Batman team-ups were removed from World's Finest in favor of Superman team-ups with character across the DC Universe; Superboy became more modern-feeling; and all Kryptonite on Earth was destroyed and Clark Kent became a TV broadcaster. In that environment Sekowsky's take-over of Supergirl made perfect sense. Radical surgery was required across the Superman line, and Supergirl was not exempt.
Heck, not only was she not exempt, but the character really embraced the change in her life. Kara had been a bit frumpy and mousy like Wonder Woman, wearing a demure version of Superman's costume while mooning after handsome boys. Under Sekowsky, Kara finally had a chance to become more of her own unique self. It only made sense from the standpoint of society's zeitgeist at the time: for most all college girls in radical 1970, change had to be in the air. It was a time to throw off society's expectations and become fully yourself.
Well, Kara didn't exactly do that, but under Sekowsky's stewardship, her stories gained a cleverness, excitement and energy that they had never had before.
If you're going to change your life, you may as well start with your clothes. So the cover of Sekowsky's first issue, Adventure #397, was an appropriate start. It shows Supergirl lounging on the floor while admiring nine potential new outfits, from a cheesy executive pantsuit to a bizarre costume with a tiny cut-off skirt to an odd sleeveless number with a wire belt and very high boots. None of these costumes look anything less than hideous these days, but we do have to remember that the fashions 40 years ago were hugely different from what we're used to today.
As the story begins, after a gorgeous teaser page by Sekowsky, we get down to business. Linda Lee, aka Supergirl, is bored in her dorm at sleepy Stanhope College. "And when a girl feels this way – some new clothes are in order" as she says. So she heads down to a certain clothing store, to discover that the person who runs it looks familiar: "that's Wonder Woman – so this is what she's doing now that she's renounced her super-powers! In a way I envy her." It's a small world, but it's also a cool bit of continuity. Keep Diana on your mind; we'll see more of her soon.
Kara returns to Stanhope after her shopping trip, only to discover a girl has been found and has passed out before she's had the chance to tell anyone about why she's collapsed. In an odd moment, Kara uses a super-power that she's never used before or since to delve into the sleeping girl's subconscious. Supergirl finds the girl has been involved in a witch's coven, and goes to investigate the events, only to be defeated by magic. As all real Superman fans know, magic is the force that can always been any Kryptonian.
But the defeat, even though it makes Kara feel like she's been hit by a ton of bricks, is still a good event. It brings Kara back to Diana Price's clothing shop. While there, Diana summons her old friend/adversary Morgana, and Morgana and Supergirl head back to defeat the cult. But before they leave, Wonder Woman gives Supergirl her new outfit: a hideous creation very similar to the sleeveless number on her cover. Really, I'm no fashionista by any means, but this matches Kara's Flashdance-influenced mid-'80s outfit as one of the ugliest get-ups in heroine history.
Anyway, Kara and Diana quickly defeat the evil demon Zond, in a series of deliriously wonderful classic Sekowsky panels, and the story ends with Kara and Diana grasping hands. "Thank you, Diana – and thank you for my new costume!" "It was a pleasure, Supergirl – and I hope we meet again soon." There wasn't exactly electricity sparking between the two women, but it was a nice resolution to an entertaining if wacky adventure. An awful lot of mystic menaces seem to live in Sekowsky's world, don't there?
But wait, that's only half of the first issue. In the backup we meet a girl appropriately named Nasty. Her full name is Nasthalthia Luthor, and her uncle happens to be a nasty man we all know, named Lex. In a scene that seems creepily filled with sexual tension, there's a feeling that Nasty and Lex are two snakes circling around each other, working together to defeat their enemies. Nasty is sent to Stanhope to uncover Supergirl's secret identity and shoot her with Kryptonite-tipped bullets: "I'll rid myself of super-pest for good! First her – then I have plans for those other super-freaks! Then – the world is mine!" to which Nasty replies, "Ours, Uncle, ours!" as she touches her uncle's arm in a thoroughly flirtatious way. Nasty indeed.
Nasty recruits "certain types on campus" to become a cycle gang called Nasty's Nasties and terrorize the sleepy college town. Through circumstances too bizarre and convoluted to explain here, Supergirl defeats the Nasties in an amusement park and dumps them in the bay. Kara escapes with her secret identity intact, while Nasty swears revenge. Oh, and somewhere on page five of the story, Supergirl captures Luthor in the space of about two panels, surely the most perfunctory capture of the super-criminal that I can remember.
All the classic Sekowsky tropes are on display in this one comic: magic, changes in costume and attitudes, bizarre sexual tension, arch-villains, and completely arbitrary storytelling choices. It's bizarre but also magical in its own way.
Adventure #398, oddly, declares in big letters that this is the NEW Supergirl, her logo supplanting the classic Adventure Comics logo for the first time. But inside the comic we get a reprint in the front - with placid artwork by Jim Mooney that provides an odd juxtaposition with Sekowsky's kinetic art in the back. The second story is a pointless rip-off of an old Star Trek adventure. The whole issue just seems odd – why go to all the trouble to headline the newness of your character if you're literally just going to present the same old thing inside?
But that sort of issue never seemed to bother the enigmatic Sekowsky, who would always follow his own muse.
Adventure #399 told the story of Johnny Dee, who sold out to the mob in order to save his girlfriend, while #400 was a crazily surrealistic masterpiece that features telepathic remote control, the momentary return of Streaky the Super-Cat in a cape, a leprechaun, peril in a bowling alley, and marching toys. The story makes no sense whatsoever, but I love it for its freewheeling, surrealistic, anything-goes spirit.
Nasty returns in Adventure #401, as Supergirl is slipped a drug that makes her fear everything – but guess what, it was all a dream! Where the previous issue was fun with its arbitrariness, this one is maddening. It's interesting, too, that Supergirl picks up a back-up feature that runs in this issue and the next. "Tracey Thompson" appeared heaven knows why, but there that perky short-haired brunette is, battling a haunted house in one issue and a bike gang in the next (these bike gangs must have been a big problem in 1970!) before drifting off forever to the sunset. If Tracey Thompson were real, she'd be about 60 years old now. I love the idea of a perky short-haired grandma sitting her grandkids on her knee and telling them about her adventures with her friend Betsy fighting ghosts.
Adventure #402 brings a new villain into the mix. Starfire is a nasty piece of work, with a jewel-encrusted eyepatch covering one eye and a very close resemblance to Wonder Woman's Doctor Cyber. Cyber –I mean, Starfire - sends her henchman Derek to seduce Supergirl, since her love will bring his defeat. I delighted in the scene where Derek picks up Supergirl outside of a picket-fence house. Kara is wearing the most bizarre sort of costume/evening dress, while Derek is driving a Mercedes sports car that looks like the car from Back to the Future. But Derek turns out to be a kind of a date rapist. He slips Supergirl a capsule to make her unconscious and remove her powers. "What- what's happened to me- ? I've lost my ability to fly! I feel so weak – and something tells me I better get out of the line of those bullets! I can't – I've lost my super-strength!"
This is an oddly spooky scene, bringing in unwelcome thoughts of boys slipping Esctacy to their female freshman hook-ups in order to use them for sex. We get a bit of creepy sexual tension this issue, as Derek laughingly looks down at the woman he's conquered. He has all power over her, having removed everything that made her special. It's the worst sort of rape, really, as we'll discover in the next new issue.
Adventure #403 was a reprint, then #404 wrapped up this storyline, with important consequences: Nasty's date-rape pill has caused Supergirl's powers to become intermittent. Thankfully, she can travel to the Bottle City of Kandor for help in getting them back; unfortunately, though, the best they can do is give her an exo-skeleton for strength and some boot jets for her to fly. Until further notice, Supergirls powers will flash in and out. Thankfully she's able to defeat Doctor Cyber's gang – umm, I mean Starfire's gang – and go off to lick her wounds. However, the villain escapes with her Professor in tow.
I should say that this issue merits closer attention on its own. There's so much rich and bizarre complexity going on here that it's breathtaking, with a Mardi Grasè, a group of female bank robbers, more strange sexual subtext, and weird fetishism. This is above and beyond the thought of a woman losing her powers to a man to whom she was attracted. The comic is full of Sekowskyisms, which makes it fascinating.
quot;What am I to do if they can't find an antidote for me at the city of Kandor? Is my usefulness at an end? What good is a part-time Supergirl? And I don’t know where Starfire and the Professor are either! Will I ever be my old self again?" These words of self-pity open Adventure #405, beginning the book with a sort of uncharacteristic bleakness. Where Wonder Woman was always positive in Sekowsky's comics, Kara has fallen into the pity trap – though, given her trauma, the trap was easy to fall into. Like many of us, Kara is defined by what she can do rather than who she is, and that lack of a deep identity has come to hurt her psyche. This is a uniquely dark character for DC in that era; Kara's existential crisis feels like something out of a Marvel book of that era.
This issue doesn't provide a resolution for Supergirl's powers crisis, unfortunately, though it does contain one of the most outlandish super-villain plots ever seen, somehow involving Starfire luring Supergirl to Paris by somehow quickly becoming a member of high French society, much like the Metal Men quickly and arbitrarily took on new identities in their series.
Speaking of new identities, the next issue sees Linda graduate from college. Nobody could ever accuse Mike Sekowsky from advancing his plots slowly, and here we see that again. In a whirlwind few pages, our heroine graduates college, kisses her adopted family goodbye, travels to Metropolis to find work, fails to find work, then finally finds a job as a camerawoman at K-SFTV with the help of Clark Kent.
In San Francisco, Kara finds herself working with Nasty, who has good reason to believe that our heroine is actually Supergirl. Playing Lois Lane to Linda's Clark Kent, Nasty follows Linda around town in an attempt to confirm her identity. Finally, at a horrific fire, Nasty feels her suspicions are confirmed as a powerful woman mysteriously is able to save a baby from burning to death. But Supergirl, still with off-and-on super-powers, hears her rival's plans and quickly changes back into her civilian clothes as she throws her costume on the fire. This has a few effects: Linda is hailed as a hero, Nasty is thwarted, and that horrific costume is finally, irrevocably, destroyed. We also see Kara's self-esteem return as she's praised for her heroism in the fire. That's a nice moment of heroism to have happen to a woman who had lost much of her self-loving.
Unfortunately Adventure #407 brings us an equally hideous new costume, as Supergirl travels to Kandor after her old suit was destroyed. This monstrosity has an odd wrestler-style belt, with very high boots that have a yellow stripe down them. Sigh. Were fashions really that bad 40 years ago, or did Sekowsky just have no clue what would look good? Regardless our heroine dons the costume and saves Nasty and one of her other friends from the TV station from being killed at a haunted movie theatre by Starfire and one of her minions. Yeah, don't ask for details on this plot, as it's weak even for Sekowsky, but it's kind of campy fun to see a Batman TV style deathtrap for Kara.
Issue 409 has two stories. The most interesting thing about the first is that Nasty is now using employees to reveal that Linda is really Supergirl. Apparently there's a cable car that travels between Linda's home and her work – how convenient is that? – and Nasty employs two people to try to pull off her nemesis's wig. In terms of revealing a secret identity, this has to be one of the lamest attempts ever seen. But the lamest scene in the story is a shockingly racist comment from Linda. One of the reporters says, "Nothing's getting done on the old plantation!" To which Linda replies, "Well, massuh, start cracking your whip – and tell us poor, underpaid slaves what our next job is." Wow, 1971 really was a long time ago, wasn't it?
The second story is about aliens stealing water from our oceans. It's funny to read because the concern at the time was lowering sea levels rather than the rising sea levels that we're dealing with these days. It's another rather wacky story, with the most interesting moment that Supergirl gets a special breathing apparatus from Kandor that will help her breathe underwater – though she never gets anything to help her against the deep pressures of the oceans.
The second half of the water-stealers story, in Adventure #409, brought the end to Sekowsky's reign on the character. It’s striking how quickly Nelson Bridwell and Art Saaf made the stories feel more conventional as they started their reign. Immediately much of the funkiness of Sekowsky's work evaporated – Kara looked more normal and got yet another new costume (though no more attractive than her previous suit), and everyone's appearance went much more back to normal. That quickly, the amazing stylistic skills of Mike Sekowsky passed into history.
Maybe the best elegy for Sekowsky's work on Supergirl was presented on the letters page of Adventure #408 by Mark Sigal:
The main reason for this change in point of view is the work of one Michael Sekowsky, who along with doing some excellent issues of Justice League of America is responsible for the revitalization of Wonder Woman and is now turning Supergirl into something of interest. The plots have changed from trite, unimaginative ones to ones with much better scope and appeal to both the male and female. We no longer find Supergirl fighting Luthor or saving worlds, but fighting real people, real down-to-Earth villains.
Mr. Sekowsky is slowly building something of worth out of years of mismanagement and indifference. As long as efforts such as issue 404 are continued, future success is almost guaranteed.
Next week: Sekowsky totally embraces the '60s counterculture – biker gangs, hippie aliens and more craziness.