Saturday, 20 April 2013

Retro review - Adventure Comics #401 review

OK, it's not the most contemporary issue, but Adventure Comics #401 was published around the time I began reading American comics, as we British kids called any Marvel or DC books back then. This one I never bought at the time, for 5p; I purchased it today at an Edinburgh comic book show, for £3 - not really much more than Forbidden Planet would charge in 2013.

So how does Supergirl 1970 (it's cover dated January 1971) compare with today's DC books in terms of entertainment?

For one thing, 'The Frightened Supergirl' benefits from fine Mike Sekowsky pencils, ably inked by, er, Jack Abel. There's real animation in Sekowsky's layouts, and you never doubt what his characters are thinking. As he was also writing and editing Adventure Comics, Sekowsky was able to play to his strengths - cue gorgeous women in high fashion pieces, leering villains and general mayhem. The story sees Supergirl slipped a Mickey by evil rival Nasthalthia - 'Nasty' - Luthor which causes her to develop a hysterical fear of, well, everything. A fake spider, a kid with a popgun, a toy truck ... and an out of control Supergirl is bad news for Stanhope. Careering through the streets, Supergirl wrecks cars, smashes buildings and generally leads the police a merry dance; I especially like this montage (sadly, I don't have my scanner to hand, so the quality doesn't bear enlarging - but you get the idea).

Nasty persuades the police to let her talk down Supergirl, and soon she's dragged her in front of Uncle Lex, inventor of the 'fear formula' which has disabled the Maid of Might. Lex plans to exhibit her before the Underworld as an advertisement for his elixir, 'to use it to get the other super boys off their backs'. But first Nasty wants to amuse herself some more, making Supergirl writhe in abject terror at the aforementioned toy truck.

The plan backfires, though, when Supergirl becomes so spooked that she brings the building down around them, trapping Nasty and Lex under rubble. Exciting stuff ...until a page turn reveals Linda Danvers waking up in bed having had a horrible nightmare.

Oh dear.

The choice is especially weird, given that the story is, in part, narrated by Nasty - at no time does Kara dream anything from her own point of view. That makes sense only if Supergirl identifies with Nasty to a worrying degree

I don't understand why Sekoswky would undermine a fun tale of wholesale destruction by falling back on the old 'it was all a dream' trope. Nothing so bad happens that the story needed to be wiped away, no one dies, and it's wonderful to see the Luthors get their comeuppance. It's not as if the story isn't about to end - so a black mark to Sekowsky for pulling the rug out from under the reader. But a gold star for giving us this wonderful image of a confused Kara
Admittedly, it doesn't quite work, she resembles a balloon with stick-on features - but it's fun to look at, and I love that Sekowsky doesn't fall back on the same old poses and expressions.

The issue's second strip doesn't feature Supergirl, it's a Scooby Doo-style tale starring one Tracey Thompson, who, so far as I can see, has no unique selling point. She's a curious teenager with a comedy relief pal, Betsy, and a motorbike. 'The Strange House' has her persuade the reluctant Betsy to accompany her into a house with a reputation for spooky happenings, and soon they discover a very creepy couple. And the dialogue, if I might call it that, is a hoot: 'Gulp!' 'Gaaahh!' 'Glub!' 'Ohhhh!' in immediate succession.

Sekowsky is once again writing and drawing - this time inked by Frank Giacoia - and the work is just gorgeous ... look at Jonathan and Martha (really!) here.
The rest of the art is equally good, though the unknown colourist is either lazy or unimaginative, relying on swathes of light blue in panel after panel. The resolution is clever, but all told, I'd rather have had a second Supergirl story, and one with a proper ending.

A couple of other items of interest - a two-page house ad announcing the coming changes in Superman and allied books as 1971 arrived (WGBS, Rose and Thorn, Jack Kirby on Jimmy Olsen); and a lettercol in which Sekowsky insists that Kara has super-female intuition, developed with the help of such DC psychics as Lena Thorul, Dream Girl and Comet the Super-Horse - nutty stuff!

So to answer my own question, there's at least as much entertainment here as in your average DC New 52 comic, and as much silliness. There's not much in the way of characterisation for Supergirl, but this is an atypical issue. £3 well spent!


Cover borrowed from the Grand Comics Database cos I haven't got my scanner to hand and my 2013 phonecam wouldn't especially impress 1970 Kandorian scentists ...

6 comments:

  1. Though the letters page answers were signed "Ed." as per DC house style, Sekowsky did not write them. The reference to Lena Thorul, Dream Girl, and Comet is 100 percent E. Nelson Bridwell.

    I just took a look at this issue, and you're right about the ending...but there's a clue about the real reason for the abrupt change in plot. That last page isn't Sekowsky's work either. To my eyes it looks like Jack Abel working alone. Perhaps Sekowsky blew a deadline and the story had to be wrapped up by Abel before it went to the printer, or perhaps Sekowsky's concluding page or pages were rejected in the office for some unguessable reason. (Nudity? A passionate kiss between Kara and Nasty?) Either way, it's some kind of last minute substitution.

    It would have made a lot more sense to have Supergirl wake up in the rubble, thinking "Whew, the fear serum wore off! Nasty and Luthor are knocked out cold! Now to take them to the police...then fix all the damage I caused!" Clearly no one in the office thought of that...

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    1. Oh, so this book is choc-full of super-sleight of hand. Abel pretending to be Sekowsky. Bridwell pretending to be Sekowsky. It all sounds very plausible ... but yeah, what would have gone wrong with that original final page? Maybe it had Supergirl learn that someone else had indeed died along the way, and although she wasn't responsible, she'd feel guilty. Super-downer!

      Thanks for a great response, Richard!

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    2. "A passionate kiss between Kara and Nasty?"

      Glub!

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    3. Is that excitement or nausea?

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  2. I have grown to like Sekowsky's art more and more over the years. His time writing Supergirl is a different story. The Starfire/depowered stories, the ending of this one, thinking the Phantom Zone could be flown to in a spaceship ... they aren't great SG tales.

    Still silly issue and great art.

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    1. Did you read Richard on a possible explanation for this issue's ending?

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