RETRO REVIEW: Superman #123 (August 1958)

by

Or – “The Story That Launched A Thousand Costumes!”

Sure, you know your first appearances and your Silver Age keys.  You know where Bizarro showed up and where Luthor lost his hair, and you even know the story of the Gorilla Boss of Gotham City…  But do you know the history of the FIRST Super-Girl?  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

Superman123CoverSUPERMAN #123
Writer: Otto Binder
Penciler: Dick Sprang
Inker: Stan Kaye
Colorist: Uncredited
Letters: Uncredited
Editor: Whitney Ellsworth
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $800

Previously, in Superman:  Mild-mannered Clark Kent, reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, is secretly Superman, strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities blah blah blah fishcakes.  He has a girlfriend named Lois, and a best pal named Jimmy Olsen who has the best of intentions but often screws things up royally.  As our story opens, Superman, Jimmy and Lois are on the site of a massive flood, reporting on and/or saving people from the disaster.  Jimmy overhears Superman remarking to Lois that “only a Super-girl” could ever keep up with him, and you can practically hear the gears grinding in that big ol’ auburn head of Jim’s…

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In the Silver Age of comics, they didn’t fool around with exposition or any of that fancy-schmancy crap.  Superman wants a super-chick, Jimmy wants three wishes, mysterious macguffin and KABLAMMICUS!  We’re off!

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Super-Girl immediately throws herself (in a chaste, 1950s sort of way) at the Man Of Her Steel Dreams, but Superman finds her advances a bit too forward.  He travels to the Daily Planet with his new counterpart, to show Jimmy that his wish came true.  In so doing, he also triggers the jealousy gland that takes up nearly 45% of Lois Lane’s brain cavity, causing her to cycle depressive about her “obviously” lost love…

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I was pretty surprised to discover that this issue’s art is handled by Dick Sprang, an artist that I associate more with Batman than with Superman, as many of the panels look like classic 50s Wayne Boring Superman art.  Superman and Super-Girl set off together to protect innocents and like that, but she quickly proves that she’s not quite the equal of Superman when it comes to the finer points of controlling Kryptonian powers.  She blows the roof off a building in trying to save it, melts a bank vault, and literally butts heads with Superman in trying to perform super-deeds.  Worst of all?  She has no idea what a secret identity is all about…

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Before he can scold Super-Girl too strongly, though, another disaster occurs, and Superman is forced to hold up the railroad tracks by hand lest the Metropolis Express crash from washed out tracks.  Unfortunately, this puts him in a terrible spot for a fortuitous criminal…

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Shamed by Superman for her inexperience, Super-Girl sacrifices her own life, dying so that the greater hero can live.  (Let it not be said that Fifties comics didn’t deal with some heady themes now and then.)  As the heroine breathes her last, a (somewhat callous-seeming) Superman fixes his secret identity conundrum with reverse psychology.

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“What will Jimmy’s second wish be?”  Well, given that the first was a quite literal trainwreck, followed by a tragic and unnecessary death, how much worse could it actually get?  Given that he writes a story about the magic jewel that can grant any wish, then leaves it out where opportunistic bad guys can break in and find it?  Let’s just say “quite poorly.”

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What this issue proves more than anything is that the greatest danger to Superman isn’t Bizarro, Brainiac or Red Kryptonite, but James Bartholomew Olsen himself!  The hero tricks the underworld (through the use of giant magnets, acetylene torches and other such frippery) causing them to dig up the idol without even getting thrown the whip…

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Two wishes down, one dead hero and another nearly murdered half a dozen times.  My advice for Jimmy is to have Superman throw that thing into the sun before he sets off the Apocalypse or gets turned into a girl named Jenny or something.  Sadly, not only can he not hear me, this took place nearly two decades before my birth, so it’s kind of fait accompli at this point.  Bygones…

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Okay, this time, Jimmy has actually done something sweet for his pal, setting him up to visit his lost world and see his beloved mater and pater familias in person, which is terribly sweet.  There’s no possible way this could go wrong, is there?

Well, only if you expect that a professional newspaperman would be able to TYPE.

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This is where it all gets dicey, as Superman is hit by a car, and taken in by Lara’s family.  She reads his name off his underpants and falls in love with her own–  Wait.  No…  That’s ‘Back To The Future.’  My bad.  In this case, it gets worse, as Superman finds that Jor and Lara are seemingly in league with a villanous presence with the ever-so-subtle name of “Kil-Lor”, plotting treason against the rulers of Krypton.  Though working undercover for the K.B.I. (Krypton Bureau Of Investigation), Jor-El’s contact died that morning, causing them to be rocketed into space… for some reason.  Don’t they have the Phantom Zone for these sort of things?  Superman gets pulled along with his parents, turns solid, battles Kil-Lor to a standstill before the Lords of Coincidence nod their collective heads…

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Oh, The Fifties, you were so silly.  No matter what you might say about old comics, though, you can’t help but be dragged along in this story’s goofy agglomeration of cliches, deus ex machinas and sheer ridiculousness, and the overall effect is one that mostly enjoyable.  The appearance of Super-Girl here is widely regarded as a test balloon for the debut of Kara Zor-El, aka the actual Supergirl, a year or so later.  Most interestingly for me is the fact that, when I was a kid, I read a reprint of this story somewhere where the character’s costume was recolored (presumably to keep her from looking just like the “real” Supergirl), but I have never successfully been able to track down the issue in question.  Superman #123 is an oddity, an anomaly, a story that seems to have been built around a couple of specific scenes rather than the other way ’round, but still has sufficient charms that I enjoyed the read more than a several of this week’s modern comics (not mentioning any names) earning the book 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Plus, now young Zach has something to confuse and entertain his friends with, so win/win!

Rating: ★★★½☆

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