According to the Grand Comics Database, this particular comic book, the first one I ever bought, went on sale on the 5th day of August, 1965. I probably didn’t buy it on that specific day, but it is possible. In any case, I’m going to post about it today — exactly 50 years to the date it originally hit the stands.
Why Superman? Well, then as now, he was the best-known comic book superhero in the world, having been published continuously from 1938 onwards. And I already knew him from television, for even though the live-action series starring George Reeves had ended its run in 1958 (when I was two years old), episodes were being re-run every weekday afternoon by one of our two local stations. It may be hard to believe in our era, when superheroes permeate popular culture in films, TV shows, games, toys, etc., but that was pretty much it for encountering comic book heroes in other media in the summer of 1965. (Things would change drastically pretty soon afterwards, but that’s a subject for our next post.)
I was probably also impressed by the “World’s Best-Selling Comics Magazine!” blurb. Hey, they couldn’t claim that if it wasn’t true, right?
That’s a pretty interesting cover, too, isn’t it? Attractive young women, not, um, overly clad (and also awfully white, considering they seem to be dwelling on some tropical island), with one of them physically overpowering the Man of Steel. (“For the first time in my life, I’ve been beaten by a GIRL!” Oh, the horror!) Of course, I was only eight years old at the time, but hey…
Was it a good story? I can’t remember. I haven’t read it in decades.
Strangely enough, although I still own almost every comic book I ever bought (with the exception of some that my friend Ken Stribling convinced me to sell him when we were both in high school), I don’t know what happened to this one. I’m sure I didn’t sell it, but somehow, somewhere along the way — I managed to lose my first self-purchased comic book.
Unlike many other Superman stories from that era, it’s never been reprinted in this country. And the going price from online sellers is around $30 for a copy in “fine” condition. I’m curious, but not quite that curious. Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday…
I can tell you (thanks again to the Grand Comics Database) that the issue’s main story, as well as its cover, was penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein. Swan’s illustrative style, clear and pristine if not especially dynamic, would quickly come to pretty much define Superman and his world for me, and the same would be true for many other fans of my generation.
But — no longer having ready access to the story itself, I guess I may never really know what effect it might have had on my youthful understanding of gender roles, or on my (gulp) psychosexual development. (And maybe that’s for the best?)
UPDATE posted on November 1, 2015:
When I wrote and posted the above back in August, I didn’t own a copy of Superman #180, nor did I expect that situation to change at any time in the near future. (Mostly because I’m pretty cheap.) However, due to the great generosity of my old friend and fellow collector mentioned above, Ken Stribling, I am once again the proud owner of a copy of this comic. (A really nice copy, by the way — in considerably better condition than any of my other books of the same vintage, and definitely in much, much better shape than my copy of the succeeding issue, Superman #181. You really shouldn’t have, Ken — but thanks!)
So, now that I’ve had the chance to read my first-purchased comic book again for the first time in several decades, what do I think about it?
To begin with, I should note there are two stories in the issue. Neither includes published credits, but the Grand Comics Database posits that both were probably written by Leo Dorfman, with the first, “Clark Kent’s Great Superman Hunt!”, being illustrated by Al Plastino. This tale — which involves a gangster’s attempt to force Superman (as Clark Kent) to expose his own secret identity to save Lois Lane from a death trap — actually holds up fairly well after fifty years. It’s also pretty down-to-earth, at least as Superman stories go — enough so that it’s easy to imagine it serving as an episode of the 1950’s live-action TV series. (Since I was regularly watching that series in syndicated reruns in 1965, I may well have found the story’s familiarity reassuring as I first set out to explore this strange new world of comic books.)
The second story, “The Girl Who Was Mightier Than Superman!”, is… something else again. In the tale, Superman is lured through a clever ruse to the southern Pacific island of Florena, which is inhabited only by women (and based on what we readers are shown, almost entirely by young women). The Florenans’ dissimilarity in appearance to other people of the Pacific Islands (i.e., their whiteness) is actually explained, after a fashion, as it turns out that the women are all descendants of aliens from the planet Matrion, home to “a race of warrior women”, who were exiled into space many years ago due to their relative physical weakness. (As all of the original exiles were women, the existence of succeeding generations is attributed to intermarriage with “sailors from occasional shipwrecks”; however, the evident lack of any current husbands on the island, or any male children, isn’t explained at all — though readers of Brian Azzarello’s recent run on Wonder Woman might have some ideas on that score.)
The intent of the contemporary Florenans’ ploy in luring Superman to the island (where he becomes trapped by a barrier of artificial Kryptonite radiation) is to have him marry one of them and thereby found a “new race” which will be worthy to return at last to Matrion. To earn the privilege of becoming Superman’s bride, Orella, the cleverest of the Florenans, has to defeat the hero in three contests of strength — which she does. (Hence, the scene depicted on the cover.) Eventually, however, Superman realizes that Orella’s been siphoning off his own strength using a super-scientific bracelet she invented (just go with it, OK?), and he turns the tables on her, revealing her dishonesty to the island elder Sophroni, the last surviving member of the original exiles (and the only older woman we ever see in the story). Sophroni apologizes to Superman, turns off the Kryptonite rays, and sends the Man of Steel on his way home — and that’s it, except for this one rather grim final panel:
Kind of a bummer on which to end the story, especially in such an abrupt fashion — but I guess when you only have 11 pages to work with, you sometimes have to wrap things up in a hurry.
So, what about those gender role conception and psychosexual development influences I was wondering about back in August? Well, the story isn’t very sexy, in my opinion, even on a covert or symbolic level — which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, based on all the other 1960’s Superman stories I’ve read. As for the depiction of gender roles — it‘s interesting, to say the least, that the female-dominated society of Matrion, though presented as an anomaly, is never portrayed in the story as somehow unnatural, or otherwise “wrong”. Possibly, the long-running example of the Amazons of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island made DC a little more receptive to the idea of matriarchy than might otherwise be expected. Then again, there is that bleak last panel…
All said, I’m glad to have had the chance to re-read these stories, 50 years after their original (and only, at least in the English language) publication. Welcome home, Superman #180 — I’ve missed you! And thank you again, Ken Stribling!
That last panel of the fallen Matrion is downright chilling! I’ve read a lot of these “earlier” (from my perspective) Superman stories, and they often have a surreal and sometimes ominous vibe to them that surely wasn’t intended or even intended at the time. Great post!
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Overall a good review. But there’s really nothing surprising or shocking about the last panel of The Girl Who Was Mightier Than Superman. Dead worlds were a recurring theme in silver age Superman stories. In fact Supes himself was a product of a dead civilization.
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Some people might not approve of illegal downloads of comic books. But issues like these, which have never been reprinted, actually make a good case for it. If I were to buy a copy of this issue somewhere, *assuming* I could actually find a copy, neither DC nor the original creators of the comic would get any of that money. Not to mention that they’re (probably) all dead this point.
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