Wasted women of the Silver Age

No, not women who got wasted, women the writers wasted. Two women who deserved better.

First we have Lesla-Lar, the Kandorian scientific genius who debuted in Action Comics #279 as “Supergirl’s Secret Enemy!” In the previous issue, Supergirl saved Superman from the alien invader who’d possessed Perry White and turned him into Masterman (she actually killed the alien — apparently intelligent plant beings aren’t covered by the No Kill rule). Supergirl had been working as Superman’s “secret weapon” for the previous couple of years while she trained, but this victory convinces her cousin she’s ready to go public. At the end of the issue, though, she loses her powers, apparently permanently, and resigns herself to life as a human girl.

As she no longer has to worry about her secret identity, Linda Lee lets Fred and Ethel Danvers adopt her in the following issue. In the same story we learn (but she doesn’t) that Supergirl’s double Lesla-Lar bitterly resents being stuck in the bottle while her lookalike has freedom and super-power. Knowing Supergirl will be hailed by all Earth once she goes public made Lesla’s resentment even worse so she stole Linda’s powers with a kryptonite-based ray. Phase Two of her plan involves trading places with Linda, mind-wiping her to replace Lesla-Lar in Kandor.

Phase three is to visit Luthor and offers herself as his secret weapon, a role reversal of Supergirl’s relationship to Superman. The brainwashed Linda, however, spots Supergirl meeting with Lex; as Kandor knows all about Supergirl, she realizes this is an imposter and rushes to alert the authorities. Lesla-Lar switches them back first and Linda wakes up with no memory of her time in Kandor.

In the next installment, “Trapped in Kandor,” Lesla trades places with Supergirl again and continues with her master plan. She miraculously cures her power loss, which persuades Superman to announce her existence to the world after all. Meanwhile she offers to design a kryptonite ray for Luthor that can kill Superman. After Luthor does her dirty work she’ll “accidentally” kill him resisting arrest, leaving her free to conquer the planet or destroy it, as she chooses.

The plan comes a cropper the next issue when Super-Lesla, Superman and Krypto get together at the Fortress of Solitude. Krypto immediately smells that Lesla isn’t Supergirl, spots the real Kara inside Kandor — she’s currently playing Supergirl in a Kandorian movie — and trades them back. And then flies off without making either Supergirl or his master aware of what happened. The rest of the issue has Superman, acting on a hunch, take Supergirl across the time barrier where she regains her superpowers because … reasons? She loses them back in the present so in #282  she gives up her identity again, puts on her Supergirl costume one last, sad time — and suddenly her powers are back.

This annoys the heck out of Lesla-Lar, more so when her ray can’t neutralize them again. Before she can figure out what’s up, the Kandorian cops bust her. That would be the last we see of her until a year and a half later when she escaped Kandor again and apparently died (she’d show up in Superman Family 14 years later as disembodied energy).

Oh, the regained powers? Mxyzptlk decided to prank Superman by giving an ordinary girl super-powers equal to his but with no vulnerability to green kryptonite — and guess who he picked? Despite the rule that his magic doesn’t last after he returns to Zrff, the spell lingers for several issues after that, by which point Kara’s regular powers have returned.

It’s an insanely frustrating finish to a story arc I was really enjoying. While it’s true Silver Age Superman Family books could whipsaw back and forth — when Supergirl does go public, Luthor has never even heard of her — it feels so abrupt, I wonder what was going on. Did sales slump? Did someone decide Supergirl worked better grounded in ordinary teenage life (this is when she started dating Dick Malverne and forgot her crush on the Atlantean Jerro)? Did writer Jerry Siegel run out of ideas for this plotline? Certainly the next couple of issues, involving red kryptonite, are just padding, buying time until Supergirl goes public.

Not only did it kill a good story, it wasted a good villain. Lesla-Lar could have been Supergirl’s nemesis, but instead she vanished into obscurity. The only adversary of Supergirl’s anyone remembers is Nasthalthia Luthor, and that’s mostly because of her name.

Still, compared to Mavis Trent, Lesla-Lar is an iconic legend. Mavis, a longtime employee of Gateway City Museum, met Carter and Shiera Hall — AKA Katar and Shayera Hol, AKA Hawkman and Hawkgirl — when the Silver Age Winged Wonders debuted in Brave and the Bold #34. She’s immediately taken with Carter, but then transfers her attentions to Hawkman, whom she assumes is single (Thangarians don’t wear wedding rings). I remembered her mostly as a Vicki Vale figure constantly trying to get something going with Hawkman. Reading the early issues as part of rereading the Silver Age, it turns out I was wrong. Mavis is awesome.

In Brave and the Bold #35, Mavis is in the Himalayas, trying to photograph the abominable snowman. She succeeds, only to wind up trapped in “The Valley of Vanishing Men.” The following issue, in “Strange Spells of the Sorcerer,” it turns out she’s fluent in ancient Chaldean.  

That’s quite an impressive skill set. In Hawkman #1, she adds to it by making some major discoveries in a Mayan excavation before her memory gets wiped. As in the previous two stories, this plunges the Hawks into trouble, battling the Mayan super-villain Chac.

I would have loved to see more of that. Hawkman had several more stories where an archeologist dragged the heroes into peril. Mavis could have found the giant golden mask that animated an ancient giant in Hawkman #8. She could have found the Mithra Meteorite in Hawkman #20 and transformed into Lion-Mane. It would be a lot easier to care about an established character turned into a monster than a one-shot walk-on.

Instead Mavis disappeared from the series after #2. When she returned in the late Bronze Age, she was just an ordinary museum employee with the hots for Carter/Hawkman. The same in Shadow War of Hawkman where she wound up dead.

Like Lesla-Lar she could have been so much more.

#SFWApro. Art by Jim Mooney (top three), Joe Kubert (next two) and Murphy Anderson.

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