Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Back Issue Box: Action Comics #309

I have been thinking about Action Comics #309 a lot recently and it finally occurred to me that I should formally cover it on the site.

First, I'll say that I first read this issue in the phone book style Showcase Supergirl trades from years ago. Only recently did I read it in color thanks to the DC Infinite app. I have never seen it in the wild but more on that later. 

I began thinking about covering it here when I guest starred with Mart Gray over on the Fire and Water Podcast network to discuss Gene Colan's work on the Phantom Zone mini-series. Here is a link to that discussion:http://fireandwaterpodcast.com/podcast/fw-presents-showcase-gene-colan-phantom-zone/

Kudos to Ryan for keeping me and Mart on task. One thing I didn't go into at length in that review was the character of Jer-Em. He is seen throughout the story and has a unique history with Supergirl, one here in this issue. I figured I should fill that in.

Second, the Supergirl show has brought back Zor-El, saying he has stayed alive in the Phantom Zone. That resonates with this story.

But more importantly, I was listening to Tom King talk about his upcoming Supergirl run on the most excellent Word Balloon podcast, hosted by John Siuntres. Here is that link:https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-kings-speech-tom-king-q-and-a/id207700416?i=1000513255019

In that interview, King calls Kara a survivor. He sort of squishes the newer origins (Kara born years before Kal and grew up on Krypton and witnessed its destruction) with some Silver Age aspects of her origin (living on the floating Argo City, the ground becoming Kryptonite, the meteor shower that exposes the lead covered K-soil which ultimately kills everyone). He describes that as three distinct threat about excessive loss, basically three traumatic experiences,  that Kara has had to deal with.

Of course Tom King would focus on the trauma. Hopefully, for once, he has the character come out of it with a healthier outlook. Supergirl should be optimistic and helpful.

But it made me think of this story as a potential 4th trauma Kara lived through. And I wonder if King has read this story.

 On to the book.

'The Untold Story of Argo City' was written by Leo Dorfman with art by Jim Mooney. 

In many ways, it is a re-telling of the Supergirl origin story but with a couple of new wrinkles thrown into the mix.

In this opening panel we see Kara viewing her getting into the rocket at the insistence of her father. 

(Of note, Alura is written as Allura throughout the story. For continuity, I will write it as Alura, as it appears in reprints.)

But we start out in Midvale where Linda is heading to a fair at the orphanage she used to live at.

There she is helping the orphans telling them to stay bright. 

I love this Kara/Linda, still thinking of others and using her voice to lift people.

But after the fair she begins to have vivid dreams of her birth parents Zor-El and Alura saying they are still alive and close to her in the Zone.

Supergirl is unsure if these are simply dreams or true visions so she enlists Comet to help her. Using his super-telepathy, he says he can feel actual psychic vibes. Her parents are alive.

Supergirl assumes her parents mean the Phantom Zone. With the aid of Fred Danvers, she heads into the Zone for only one hour. 

There she sees one of the only repentant criminals in there, Jer-Em. He won't tell her why he is there other than to say he brought about Argo City's ultimate demise. To help him deal with his sins, he will tell her where her parents are.

Alas, the Zone also is filled with a wretched hive of scum and villainy. The other villains use their telepathic powers to scramble Jer-Em's thoughts. He can't tell Supergirl where Zor-El and Alura are.

Outside the Zone after the hour, Supergirl sets up a chronoscope which allows her to look back in time. So she witnesses the plight of Argo City. The city was under a protective dome. When Krypton blew up, it was thrown whole away from the planet. It floated in space but with machines capable of creating food; it was self-sufficient. People lived well on the city. Kara was born there.

Later, the process which blew up Krypton began to occur in the soil of Argo. The land itself becomes Kryptonite. People were dying. Luckily, Zor figured out how to manufacture lead sheets which he rolled out to shield the people from the land itself. (I have to assume Argo's land has become anti-Kryptonite which hurts non-powered Kryptonians and not classic Green K.)

And then the new wrinkle.

Rather than simply float around, Zor-El thought the city should have a propulsion system. He built rockets to bring Argo to a hospitable planet. Sure enough it worked. And the first safe planet just happened to orbit a yellow sun!

Suddenly everyone began to exhibit super-powers. We even see toddler Kara flying around.

But Jer-Em, a superstitious fanatic or religious zealot, did not like what he saw. Remember, Rao is a sun god, a red sun god. Jer-Em thinks science has gone too far!

Using his new powers, Jer-Em turns the city away from the yellow sun and back towards the red sun. The city only had a little amount of fuel so they cannot turn around. People are again powerless.

He feels he has obeyed the will of the gods.

For his crime, Jer-Em is sent to the Phantom Zone. 

As we see in the Phantom Zone mini-series, his religious delusions become more intense in the Zone.

Unfortunately, the rest of the history unfolds as usual. The meteor shower does puncture the dome and the lead shielding. People become ill.

Zor-El postulates of a Survival Zone, just adjacent to the Phantom Zone, were the people can survive until rescued. But his Survival Zone Projector doesn't seem to work.

I suppose this is the first time that Kara has seen how this whole thing truly plays out.

She sees her rocket zoom away.

But then she keeps watching.

Zor-El and Alura see everyone die from Kryptonite poisoning. Even the protective radiation suits cannot keep out the Kryptonite rays.

This is horrifying.

But before they die, Zor-El and Alura seem to fade away. The Survival Zone projector had a delayed reaction. 

They are alive, shunted into that Zone!

Knowing her parents are alive makes Kara happy. She'll [gulp] figure out how to save them!

The addition of Zor and Alura to Supergirl's history further differentiated her from Kal. I like that they eventually do return and become citizens of Kandor and ultimately Rokyn. 

But this added dimension of the city almost being saved only to be derailed by Jer-Em brings even more sadness to the story. 

The art is perfectly lovely and haunting by Mooney. 

 As for why I think I have never seen it in real life.

The front story includes guest star ... John F. Kennedy!! Surely that makes this a rare and expensive back issue!

Overall grade: A


H said...

I seem to remember JFK making a few more appearances in Superman and Superboy books. One of them was delayed a few months because he was assassinated the month before it was set to run. So, that may be why it's such a rare issue, but maybe not (admittedly, I don't know much about Silver Age collecting).

It's always nice to see another part of Krypton show up. I know a lot of people think it messes up the 'last son of Krypton' thing but I enjoy there being more characters and items to work with.

Martin Gray said...

Thanks for a fantastic look back at a seminal Supergirl story. I read this as a little kid and was convinced that Kara’s promise to free her birth parents would prove as possible to fulfil as Superman’s intent to cure Mon-El’s lead poisoning and enlarge Kandor. Oh me of little faith!

I wonder if Tom King will use Jer-Em, he’s such an interesting character.

I have this issue but it’s pretty scabby by now.

Anonymous said...

The return of Supergirl's birth parents would turn into a seven part mini-serial, dominating her back up feature thru Action #316. Its a convoluted addition to an already contrived origin, the introduction of Zor El & Allura added little to Supergirl's storyline as both they and "Fred & Edna Danvers" would slowly fade out of the storyline as Kara matured out of her "dutiful teenager" persona.
BUT, its a little marvel of emotional transparency from Leo Dorfman, I don't think Supergirl herself understood how badly she wanted to get her birth parents back, how deeply ran the emotional injury. Of course all this is but the curtain raiser on the real issue, which pair of parents would Kara "choose"?
For a Silver Age DC Book, these are powerful emotional complications
Its also a classic archetypical "Princess Problem", the regal entitled birth parents or the Salt of the Earth Couple who took in an orphaned teen? I mean, Peter Parker had much less baroque worries on his mind believe me...
Kudos also to My Landsman Jim Mooney this is more or less his High Noon on Supergirl, the emotional content is well delivered via body language and facial expression, the "cinematography" is well laid out (best single panel is a nice gothic silhouette on page 3 after Linda awakens from her nightmare). My only wish is, that somehow having "four parents" active in her life should have created some good plot possibilities/emotional complications, but as I mentioned above the Danvers' & Zor & Allura would become sporadic players as time went on, readers had to be reminded who they were, which is a sign that the writers and editors had lost interest after such an auspicious start.

Nice Pick, All the Same, I hope the TV show does better by Supergirl's crowded depth on her parental chart...


Professor Feetlebaum said...

This issue was the unfortunate victim of bad timing, as it went on sale shortly AFTER President Kennedy was assassinated (though obviously written and drawn before). If I remember right, I believe that because of that, DC shied away from showing any presidents for some time after.

One exception was "Superman's Mission for President Kennedy!" which is most likely the story that H is referring to. This story was supposedly shelved when JFK was killed and then published months later (in Superman # 170) at the request of Lyndon Johnson. Mark Evanier has an interesting theory about that story in his blog for December 1, 2012.

You have to give Mort Weisinger and his writers credit for trying new things with Supergirl. Bringing back her Kryptonian parents was a good idea, and the bottle city of Kandor gave Mort and his team a convenient place to get them out of the way.

I'm sure that the Kryptonite that killed the citizens of Argo City was originally intended to be plain ol' Green Kryptonite, but retroactively was changed to Anti-Kryptonite after it was established that regular Green K only affected Super Powered Kryptonians (which never made much sense to me).

I can't recall if Jer-Em made any appearances after this. I think that Leo Dorfman derived his name from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

Jer-Em makes an appearance in the "Superman Presents the Phantom Zone" four part mini...Gene Colan made him look like Old Man Time.


H said...

Yep Prof, that was the issue I meant. Nice catch on the timing of this issue- I'd forgotten about that.