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Grumpy Old Fan | A Supergirl for (all) the ages

It’s a good time to be a Supergirl fan. The preview for CBS’s Supergirl debuted a couple of weeks ago (and some of you may have even gotten to see -- ahem -- even more). Based on that, the show has been named one of the eight Most Exciting New Series by the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Closer to home, the preview also inspired my colleague Caleb Mozzocco to ask whether there were any non-terrible Supergirl comics.

That took me back. As someone who remembers the full and frank discussions about Supergirl’s image in the mid-2000s, when the character became emblematic of the decline of superheroes, it's very weird indeed to realize that Supergirl could be a standard-bearer for superhero television.

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It all has me thinking again about how the Girl of Steel has changed over the years. After starting out as a Silver Age “secret weapon,” Superman’s cousin became important enough to warrant a double-sized sendoff in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7. (We’ll talk about that in detail next week.) While “Supergirl” was only gone for a few years, and returned with a complicated backstory, Kara Zor-El spent the better part of 19 years in limbo. It’s been just over 10 years since she was reintroduced.

As you might expect, Supergirl has seen a few different “eras,” each with its own ups and downs. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Kara matured into a seasoned crimefighter; and in the late ‘90s, Linda Danvers was already world-weary when she received her powers. However, judging by the past couple of relaunches, DC seems to prefer a Supergirl who’s on the young and inexperienced side. We don’t know (at least not officially) how much of the TV show will reflect that, but it bears watching. Similarly, while DC isn’t currently publishing a Supergirl comic, I’m betting it’ll have one ready to go by the fall, and I’m curious to see how it treats the Maid of Might.

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With all that in mind, here comes the history lesson.

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Created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino for May 1959's Action Comics #252, the Kara Zor-El version of Supergirl followed a handful of one-off super-women. Indeed, the “Super-Girl” dreamed into existence for August 1958's Superman #123 was apparently intended to gauge interest in such a character. The rest is history: Starting with her debut issue Supergirl became a regular Action feature for most of the next 10 years, through May 1969's Issue 376. After a few years in Adventure Comics and a short-lived solo series, she then became a regular in the Superman Family anthology from the mid-1970s until the title’s 1982 cancellation.  Her last regular series before Crisis on Infinite Earths lasted 23 issues (November 1982-September 1984) and ended a few months before the premiere of the Supergirl movie.  Today we associate that movie’s poor performance with the comic’s cancellation and Kara’s subsequent death, but having some sort of regular exposure every month or so for 25 years is nothing to sneeze at. Although Supergirl was on the wane in the mid-‘80s, she was still a big deal.

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* * *

I have to admit my knowledge of this Supergirl era comes mainly from her Superman Family days in the late ‘70s. As a Superman fan I liked the idea of “Supergirl,” and I especially liked her teaming up with Superman, because that usually meant a menace big enough to challenge them both. (See DC Comics Presents #28 for a fine example.) However, the Supergirl about whom I tended to read didn’t have the supporting cast or the secret identity that her cousin did. Remember, this was the era where Clark Kent was an elaborate fiction constructed and performed by Superman. Supergirl disguised herself as Linda Danvers, formerly known as teenaged orphan Linda Lee; but beyond that she had a number of jobs, from guidance counselor to soap-opera star. This didn’t help define her personality, which tended to be a more approachable version of Superman.

Admittedly, it’s not quite fair to compare her career path to the decades spent honing the Clark/Superman relationship. Perhaps it’s more like Dick Grayson’s -- speaking of “more approachable” characters -- as the acrobat and heir to the Wayne fortune has also wandered from job to job (cop, gymnastics teacher, museum curator, etc.) in his young adulthood. It’s a fairly standard hurdle for any supporting character who graduates to her own feature, and Kara’s wasn’t as bad as the backstory issues that befell Power Girl.

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Bringing up Power Girl allows me to segue into the post-Crisis landscape, which (naturally) replaced one Girl of Steel with another. This not only elevated Power Girl's profile, it allowed her to claim Supergirl’s old role as a seasoned superheroine with Kryptonian powers. Basically, it meant that Supergirl could go back to being inexperienced and maybe a little naïve, which (after a fashion) is exactly what happened.

I mentioned Power Girl’s convoluted post-Crisis backstory, but about it I will say only this: DC had to create a new origin for her that didn’t involve either the Multiverse (because Crisis had destroyed it) or Krypton (because Superman was now its sole survivor). In this respect Supergirl got off a little easier, but not much. The new-for-1988 Supergirl was really “Matrix,” a shape-shifting protoplasmic being created by the Lex Luthor of an alternate dimension -- “alternate dimension” being different from “parallel universe” because DC said so -- to take the place of its deceased Superboy. After her introductory story arc, Matrix stayed in the background for a few years, first on the Kent farm and then (off-panel) out in deep space as a Superman duplicate.

She became Supergirl again for good in February 1992's Action Comics #674, returning to Earth as part of an extended Brainiac-invasion storyline. As a full-time Supergirl with no secret identity, she fell in with Lex Luthor Jr., the (deep breath) son of the then-deceased billionaire, who by the way had long, luxurious red hair and came from Australia. Spoilers: He was really Luthor’s clone, but no one would find out for a couple of years. Anyway, Supergirl helped out as needed, particularly after Superman was killed fighting Doomsday. She left Luthor when she realized he was trying to clone her, and joined the New Titans along with other young legacies like Impulse and Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). Regardless, through it all she didn’t have much in the way of characterization, just a noble outlook and the super-powers to back it up.

That changed in the summer of 1996, when writer Peter David and penciler Gary Frank brought back Linda Danvers for a new ongoing series. This Linda was a trouble-prone young woman whom Supergirl saved from a demonic sacrifice, and the two were fused together permanently in the process. In effect, Linda gained Matrix/Supergirl’s powers, with the latter’s personality eventually subordinated to Linda’s.

David and his artistic collaborators (also including Leonard Kirk and Ed Benes) spent the next six-and-a-half years blending Silver Age elements like Dick Malverne and Comet the Super-Horse with a mythology about Earth-born angels charged with fighting demonic forces. In this respect the Supergirl iconography didn’t directly represent anything Kryptonian, but rather Linda’s own responsibility to uphold the Superman family’s good name. Indeed, neither Superman nor Superboy appeared much in this series, which stood largely apart from the main Superman books. It lasted 80 issues and was canceled in 2002, concluding with a storyline involving the temporary return of Kara Zor-El. After that, Linda Danvers effectively vanished from the DC Universe, appearing only briefly in the Reign In Hell miniseries.

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Of course, Kara Zor-El did return, independent of that previous storyline, courtesy of writer Jeph Loeb and artist Michael Turner in a Superman/Batman arc. This time, she was found by Batman, guided by Superman, and trained in combat by Wonder Woman and the Amazons, before being abducted by Darkseid so he could dress her up like a less-inhibited Britney Spears and train her to lead the Female Furies.  Once rescued, she embarked on a series of problematic adventures. Written first by Loeb and then by Joe Kelly, and drawn by Ian Churchill and others, these involved (at various times) imagining she was part of a plot to murder baby Kal-El; fighting her black-costumed duplicate; or growing spiky Kryptonian crystals out of her body. Not helping was Churchill’s depiction, which (like Turner’s) emphasized the teenaged heroine’s midriff-baring costume. I won’t try to summarize all of the Supergirl body-image discussions of 10-ish years ago, but check out these excerpts from an old interview with then-incoming Supergirl artist Jamal Igle:

With the encouragement of DC Editorial, he and Gates are toning down her stripper-inspired costume and making her personality more realistic as an actual teen-aged girl: "I'm trying to [take a different approach to her] than the previous artists. Catching up on older issues, the shirt got smaller… and she's supposed to be a teen-aged girl."

He verbalized the uncomfortable feeling many readers of the title have felt for several years: "I don't feel comfortable sexualizing what's supposed to be a teen-aged girl." The first thing he did, "was look at the costume, and make her less like a hooker than she's been looking."

[...]

When he was brought on the book, he was asked to make her "more presentable" than she was previously. They "went out of their way to make the character more presentable." He noted: "There's a difference between cheesecake…" and what is supposed to be a book about a teen-aged girl who is trying to find her place in her new environment.

Much more, including comparison pictures, behind the above link (which is actually to a blog post at Supergirl ComicBoxCommentary about the now-lost original interview).

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