TV to Comics: Who is Supergirl?
Most of us know the basics. Supergirl is Superman’s cousin from Krypton, another survivor from that doomed planet. But who is she really? This is a question I’ve been asked many times since the TV show premiered two years ago, along with “Where do I start?” This column will help to answer both those questions, as I talk about her history and her most important stories.
Supergirl was introduced in May of 1959, in Action Comics #252. She was introduced as a young Kryptonian teenager whose family survived the destruction of Krypton in a domed city. As that city was destroyed, her parents sent her to Earth where she met her cousin, Kal-El—Superman. She spent the next ten years as the back up feature in Action Comics, with occasional appearances in other Superman related books. During this time, she got adopted and takes the name Linda Danvers. Superman reveals her existence to the world, and Linda graduates from high school.
In June of 1969, Supergirl graduated to the lead feature of Adventure Comics, trading features with the Legion of Super-Heroes. During her years in Adventure Comics, Linda graduates from Stanhope College and moves to San Francisco to operate cameras for KSF-TV. After three years of headlining Adventure Comics, DC gave her a self-titled solo series. As she starts this new endeavor, she leaves KSF-TV to return to grad school at Vandyre University. Her own title only lasted ten issues over two years before DC cancelled it to fold it into other Superman related titles as Superman Family.
Superman Family was an anthology title featuring Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and Supergirl, with the three alternating new stories every month. After three years in this format, the comic switched to all new material for each story printed. During this time, Linda moved to Florida to work as a school advisor and then moved to New York to star in a soap opera. When Superman Family was cancelled in 1982, Supergirl was again given a title of her own, in Daring New Adventures of Supergirl. With a movie on the way, Supergirl was front and center again. The new creative team took her back to grad school and moved her to Chicago. However, when the movie flopped, the comic was cancelled and plans for a Supergirl/Superboy double feature book were scrapped.
For the first time in twenty five years, Supergirl was in limbo without a regular feature. This made her expendable, and in 1985, as Marv Wolfman was plotting DC’s universe changing event Crisis on Infinite Earths, she was put on a list of acceptable casualties of the crossover. In Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, Kara Zor-El sacrificed her life to save her cousin and her universe, and then was promptly forgotten by every character within the DC universe.
After the Crisis, the Superman books were relaunched, with a changed origin and a moratorium on other Kryptonians. Supergirl as we know her could not exist in this new continuity, so a new origin was devised. She was now a protoplasmic shapeshifter from an alternate dimension created by that dimension’s Lex Luthor. Simple right? This version appeared in Superman-related books for six years sporadically, before being given a mini-series of her own, and then joining the New Titans.
In 1996, she was given her own ongoing series, and a substantial character change, as she was merged with an angel. This title ran for 81 issues and seven years by acclaimed writer Peter David. It’s not my favorite run, but it’s legacy is impossible to ignore. David brought back the Danvers name, and several other pieces of Supergirl’s Silver Age history with a modern twist.
In 2002, Dan DiDio took reigns of DC editorial, and while visiting a Six Flags theme park, he decided that Supergirl’s current origin in the books was overly complicated, and decided to bring back the Superman’s cousin version. In 2004’s Superman/Batman series, Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner did just that. Supergirl was once more Kara Zor-El from Krypton, though the origin was updated slightly. She was sent to Earth at the same time as Kal-El, but there was a problem with her rocket, and she remained in suspended animation for years before she arrived. The cousin she was supposed to care for was now grown and had to help care for her instead.
She was once more given her own book in 2005, but the stories in it floundered until 2008, when writer Sterling Gates and penciller Jamal Igle took over the book. Their run lasted two years, and redefined the character. They gave her a more structured life and more realistic teenage experiences.
Gates and Igle left the title shortly before the DC Universe was once more rebooted with the New 52. While she was still Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, the New 52 version didn’t much resemble the character that Gates and Igle had worked so hard to redefine. She was once more relegated to just another angry teenage girl, so much so that she became a member of the Red Lantern Corps, the corps devoted to the rage end of the emotional spectrum.
In 2014, DC was looking to expand it’s television output, and a Supergirl television series was proposed. By 2015, as the premiere of the show approached Supergirl’s comic series was cancelled, leaving fans to wonder if a relaunch timed with the show would occur. This did not happen, as no new Supergirl comics hit the shelves for months. Finally, The Adventures of Supergirl was announced with returning fan favorite Supergirl writer Sterling Gates at the helm. That series was a direct companion to the TV show, but there was still no mainstream DC continuity book.
That changed when DC Rebirth occurred, relaunching every DC book again. Supergirl’s Rebirth series is closer in tone to the TV show, without being a direct adaptation. She works alongside the DEO and has been adopted by Jeremiah and Eliza Danvers. She interns at CatCo, but is still a teenager attending high school.
That’s her history, but what of her character? Well, to me, Supergirl is at her best when she embodies hope and compassion. As current Supergirl writer, Steve Orlando, has said, Supergirl is hero who will stop you from doing something wrong, but will make sure to visit you in jail to make sure you’re doing alright. When I look to define her character, there are two stories I go to: Crisis on Infinite Earths and the episode of the TV show Human for a Day.
In Crisis, Kara sacrifices her own life, because she feels that it’s more important that her cousin live, because he’s a bigger beacon of hope than she is. Her compassion for her fellow heroes is what literally kills her, as the death blow is delivered as she tells the others to run. While an immensely painful issue for Supergirl fans to read, it still holds up to me as one of the best Supergirl stories ever told.
Human for a Day is set after she burns out her powers temporarily, leaving her a normal human for the first time since she arrived on Earth from Krypton. In the episode, Kara realizes the struggles that she doesn’t have to go through on a regular basis. She has to take the bus. She catches a cold. She breaks her arm. Even more importantly, she has a sense of helplessness that she’s not used to. She runs into problems that she could have easily solved as Supergirl, but can’t as a normal human. Poignantly, she has to watch someone die in front of her, because she doesn’t have her powers to save him. She can’t fly him to the hospital. She can’t use her X-Ray vision to find the source of his bleeding. She can’t then use her heat vision to cauterize the wound. She helplessly and hopelessly watches as the man dies in front of his crushed daughter, and it breaks her.
She muses her feelings of weakness to her best friend James Olsen and tells him that she feels lost without her powers. He tells her that nothing has changed. She’s still a hero, with or without her powers. That she still has courage. She still has drive. She still inspires others to be better. Its not the cape or the powers that make her Supergirl, it’s her heart. It’s at that moment we get my favorite scene in the whole series. A convenience store is being held up, near where Kara and James are talking. Kara feels that she can’t stand by and watch it happen, but James tries to convince her not to put herself in danger. It seems he almost knows how futile an effort it is to convince her otherwise, and she puts on her costume.
Despite being sick, powerless, and having a broken arm, Kara confronts the armed robber, and instead of drawing a fight, she talks. She tells him that she knows he’s better than this, that she knows things are tough, but this isn’t the way to go about making it better. She talks him down with a message of love and hope. He hands her the gun, and there is never going to be a scene that encapsulates what I love about Supergirl more than that one.
While this has been but a brief primer on the character, it’s my goal to delve deeper into the essential Supergirl stories in future columns. I want to provide fans of the show, and fans of all eras of the comics with a good source for which Supergirl stories best encapsulate the character I love so dearly. Join me next month as I give an in depth review of Supergirl: Who Is Superwoman? by Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle.