Friday, January 25, 2013

The Many Faces of Supergirl - Part 1: The Original


Ever since I read about her exploits in the early 1980s version of the Legion of Super-Heroes, starting with her pivotal role defeating Darkseid in the "Great Darkness Saga" (LSH #294), I have been a fan of Superman's super-powered Kryptonian cousin, Supergirl.  I'm not sure exactly when she rose to the top of my list of favorite superheroes, but for many years, the original Supergirl, as she appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, has been up there, and today, she is without question my favorite character.

Since her first appearance, Supergirl has worn many costumes, and had many incarnations.  She's died and been brought back to life, and she's been "rebooted" and re-envisioned over and over again.  Over the next couple of months, I am going to write a series of articles, starting with this one, called "The Many Faces of Supergirl."  In these articles, I will review the different incarnations of Supergirl, and discuss the good and bad points of each.  I hope these articles will be informative to the reader, and that they will, perhaps, help a few comic-book fans come to appreciate this wonderful, and all-too-frequently under-appreciated, superhero.

Supergirl arrives on earth

Just about everyone knows Superman's origin.  He was born on the planet Krypton, which has a red sun and many times the gravity of Earth, to a scientist named Jor-El.  Jor-El discovers that Krypton is about to be destroyed by a cosmic event (sometimes the planet blows up, sometimes the sun and the planet -- the exact details vary with each re-telling), and he has a baby son he wants to save.  So Jor-El puts his son, Kal-El, into a rocket ship and sends him to our primitive planet.  Here, under our yellow sun and in our atmosphere, a Kryptonian such as Kal-El has astonishing powers, including super-strength, flight, invulnerability, heat vision, x-ray vision, and super-speed.  Kal-El is raised on earth by the Kents, taking the earthly name Clark Kent, but when he grows to adult-hood, he learns how to use his powers, and fights crime and protects the innocent as Superman.

That story was told in the late 1930s, and for two decades, so far as anyone knew, the one and only survivor of the planet Krypton was Kal-El... i.e., Superman.  Then in 1959, DC comics decided to add a second survivor.  In the feature story of Action Comics #252, a fifteen year old blond girl lands on earth in another rocket ship much like the one that brought Kal-El to earth, wearing a dress that looks an awful lot like Superman's costume, and having all his powers. She claims to be Kryptonian, and to be his cousin on top of that.
Supergirl's 1st appearance.

In Action Comics #252, the young woman tells her story as a flashback.  When Krypton exploded, her city, Argo City, survived intact, having been thrown out from the planet as a single chunk of rock.  The girl's father, Jor-El's brother Zor-El (also a scientist) quickly helped create a force-field around the planet to protect it.  Argo City thus survived the destruction of Krypton, and the people of Argo lived there for many years.  Zor-El and his wife Alura had a daughter, Kara, and she grew to the age of 15, never knowing any world but her home city of Argo.  Then when she was fifteen, a swarm of giant meteors destroyed the city.  To save her, Zor-El, like his brother before him, created a rocket, clothed Kara in a suit that would help Superman recognize her, and sent her to Earth to be with the only other surviving member of their race.

And so, Kara Zor-El arrived on earth at the age of fifteen, and in doing so, gained all the Kryptonian-derived powers that Superman had -- she could fly, bend steel, race airplanes through the sky, boil water with her gaze, and see through walls.  Because she was young, and he couldn't take care of a teenager, Superman placed Kara into an orphanage in the nearby town of Midvale, under the secret identity of Linda Lee.

Over the next ten years, Supergirl made many guest appearances in Action Comics.  At first, Superman employed her as a secret weapon -- the crooks might be ready for one Superman, but they had no way of knowing there were effectively two of him to fight (since she had all the powers Superman did).  Eventually, as Linda Lee, Kara was adopted by a middle-aged couple, Fred and Edna Danvers.  This couple decided to take a teenager into their home, rather than a baby, because they saw how vulnerable she was, and how much she needed a home.  Over time, Linda came to love them in return, and they helped her adjust to life on earth.  She eventually took the name Linda Danvers as her secret identity, which she kept until the day she died (see below).

Supergirl in Adventure Comics

By 1969, Supergirl had been in print for 10 years, but had not ever had her own full-length comic-book, one devoted just to her own adventures.  DC changed all that with Adventure Comics #381.  That month, and for several years following, Supergirl headlined Adventure Comics, much as Superman headlined Action Comics.  It was time for the Girl of Steel to fly solo, and she enjoyed many issues as lead character on this title.
The first full-length feature starring Supergirl
As with many comics in this time period (at the tail end of what would later be called the "Silver Age"), Supergirl's adventures in this series are not what one could describe as sophisticated.  The stories are perhaps best described by a modern reader as campy, perhaps corny or even silly.  This is not really a knock against Supergirl or her stories -- that's the way Silver Age comics were written.  Good and evil are black-and-white; the heroes always win; they usually win in a single issue; whatever the villain's plot, no innocents are usually harmed; blood, gore, death, grievous injury are never portrayed. As a typical example, in one issue of Adventure Comics, Kara, in her secret ID of Linda Danvers, signs up for a college course on Supergirl.  The class is taught in an auditorium-sized lecture hall to a packed house of students, all taking a class about their favorite local hero.

Supergirl enjoyed an impressive run in Adventure Comics, headlining the title for 43 issues (until #424).  Indeed, this run in the early 1970s would be the longest run Supergirl would have in this incarnation, and in fact the longest any version of Supergirl would have until the turn of the century.

I don't have most of those issues (just #381 and #393), so I can't really say for certain, but based on the fact that the very month after Supergirl stopped appearing in Adventure Comics, she got her own title, I suspect that this run was highly successful, and that it produced enough sales that +DC Comics must have thought Supergirl should be given her own title.  If that's what they thought, they were sadly mistaken.  It would later turn out that this 43-issue run of Adventure Comics was the only time the original Supergirl successfully headlined anything, in any medium, not just comics.

The first Supergirl series - a flop

Presumably based on the success of Adventure Comics (above), in late 1972, +DC Comics decided to give Kara Zor-El her own title, called, of course, Supergirl.  This title is now known as "volume 1" of Supergirl.
Issue #1 of Supergirl's first series
Unfortunately, the series was not very successful.    Written by Cary Bates, Supergirl (volume 1) ran for less than a year, and was canceled by issue #10.  Again, I don't have these titles (they were printed before I was old enough to read, and 10 years before I became a Supergirl fan), but the quick move to cancellation of the title was probably caused by a lack of sales.  This began an unfortunate pattern throughout the 1970s until the mid-1980s, which was that Supergirl worked great as a guest star or back-up character, could even headline something with another name (such as Adventure Comics), but DC couldn't sell products that just had her name on them.  This pattern ultimately cost Supergirl her life.

The second Supergirl series - another flop

Throughout the 1970s, Supergirl continued to appear regularly in many titles as a backup character, a guest-star, even a temporary headliner.  She would appear frequently alongside her cousin in the pages of titles like Action Comics.  She guest-starred often with the Legion of Super-Heroes.  And she appeared regularly in the title Superman Family.  As usual, Supergirl was quite popular with the fans when she appeared in these titles, and so, eventually, +DC Comics decided to give her another chance at a series.  In late 1982, almost exactly 10 years after the last time she was given a series, Supergirl again debuted in her own title, this time called The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl (aka. Supergirl volume 2).  This title was written by longtime Superman Family scribe Paul Kupperberg, and drawn by Carmine Infantino.
The first issue of Supergirl's second series
Unfortunately, the pattern I can only call, at this point, "the curse of Supergirl" once again occurred, and this series flopped. For once, I have every issue of this title, so I can venture some guesses as to why.

I collected this series as it was being published, and although it was a long time ago, I recall that my impression of it was mixed.  I never was a fan of Infantino's art, and that always harms one's enjoyment of a series.  But for me the story is always paramount, and here I had (and still have) mixed feelings about this title.  On the one hand, Paul Kupperberg's characterization of Kara is perhaps the best ever written (to this day).  He portrays her as strong, confident, reasonably cheerful, and generally well-adjusted to Earth (at the age of 19).  It is his personality of Supergirl that I fell in love with in the early 80s.  Additionally, the supporting characters (Joanie, Mrs. Berkowitz, Dr. Metzner, etc.) are excellent and given plenty of "air time" to flesh out the stories.

On the other hand, the plots of this title leave a lot to be desired. Most of the villains are, to put it bluntly, silly, and some of the things he has Supergirl do, like flying from California to Chicago in 10 seconds, are simply ridiculous -- she'd have to fly over 620,000 miles per hour in the atmosphere to get there. That's Mach 815, folks. I won't even get into the silliness of having Supergirl fly from "the center of the universe" back to Earth in 1 day (a trip that would traverse, presuming you could even find such a point in space, billions of light years, meaning that Supergirl can travel something like a trillion times the speed of light).  I doubt I did these calculations in 1982, but I do know that I thought the stories were far lower in quality than, say, the work Paul Levitz was doing over in LSH.

I really can't say, for sure, exactly what caused Supergirl volume 2 to crater, but clearly the stories and the art had something to do with it.  Unfortunately, Kupperberg was writing classic Silver Age material, stuff that would have worked just fine in the late 1960s, for a more sophisticated Bronze Age comic audience, and perhaps that is why Paul's stories couldn't get any traction.  Similarly, Infantino was part of the "old guard," and with artists like George Perez, Kieth Giffen, John Byrne, and Paul Smith coming to prominence at the same time, Infantino's flat, angular art was no longer satisfying to the fans.

I will say, the creative team certainly tried. They even gave Supergirl her first new costume in years, and had a special issue commemorating her 25th anniversary in print.  But none of these things seemed capable of boosting sales enough to keep the series going.
Supergirl's 25th anniversary
In the end,because most fans would have summed this title up by saying "the series wasn't very good," this second Supergirl series was canceled.  In addition, although fans didn't know it yet, this also put the Supergirl character on the chopping block for the next big thing from +DC Comics .  After just under two years, this second Supergirl title was once again canceled due to lack of sales, on issue #23.

Supergirl - the movie

Following the popularity of the Superman movies, +DC Comics and the Salkinds (who produced Superman I, II, and III), decided to try and capitalize on the franchise by creating a movie about Supergirl.  The movie starred a pretty young blond named Helen Slater, and included some big-name stars, such as Peter O'Toole.  Given the cast and the production team, one would expect good things from such a movie, and I went to the theater eagerly with my friend +Stuart Johnson the week it came out.  By now, after a couple of years collecting her title and reading about her in LSH, Supergirl was probably my favorite female comic-book character (although there were lots of male characters, like Batman, whom I still liked better).

Unfortunately, the Supergirl movie was a disaster.  The only two good things that can be said about it are (1) that Jerry Goldsmith's score was excellent, making the music sound enough like John Williams' Superman score to recall it, while still making it sound somehow "feminine"; and (2) that Helen Slater perfectly looked the part of Supergirl, and played her creditably well.  The rest of the movie, however, was a train wreck.  Apparently they could not get Christopher Reeve to reprise his role as Superman, so that character never appeared (except in a poster hanging on the wall of Linda's school).  Supergirl starts out in Argo City, but the nature of that city is never explained.  When she arrives on Earth, she explains to her new friends that she is Superman's cousin, but the audience is not told how Kara even knows who he is.  She magically speaks English, and knows human traditions without having to be taught.  But worse than all that, the villains and their goals are just silly.  Once again we have a plot like something out of the campy 1960s Batman TV show.

There have been a lot of superhero movies over the years, and far more of them have been bad than good.  Among this morass of creative sewage, the Supergirl movie sadly bears the distinction of being just about the absolute worst superhero film ever made.  And therefore, unsurprisingly, just like the first two comic-book series bearing her name, the Supergirl movie was a complete flop.

The death of Supergirl

Our story has now reached the middle of the 1980s, and probably the single most significant comic-book series ever printed by +DC Comics -- the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  This was a story in which DC decided to "clean up" its nearly 50-year-long continuity.  Before the Crisis series, there were "infinite" alternative realities.  Whenever a story happened that DC didn't like or wanted to "edit," they would declare it had happened on "Earth-17" or something, and wipe it out of their continuity.  But then the writers would go back and farm that content, and eventually characters started crossing over from one Earth into another, and the stories became very messy.  As part of the Crisis, the editorial decision was made to "reboot" most characters, and to kill off some of the most important characters in the DC universe.  Among the characters +DC Comics decided to execute, the most prominent, and the one they thought would most shock the readers, was Supergirl.

And so, in the now-famous (or infamous) Crisis #7, as all the supeheroes from a dozen different earths battle against the negative-energy monsters of the "anti-earth" universe -- monsters powerful enough to hurt even Kryptonians -- Supergirl meets her untimely demise.  The event was, at least, done well. Penned by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez, two of DC's best creative minds at the time, Supergirl hears the Anti-Monitor, the most powerful uber-villain ever to grace the pages of any DC comic, killing Superman.  She knows if he can kill Superman, the Anti-Monitor could kill her too, but she doesn't hesitate, because, as Wolfman narrates, "Supergirl is a hero."  She flies to Superman's side and starts pounding the Jim-dandy out of the Anti-Monitor. In fact, she gets him onto the ropes, almost has him beaten. But then she turns and yells at the other heroes to get Superman out of there. And in that moment, when her back is turned, the Anti-Monitor strikes with a killing blow, and slays her.

The death of Supergirl is one of the better-done death scenes in the history of comics.  Her death is meaningful and heroic, rather than simply tragic.  She dies as she lived -- a hero, a young woman who sacrificed her own safety time and time again to help others, usually people she didn't even know, from a planet that was utterly alien to her.  Make no mistake about it -- I hated that they killed her off.  But I've never been able to find any fault with how they did it.  Supergirl's death scene was worthy of her in a way few comic-book death scenes are (sadly, they are usually blatant sales ploys).  And so after 26 years and hundreds of stories, including two short-lived comic series and a movie, the tale of Kara Zor-El, the original Supergirl, came to an end.

Why Supergirl was killed

At this point in the story, we have come to the end of the first chapter of the Supergirl saga.  This character, the original Supergirl, Kara Zor-El of Argo City, daughter of Zor-El and Alura, niece of Jor-El, cousin of Kal-El/Superman, who first appeared in Action Comics #252, made her final appearance in Crisis #7.  Before concluding, it's valuable to ask ourselves just exactly why she was killed. What made the creative team on Crisis decide to kill her off, and why did the editorial staff at +DC Comics agree to it?

There are really two factors that contributed to the death of Supergirl: all the flops with her name on them, and her Kryptonian origins.   Of these two, I maintain that it was the repeated nose-dives taken by anything with Kara's name on it that really did her in.  If she'd been a popular character who out-sold Superman and Batman combined, +DC Comics would have kept her around. But because her titles (and even movie) always flopped, that lack of success made her vulnerable to the second (much more arbitrary) argument about her Kryptonian heritage.  Let's look at these two arguments separately.

As we've seen above, since 1972, anything with the name "Supergirl" in the title turned out to be a lead balloon in terms of sales.  The original Supergirl series sold so poorly that they canceled it after 10 issues, and never let her headline anything again for nearly 10 years.  Then, when DC gave her a second chance, the second Supergirl series flopped in just a few months longer (after 23 issues).  Kara now had two strikes against her. The third strike came the same year in which her second title was canceled, in the form of the Supergirl movie.  Here was a title created by the same people who made block-buster successes out of Superman, and they couldn't give away tickets to Supergirl.  Two comic series and a movie with Supergirl's name on them, and three straight bombs. The conclusion DC comics reached seems to have been that Supergirl isn't very well liked by the fans. After all, if people liked her, these things would have sold.

The flops, and the conclusion that Supergirl was unpopular, left her vulnerable a few months later when Marv Wolfman suggested killing her off.  Surely the editors at DC must have said to each other, "Well, she's not that popular anyway, since anything with her name on it bombs, so it's probably safe to kill her off." Indeed, I bet DC thought they had in her the perfect kill-off character -- one so "big" and important to the DC Universe that no fan would ever believe they could kill her, yet unpopular enough that they didn't have to worry about a huge fan backlash when she died.

But there was also another reason -- the very aspects that gave her powers, that made Kara into Supergirl, had become a problem for DC.  The editorial thinking at the time had shifted.  Rather than having a Superman "family" (Supergirl, Superboy, Superman, Krypto the Wonder Dog, and so forth), DC decided that Superman must be the one and only survivor, the true last son of Krypton (and no last daughters). DC often stated that Superman was the "most powerful" of all heroes in the DC Universe, but this was not true after 1959, because Supergirl was identical to him in power in every single way.  Superman and Supergirl were tied as equally powerful, and DC didn't want that status to continue.  There was no (believable) way for them to make her weaker than Superman, so they needed to get rid of her -- to erase her from the universe.

The Crisis proved to be the perfect venue at the perfect time.  DC wanted Superman to be the last and only survivor of Krypton, so they needed to get rid of Supergirl.  The Crisis writer wanted to kill her off. And as an added bonus, the conclusion of the Crisis was a time-traveling event that ended up rebooting the entire continuity, and letting DC re-tell every single origin.  Not only did Supergirl die in the Crisis, but by the time it was over, in the DC universe, she had never existed.

DC must have thought this was the perfect solution. They killed off an important but (as far as they knew) unpopular character, one that had been troublesome for their continuity for years, and then erased her from the continuity, and made the (at the time "permanent") editorial decision that there would never, ever, be any other survivors of Krypton besides Superman. Thus, not only was she gone, but she would never be brought back to the DC Universe.

Aftermath and reader backlash

DC's "perfect solution" turned out not to be so perfect, however.  In a turn of events that completely shocked +DC Comics and caused a backlash that went on for almost 20 years, of all the characters DC killed or erased during their Crisis event, the one who received the largest groundswell of support and the loudest protest of anger was the one DC had thought was the most unpopular: Supergirl.  To be sure, lots of people were unhappy with the death of Barry Allen, and his replacement as the Flash by Wally West.  And plenty of folks were displeased with the disappearance of whole alternate realities from the DC continuity.  But the backlash against all these things paled in comparison to the vitriolic response to not just the death of Supergirl, but her complete and (at the time) permanent erasure from the continuity.  From almost the moment Crisis #7 was published, and for two decades thereafter, DC kept hearing from a large, determined group of fans in letters, at conventions, and eventually by e-mail: Bring back Kara.

To say that this backlash surprised the editors at DC is probably a wild understatement.  I'm guessing they were flabbergasted.  Surely they looked at each other in confusion and said, "Where were all these Supergirl fans when her comics were being published? Where were they when the movie came out?"  Unfortunately, DC had made the understandable, but gargantuan, mistake of equating the sales of products titled "Supergirl" with the popularity of the character.  It's a reasonable conclusion to draw -- that her books and movie tanked because people didn't like her.  After all, the constant among all of them is the character - Supergirl.

What DC missed, however, was the other constant -- that the quality of the products they were putting out under Supergirl's name was inferior.  The Supergirl comics were below average compared to other titles being published at the time (see, for comparison, Supergirl vol, 2, no. 1-5, and LSH #290-294, which were published more or less concurrently).  Similarly, by any standard, the Supergirl movie was vastly inferior to the first two Superman movies, and somewhat inferior to the third.  Thus, the one constant that was driving all things Supergirl to flop wasn't Kara -- it was the fact that the products weren't any good. (And I say this as one of the character Supergirl's biggest fans).  I mean think about it. I adored Supergirl (and I had the hots for Helen Slater on top of it) , and I could barely bring myself to sit in the theater for the entire movie.

In the end, it was DC's abuse of Supergirl that finally did her in.  By slapping her name on garbage and seeing that it didn't sell, DC got the mistaken impression that Supergirl didn't have very many fans, that it would be relatively "safe" to kill her off. Oh, sure, they knew some fans would get angry and complain. But they had no idea of the scale with which the backlash would occur. When it did, they were caught rather flat-footed.

And so the cry went up: "Bring back Kara!"  Every week, in their letter office. Every time they went to comic conventions. Every time the fans had any chance to say it, they said it loudly and clearly. We loved Supergirl, and we wanted her back.

For several years, DC resisted. Then, finally, in the 1990s, they tried to have their cake and eat it too. The strangest and most convoluted chapter of the Supergirl story was about to begin.

Next Article - Part 2  >>

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