Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Many Faces of Supergirl - Part 2: The Impostor

What has gone before

In the previous installment of this series, we reviewed the 26-year history of the original Supergirl, Kara Zor-El of Krypton.  Our story concluded with the death of Supergirl in 1985.  Before moving forward to discuss the second incarnation of Supergirl, let us briefly review why she was killed.

+DC Comics had killed off Supergirl for two main reasons: (1) her products didn't sell, and (2) they wanted Superman to be the only survivor of the planet Krypton.  Thus, they removed from their continuity a character they didn't want around for editorial reasons, and one they thought didn't have much of a fan-base anyway.

However, +DC Comics wildly under-estimated Supergirl's popularity.  Her products may not have sold, but many comic-book fans liked her, and after she was first killed off and then wiped from the history of the DC Universe, the fans began demanding her return.

The "Last Son of Krypton" Policy

The higher-ups at DC refused to budge on what I will call their "Last Son of Krypton" policy -- the iron-clad company-wide directive that Superman must be the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Thus +DC Comics was faced with a conundrum: how could they please the fans by bringing back Supergirl, while still adhering to the "Last Son of Krypton" policy?  Their solution was a create something that would look and act like Supergirl, but not be Kal-El's cousin, or of Kryptonian descent. Thus, DC created a character who they hoped would meet both demands - give "Supergirl" back to the fans who demanded her, while allowing DC to retain the "Last Son of Krypton" policy.

The arrival of "Matrix Supergirl"

The "new" Supergirl began by guest-starring in comic-book titles headlined by Superman, such as Action Comics and Adventures of Superman.  Although, because of the "Last Son of Krypton" policy at DC, she could not be a survivor of Krypton, +DC Comics still wanted her to have the appearance of Supergirl, most of the familiar powers of Supergirl, and a background like Supergirl's.  To that end, they made her an alien, and a survivor of a doomed planet. However, there were also many differences between the new one and the original.

Significantly, the new Supergirl was an artificial being.  She had been manufactured by the members of an alien civilization in an alternate reality. (If you're saying to yourself, "Wait! I thought with the Crisis that DC had gotten rid of alternate realities!" give yourself a bonus point - you've noticed how arbitrary some of these creative decisions are.)  She was given the ability to take a "female Superman" form to appeal to Superman, and enlist his aid in stopping villains from destroying her world.  The shape-shifting creature was called "The Matrix," but because it tended to adopt the form of a female in a Superman outfit, Superman and the other heroes took to calling it "Supergirl." 

Superman and the Matrix returned to her world to fight the villains, but they couldn't save her planet.  In the end, a very wounded Matrix, which had reverted to an almost shapeless mass of clay, was returned to Earth by Superman, and he took her to live with Ma and Pa Kent.  The Kents nursed her back to health, calling her "Mae," and treating her like a niece, and once she was better, the Matrix, once again resuming her "Supergirl" shape, returned to the world of superheroes.  From then on, she was always referred to as Supergirl (and rarely called "the Matrix").  Fans, however, to distinguish her from the original, from the Kara Zor-El version of Supergirl, often referred to this version as "Matrix Supergirl."

Supergirl volume 3 - the Mini-series

Throughout her many guest appearances in the DC Universe, one of the interesting wrinkles in Matrix Supergirl's story was her love affair with Lex Luthor.  Over many years in the Superman comics, Lex Luthor had died, and been replaced by a man claiming to be his son, "Alexander" Luthor.  In later stories it would be revealed that this was really a clone of the original Lex Luthor, but during Supergirl's early appearances, this young, vital Lex Luthor had tricked Supergirl into thinking he was a decent guy, and she had fallen in love with him. Thus, in late 1993/early 1994, when +DC Comics put out a 4-issue mini-series titled Supergirl -- which would be the first publication with her name in the title to appear in nearly a decade -- Supergirl begins as the girlfriend of Lex Luthor.

The 1994 mini-series, penned by Roger Stern and drawn by June Brigman and Jackson Guice, was clearly designed to dispel confusion about Supergirl and gather her story into one place. So many different writers had told so many different, fragmented stories about Supergirl up to that point, that most readers were confused about exactly what her powers were, and where she came from.  In the first two issues, Stern uses the device of having Lexcorp's scientists study Supergirl, to present all the information he can to the reader and help them to "get" this new Supergirl.

 In these issues, it is revealed that most of her powers are "psychokinetic" -- that is, they arise not from her physical body (like Superman's) but from the powers of her bio-engineered mind.  Supergirl's "invulnerability," for example, is caused by an invisible, mentally constructed (psychokinetic) force field.  Her ability to manipulate her matter to shape-shift is also mental, as are most of her other powers.

Later in the mini-series, Supergirl learns that Lex has been cloning her, and trying to create an "army of Supergirls."

 In a story eerily similar to a plot line in The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl #9-12, Matrix Supergirl destroys the lab, and wipes out the clones, but also comes to realize that Lex is the "bad guy" everyone's been saying he is.  As the series concludes in issue #4, Supergirl turns against Lexcorp, leaves Lex, and strikes off on her own.

Over the next two and a half years, Matrix Supergirl would continue to appear in Superman, Action Comics, and related titles, and would also make appearances in the 1995 edition of DC's Showcase series.  The character's appearances were generally successful, and the audience seemed to have accepted her as Kara Zor-El's replacement.  Thus, in 1996, +DC Comics decided to once again launch an ongoing series with the name Supergirl, hoping that the third time would finally be the charm.

Supergirl volume 4 by Peter David

To write the new stories for Supergirl, +DC Comics turned to acclaimed writer Peter David.  In summer of 1996, David's first Supergirl story hit the stands, and it sent shock-waves through the community of Supergirl fans, because the story starred, primarily, not Matrix Supergirl but a young woman who was the spitting image of the original Supergirl's secret identity, and even shared her name -- Linda Danvers. Peter David's Supergirl series ran for a long time -- 80 issues -- so I will divide my summary into four sections to make it more manageable.

Issues #1-20 - New identity, new powers.

In the two-part re-introduction of Supergirl, called "Body and Soul," we learn that Linda Danvers was a young college drop-out who liked sculpting, and who idolized Supergirl (even sculpted statues of her), but had fallen in with a bad crowd.  She fought with her parents frequently.  She ended up captured by a group of cultists who tried to sacrifice her to summon a demon.

In the meantime, Linda's parents had contacted Matrix Supergirl, and begged her for help.  Supergirl arrived too late, however. Although she stopped the occult ceremony from succeeding, Linda was dealt a mortal wound.  Supergirl, the artificial being, held Linda as she died, and the two of them merged into one being.  The resulting person was part Linda Danvers, the human, and part Supergirl, the alien super-being.

As the series progresses, the two consciousnesses, Linda's and the Matrix's, slowly merge to become one. Little by little the character starts thinking of itself as a single person rather than two different people.  In the early issues (#1-9), Supergirl must deal with the leftover trauma of Linda's troubled life. This culminates with her confronting and defeating Buzz, the demon-like being who had tried to kill Linda in the first issue.  As Buzz is defeated, he hints at larger things awaiting Supergirl, referring to her as an "angel."

This angel motif continues through the next 11 issues, as Supergirl is increasingly referred to as "the blue angel." She is told she is one of three "earth-born angels." She begins to develop new powers, including occasionally sprouting wings of fire, and shooting flames out of her eyes.  And she repeatedly encounters a boy called "Wally," who claims to be God.  By issue 20, Supergirl's angel powers have become a major element of the series, but we still really don't have an explanation about what is going on.

Issues #21-40 - The Chosen Ones

As the series progresses through the 20s, Peter David continues to develop the "blue angel" theme of Supergirl. Her fire wings and flame vision continue to sprout throughout the stories, and "Wally the God boy" continues to dog Linda/Supergirl's footsteps.  In fact, Supergirl is finally reconciled to her mother thanks to Wally's assistance.  Throughout the 20s, she also continues to interact and flirt with Comet.  Along the way we learn more about earth-born angels. We've known for a while that there are three "chosen ones" on earth, and Supergirl is one of them.  Now we find out that Comet is one of the others, and that like Supergirl, Comet is a combined being -- part Zed-One, the horse-like superbeing, and part Andy, reporter Cutter's ex-wife.  This sets up an interesting conflict for Supergirl, who was attracted to the male side of the character (Comet) but has no romantic interest in other women.

In the early 30s, the old protoplasmic material that "washed off" of Linda/Supergirl in the very first issue, has reconstituted itself as "The Matrix" and returned to take revenge on Supergirl for getting rid of it. Superman joins the battle to help free Supergirl from the Matrix remnant, which is then cleaned up by Atlas Corporation and taken back to their base.  Throughout the rest of the 30s, then, Supergirl faces increasingly difficult challenges, and a mysterious man with glasses starts observing her.  His mission is to make the blue angel (Supergirl) fall from grace.

Issues #41-60 - Redemption

In issues 41-50, Supergirl struggles to avoid "falling" to temptations as a "Church of Supergirl" develops (run by a scam artist) and she struggles against the other Earth-born Angels (Comet and Blithe), both of whom have fallen under the control of "the Carnivore" (the man with glasses).  The last straw for Supergirl is the death of her boyfriend, Dick Malverne, after which she lashes out at those she believes are responsible.  Believing she has finally "fallen" as predicted, she surrenders and allows the Carnivore to capture her.  With the three Earth-born angels under his control, he takes over heaven.  Supergirl, however, is then contacted by her angelic form, who tells her that all is not lost. Calling herself the Archangel Kara (!), the angelic part of Supergirl encourages her to team up with the other angels and fight the Carnivore.  At the end the Carnivore is defeated, but Supergirl's angelic essence is released.  As Issue 50 concludes, Linda Danvers is back to "normal" (although she has some residual super-powers).

For the next 25 issues, Linda goes on a journey of discovery, seeking to "find" where Supergirl has gone.  She leaves Leesburg behind, causing most of the wonderful supporting cast to vanish from the series (unfortunately), taking only Buzz, former demon now turned mortal guide, with her.  Since Linda no longer can shape-shift and ordinarily has brown hair, she has to don a wig and a suit from a costume shop to appear as Supergirl.  This change in look constituted the first "new look" for Supergirl in almost 20 years.

Issues #61-80 - The Quest for Supergirl

The Quest for Supergirl, which began in issue #51, continued for 25 total issues, finally concluding on issue #74.  Throughout the 60s and early 70s, the de-powered Linda/Supergirl continues to struggle with having less powers than usual, and continues to search along the chaos stream to find her angel/matrix half.  She travels around the country, from Gotham to Vegas.  Her steps become dogged by a "demon mother" who turns out to be Lilith (Adam's mythical "first wife" before Eve).  Lilith wants revenge on Supergirl for destroying her son, the Carnivore, in issue #50, and wants to use Linda to bring him back.  With the help of Mary Marvel and (ultimately) Buzz, Linda stops Lilith's plot, and once again finds the blue angel. This time, however, she decides she no longer wants to be merged to an angel, and the angel instead combines with Twilight.  Linda gets her old Supergirl (Matrix) powers back and returns to Leesburg.

The final story arc in this sequence includes the temporary return of Kara Zor-El to the DC universe.  In issue #75, Kara, the original Supergirl, crashes to Earth as she did in 1959, but this time, she's found by Linda/Supergirl instead of Superman.  Kara, who is about 15 years old, ends up staying at Linda's house, and enrolling in Leesburg High, while Linda takes over as a substitute art teacher.  During the process, a villain named Xenon appears, who has a vendetta against all Supergirls from every dimension.   The Spectre explains that one of Xenon's minions diverted the original Kara Zor-El from her pre-Crisis timeline to this one... meaning there was no one to die for Superman during the Crisis.  As issue #78 ends, Linda leaves Kara behind on earth and takes her place in the pre-Crisis timeline.

In the end, however, history cannot be thwarted, and each Supergirl must return to her own timeline.  This of course means that the original still dies in the Crisis, and Linda goes back to Leesburg, where she shows up just in time to see her new baby brother being born.  At the end, however, Linda decides to hang up her Supergirl identity, and fades off into the sunset.  This is where the series ends, on issue 80.


We've now reached the end of Matrix Supergirl's story.  After almost 20 years and well over 100 comic-book appearances, Matrix Supergirl was written out of the DC continuity. Below, I will speculate on the whys and wherefores of what happened during the 20-year "interregnum" in which Kara Zor-El was not allowed to exist.

Why the fans never really accepted Matrix Supergirl

Most Supergirl fans never really accepted Matrix Supergirl, and always treated her as an impostor, because the fans had never accepted (indeed, many did not know about) the "Last Son of Krypton" policy.  Because the fans didn't see any reason why there couldn't be another Kryptonian, they also never saw any reason why there needed to be a Supergirl who was so close in so many ways to the original, but had these annoying, inexplicable differences in both her powers and her origin.  After all, many fans would reason, DC rebooted everything else after the Crisis -- why not bring the original Supergirl back to earth too?

Additionally, many fans didn't accept Matrix Supergirl simply because she was not Kara Zor-El.  To DC, as long as this girl looked like Supergirl and had powers like Supergirl, it shouldn't make a difference that she wasn't the cousin of Kal-El. But to Supergirl fans, Kara Zor-El and Supergirl are one character, and are inseparable.  Therefore, as good as Peter David's stories were, as terrific a job as he did with the character under the constraints laid on him by the editors, there was simply no way the fans could ever see the Matrix as anything but an impostor.

Why DC was so stubborn

The most puzzling element of this story (which went on for nearly 20 years, from Kara Zor-El's death in 1985 until the end of David's Supergirl series in 2003) was the blinding obstinacy of the DC higher-ups regarding their "Last Son of Krypton" policy.  Looking back, one wonders why they didn't realize they'd made a mistake earlier, and work to correct it sooner.  Because we can be sure it was a mistake, and that DC did eventually realize it -- by 2004, they had brought Kara Zor-El back to the DC Universe.  But why on Krypton did it take them so long?

The only explanation that fits is hubris.  The higher-ups at +DC Comics had chosen an iron-clad "Last Son of Krypton" policy, and they refused to admit that it was wrong-headed.  Their fans told them they were wrong.  I'm fairly sure their popular and brilliant writers like Peter David told them they were wrong. But the editors ignored everyone who said Kara Zor-El should come back, and stuck like captains to the sinking-ship "Last sone of Krypton" policy.

Thus, overweening pride is the only credible reason why DC would have wasted 15+ years trying to make the Matrix Supergirl idea -- one so obviously over-complicated -- work.  Any reasonable person should have been able to see that, if they were going to have a "Supergirl," the simplest, easiest, and most straightforward origin for her would be as Superman's cousin.

But DC's leadership refused to admit that the Matrix was a mistake. Like the gambler with a bad draw who refuses to cut his losses and fold before it's too late, DC decided to put all their chips down on a hand they couldn't win.  This stubborn pride is the only way to explain why they brought out the Matrix Supergirl in the first place, and why they stuck with the idea for more than 15 years despite the plentiful evidence that it was not working, and could never work.

Why DC finally relented 

DC's editors rarely give anyone insight into the inner workings of their decisions, and never admit to making a mistake, so we'll probably never know for sure exactly why they finally decided to relent and give the fans what we'd been demanding for 20 years.  However, a confluence of two events probably did the most in terms of returning Kara Zor-El to the DC universe as Supergirl.

The first event was the appearance of a character much like the original Supergirl, in the DC Animated Universe. Starting in the Superman cartoon episode Little Girl Lost, Kara In-Ze, who was from a Kryptonian population on another doomed planet (the planet, rather than the city, Argo), took on the role of Supergirl and appeared regularly in DC cartoons.  Although she was not Kal-El's biological cousin, this girl was (biologically) a Kryptonian, had Superman's powers, and was much closer to the original Kara Zor-El than was the Matrix.  (Given that the cartoon universe creators had realized this was a better way to go, one wonders why it took the comic-book creators so long to figure it out, but I digress.)

The cartoon character developed quite a following, but that audience could not easily be captured by the Supergirl comic-book because the Matrix Supergirl was a different, complicated, confusing character.  Thus, DC was unable to capitalize on the success of the cartoon as long as Matrix Supergirl remained in place.  Apparently, someone in the upper levels of DC seems to have realized that they needed the comic-book version to be more similar to the cartoon version, and this may have helped return Kara to the printed page.

The second event was a slow changing of the guard.  By 2003-2004, there had been an almost total turnover in the DC front offices.  The people now at the reins had not made the "Last Son of Krypton" policy, and therefore were not invested in it.  They'd also watched for 5+ years as the cartoon Kara had worked out just fine.  Without the prideful obstinacy that comes with being the owner of the bad idea, the new leadership at DC was more willing to throw the old, clearly unworkable, idea over-board, and allow a reintroduction of the Kara character.  Thus, in 2004, Superman's cousin Kara finally returned to the print universe of DC comics.  After 20 years, the long, dark night without Kara Zor-El was finally over.

Or was it?

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