Friday, August 9, 2013

The Many Faces of Supergirl - Part 3: Kara Zor-El Returns

What has gone before

In the first installment of this article series, we examined the origin, history, and death of the original Supergirl, Kara Zor-El of Krypton.  In the second installment, we explored the origin, history, and disappearance of her post-Crisis replacement, the so-called Matrix Supergirl.  That character, a shape-shifting alien from another dimension who had merged with human Linda Danvers, hung up her superhero identity at the end of her 80-issue series, and vanished from the DC Universe in 2003.  For about a year, there was no Supergirl character active in the DC pantheon.

Superman/Batman 8-13: Kara Zor-El Returns

By 2004, it had been 19 years since Superman had a cousin in the DC Universe.  For most of that time, the role of "Supergirl" had been filled by a shape-shifting non-Kryptonian.  But now, DC exec Dan Didio and writer Jeff Loeb decided to return Superman's cousin to the DC canon.  This character would once again be biologically related to Superman, and, as a Kryptonian, would have all the same powers he does.  The "Last Son of Kyrpton" policy was finally put to rest.

Kara Zor-El first made her re-appearance in the DC Universe in the popular series Superman/Batman. In Superman/Batman 8, a meteorite crashes into the Gotham City bay, and Batman goes to investigate.  He finds not just a meteorite, but a spaceship with Kryptonian writing on the side.  A young blonde woman emerges with tremendous powers, speaking only Kryptonian.

Superman and Batman calm the woman down and bring her to the fortress of solitude.  She says she is Kara Zor-El of Krypton, and based on her story, she is Superman's cousin.  Supposedly she is older than he is, having left Krypton as a teenager at the same time Kal-El left it as a baby, but for some reason, her ship took much longer to get to earth. As the story progresses, Kara learns English in the Fortress of Solitude, and combat from the Amazons on Paradise Island.  Eventually Darkseid sends his minions to capture Kara.

Superman, of course, will not allow his new cousin to remain in Darkseid's possession, so he, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Big Barda (an ex-Apokoliptian) travel to Apokolips to free Kara. Together, the team defeats Darkseid and brings Kara back to earth. Superman brings Kara to Smallville to meet his adoptive parents, but then Darkseid shows up and tries to kill Kara.  Superman, angry with Darkseid, punches the dark god into space, all the way to The Source, and traps Darkseid there.  When he returns, he gives Kara a choice: she can decide to be a hero, or not.  She chooses to become a hero. Superman gathers the heroes of the world together, and they announce that Kara will now be known as Supergirl.

Supergirl Flies Again

Starting in 2005, Kara Zor-El once again began to appear in the DC Universe as Supergirl.  She was given her own title to headline - Supergirl (aka. volume 5 or series 4), and she also headlined a second title -- DC changed the LSH series name to Supergirl and the Legion of Super-heroes for about two years.  Because she was concurrently appearing in two titles set centuries apart, there is no easy way to present this character's history.  The LSH stories were published concurrently with the earliest Supergirl story arcs, but the LSH stories take place 1,000 years after the events of Supergirl. Therefore, I will present those storlines last, in chronological, rather than in publication order.

Supergirl story arc 1: Power

The first story arc of Supergirl began in Superman/Batman 19 (later re-printed as Supergirl 0), and then continued in the fourth full Supergirl series, issues 1-5.  The story arc bears the title "Power."

In this initial story arc, a mysterious man watches and tests Kara, trying to discover her power levels.  Supergirl rescues Air Force One from a disaster manufactured by the mystery watcher, then battles Clay-face in Gotham City.  Supergirl blunders into awkward meetings with many heroes in the DC Universe.  We learn that several heroes, especially Powergirl, have noticed that their powers are malfunctioning since Supergirl arrived on earth.  Meanwhile, the mystery man is revealed to be Lex Luthor, who lures Supergirl out into the desert, where he uses first green, then red, then black Kryptonite on her.  The black Kryptonite causes Supergirl to appear to split in two, with a black-clad "evil" Supergirl breaking off from her.

As the story concludes, the two Supergirls - evil and good - battle each other across the moon and the surface of the earth.  Dark Supergirl claims that she was sent to earth by her father so she could kill Superman (because of some rather extreme sibling rivalry). In the end, Wonder Woman uses her lasso to bring forth the "true" Supergirl, which seems to be a melding of the two, with the "good" version in control.

Supergirl story arc 2: Candor

The second Supergirl story arc, called "Candor," takes place in a variety of issues across the DC line, collected in the trade paperback Supergirl: Candor.  Perhaps because the prologue stories are written in issues of four different series, presented by four different creative teams, the opening of the story comes off as disjointed.  Powergirl is shown reflecting on her past and wondering about her power malfunctions.  Supergirl is shown working with the Justice League and Superman, and then being summoned by a reincarnated Donna Troy (formerly Wonder Girl, then Troia, then killed) to go into space.

The main body of the Candor story is written by Greg Rucka and Joe Kelly. Supergirl and Power Girl are working in the bottle city of Kandor, which is a surviving Kryptonian city, shrunk down and preserved by the villain Braniac (don't ask).  At the start of the story, the two are already in Kandor, and no explanation is provided to the reader as to how they got there.  They disguise themselves as "Flamebird" and "Nightwing" and battle against an evil dictator who claims to be Kal-El (i.e., Superman).  Throughout the story, Kara has flashbacks of her father instructing her to murder Kal-El before he sent her to earth, and she becomes more and more violent.

As the story reaches its climax, Kara tries to kill the false Superman, but she stops abruptly when his mother gives her information about her home, Argo City.  Somehow, this causes both Supergirl and Power Girl to immediately teleport back to earth, where they argue about whether they should have stayed in Kandor or not. The story wraps up with a series of disjointed vignettes, some "happening now" and some in flashback, about Kara's choice of whether to continue being a superhero or not.

I'm trying not to editorialize too much in these summaries, but I am unable to resist for this one. The "Candor" story is a disjointed, incomprehensible mess, perhaps because it had five different writers and a host of artists, and it was tied into the Infinite Crisis story happening throughout the DC universe. Nothing is explained, nothing is resolved, and the reader is left hanging over and over again.  Thus, this story arc ended up being the poorest one of the series.

Supergirl story arc 3: Identity

The third Supergirl story arc begins with Supergirl attempting to assume a secret identity and blend in, attending a local high school, but it quickly implodes as the mean girls in the school play a nasty trick on Supergirl.  As the arc continues, Joe Kelly portrays Kara as isolated, unhappy, and entirely uninterested in having powers or being a hero.  After her unsuccessful attempts at both a secret identity and just not being a hero at all, Supergirl joins up with the Outsiders.  She teams up with Grace to infiltrate a group of super-powered pirates, and meets a new hero, Power Boy.  Kara tries to have a "date" with Power Boy, only to be attacked by villains.

Supergirl has another a romantic interlude with Power Boy. However, when she turns away from him to see how her friend Boomer is doing, Power Boy loses it and attacks her.  They end up in a huge battle, and Kara learns that Power Boy is actually from Apokolips. Supergirl grabs his "father box" and it starts to self-destruct.  She throws it into the sun, and it explodes.  Then she is consumed by memories, and we finally see what happened on Krypton.

Jor-El, by sending Kryptonian prisoners to the Phantom Zone, was letting evil spirits out. These spirits possessed and corrupted Krypton's populace, and may have been responsible for the planet's destruction. Zor-El tried to stop them from using the Phantom Zone but no one would listen.  He heard that Jor-El was sending baby Kal-El to earth. This could have delivered phantoms to earth. Therefore he sent Kara after him, to kill him and stop the phantoms once and for all.

However, as the story concludes, we learn that much of what Kara has witnessed was manufactured by a character called "Dark Angel," who is a servant of the Monitor.  The Monitor has been tracking Supergirl, not sure if she is supposed to be in the universe or not.  He decides that she belongs where she is, and Kara's world returns to (more-or-less) normal.  She then flies around the world apologizing to the people to whom she's been such a jerk for most of the story arc.

Supergirl story arc 4: Beyond Good and Evil

Writer Kelly Pucket, now the fifth scribe for Supergirl, takes over for the fourth story arc. Superman and the Green Lantern Corps show up to enlist Supergirl's aid. The world is being attacked by an alien army, and they need Supergirl to track one of the ships back to its source.  She tries to do this but is unsuccessful.  Superman finally succeeds instead, with the help of the Lanterns. Along with opening a portal to the invaders' alien world, the Lanterns are also able to open a portal in space-time back to the days before Krypton's death.  Supergirl and Superman witness their final days on Krypton, which brings Supergirl's memory back.

The return of her memories disturbs Kara, reopening the old wounds of loss and sadness.  While she tries to contemplate things in outer space, she is suddenly attacked by a nuclear-powered enemy.  They battle back and forth across the desert.  Finally Supergirl asks his name, and he calls himself Reactron.As the story arc concludes, Superman joins Supergirl in the fight against Reactron. Superman takes point, and asks Supergirl to save people from a damaged building.  She rescues a small boy, who says he doesn't want to die.  Thinking he means from the building, Supergirl tells him that he won't die. But after Reactron is defeated, she finds out he has stage 4 brain cancer, and he believes she meant that she would save him from the cancer.  She decides to try and cure his cancer.

Supergirl story arc 5: The Way of the World

Kelly Pucket continues the previous story arc's thread by having Supergirl search for a cancer cure for the sick little boy. She tries getting help from Resurrection Man, and even seems like she might have a solution (he dies and is reborn with healing powers) but is too late -- the little boy dies before she can get back to him. However, Kara refuses to accept Thomas' death.  She brings Resurrection Man to the hospital with the plan of injecting his blood into the dead kid, which might enable the kid to also be resurrected.  However, the injection doesn't work, and Thomas stays dead.  Supergirl promises to find a way to bring him back.  We glimpse a future, 50 years later, where she works to find a time-travel device. Acquiring it, she heads to the parents with the thought of letting them go back in time to see their son again, but the parents have also died. As the story arc ends, Supergirl comes to realize that it's time to move on with her life, to stop trying to change the world, and instead to just help the people in it as best she can.

Supergirl story arc 6: Who is Superwoman?

During the period of issues 34-52, the Supergirl series became involved in the giant mega-crossover from DC called "New Krypton."  The first Supergirl story in this mega-crossover, by writer Sterling Gates and artist Jamal Igle, begins with the newspapers calling Supergirl a "screw up" and Metropolitans acting like they don't want her around. Superman convinces her to adopt a secret identity, and she takes the name "Linda Lang," pretending to be the niece of Superman's old Smallville friend, Lana.

However, immediately after this occurs, Superman finds a way to enlarge the bottle-city of Kandor, and thousands of super-powered Kryptonians begin living on earth, including Kara's parents. No sooner is she reunited with them, than the villain Reactron returns, and murders Zor-El with gold Kryptonite.  Alura blames Kara for Zor-El's death, and becomes antagonistic toward humans. Eventually the city of Kandor is relocated to another world.  Meanwhile, a masked girl calling herself "Superwoman" shows up. At first she acts friendly toward Kara, but when Kara is sent back to earth by Alura to capture Reactron, Superwoman attacks her, and then ends up joining forces with Reactron. During one of their many battles, Supergirl tears off Superwoman's mask to reveal that she is actually Lucy Lane, Lois Lane's sister. As they fight, Supergirl realizes that the suit is giving Lucy Lane powers, so she rips it apart. Doing so, for reasons that are never explained in the story, causes the suit to explode, presumably killing Lucy Lane.

Supergirl story arc 7: Friends and Fugitives

In the second story arc by Gates, still part of the "New Krypton" crossover sequence, Supergirl has to choose to what Kryptonian guild she will belong. After much soul-searching, she selects the science guild, like her mother.  Because this arc is part of a larger crossover, the reader does not see what happens next, but is immediately dumped into a battle between Supergirl and her former friend Thara and Thara's boy-friend, Chris.  The three eventually come to a truce, realizing that they have been duped by the villain Reactron, but are forced to flee when Metropolis sends the Science Police after them.

At this point in the "New Krypton" crossover, the world hates aliens and especially Kryptonians.  Supergirl and her fellow Kryptonians have been framed for the death of Mon-El (not shown directly, having happened in a different part of the crossover) among other things, and every time they show their faces, the world's security forces attack them.  As Supergirl and the other Kryptonians fight an "anti-Kryptonian" special army, Cat Grant and Morgan Edge go on television to blame them for poisoning Metropolis and killing Mon-El.  Supergirl and her friends escape, and hole up at Lana's apartment, while Reactron is sent to find them by General Lane.

As the Kryptonians try to work with Lois to clear their name, the "anti-K" squad and Reactron comb Metropolis for them. This leads to the predictable battle, but the Kryptonians surrender to prove their innocence.  Reactron is not interested in surrenders, however, so he kills the "anti-K" squad who are attempting to be fair and impartial, and then turns his powers on Supergirl, Thara, and Chris.  The four battle, and eventually Reactron is defeated and captured, and brought to New Krypton for trial.

Supergirl story arc 8: Death and the Family

In this third story arc by Gates, Supergirl is back on earth, staying with Lana Lang again.  She once again blunders a rescue as she attempts to foil a bank robbery, only to end up accidentally revealing two Kryptonians who are in hiding on earth.  Later, Supergirl ends up encountering and battling the Silver Banshee, and eventually defeating her.  While Supergirl does this, Lana Lang ends up getting sick and going into the hospital. It turns out that she's infested by aliens, and she ends as a giant alien insect queen.  A "hive" appears in Metropolis, and Supergirl gets trapped inside. Gangbuster and Dr. Light break her out, and then together the three heroes go after the insects and battle them.  Supergirl and Dr. Light rip the alien out of Lana, and she returns to normal.

The final sequence in this story is a news piece debating the actions of Supergirl.  Her portrayal ends up being ambiguous, as a young girl who tries to do the right thing, is still learning, and makes some mistakes.  This seems to be Gates making an attempt to justify the portrayal of Kara as a completely incompetent hero for the first 50 issues of this series. It doesn't work very well, and the art is mediocre.

Supergirl story arc 9: Bizarrogirl
The final story arc by Gates begins with Dr. Light and Gangbuster discovering a Kryptonian-like craft in the park.  Out of it comes Bizarro Supergirl.  Jimmy Olsen manages to snap a shot of Bizarrogirl before being captured by her, and uploads it to the Daily Planet, where Lana Lang sees it. She tells Supergirl about it, and Supergirl and Bizarrogirl battle.  When Supergirl threatens to destroy Bizarrogirl's spaceship, Bizarrogirl turns her "opposite of X-ray vision" blast on Supergirl, turning the latter into a statue. Supergirl manages to break free by vibrating out at super-speed, Flash-style, and then teams up with Dr. Light to take down Bizarrogirl.  Supergirl decides to take Bizarrogirl back to her home planet.

Supergirl and Bizarrogirl return to Bizarro World, only to find it half-destroyed by an alien ship the Bizarros call the "Godship." Bizarro explains that he tried to stop it but it keeps sending out alien creatures to "eat" his people.  Supergirl heads out to inspect the ship, only to discover, in the most original plot twist ever written in comics, that it is not a ship, but a giant mega-alien.   Supergirl realizes that she can use Bizarrogirl's "solid vision" to encase the alien (like Supergirl was encased earlier).  The plan works -- the alien is stopped, and Bizarro World is saved. Supergirl then decides to return to earth.

Although this technically is the end of the B-Girl storyline, there are two more stories left for Gates, and these are collected in the trade paperback.  In the first story, Supergirl revisits the Legion of Superheroes. where she teams up with Brainiac 5 to stop Satan Girl from taking over the earth.  In the final 2-part story by Gates, Supergirl teams up with Cat Grant, with whom she normally does not get along, to save three children in Metropolis from the villain Toyman's crazy son.  As the story concludes, Cat writes an article stating that Supergirl isn't all that bad after all.  This serves as a book-end to Gates' run, which began with Cat writing an article about how the world didn't need Supergirl.

Supergirl story arc 10: Good Looking Corpse

James Peatty takes the reins for this second-to-last story arc in the series.  The story starts with four college friends - Alex, Justin, Elise, and David.  Alex has created an "app" for tracking superheroes.  Four powerful, classic Superman villains show up on a rooftop and start attacking Supergirl, apparently connected in some way to the app. As tough as they supposedly are, Supergirl puts them down quickly, but before she can get them off to prison, they vanish in a flash of light.  Meanwhile, "Alex" heads into a secret base and starts talking to his unseen "father" about his plans.  They send Clayface and Mr. Freeze after Robin.  Back in Metropolis, Lois Lane gives Kara a smartphone so she can monitor the app.  When Robin appears on the app, Supergirl zooms off to Gotham to help him. Together, they defeat Clayface and Mr. Freeze, who then both seem to turn into robots.

Eventually, Supergirl learns that the drones are powered by Kryptonian sunstones. Kara teams up with Robin. Miss Martian, and Blue Beetle to look for the author of the "Flyover" app. Alex holds Miss Martian on the Harvard campus.  Supergirl breaks in to try and save Miss Martian, but still under mind control, Miss Martian attacks.  Robin and Blue Beetle go in as backups and get swarmed by drones. Then Alex shows up.  Then he says he is a "designer Krptonian" and uses what appears to be heat vision on Kara, knocking her to the street.

Supergirl wakes up surrounded by Alex's "college friends."  Supergirl goes to one of the old drone bodies, and rips it apart, pulling out a Kryptonian sunstone.  She uses Lois' smartphone to zap the "three kids," who all turn out to be drones as well.  However, it draws "Alex" to her, and he proceeds to once again kick Supergirl's butt.  He grabs Kara by the neck and holds her up, revealing that he is "Dubbilex." Supergirl is then attacked by her friends at the mind-controlling orders of Alex/Dubbilex.  After Kara falls to the ground, Dubbilex leaves her to the ministries of Miss Martian, while he returns to his control center with the other two.  But then Supergirl follows. Dubbilex tries to mind-control her, but it doesn't work, because she's being shielded by Miss Martian, who has broken free of Dubbilex's control and turned the tables on him. She now has control of him, and prevents him from using his powers.   Kara gives him one more good belt, which takes him down for good.

Supergirl story arc 11: This is not my Life

The final story arc in this series begins with Supergirl rescuing a falling sky-tram that contains Lois Lane and a disturbed teenage girl named Charlize.  Unknown to Supergirl, Professor Ivo has been grabbing young people from Metropolis, and Charlize was one of their targets.  Lois discovers four other disappearances, all from Stanhope College. She convinces Supergirl to go undercover as "Linda Lane," for recruitment weekend. On campus, Linda meets Henry Flyte, president of the Silk Pajama Society. Henry tells her he has a way of predicting who will vanish, and that he is the next target.  He then walks through a doorway and disappears.

Supergirl, still disguised as Linda Lane, investigates the dark stairway down which Henry vanished, accompanied by the Silk Pajama Society.  They discover a dark sub-basement full of old computer equipment.  Deeper int the sub-basement, Henry is held prisoner by Ivo, who eventually stuffs him into a fluid-filled tube and leaves him to die. Stuck in her "Linda" identity, Supergirl has to use her brains and her super-speed, along with a little trickery, to protect her friends without them realizing she has super-powers.  She gets the students to help her pile furniture against the exit to prevent Ivo's robot rats from entering the sub-basement, but this traps them inside.  Linda offers to go into the water and try to find the way out.  She comes up on the other side, face-to-face with Profssor Ivo.

Supergirl battles Professor Ivo and his drone while the Silk Pajama Society tries to figure a way out of the sub-basement.  As Ivo's robots capture Supergirl, the SPS team creates a makeshift pump and makeshift stun-tasers from the junk in the basement. When they've pumped out enough water, they head through the sewer system, arriving in time to blast the drones surrounding Supergirl.  Chris, who is also a whiz with electronics, hacks into Ivo's computer and aborts Ivo's program.  Then Supergirl blasts out of her bonds using heat vision, chases Ivo down, and captures him.  As the story concludes, Supergirl returns to Stanhope as Linda to share a kiss with Henry.

Supergirl/Legion story arc 1: Strange Visitor

In the 31st century, the Legion of Super-Heroes, recently endorsed by Earthgov and the United Planets, has been alerted to a powerful missile-like object heading toward earth.  The entire Legion tries to stop it, but only succeeds in slowing it down.  Then, zooming in to save the day, Supergirl appears.  She smashes the missile, saving 31st-century Metropolis, and the Legionnaires, being big fans of the heroes in our time, immediately recognize her. Supergirl thinks she's dreaming the whole thing, and the Legionnaires are not entirely sure she's who she says she is.  But eventually she asks to become a member of the Legion, and they accept her.

Supergirl/Legion story arc 2: Adult education

Supergirl remains in the 31st century, working with the Legion while at the same time causing them concern, because she continues to believe that she is dreaming everything, including them.  As the Legion continues to face an increasing threat from a mysterious group that seems almost like a mirror version of themselves, several of the members finally take Supergirl to the re-enlarged city of Kandor, which is now on a planet with a red sun.  They finally convince her that the events around her are real, and not a dream, and the Kandorians attempt to keep her there permanently.  However, Cosmic Boy invites her back to the Legion, and she re-joins them.  Together with the Legion, she continues to battle against their counter-parts, who we learn are called "the Wanderers."  The leader turns out to be Lightning Lad's brother, Mekt (who in previous incarnations of LSH used to be called "Lightning Lord").  Meanwhile, Braniac 5 frees Mon-El from the Phantom Zone, which has all been part of Mekt's plan.  Mekt then reveals that the Dominators, an alien race who have threatened earth before (in the 20th century), are out to do so again, and he's trying to stop it.

Supergirl/Legion story arc 3: Dominator War

In the third of Supergirl's four story arcs with the Legion, all-out war breaks out between Earth and the Dominators.  Mekt Ranzz, leader of the Wanderers, claims that there is going to be an "A.I." attack in Tokyo, and Supergirl, Ultra Boy, and others are sent to investigate.  A giant robot emerges, which proves to be easily defeated. However, upon destruction, it spews out a massive cloud of nano-particles that contain an A.I. virus. In short order, the entire planet Earth has lost all A.I. and computer power, as the virus takes hold.  Other planets seal off the Earth, refusing to accept transmatter portals for fear of infection by the A.I. virus.  The Dominators invade earth, scattering the Legion and the Wanderers and taking control.  However, the captured Cosmic Boy and Triplicate Girl trick the Dominators into opening a transmatter portal to their homeworld just long enough for Supergirl, Mon-El, and Ultra Boy to fly there and start an attack.  The Legion defeats the Dominators on their world, and Mon-El uses a special device created by Brainy to suck the entire Dominator homeworld into the Phantom Zone (re-trapping himself in the process).  As the clean-up begins, Supergirl finally starts searching for a way to return to her own time.

Supergirl/Legion story arc 4: Quest for Cosmic Boy

Suprgirl's final story arc in the 31st century starts with a bang, as she is elected leader of the Legion and sends three teams in search of the missing Cosmic Boy.  Unfortunately, after about the first 10 pages, we hardly see her again until the end of the arc. It's fairly clear that Tony Bedard, the new writer, had no interest in retaining Supergirl as a major Legion character.

Bedard also seems to have decided he didn't like Mark Waid's direction in the earlier arcs, and by the end, Brainy's machinations, rather than leading to the discovery of Cosmic Boy, lead to the undoing of almost every major plot consequence of Waid's preceding 30-issue run.  Most significantly for our purposes, Supergirl is booted out of top billing and off the team, and sent back to her own time.  As an added bonus, Bedard erased her memory of her entire time with the Legion, and did not bother to explain how she had gotten to the 31st Century in the first place.

This may well be the worst story arc ever written about this incarnation of Supergirl, at least from a purely "Kara-oriented" perspective. Nothing is explained to you about her presence in the 31st Century; her return home is abrupt, contrived, and clearly done just to get rid of her; and you hardly see Supergirl after the first issue.  As a Supergirl fan, honestly there was no reason to even buy this arc.

Reflections on the second Kara Zor-El

This third version of Supergirl was probably the most poorly executed of them all.  Supergirl and her series suffer from three major problems.  First, her character changed from month to month and arc to arc, and was completely inconsistent.  Second, her series was so dominated by company-wide and "family" wide crossovers that it never really got a chance to hit its stride.  And finally, this version of Supergirl was unrelentingly portrayed as a super-screw-up.  Below, I will discuss each problem.

Supergirl's Multiple Personality Disorder

Supergirl's inconsistent personality over the seven years of her existence (the shortest yet, with the original lasting 26 years, and Matrix lasting nearly 16 years), occurred because she was controlled by more creative teams than the other two Supergirls combined.  For example, Paul Kupperberg wrote all 23 issues of the original Kara's second series, and Cary Bates all 10 of the first.  Peter David wrote 79 of Matrix Supergirl's 80 regular issues. This steadiness led to a personality that stayed the same for long periods of time, changing, yes, in response to plot developments, but not in response to the different interpretations of multiple creators.

In contrast, Supergirl's third incarnation was influenced by a horde of different authors.  With each writer, a different tone and personality appeared, often bearing little resemblance to the previous versions.  Jeff Loeb (Superman/Batman, "Power") presented Kara as confused and full of "inner darkness," but trying to do the right thing. Greg Rucka ("Candor") and Joe Kelly ("Candor," "Identity") presented her as isolated, angry, reckless, violent, and extremely self-centered. All three of these first authors began laying the groundwork for the idea of "Supergirl as assassin" (with the mission of killing Superman).  They all seem to have decided to contrast Kara with Kal-El by making her an unruly, out-of-control, rebellious teenager who had little regard for the consequences of her actions.

Meanwhile, being published concurrently with these "bad girl" interpretations was Mark Waid's Supergirl/Legion stories, in which Kara is portrayed as sweet, innocent, funny, and kind -- a character that looked like the current Supergirl, but acted like the original from 25 years before.  To make things even more confusing, her presence in the 31st Century was never explained, and we have no idea how (or frankly, even if) this character was connected to the present-day version.

Back in the 21st century, Supergirl's next writer, Kelly Puckett, took a much more positive attitude toward Kara, perhaps having been influenced by Waid.  In Beyond Good and Evil, she is depicted as smart, heroic, and generally positive.  None of the self-centered "bad girl" attitude of the previous story arcs is apparent in Puckett's portrayal.  Indeed, for the first time (after 3 years with writers who, other than Waid, seem to have had little respect for her), Kara finally starts acting like her old self from before the Crisis.  In Way of the World, Supergirl goes on a quest to try and save a little boy dying of cancer.  She goes to all kinds of extreme, and wiser heroes like Superman would say inadvisable, measures to save the little boy.  Although she ends up failing, her attempt is truly admirable, and the love she showed the little boy and his parents is exactly what one would expect from the original Supergirl.

Puckett's respectful and positive treatment of the character stands as one of her her best renditions since Kara Zor-El returned to DC comics right up to today. Although Supergirl was still represented as being more inexperienced and perhaps more impulsive than Superman, Puckett's Kara screwed up while trying to do something wonderful, not while being a "bad girl" taking in the night-club scene or trying to kill Superman. This rendition made Kara far more likable  (which was not the case in earlier stories).  On the other hand, as gratifying as this dramatic personality improvement was to Kara fans such as me, it's hard to reconcile this character with the "rebellious teen" version that had been appearing month in and month out up until this point (again, except for Waid's LSH stories).    Fans must needs have asked themselves, which Supergirl personality was the real one?

The longest run by any writer on this Supergirl series was turned in by Sterling Gates.  Gates is a good scripter, and he more-or-less continues Puckett's pattern of having Supergirl be a decent person who generally tries to do the right thing but keeps messing things up. However, she also does keep messing up, in many cases rather badly (such as accidentally killing, or at least seeming to kill, Lois Lane's sister).  Like the other writers, Gates seems to think that Supergirl is just too young to be this powerful, and that he has to show this by having her abuse and mis-use her powers on a regular basis.  Gates also plays a lot of games with her family and the "child of two worlds" motif that the other writers did not, which again makes this character seem inconsistent from arc to arc.

Supergirl Crossover Confusion

Another major factor contributing to the inconsistency of the third Supergirl (and her comic series) was its domination by crossovers.  Out of 67 total issues, Supergirl series 4 had 27 issues' worth of crossovers (40% of the run).  The  second story arc (Candor) was part of Infinite Crisis.  Issues 19-21 were not part of any collected trade, but tied in with "Countdown."  And although Sterling Gates shepherded Supergirl series 4 longer than any other writer, for 18 straight issues (35-52), Gates was writing Supergirl's side of an incredibly long, protracted (and very poor quality) family-wide crossover called "New Krypton". Indeed other than his inaugural issue (34), Gates only got one non-crossover story arc in his entire run.  Thus by issue 52, more than half of the issues published for Supergirl were about larger crossovers, and not directly about (just) Supergirl.

This crossover mania had many deleterious effects on the series.  First, by forcing Supergirl to deal with one global threat after another, we almost never got to see her in those quiet moments.  She didn't have a real secret identity to speak of for 3 years, with only one failed attempt in the "Identity" story arc (for one issue), and even when she adopted a secret identity ("Linda Lang") in issue 34, she then got sucked into the worlds-spanning "New Krypton" story for the next 18 months and hardly got a chance to actually use her secret identity.  Indeed by issue 52, Supergirl had appeared out of costume only a handful of times.  This turned the Girl of Steel into a caricature without a real, solid grounding as a person.  DC's failure to present Supergirl as a non-super except in rare panels, ironically robbed her of the very humanity DC claimed to be trying to provide by making her a rebellious, "realistic" teenager.

Second, thanks to the combination of (1) having a different writer for almost every story arc, and (2) making those writers fit the stories into a larger "global" crossover scheme, the Supergirl books never achieved their own look and feel . Like the character of Kara, her Supergirl series never was allowed to assert its own identity.  The series' own trajectory was being continually subordinated to the whims of the marketing department as it danced from one crossover to another.  The global stories swamped the overall arc of the series, with the ultimate consequence that, although Supergirl series 4 lasted 67 issues, there was no overall story-line, no overall trajectory, to it.  There is no cohesion whatsoever to this series.

In contrast, Peter David's 80-issue run in series 3 can easily be viewed as one long story. And the Daring New Adventures of Supergirl, although it only lasted 33% as long as series 4, and had plenty of its own flaws, adopted a clear narrative tone from issue 1, never wavering thereafter.  Thus, Supergirl series 4 never achieved what the previous series did -- it never really came into its own.  And this is due in large part to having the overall narrative of Supergirl being interrupted time and again -- sometimes for as long as a year and a half -- by Superman's narrative and that of the larger DCU.

Supergirl the Screw-up

Probably the most unsatisfying pattern into which all the writers of this Supergirl series fell was to present Kara Zor-El as a super-powered screw-up. Whether they had her doing it intentionally as a "bad girl" or because of "inner darkness" (Loeb, Kelly, Rucka), or whether they had her trying to do the right thing but making mistakes (Puckett, Gates), everything poor Kara does, either on purpose or by accident, turns to ashes in her fingers.  It's like she has some kind of bad-luck curse.

Now, I often argue that the most important aspect of any character is her humanity (whether she's a Kryptonian or an earthling), and making mistakes definitely falls under the category of being human.  We are all flawed, and even Superman makes mistakes (though less often than the rest of us because of his fundamentally good nature).  If you look back over previous Supergirl versions (Peter David's, Paul Kupperberg's, etc) you will certainly see her share of mistakes.  However, there's a difference between Supergirl being a hero who succeeds most of the time and once in a while makes mistakes like the rest of us, and a character who is like a walking jinx.  The original Supergirl and the Matrix Supergirl were in the former category; this newer Kara is in the latter.

Helen Slater, in the introduction to "Who is Superwoman," not only defends, but praises the "Supergirl as a screw-up" model (though she doesn't call it that) -- claiming that this makes her not only human but a teenager like any other.  Teenagers often try to do the right thing but don't have the wisdom to accomplish it yet, Slater states, and so they make a lot of mistakes.  And she's not wrong about that.  But I think, with Supergirl, that it happened too much.  Writers, even the ones who put her in a more sympathetic light such as Puckett and Gates, could not help but realize that if she screwed up this much, people would start to notice, and start disliking her -- wanting her gone.  That's why, in case after case, even when she actually saves many lives, all we tend to see is the very people she tried to help yelling at her, blaming her, castigating her, and telling her to go away, that she is not wanted.

Like Helen Slater, the people who defend the "Supergirl as a screw-up model" try to argue that DC was presenting a "realistic" look at teenagers.  But how many teenagers screw up everything they do, even the things they do with good intentions?  Around the country, every week, thousands of teenagers volunteer in churches, soup kitchens, shelters, and countless other ways.  How many of these teenagers burn people with the ladle while doling out soup, and end up chased out of the shelter by the very people they're trying to help? How many boy scouts, trying to help a little old lady cross the street, end up getting her hit by a bus?  How many youth groups trying to clean up their church basement end up mistakenly causing the furnace to blow up, and find themselves being run out of town by a mob of angry parishioners?  Not everything a teenager does ends up turning to ashes, but this is exactly what happens to Supergirl.

Every. Single. Time.

And so, I found myself thinking over and over again as I read this fourth Supergirl series, "enough already." Can't she do something right just once?

There is one exception: Mark Waid's Supergirl is a sweetheart, a doll of a girl who makes her entrance with a spectacularly successful super-rescue, and then is adored by the public as one of the great superheroes of history.  Her behavior is complicated, initially, by the fact that she thinks she's dreaming the Legion.  But even while she does, while the Legionnaires are concerned about just how seriously she will take things if she thinks nothing is real, she doesn't constantly mess things up.  She is the key to their victory in multiple cases, including the final Waid story-arc in Legion -- "Dominator War."  Waid's Supergirl seems almost like she's from another continuity. Not only is her behavior different, but the public's reaction to her is different.  Based on what was going on in her own series at the time, when she showed up, I would expect people in the 31st century to run for the hills ("Look out! It's the Super-Jinx-Girl!"). Instead she received adulation as if she had always been loved in our time (which, for 67 issues, she sure as hell wasn't.).

The fun part here is that Waid is an old hand at writing teenage characters. He wrote scores of Legion issues in the 1990s, and took it over again to write 30 straight issues of it the following decade.  This guy knows how to write teenage superheroes, and he has successfully written for 20 or 30 of them at a time (depending on the exact size of the team).  I find it interesting that the writer who does teenagers best, is also the only one who portrayed Supergirl as a successful hero, rather than a bumbling screw-up.  And yet, contrary to what the "screw-up model" people say, Waid's Supergirl didn't seem any less human, and she didn't seem perfect or without flaws.  She had flaws. She made a few mistakes. But taken in toto, her actions overall ended up succeeding, rather than failing.  And this made Waid's Supergirl eminently likable.  Unfortunately, one can say this for no other version of the third Supergirl, no matter how sympathetic the writers attempted to be.

And so, my favorite take on this very confusing and inconsistent third Supergirl is the one who usually succeeds, and doesn't screw up every single time -- Waid's Supergirl.  Except for his portrayal of her, to be honest, I didn't like this third Supergirl very much.  Not only can't she hold a candle to the original, but she can't even match Peter David's Supergirl.  Both previous versions were far more human than this one, and far more heroic.  And over nearly 50 years of history, I don't think the two of them combined screwed things up half as much as this third, Super-screw-up girl, did in 7 years.


It's possible that DC had plans for Supergirl to eventually learn how to be a hero, how to use her powers, and stop screwing up. And perhaps they planned to give her a more consistent creative team. Whatever their intentions toward this character may have been, however, her existence was cut short (far shorter than that of her previous two incarnations) after just 7 years of existence, when the DC Universe was rebooted for the "New 52."  And so, Supergirl number 3 stopped appearing in the pages of DC comics in August 2011, and was replaced by a new version of herself, Supergirl number 4.

<<   Previous Article - Part 2  |  Next Article  - Part 4 (Not Yet Completed) >>

1 comment: