Supergirl: The History of the Newest DC TV Star

Supergirl had 55 years of stories and interpretations before she took flight on CBS. We take a look back at her history in comics.

It’s tough being Superman’s cousin. During her history (which is longer than you might think) Kara has been an orphaned Kryptonian (aren’t they all?) trying to keep her powers a secret, a confident college student, a shape-shifting alien named Matrix, and a darkly modern alien controlled by her emotions.

Here’s a look at the comic book history of Supergirl. Maybe elements from some of these will find their way on to the Supergirl TV show eventually.

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The pre-Supergirl Supergirls (1943-1958)

Just a quick history lesson before we get into the more familiar Supergirl. The first lady to gain Superman’s powers was none other than Lois Lane in Action Comics #60 (1943) in a story by Jerry Siegel and John Sikela. In the tale, Lois is hit by a truck(!) and dreams she receives a blood transfusion from Superman and becomes Superwoman. Dreamy hikinx ensued.

The story must have proved popular because DC went to the Superwoman well once again in Action Comics #156 (May 1951) as Lois accidently gains super-powers thanks to the machinations of Lex Luthor. This issue is of particular import to Supergirl history because Lois wears almost the exact same costume Kara will wear when she finally appears years later.

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It was Superman #123 (August 1958) by Otto Binder and Dick Sprang where DC found its inspiration for the Supergirl we all know and love. In this issue, Jimmy Olsen used a magical artifact to wish a Super-Girl into existence. This blond haired beauty was very similar to the Supergirl that would be introduced just one year later. Reportedly, DC used this issue to see how a female version would play with their readership. Clearly it worked, because in 1959…

You Will Believe a Girl Can Fly (1959)

For decades, not much changed in the world of Superman. Luthor was a constant threat, Lois Lane was trying to discover Superman’s identity, Jimmy Olsen was perennially in trouble, and by the time any issue was over, everything was back to status quo. Supergirl signified the first lasting change the usually static character ever experienced. After Olsen’s Super-Girl proved to be a hit with readers, Otto Binder and Al Plastino introduced Superman’s cousin in the pages of Action Comics #252 (May 1959). Ironically, it was Binder who introduced Captain Marvel’s sister, Mary Marvel, in the pages of Captain Marvel Adventures over a decade earlier.

It’s here that we find the foundation of nearly every version of the character to follow: a brave and heroic teenage girl who, while as brave and powerful as her cousin, lived a life of loneliness and isolation. Supergirl was Kara Zor-El, the daughter of Superman’s Aunt Alura and Uncle Zor-El, and survived the destruction of Krypton when her home, Argo City was blasted clear of the exploding Krypton. Kara’s father built a dome and the city thrived in space until a meteor shower smashed the city. Zor-El followed in the footsteps of his brother Jor-El and rocketed Kara to Earth. Now, Earth had two Kryptonian champions.

Unlike most of DC’s early Silver Age features, Supergirl’s strip wasn’t afraid of change. Supergirl became a regular cover feature in Action Comics and during this time, her own cast of supporting characters similar to Superman’s was developed. She soon met a love interest on Earth (Richard “Dick” Malverne); started having adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes and fell in love with Brainiac 5, met a merperson boyfriend (Jerro the Merboy), and eventually even got adopted by a kindly family much like Clark Kent did. She even had her own pet super cat named Streaky and her own super horse named Comet. It was as awesome as it sounds. 

Superman forbade Kara from revealing herself to the world until she was ready and forced her to live in an orphanage and adopt the name Linda Lee. During this time, Supergirl liked to think of herself as Superman’s secret weapon and used her wits to figure out ways to save the day while not defying Superman’s strict edicts. When she finally revealed herself to the world, fans were treated to one of the greatest and most uplifting stories of the Silver Age but it also began an era where Supergirl never really had a concrete purpose. 

The Adventure Comics Years (1969)

Kara’s greatest stories were centered on her quest to step out of Superman’s shadow to become a hero, and were peppered with subtle undertones of loneliness and gender marginalization as she had to keep her true self hidden. But once she had solved her greatest conflict, the creators at DC had trouble finding her a new one. This lack of purpose defined Supergirl’s run as the lead feature of Adventure Comics, which began in 1969’s Adventure Comics #381. Of course Supergirl deserved her independence, but finding it caused her to lose her essential essence of a character out to prove herself to the world.

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In the pages of Adventure Comics, Supergirl bounced from job to job as DC hunted for the right balance for their Girl of Steel. In her identity of Linda Lee Danvers, she was a television reporter (sound familiar?), an acting student, a student counselor, and a soap opera actress. Each just seemed like something to keep Kara busy in her civilian identity before the action began.

Her Own Series at Last (1972)

In 1972, Supergirl was finally given her own title after years of appearing in anthologies and back-ups. In the first issue, writer Cary Bates and artist Art Saaf moved Kara to San Francisco and had her enroll her in a performing arts college. Hey, there you go! Ali Adler worked on Glee, maybe that’s a late season story arc! Alright, maybe not…

Anyway, this series focused on Supergirl’s life at university and only lasted ten issues, with the final issue featuring, of all things, a team-up with the ultra-obscure character Prez. DC was consolidating and cancelling many titles at this time, and Supergirl was shunted off to a new anthology title, Superman Family, where she was co-featured with Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Krypto the Superdog. Despite the demotion, the move was successful and for a time, Superman Family was one of DC’s bestselling titles.

The Red Headband Years (1982)

In 1982, DC tried again with The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl, a title that was soon retitled simply Supergirl. This new series saw Kara move to Chicago and featured a new costume that took some cues from Olivia Newton-John. The series tried to build up Supergirl’s rogues gallery and featured appealing art by the great Carmine Infantino as well as eye catching covers by Gil Kane, but it only lasted two years, and was strangely cancelled just two months before the Supergirl movie starring Helen Slater hit theatres. 

Supergirl all but disappeared right when she should have been the most visible. Interestingly enough, costume tests for the Supergirl movie were done featuring Ms. Slater wearing the Daring New Adventures of Supergirl “red headband costume,” but ultimately, it never made it into the final cut of the film.

Seriously, check it out:  

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Fans would have to get used a lack of Supergirl, a character who had become a DC staple, as she was about to make a seemingly permanent exit from DC Comics.

Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985)

With Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (1985), writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez did the unthinkable. Crisis promised a dangerous new “modern” era where no one was safe, not even the icons of yesteryear. Supergirl’s lack of direction since her Adventure Comics days made her seemingly expendable. 

In Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, Kara, the girl who was once that lonely orphan trying to prove herself to the world, sacrificed herself to save all of reality. The image of Superman holding his cousin’s broken body signaled the end of innocence for the DC Universe. 

A Familiar Face

After Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC wanted to keep Superman, newly rebooted (before that was a word) by John Byrne, as the only survivor of Krypton. which left no room for his cousin Kara. Byrne found a way around this edict by introducing an alien being named Matrix. Matrix was a shapeshifting, synthetic human from another dimension created by a magnanimous version of Lex Luthor (ummm…it’s a long story). Matrix was soon taken in by the Kents and took the name Mae, and eventually found herself in a romantic relationship with Lex Luthor (ummm…that’s an even longer story).

While Matrix looked like the classic Supergirl and was a great addition to the modern Superman mythos, much of what made the character so special were missing. Writer Peter David fixed all that with Supergirl #1 published in 1996, where the Matrix entity sacrificed herself to save a young girl named (wait for it) Linda Danvers. Matrix selflessly merged her DNA with Linda’s, creating what David called an earth born angel.

All the old Supergirl trappings got a new coat of paint, including Dick Malverne, Supergirl’s adoptive parents, and even a new version of Comet, the Super-Horse. This Supergirl lasted for 75 wonderful issues, a longform testament to the staying power of the character. Other than teases in another Peter David-penned series called Fallen Angel, Linda Danvers has become an almost forgotten part of the DCU. That’s a shame because those 75 issues are some of the greatest Supergirl stories ever told.

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The Return of Kara (2004)

Since Crisis on Infinite Earths, Supergirl had been a pocket dimension alien construct, an angel, and a pseudo-robot (don’t even ask us about Cir-El…long story). Finally, DC decided that if there was to be a Supergirl, she should be the version everyone had fallen in love with back in the Silver Age. In 2004’s Superman/Batman #8 by Jeff Loeb and Michael Turner, DC introduced a familiar Kryptonian girl with a darker past than many fans remembered.

For one thing, this Kara was born before her cousin, and thus sees Superman as a younger relative since she remembers seeing him as a baby. She was also much angrier and more aggressive than the previous incarnations of the character.

Loeb and Turner’s new Girl of Steel was a massive hit and was granted a title of her own which topped the sales chart during its first year of publication. In the first arc, Supergirl was turned evil by Black Kryptonite and became aware of the fact that she was genetically altered by her father Zor-El to kill Kal-El as part of an age old family grudge. Soon, that was retconned away by blaming Kara’s murderous tendencies on Kryptonite exposure.

Yeah, things got confusing quickly. 

The New 52 (2012)

Before the new Kara could change and find a consistent direction, the DC Universe did. Supergirl was one of the initial launch titles of DC’s multiverse altering New 52 reboot. She was an angry, very alien rival to Superman when she first appeared on Earth, then became more of a classic version of the character trying to find her way in the big city, and finally, DC made her a Red Lantern, a surprising direction that shockingly kind of worked.

But Kara is still with us and DC and Warner Bros. seem to be well aware of her potential both in the pages of DC Comics and on the small screen, and perhaps, even in their cinematic universe. Remember that open and empty Kryptonian pod that seemed just big enough to hold a teenage girl in Man of Steel?

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Meanwhile, let’s see what “daring new adventures” Greg Berlanti and Ali Adler can cook up for the Girl of Steel.