Friday, March 13, 2015

Supergirl: Who is the Girl of Steel?


     The recent announcement of a Supergirl series coming to television was greeted by a lot of fans with a mixture of excitement as well as trepidation. Who would be cast? What would be the plotline? Who would write it? Would they go for a fun or a dark and somber tone? Most of these questions have been answered but one which greeted a lot of fans was: who is Supergirl?

    They have a vague idea who she is or can simply guess by the name, but I thought I'd take time to do an essay for those unfamiliar with the character's history both in as well as out of comics. I have a confession to make. I like Supergirl more than other superheroine on the planet. She is my favorite. Which is great, except for the fact nobody likes Supergirl best. Kara Zor-El occupies a weird position in superheroism along with Batgirl and Wonder Woman in that she's one of the most recognizable superheroines in the world but rarely gets much attention.

    This isn't quite the case outside of comics given she's one of the only superheroines in the world to ever get her own movie plus her role in Superman: The Animated Series but from 1985 to 2003, Supergirl as people normally know her was dead.

    No, seriously.

    The fact she's about to headline her own series on a major network in the upcoming Supergirl series is a major accomplishment for someone who was long considered the redheaded stepchild of DC Comics. A character who was too popular and recognized to keep dead but one they didn't really want anywhere near their main character. This, despite the fact Supergirl had never been unpopular or disliked by the majority of the fandom. Supergirl, instead, has ever been a character which struggled with popularity and fandom from the creators.

I wonder if Clark's mom had black hair or if Jor-El's brother adopted.
    For those not familiar with the character, Supergirl is a character created in Action Comics 252# (1959) by Al Plastino and Otto Binder. This was after a series of previous female incarnations of Superman had been debuted, up to and including one made by a Voodoo doll by Jimmy Olsen.

    Comics in the Silver Age were great.

    Her origin is a trifle convoluted in order to explain how a teenage girl could be born from a planet which sent Kal-El to a world he grew up on. It involved a Kryptonian city surviving the planet's destruction and floating in space for decades. However, because this would mean the planetary fragment they were on was composed of Kryptonite, they had to lead line the bottom of their city, only for that shielding to fail. So, they sent Kara away from their city as it died.

    Meaning Supergirl's home planet blew up twice.

    Superman was kind of a jackass back then so his reaction to his cousin from Krypton, which he visited regularly with time travel back then mind you, was to send her to an orphanage. He also ordered her not to use her powers on some vague promise of using her a "secret weapon." Even then, there was the weirdest sense they wanted to keep her character away from the main franchise. 
Superman... jerk.

    Superman was already the most famous superhero in the world and internationally famous as well as beloved. While I have no evidence, I can't help but think they were hesitant to rock the boat by introducing a character who had the potential of entirely upending Superman's life given, at the very least, she's a kid sister figure. Because, you know, the natural reaction of the world's greatest hero is to send your only existing blood-relative to live with strangers than your home in Metropolis.

    How little regard for the character cam be summarized by DC's vice president/executive editor Dick Giordano, "Supergirl was created initially to take advantage of the high Superman sales and not much thought was put into her creation. She was created essentially as a female Superman. With time, writers and artists improved upon her execution, but she never did really add anything to the Superman mythos—at least not for me."

Brainiac 5 once made a robot version of Supergirl to be his girlfriend. 
    Supergirl got plenty of interesting stories, don't get me wrong. She got a Kryptonian super-cat, a magical horse who was also a centaur, and also a boyfriend in Brainiac 5. He's the green-skinned alien genius from the 30th century only dimly related to the supervillain of the present era. She also got to use time-travel to team up with her cousin as Superboy in the future.

    Comics, everybody.

    Then she grew up and everyone forgot she existed. Supergirl, you see, was never quite popular. Well, let me rephrase that, she was never quite as popular as her cousin. Not as popular as Superman is still probably better known than 90% of all fictional character on the planet. Still, she existed in her own corner of the DC universe and was allowed to age through college and go on to become her own distinct person.

    Until two major events shook her character forever. The first was the 1984 Supergirl movie starring Helen Slater. Helen Slater looks like a girl who walked off the pages of a comic book and her acting was great but the movie itself was, quite simply, a mess. The story was incoherent as was the world-building but Supergirl (1984) was somehow still quite entertaining.
This is a great movie for good acting around complete garbage.
    Then they killed off Supergirl.

    The 1985 Crisis On Infinite Earths was an attempt to streamline DC comics continuity into something more mainstream and this meant cutting out countless things viewed extraneous. This included, as seen with the publisher upstairs, Supergirl. I always think Superman suffered the most out of the Crisis as he had a rich, weird, science-fiction universe. Cutting all of that out didn't make him a better character. It made him less. Supergirl, at least, got a badass send off, being able to hammer the Anti-Monitor (portrayed as the most dangerous villain ever faced in the history of the DCU) like Rao's own righteous hammer.

An iconic image of comics.
     The thing was, you can't keep a good character down and even then DC had an alternate Supergirl in Powergirl, who was an alternate version of Supergirl allowed to grow up as an adult. Except, they insisted she wasn't Supergirl. Therefore, she had no origin and would go through several ridiculously bad ones culminating in the horrible "mystical pregnancy" plotline which has worked exactly once in the history of storytelling.

    Then Supergirl would be replaced by a protoplasmic entity by an alternate dimensional good counterpart of Lex Luthor who assumed the physical form of that reality's Lana Lang, explaining her great beauty. She would become the girlfriend of this reality's evil Lex Luthor who had transplanted his brain into a clone body so he could fake his own death.

    After her, said protoplasmic Supergirl (called "Matrix") would merge with a young Satanic cultist (!) named Linda Danvers who would go on to become possessed by the power of an angel. Linda Danvers would be superbly written by Peter David for many issues until a beautiful finale for the character which involved the original Pre-Crisis Kara-Zor El returning for her grand finale.

    The Linda Danvers Supergirl, who was liked if never popular, would get replaced by Cir-El who was basically Rachel Summers if Rachel Summer's parents were Lois Lane and Superman. In other words, she was their daughter from the future who came back in time to spend some quality time with them. Everyone hated her and she erased herself from reality. I also recall a fun, briefly in-continuity, crossover between Superman and the Aliens franchise where Argo City was overrun by xenomorphs. Kara was a badass Ripley-esque fightere there (you can't make this stuff up).

    So, lots of Supergirls but none of them the "real" Supergirl.

    Or perhaps I should say, none of them were the Supergirl everyone remembered.

    Until 1997 and 2003.

Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes.

    Bruce Timm, producer of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, that mad genius, had the strangest idea that enduring characters like Superman and Batman had an intrinsic appeal to them despite the fact some comic creators wanted to change everything about them.

    He brought back Supegirl as a character and, surprisingly enough, had Superman bond with the young woman. Yes, he kept her out of his home in Metropolis but that was because he was trying to protect her from danger as well as get her accustomed to her powers first. She wasn't his cousin but was his surrogate sister, having grown up on a Kryptonian colony world.

    And people liked Kara In-Ze. She was a fun, intelligent, but naive character who fit in fine in Clark Kent's world. I wanted to see more of this Supergirl but, sadly, her role in the setting remained small until the end of the Justice League series where she decided to live in the future with the Legion of Superheroes.

    Supergirl would not return to the comics as Superman's cousin until Batman/Superman 1# in 2003 when she was returned with a bang instead of a whimper. Reaction to this version of Supergirl was mixed amongst fans. They tried to overplay her sex appeal in order to drum up interest, which was rather creepy given she was a sixteen-year-old girl.

    DC attempted to make her a mountain of violent rage and angst with a secret history as daughter of a mad scientist sent to murder Kal-El. Obviously, this is a bit like re-imagining Hello Kitty as a violent nihilistic assassin. Eventually, they got it sorted out by claiming all of her weird memories were a combination of PTSD and Kryptonite poisoning. Then Krypton got resurrected with her parents, only to get blown up again.

Supergirl needs no pants! But sleeves? Yes!
    So, yes, Supergirl has lost her planet THREE times.

    Despite this, she became prominent enough to have a recurring role on the Smallville television series as played by Laura Vanderoot. I can't say much of her depiction but it was a pretty decent-sized role and helped re-solidify the character in the public imagination.

    The New 52 has since rebooted Supergirl once more, this time in her classic self with a new costume. The new Supergirl was raised on Krypton and thus is having a great deal more trouble adapting to Earth than Clark Kent who was raised as an infant. Which only makes sense.

    I don't much care for the costume given I'm not sure what sort of costume needs sleeves but no pants but I like this Kara's desire to have her homeland back even if it brings her in conflict with her cousin. It's a nice point of differentiation between them. Kara Zor-El is the Last Kryptonian while Kal-El is a Kryptonian-American.

    Superman knows he's the survivor of his race due to historical records and messages left for him from his father. Kara Zor-El knows she's the last survivor of Krypton from the fact everyone she knew growing up is dead. It's a stark difference which both the 2003 and New 52 version of the character have played up (to great success I might add).

    What is the appeal of the character to me? I'd have to say it's the character's consistent endurance in the face of tragedy. Whether it's Linda Lee Earth Angel, Matrix, or Kara in her various incarnations, she always live truly sucky lives. Loss is never a stranger to her, even more so than Spiderman. Unlike Spiderman, however, she always manages to put on a smile the next day. Well, maybe the next week, but the smile comes back.

    The archetypal Supergirl is a teenage girl who perseveres in the face of the past and takes great joy in her powers. From the Silver Age girl who wrecked her own chances at adoption so she could continue helping Superman to the girl who chose Earth's safety over her own mother in New Krypton, Kara Zor-El is always making sacrifices without angsting over them. I think this distinguishes her from Superman as does the fact she exists in her cousin's shadow.
What will the newest Girl of Steel be like? Who knows.

    The struggle to prove oneself in the face of successful relatives is something a lot of us can relate to and another reason why I like her best. Supergirl is the most powerful girl in the world but few people give her the respect she wants because of her age and the so many other people have similar abilities. The quest to distinguish herself has become a part of the character and it's a pretty good story arc to follow (even if the answer is: she doesn't have to).

    So what do I hope from the new series? Honestly, I'm hoping for a series which has faith in the character. Someone who believes that she can be a lead without her cousin's shadow guiding the way. The survivor of a dead world with Superman's powers is a pretty solid concept, especially if she's allowed to also be a teenage girl with all of the angst that entails.

7 comments:

  1. An excellent post on Supergirl, one of the far less known women heroines in DC comics for the most part.

    My own main exposure to her was through Bruce Timms brilliant Superman Animated Series, which was the main adaptation that made me like Superman for a variety of reason, first how it took like BTAS it took a lot of Superman villains and did interesting stuff with them, along with humanizing some of them.

    I.E for example Toyman was made into a tragic but very creepy villain that used toys in an very interesting way, Metallo voiced by my favourite English man Malcolm McDowall was an ass but you could understand how losing his senses would drive him even more insane. Lex was given a nice balancing of his arrogance but also had traits that I could admire about the guy in a limited way.

    The best two villains I felt they did were their version of Brainaic who they tied into Krypton's society who tried to stop Joe El from saving it, plus Christopher McDonald did a fine job I felt, nice to see him get a role that departs from his shooter type characters that he plays well.

    The other villain was Darkseid, voice by the always badass baritone Michael Ironside, especially once they stopped deepening the voice so much. Few villains were as love to hate as Darkseid was in DCAU.

    Other bits were the VA from Tim Daly as Sup's, he was perfect in the role I felt, to Dala Delany as Lois nice balance of sarcasm and yet heart-warming tone as well.

    along with some fine storytelling in some of the episodes like Legacy, Darkseid killing off Tuplin etc. STAS really I felt got how Superman can be really good and contrast nicely with BTAS.

    And f course that is where I got to know Supergirl first, voiced by Nicholle Tom. while the episodes with her in STAS are some of the lesser quality episodes I feel, Toms performance always fitted the character.

    The JLU version of her was allowed to shine and get some great development. Though the last episode where she stays with a future Brainaic was done poorly I felt, no build up or convincing romance there I felt. But I liked how she went from the costume she had to the one form the movies as JLU went on.

    Also I loved how JLU adopted the Alan Moore story the man who has everything, George Newbern I felt gave his best performance there as Superman and showed he could match Tim in the role after starting a little wooden in JL. The fact AM himself approved of the episode shows how well Bruce and his team did with that episode. It's the only approval he has given for any adaptation of any of his work.


    This was at a time when many Comic's were going through a very dark age where they turned many hero's into Anti hero's watchmen style without realising if it actually worked or not. many comic Book writers and artists just didn't get the characters and setting I feel back then.

    It's a shame Helen Slater never got the credit she deserved for her role in the bad movie. not the best way to introduce people to the character.

    But some of the storylines from the comic's you mentioned above are quite good as well I think.

    You know have you ever considered doing a review of the DCAU universe, I know worlds finest website have a great review of all the series, but your view would be interesting to see. Especially on BTAS which I place among the best animation series of all time.

    Ok will stop now as I have rambled on long enough.

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    1. I think the Bruce Timm cartoons are one of the definitive versions of Batman and Superman and certainly are informing both the current comic series out there as well as how fans perceive the characters. I believe making Darkseid one of Superman's Rogues gallery was one of the best decisions in years (essentially, replacing Mogul) and also his takes on Brainiac, Luthor, Supergirl, and the Phantom Zone criminals.

      The animated Supergirl episodes are, to my knowledge, pretty much all bad except for her introduction and the Galatea one with the Question and Green Arrow. The Skartaris one was just plain weird given Stargirl was insanely jealous of Supergirl despite the fact we'd never seen any sign of Supergirl being popular before in-universe. Still, the Question and Supergirl teaming up remains one of my favorite episodes for sheer weird FUN.

      I'd be happy to do reviews of the various seasons of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series (plus the Justice League) but it'd be hard to figure out what I could say about them which hasn't been said already. They're good, great even, with some better than others but all of them awesome.

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    2. Completely agree on Bruce Timm's version of Batman and Superman being one of the most definitive versions of the characters, Timm and Dini really got Batman down in a way that showed his positives and negatives in a balancing way. As well as having to work for his victories like the Clock King episode where he had to really use his intelligence to get out of the trap CK had put him in, though the way he got out was because of CK's gloating tape.

      Yeah I would agree the Supergirl and Question episode was probably the only Supergirl episode I felt that was great, especially Jeffery Combs as the Question (he gave I feel one of the best va performances in the entire DCAU) he was a constant source of badass and along with hilarious lines and the right amount of creepiness. and we now all now the sinister purpose of aglets, along with the girl scouts as part of the NWO.

      True what has been said about the DCAU universe has been said, though I'm sure you can find a few things to talk about, like certain episodes maybe, or the films, Mask of the Phantasm would be a great one to review (some Batman fans still feel it's the best Batman film of all time even after the Nolan films came out), Return of the Joker is another, that's my favourite Batman film of them all.

      It's where I think Mark Hamill gave his best performance, Bruce and Paul did some of their best writing, and it deconstructed as Tvtropes would say the whole Batman and Joker feud in an interesting and yet tragic way, as well as giving Terry his best moment as well.

      Yes I liked how Bruce explored the Phantom zone criminals as well. Yes Darkseid was a brilliant choice for Superman as a villain. better than mogul, though he grew on me in the episode I mentioned before thanks to Eric Roberts performance of him being great there. Voice Acting was one of the best things about the DCAU, Kevin Conroy's voice of Batman might be the definitive voice, I hear it all the time when reading Batman and can audioize it when hearing Bales narmastic batman voice, it was that good. same with Clancy's Luthor voice, Daly's voice you name it.

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    3. I'll definitely be checking out selections from the DC Animated Universe on your recommendation for this website then. I hope you like my commentary!

      Otherwise, I agree. :-)

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    4. I eagerly await your reviews, hope you enjoy what I have recommended.

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  2. Supergirl has long had a problem, everyone recognizes her, but nobody really knows who she is. Not the public, certainly not her creative teams for the most part. Peter David, right before taking over the title, wrote a Supergirl short story for the Showcase title that addressed this in typical (for him) meta-way. Supergirl (the Matrix incarnation in this case), spends all day saving people from natural disasters and, exhausted, ends the day looking into a mirror and wondering why she can't see anyone staring back at her. A face, eyes, certainly, but no personality looking back at her.

    I took this as Peter David's promise to actually develop her character in his series, a promise he more than lived up to, before the idiots on DC editorial staff decided to scrap all that and create newer, stupider versions of the character to be meaningless again. (Cir-El, what WERE they thinking. I notice Charlie skipped right over that incarnation of the character!)

    We know who Superman is. Call him a flat character if you like, but he's the archetype. Saves people because it's the right thing to do. Good. Powerful. Double-identity. That's who he is.

    So, who's Supergirl? If she's just doing the same stuff Superman does, you might as well be writing for Superman. So, she needs to be different. Hmm, girls are kinda different (not going to address whether that's natural or socialization here.) You could, one imagines, focus on the "girl" part. And writers tried, but comic book writers have traditionally always been male and the result is... uninspiring. Like this:

    http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/92/49949_20060709120006_large.jpg
    http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/92/49965_20060709123053_large.jpg
    http://www.comicbookdb.com/graphics/comic_graphics/1/92/49970_20060709124127_large.jpg

    Can you imagine, even for a second, Brainiac plotting to break Superman's heart? Not shown: Numerous panels of Supergirl using her powers to make house cleaning a snap.

    So, Supergirl almost always comes off as either a imitation of Superman (and we have enough of those on the comics shelves) or a romance comic occasionally interrupted by supervillains. For decades, writers couldn't think their way out of this box. For a character that was created in 1959 and highly visible in the subsequent years, she really didn't break out into her own until the Peter David series in 1996, nearly 40 years later!

    I'm curious to see what the TV show does with her. Will Superman exist in the TV show continuity? The possibility of him not existing fascinates me. Perhaps Supergirl can finally step out of his shadow.

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    1. As huge a fan as I am of Linda Lee Danvers, I think Peter David managed to capture the Silver Age Supergirl had an appeal to her which DC comics editors were uninterested in, specifically, that Supergirl was a happy innocent character. Having read most of the original Supergirl stories within Showcase, they weren't SERIOUS stories but they were FUN stories. One of my favorite stories with Supergirl is her attempt to find Superman a wife (because Lois and Lana were quite possibly insane and certainly guilty of stalking Superman). Superman discovers his ideal wife is, essentially, Power Girl (an older version of Supergirl).

      I think it's the lack of appreciation for bright, optimistic, weird, funny, and cheerful stories which shot DC comics in the foot to a certain extent. In the Post-Crisis universe, there was no use for a Bottled City, a Superdog, fellow survivors of Krypton, super-best friends from the future, the adventures of Superman as a boy, and a Mermaid Girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, all of these elements eventually found their way back into the mainstream continuity because they were part of what made Superman fun. No, Brainiac never plotted to break Supergirl's heart but plots might include Superman using time travel to get out of kissing Lois Lane and Lana Lang because girls were icky.

      While I am a die-hard fan of Peter David's run on Supergirl, I'd also like to say that 2003 Supergirl and the new 52 versions are distinct characters from Kal-El and have their own obvious story arcs. Superman is the Last Son of Krypton but he's a 1st generation American. Supergirl is an immigrant from Krypton with all that land's cultures and the weight of its destruction weighing on her shoulders. Living in the shadow of a more famous relative isn't necessarily a bad thing as a plot arc either.

      I hope the new Supergirl series gives her a wider audience but I don't think she's really LACKING as a character. It's just people don't really want to give her a chance. They'd rather talk about the ANGST of being a Superhero than knowing, you may have lost your planet but there's always a brand new day.

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