For Those Who Came in Late: We’ve spent the last two weeks here at COMICS 101 looking at the original Silver Age Supergirl, Kara Zor-El. When we left off, following her heroic sacrifice in the pages of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, Kara was not only dead, but once all was said and done, she’d been declared to have never existed at all, in order to give Superman a uniqueness that his new writer and editors felt the character required. Since it was so important that there not be a Supergirl in this new revised DC Universe, naturally, it only took a couple years to change their minds…
When John Byrne took over the Superman books for DC Comics in 1986, much of the familiar trappings of the Superman mythology were done away with: his career as Superboy, Krypto, Supergirl, the Bottle City of Kandor: pretty much anything that contradicted the notion of Superman as the Last Son of Krypton. (Paradoxically, Byrne and company also made changes that reinforced Superman’s humanity, like resurrecting Ma and Pa Kent as living members of the supporting cast, changes which definitely affected the character for the better, but that’s a discussion for another time.) However, as we would see, over time most of these elements would resurface in one form or another, with Supergirl being no exception. Accordingly, in September 1988, a story ran between the two monthly Superman books (in SUPERMAN #21, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #444 and SUPERMAN #22, to be precise, following a bit of foreshadowing in SUPERMAN #16) in which a mysterious blonde in a familiar red-and-blue costume was found buried in the Arctic, frozen in ice. The catch? This was not the Supergirl readers were expecting.
Instead, this Supergirl was an artificial being from a “pocket dimension,” since in the newly revised post-CRISIS DC Universe, the parallel Earth concept was seriously verboten. Anyway, on this “pocket dimension’s” Earth, their Superman had disappeared as a teenager, leaving the planet unprotected when rogue Kryptonians arrived to conquer a decade later. That Earth’s heroic Lex Luthor and his wife Lana Lang attempted to fight the Kryptonians, but to no avail, with Lana being killed in the struggle. As a last resort, this Luthor created a shapeshifting artificial lifeform, based on his wife’s molecular matrix, and sent it in search of help.
Superman and Supergirl returned to the pocket dimension, but that battle didn’t go well, and Supergirl wound up being her homeworld’s only survivor.
Ravaged physically and emotionally by both the battle and the loss of her home, Superman left the Supergirl Matrix with his parents in Smallville to convalesce. There the alien shapeshifter (soon referred to by Ma and Pa Kent as just “Mae”) formed a strong familial bond with Superman’s parents (and Superman as well), creating at least an echo of the Superman-Supergirl relationship of the Silver Age.
The new Supergirl stepped more to the forefront in 1993, in DC’s mammoth “Death of Superman” story event, as Supergirl was one of the heroes to take a larger role in protecting Metropolis following Kal-El’s death at the hands of the alien juggernaut Doomsday.
Supergirl, who had a close approximation of Superman’s powers, with flight, super-strength and limited invulnerability (as well as the ability to shapeshift, turn invisible and generate psychokinetic bursts) began to take a much higher profile in patrolling the city, with the help of her new boyfriend, Lex Luthor, Jr.
I know, it’s confusing. Follow along, if you will. In the SUPERMAN books at the time, Luthor had faked his own death following a crippling bout with cancer brought about by his nonstop exposure to the Kryptonite ring he wore day and night to protect himself from Superman. Going into hiding, Luthor had his brain transplanted in a much younger clone of his body, and thanks to the help of some masterfully forged documents, resurfaced as Lex Luthor, Jr., his heretofore “undiscovered” heir, and reclaimed his business empire. As the much younger (and hairier) Luthor Jr., Lex was the darling of the press, and succeeded in winning Supergirl’s heart, with the naive Matrix never realizing that she was in fact shacking up with the original, evil Lex Luthor.
Supergirl and Lex even had their own special in 1993, with SUPERGIRL AND TEAM LUTHOR, which told the story of how Lex, with Supergirl’s unwitting help, attempted to manipulate his way into more power in Metropolis with the loss of Superman, positioning his “Team Luthor” squadron of armored goons in the role of protectors of Superman’s memory, attempting to get an official contract from the city to serve as paid security enforcers.
After Superman returned to life, Matrix returned to the background, with her appearances limited to “Team Superman” missions alongside Superboy and Steel in the pages of ACTION, SUPERMAN and ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. The Matrix Supergirl also had a moment in the spotlight with her own miniseries in 1996, courtesy of writer Roger Stern and artist June Brigman. Here, Supergirl finally discovered the truth behind her boyfriend Lex, and didn’t take it too well, as seen here:
With the subplot about Supergirl dating Luthor gone by the wayside, and the details of her otherdimensional origins fading from readers’ memories with each passing year, the character began to seem a little less relevant, only showing up whenever Superman needed some Super-assistance or needed her to shapeshift into a simulated Superman to help maintain Clark Kent’s secret identity. Looking to shake things up with a high-profile new series, DC recruited fan-favorite writer Peter David to start up a brand-new Supergirl series with a fresh new angle, and man, did he deliver.
September 1996 saw the release of SUPERGIRL #1 by David and artist Gary Frank, in which the Matrix Supergirl found herself merged, body and soul, with a dying girl named Linda Danvers. The newly human Supergirl would physically shift between her tall, blonde Supergirl form and the shorter brunette Linda Danvers, and as her memories returned, would slowly piece together the mysteries of her new life and Linda’s dark past.
The series as a whole is quite good, and deserved much more attention and promotion than it got. I think it was a tough sell for readers because it was so unlike both the other SUPERMAN books and so far from the traditional concept of Supergirl, despite David’s sprinkling of various bits of the classic Silver Age Supergirl mythology throughout the series, bits like Linda Danvers’ parents, Comet the Super-Horse and Linda’s boyfriend Dick Malverne, all given a considerably modern twist. As David’s Supergirl series progressed, Supergirl slowly discovered that the act of Matrix sacrificing her life to save Linda had caused her to become an Earth-born Angel, complete with the manifestation of fiery angel’s wings and the ability to teleport to where she’s needed most.
Over the course of the series, Linda encountered other Earth-born angels, as well as the Almighty himself, ostensibly taking the form of a little boy named Wally, who would pop up periodically to dispense cryptic pieces of advice.
Another frequent thorn in Linda’s side throughout the series was Linda’s ex-boyfriend and attempted murderer, the demon known as Buzz, who would later resurface in a shocking storyline involving Linda’s then-current paramour Dick Malverne, who had unexpectedly enjoyed a full remission from cancer, until Linda discovers why: that Buzz’s soul had taken up residence in Dick’s body, and that Buzz refused to vacate until Supergirl retrieves his own corporeal form. When Supergirl reluctantly agrees, Buzz leaves Dick’s body, only for Supergirl to discover to her horror that the cancer had returned with a vengeance.
Even worse, an increasingly desperate Dick turns to a fraudulent faith healer who runs a “Church of Supergirl” revival for treatment (Supergirl’s new angelic status having made all the papers), and by the time Linda can get to him, it’s already too late.
Another benefit of the series was its strong supporting cast, which at times was more a draw for the book than its main storyline. Central to the series were Linda’s police-officer father and super-religious mother, and the slow character development as they move from being caricatures to compelling, caring parental figures for Linda over the course of the series may be one of the best tricks David’s ever pulled off. (Helping them adjust, of course, were Supergirl’s other set of parents, Ma and Pa Kent.) Add Linda’s wacky reporter friend Cutter, his lesbian ex-wife Andy Jones, her best friend Mattie Harcourt and the aforementioned quirky rich kid Dick Malverne, and you get material rich enough to keep the story moving even if Supergirl hadn’t been around.
Meanwhile, the popularity of the new animated Supergirl on the then-airing SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES hadn’t gone unnoticed, as writer Peter David overhauled the series, splitting the Matrix and Linda personalities back in two, with Linda retaining a scaled-down version of Supergirl’s powers, and now dressing in a new costume identical to that of the cartoon series.
The focus of the series shifted as well, with Linda and her reluctant sidekick Buzz the demon on a lengthy road trip searching for the whereabouts of Matrix, who’d been sorcerously spirited away when the two were split. The series’ quality remained as high as ever, but the problem remained the same: no one was reading. Central to the issue was that old-school fans still didn’t consider this “the real Supergirl,” a quandary writer Peter David tackled in what would turn out to be the series’ final story arc, “Many Happy Returns.” At the tale’s beginning, Linda is now the only remaining Supergirl, with Matrix merging with yet another mystical entity and transcending beyond this world, or something like that. So imagine her surprise at the sight of a rocket landing in Leesburg, and who else but Kara Zor-El, the original pre-Crisis Supergirl, popping out.
Diverted to the modern-day Earth by cosmic entities with a grudge on Supergirl, Kara struggles to adjust to the modern world that’s very different from the Silver Age Earth she’d viewed from Argo City. Linda takes in Kara, enrolling her in school and giving her a place to live, until cosmic forces intervene and inform them that Kara has to return to her own timestream (and her eventual death in the Crisis) or else all realities will pay the terrible consequences. Instead, Linda offers herself in Kara’s place, and winds up living in the much more innocent Silver Age Earth for years, eventually even marrying Superman and having his child.
Unfortunately, Linda’s substitution for Kara is not enough to stop the cosmic crumbling caused by the damage to the timestream, and Linda is forced to leave her daughter behind and return to her own reality, and worse, kayo Kara and pack her back in the rocket, sending her back to the Silver Age and her eventual demise. Emotionally crushed by the loss of her daughter and her betrayal of Kara, Linda gives up her life as Supergirl and sends her most valued possessions to Superman while she walks alone in search of a new destiny (and, some might say, into the pages of Peter David’s next series FALLEN ANGEL — but that’s a story for another time…)
It seemed like this version of Supergirl had only been cancelled for a month or two before DC introduced a new version in the pages of SUPERMAN: THE TEN-CENT ADVENTURE and SUPERMAN #192, a mysterious young woman calling herself Cir-El, and claiming to be not only from the future, but also the daughter of Superman and Lois Lane.
This poorly thought-out character never caught on, and was quickly explained away as a clone created by Brainiac. Meanwhile, a funny thing had happened while Peter David’s SUPERGIRL series was being cancelled: the reappearance of Kara Zor-El created a sales surge unanticipated by both DC and comics retailers, who couldn’t keep the issues in stock (though not unanticipated by David, who had been hoping to keep the series going as a Superman analogue to BIRDS OF PREY called “Blonde Justice,” starring Linda, Kara and Power Girl. Unfortunately, no one listened…). Still, DC is nothing if not observant, and soon enough Jeph Loeb was given the green light to properly reintroduce Kara Zor-El to the DC Universe in the pages of DC’s top-selling series SUPERMAN/BATMAN.
Beginning in SUPERMAN/BATMAN #8, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Michael Turner take the original Silver Age Supergirl origin and deftly translate it to today’s DC, with Superman welcoming the arrival of the cousin he never knew he had, while a suspicious Batman anticipates the worst and continues to investigate.
Tensions run high as Kara is forcibly taken to Paradise Island by a conspiring Wonder Woman and Batman for training in the use of her powers, and run higher when Kara is kidnapped there by Darkseid, who had been monitoring the young Kryptonian’s arrival to Earth, and had his own plans for the immensely powerful youth. The invasion of Apokolips by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Big Barda is a favorite, with a “see-who-blinks-first” confrontation between Batman and Darkseid that cements the Dark Knight’s reputation as the master strategist.
Following her return to DC continuity, Kara Zor-El could be seen all over the DCU, everywhere from her own solo book to short-lived stints as a member of the Teen Titans, the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Justice League, until DC overturned the whole applecart with their “New 52” reboot, which has led to yet another new version of Supergirl. But that’s a story for another time…