Next week, Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl, gets her very first self-titled TV series. Airing on CBS, the series stars Melissa Benoist as the Kryptonian hero who protects Earth from super-villains and hostile aliens while dealing with personal drama, occasionally being painted badly by the media, and constant comparisons to her cousin, Superman.
Clark Kent, also known as Kal-El (his birth name) and Superman, debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, which kickstarted the Golden Age of Comics. Starting in Action Comics #60 in 1943, DC Comics occasionally put out stories teasing the idea of a female counterpart to the Man of Steel without committing to it. This 1943 story “Lois Lane: Superwoman” shows investigative journalist Lois Lane gaining identical abilities to Superman after he gives her a blood transfusion, only to then realize she’s just dreaming.
In 1951, Lois gains powers and becomes Superwoman for real in Action Comics #156. As Superwoman, she hides her dark hair underneath a blond wig. The powers wear off, but several other stories over the years feature Lois as temporarily superhuman.
That’s Superwoman, though. What about Supergirl? In 1949, our first tease of a character with that name occurred in issue #5 of Superboy, a series featuring Clark Kent’s adventures when he was a teenager living in Smallville, Kansas. In the story “Superboy Meets Supergirl!”, teenage Queen Lucy of the fictional Latin-American country Borgonia hides out in Smallville under the alias “Lucy Regent,” befriends Superboy, and then performs at an athletic festival in a fun “Supergirl” costume. Eventually, Lucy returns to Borgonia, leaving behind her costume and a wistful Clark Kent.
In 1956, DC Comics started the Silver Age of Comics, bringing back superheroes years after most of them had fallen out of favor and had their books canceled. This reboot began by introducing a new version of the Flash, with a different origin, costume and secret identity. In 1958, Superman joined the Silver Age by getting rebooted himself. His previous stories were largely dismissed, later said to have taken place in a parallel universe, and a new era began. That same year, DC decided to test whether readers were really interested in a female Kryptonian hero.
So in Superman #123, writer Otto Binder and artist Dick Sprang delivered the story “The Girl of Steel.” In it, Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen considers how lonely the Man of Steel must be and wishes a lady counterpart into being thanks to a magic totem (the guy has a habit of encountering mystic forces and mutagenic agents). This Supergirl is all too happy to be Superman’s partner, but later winds up deathly ill. Rather than watch her die painfully, Jimmy wishes away this magically created construct. Overall, it’s a story that swings back and forth between being sweetly innocent and fairly disturbing. Seriously, did this Supergirl possess full sentience and free will or was she just programmed to be a great girlfriend? Moving on.
In 1959, a real Supergirl was introduced in Action Comics #252 when Superman stumbles onto a crashed spaceship and discovers teenage Kara Zor-El, who introduces herself as his cousin. Superman is surprised, as he believes he’s the “Last Son of Krypton,” it’s only survivor—apart from his dog Krypto and some terrorists who are imprisoned in the “twilight dimension” known as the Phantom Zone.
In flashback, we that when Krypton’s core goes nuclear and destroys the planet, one city survives due to a special protective dome. Like the rest of the planet’s debris, the ground beneath Argo City has turned into radioactive kryptonite and so lead shielding is put in place. Kara, daughter of Zor-El and Alura In-Ze, grows up knowing that her older cousin is living as a hero on Earth. When Kara’s about 15 years old, a meteor shower ruptures Argo City’s dome and its protective lead shielding. Her parents send her to her cousin, so that he, along with the super-powers Kryptonians gain from suns like the one Earth orbits, will keep her safe. It’s an origin story that reflects the unapologetic absurdity of DC’s Silver Age comics.
Superman thinks Kara needs to spend some time training and gaining experience before becoming a full-blown superhero, so he tells her that they have to keep the existence of a Supergirl secret. Kara then makes her home in an orphanage under the name Linda Lee, because hey, Clark Kent likes the single life and having a teenage cousin suddenly living with him is going to cramp his style. As Linda Lee, Kara hides her blond hair under a dark haired wig.
So we had a female counterpart to Superman but one who was very much in his shadow, acting primarily as his secret weapon rather than as a partner. Eventually, Linda Lee is adopted by a loving couple, Fred and Edna Danvers. In 1962, three years after Kara’s debut, Superman decides she’s learned enough to start her own heroic career and he announces to the people of Earth that they will now also be protected by his cousin, Supergirl.
By this time, Superman was a household name and even the most casual fan accepted certain aspects of his life as stable. But Supergirl was still growing up, still finding out what kind of hero she was. It seemed like anything could happen and she sometimes wondered if Earth was really the right place for her. Maybe she should live in the 30th century with her time traveling friends the Legion of Super-Heroes, particularly since she and LSH member Brainiac 5 had developed feelings for each other. Maybe she belonged somewhere else entirely. She enjoyed Earth and the friendships she made with Batgirl and others, but for her the loss of Kryptonian society was very real and recent, not something that happened in her infancy as with the adult Superman.
As the 1970s came, comics were changing. Readers were now getting older but still collecting stories and wanted a bit more depth. Kara finally grew up a little bit, graduating from Stanhope University and getting a job on a TV news crew. But DC still wasn’t sure what to do with her and sometimes relied on gimmicks such as changing her costume to designs sent in by fans. During the 1970s, we also met Power Girl, an older and tougher version of Supergirl who inhabited a parallel universe where she lived under the cover identity Karen Starr and started her own tech company.
In the early 1980s, DC Comics struggled to keep some of its characters and titles relevant, particularly Superman and Supergirl. In 1984, a live-action Supergirl film came out starring 21-year-old Helen Slater as the lead. The movie has several fun moments and a good cast, but seems as if it were three scripts that were cut up and pasted together. Argo City’s destruction is now caused by Kara’s carelessness rather than a catastrophe she couldn’t have prevented, making her another version of Pandora (though she does save the city in the last minute of the film). When she arrives on Earth, she immediately adopts a cover identity as orphan Linda Lee, but it’s not clear why she’s doing this when she seems intent on returning to Argo after her mission. Her main enemy is a sorceress who isn’t terribly skilled in magic for most of the film and seems less concerned that Supergirl is a threat to her plans of world domination than she is angry that Linda Lee has stolen the affection of a handsome landscaper who drank a magic roofie. I’m not actually kidding.
Supergirl also isn’t terribly proactive until the end of the movie, and even then it’s arguable that she doesn’t get to be the full hero, she mainly acts on the information and insight of men around her. Despite all this, Helen Slater comes across very charmingly as Kara and you can see how she would have shined more greatly with a story that better served the character.
Two years later, DC Comics rebooted its superhero universe again at the end of a year-long crossover called Crisis on Infinite Earths. During that crossover, Kara died heroically defending her cousin from a menace capable of destroying all reality. But any fans she had were in for an even rougher surprise. After the reboot, the “Post-Crisis” DC Universe said that Kara didn’t exist and that Superman was now the only survivor of Krypton. No others were allowed.
It felt for some to add insult to injury, but in 1989 writer Alan Brennert, artist Dick Giordano and editor Mark Waid produced the story “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot.” In it, the heroic ghost Boston Brand (known also as the Deadman) is frustrated by not being recognized for his efforts. A familiar blond woman named Kara appears and tells him, “We do it because it needs to be done. Because if we don’t, no one else will. And we do it even if no one knows what we’ve done. Even if no one knows we exist. Even if no one remembers we ever existed.”
Kara was gone, but DC attempted to create a non-Kryptonian Supergirl. First we got the artificial, shape-shifting life form Matrix, who had a different host of abilities and was very naive, almost desperate to find a purpose in life. In the 1990s, she got her own series under writer Peter David, who re-interpreted her as an angelic force and bonded her with a human named Linda Danvers. Later still, Matrix went away and Linda, now blessed with powers, became a new Supergirl for some years before her title was canceled and she was retired. There was another, shorter-lived Supergirl character who claimed to be Superman’s daughter from the future, but this turned out to be untrue.
Meanwhile, a version of Kara appeared in Superman: The Animated Series in 1998, becoming a recurring character. More and more, creators and fans believed the “no other Kryptonians” rule was holding back stories. Finally, the rule was dropped and Kara Zor-El was reintroduced into the Post-Crisis DC Universe in 2004. Reimagined by artist Michael Turner and writer Jeph Loeb, Kara is once again Superman’s cousin from Argo City, but now with a twist. She is actually Kal-El’s older cousin, sent when Krypton explodes so that she can be his guardian, protecting him while telling him about his heritage. But her ship’s warp drive is damaged and so she’s only been traveling at just under the speed of light during the entire journey, kept in suspended animation as her cousin grows up and establishes a life as Earth’s protector. Now, Kara is a teenager who has not only lost her home and her entire culture, but is told that the mission that could still give her life focus is already over.
This update truly cemented that Kara was her own person and not just in Superman’s shadow, someone who actually resented that others seemed to think she was his sidekick or apprentice. Sadly, a rotating roster of creators on her comic meant there wasn’t a lot of consistency of growth for a while. Not until writer Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle came along. Under their direction, Kara gained new popularity and stability, with an all-female supporting cast (not counting when her cousin would drop in). She gained an older sister/mentor in the form of Lana Lang, Clark’s best friend from home, and an enemy in the media, Cat Grant, who argues that someone like Supergirl is reckless and providing a bad role model for women. We got to explore what Kara thought of her culture and how different she was to her mother, whom she reunited with for a time before tragedy separated them again.
Recently, DC rebooted yet again, giving us a version of Kara similar to the 2004 model but more aggressive and distanced from her cousin. The new TV show, however, is very obviously taking a lot more notes from the still popular stories of Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle, which bizarrely have not been reprinted for a few years. When you watch the pilot episode, keep your ears open for a voice on a police scanner mentioning the street corner of “Gates and Igle.”
The new TV show mixes Supergirl’s Silver Age origin with the 2004 story, as she arrives on Earth too late to guide her younger-but-now-older cousin and is then entrusted to the Danvers couple, played by Dean Cain and Helen Slater. She now goes by “Kara Danvers,” rather than giving herself a different first name, and has a big sister, Alex Danvers, played by Chyler Leigh. She’s not a teenager now, but a woman in her early twenties who is deciding finally not to run away from the great and very daunting destiny that seems to be part of her heritage. Calista Flockhart plays Cat Grant, who is now Kara’s boss and in charge of her own media empire rather than simply a columnist at the Daily Planet.
With all this in mind, there is a lot of potential for the new series to pick and choose the best parts of the Supergirl mythos. It’s already on the right track, with a pilot episode that focuses primarily on Kara’s decision to be proactive, despite the doubts of others, and on her relationship with other complex women. My own hope is that this inspires a whole new fanbase and galvanizes the elements that truly make the character work. I think it just might.
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor and freelance writer, as well as the author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History. He is the creator and host of the podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks.