The world may know Supergirl as Kara Zor-El, but the tale of how she arrived at her full Kryptonian name is far from a straight one. It twists and turns, goes dead for years-on-end, only to re-emerge at unexpected moments. At times it even seemed like DC itself had forgotten their own character’s true identity, with the consequence that readers even questioned Kara’s name when it appeared in print.
By the early 1980s, when DC decided to document the ancient history of the House of El in their Roots-inspired Krypton Chronicles, Kara’s identity had been well documented — she was Kara Zor-El, survivor of Argo City, and the only child of Zor-El and Alura In-Ze (“Allura” in early comics.) Her father, Zor-El, was brother to Jor-El (II), making Kara Zor-El and Kal-El (aka Superman) cousins. Kara’s paternal grandparents were Jor-El (I) and Nimda An-Dor. Nothing is known of her maternal grandparents, except that her grandfather belonged to the House of Ze. Much of this detail, however, had been added over time: in her earliest appearances Kara’s home city had no name, nor did her mother, and Kara Zor-El herself was a little short in the naming department.
From her debut in Action Comics #252 (May 1959) Supergirl had merely been known by just the single name of Kara. A bit like Cher, or Björk, or Kylie, Supergirl was such an icon within the DC universe that presumably nobody thought that she might need more than a single name. Occasionally, if some exposition was required, DC writers might namecheck the Maid of Might’s origin by stretching her name to Kara from Argo City, but at no point did Supergirl ever give mention of having a surname.
She was “Kara” — and just “Kara” — nothing else!
Adventure Comics #365 (Feb 1968) changed all that. It was a landmark comicbook in the history of the Girl of Steel, despite not actually containing any mention of Kara herself in its story (which is why you won’t find it on any lists of her comic appearances.) Buried inconspicuously within the text accompanying a picture feature on the Legion of Super Heroes members is an important little slice of DC history: the first ever mention of Supergirl’s surname.
She wasn’t just “Kara”, it seemed — she was “Kara Zor-El“..!
The name did not go unnoticed. A few months later in Action Comics #365 (July 1968) — Supergirl’s regular publishing home at the time — a letter from Phil Lumsden called DC to account on the sudden appearance of a surname for the Maid of Might. “I always thought Supergirl’s father was named Zor-El“, Phil explained, “but in ADVENTURE you call Supergirl Kara Zor-El. If Zor-El was he last name, her father would be Zor-El Zor-El, wouldn’t he?”
The response from DC excitedly explained that, “No! On Krypton, the girls frequently took as their last names their fathers’ full names.”
So Kara now had a surname, at least in the all-text portions of DC comics — Kara had yet to use her full Kryptonian name inside an actual comicbook panel.
Having appeared seemingly out of nowhere, the surname then promptly vanished without trace for almost four years. Kara didn’t mention it, it never cropped up in the letters pages, and it looked suspiciously like everyone at DC had forgotten about the innocuous little bit of text accompanying Supergirl’s picture in Adventure Comics #365… until DC published a super-sized showcase reprinting tales of its best female superheroes in Adventure Comics #416 (Mar 1972), and the “Kara Zor-El” name surfaced briefly once more. Then, just three months later, in Adventure Comics #419 (May 1972), a letter from Carol Strickland (who remains a life long comicbook fan) again referenced the full Kryptonian name.
Typical — fans wait ages to see Kara’s true name in print again, then two references come along together!
But the resurrection was short lived, because the surname vanished again from the pages of DC for another two years, finally resurfacing in an article on Superman’s supporting characters in Superman Family #166 (Aug 1974)… Then it promptly vanished once more!
At this point it must be reiterated that Kara herself still had not actually uttered her own full Kryptonian name in a comic strip. It had been mentioned in articles, letters pages, even on a character guide accompanying an ensemble cover, but it had not even once passed the lips of the Girl of Steel herself. It was as if Supergirl was teasing readers with a Columbo style enigma, making them wonder if the name they kept seeing on text pages was nothing more than a flight of fancy on the part of DC editorial staff.
For the name to be truly real, it needed the Maid of Might’s own seal of approval — this was to finally happen in Superman Family #177 (Jun 1976), when a befuddled Supergirl searches for references to herself in the Hall of Knowledge (the grand archive of Kandor.) “…not even a single mention of me“, she puzzles, “either Supergirl of Earth or Kara Zor-El of Krypton!”
(Although technically, Kara, you’re from Argo City, not Krypton! But hey, I guess if you can forget your own surname for seventeen years, you can be forgiven for misremembering your place of birth too!)