You’re due for a super-shock, Superman!
The date is 18th May 1959*, the time is 12:17pm EST** — a strange purple and green spacecraft streaks across the heavens and enters Earth’s atmosphere, before promptly smashes into a remote hillside outside of Metropolis. It’s designer, Zor-El, apparently clever enough to construct a vessel capable of hurling itself vast distances across the empty void of space to land within a few miles of the Daily Planet offices, yet somehow absent minded enough not to put any kind of landing mechanism in place.
But never mind, because fortunately the occupant of this particular vessel happens to have recently inherited incredible superpowers, identical to Superman’s no less..! She is Kara Zor-El, (supposedly) the last survivor of an transient community of Kryptonians drifting through outer space on a chunk of rock (eventually) known as Argo City. Emerging from the crumpled rocket ship, resplendent in a striking replica super-costume, she is about to give the Man of Steel the shock of his life, and an entire generation of young comicbook readers a constant supply of thrill, spills, romance, and funky red/blue costumes!
By 1959 the comicbook industry was going through a somewhat turbulent period. Although markedly down from their heyday in the 1940s, sales were still strong enough to justify a plethora of different titles each month covering a range of subjects, from funny animals, to westerns, to true crime, to fantasy and horror. The junior audience were fickle, however — genres shifted in and out of vogue with great frequency, producing a constant churn of short lived titles.
To complicate matters further, five years previous the German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent that sought to blame comicbooks for every evil under the sun, plus a few more just for good measure. Wertham’s tirade had struck a chord with the public, and comicbooks came under increasing scrutiny by self-appointed moral guardians and every politician with an eye for a cheap headline (would it be cynical to suggest that’s most of them?) The resulting self-censorship did nothing to help the industry — horror comics had to stop being horrifying, gunslingers had to keep their guns holstered whenever possible, and even the Dark Knight Detective was forced to trade the gritty mean streets of Gotham City for clownish adventures that made Alice in Wonderland look lucid and sane.
Faced with such pressure the idea of pandering more towards stereotypically feminine sensibilities must have seemed very appealing. It promised the prospect of an expanded readership without relying on the blood, guts and gore that attracted the boys (but also the ire of their parents.) As far back as the 1940s, soon after the introduction of Superman himself, publishers had made various attempts to woo the young female readership with superheroes, usually with little success. Wonder Woman remains the only attempt the general public now remember, but she was just one of a whole pantheon of 1940s female superheroes (Blonde Phantom, Miss America, Lady Luck …) vying for the attention of pre-pubescent girls (and post-pubescent boys, but that’s a whole different can of worms best not explored here.)
On the newsstands superheroes had long since stopped being the runaway success they once were. The once overflowing cast of costumed crimefighters had now dwindled to just a few stalwarts, boosted by associated radio and television series. The hugely successful Superman radio and television shows (1940 to 1951, and 1952 to 1958, respectively) had pulled in a fairly healthy audience mix between the sexes, so it seemed logical that a ‘girlie’ audience for superheroes was potentially available, if only the right formula could be found.
Batman was the first to dig a bat-toe into the water: Batwoman had her debut in 1956, with her niece Bat-Girl not far behind (not to be confused with the more popular ‘Batgirl’, introduced almost a decade later.) They made little impression with girls, however. DC tried again by launching Lois Lane into her own series in 1958, this time with modest success. So by 1959 it must have seemed obvious that the next logical step was to give the Man of Steel the lipstick and ra-ra skirt treatment. And so was born Kara Zor-El.
Kara Zor-El wasn’t the first super-person to grace the pages of a Superman strip in possession of two X chromosomes: various novelty one-off stories over the years had seen Lois Lane or Lana Lang acquire powers, or mysterious super women materialise seemingly from nowhere to compete with Superman — only to fail miserably, of course. But Kara was clearly different; for a start this new Supergirl wasn’t a novelty one-off tale. At the end of the story Kara is seen stripping off her everyday identity to expose her heroic costume, preparing to go out into the world on her first patrol as the brand new superhero Supergirl. She doesn’t burst into tears and admit defeat because she’s no match for Superman, or thankfully lose her powers after having caused chaos trying to perform super deeds, or vanish in a strange puff of plot logic. Kara was a girl superhero who survived intact to the final frame of the story — and in the world of 1950s comicbooks, that one super-deed in itself made her a very special young lady indeed.
* according to Action Comics #305
** according to Supergirl Vol. 2 #2
Earth doesn’t have just one hero anymore
In her debut story, The Supergirl from Krypton, published as the third strip in Action Comics #252 (May 1959), Kara does little more than explain her backstory to the startled Superman. A huge city-sized chunk of Krypton (as yet unnamed) had survived, flung off intact into deep space, and thanks to the ingenuity of a scientist named Zor-El the castaway community had found a way to shield itself from the poisonous effects of the land that had been converted into Green Kryptonite during their home planet’s destruction. If the name Zor-El sounds familiar, that’s because Zor-El just happens to coincidentally be the brother of Jor-El, making him the uncle of Kal-El aka Superman — talk about a small universe! Anyway, time passed on the drifting chunk of Krypton, and eventually Zor-El took a wife (also unnamed) and had a daughter named Kara. Life meandered along all peachy and trouble-free as they wandered through space in their ultimate interstellar camper van. Peachy and trouble-free, that is, until a meteorite shower blew holes in the city’s Kryptonite shield and everyone slowly started dying again. Bummer! This time Zor-El figures there’s no use in trying to save the entire city, so he switches to Plan B: specifically he rips off an idea from brother Jor-El and sticks his only offspring, now a teenager, into a rocket ship pointed at Earth where her cousin Kal-El is known to live.
When the Man of Steel hears all this we’re told “this is perhaps the happiest moment in Superman’s life, to find her has a long-lost living relative from his native world!”, and he is clearly moved by the fact that Kara is now (like himself) an orphan; but when the sobbing teen suggests that she could live with Superman he quickly drops any pretense at sentimentality or empathy, and comes up with an excuse to dump Kara in an orphanage. He may be ‘super’, but he’s still a ‘man’ — last thing Kal-El wants is baggage at home when every woman in Metropolis with L.L. monogrammed luggage is banging on his door.
But the plucky young super-teen doesn’t seem disheartened by being shunned by her cousin; instead she picks a secret identity name for herself — another L.L., Linda Lee — and dons the brunette wig Superman had fetched for her by way of a disguise (marginally more effective than eye glasses, it has to be said), and resigns herself to starting a new life on Earth. Superman explains to young Kara that she better not reveal her super-self to the world; the existence of a Supergirl on Earth is to remain, for now, a secret known only to the Man of Steel himself. Dutifully Kara agrees, and settles down happily to life as an orphan in the small town of Midvale.* But with Supes gone, Kara quickly throws off her Linda disguise and swooshes out of her bedroom window on night patrol. After all, she never actually agreed not to be Supergirl, she just agreed not to get caught being Supergirl..! She may be ‘super’, but she’s still a ‘girl’ — last thing she wants is any man getting in her way of having fun.
* in Superman Family #203 we’re told Midvale geographically lies somewhere between Superboy’s home of Smallville and Superman’s home of Metropolis
Over the coming quarter of a century Linda Lee would flitter from one life to the next, reinvent herself over and over in a restless search for balance and belonging. While cousin Clark’s life remained staid and predictable (same job, same glasses, same striped tie), Linda barely remained in any place more than two years before storming out of her job, gathering up her possessions, and flying off to start over in a new part of the country. Kara was in her teens when Argo City’s destruction had forced her to reinvent herself for the first time, and it seems the impact of those events never quite left her.
In later years there would be the inevitable retconning of Kara’s origin. In Action Comics #305 (Oct 1963) we discover that Kara in fact piloted her purple rocket carefully to the ground, having deliberately scouted for an unpopulated area first. This means that she must have flipped the craft over onto its nose, slammed it into the side of a hill, then climbed back inside and patiently waited for her cousin to arrive. Just a few months later in Action Comics #308 (Jan 1964) we also learn that Kara was not above pulling the wrong lever during landing, and accidentally ejecting a Kryptonian food capsule from her rocket. Whoops! In Superman Family #203 (Oct 1980) it is revealed that Kara’s crashed rocket resulted in a young Midvale resident ending up in a coma. Much later, in Daring New Adventures of Supergirl #1 (Nov 1982), we finally learn that Kara hated her life in the orphanage, and was thankful when she escaped thanks to Fred and Edna Danvers. But despite the numerous re-tellings and re-tweakings over the decades, the core details always remained constant: Kara Zor-El, the brave young orphan from long dead Argo City, fell to Earth in a rocket ship and became Linda Lee… the Maid of Might… the Girl of Steel… the first true SUPERGIRL !!
At 12:17pm EST, on 18th May 1959, the world got its first superheroine with the potential to live up to the mighty Superman — but her path to eventually fulfilling that potential would be a long and often winding one. Read on…