Daring and new
By the early 1980s Supergirl’s twenty-plus year journey as a superheroine had seen many highs and lows. DC estimated that their average reader stayed with comics for approximately seven years: from early-readers through to young teens — by the 80s Kara had been through several generations of readers, and had been reinvented for each. Looking back over her career thus far, one could be mistake for thinking that Kara changed her role within the DC universe almost as often as she changed her socks (or, in the case of her Adventure Comics outings, her costume!) It almost seemed like Kara herself had forgotten who she was… Was she the plucky teen from her early adventures, who so wanted to emulate her older cousin? Or perhaps the clean-living young woman of the early 1960s stories, trying to find the right boyfriend? Or maybe the embattled career girl of much of her 1970s tales, fighting against the world in both identities?
By late 1982 Supergirl had been the lead story and predominant cover star of the Superman Family anthology book for some time, and father and son team Alexander and Ilya Salkind were on the verge of launching the Girl of Steel into her own blockbuster movie series. (Nobody had yet seen the movie back in 1982, so it was still safe to use words like blockbuster.) Somehow, miraculously, these facts came to the attention of someone deep inside the hallowed halls of 75 Rockefeller Plaza (home of Warner Bros.), with the consequence that wheels began to turn and gears began to grind, and before anyone knew it, the Maid of Might had been launched back into her own title once again. But the comicbook landscape of the early 1980s was a very different one to the 1970s, when Supergirl had first been launched into her own title.
For decades the retail outlets for superhero comics had remained largely unchanged: newsstands, drug stores, grocery stores, and other convenience outlets. But in the late 1970s the market had begun to shift. A new breed of store opened up catering exclusively for comicbook fans, stocking second hand back issues, and brand new issues sourced directly from the publishers (the so-called direct market.) These shops helped cement a slow shift in the demographic of comicbook readers from kids and early teens, towards young adults and twenty-somethings.
As the 80s arrived DC’s output was still in flux between these two markets, featuring more ambitious storytelling aimed at adults, while at the same time respecting the storytelling canon inherited from decades of aiming their product at children. But as the decade wore on serving the new adult market while remaining true to the accumulated decades of childish gimmicky was becoming a strain. By 1985, DC’s fiftieth year of publishing comicbooks, the decision was taken to make a clean break — sweep away the old canon and start over from scratch. The epic storyline that served as the excuse to decouple the past was known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it was to have a massive impact on many DC characters, particularly Kara Zor-El.
This, then, is the story of the events leading up to Crisis. It’s a period that is considered by many to be Supergirl’s finest hour. Kara’ 80s adventures reflect the duality of the market during this era, mashing classic out-and-out fantasy with more realistic characterisations and plot sophistication. There’s certainly some bold storytelling hidden within the pages, and some surprises too. But it begins — as so many Supergirl reboots begin — with a restless Kara once again on the move…
Winds of change
The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl Vol. 2 #1 (Nov 1982) kicks off with Kara on a slow train from New York towards her new life in Chicago. As the train rumbles on its way, our heroine reflects on how she had failed to find a suitable balance in the Big Apple between her everyday life as Linda Danvers and her exciting superheroic career as Supergirl. The eschewing of her usual mode of relocation (stuffing suitcases and literally throwing them half way across the country) is meant to by symptomatic of Kara’s restlessness with her costumed life. It’s a theme that writers had been exploring off-and-on since the mid 1970s: how to balance the awesome responsibilities of superpowers with the everyday hum-drum life that delivers much needed relationships with friends and loved ones. As the train rumbles on, Kara’s origin is once again retold. And once again it is tweaked, revealing just how much young Kara hated Midvale Orphanage. The happy return of her birth parents from the Survival Zone is mysteriously omitted, painting the picture of a young woman still tussling with a tragic past.
With her career as a daytime tv star having given her some degree of financial security, Linda has decided to go back to college as a mature student, this time swapping Drama for Psychology. And so readers find Linda making her way to Lake Shore University, and straight into the path of the ditsy and fun-loving whirlwind that is Joan Raymond. In the space of just a few panels Joan not only helps Linda register for her course, but also insists that Linda moves into her student apartment building, thereby giving the Maid of Might a new home and (via Joan) an instant cohort of new friends.
(Interesting note: Linda’s new home, 1537 West Fargo Ave., is a real apartment block in Chicago.)
Not only does Linda make friends fast, but she’s also pretty speedy with her enemies too. Within moments of teaming up with Joan, Linda runs into Gayle Marsh (literally), who will turn out to be this issue’s adversary. Gayle is a nervous young woman cursed by her own peculiar powers, and watched over by the enigmatic Mr. Pendergast. Pendgergast has convinced the troubled mutant that her incredible psychic powers must be used “to wipe out the decay!” (whatever that means), which apparently demands a showdown with the new-in-town Girl of Steel. And so the seeds are planted for the issue’s inevitable final confrontation between Supergirl and PSI (aka Gayle) over the Chicago waterfront.
As the Decay storyline plays out over the next two issues (DNAoS #2, Dec 1982, and #3, Jan 1983) the befuddled Gayle begins to sense the evil intentions of Mr. Pendgergast, but her psychic powers inexplicably transform him into a giant squishy monster — Decay! — who immediately starts roaming the back streets of Chicago feeding on the life force of the homeless — as giant squishy monsters have wont to do. Inevitably both Supergirl and PSI become set on a collision course with Decay, and each other.
In this opening story writer Paul Kupperberg treats the reader to many of the themes and ideas that will inform the rest of series: female characters firmly in the spotlight, a focus on Linda’s personal life as well as her career in costume, and opponents who aren’t necessarily out-and-out villains. While the action is still very much classic comicbook in tone, the characters (extending beyond just the title character herself) have a complexity and nuance lacking in previous incarnations of the Girl of Steel’s adventures.
Before moving past this opening tale, it is worth pointing out that the artwork in these issues, and for much of the series’ twenty-three issue run, came courtesy of the pencils of Carmine Infantino and the inks of Bob Oksner. (The cover for issue one was by Dick Giordano, who would soon play his own inglorious role in Supergirl’s history.) Infantino was something of a legend in the comicbook world. By the early 80s he was a freelancer working on a variety of DC strips (some of them instantly forgettable — Dial H for Hero, anyone?), but only a decade earlier Carmine Infantino had been at the top of the industry, holding numerous executive and editorial posts at DC simultaneously (they kept promoting him without rescinding his existing duties.) As an artist Infantino delighted readers with his ground-breaking use of design and panel layout, as an art director he drove DC’s move away from the staid art of the Silver Age towards the contemporary renderings that defined the Bronze Age, and once he reached executive levels Infantino delivered better pay rates for artists and writers, reprint payments, and granted artists the rights to keep their original artwork.
The next issue (DNAoS #4, Feb 1983) kicks off a tale that will delve deep into the psyche of the Girl of Steel. Supergirl intercepts a gang of super powered technology thieves, only to fall under the hypnotic spell of one of the gang, known as Ms. Mesmer. Crooked businessman Lester Adams is the gang’s employer, and by a wacky co-incidence he happens to be paying Linda’s affable but dimwitted housemate, Johnny Ostrander, as a courier to deliver the gang’s fee. When Johnny absentmindedly gets sidetracked on route to drop off the high-tech thieves’ latest payments, they track him down, and Linda has to bail out of an afternoon with her adopted parents to save him. But a second blast from Ms. Mesmer leaves Supergirl in a panicked stated, as she becomes certain that everyone can see through her secret identity.
It takes some persuasion by Fred and Edna Danvers to convince their daughter that the world’s only sees Supergirl, not Linda. Fighting back the fear of her greatest secret being exposed, the Maid of Might sets out to track down the gang, and get the deep hypnotic suggestion reversed.
The story introduces a recurring theme that will crop up many times over the course of the series: the interweaving of Linda’s personal life and friends with her Supergirl adventures. In past incarnations Linda’s friends were few and far between, and only sporadically interacted with her career as Supergirl. Indeed in the Silver Age, aside from Dick Malverne, Linda seemed to inherit a brand new set of college friends with each adventure. In Daring New Adventures, by contrast, writer Paul Kupperberg surrounds Linda with large ensemble cast, including fellow students, friends of friends, Linda’s landlady, and the professor she part-times for — all of them, in one way or another, will be sucked into Kara’s costumed antics during the series run.
Throughout the series Kupperberg is careful to build a consistent world around Kara, and here he is helped a little by Intantino. The series skirts around many of the wackier events of Kara’s past, employing a strategy of selective amnesia to drop messy Silver Age novelties such as the survival of Zor-El and Alura. Other historic elements are soft-rebooted, such as the re-invention of Streaky as an everyday stray cat who takes a shine to Linda (DNAoS #6, Apr 1983.) When quizzed about the name by Joan Raymond, Linda explains, “Let’s just say she reminds me of a cat I used to own!”
Although Streaky Mk II plays no part in the narrative of any story, Infantino often drew her into the odd panel here and there for the duration of the series’ run, adding to the impression that Supergirl’s adventures take place within a consistent universe of people and things that continue to exist even when the Girl of Steel isn’t around. During the first half of the series, Infantino even maintained consistency with Linda’s wardrobe, re-using items of clothing across issues to suggest that Linda is pulling together outfits from a finite supply of garments.
While Supergirl’s milieu had often seemed highly disposable in previous incarnations, DNAoS gave her an environment that was solid, permanent, and reoccurring. Consequently, the storytelling can’t help but feel more grown up.
Girls of Steel
With a gaggle of friends and supporting characters around her, all the Maid of Might needed was some decent opposition. That arrived in DNAoS #8 (Jun 1983) with the introduction of Reactron — his debut appearance in the DC universe. The story guests Doom Patrol, who step in to handle a disturbance in Grant Park when Linda Danvers is unable to break away from her friends to make the switch to Supergirl.
The same issue sees Linda acquire a boyfriend: concert musician Philip Decker. Kara hadn’t really had a serious ongoing boyfriend since Dick Malverne, whose 1960s flirtations had to confine themselves to innocent trips to the movies and occasionally holding hands. Philip Decker got to enjoy much more, including romantic cuddles with his Hot Dog (yep, he gave Kara a pet name!), but even though it was the 1980s DC still shied away from actually showing the pair in bed together.
The finale battle with Reactron doses Kara with a massive amount of radiation, hitting the Girl of Steel like a bad case of the flu. When a sub-par Supergirl is subsequently defeated in battle against a giant robot (think Transformers, but without the actual transforming), her unconscious body is delivered into the hands of Professor Drake, a mad scientist from central casting who is in the employ of a shadowy criminal syndicate (DNAoS #10, Aug 1983.) Dunking Supergirl into a tank of mysterious high-tech liquid, Drake produces six mini Kara Zor-El clones, each naked apart from some conveniently positioned bubbles. Supergirl escapes, but is pursued to the Fortress of Solitude by her pint-sized clones (now, thankfully, each clothed in a miniature Supergirl outfit), who are intent on destroying her.
The epic battle inside the Fortress rages across two more issues (#11, Sep 1983, and #12, Oct 1983) before the regular sized Kara finally managed to subdue (but not destroy) her mini-me clones. With her costume in tatters, Supergirl decides to eschew running repairs in favour of a complete outfit makeover — and so the next issue opens with a revived Supergirl resplendent in a brand new super uniform, as a disinterested Superman frets over whether the damage to his Arctic home can be claimed back on the household contents insurance.
Kara’s costume transmogrification coincided with a transformation of the comic’s name; the The Daring New Adventures of … prefix apparently deemed to be superfluous, the title from issue thirteen onward is truncated to just the short and snappy “Supergirl“. Both Kara’s new togs, and the title’s new logo, were designed to echo the upcoming Helen Slater motion picture. (Perhaps if DC had known how the movie was going to play out, they might not have bothered.)
Supergirl Vol. 2 #13 (Nov 1983) kicks off what is certainly the boldest storyline of the whole series. The previous issue had seen a foreshadowing of the story to come when Linda’s Jewish landlady, Ida Berkowitz, had found a swastika daubed on her front door. As the story proper unfolds, Chicago is in the grip of a surge in antisemitism, fueled by the rabble rousing antics of a mysterious woman. Linda Danvers and Philip Decker attend a rally held by the charismatic speaker in Grant Park, but when the crowd is whipped up into a near-riot fervor, Linda promptly does her usual vanishing act so that she can reappear as Supergirl. Confronted by the Girl of Steel, the mysterious speaker performs her own transformation, revealing herself as Blackstarr, a crazed witch-like creature overflowing with the power of the cosmos.
Following the ensuing off-and-on skirmishes between Supergirl and Blackstarr on the tv news, Ida Berkowitz becomes more and more convinced that Blackstarr is really her daughter, Rachael, who had been presumed killed at the hands of the Nazi’s final solution in World War II. Although Linda is doubtful, it transpires that the fascist super-villain is indeed Ida’s long lost daughter, twisted into hatred for her own people and out for revenge on a mother she assumed abandoned her in the concentration camps as a child.
The Blackstarr story spans across several issues, and although it remains at its core a classic four-colour tale of super powered good and evil, it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of antisemitism, and the shameful history of Nazi dominated Europe. Although the story is ambitious, bold, and certainly well execute, the question has to be asked as to whether a genre about flying do-gooders in garish costumes is really the best forum to explore such powerful and terrifying genuine historic events(..?)
By the time Supergirl Vol. 2 #16 rolled around (Feb 1984) readers must have been gasping for some light relief, and they got it in the form of a guest appearance by the mercurial Ambush Bug. Bug’s ability to see right through Linda’s secret identity disguise triggered another soft reinventing of the Supergirl mythos: after twenty plus years of wearing a hairpiece, Kara finally decides to ditch the wig in favour of a more robust way of protecting her alter ego. A special energized comb treated with colour sensitive molecules gives her the ability to switch hair colour and style in an instant. In Supergirl Vol. 2 #21 (Jul 1984) a letter from Jim Larsen of New York pointed out that the idea had originally been suggested in a letter published in Action Comics #280 (Sep 1961) — it seems Supergirl doesn’t bother to read her own letters page.
Identity crisis, again
Despite many innovations, the stories in this period of Supergirl’s life still have at their core the familiar superhero storytelling framework — super-good versus super-evil, building towards the inevitable showdown decider in the skies over the city. One story stands out as very different, however: a single-parter that is as touching as it is surprising.
Who Stole Supergirl’s Life? (Supergirl Vol. 2 #19, May 1984) begins with a puzzled Linda Danvers witnessing Supergirl’s latest exploits live on television. Racing to confront the impostor, Linda quickly discovers that her super speed — indeed all her powers — are gone. The story then switches to the so-called impostor, who is herself wrestling with a mystery: she has the dim recollection that she is someone else other than just Supergirl, but she cannot remember who.
As the story unfolds both Linda (sans Supergirl) and Supergirl (sans Linda) seek answers, a journey which demands a revisiting of Kara’s tragic past as an orphan. The tale winds slowly towards an emotional conclusion (spoilers ahead!), when it is revealed that both women are technically Kara Zor-El thanks to the cloning experiments of Professor Drake a few months earlier. At this point any reader familiar with well-worn tropes of fantasy storytelling is expecting that the clone (in this case the powerless Kara) will get hit by a bus or fall conveniently off of a tall structure — but that’s not what happens here.
A tearful heart-to-heart at the finale sees both women come to an accommodation. “[…] it’s a big world out there… with plenty of room for two people with this face!“, explains Supergirl, “We can find a place for you… a name of your own…”
“My own life… not one stolen… or borrowed?“, sobs her powerless counterpart, as the two women embrace.
Although the story setup is somewhat dodgy, the emotion-changed rendering of both script and art gives Who Stole Supergirl’s Life? an elegance and sensitivity that is not often found in comicbooks of any age, either in the classic or modern era.
And talking of the classic and modern era: it is now time to deal with the single bridge-burning event which, above any other, defines the break between the two. Supergirl’s life is about to enter a true crisis…
You taught me to be brave
It is no secret that many of the writers at DC had little respect for the Girl of Steel. Dick Giordano, Vice President and Executive Editor at the time of Supergirl’s Daring New Adventures run, is alleged to have referred to Supergirl as “Superman with boobs.” It’s an attitude that many modern fans might find hard to reconcile with the character they know and love today, but there might perhaps be more to it than just naked male chauvinism.
By the 1980s, superhero comics had spent at least the past two decades being largely aimed at a juvenile male audience, written by relatively young male writers — there wasn’t much room for nuanced emotions or conflicts that didn’t resolve themselves with a fist fight. Tales like Who Stole Supergirl’s Life?, focusing exclusively on emotional conflict rather than physical conflict, were only just starting to find their way into print. When judged on those terms, Supergirl (whose physical capabilities are identical to those of Superman’s) is indistinguishable from her cousin. If writers won’t (or can’t) write stories that exploit a unique female perspective, Supergirl does indeed start to resemble nothing more than just Superman with boobs.
When DC decided to reboot its sprawling fifty year old superhero universe in 1985, one of the main concerns was the shear number of characters who had survived Krypton’s destruction. Marv Wolfman, writer on the Crisis on Infinite Earths series, is alleged to have commented:
Before Crisis it seemed that half of Krypton had survived the explosion. We had Superman, Supergirl, Krypto, the Phantom Zone criminals, the bottle city of Kandor and many others. Our goal was to make Superman unique. We went back to his origin and made Kal-El the only survivor of Krypton. That, sadly was why Supergirl had to die. However, we were thrilled by all the letters we received saying Supergirl’s death in Crisis was the best Supergirl story they ever read. Thank you. By the way, I miss Kara, too.
Supergirl’s second series of adventures came to an abrupt end after twenty-three issues, but the expectation was that she would be continued in a new title, DC Double Comics, with Superboy as a companion strip. Scripts were written, and penciled artwork even produced for the first issue, but the project was put on hold. With the failure of the Helen Slater movie, and the push to give the Man of Steel’s adventures more poignancy by making him the only survivor of Krypton, the wheels were inevitably set in motion to write Kara Zor-El out of the DC universe.
DC Vice President, Dick Giordano, sought the blessing of President, Jenette Kahn, who initially wavered, then agreed. With Kara’s fate confirmed, the fatal blow was scripted into the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series. But to add insult to injury, the mini-series was to package Kara’s death with the cruelest of twists: for Superman to exit Crisis as Krypton’s only survivor, Kara needed not only to be killed off, but erased entirely from history too.
Not just dead… but never alive..!
And so, with the publication of Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (Oct 1985), Kara Zor-El ended her twenty-six year career as Supergirl by sacrificing herself to save her cousin. A distraught Superman scoops her body up in his arms, and watches — powerless — as her life ebbs away.
“Y-you’re crying…“, she tells Kal-El, “Please don’t. You taught to me be brave… and I was…”
It is undeniable that the Daring New Adventures run allowed Supergirl to end on a high. The writing — while remaining true to the superhero formula — pushes the boundaries beyond what had previously been expected for Supergirl tales. The characterisations are more real, and the environments more tangible. Plus, of course, Infantino’s artwork brings a sense of sophistication and charm to the proceedings.
Unfortunately the series ends on a cliffhanger that fans never got to see resolved.
A rather clever storyline that played out over the latter part of the series saw Linda become ever more suspicious of her boyfriend, concert musician Philip Decker. Decker was prone to unexplained absences, causing Linda to suspect he was hiding something. The two quarrel, and Linda storms off. Later, she considers the hypocrisy of her position: as the Girl of Steel she too is prone to unexplained absences, which Decker has been taking in his stride. It is while these ideas are still swimming in her head that an unexpected visitor from Linda’s past shows up: Dick Malverne (fellow Midvale orphan, and Linda’s original Silver Age sweetheart) sweeps the Girl of Steel off her feet with a kiss. “Dick! I…mmmmphhhh!” a shocked Linda exclaims… and that’s where the tale ends.
Had DC Couple Comics gone ahead, and Kara survived the Crisis, writer Paul Kupperberg has claimed that Dick would have declared his undying love for Linda, but Linda would have turned him down, choosing to depart for an extended visit to New Krypton (home of her birth parents, Zor-El and Alura, assuming DC still acknowledged them.) Fans were never to see those adventures — but we can still ponder on what might have been.
It is ironic that, despite the best intentions of DC, pretty much all of the elements they sought to erase in their 1985 reboot eventually found their way back into the continuity, bit by bit. And this includes the Girl of Steel. The Supergirl of the Melissa Benoist tv series is almost indistinguishable from the classic Kara Zor-El whose rocket ship crash landed in Midvale all those decades ago: Argo City has been replaced by a time-traveling skirmish with the Phantom Zone, but aside from that, the characters are identical.
It seems that, despite their best efforts, DC just couldn’t kill the real Kara Zor-El…
And they probably never will..!