Down, but not quite out
It had taken Linda Danvers six and a half years to graduate from Stanhope College, but she would attend Vandyne University for less than eighteen months. That’s what happens when you spend less time travelling around the galaxy as inter-galactic law enforcement, and more time studying your books on campus. After such an intense period of academic work, the Girl of Steel had earned the right to take it easy for a while — unbeknownst to Supergirl, an enforced period of rest was just what DC had in mind.
The late 1960s had been a good time for DC superheroes; the zany pow-zap-splat antics of the Batman tv show had increased interest and boosted sales, not only of flying rodent characters, but right across DC’s stable of heroes, and beyond to other publishers. But all good things come to an end, and when the Adam West bubble finally burst (in a large animated POP! caption), superheros became once again just one comicbook genre, among many.
By the mid-70s, DC was looking for a new plan to support its superheroes, and it found it almost by chance when a publishing experiment revealed that readers were enthusiastic about 80 or 100 page comics, with wider profit margins.
Armed with this knowledge, DC developed a three pronged strategy: keep their profitable big-name (licensable) characters in their own regular comicbooks, cancel the worst selling titles outright, and merge everything in-between into super-sized anthology titles. As such, characters with decent sales but limited licensing possibilities found themselves uncomfortably sandwiched together into the pages of titles such as Superman Family, Batman Family, or Super-Team Family. And so inevitably, in March 1974, Supergirl was unceremoniously evicted from her own comic after just nine issues (a tenth would be published posthumously), to be lumped in with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in a new 100 page bimonthly anthology.
As with all shared accommodation, the only way to prevent World War III from breaking out is to have a clear and unequivocal demarcation of resources (which shelf in the fridge belongs to who) and a strict schedule of work (whose turn it is to clean the oven and feed Streaky the Super Cat.) And so it was with this new super co-habitation: only one of the three main characters would get an original story each issue, the other two would have to survive on reprints.
Therefore, on a bi-monthly schedule, each character would get only two original stories per year. Kara certainly was taking it easy.
Having formerly been one of DC’s leading superheroines, with backup and lead strips in popular DC comics, Kara was now left scrounging an existence on just a few original pages each year. What a downfall..!
Fortunately for the Girl of Steel this would turn out to be just the calm before the storm. Kara would end her Superman Family journey as the title’s lead character, dominating the cover and overshadowing her companions to quickly take (and hold) the opening story slot in the comic. Indeed, by the time Superman Family ended in 1982, Supergirl had finally shaken off the accusation of mere Superman knock-off, to become a first rate, top-tier, superhero in her own right… alongside the best of DC.
Supergirl’s journey through her Superman Family years is, therefore, a tale that begins with Kara severely curtailed as a result of a huge contraction within the superhero genre, followed by her rebirth, as she slowly regains respect and confidence, to re-establishing herself as a dominant player in the DC canon, arguably better regarded than she had ever been before.
Back to work
Supergirl’s first original Superman Family tale had to wait until its second issue; Princess of the Golden Sun (Superman Family #165, May 1974) * relocates Linda Danvers from Vandyre University in San Francisco, to New Athens Experimental School in Florida, where she goes back into the workforce as a Student Advisor. There’s little explanation in the pages of the comic as to why this shift in Linda’s life has happened, but in the real world it’s likely that editor Julius Schwartz wanted to reverse Dorothy Woolfolk’s decision (at the start of Supergirl Vol. 1) to transform Linda back into a college student.
At the start of the story Linda drops a hint that she is becoming restless with her dual life. “I’d rather be a genuine flesh-and-blood woman than a Supergirl!”, she tells Superman, “it was a kick at first — the fame — the glory… concealing my secret identity… But it was all piled on my shoulders the day I landed on Earth… And… Well, I’m just not the world-saver you were born to be!”
Cousin Kal, as is often the case, is just a dick about it: “I can respect your feelings even if I can’t agree with them.” (In other words: I respect your right to be wrong, Kara!)
Nevertheless, Kara sets off for her new life in Florida by plane, hoping that she can make a difference in the world while spending less time in her cape and boots (little does she know that DC have already granted her wish, thanks to their new anthology policy.) But no sooner has Linda unpacked the potted plants onto her new office desk, than a super powered Aztec princess named Tlaca shows up looking for a worthy opponent to fight. “Crazies follow me around like puppies!” thinks Linda, as Tlaca crashes into the campus offices without even making a reservation — well, serves you right Supergirl for giving your forwarding address to the Legion of Super-Villains.
The story plays out with Linda attempting to help a troubled student reconnect with her birth mother, while being interrupted as Tlaca shows up looking for a scrap with Supergirl. While Silver Age Kara would have relished the opportunity to switch into costume and go into action, this new Kara seems to see her Supergirl persona as more of a necessary evil.
At the end of the story Linda drops in on her cousin to tell him how delighted she is at her new job, only to be given another lecture about her responsibilities. Silver Age Kara would have immediately acquiesced, but the new Kara immediately pushes back with good humour: “You know cousin… you can be a real drag!”
That’s putting it diplomatically, Kara.
Away from the crowded pages of Superman Family, Kara’s restlessness was the subject of a special one-off tale in Superman Vol. 1 #282 (Dec 1974), entitled The Loneliest Man in the Universe. Kara appears only briefly at the start and end, merely as an excuse for Kal-El to spin one of his tales of Krypton yarns, but the Girl of Steel’s dialogue is far more interesting that Kal’s dusty old ancestor tales. “This life of a super-heroine takes up too much of my time…”, she muses, “… sets me apart from everybody else! I want an ordinary life — with a husband and children some day — free to do what I choose!”
Back inside the pages of Superman Family, The Girl with the See-Through Mind (Superman Family #168, Dec 1974) heralded the return of Linda’s old friend, Lena Thorul, after an absence of four and a half years.** Lena is the telepathic little sister of Lex Luthor, although the family connection to Superman’s arch foe is unknown to Lena, as her family disowned the criminal mastermind when she was just a small child.
Linda has invited Lena to give a lecture at the university about telepathy, but when she drops in on her old friend, she finds Lena conducting experiments on a reluctant student, Jan Thurston. (This was an age before formal research ethics, when university academics could do pretty much anything to a student, so long at nobody died or lost an eye.) Jan has fantastical E.S.P. powers, but — much like the plot of a certain Bruce Willis movie — the psychic visions she sees trouble her enormously, and alienate her from fellow students.
After saving Jan from a couple of suicide attempts, Supergirl and Lena resolve to get to the truth behind the psychic visions that have been troubling Jan so badly. As the plot unfolds, a non-so-hidden subtext is revealed. Each of the three women are different in some way — Lena can read minds, Jan has visions, and Kara is… well… a strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Moreover, each of them consider their differences to be a curse in some way, because it distances them from normal people. But by the end of the story each woman is dedicated to trying to see the advantages in their difference.
The story is a heart-warming be who you are message of personal empowerment, coupled with a bit of ethical teaching about tolerating people with differences (because aren’t we all different in some way?), which comes off surprisingly well given the limited constraints of the 70s comic strip format.
There’s a real sense in these opening two stories that the writers are trying to do intelligent, thoughtful, storylines — ones that rely on the human interest elements of Linda’s job as a student advisor as much as the superheroic antics of Supergirl. It’s a brave attempt, and it mostly pays off. Unfortunately the remaining four Supergirl stories that see out the rotation era of Superman Family don’t fare quite so well.
After just one year, DC dropped the price of Superman Family from 60¢ to just 50¢, but also slashed the page count from 100 to 68. Seemingly out of sympathy, the writers likewise lowered the ambitions of their scripts.
Cleopatra, Queen of America (Superman Family #171, May 1975) sees Supergirl teaming up with Batgirl once again (the fourth time), both seemingly still unaware of the other’s secret identity. A visit to an Egyptian museum exhibition sees an innocent exchange student possessed by the spirit of Queen Cleopatra, who subsequently uses her hypnotic powers to defeat the Justice League of America and appoint herself queen of the United States.
Six months later, and Kurt Schaffenberger resumed the art duties, as Eyes of the Serpent (Superman Family #174, Dec 1975) serves up a convoluted tale of a shape shifting lizard and a guy with a lyre. Then six month further along brought Bride of the Stars (Superman Family #177, May 1976), which revived the Action Comics meme of a handsome alien visiting Earth with plans to take Kara Zor-El as his bride. The final rotation era story is The Secret of the Spell-Bound Supergirl (Superman Family #180, Nov 1976), which sees Supergirl suffering from memory blackouts thanks (it transpires) to a galactic urn.
When the gimmicky scripts and the cartoon-like Schaffenberger art are combined, one could almost be forgiven for thinking Kara had slipped backward through a time warp into the Silver Age.
* Numbering for Superman Family picked up from Jimmy Olsen’s comic, which had published more issues than the other merged characters at 163.
** Strangely, there’s no mention of Jeff Colby (Lena’s husband) or her son, and Lena is referred to using her maiden name rather than her married name.
Trial and tribulation
The Girl of Steel had hit rock bottom. Only two original stories per year, and in a style that harked back to the gimmick heavy Silver Age era.
Thankfully by mid 1977, with live action version of Wonder Woman, Hulk, Spider-Man, and Superman all in production, the fortunes of superhero comics were steadily reviving. And so, DC decided it was time to reformat Superman Family. From 50¢, the price was doubled to $1, and page count was likewise doubled from 68 to, erm, 80 pages.
But actually, it wasn’t quite the con it seemed. With Superman Family #182 the rotation policy (that saw just two Supergirl stories published each year from 1974 to 1977) was banished, and all the leading characters got brand new material in almost every issue. Plus, there was room for a handful of support features too, from the menagerie of Kryptonian backup strips DC had amassed over the years (Krypto, Nightwing/Flamebird, Mr. and Mrs. Superman, Clark Kent, etc.)
The makeover saw Jack C. Harris take over regular script duties, with various artists providing the pencils, mostly inked by Vince Colletta to start with. Immediately the tone changed to something less comical, and more befitting a heroine of Kara’s stature.
The Deadly Treasure of Mars (Superman Family #182, Mar 1977) saw Kara thwart a devilishly clever scheme from Lex Luthor to recover Kryptonite on Mars (Earth’s supplies were turned into iron in Superman #233; part of editor Julius Schwartz’s de-gimmicking of the DC universe.) The story depicts Kara as a heroine more than capable of outwitting the most powerful of DC’s villains, just as she had been during the peak of her Adventure Comics run. It signalled a welcome return to a more serious approach to the character, and the change was compounded in the very next story, that deputed a powerful new enemy for Kara.
Shadows of Phantoms (Superman Family #183, Apr 1977) finds Kara investigating university researcher Sylvia Shadow, after New Athens student participants in Sylvia’s research programme start complaining of narcolepsy. (Remember, so long as nobody dies or loses and eye…) Sylvia turns out to be none other than Phantom Zone escapee, Shyla Kor-Onn (in this story known only by her first name.) Her experiments involve draining the life energy from participants, and — of course — she relishes the idea of plugging her machine into someone as powerful as Linda ‘Supergirl’ Danvers.
The fact that original Supergirl material was now appearing in every issue of Superman Family meant that writer Jack C. Harris could now tackle longer, multi-issue, stories with confidence; and this he did in issue #184 when he kicked off a storyline that would run and run and run and run, slowly unfolding over countless stories across the next four years. The début instalment spanned three issues (Superman Family #184 to #186, Jun to Nov 1977), with the plot involving Linda’s adopted father, Fred Danvers, who had managed to get himself kidnapped by mysterious characters known as the Visitors. The Visitors had an uncanny habit of materialising out of nowhere to attack Kara and her adopted mother; by the end of the story Supergirl manages to return everything to normal, but seeds of doubt are planted as to who the Visitors are really working for.
Interestingly, in the second part of the story Supergirl frets that she won’t get home in time to see The Bionic Woman on tv. It’s an odd juxtaposition of reality and the fantasy, making one wonder if the good citizens of Gotham or Metropolis (where flying women and homicidal giant robots are commonplace) would really be enamoured by a superheroine whose main claim to fame is that she can jump two floors of a building, providing her batteries are fully charged(..?)
Jack Harris’ penchant for stories that span many years showed up in the next tale, Kandor vs. Supergirl and Memories of Menace (Superman Family #188 and #189, Mar and Apr 1978), which was a sequel to a tale from seventeen years (yup, count ’em!) previous.
While visiting Kandor, Supergirl is arrested on charges of illegally imprisoning Shyla Kor-Onn in the Phantom Zone at the end of their previous encounter. Key to Shyla’s case is the accusation that Kara is a traitor, who merely poses as a champion of justice on Earth, while secretly conspiring with super-villains. Memories scanned directly from Lex Luthor’s brain appear to show a youthful Supergirl striking a deal with Lex to betray Superman — Kara herself has no recollection of these events.
Fleeing the court, Kara travels into the Phantom Zone, where Mon-El informs her that Lex’s memories in fact relate to her doppelgänger, Lesla-Lar, who had assumed Kara’s dual identities in Action Comics #279 to #282 (Jul to Sep 1961) — an entire generation of DC fandom earlier.
Strangely, nobody seems to notice that Kara had aged only a few years during that decade and a half time period.
Next, Harris started to introduce a steady cast of supporting players to Linda’s university life. Co-worker Valerie Myles was to become Linda’s best friend, but their relationship became complicated when Linda fell in love with Valerie’s former boyfriend, Peter Barton. Barton, meanwhile, was rebutting Valerie’s attempts to rekindle their relationship, because he erroneously believed that Val and Supergirl were one in the same.
Displaced Double Identity (Superman Family #196, Jun 1979) kicked the storyline off: jewellery featuring an extraterrestrial gem unexpectedly causes Linda’s thoughts to be transplanted into her Valerie’s mind. This results in the comical situation of both women running off to switch into Supergirl — only one of them actually has a costume hidden beneath her clothes, of course.
As Harris’ tenure as writer continued, Supergirl’s adventures slowly grew to dominate Superman Family. From #199 onwards Supergirl was almost always given the large central panel on the (over-crowded) cover, and her strip was usually placed at the head of the issue’s running order. By now Supergirl had a regular art team of Win Mortimer and Vince Colletta, producing very dynamic pencils and clean inks, while Harris continued his writing habit of exploiting Supergirl’s history for sensational story opportunities, sometimes delving deep into her past.
The Supergirl from Planet Earth (Superman Family #203, Aug 1980) introduced Ellie Leeds, a young girl who awakes from a coma, convinced that she is Supergirl. You’d have thought the veracity of such a statement would have been trivial to test, a short leap off a tall building would have been sufficient, but Ellie seems to exhibit powers just like the genuine Supergirl. As the mystery unfolds, it is revealed that Ellie was the first human to stumble across Kara’s crashed rocket ship in 1959, before Kal-El himself arrived on the scene.
Then, finally, in Strangers at the Heart’s Core (Superman Family #206, Mar 1981), the background story arc that had begun with the Visitors kidnapping Fred Danvers in 1977 came to its climate. The hidden hand behind many of the recent stories was revealed, at last, to be a strange sentient energy field, imbued with the crazed spirit of none other than Lesla-Lar.*
The ensuing battle takes place in Supergirl’s head, as an insane Lesla-Lar slowly distorts reality in an attempt to seize control of the Girl of Steel’s mind, convinced that she is actually Kara Zor-El’s identical twin sister, and that (Kara’s parents) Zor-El and Alura must answer for abandoning her.
Supergirl finally overcomes Lelsa, and dismisses her ramblings as nonsense: “that we’re identical is a cosmic coincidence!”
Evidently the Girl of Steel never bothered to read any of her own Silver Age comics.
And so, after seven years as a New Athens University student advisor, and with her monumental story arc finally now resolved, Linda Danvers decided it was time to move on. With the help of Peter Barton (the pair never quite made it romantically), she resigns her position at New Athens, and reignites her passion for acting by landing herself a job as a fledgling actress on a daytime soap opera.
From Florida to New York — Kara Zor-El was about to take on Manhattan.
* Lesla-Lar had last appeared in Action Comics #297, eighteen years before.
It is ironic that the Girl of Steel was embarking on a new career as a soap star, when all through her New Athens era writer Jack C. Harris had been slowly building up a cast of regular characters around Linda, creating an almost soap-like format. So it’s no surprise that the very first episode of Supergirl’s New York adventures begins with a whirlwind introduction to a whole new cast of friends and work colleagues for Linda.
As a star of Secret Hearts, Kara now answered to four different names: Kara Zor-El (her Krypton name), Linda Lee Danvers (her everyday Earth identity), Supergirl (her crime fighting persona), and Margo Hatton (her soap role). And to make maintaining her multi-identities even more complicated, soon after Linda began her acting career, a newly widowed Lena Thorul decided to follow her to the Big Apple, getting a job on the Secret Hearts production team.
Lena’s story would be the last long-running story arc Harris would attempt in the pages of Superman Family, and it proved to be quite a triumph.
Lena’s telepathy had always been a threat to Linda’s dual identity; The Man with the Explosive Mind (Superman Family #211, Sep 1981) saw that threat boosted when Lena’s abilities are enhanced by a psychic super villain known as The Mind Bomber. A fire in a theatre causes Lena to telepathically deduce that Linda wants to vanish, to strip into her Supergirl costume. Lena subconsciously leaks the information to the Mind Bomber, who then uses it to target Supergirl in her Linda identity. Supergirl and Lena unite to defeat the psychic villain, but Kara is left with mixed feelings about her friend now knowing about her dual identity.
Just two issues later (Superman Family #213, Dec 1981) Lena suffers a cerebral haemorrhage. In the next issue (Jan 1982), as Lena recovers in hospital with her head shaven from emergency brain surgery, she apparently has forgotten the secret of Linda’s dual identity, but finally remembered her family’s own little secret: that she is the kid sister of Lex Luthor. Her anger at Supergirl for keeping the Luthor/Thorul connection concealed results in Lena’s enhanced psychic powers going haywire, creating in a telekinetic onslaught on the Girl of Steel, who is seemingly killed. But it all turns out to be a plot by a wealthy criminal gang known as the Super-Crime Task Force, out for revenge on Lex Luthor by targeting his little sister.
With the truth finally out about Lena’s family, all Supergirl can do is allow her friend to begin the process of reconciliation with the revelations of her past. Finally, after being in the dark since the Silver Age, Lena finally knows the truth of her past, and her story arrives at a sense of closure.
The final few issues of the Superman Family run saw the Girl of Steel facing off against a plethora of threats to the Big Apple. Criminal masterminds abound, including one story involving a super-criminal from Earth’s future being chased by a future version of Supergirl. All of it entertaining, and all of it is competently written.
Amidst these final few issues is hidden an unassuming little singler-parter that is super-fun.
We Interrupt This Program (Superman Family #217, Mar 1982) begins with Linda Danvers being interviewed live on tv, when the airwaves are hijacked by a madman claiming to have planted mini bombs on the jurors responsible for sending him to prison some twenty years ago. The chat show opts to take a two minute break, giving Linda just enough time to switch to Supergirl, dash around the city like a mad woman to save each victim, apprehend the culprit, then return to the studio just in time for the show to restart.
This quirky little gimmick-driven story, typical of other humorous single-part DC tales of the time, is notable for two reasons. First, because it’s gimmick shows a spark of imagination and a hint of subtle knowing comedy, lacking in the Girl of Steel’s Silver Age tales. Second, because the story shows how Kara is, yet again, struggling to play both her parts as Linda and Supergirl successfully.
This conflict between Linda Danvers and Supergirl — between the desire to have the life of an everyday gal, while respecting the responsibilities that came with her incredible superpowers — had continued to be a defining quality of the character since her first Superman Family appearance. Unlike her cousin, Kal-El, Kara Zor-El remembers having a normal life back on Argo City, when she was no more special or super than anyone else. These memories of normality seemed to haunt Kara, now that she had grown into adulthood.
Being both a superhero and a well known media personality was just too surreal — neither identity gave Kara the grounding she needed to stay sane. So, when the studio threatened to up Linda’s pay and give Margo Hatton a more prominent role in the show, Linda dramatically resigned from Secret Hearts.
Once again Kara was restless.
Supergirl’s Superman Family journey saw her navigating one of the most difficult periods in comicbook history. The US economy was the weakest it had been for a while — the 1973 and 1979 oil crises drove inflation and increased the production costs of making and distributing comics. DC faced cut-throat competition from Marvel, who overtook DC to take a market lead in 1972; while throughout the decade the traditional newsstand market declined, as newer dedicated comicbook retailers (direct market distribution) began to take over.
Superman Family is the era when Kara started to have doubts about her career as a superhero. No longer the wide-eyed young innocent, fresh off the (rocket) ship from Argo City; the mid 1970s Kara wanted to settle down, get married, have kids, and lead a normal life. She was more mature, more savvy, and more confident in what she wanted from life.
Yet, still, she struggled to achieve her goals.
It was a restlessness that would become one of the defining characteristics of the character throughout her later 70s adventures, and well into the 1980s.
Although Superman Family was conceived as a comicbook for all of Superman’s supporting characters, it is quite apparent by the mid point of its run that Supergirl had become the star. This slow build up of prestige and credibility could (with hindsight) be seen as the start of Kara’s second renascence. It established a version of Supergirl that formed the foundation for arguably her greatest pre-Crisis period (Supergirl Vol. 2).
Supergirl’s comicbook journey thus far had been one of highs and lows — every time she’d taken two steps forward, she seemed to follow up with a step back. The Girl of Steel had struggled to maintain a consistent run of serious stories, amidst frequent reversions back into gimmick-based tales of giant robots and intergalactic lotharios. But finally, from 1977 onwards, under the stewardship of Jack C. Harris, the Maid of Might got what she had long deserved.
And from this point on, there would be no going back…