Out of sight
Look, up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Well, whatever it is, it isn’t likely to be Supergirl..!
Despite possessing all the same incredible powers as her cousin, Superman, at the end of her début story Supergirl had promised to stay strictly incognito. In a practical sense this meant that the Maid of Might got rather expert at pummelling through the earth to create vast networks of ad hoc tunnels linking any two places she happened to want to travel between. Quite how the Girl of Steel managed to do this without emerging looking like a navvy will forever remain a mystery, although the practice does explain why Midvale Orphanage vanished without trace into a vast sinkhole after the heavy rainstorms of 1978.
Keeping Supergirl hidden is explained within the text as the Man of Steel merely wanting to maintain a secret weapon — an emergency fallback option should his ability to act be constrained or compromised. This would give Kara space to explore her superpowers and learn all the accompanying superhero-craft; standard stuff, like making a mental note of each phone booth she passes, or only choosing friends dumb enough to be fooled by a disguise consisting of just a pair of glasses. It’s a plausible explanation in the four colour world of Midvale and Metropolis, but in the real world this artificial limitation was likely better explained by some over-cautious toe-dipping on behalf of the creative staff at DC.
The DC creatives may have been happy to experiment with a girlie version of Superman, particularly if it might entice increased girlie sales, but they weren’t about to undermine DC’s top alpha-male by sullying the DC universe with an untested character that straight away threatened Superman’s most powerful status.
And so began a trial period in Kara Zor-El life: a fight for recognition within the rectangular panels of the comicbooks, plus a parallel struggle in the real world to prove she could shape up alongside established heroes like Batman, Superman and The Flash. Within the rectangular panelled world her fate would be decided by Kal-El, but in reality her destiny would be driven by sales figures and letters pages — they, in turn, would be determined by whether DC could (for once!) find a winning super-woman formula.
In this chapter we take a look at the invisible girl probation era, starting just after Supergirl’s arrival on Earth (Action Comic #253, June 1959) through to the muddled epic that launches her into the world’s spotlight (Action Comics #285, Feb 1962). It starts with sweet innocent stories about orphans and kittens, but slowly morphs into tales of evil doppelgangers and time travelling hi-jinks. Along the way the DC creative staff slowly formulate a style of storytelling that was to inform the rest of the heroine’s career in comics, and beyond into the 2015 CBS television series.
Once upon a time in Midvale
Sandwiched between the Superman strip and Congorilla (“that amazing combination of a human mind and an ape’s body” — go figure!), Kara’s first true adventure is a simple enough affair. In The Secret of the Super-Orphan (Action Comics #253, Jun 1959), tearful orphan Timmy thinks he isn’t talented enough to be worth adopting by the comfortably off couples who typically tour Midvale Orphanage, until a humble farming couple named the Wilsons take a shine to him. Timmy’s hopes are dashed, however, when the orphanage deems the Wilsons to be just too poor to adopt children (because, y’know, the last thing anyone wants is to encourage the hoi polloi to raise children!) So up steps Supergirl, with her super excavation skills, to transform the Wilson farm into a profitable tourist attraction.
It’s a rather quaint tale, almost fairytale-like, that seems at odds with the standard superhero fare in the late 1950s. It can perhaps be best understood as a blatant attempt to define a gentler form of superhero; one what might play to the stereotype of what young girls are supposed to like reading. Nevertheless, the story gifted the fledgling heroine with an empathetic touch that was often absent from her bigger cousin’s adventures. It’s this ability to be both invulnerable superhuman physically, and vulnerable human emotionally, that would go on to become one of the character’s defining qualities.
(Rather fittingly, when the first comic strip was published as a tie in to the 2015 television show, the plot involved a rather heartfelt tale of Supergirl helping a lonely young child, separated from her family — it isn’t a million miles away from Timmy and the Wilsons.)
Subsequent tales in the months that followed established a number of set plot templates: Linda would use her superpowers for the benefit of fellow orphans … or … be adopted by a couple who present problems for her Supergirl identity … or … find some way of circumventing the letter of her pact with Superman by time travelling into the future or the past, so she could explore her superpowers. These stories create an impression of Kara as keen and resourceful, but occasionally naive too. Her adventures sometimes see her wandering into tricky situations that are resolved as much through good fortune as anything else.
A typical example is Supergirl’s first ever encounter with Kryptonite during a trip into the future, in Supergirl Visits the 21st Century (Action Comics #255, Aug 1959). Finding a wooded area to conceal herself after some superpowered antics, the Girl of Steel stumbles across one of the countless chunks of Green Kryptonite that have been strategically strewn throughout the galaxy by the creative staff of DC Comics. She’s saved not by cunning and intellect, but by two juvenile delinquents who happen to be out zapping random objects with their matter transforming ray gun. Fortunately these boys are young enough that when they see a pair of shapely female legs in red boots poking out from behind a nearby bush, they simply dismiss it as uninteresting. The mind boggles as to what might have happened if the young scamps had been the other side of puberty.
Interestingly, Supergirl almost had her first run in with Kryptonite a month earlier, when Superman needed rescuing from a huge chunk (Superman #130, Jul 1959) — but the writers passed over Supergirl in favour of Krypto the Super-dog. In Silver Age DC, a geriatric canine still outranked a teenage female, it seemed.
It would be entirely wrong, however, to dismiss Kara as nothing more than a naive lightweight, staggering from one unintended situation to the next. Even in her early adventures there is much to admire, and just sometimes she was even allowed to get the upper hand over Superman. Well, in a manner of speaking.
A classic example is Supergirl’s Farewell to Earth (Action Comics #258, Nov 1959), the story that sees Superman share his secret identity with Kara: when Kara reveals her existence to Krypto the Super-dog, Superman banishes her to live alone on a remote and desolate planet. But even from afar, Kara still figures out resourceful ways to help random occupants of Earth. Eventually returning home, Linda Lee is introduced to Clark Kent, who accuses her of being Kryptonian. When Linda doesn’t deny it, Kent reveals himself as Superman and chastises Kara a second time for not concealing her own secret identity. But Kara turns the tables: she’d already used her super-cunning to deduce Clark’s secret identity. Yay for Kara, one would assume… except the Man of Steel has to be given the last laugh, so the whole episode is explained as a carefully crafted plan by Superman to test Kara.
The twist was presumably meant to maintain Superman’s top dog status, but it is plucky young Kara who comes off looking very much the hero, while her cousin rather looks like a grade one dick… and a cruel and pedantic one at that..!
Although early Kara is always portrayed as totally submissive to the authority of her older cousin, nobody could ever accuse her of being timid. Kara displays right from the very start a willingness to tackle the big problems head on; within months of landing on Earth she is attempting to solve once-and-for-all the Kryptonite problem that had plagued her cousin for years.
Her first experiment, to change the nature of Kryptonite itself (Action Comics #261, Feb 1960), only results in accidentally gifting super powers onto a random stray moggy — and so was born the legend that is Streaky the Super-cat (truth, justice, and a saucer of milk!) But Kara wasn’t deterred, and the following month (Action Comics #262, Mar 1960) finds her attempting to immunise herself against Kryptonite poisoning by slowly increasing her exposure over time. The plan appears to work at first, but (as is always the case) it turns out that Supergirl is simply ignorant of the true cause of her immunity, and it is left to Superman to explain the mystery in the story’s final panels.
There’s a real feeling in these first twelve-or-so months that the DC creative staff want to ensure Supergirl never quite achieves the same status as Superman. No matter how brave she is, no matter how resourceful she gets, no matter how successful she becomes, Kara is always reminded that she is on probation until she can match up to the super standards of her perfect cousin. And she willingly agrees to this, at least at first. But slowly, as Kara entered her second year on Earth, she would begin to push back a little.
Throughout the Superman of the Silver Age (roughly the 1950s and 1960s — the period when “up up and away” was uttered seriously, rather than with an ironic smirk) Red Kryptonite had been a staple ingredient of plotlines. This remarkable substance was so incredible, one might have been tempted to conclude it was invented by over-worked and under-paid comicbook writers as a means of churning out endless gimmick storylines and attention grabbing covers with the minimum of effort. A mere whiff of Red-K is enough to have all manner of crazy temporary effects on Kryptonians, from growing a second head, to turning evil, to amnesia. The latter of these effects presented a suitable excuse for Kara to step outside the confines of her pact with Superman.
The story in question, saucily entitled The Day Supergirl Revealed Herself (Action Comics #265, June 1960), sees the amnesia inflicted Supergirl drawn to Superboy’s former hometown of Smallville, where she becomes Gloria Smith, gets herself adopted by (conveniently) a blind couple, and starts openly performing super feats just as the Boy of Steel once did. Freed from the constraints of invisibility, Supergirl proves herself to be quite an adept superhero. But of course it cannot last — Superman steps in to cover up Supergirl’s existence, and to add insult to injury Kara’s memories of her Smallville excursion vanish once the Red-K effects subside. The final panel sees Kara wondering if she’d ever cut it as a proper superhero, unaware that she has already proven herself. Naturally Superman keeps shtum — no point in giving the young girl ideas, after all.
There’s an increasing shift in Kara’s second year of adventures away from stories about fellow Midvale orphans, and towards allowing Supergirl to perform the kind of super feats that regular readers might have associated with the Man of Steel. Yes, there’s still a healthy dose of wackiness and humour (Bizarros, battling super pets, schoolgirl crushes over Jerro the Merman…), but whereas once Supergirl might have saved a child from a falling tree (Action Comics #258, Nov 1959), she’s now saving entire boats full of people (Action Comics #269, Oct 1960).
In one tale, Lois Lane’s Super-Daughter (Lois Lane #20, Oct 1960), very carefully flagged as imaginary, Linda Lee finds herself adopted by a married Lois and Clark, and immediately joins Superman as an equal partner in his crime fighting escapades. Then, just a month later (Action Comics #270, Nov 1960), readers got their first true glimpse of Supergirl as a fully fledged hero when Superman is blasted into the future to find his cousin has confidently stolen his place in both the Daily Planet office (as Linda) and the world’s headlines (as Superwoman.)
That same Superwoman issue also contains a tale entitled Supergirl’s Busiest Day, a breakneck paced story that sees Supergirl attending to a whole series of emergencies in Midvale, outer space, Atlantis, and culminating in saving the life of Batman and Robin.
At the end of the story Superman drops by to celebrate Kara’s sixteenth birthday. His present? Some makeup — because apparently at sixteen she’s now old enough to wear makeup..! Although perhaps the Man of Steel isn’t as conservative and fuddy-duddy as he might seem: Kara’s new lipstick secretly houses a compartment where she can hide her super-compressed costume should Linda Lee ever need to disrobe suddenly… to go swimming… or the beach… or… y’know… whatever it is sixteen year-olds do that requires them to remove all their clothing..!
Only two months after turning sweet sixteen, Supergirl decides to take her fate into her own hands by proving to Superman that she is ready to be revealed to the world (Action Comics #272, Jan 1961). No longer content to just sit and wait for a thumbs up from her cousin, Kara travels out into the galaxy to a distant planet much like Earth, called Terra, where she intends to perform super acts free from the limitations of her secrecy pact with Superman. By one of those startling coincidences that only happen to soap opera characters and superheroes, Terra already just happens to have its own alien superhero, named Marvel Maid, with her own secret weapon sidekick, name Marvel Man. Marvel Maid is so impressed by Kara’s help that she travels to Earth to plead on Kara’s behalf with Superman (Action Comics #273, Feb 1961). But Superman remains unmoved, so the story ends with Marvel Maid revealing Marvel Man to Terra, while Supergirl must return to her invisible life on Earth. One can’t help but wonder if even the younger readers weren’t starting to think that Superman might be a grade one dick at this point..!
From her debut Kara had been a regular guest in other Superman family comics; from May 1959 to May 1961, alongside her staple twenty-four issues of Action Comics, Kara popped up in eight issues of Jimmy Olsen, three Lois Lanes, seven Supermans, and an issue apiece of Superboy and Adventure Comics. Sometimes she would appear in more than one story per issue; for an invisible girl, Kara was certainly getting a lot of attention!
By 1961, even Superman had gotten into the habit of treating Kara more like a trusted sidekick and less like a potential liability, so as the second anniversary of her début drew closer, it must have become apparent to DC staffers that Kara’s role as naive apprentice was way past its sell-by-date. Bowing to the inevitable, in July 1961 Superman announces that he has at last decided to reveal Supergirl’s existence to the world (Action Comics #278, July 1961).
But the DC writers were never going to make it simple: instead of making the announcement there and then (the obvious thing to do), the Man of Steel delays his world telecast until after he returns from an urgent mission in another dimension. No sooner has Superman departed than a Kryptonite dust cloud forces Kara to retreat to Atlantis, and deal with the world’s emergencies without leaving her safe underwater haven. Then, when Superman returns and she finally emerges from the ocean, she discovers her superpowers have mysterious vanished..!
Resigning herself to a life without Supergirl, Kara now has no reason to prevent her Linda Lee identity from being adopted, and promptly joins Fred and Edna Danvers as their new daughter. But no sooner has Linda unpacked her stuff at the Danvers’ home, than evil Kandorian scientist* Lesla-Lar — the cause of Kara’s missing powers — uses a teleport device to swap places with Kara. Lesla gallivants about Earth, creating all manner of mischief as both Linda and Supergirl (Action Comics #279, Aug 1961), including fooling Lex Luthor into thinking she is the real Supergirl turned bad (Action Comics #280, Sep 1961)**. Meanwhile the the real Girl of Steel is brainwashed into taking Lesla’s place in the Bottle City of Kandor.
Fortunately Lesla’s hold on Kara doesn’t last long — the pair are switched back to normal, leaving Kara with unexplained memory gaps. Lesla’s further attempts to hijack Kara’s life are (mostly!) thwarted by Supergirl and Superman whizzing throughout time, attempting to diagnose the extent of Kara’s powerlessness. Then, suddenly, poof! — Kara’s powers reappear. But this, it turns out, is a ploy by mischievous space nymph Mr. Mxyzptlk. However, when his magic spell is finally removed (and, unbeknownst to Kara, Lesla-Lar’s technology is no longer active), Kara regains her natural Kryptonian powers (Action Comics #283, Dec 1961, and #284, Jan 1961).***
A typical Action Comics story of that era ran for one, sometimes two, issues — but the epic tale leading up to Superman’s final telecast would consume a full seven tortuous months. And so finally… finally… finally(!)… in a story that spans a whole issue (Action Comics #285, Feb 1961), Kara is presented to the world by her cousin. Cue handshakes with President Kennedy; cue warring nations hugging and kissing at the United Nations; cue tickertape parades through city streets; cue a collective “OH, AT LAST!!” by readers..!
Look, up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yep, at last, it’s finally Supergirl..!
* the Bottle City of Kandor is yet another chunk of Krypton that survived. Shrunken to tiny proportions by Superman’s arch foe Brainiac, its minuscule inhabitants can leave by swapping places with a full-sized person in the outside world.
** remember this fact folks, because it may seem like a minor plot point, but it plays a key role in a story almost two decades later!
*** there’s actually a detour through some craziness with Red-K that see Kara grow a second head, but the less said about that the better!
This period of Kara’s journey is certainly a mass of contradictions: it starts out as cutsey little fairytale-like stories about a superpowered orphan, deviates occasionally into comical tales featuring super-pets and Red Kryptonite, and is peppered with episodes of Linda Lee sprawled across her Midvale Orphanage bed wishing desperately for a family, while at the same time using all her cunning to avoid being adopted. But threaded throughout these misadventures is a solid strand of superheroic action that certainly compares favourably to Superboy’s early career, and at times rivals the grown-up antics of the Man of Steel himself.
By the time Action Comics #285 rolled around, Supergirl had risen above the mediocrity of many of the other female character that populated the DC universe. The fairytale Kara, who gazed at the world with enthusiastic wide eyed innocence, had become the superhero Kara, a confident young woman who can take on anything the galaxy can throw at her, and handle it in her own way. She had matured into a character with a distinct style of her own — just as heroic as her famous cousin, but retaining the empathy and emotional vulnerability she exhibited in her early stories.
So what of the legacy of Kara’s time as an invisible hero?
Skipping forward a couple of decades to some time after the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), DC Comics published a seasonal Christmas magazine featuring a rather poignant Deadman short. Deadman bemoans the fact that as a ghost superhero his good deeds are never acknowledge or even known about by the people he helps. From nowhere, a mysterious blonde by the name of Kara materialises and offers some sage advice: “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 even knows we exist. Even if no one remembers we ever existed.”
Assuming Deadman’s mysterious Kara was indeed Kara Zor-El, one wonders if her time as an invisible girl in Midvale helped shape that commendable ethic..?