My recent immersion in the world of superheroes started in early 2010, with Supergirl. Raeli had taken an interest in the character, based almost entirely on the image on a drinking glass (like Superman, only a girl, what else is there to know?) and I started hunting for some kind of media property that I could stand to share with my 5 year old daughter. One thing I learned very quickly from the feminist comics blogs I followed was that it wasn’t going to be the comic, which featured some pretty skeevy artwork (yep, let’s all peer up the teenage girl’s tiny skirt, shall we and OH apparently female superheroes don’t need all their ribs) and was squarely aimed at men, not young and impressionable girls.
So where else? I had a vague memory that the 80’s Supergirl movie had been fairly dreadful but I had loved it, so there was always that. At a pinch.
Finally I decided upon Justice League Unlimited. I’d enjoyed the earlier Justice League cartoon, though not enough to actually buy the DVDs. But it looked like they had a cute, interesting Supergirl character, and so I gave it a punt. Only to discover that in fact JLU was full of all kinds of amazing and well-constructed female characters, and while the Supergirl was indeed spunky and super cute, she didn’t hold a candle to Black Canary, Huntress and Wonder Woman.
Luckily for me, Raeli embraced female superheroes as a whole, and we started out on a long and crazy journey of discovery together. It’s been super fun. And the massive pile of JLU lady action figures I acquired from eBay didn’t hurt at all.
This week, while doing a bit of covert pre-Christmas detective work (as you do) I asked both Raeli (now nearly 8!) and her recently 3-year-old sister Jem which they preferred, Batgirl or Supergirl. To be frank, I assumed that at least ONE of them would pick Batgirl. They’re both thoroughly Bat-obsessed, after all. Raeli has just received the LEGO Batcave she saved her pocket money up for six months, and Jem regularly dresses up as Batman and insists on being called that.
But no, they both immediately picked Supergirl. Which not only put a serious spanner in my Christmas present buying plans, it made me think. What is it about this character that makes her so compelling that she gets to be the best, the favourite, of little girls everywhere, based on a variety of wildly differing properties?
Like Wonder Woman, Supergirl has survived as an iconic female superhero despite all kinds of bizarre and outlandish things that have been done to her story and character over the years. I’m pretty sure she’s been killed off and rebooted more often than Wonder Woman.
At its heart, Supergirl/Kara Zor El’s story is simple. She’s Superman’s younger cousin, his spin off, his girl equivalent. She has all the same powers he does, she comes from Krypton, basically it’s all the same but she doesn’t get to snog Lois Lane (or indeed Wonder Woman) and she wears a skirt.
Raeli has come across various versions of the character since she’s been reading comics, and I’ll admit that the world is a happier place for junior Supergirl fans than it was a few years ago (or maybe I have a better idea where to look).
There’s Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, a fun and peppy modern comic that gives Kara crazy eyes and a not-quite-manga sensibility. There’s the sadly too-few Super Best Friends Forever minisodes from DC Shorts, which portrays her as a delightfully hefty gal who relishes her strength and lives to kick butt. There’s the fun and baby-faced version from kid favourite comic Tiny Titans who remains one of the only characters who got to cross over into the next project by the same creators: Superman Family.
There’s even a Polly Pocket.
In recent years, the explosion of popularity of superheroes has meant that even girls sometimes get tie in t-shirts, and the characters who tend to show up on those glittery pink tees are Supergirl, Batgirl, Wonder Woman.
As with the drinking glass effect, Supergirl is a character that young girls in particular are drawn to. The combination of super heroics and blonde hair are apparently irresistible. Like, imagine if Barbie actually did stuff!
I still haven’t read many modern Supergirl comics. I tried with the New 52 but I was so outraged that her costume was explained as a Kryptonian uniform signifying graduation honours (you honour your graduates by making them wear skirts that tiny, what is this, Starfleet?) that I couldn’t follow through. And then there’s the inhumanly skinny waist which feels problematic to me in a character with so much pull among teenage and pre-teen girls. (most superheroines and indeed superheroes have unrealistic body types but when you’re depicting teenagers with waists that would require even Buffy to have a few organs removed, that’s a red flag)
Classic Supergirl, though. Ahhh, classic Supergirl. I’m a fan. And indeed, with all the reading I’ve been doing, I’ve come to the conclusion that even the modern tiny-skirted Supergirl can be quite awesome, when she’s written for example as the awesome best friend of Stephanie Brown’s Batgirl.
So Supergirl. She’s blonde, she’s less experienced than Superman (it makes him feel manly), and she’s a good friend. But what exactly does she do?
Let’s go back to the beginning and find out.
The original Supergirl was launched in 1959 and continued until her death in 1986, one of the major events of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The cover image of Superman holding her body and grieving is probably one of the most parodied, copied and remembered comics cover image of all time.
Supergirl was a sweetie. She appeared in Superman and Action Comics at first, then later had her own title Adventure Comics, and appeared in Superman Family. She was created by Otto Binder who had also created Mary Marvel, the sweet teen counterpart to DC’s Captain Marvel, and Miss America, the girl version of Marvel’s Captain America.
Kara Zor-El was the last survivor of Argo City, which fragmented off from Krypton when it was destroyed, and drifted through space for some time. This is one of many over-complex plot complications introduced over the years to ensure that Kara is always much younger than her cousin Kal-El, in every iteration of her character, despite the fact that he was a baby when sent away from the exploding Krypton (in Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, for instance, his rocket simply travels at a different speed to hers, and she ages slower in stasis).
Once she arrives on Earth, Kara attends high school (later college) as brunette Linda Lee Danvers, putting on a wig to hide her natural blonde locks. Comics work that way. Men just have to put on a pair of glasses as a disguise; women have to change their hair colour.
Kara Zor-El had many adventures over the thirty five years or so that she was around as a character (appearing in over 750 stories during this period, according to Wikipedia), and after graduating went on to be a counsellor, news reporter and soap actress. She had a pet cat Streaky (who has a substantial role in Tiny Titans! My godson decided this year after their family lost their cat that they really needed a Streaky, though he wasn’t sure how to make sure that they got one with superpowers) and Comet the Superhorse. She also regularly teamed up with Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, her best friend. Her family turned up at one point and took up residence in the Bottle City of Kandor, which is basically a Kryptonian city shrunk down and kept in a bottle.
The Silver Age version of Supergirl is mostly characterised by her student identity and her life with adoptive family the Danvers. The Bronze Age (1970’s) version allowed her a more adult identity and also heralded her first solo title actually named “Supergirl,” something Batgirl didn’t get until the 1990’s. An alternative version of Supergirl, Power Girl, appeared in comics set in Earth 2.
1980’s Supergirl on the other hand stands out because of her extraordinary permed hair, red hair band and occasional resemblance to Olivia Newton John. In 1984, a live action film starring Helen Slater (with Faye Dunaway as the villain) appeared as a tie-in to the Superman movies of the time. It appeared a year after Superman III, and while both films were critically panned, Superman continued as a franchise and Supergirl did not. The Supergirl title had been cancelled only months before the movie was released. And of course, it was the first of a long line of “examples” why superhero movies starring women aren’t financially viable, regardless of whether they are set up to succeed in the first place.
The comic book adaption of the movie is one of the first comics I ever read, and I recall loving it while still being aware that it wasn’t actually that good. This is the power of Supergirl: as a character, she transcends crappy writing.
Supergirl’s death in the comics was one of the central events of the 1986 Crisis event, and as with many other characters who died in that event (though not Barry Allen’s Flash, the other most high profile sacrifice in that storyline) everyone’s memory of her was wiped out, as if she had never existed.
Earth 2’s Power Girl remained in the new reality (after the various Earths of the multiverse merged), believing herself to be Superman’s cousin, though she later discovered she was wrong, then so wrong, then a bit right, then totally right, and possibly crazy. She’ll get her own post later.
Behind the scenes, the head men at DC wanted Superman to be unique, and felt that Kara’s presence diminished him and the epicness of his story. Which makes me want to go back in time and kick them.
Two years later, a new Supergirl debuted in the DC Universe. Matrix, created by John Byrne (who has a pretty good history of being awesome about female superheroes) came from an alternate reality where Lex Luthor was a good guy and Superman had died young. Luthor, who spent a lot of time gazing through realities stalker-style at the Earth 1 Superman when he wasn’t sadly mourning his lost love, Alternate Lana Lang, created a pretend shapeshifting lady who merged qualities from both of them.
Matrix promptly put on a Supergirl costume, made her hair blonde, and kicked butt. Sadly the world was destroyed (through no fault of her own!) and Superman ended up rescuing only Matrix, bringing her through to his reality. He shipped her off to his parents (as Superman usually does with his cousin, the funniest example being one of the Super Best Friends Forever cartoon shorts) who did their best to raise Matrix as their daughter with the same kind of old home values they had invested in Clark.
Sadly it didn’t work out that well and Matrix (or Mae) lurched back and forth erratically, caught between her desire to be a superhero and her natural tendency to turn into shapeshifting goo or to flip out and lose hold on reality. She then found a way to freak out her entire adoptive family, by becoming the live-in girlfriend of Lex Luthor II.
The large, red-headed Australian son of the original evil Lex Luthor, Lex II was in fact the original Lex in the body of a rugged Aussie bloke. No one knew this, however, so frankly their suspicions were based on prejudice. I have to say, coming across “Lex II” and Matrix Supergirl for the first time ever in the Death of Superman storyline came as a shock to me, being familiar mostly with old school Kara and Luthor. What the WHAT? Supergirl is a blob of goo and she’s shacked up with LEX LUTHOR?
After being showcased to great effect during Panic in the Sky, a storyline that emphasised how the relationship between Matrix and Lex had caused a rift between her and Clark, Mae and Lex later came into their own in the wake of the Death of Superman storyline, as a power couple striving to rebuild Metropolis and provide stability after the world’s great loss. However, Lex’s possessiveness and manipulative nature became more obvious, and Mae often had to slip away from him in order to help Lois and the city.
When she discovered that Lex had been secretly cloning her… well let’s just say the break up was messy. Matrix was left drifting, with no real sense of who she was, or whether she was really even a person. She then merged with a dying woman called Linda Danvers, became an angel, and finally disappeared from the DC Universe just in time for the “original” Supergirl (or at least the original Supergirl concept) to return.
The new old Supergirl, Kara Zor-El, had reappeared briefly in continuity before the Matrix-Linda Danvers version was written out, in the Many Happy Returns storyline by Peter David. It had long been felt that, as with many characters, the post-Crisis continuity was too damn complicated, and the simplest version of the character’s backstory was of course the original one. (you think?)
Stuck in a Kryptonian asteroid crashing Armageddon-style to Earth, Kara Zor-El arrived (again) with a bang in the Superman/Batman title in 2004, and took on the Supergirl identity. After a few years, even made an artistic choice to give her biker shorts instead of panties under her short skirt, this seeming more “respectful.” While being chronologically older than Superman, she was of course physically a young teenage girl (as always) and thus able to be patronised by him at any opportunity.
Trained at first by Wonder Woman and the Amazons, Supergirl’s journey to find her own heroic path has continued in her own comic for many years now. She was transported to the future for a while, taking up membership of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and has also fought under the identity of Flamebird in the bottle city of Kandor. A variety of different creators meant a whole bunch of different creative directions through the 2000’s, and many of them couldn’t resist throwing in new “true” origin stories for her, which muddied the waters.
Kara’s lack of experience with humanity and the loss of any solid family base for her meant that she had far more trouble fitting in than her Silver/Bronze Age counterpart had. She eventually finds a secret identity for herself, posing as Lana Lang’s niece Linda for some time, though she eventually broke her connection from Lana after a traumatic storyline involving insect queens.
My entry point to this version of Supergirl comes from my reading of the Stephanie Brown Batgirl series, in which Kara/Linda turns up in one glorious issue for a Girl’s Night Out which showcases their friendship beautifully and reveals Kara as a fun loving superhero without the kind of heavy baggage her character had been weighed down with in her own book.
The New 52 rebooted Supergirl yet again, came up with another reason for her to crash to Earth many years after Clark Kent and yet be way younger than him, and made her short skirt even shorter. The title didn’t interest me much, but then I’m a 30+ woman who’s all cynical. Supergirl’s main DC title shouldn’t be written for me any more than it should be written for blokes. It should be written for my daughters.
Kara Zor-El was a semi-regular character in season 7 of the live action TV series Smallville, played by Laura Vandervoort and Adrienne Palicki. The classic elements of her storyline – being young and confused and trying to fit in with humans despite having super strength, and not having the same rock solid childhood advantage of Clark Kent – were expressed through the show’s seventh season, and then they shut her up in the Phantom Zone to get rid of her. She only returned in occasional guest spots after that.
The animated Supergirl – the point at which I came in – is based very much on the modern version of the character, including her fairly distant if fond relationship with Superman, and her inability to properly integrate with humanity. After appearing in other animated films/series, she found her destiny in the Justice League Unlimited series, falling in love with Brainiac 5 and leaving the present day to join the Legion of Super-Heroes in the future. Yep, she might be cute but there’s a REASON I started encouraging my daughters to appreciate Huntress’ awesomeness instead…
Animated Supergirl, who is designed as a teeny pocket rocket compared even to the other small women on the show, is voiced mostly by Nicholle Tom, both in the animated adventures of Superman and JLU, though a one-off movie Superman/Batman: Apocalypse has her voiced by Summer Glau. This movie, based closely on the Superman/Batman comic storyline that introduced New Old Supergirl, had her name and image removed from the packaging in response to poor sales of the Wonder Woman animated movie. Which is why it took me two years to realise there was in fact an animated Supergirl movie out there. Sigh.
There’s a solid story here. For all my discomfort about Supergirl being written out of JLU by falling in love, I think that this animated version of the character captured most of the key elements of the character. Supergirl can be cute and blonde but she also should be confused and angry. She never gets the stable childhood that Clark Kent received, and so the balance of her alien/superhero self and “real life” should be harder, and it’s okay for her to be frustrated about it.
Tiny Titans, Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade and the brief appearances of the stompy Supergirl in Super Best Friends Forever get it very right, I think, while approaching the character in very different ways. I also loved the recent appearance of Supergirl in Ame-Comi Girls, and noted how differently the story works when Power Girl is put in Superman’s place (and indeed in Clark Kent’s place, with his childhood and loving parents) and then Supergirl crashes in her asteroid… I’m excited to see where this story goes, because while Supergirl is once more the “older” cousin who is now younger thanks to spacey-wacey time dilation, having two women at the centre of that story finally offers a new twist.
Kara Zor-El is a great character, with huge potential and recognisability to young girls. If written and presented well, she could easily be the new Buffy or Veronica Mars of a generation. But creators need to stop thinking of her as a property that must appeal to male comics readers. Like Batgirl, she was designed to appeal to young women back in the day, and she still has the power to do that, given half a chance.
Girls, especially young girls, love Supergirl. They will buy dolls based on her and t-shirts with her face on them, even if they’ve never read a comic or seen her on TV. They get her. So while I mourn the loss of Tiny Titans, I am delighted that the new project by the same creators, Superman Family, provides a home for a slightly older version of the Tiny Titans Supergirl. There will be more fun, lighthearted adventures for my girls to enjoy, without me having to show them the ‘adult’ Supergirl comic.
They don’t want to see up her skirt. They just want to play with her.
Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand.
15. Jean Grey
17. Emma Frost
19. Lady Sif