Saturday, November 06, 2004

Must There Be A Supergirl?

Johanna comments on Superman/Batman #13:

No matter what's been done to her [...], people still feel an unexplainable attraction to the idea of a young blond female Superman. Maybe this try, the fifth? effort in the last few years, will last.

I'm with her. Now that Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner have returned Superman's cousin Kara Zor-El permanently to the DC universe, what is there for her to do?

Introduced in Action Comics #252 (May 1959), the original Supergirl started out as Superman's "secret weapon," developed into a sometime sidekick, and at the time of her death 26 years later was her own person, equal in power and ability to her cousin. I was never much of a Supergirl scholar, and didn't follow her beyond her appearances in the Superman books. If it weren't for Who's Who, I probably wouldn't have known she had a solo book in the 1980s. Therefore, my frame of reference for her is in relation to Superman; but in my own defense, it may well be that many fans' frames of reference are similar.

Accordingly, it seems like Supergirl's biggest contribution to the Superman mythology was her relationship with him. As an actual blood relative, she was the only other human survivor of Krypton to be a regular and friendly part of his life. This gave them a unique, special bond which made her death in 1985 that much more painful.

In one respect, her death was a sign that Crisis on Infinite Earths pulled no punches. Superman would have been killed had Supergirl not saved him; and the Anti-Monitor was powerful enough to kill a nearly-omnipotent Kryptonian. Supergirl's death also signaled the "back to basics" movement which characterized the immediate post-Crisis DC books. If Superman really was the last son of Krypton, DC was saying that had to mean something; and it meant further that no one but Kal-El should have survived. Period, paragraph, end of story.

Accordingly, the cover of 1988's Superman #21, showing Superman pressed into a wall by the red-booted woman who threw him there, was supposed to raise hackles in those Superman fans who knew that no way, no how, "read my lips," would DC bring back Kara Zor-El.

Of course, DC wasn't bringing Kara back. Instead, this Supergirl hailed from a "pocket universe," whose Superboy died in battle with our Earth's Legion of Super-Heroes, and could no longer protect his adopted planet from the villains in his Phantom Zone. The pocket Earth's Lex Luthor created a "protomatter" duplicate of the deceased Lana, endowed her with super-powers, and sent her to our Earth to bring back Superman and stop the Kryptonian criminals. After the fight, Superman brought this "Matrix" Supergirl -- the sole survivor of her universe -- back to live on the Kent farm.

Matrix, who could change shape, posed as Clark while Superman took an extended trip into space, but by 1991 decided she liked being Supergirl on a more permanent basis. She protected Metropolis during Superman's apparent death, and got suckered into a romance with Lex Luthor's heir. Beyond those plots, a miniseries which separated her from Lex, and a brief stint with the New Titans, nothing much was done with her.

However, in 1996, Peter David literally fused Matrix with elements of the pre-Crisis Supergirl to create a quirky, funny version of the heroine. The focus shifted to Supergirl's new "secret identity" of Linda Danvers, a wild young woman who was engaged in shady doings before waking up to find she was Supergirl. If that weren't enough, Linda soon discovered she was an "Earth Angel" with a divinely appointed purpose and new powers to boot. Linda was somewhat world-weary, which distinguished her immediately both from Kara in the early years and Matrix in the immediate past. Instead, she was presented (much like the Jack Knight Starman, come to think of it) as a reluctant hero with a legacy thrust upon her.

Linda's final story arc teamed her with Kara Zor-El, just landed on Earth by an accident of Hypertime. Linda ended up taking Kara's place in the Earth-1 timeline, eventually falling in love with Superman and marrying him. The cost of setting everything right -- including returning Kara to her own history -- compelled Linda to give up her Supergirl identity and hide herself away, never to be seen again. (Fans immediately speculated that Linda became the title character of Peter David's new Fallen Angel book.)

Almost immediately thereafter, though, Steven T. Seagle and Scott McDaniel introduced a new Supergirl (the third, by my count) in the pages of Superman. She was Cir-El, Superman's daughter from the future, and if I had paid closer attention to Seagle's time-twisting mechanics and ultimately confusing storyline, I could tell you more about her. Anyway, at the end of the storyline (around Superman #200), she was gone too.

And now Kara's back, a fresh-faced innocent with a bare midriff and Amazon combat training, ready to be -- what? Perky in the cause of justice, I guess. Because she's Superman's newly-discovered cousin, he immediately bonded with her and sought to protect her. Never mind that this Superman hasn't emphasized his Kryptonian heritage nearly as much as his ancestor; or that until very recently, Krypton was portrayed as a cold, emotionless society which wouldn't have produced the wide-eyed naif presented here. No, this Supergirl seems assembled from a wish list of retro-Silver Age sensibilities, and her relationship with her cousin established by fiat.

Of course, I can understand how the old Silver Age trappings are coming back. I didn't mind the changes Mark Waid made to the revised legend in Superman: Birthright. I just resent the idea of Kara Zor-El springing forth whole from the head of Jeph Loeb. The story was conceived to bring Supergirl back, and the justifications came later.

This Supergirl obviously doesn't have the decades of history her Earth-1 counterpart did. This is not to say that she won't -- but I'm not sure that this married Superman, with the Kents still alive, has the emotional need to bond with her. So much has been done with him to establish his connections to Earth, and contrast them with the distinctly alien Kryptonian culture, that it would be a stretch now simply to assume that Kara can provide, and Kal needs, the same kind of bond.

Speaking of Birthright, it may now be editorial policy that Krypton is/was closer to its Silver Age incarnation than its Byrne revisions. Ironically, that also undermines the effect this Supergirl could have had. Imagine a "Supergirl From Krypton" story where Kara is a true child of a Byrne-style Argo City. Byrne's Krypton was well-meaning at best and intent on "bringing order" to Earth at worst. Instead of a grumpy Batman who doesn't like Supergirl because he hasn't been able to figure out everything about her, we could have had a Batman who is legitimately concerned she's the herald of an invasion, contrasted with a Superman who attempts to "humanize" her as his upbringing did for him. The fact that this was so clearly the "real" Kara Zor-El removed a lot of suspense from the story, because DC wouldn't do anything bad to her again, would it?

I'm not opposed to a young woman with Superman's powers and heritage; I'm just not sure what kinds of stories she can tell. I almost hope that DC uses this to cajole Peter David into bringing Linda Danvers out of retirement. It was Linda's bond with the other Kara which drove her out of super-heroing -- how will she react to seeing this new Supergirl flying around? That's the story I'd like to read.


Anonymous said...

I think some of the Earth Angel stuff might have come from a weird J.M. de Matteis prestige format book that apparently made almost no impact on me when I read it several years ago, and I don't really care enough to google it. Just in case you thought your summary was too simple....


Tom Bondurant said...

Actually, I think the DeMatteis book riffed on the Earth Angel concept which the regular Peter David book had already introduced. In the regular book, the Earth Angel stuff was resolved around issue #75.

Anonymous said...

That makes sense. I didn't read these as they were coming out and read maybe 25 issues of the PAD Supergirl but not the beginning or the end.