Thirty years ago this week, DC Comics released what still stands as one of the most shocking and emotional single issues ever, ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’ #7, featuring the highest-profile super hero death ever at that time; that of Supergirl. One didn’t need to be a comic book fanatic to know who she was! Debuting in 1959, Kara Zor-El was Superman’s cousin, who also escaped the destruction of Krypton to arrive on Earth, now blessed with the same amazing powers he had. The character caught on quickly and soon found herself starring in her own solo tales.
‘Crisis’ was both a celebration of nearly everything DC had published in its 50 year history, but also a closing of that chapter, with big plans in place to overhaul the fictional universe into a more simplified, modern concept that was new reader-friendly. As such, plans were on the table to update its biggest stars, including Superman, shedding the weight of 50 years worth of continuity and starting fresh, taking the character back to basics and hopefully making him more contemporary.
One of the huge changes that architect, writer/artist John Byne planned was to restore Superman’s uniqueness, making him the sole survivor of Krypton as he was in his creation. This obviously required that Supergirl be taken off the board. That’s where ‘Crisis’ came into play.
After World War II, super heroes fell out of vogue and nearly all of their books were cancelled, but in the mid-fifties, DC decided to revisit the genre. The hero that ushered in this new Silver Age was The Flash, Barry Allen, using the name and power set of a previous, dormant character. Not only was The Flash the first hero of this Age, but he was the first to discover the existence of parallel universes, worlds almost exactly like his, but at the same time, different. Because Barry made this discovery, his Earth was dubbed Earth-1 and the first world to which he traveled was referred to as Earth-2, home of the semi-retired heroes of DC’s Golden Age, the 1930s-40s.
Over the years, this became a popular device for DC Comics, with more and more parallel worlds being added to the mix. At the time, readers relished these unique tales, but as the years went on and new, younger readers began picking up the books, it became confusing as to why duplicate versions of different characters existed. Add to that, the simple fact that so many stories had been told with these iconic heroes that their histories were becoming cumbersome and daunting to the uninitiated.
Enter writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, the creators of ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths.’ To drive home the importance of this maxiseries, Wolfman knew that there had to be dire consequences that wouldn’t simply be discarded within months. Characters that died in ‘Crisis’ were and would remain DEAD. There would be no quick, happy “undos” after the dust had settled. And while the first several issues were filled with death and destruction, as entire populated worlds were wiped out by the Anti-Monitor, it was Supergirl’s that was the most shocking.
Even though Supergirl was never a member of the Justice League or Teen Titans, nor had she appeared in any form of adaptation, even a person who had never opened a comic book was likely to know who she was, because EVERYONE knew who Superman was and she was essentially his female counterpart.
But she had to go in order to rebuild Superman as a more modern, viable character. Wolfman scripted a poignant, heart-breaking story in which the fearless young hero threw herself into battle with the story’s nearly unstoppable villain the Anti-Monitor in a desperate attempt to, if not save the surviving Earths, at least buy them time.
But over the course of the one-on-one struggle, Supergirl had been bombarded with so much of the Anti-Monitor’s deadly energy that she was dying. The formerly selfish fledgling hero Doctor Light saw in Supergirl the selfless willingness to sacrifice her own life to save others and became inspired by that courage.
But when Supergirl urged Doctor Light to take Superman, who’d been badly battered by the Anti-Monitor, and flee, the villain seized his opportunity and delivered a killing blow that finished off the Girl of Steel.
With her dying breaths, Supergirl expressed no remorse, only caring that she’d made a difference. Finally, she expressed her love and admiration for her cousin Superman, who tearfully cradled her dying body. She pointed out how important he was to the world as she quietly passed away.
Best friend Batgirl delivered Kara’s eulogy in her adopted home town of Chicago, at a service attended by millions, including hundred, if not thousands of her fellow super heroes. Ironically, Batgirl declared that Supergirl would never be forgotten. Yet in the aftermath of the Crisis, once the surviving Earths had been merged into one, with duplicate characters and concepts eliminated, forget is exactly what everyone did. In this new DC Universe, Kara Zor-El had never existed. Superman was indeed the only survivor of his home planet.
Supergirl’s death made waves even outside of the comic community, with major mainstream news outlets reporting the story. It also helped signal the growing movement toward darker more grounded storytelling in comics.
To play Devil’s Advocate, although Supergirl is/was an iconic character, as a comic book star, she was never a huge seller. She appeared in her own strips and comics consistently over the decades, but her tales were never particularly memorable or well-crafted. She never had a strong, consistent status quo or supporting cast, or even villains. Her biggest foe was probably Lena Luthor, Lex’s sister. Even Supergirl’s opponent was derivative of something from her cousin’s mythology.
DC stuck to its guns. Supergirl and the others who’d perished in the ‘Crisis’ remained absent, until DC realized that they had to publish books starring these characters if they wanted to keep the rights to them. But to prevent back pedaling, creators took the names and other superficial traits of these characters and created new versions that were divorced from their pre-Crisis incarnations.
In the case of Supergirl, the new one originated as an artificial life form named Matrix, who could change shape and mimic Superman’s powers. This version later merged with a dying Earth girl, Linda Danvers along with an “Earth-born angel,” gaining pseudo-Christian/mystic abilities, like magical wings of fire and flame vision. As unlike most people’s idea of what Supergirl was, this version was actually quite successful as a comic book character and lasted for many years.
It wasn’t until DC publisher Dan DiDio visited a Superman-themed amusement park ride which featured descriptions of his supporting cast, that DiDio realized how convoluted and disassociated this Supergirl concept was. The original version could be summed up in one simple sentence, “Supergirl is Superman’s teenage cousin from Krypton who has all the same powers as he does.” This new one was… not that easy to explain.
Despite her book, written by popular scribe Peter David being a solid hit with a passionate fan following, it was cancelled and its lead character left a note for her friends and family before heading off on her own, never to be seen again!
Writer Mark Waid and artist Michael Turner were then tasked with reintroducing the original Supergirl concept in a modern comic setting. Turner’s art style was divisive and perhaps drew too heavily from pop culture. This Kara Zor-El was frighteningly lanky and skinny, eliciting anorexia accusations. Her pale blonde hair looked like a bad, fried bleach job, the likes of which were seen on out-of-control tabloid starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. And she had “raccoon eyes” overly slathered with mascara, like the heroin-chic Olsen Twins.
But once fans got past the initial artwork, the new, earnest Supergirl proved to be a welcome return to the up-beat, cheerful character from the Silver and Bronze Age. Enough time had past that the “Dead means dead” edict of ‘Crisis’ was lessening. Not only had the original Supergirl returned, but so did The Flash, Crisis’ other major casualty and even the Anti-Monitor himself.
Despite her highly publicized death 30 years ago, Supergirl, like many other fictional icons, has “walked it off” and made a full recovery. She not only headlines her own comic book series, she’s about to take to the sky on prime time. CBS has a live action ‘Supergirl’ series debuting in the fall and already the show is getting buzz as one of the “must-see” shows of the new season.
Melissa Benoist will portray Supergirl/Linda Danvers. Sadly, it seems the fact that Supergirl never had much of a mythology of her own still holds true as a lot of elements are drawn of Superman’s exploits.
Super heroes in general are all the rage right now. Marvel may have a huge head start on DC when it comes to movies, but DC is burning up the airwaves on TV. ‘Arrow’ and ‘The Flash’ are huge hits on The CW and the creators of those shows also spawned this series.
And like Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, the classic version of Supergirl has pretty much never been absent from the world of merchandising. New 52, shnew shmifty-two. The Supergirl that appears on everything from jammies for grown women to baby-tees for little girls is the old school Kara Zor-El.
In the fictional world of comics, characters may come and go. Some may stay gone for decades. But icons and legends simply can’t be replaced or abandoned for good. Supergirl died in a spectacular manner, in an event reported by national news, but now she’s back and looks to be soaring to even greater heights of popularity.
I guess death becomes the Maid of Might! Kryptonite, do your worst!