OP/ED: Why SUPERGIRL Matters

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl
Credit: Justin Stephens for TV Guide Magazine
Credit: DC Comics

I had barely turned seven when my older brother, eight years my senior, returned from the comic book store one day with a puckish glint in his eye. Thrusting the latest issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths under my nose, he could barely contain his glee. “She’s dead, she’s dead,” he taunted, his voice rising to a near-cackle.

The cover—still fresh, its future as a meme just a glint in someone’s eye—corroborates his statement. On it, an assembly of superheroes, heads downcast in mourning, surrounds Superman, his own face twisted in grief. Lying supine in his outstretched arms, with her blonde tresses thrown back and her red-and-blue costume in tatters, is his cousin and protégé, Kara Zor-El. Supergirl.

I don’t remember how I reacted. There must have been shrieks, a slammed door, a blubbery repine over my brother’s stash of DC Blue Ribbon Digests. Other female superheroes didn’t have the same hold on me. Wonder Woman was too, well, womanly, with hips, breasts, and concerns so estranged from my own.

Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl—mousy librarian by day, spandex-clad crimefighter by night—I found, at least back then, dull.

Silver Age Supergirl, on the other hand, was just like me, inasmuch as someone without the power to freeze things with her breath could be. Like her, I had a big brother whom I alternately found annoying and sought validation from. Like her, seven-year-old me was a proverbial fish out of water; a stranger, coming of age in a strange land, who never felt in step with her peers despite all efforts to blend in. Plus, she has a means of escape always at the ready. Supergirl could fly.

Boring math lesson? Zip! Classmates picking you last at P.E.? Later, gators! Another argument with your mother over the failing grade you got in Chinese? Look, up in the sky!

But here’s the rub: Kara didn’t just die. In an effort to restore Superman’s “Last Son of Krypton” status, she was erased from existence and, for the most part, forgotten.

Credit: DC Comics

In the years that followed, a passel of almost-Karas stepped in to fill any breaches in continuity, or, as it must have seemed, to deliberately mock me. In the 30th century, Laurel Gand, an imposingly figured Daxamite, filled the Supergirl-shaped vacuum in the Legion of Superheroes’ roster—and Brainiac 5’s heart. Three years post-Crisis saw the emergence of Matrix, a shapeshifting blob of protoplasm from a pocket universe who assumed Supergirl’s name and mantle with alacrity. (“Usurper,” I must have hissed. “Imposter.”)

Matrix eventually “merged” her essence with a human girl named Linda Danvers, saving her from death at the hands of a satanic cult. So began Supergirl’s “Earth-born Angel” run, with supporting characters that included a winged centaur, a demonic ex-boyfriend, and a baseball-bat-toting boy named Wally who might have been God.

Pre-Crisis Kara even popped by for a spell near the end of the series’s run to battle beside a depowered Linda Danvers who had been cleaved from her angelic half.

Those were strange times.

In 1995’s Superman vs. Aliens by Dan Jurgens, Superman met Kara, the survivor of a Krypton-influenced planet named Odiline. Two years later, Superman: The Animated Series introduced the crop-topped Kara In-Ze, Last Daughter of Argo, a “sister planet” of Krypton.

Credit: DC Comics

For a while in 2003, Superman fought alongside Cir-El, a “Supergirl” who claimed to be the Man of Steel’s daughter from the future. (Spoiler alert: She wasn’t.) And in Season 3 of Smallville, Adrianne Palicki tries to convince Tom Welling’s Clark Kent that she’s “Kara from Krypton.” (She isn’t.)

Then there was Karen Starr, better known as Power Girl. Originally conceived as Supergirl’s older, bustier Earth-2 equivalent—her real name was Kara Zor-L—Power Girl survived the destruction of the multiverse and was retconned, for a time, as the granddaughter of an Atlantean sorcerer.

For a world that decided it didn’t need Kara Zor-El, there was no shortage of girls and women who pretended to be her.

The Maid of Might’s own 1959 debut was much simpler.

Supergirl is a mere girl of 15 when she crash-lands on Earth from Argo City, a chunk of Krypton that split off during the planet’s explosion intact, only  to succumb to kryptonite poisoning decades later. Springing from the wreckage of her rocket like Athena fully formed, and wearing a “super-costume” just like his, she torpedoes Superman’s sole-survivor schtick with the wholesome spunk and giddy optimism of a Gidget-era Sandra Dee.

Credit: DC Comics

“It’s me—Supergirl!” she declares. "And I have all your powers!”

The creation of writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino (later Jim Mooney), the Girl of Steel appeared at a time when Wonder Woman’s newsstand sales were stagnating. The opposite was true, however, for Superman and Superboy. Looking to expand the latter franchise,  DC Comics decided that a demure teenage girl was the prudent choice. As Mike Madrid notes in The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, an adult Superwoman may have been too threatening to young readers, the Lois Lane/Clark Kent/Superman ménage à trois, or even the Big Blue Boy Scout himself.

Although Supergirl can do just about anything Superman can—tunnelling through mountains, wrestling killer robots, even breaking the space-time barrier to travel into the future—she spends the next few years sequestered at Midvale Orphanage disguised as Linda Lee, a brunette in pigtails and Superman’s “secret weapon.”

(Later Supergirl scribes would make a case for her superior prowess. Unlike Kal-El, who arrived on Earth as a baby and had to rein in his abilities growing up among humans, Kara suffered no such limitations.)

“Someday the outside world will hear of you as Supergirl,” Superman promises. “But for a long time to come, you’ll live here quietly as as an ‘ordinary’ girl until you get used to Earthly things.”

Credit: DC Comics

It’s in that moment that Kara becomes more than a distaff version of her cousin. Despite possessing all the powers of a god, she’s basically grounded. Sans X-ray vision, heat vision super-strength, etc., etc., her predicament is one that most hamstrung teenagers —or overparented seven-year-olds—can relate to.

And Kara, quintessential Good Girl that she is, listens...to a point. Skirting (but never crossing) the boundaries of her paterfamilias’s directive, she performs feats of surreptitious heroism while juggling the same concerns (boys, dating, frenemies, chores) as her young female audience.

“Back in those days, children—especially little girls—were taught to be seen and not heard,” writes Diana Schutz, former editor at Dark Horse Comics, in the foreword of The Supergirl Archives, Vol. 1. “Supergirl was everything we weren’t, and yet she was close enough in age to be everything we could aspire to.”

Kara, like all of us, eventually grew up, becoming a superheroine in her own right, graduating from college, and starting a career, all before sacrificing her life to save the universe and the one man she could never quite escape the shadow of.

“You taught me to be brave...and I was...I...I love you so much for who you are...for how good you are,” she gasps with her final breaths.

It would be 20 years after the “Death of Supergirl” before Kara Zor-El would make her triumphant return to continuity, not as a ghost, a dream, a hoax, or a temporary blip from an alternate reality.

Credit: Michael Turner (DC Comics)

In Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s Superman/Batman, the Metropolis Marvel turns to the Dark Knight,  gesturing to a young girl draped in his cape. “This is Kara Zor-El...my cousin from Krypton,” he says with pride.

I could say that everything was hunky dory after Supergirl is restored to the firmament, but then I’d be lying.

With today’s comic book universe a darker, more complicated place, writers struggled to characterize Kara, alternating portraying her as a libidinous bubblehead, a sulky teen,  or an aloof alien.

One pre-"New 52" iteration cavorted with Darkseid, sprouted crystal spikes from her back, and picked up smoking. The less we say of her the better.

There’s a scene in 1984’s Supergirl, a movie I unabashedly loved as a child, that captures how Supergirl made me feel, and how I want her to make me and this generation of seven-year-olds feel.

Helen Slater’s Kara, inhaling the scent of an Earth flower for the first time, finds herself, unconsciously, suspended in the air. She giggles with surprise, makes a few tentative, almost balletic attempts at flight, then propels herself into the clouds with an expression of rapturous bliss.

In Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl, I see the bright-eyed exuberance that made Original Kara so compelling.  She’s finding her own place in the world, negotiating her newfound abilities with a mix of surprise, joy, and wonder, even as she draws from reserves of strength she didn’t know she had.

You want to watch her, but more than that, you want to be her.

Still from 'Supergirl'
Still from 'Supergirl'
Credit: CBS

Supergirl—my Supergirl—isn’t a genderbent Superman in a skirt. Unlike her burly relative, she doesn’t cut an imposing figure. She grapples with vulnerabilities and the occasional self-doubt, yet she remains sanguine with the knowledge that true heroism is more than the sum of brute strength.

She’s not only leaning in; she’s leaning the hell in.

Tonight, I’ll be on my couch with my own almost-seven-year-old daughter, watching Benoist raise her fist into the sky for the first time before she shoots off into the wide blue yonder.

And, together, we will believe that a girl can fly.

Jasmin Malik Chua is a writer, editor, and lifelong comic-book aficionado. Her daughter prefers Wonder Woman to Supergirl, but what are you going to do?

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