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Supergirl #3 © 1973 DC Comics. COVER ART BY BOB OKSNER.

It uh must be an illusion! stammers Superman as he witnesses a youngster flying, dressed in a supercostume, zipping from a crashed spaceship. It's Supergirl, the cousin of Superman, arriving on Earth in Action Comics #252 (May 1959). Superman discovers that this ebullient, golden-haired teen is Kara, a survivor from his homeworld of Krypton. When the planet exploded years ago—the horrific event that led to baby Superman being sent to Earth—the entire megalopolis of Argo City survived, hurled from the explosion and existing on a chunk of planetary debris. As a meteor shower decimates the floating city and its populace, scientist Zor-El—brother of Jor-El, Superman's biological father—rockets his daughter Kara to Earth to join her cousin. Given the tragedy from which she has just emerged, Supergirl's giddiness seems rather callous as she soars about in a blue-skirted version of Superman's uniform, but this was a time of innocence for publisher DC Comics' characters.

Superman concealed Kara's existence from the world, covertly instructing Supergirl on how to use her powers (slightly weaker versions of his own). Disguising herself with a brunette wig and taking the Earth name Linda Lee, Supergirl resided at an orphanage in the hamlet of Midvale, eventually being adopted by the Danvers family. After almost three years (in real time) of laboring in the shadows as her cousin's secret weapon, Supergirl was introduced to the world by Superman in a televised ticker-tape parade in Action #285 (February 1962).

Throughout the 1960s, Supergirl starred as the backup strip in Action Comics, sometimes cover-featured as a guest star to her top-tiered cousin. Unmistakably, the character was created as an attraction for young girl readers, and while most boys reading comics shunned DC's Wonder Woman title, they read Supergirl's stories since they shared space in Action with the immensely popular Man of Steel. Supergirl soon had her own supporting cast—Linda Lee Danvers' boyfriend Dick Malverne, her adopted parents, Streaky the Super-Cat, and Comet the Super-Horse, plus the thirtieth century's Legion of Super-Heroes, particularly member Brainiac 5, who carried a torch for the Girl of Steel—but the super-cousin herself never quite evolved past second-banana status. Her Action stories were lighthearted fluff, generally dealing with teen-age heartache or a campus-based mystery. In June 1969, Supergirl assumed the lead spot in Adventure Comics, but despite frequent costume changes (including a hot pants ensemble she donned for most of the 1970s) and two attempts at headlining her own title, it became obvious to readers that she had never really developed her own personality. Still, publisher DC Comics kept the character in print in one fashion or another, trading on her licensing potential through a variety of dolls, pencil cases, purses, and other products targeting young girls.

In the early to mid-1980s, Supergirl, having shed her hot pants for a skirt and a headband right out of singer Olivia Newton-John's Physical music video, was headed for the big time—and for disaster. Writer Marv Wolfman, while pitching to DC his twelve-issue comic-book opus Crisis on Infinite Earths, suggested that Supergirl be killed to give more emotional resonance to this continuity-reshaping series. Editorial director Dick Giordano agreed, calling Supergirl Superman with boobs. The company's other executives hesitated, as Supergirl was about to star in a summer 1984 movie from the producers of the first three Superman movies. The theatrical Supergirl, featuring Helen Slater in a charming title performance with Faye Dunaway hamming it up as a campy witch antagonist, tanked at the box office, and the decree was made: Supergirl would die. And she did so in Crisis #7 (October 1985), valiantly sacrificing herself to save other heroes. By the end of the Crisis series, the Girl of Steel had been removed from the rewritten DC mythology.

In 1986, author/artist John Byrne revamped the Superman legend in his six-issue Man of Steel series, and by 1988, a new Supergirl was introduced. Created from protoplasm in an alternate reality known as the pocket universe, Supergirl, originally called Matrix, ventured to Metropolis to recruit Superman's aid in overcoming a menace from back home. Making Earth her adopted planet, the new Supergirl's career has been fraught with change. After merging her body with that of the dying Linda Danvers, she upped the super-ante by becoming an angel with fiery wings before morphing yet again, experiencing a makeover into a cutesy blonde with a bare midriff and lace-up boots.

In late 2002, DC Comics came full circle when Supergirl encountered a youngster, flying, dressed in a supercostume, zipping from a crashed spaceship, just as Superman had done in 1959. This was the Kryptonian Supergirl Kara, the cousin of Superman and a survivor of Argo City—but from a parallel universe, to which she soon returned. Beginning in the pages of Superman: The 10-Cent Adventure (2003), yet another Supergirl—a buxom babe in a black swimsuit and blue, flowing cape—entered DC continuity, claiming to be the daughter of Superman. These continual changes illustrate what's right and wrong with the twenty-first-century Superman franchise: While it's exciting to see new spins on classic themes, frequent reinventions make the continuity so confusing that it is inaccessible for the casual or new reader. That may be why, in early 2004, DC brought back a contemporary version of the real Kara Zor-El, best known to the general public and best loved by longtime fans, in issue #8 of the hit Superman/Batman series. —ME

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