Guess who’s back, back again?! #FFF is back, tell a friend! This time, I’m kicking off our annual series about your favorite fictional ladies of the fearless variety 😉 Joining Nancy and I are Michael of My Comic Relief, Jesse of the newly revived Green Onion, Kalie of Just Dread-full, and Jeff of The Imperial Talker. Please give them a follow to catch their posts (all have great content outside of #FFF), or look out for them here, throughout the month.
I’ve gotta be honest. I was torn on the fictional lady I wanted to write about. Eventually I settled on Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl. My past #FictionsFearlessFemales posts have been Wonder Woman and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl/Oracle). I couldn’t NOT follow DC’s “Big Three” format! If I hadn’t, it would have bothered me forevermore! Kept me up at night! No, dear readers, I couldn’t have that. Not to worry, for the other heroine I wanted to write about is already planned for next year’s post 😉
For simplicity’s sake, this post will focus solely on Kara. Supergirl’s character had many iterations before and after Kara was introduced in DC’s canon. Kara is the most well-known, and her likeness is the most used: if you think “Supergirl,” the blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager in the short skirt that immediately comes to mind is indeed Kara. Even within Kara’s characterization, she has had many different origins, retcons, and even deaths throughout her lifetime, just like her cousin Clark Kent, AKA Kal-El of Krypton, AKA Superman. But, also like her cousin Clark, Kara as Supergirl endures as a symbol of hope.
Just as Clark is often billed as “The Last Son of Krypton,” so too is Kara billed “The Last Daughter of Krypton.” After multiple iterations of Supergirl were published as character tests to gauge fan reaction to a female Superman, Kara’s character first appeared in Action Comics #252 in May 1959. She leaps out of a ship, dressed in a costume very similar to Superman’s. When questioned, she says she is the daughter of Alura and Zor-El, Superman’s uncle, making them cousins. Her parents were residents of Argo City, which survived Krypton’s destruction by breaking off the planet whole. As the city drifted towards Earth’s solar system, it was hit by a meteor shower, which forced Alura and Zor-El to place the 15-year-old Kara in a rocket and point her to Earth to be reunited with her cousin (Source).
Later iterations of Kara deviate a little from this original story. For instance, the Superman/Batman run in 2004 (issue #8 published in May of that year kicked off this storyline, and the animated DC movie Superman/Batman: Apocalypse adapted this story), Kara crashes to earth as a teenager from Krypton. She was in suspended animation while her ship got lost on the way to Earth. More on this story is below.
The 2016 Arrowverse Supergirl show likely took inspiration from this comic: it sees Kara being placed in a rocket on Krypton, not Argo City, with the intention of protecting and raising her baby cousin on Earth. Her ship was knocked off course and navigated the Phantom Zone for 24 years before finding its way to Earth, wherein Clark had all grown up and become Superman. Some stories have Kara raised by Superman, some by Jonathan and Martha Kent, most by the Danvers family (their first names have changed over the years).
In any case, many elements of Kara’s story remain the same. She is also a survivor of Krypton’s demise. She is Superman’s cousin. She is adopted by a human family and given an Earth childhood (well, teenager-hood in her case). She is Kryptonian like Clark, so Earth’s yellow sun interacts with her DNA in the same way, giving her all the same powers as Superman (Source). Some would argue that Kara is stronger than Clark – more on this later. Her origin is very similar to Clark’s in that she is a true American alien, an immigrant from another planet, a last daughter.
There is one difference that, in my mind, has the potential to make Supergirl more of an interesting character.
Kara is a teenager in nearly all iterations of her origin story. She is actually OLDER than Clark, at least she was and ought to be. Most stories use her birth on Argo City or her ship getting lost in the Phantom Zone to make her get stuck in time, so she is younger than Clark when she arrives on Earth. The fact remains that she REMEMBERS Krypton. She grew up there in nearly every iteration of her story. What Clark knows about Krypton, he learned from the data his parents left him. This is all well and good, but he can never truly remember the experience of living and growing up there, as Kara does. This means that their grief is different. Clark grieves the Krypton he never knew, and will never know: the idea of Krypton. Kara grieves the Krypton she did know, and all the people and places in it: the tangible things about Krypton that she will never experience again.
To put it another way: Clark learned about Krypton from books. Kara learned about Krypton by living there. Thus they have different experiences about their home planet, different ideals they took away, and different ways they are grieving its’ loss.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen DC using the age difference between Kara and Clark to great effect (then again, I am admittedly not as well-read on Supergirl as I should be). There is great potential for creators to explore Kara’s experiences of Krypton, her childhood there, and any survivor’s guilt or other such mental hurts she might be suffering from such a trauma. I believe more creators have addressed this in recent years, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths.
When Crisis was published in 1985, DC executives wanted Superman to truly be the last survivor of Krypton. That meant Kara had to go. Supergirl was killed during Crisis, in which she sacrificed herself to save Superman’s life. They took it one step further, however: when the universes were restored, no one remembered who Kara was (Source). Ouch. Talk about being fridged. Though different iterations of Supergirl (who were not Kryptonian) were introduced in the years between Crisis and Superman/Batman #8, the popularity of Kara’s character was such that DC relaxed their “Superman is Krypton’s sole survivor” rule (Source). Superman/Batman #8 brought Kara back as Clark’s Kryptonian cousin, and the teenaged last daughter of Krypton, for good (Source).
In last year’s FFF post about Barbara Gordon, I talked about Batgirl being derivative of her male counterpart Batman. Supergirl is, if you hadn’t guessed by this point, derivative of Superman. I would argue there are more similarities between Clark and Kara than there are Barbara and Bruce Wayne. Barbara puts on a cape and cowl, sure, but her methods of solving mysteries and fighting crime differ significantly enough from Batman to where her abilities don’t feel like a total copy and paste. As mentioned above, Kara has all of Clark’s powers. In order to differentiate them a bit, some argue that she is the stronger of the two. This has been attributed in-canon to Clark growing up needing to suppress his powers in order to seem normal, whereas Kara has no such inhibition (Source).
Kara might or might not be more powerful than Clark, but she is definitely more impulsive, moody, and stubborn. What else would you expect from a teenage girl? =P For all that, Kara has a kind heart. She genuinely wants to help people and is unsure if she is worthy of the Super-mantle after all her cousin has accomplished. To combat this, season 1 of the Arrowverse show didn’t even have Superman in it – he was mentioned from time to time, but didn’t make an appearance until season 2. The show wanted and needed her to stand as a hero in her own right, and she succeeded by stopping Myriad all on her own. It also had flashbacks to her life on Krypton, and addressed the sadness and anger she felt at being left behind. In the few episodes Kara appears in in the DCAU (Superman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series), she either stops crime all on her own or teams up with Batgirl. No one can say Kara can’t hold her own.
Outside of being Supergirl, Kara is just a teenager or young adult trying to do the right thing. She struggles with trying to be a normal human being even though she is decidedly not. In the Arrowverse show, she struggles to kick off her career and juggle a demanding boss, her family, her friends, and her love life, on top of saving the world. In that way, she is relatable, especially for teen and young adult readers. Every teenager feels like an alien. Kara IS LITERALLY an alien, and yet handles her adolescence, and all it’s ups and downs, with good cheer and an open mind. She is arguably more relatable than her big blue cousin for this reason. Most iterations of Clark are of his childhood or adulthood – not that messy, melodramatic in-between time (with the exception of the 2001 Smallville TV show). Kara fills that gap.
Kara also shows the importance of female friendship. She has historically been best friends with JSA member Stargirl. The DC Bombshells comics introduce them as adoptive sisters, originally from Russia, before being recruited into the American Bombshells. The Superman/Batman: Apocalypse movie (mentioned/linked above) shows Kara’s close relationship with Harbinger. And, of course, the Superman and Batman animated series (also linked above) also show Supergirl and Batgirl teaming up to fight crime. Both are teenagers in this iteration, who genuinely like and respect each other’s methods even if they are very different. It’s refreshing to see a teenage girl character form genuine relationships with other teenage girls, when a lot of the market is inundated with the catty and toxic “frenemies” trope. Impressionable girls need to see these kinds of friendships!
Kara Zor-El is not the only Supergirl DC’s tried to write, but she is by far the most recognizable and the most popular – for good reason. Not only does she make her cousin Superman more relatable, she is arguably more of a relatable character. She’s a real teenage alien who just wants to fit in and do the right thing, in spite of the very obvious thing that makes her not a normal teenage human. Historically, DC has tried to change and retcon her story many times, but Kara’s indomitable spirit and cheerfulness has never wavered throughout her history. Though I would love to see more done with her character due to her Kryptonian upbringing, Kara in my eyes is more than worthy of the S on her chest.
After all, it means hope, and that’s what she brings to everyone she meets.
March 3, 2021 at 4:54 pm
So, full disclosure now that you’ve chosen Supergirl and wrote this post, after allllllllllllllllll I learned about Barbara/Batgirl in your post last year, I was REALLY hoping you’d do Kara this year. Because I fell in love with her character on the Arrowverse show – she’s the most inspiring, optimistic character ever! – and I really wanted to know more about her comic history. I thought about doing all the research myself and then I (for real) thought, “Well…maybe Kathleen will write about her and then I can just learn about her from Kathleen.” So thank you! You saved me lots of work here!
I’m stunned to realize Kara/the original Supergirl was out from ’85 until ’04! That seems like madness to me! But I do remember reading some Supergirl comics in the mid-’90s and she was some sort of shapeshifting alien being and not even Kryptonian. But I guess I always presumed that was a small tradeoff (like when Ben Reilly was Spider-Man but Peter Parker was still around, just “retired”) and not because Kara Zor-El was dead, gone, and forgotten.
I’m happy Kara’s back though and I’m happy you kicked off our Fiction’s Fearless Females 2021 with her! I would agree with you that she can be more interesting than her cousin and she radiates the sort of hope and strength that is the perfect note to begin this series on :D. And I will definitely be coming back here to build my reading list when I dive into Supergirl’s comic history! So thanks for that, too!
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March 4, 2021 at 8:27 am
She did make some appearances here and there between ’85 and ’04, as an angel, ghost, or similar. I felt they were too few and far between to mention, and since Kara as an angel was tied to another Supergirl DC tried to write within that time period, it was also too complicated to get into for this post. It was easier to say she was fridged, but that’s also what it was. Her popularity ultimately brought her back in her original form (so to speak), hopefully for good this time!
I’m always happy to hear you learn something new from my posts =) Thank you so much, Michael. Looking forward to yours in a few days!
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March 4, 2021 at 10:47 am
Great post to kick off our series this year! I agree that Kara is SO much more relatable than Clark. I like how you point how that she has true memories of Krypton, as she was raised there, so her grief for what was lost would be deeper. Despite all that, she is fearless in that she remains kind and brings hope to her new home!
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March 5, 2021 at 5:12 pm
Thanks, partner! I want DC to use that point more! I guess they still are clinging to Clark as the “one and only” last survivor, unfortunately. But everyone in the El family is a cinnamon roll and we love them for their optimism and openness to new experiences on their new home planet!
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March 6, 2021 at 9:59 pm
This was a really interesting piece about a character I didn’t know much about. You highlighted a really interesting distinction between Kara and Clark when you pointed out that Kara would have memories of Krypton because of her age, even though Clark doesn’t. The depiction of female friendship also sounds awesome. Showcasing strong female friendships in works of fiction helps diminish so many negative stereotypes!!
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March 8, 2021 at 5:50 pm
Agreed – and I didn’t go into it for the post (felt it was getting too long), but the Arrowverse depiction of Kara and her sister Alex is great, too! It shows two sisters who genuinely love and support each other, though one is a literal alien related to the world’s greatest superhero, and the other is a LGBTQ+ human woman in a male-dominated profession. Of course, they fight and have disagreements like any siblings would, but overall it’s a very healthy and wonderful dynamic that IMHO is one of the best parts of the show. Thank you!