Girl Power: How Supergirl Completes the Mythos of Superman
No one expected Superman to end up being as big as he is. Siegel and Shuster, who created Superman, saw their character turned down by multiple publishers before moving to then Detective Comics Inc. and seeing him make the front page of Action Comics #1. His first appearance is barely over ten pages long. As a result, the earliest Superman stories were relatively straightforward on the explanations of who he was, where he came from, how he could do what he could do, and why he chose to be a superhero. The exact nature of his character and what he stood for ended up being a very straight forward, “he's super strong and invulnerable and chooses to only do good with that power”, and while you'd imagine that more chapters in his ongoing tale would be used to create a more complicated figure, the simplicity of the character ended up becoming a part of his charm, and further stories opted to emphasize this simplicity rather than complicate it. Superman originally just did the right thing because he was a good person, but soon he was more than that, he was the ultimate good. Superman's invulnerability initially protected him up to the point of a 'bursting shell,' but soon it was extended into nearly total invincibility. His ability to leap turned into full on flight; his strength went from lifting cars and steel beams to bench pressing planets. By the 50's, the original basic idea of a super strong man who does only good became emphasized and exaggerated into the Superman we know today, and while modern storytelling 'rules' dictate that leading characters must be flawed and complex, Superman's all-powerful, invincible, totally good character resulted in him being a highly successful, globally recognized character.
By the 80's, however, DC editorial was becoming increasingly interested in making Superman more complex and flawed. This was due to a number of reasons; the comics industry shifting its focus on an audience of children to an audience of teenagers and young adults; the desire to tell more mature stories with superheroes and gain a higher level of artistic respect; even the increasingly complicated and televised political climate surrounding the Cold War, much different from the atmosphere surrounding Superman's glory days during WWII, had a hand in changing how DC wanted to approach Superman. The problem is that Superman actually is based around a simplicity of character; his name, his powers, his costume, his motivation are all very, very straightforward and promote the character as an aspirational figure whose existence is tied to brief, concise concept: “what if there was a super strong man who did only good?”
DC was faced with a conundrum: on the one hand, changing these elements too much, lowering his powers or giving him personality flaws, inherently makes him less super and less effective as a character, but on the other hand how were they to tell more mature, artistic stories without complicating Superman? What DC didn't realize is that maybe the answer to their problem was easily solved with a character who was already there: Supergirl.
Must There Be A Supergirl?
The problems began with Man of Steel. Actually, no, not that one. In 1985, as DC rebooted their universe with the year-long miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, they gave writer/artist John Byrne a 6-issue miniseries called Man of Steel to tell Superman's revised origins. Now let me state first that a lot of the changes made in this series were legitimately good, new approaches to Superman's mythos: the Kents being around and serving as supporting cast characters for Superman, the emphasis on Clark Kent's character, the monolithic businessman version of Lex Luthor, all of these were elements that Man of Steel actually put on the map, and parts of these elements still exist today in mainstream Superman comics because of their enduring success and popularity. In general, the series wanted to tell more mature, more grounded, more serious Superman stories, and while that goal did lead to some truly excellent issues (as well as some significantly less excellent ones), the execution of this approach resulted in the loss of a character who had been a major part of Superman stories for the last 20 years: Supergirl.
One of the changes made in Man of Steel was that Superman was now emphasized as the Last Son of Krypton, meaning they were knocking off all other Kryptonian characters. General Zod and other evil Kryptonians were relegated to being inhabitants of an alternate, pocket universe; Power Girl, who was an older version of Supergirl from an alternate universe, was brought into the main universe but was explained as wielding Atlantean magic instead of being alien; Krypto the Superdog had his origin changed so that he was actually created as part of an illusion of Krypton meant as a trap for Superman who was freed from the trap and just became Superman's Kryptonian-but-not-really-Kryptonian dog; and, of course, Supergirl was killed off during Crisis on Infinite Earths and simply didn't come back for the reboot.
To be fair, there is a basis to the idea of Superman being a loner; as much as we think of Batman as a loner, he isn't. He finds teammates for himself left and right, be they adopted orphans like the Robins or independent protégés like the Batgirls or just fellow bat-themed crimefighters like Batwoman. Batman is more of a team player than his image lets on, and that was reflected in the reboot, considering his Bat-Family made it through into the new continuity (well, other than Batwoman and her female sidekick Batgirl, and Barbara Gordon Batgirl made it but was immediately retired and then shot in the spine and paralyzed so that she couldn't be Batgirl again and hey I'm starting to see a pattern here). Superman, on the other hand, has always been defined to some degree by being one of the last of his people, by being a superhero without close sidekicks, by spending the first 50 years of his publication history not sharing his secret identity with almost anyone (including his closest friends Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen), and by having a whole fort to himself in the Arctic Circle literally called the Fortress of Solitude. Placing emphasis on his isolation isn't an idea without precedent or merit.
That said, a little bit of the exploration of loneliness goes a long way. DC's push for more mature storytelling had some fantastic results, but it was not without its missteps, and for Superman, those missteps have frequently taken the form of a narrative push to portray him as sad and lonely and depressed. In the years since 1985, greater and greater focus has been placed on Superman weighed down by losses, the loss of his whole planet, the loss of his entire culture, and since 2011's reboot the loss of the Kents. Stories of young Clark's childhood have portrayed him as increasingly lonely and isolated from other kids, alienated because he can fly (because what child would ever want to fly). More and more stories emphasize the idea that Superman is alien and unlike us and feels different from us. All of this undermines the core concept of Superman. Superman is an aspirational figure, created to give underprivileged readers a little bit of hope and a little bit of a person to look up to. Focus too much on what he's suffered, and his stories no longer bring the comfort they were meant to; focus too much on how different he is from us and he no longer feels like someone we can imitate. Many of the new elements introduced in the Modern Era of comics have been welcome, excellent additions to his mythos, but at the same time, there's a lot to be said for the effectiveness of Silver Age simplicity.
And speaking of the Silver Age, this is where Supergirl originally came into the picture.
Age of Silver, Girl of Steel
Knowing more about Supergirl's background, both in the comics and outside of them, helps demonstrate the value she carries within the Superman family. The first criticism many have of characters like Supergirl is that she's a young sidekick meant to pander to children. This is true, but it doesn't mean a character like her still doesn't have value. Robin's creation was just as driven by appealing to a particular audience as Supergirl, and yet he is also a fantastic character who brings a lot of depth to the Batman mythos. DC recognizes this, considering both of the Silver Age Robins were brought through the 1985 reboot, and two more long term Robins would be created over the next several years, and then all four Robins would make it through the 2011 reboot with most of their history entirely intact.
But more specifically than kids everywhere, Supergirl was created to appeal to young women. Worth noting that this wasn't the first time her co-creator, Otto Binder, had done this; Binder had previously worked on the Captain Marvel comics and co-created Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel's long lost twin sister who he met and shared his powers with. This was in 1942, so four years after the creation of Superman, Otto Binder was the guy who went, “You know who we should make a superhero for? Little girls.” There's frankly not enough people saying this in the current comics industry, at a time when women make up roughly 46% of comics readership, so the work Binder put forth in giving women representation in comics was huge. He became a writer for Superman comics in the Silver Age, and this was when he created Supergirl.
Regarding her origin, Supergirl was notably different from Superman in a few interesting ways. The first was that she was not a baby when she landed on Earth. Supergirl was a teenager during the destruction of Krypton, so she had a whole life and family and friends that she had full relationships with that she lost when she came to Earth. More than that, she wasn't escaping Krypton, she was escaping Argo City; A huge chunk of Krypton had been jettisoned, and on it was Argo City, with it's inhabitants still alive. But, in time, the process that turned pieces of Krypton into poisonous Kryptonite took hold, and the Argo City itself began killing its inhabitants. Supergirl suffered through the destruction of her people twice before arriving on Earth. She went through more than Superman ever did, and was much more the alien when she arrived on Earth than he ever was.
The idea of Superman's solitude was also still preserved. Unlike Batman, who adopted his Robins and perpetually had them working alongside him, Supergirl was adopted by a human family, while she began to understand and learn to control her super powers, she was kept as Superman's 'secret weapon.' When she and Superman decided to officially reveal her to the world as Supergirl, she still was not a direct partner but acted as her own superhero. While youthful, she was old enough to be independent, and this allowed her to have her adventures, and for Superman to continue being the lone superhero of Metropolis. She was in a perfect position to show up in any given Superman story, or to simply have her solo tales whenever the writers wanted; the platonic ideal of a 'kid sidekick' character.
But more than that, she completes Superman's mythology. How so?
By Being What Superman Isn't
If the problem with Superman is that his basic concept is at odds with the kind of stories DC wants to tell, the answer is to tell those stories with Supergirl instead. Superman loses a chunk of what makes him Superman if he's made less powerful, less invulnerable, less good; Supergirl does not, because from the start she presented an opportunity to see what a figure like Superman would be like before they'd reached their full power. The differences between these two are exactly what makes the kinds of stories DC's been trying to force Superman into work better for Supergirl.
Start with their humanity; Superman is, for all intents and purposes, a human who also has incredible powers. From the get go, Superman's origin on Krypton didn't inform his character as much it only explained where his powers come from. In John Byrne's Man of Steel, a point was made that Superman wasn't a baby sent from Krypton, he was genetic material that was 'born' via a Kryptonian gestation device, meaning that his 'birth' took place on Earth, not on Krypton. In Mark Waid's Superman: Birthright, an update of Superman's origin written in 2003, Superman was still born as an infant on Krypton but has no real memory of it or his parents. He doesn't find out any real information on Krypton until he's reached adulthood. On the other hand, Supergirl was raised on Krypton. She has friends and family that she left behind; she had a life that she grew up thinking was going to be hers until she died, and then suddenly she finds herself a refugee on another planet. The person who feels like an alien hiding amongst the humans isn't Superman; it's Supergirl. These kinds of stories have a place, not with Superman as their lead, but with Kara Zor-El.
Supergirl has also personally suffered much greater tragedy than Superman. Superman never had as direct of a connection to the world he lost, but Supergirl does, and for her, it happened twice. She's the one who lost the world, lost people, not Superman. If DC wants to tell these kinds of stories, tell them with her.
Supergirl is also not at the full height of her powers yet. Between inexperience with her powers, her youth, and her not having been under the yellow sun of Earth for as long as Clark, she doesn't yet have his level of invulnerability, power, or general abilities. That's not a knock on her. Instead, it presents an opportunity to tell the stories of a fallible Kryptonian that DC's been trying to tell with Superman.
In a lot of ways, Supergirl bears a striking resemblance more to Spider-Man than to Superman; she's a young adult hero with all the doubts and struggles that come with someone thrust into a world of powers that they weren't prepared for. Considering this, it's strange to me that DC tries to ignore her as frequently as they do and tries instead to tell those same stories with Superman himself, despite them being at complete odds with the idea that Superman represents. With Supergirl, DC can have their Supercake and eat it too; to have a Superman character who stands tall and has unstoppable strength and does only good, and to have a Superman family character who might struggle, who might doubt, who might fall short on occasion, but who will always strive to do what she can, knowing that every day she's getting stronger.