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There have been a number of different Supergirls in DC's history. The first debuted in August 1958 in "The Girl of Steel" from Superman #123 (first series - written by Otto Binder with art by Dick Sprang and Stan Kaye). This "Super-Girl" was a magical creation that comes to life when Jimmy Olsen makes a wish on an ancient Indian totem that "a Super-Girl, with super-powers equal to Superman's, would appear and become his companion."
In the originally published story, Super-Girl wore the traditional blue and red outfit. However, in the reprint from Giant Superman #216, Super-Girl's appearance is obviously influenced by her creator, Jimmy Olsen - she became a redhead wearing an orange shirt with green cape, skirt, and boots (no doubt so that readers wouldn't confuse her with Superman's cousin, Supergirl, who was active at the time of the 1969 reprint). The reprint in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told collection has Super-Girl dressed in red and blue.
Despite her good intentions, Super-Girl causes only trouble for the Man of Steel -- while using her powers alongside Superman, she blows roofs off buildings, causes explosions, and generally just gets in the way. She also accidentally reveals Superman's secret identity to Lois when she greets Clark as Superman.
Lois doesn't come off very well, as usual for almost any woman in that era. Her first concern is the lovelorn complaint -- "What chance have I anymore with Super-Girl around? They'll fall in love and get married... (choke!)". While tempted to cancel Jimmy's wish, Lois' conscience strikes as she decides, "But -- but Superman won't have me anyway! It would be mean to take Super-Girl away from him... She'll make Superman happy... (sob!)".
Gosh, Lois is terrific! For a girl, that is.
But she reverts to stereotypical type again when she hears Super-Girl refer to Clark as Superman. Lois quickly jumps to the attack and says, "Your secret is out, Clark!" As usual, Superman cleverly throws Lois off the track. This time he gives her a love note adorned with hearts and roses that says, "My Darling Lois! I've fallen madly in love with you! But I'm too timid to pop the question in person... Will you marry me? Clark Kent"
In the twisted logic of the times, Lois decides, "Oh my goodness! If - if Clark were really Superman, he wouldn't dare propose... I'd accept! Then... then it must have been a sheer case of mistaken identity when poor, bewildered Super-Girl called him Superman!" She turns down Clark saying, "It's sweet of you Clark, but I could only marry you if you were really Superman!" Our hero thinks, "I figured she'd reject Clark! But what if she'd accepted? Whew!"
Anyway, returning to the theme of this article, Super-Girl is conveniently redeemed when she sacrifices herself to save Superman from deadly Kryptonite. Unlike many stories of the day, Super-Girl doesn't end up as an imaginary tale, a dream, or a computer prediction. Super-Girl remained in-continuity (although as far as I know, she was never referred to again). Super-Girl was a one-issue test on the popularity of a female counterpart to Superman - a test that was apparently popular with readers and/or editors.
The idea of a Supergirl proved sufficiently popular that the Silver Age Supergirl debuted less than a year later, in May 1959's Action Comics #252, titled "The Supergirl from Krypton" (reprinted in Giant Superman Annual replica edition as well as a Millennium reprint edition). Otto Binder again wrote the story, with art by Al Plastino.
Superman investigates a rocket crash outside town and is greeted by a young, blonde girl wearing a variation of his costume. Supergirl explains how, when Krypton exploded, a "street of homes" on "a large chunk of the planet" was hurled into space "by sheer luck", complete with air bubble and a food machine.
The survivors cover the Kryptonite ground with a sheet of lead and life continues, as scientist Zor-el and his wife (Alura is unnamed in the story) have a young daughter whom they name Kara. Tragically, a meteor shower destroys the lead shielding, and Zor-el and his wife, discovering Superman on Earth through a "super-space telescope", send their daughter to safety. After exchanging the names of their respective fathers, Superman exclaims, "Great Scott! Then you're my -- cousin!" Well, that solved the potential romance concern for Lois Lane.
The issue sets up the rest of the basic Silver Age Supergirl background when Superman disguises her as an orphan and delivers her to the Midvale Orphanage. Supergirl decides on the name Linda Lee (continuing the L.L. tradition) and agrees to train in secret until Superman decides she is ready to reveal herself to the world, which occurred in February, 1962's Action Comics #295.
There are far too many Silver Age Supergirl stories to do justice to them by mentioning only a few. Kara Zor-el had a long career, including her own self titled comics, and gathered her own supporting cast and villains along the way, until her heroic death in 1986's Crisis On Infinite Earths #7.
Post-Crisis, Supergirl has been forgotten by continuity. However, she does appear in a memorable story in Christmas With The Super-Heroes #2 (cover dated December 1989). The story, "Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot", written by Alan Brennert with art by Dick Giordano, has Deadman in despair during the holidays until a mysterious blonde (later giving her name as Kara) tells him:
"We don't do it for the glory. We don't do it for the recognition. We do it because it needs to be done. Because if we don't, no one else will. And we do it even if no one knows what we've done. Even if no one knows we exist. Even if no one remembers that we ever existed."
The story is dedicated to Supergirl scribes, Otto Binder and Jim Mooney, with the inscription, "We still remember".
The New Supergirl
Even though the new Superman regime emphasized that Superman was now the sole survivor of Krypton (no Krypto, Kandorians, or Phantom Zone criminals - and no cousin Kara), John Byrne still managed to reintroduce a new version of Supergirl.
Supergirl first appeared in Superman #16 (story and pencils by John Byrne, with inks by Karl Kesel). While most of the issue dealt with (as the cover says) "the perfidious perils of the pusillanimous Prankster!" (a fun read by the way), the final two pages had a team of scientists investigating an anomaly under the frozen Antarctic ice. Arriving at the site, they find the temperature registering at 126 degrees and, beneath the slush, the unconscious figure of a lovely blonde woman, dressed in a variation of Superman's costume.
The story runs as a sub-plot over the next several months as the scientists discover that she had apparently been lying under that ice for several hundred years. Awakening from her sleep, Supergirl heads out to find Superman, finally catching up to him in Superman #21 (by Byrne with inks by Terry Beatty), the first part of "The Supergirl Saga".
Superman is flying over the blue skies of Kansas when he becomes aware of someone following him. Quickly doubling back, he is surprised to find "a flying woman in a variation of my costume!" More surprises follow as the young lady introduces herself as Supergirl and then morphs into Lana Lang, telling Superman that she was given these powers by Lex Luthor.
Supergirl's powers are very different from Superman's Kryptonian powers. In addition to her "chameleon powers", she also uses a "psycho-kinetic blast" and turns invisible. However, Supergirl is clearly confused about her identity, location, and mission. She tells Superman that Metropolis has been destroyed, and accuses him of being an impostor attempting to deceive her. Eluding her attack, Superman heads for Lana Lang's farm to try and find some answers. When he arrives, he finds the original Lana Lang and his parents tied up in the cellar.
Rescuing them, Superman tells them that Supergirl is not just posing as Lana. His scan reveals that Supergirl is identical to Lana, even on the molecular level. Recalling the Superboy he had met a few months before (in the epic battle against the Time Trapper), Superman deduces that Supergirl must be from the Earth of the Pocket Universe.
Superman heads off to lure Supergirl to his world's Metropolis and Lex Luthor. While Supergirl tries to reconcile her recollections with this reality, Superman tells her his theory of her origin. This triggers the return of her full memory and, activating a device in her belt, she transports the two of them to the Pocket Universe's Earth.
In Adventures of Superman #444 (by Byrne and Jerry Ordway with Dennis Janke's inks over Ordway's pencils), we learn that three criminals from that universe's Krypton have destroyed the planet. Lex Luthor explains that two years previously, he discovered a way to give Lana super-powers, and that Lana used a variation of the missing Superboy's costume as a rallying symbol for the people of Earth.
In a fancy bit of pseudo-science to explain how Supergirl was discovered, Lex explains that the only way to get Supergirl to Superman's Earth was to send her in suspended animation from the Antarctic, as "the poles would be the most stable areas from which to launch our mad gamble".
In 'stereotypical plot device explanation; scientifically convoluted and mad' (SPDESCM, or 'speedy scam') [acronym tm sean hogan], Luthor says that he sent Supergirl back in time 200 years because, "With his ability to travel through time, there will be plenty of opportunities for Superman to find you." (Lex is unaware that Superman, unlike Superboy, cannot travel in time under his own power). To complete the SPDESCM mystery, Lex blanks Supergirl's memory (so that if she is captured by the enemy, she "will not be able to reveal anything to them") and leaves her with a compulsion to seek out Superman and thus trigger her memory.
After all, where's the fun in just sending her straight over with her memory intact?
The big fight scene against the Phantom Zone criminals takes place in Superman #22 (an all Byrne issue), but Supergirl is quickly taken out of the action by the combined heat vision of Zod and Zaora. Supergirl's body turns into an oozing purple form and falls to Earth. Lex stops Superman from going after her, mysteriously saying, "the protomatter will regenerate itself soon enough."
There is no time for further explanation until the fight ends and a dying Lex confesses, "sorry... about the deception... with Supergirl. Lana was one... of the first killed. I used her... molecular matrix... to create... pattern for protomatter. Artificial life form... my creation... Hoped... you'd come if it was Lana... She... never knew she wasn't real."
Later, as Superman prepares to leave the dead planet, he sees Supergirl's protomatter form moving. Gathering her up, he somehow returns to his own Earth and delivers her to his parents and Lana. Lana is shocked by the figure's strange, mottled appearance -- so unlike the vibrant Supergirl that attacked them earlier. Superman asks them to look after Supergirl, "while it regenerates".