Columns > Published on March 23rd, 2017

Don't Call It a Comback: Peter David's Supergirl is Finally Getting Collected

The concept of Supergirl is pretty simple, right? Kara Zor-El, the teenage cousin of Superman, is rocketed away from the planet of Krypton as it’s about to explode. She’s lost in space and arrives on Earth only to find her baby cousin is now a grown man, and the greatest superhero of all time to boot. She follows his lead, adopting a secret identity as Linda Lee Danvers, and a crime fighting persona as Supergirl. Her powers are identical to her male counterpart, including super strength, vision, hearing, and flight. She believes in Truth, Justice and the American Way, while also seeking to live up to the standards set by Superman.

But then in Crisis on Infinite Earths Supergirl died, and DC declared that no Kryptonians other than Superman were allowed to show up in their comics, and that he hadn’t been Superboy. This shockingly created ripple effects that still reverberate to this day. It turns out that the Legion of Superheroes, from the 30th century, were reliant on Superboy for their entire premise, so John Byrne, the head writer on the Superman books at the time, came up with a simple idea: the Superboy that the Legion remembered was from a “pocket universe” created by their enemy, the Time Trapper. And this gave Byrne the chance to slip in another character: a new Supergirl.

Except this wasn’t Kara Jor-El, cousin of Kal-El from the planet Krypton. This was Matrix, later Mae, a protoplasmic clone of Lana Lang that had morphing and energy abilities. After her pocket universe is destroyed, she winds up on Earth with Superman and, amongst other things, becomes the girlfriend of Lex Luthor (who had his brain transplanted into a younger body and claimed to be his own son. Comics!). Then in 1996 DC ordered up an ongoing series for her. Enter: Peter David. 

Its likeable, funny characters and warm humanistic stories, often tinged with progressive and topical political commentary, had a true and brave heart.

The resulting series ran for 81 issues, through tumultuous changes for the Man of Steel during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. And even though it built up a cult following over the years, up until 2016 it only had two trade paperbacks: a collection of the first story arc, and a collection of the last story arc. This could have been for many reasons, probably centering around the convoluted nature of the book, the fact that when it started trades weren’t quite the hot commodity yet, and that it wasn’t ever a best seller, but that’s all about to change. With Book One released last October, Book Two in April, and Book Three this upcoming October, it looks like the world may finally remember Peter David's Supergirl. But considering the character barely resembles the current comic and television iteration, a little context is necessary.

David was already a well-established writer at this point. He’d had a long and acclaimed run on The Incredible Hulk at Marvel, along with Web of Spider-Man and any other number of titles. He was known for his humor, but also infusing characters with distinct voices and personalities. And that was the problem: Matrix Supergirl was kind of a blank slate. Not only could she literally turn into other people, on more than one occasion becoming Clark Kent to cover for Superman, but there just wasn’t much to her. That was the very first thing David set out to remedy.

Immediately in the book Matrix is given concerns and needs. She worries that she’s not a human and doesn’t even have a soul. This is remedied when she’s accidentally merged with a dying girl, Linda Danvers. Danvers, as it turns out, had been lured into a dark life by her boyfriend Buzz, a demon, and used as a ritual sacrifice by a cult. The need to redeem Linda’s past life gives the character drive throughout the rest of the series. She finds herself able to transform from the average height Dangers, who now has the mind of Matrix, to the tall and supermodel-esque Supergirl, creating a fascinating dichotomy between the two. She may be Supergirl, but she has a bit of Danvers’s old memories and personality.

But that was only the start of the convolution. It was eventually revealed that Matrix had become an earth-bound angel, a part of a greater religious angle that played through most of the book. There was a little boy character, Wally, that may or may not have been God Himself, and Buzz the demon found himself tied up with Supergirl on a journey to redeem himself in the second half of the book. This fascination with Christian mythology wasn’t exclusive to David’s work on Supergirl, however, and would continue with his Fallen Angel when the former book eventually ended. In many ways, Fallen Angel picked up where Supergirl left off.

image via Statues and Superheroes

Unfortunately, David’s Supergirl was often at the whim of editorial influence and pop culture expectations. Although she started out the series in a costume that mostly resembled the classic look, basically a stereotypically feminized version of Superman’s costume with a skirt, by issue #51 in early 2001 she had adopted a new look. Now with a white shirt and bare midriff, this costume was a direct carryover from the DCAU Superman animated series that was popular at the time. That version of Supergirl was a much more classic iteration, being from Argo (a sister planet to Krypton) and named Kara In-Ze. Translating the look to the comics, much like other wholesale adoptions like Harley Quinn, required a little rejiggering.

David, however, was always game to play within the sandbox provided. He had culminated Matrix’s storyline with her dying in issue #50, sacrificing herself to save the world from a demon named Carnivore. In the aftermath a much shorter, non-transformed Linda retains his old memories and a bit of Supergirl’s powers, including strength (although greatly reduced) and flight, but lost any angelic connection. The rest of the series continued her redemption arc and attempts to discover if Matrix had really died. Eventually she found Matrix during a battle with the Demon Queen Lilith. Matrix ends up merging with a New God, Twilight, to become an Angel of Fire, and hasn’t been seen since, but not before healing Linda and restoring her power to its full strength.

That editorial influence came into play again with the final arc, now known as “Many Happy Returns.” With the storyline finding a bit of closure, David was looking for a fresh start. He proposed to DC the idea of a team-up between Linda (who would become Superwoman), Power Girl (a version of Supergirl originally from a parallel Earth known as Earth-2) and the original pre-Crisis Supergirl, Kara Zor-El. That was nixed, with David only being allowed to use Kara under the condition that he bring the sales for the book up. It had always been a bit of a struggle for the book, and this was no different. It still faltered, with the storyline being nipped in the bud prematurely. This is evident in the collected edition as the last few issues, in which Linda takes Kara’s place in the Silver Age so the latter doesn’t have to die, feel truncated and end abruptly.

Still, as usual David manages to wring as much pathos out of the situation as possible. It turns out in the alternate Silver Age, Linda has married Superman and they had a daughter, Ariella, together. The Spectre (Hal Jordan at the time, long story) arrives to tell her she has to make things right by switching places with Kara. Linda, knowing her daughter will cease to exist, makes a deal that she’ll get to live. Although Ariella had a few brief appearances, notably as Supergirl in the 853rd century in DC One Million, Linda never sees her again and quits being Supergirl with a letter to Superman, confessing she never felt she lived up to the role.

The book ended, but the character stayed in David’s heart. He followed it up immediately with Fallen Angel, a mature book for DC that oddly enough wasn’t under the Vertigo line. It followed Liandra, a superpowered being that defended the mysterious and supernatural city of Bete Noire. It ran for 20 issues with DC Comics from 2003 to 2005, and during that time David stayed mum about any connection to Supergirl. Her name, Lee, seemed to be a hint, as well as her dour attitude making sense in the aftermath of how the previous serious ended.

Fallen Angel was canceled, however, due to low sales and David moved the book over to IDW. There it ran for 33 issues from 2005 to 2008 followed by two mini-series in 2010 and 2011, and almost immediately it was made clear that Lee couldn’t be Linda Danvers. She was, in fact, a guardian angel that had been cast down from heaven. There had, however, been previous protectors of Bete Noire, including a woman known as Lin. In issues #14 and 15 she appears having recently escaped from Limbo, a rather blatant indication of her identity, and goes on to finally find closure.

Linda made one final appearance in DC Comics after this, in 2008’s Reign in Hell series, fighting the paranormal team known as the Shadowpact in her Gotham City apartment. But it’s been over a decade, and DC’s current continuity isn’t exactly hospitable to a complicated character like her. The New 52 reboot in 2011 discarded most of the previous continuity, proceeding ahead with a Kara Zor-El Supergirl with a mostly classic origin. 2016’s Rebirth initiative is an attempt at re-incorporating some of the old stories back into the mix, but Linda Danvers doesn’t look to be a concern at the moment.

As previously mentioned, she’s just too complex. It’s amazing that DC is finally releasing the entire run, but with such a loaded name I hate to think of a fan of the current television series, that is approaching the end of its second series, sitting down to crack open one of the trades. The show follows Kara Danvers, a reporter working at CatCo in National City. There’s no transformations, and for the most part her storylines borrow heavily from Superman lore, including Jimmy Olsen. Along with the aforementioned Matrix craziness above, the David series took place in the small town of Leesburg, and while it repurposes old Supergirl material (like Comet, the super horse, turned bisexual stand-up comic and Angel of Love), it’s mostly its own bizarre beast.

But it’s well worth it. It may have always fought to stay afloat, but the series has developed a cult following for a reason. Its likeable, funny characters and warm humanistic stories, often tinged with progressive and topical political commentary, had a true and brave heart. It’s David’s second-best series, behind only the magnum opus that is The Incredible Hulk. For that reason, putting aside any pre-conceived notions about a young girl rocketed away from Krypton, Peter David’s Supergirl is a true delight and a must-read.

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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