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In the beginning, there was Superman, and it was good.
Then somebody decided, in order to expand their product line, why not add in a young, female version of Superman? Hey, it worked for Captain Marvel. As a test, they released Superman #123 (August, 1958), a Jimmy Olsen story where he got three wishes. One wish was for a woman to keep Superman company, but though meaning well, this magical Super-Girl kept messing up her super-feats. Jimmy sadly wished her away when she sacrificed herself to save Superman from kryptonite, and was about to die anyway. (Note that in most later reprintings of this story, Super-Girl was intentionally miscolored to look different from Supergirl; originally, and as seen in DC Archives, she looks identical to Supergirl except that the skirt of her Mini-Dress of Power is red.)
The issue sold well and the DC powers that be decided that Supergirl's time had come. Thus was born Supergirl - a.k.a. Kara Zor-El, Kal-El's cousin. She first appeared in Action Comics #252 (May, 1959). At first, she was "Superman's secret weapon". As Linda Lee, an orphan at the Midvale Orphanage, she hid the existence of Supergirl from the world, secretly doing good and helping those in trouble.
Eventually, as the audience for good female characters increased, Superman judged her ready, and Supergirl was unleashed on the world. She was adopted and became Linda Lee Danvers; she gained her own Smallville-esque supporting cast, becoming an occasional member of the Legion of Super-Heroes and love interest to popular LSH member Brainiac 5.
In the 1970s, a fateful decision was made: If Superman had a cousin on Earth-1, where Supergirl had long been established to live, why not one for the original Superman, Kal-L of Earth-2? Thus was Power Girl, aka Kara Zor-L of Earth-2, introduced, with an origin much like Supergirl's, except for some Scotch Tape to the effect that her capsule had taken much longer to reach Earth. Power Girl used a very different costume, an all-white costume, which highlighted her breasts, large even by comicbook standards. She was instantly inducted into the Justice Society of America and soon became a fan favorite.
But as the 1970s and early 1980s came along, Supergirl fell out of fashion with comic fans. Several attempts to launch her into her own series failed spectacularly, and more alarming was the failure of her big budget live action film.
Then came the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The powers that be decided that Supergirl was a symptom of the longstanding decline in the Superman franchise, which had made the books a poor seller for DC Comics. In order to try and bring back Superman's uniqueness, it was decided that Superman should be the only surviving Kryptonian. So in issue #7 of the Crisis (October, 1985), Supergirl made a Heroic Sacrifice to help stop the villain's plan. But then DC decided to do a full-on reboot of the Superman franchise, resulting in the now dead Supergirl being declared to have never existed. In a bit of major irony though, the copycat Power Girl survived and was given a new origin story, as the granddaughter of an Atlantean sorcerer sent through time to the present day.
Eventually, John Byrne decided to "cheat" his way around the "Superman: Last Son of Krypton For Real" edict to bring Supergirl back, in the form of "Matrix", a shape-shifting purple creature who just so happens to take Supergirl's form. The new version first appeared in Superman vol. 2 #16 (April, 1988). Hailing from a pocket universe where Superboy existed (in order to keep the Legion of Super-Heroes universe from collapsing from the removal of Superboy from canon) and all life was destroyed by escaped Phantom Zone villains, Supergirl followed Superman into the mainstream DC Universe and for a time, things were good even as Supergirl began dating the Post-Crisis Lex Luthor (who was pretending to be his own son, grant you).
However, this Supergirl, too, grew stale, and in a few years, Peter David was called in to Retool her. In Supergirl vol. 4 #1 (September, 1996), Matrix travelled to the town of Leesburg, and meld with a troubled girl who had gotten involved with Satanists, named Linda Danvers, in a nice Call Back Mythology Gag to her Pre Crisis situation. The fusion of the two resulted in an "Earth-Born Angel", a holy being with powers of fire that would serve as the mythology backstory for her new series.
Eventually, the "angel" aspect and the "Linda" aspect separated, with Linda having the powers on her own. This came at the same time that Supergirl was introduced in Superman: The Animated Series, so in a bit of media property alignment, Linda was given the cartoon Supergirl's costume. She operated as Supergirl until the original Pre Crisis Supergirl showed up, her rocket somehow having detoured to the Post-Crisis universe. Linda, learning Kara was destined to die, traveled to the Pre Crisis universe in her place, marrying Superman and having a daughter. Eventually, Kara was restored to her place in the history of the multiverse, and Linda retired from superheroing. Supergirl vol. 4 lasted 74 issues, ending in November, 2002.
Shortly after, a new character showed up; the Darker and Edgier Cir-El, who claimed to be Clark and Lois Lane's daughter from the future. She first appeared in Superman the 10 Cent Adventure #1 (March, 2003). However, she was a very unpopular character, and in short order her claims were debunked and she vanished into the timestream.
A couple of years passed and Dan DiDio rose to power at DC Comics. As urban legends goes, DiDio freaked out when he accidentally discovered the current Supergirl's convoluted origin of pocket universes and "earth angels" and made one of his first edicts upon taking over DC Comics to be DC bringing back the real Supergirl. So Matrix and Linda Danvers were Put on a Bus (at first DiDio declared them erased from canon thanks to Infinite Crisis, though this was later rescinded, as the characters have been mentioned in the "Reign in Hell" mini-series and in a later arc in Superman/Batman) and a new Kara Zor-El was introduced, having crash-landed onto Earth just in time to be (re)introduced into DC Universe canon as the second arc in the Superman/Batman series. In a twist, it was revealed that Kara was older than Kal-El when they lived together on Krypton, and had been sent into space in order to care for her baby cousin on Earth; her rocket, however, going off-course (in a re-appropriation of Power Girl's origin) had meant she arrived as a teenager when he was an adult.
Meanwhile, Power Girl had gone through some changes as they tried to figure out what to do with her. Recruited for the Justice League Europe branch, Kara had her powers decreased (due to a Deus Ex Machina lifesaving operation). She developed a new edgy, ultra-feminist attitude to let her serve as the resident shit-disturber on the JLE team (which was briefly retconned as being the result of allergies caused by diet sodas). She was made a businesswoman with her own computer company, mystically pregnant caused by her Atlantean grandpa, and most humiliatingly, was given a short-lived vulnerability to "natural, unprocessed materials" by Chris Claremont, that was so silly and stupid that it was quickly dropped as soon as it was established.
Eventually, she found a home in the ongoing JSA series, and now that she was being focused on by a single writer, she started to gain some consistency. In the series, it was revealed that she wasn't Atlantean after all — but that left the question of what she was.
In the run-up to Infinite Crisis, the surprisingly simple answer was revealed: she was... Kara Zor-L, the cousin of the Superman of Earth-2. As the Earths were being merged, she had somehow fallen through a crack in time, emerging in the Post-Crisis universe unchanged, and the inconsistencies in her powers and origins since then had been side effects of the universe trying to fit her in. (Note: She is specifically from the Earth-2 that existed prior to Crisis of the Infinite Earths. A new Earth-2 thats like the old one appeared after Infinite Crisis but it has its own Power Girl. Much to the original's dismay.)
Thus, both Supergirls have ended up right back where they started. See? It wasn't so complicated after all!
Since then Supergirl's basic identity in the DCU has held steady as Kara Zor-el. Confusion didn't end there though as her own named title was prone to retconning Kara's personal backstory on Krypton every three issues or so under a string of writers before finally settling down some 30 issues in. This roughly coincided with being brought into the extended New Krypton storyline with her cousin, dealing with the bottled city of Kandor being unshrunk releasing several hundred Kryptonians on planet Earth, led confusingly enough by Supergirl's parents. The book finally managed to become well regarded and is now a stable part of the Superman Family of comics. Supergirl also appeared in Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes, in which she was stuck a thousand years in the future with the LSH (having apparently made the Time Travel trip during a Time Skip in her own book, and then getting Laser-Guided Amnesia before she returned). To top it off, 2009 saw a toony-style miniseries aimed at kids, called Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures In the 8th Grade, which was Exactly What It Says on the Tin. The original writer says he had plans to write sequels retelling her pre-Crisis story (her time in the Legion et al), taking her up to the 12th Grade.
...Oh, what's that, DC rebooted their entire universe again in 2011, you say? Well, since Superman has been rebooted that, of course, means Supergirl has to start from square one, too. It's being kept simple this time: Supergirl is still Superman's cousin from Krypton who crashed to Earth much later and only remembers her cousin as a baby. Sound familiar to you? Under the reboot Supergirl has experienced some personality shifts emphasizing she's an alien in contrast to her cousin. Meanwhile, on Earth 2, Power Girl is also Superman's cousin from Krypton, only her Superman is dead and she's wound up stranded on Earth 1 for several years. She's currently co-starring in Worlds' Finest with her best friend, Huntress.
In other media 2007 had Supergirl becoming a regular character on Smallville as Clark's cousin Kara from Krypton, using a variation of the origin where she is older than him and, as is typical in that series, Not Wearing Tights or using a code name. (There had earlier been a fake "Kara from Krypton" who turned out to be neither. It was a plan by an AI made in Jor-El's image, and from the way she was hitting on him, she wasn't supposed to be Clark's cousin unless Kryptonian social mores are
very different from pretty much the same as modern human ones.)
- Action Girl
- All Girls Like Ponies: Kara's pony Comet could fly! He was secretly a cursed centaur.
- Bare Your Midriff: The Justice League, Peter David, and modern versions.
- Bash Cousins: With Superman, natch.
- Between My Legs: The first post-Crisis Supergirl, aka Matrix, was introduced with this, which also served to hide her face.
- Also seen in Supergirl issue 21.
- Canon Immigrant: The Kryptonian headband Supergirl was wearing when she died in Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was added at the request of the producers of the 1984 Supergirl movie... who then decided to ditch the headband themselves.
- Cape Wings
- Cloning Blues: A notable Bronze Age story involved Kara getting an Evil Clone who was then depowered and just wanted to live a normal life. Kara promised to help her establish a new identity for herself.
- Depending on the Artist: Much more than her Spear Counterpart cousin, the size of her skirt can vary frequently, how big her breasts can be, to how old she actually looks.
- Distaff Counterpart: Take a wild guess as to who.
- Domed Hometown: Argo City
- Doomed Hometown: ditto
- Enemy Without: Thanks to black kryptonite. She managed to pull herself back together.
- Fan Service Pack: She started out in a modest Mini-Dress of Power. She eventually had costume changes with varying levels of fanservice, with the one from Adventure Comics #409 being particularly Stripperiffic. Here's a look at the different costumes she had over the years.
- Flying Brick
- Gendered Outfit: Quite possibly the Trope Codifier. Every outfit Supergirl has worn has, in some way, been tailored to her femininity. While the Mini-Dress of Power is the most frequent (and obvious) change, she's also had a low neckline, short shorts, an exposed midriff, a leotard, high heels and various combinations thereof.
- God Test: During Peter David's run, with the "angel" version of the character, she meets a little boy who claims to be a god, come to speak to her. She asks for proof, and he asks what sort of miracle would prove anything in an age of superheroes who can fly, transmute elements, etc.; so she's just going to have to take it on faith.
- Girl Next Door: Kara/Linda's personality in the Silver Age.
- Hair of Gold: But as Linda, she wore a brunette wig.
- Heartwarming Orphan: Linda Lee eventually gets adopted, becoming Linda Danvers.
- Heroic Sacrifice
- Kindhearted Cat Lover: Streaky the Super-Cat, in fact. He got powers in a lab accident. Yes, he was a cat who could shove the planet out of orbit if he liked; just repeat the MST3K Mantra and enjoy it for the Silver Age fun it was.
- Legion of Super-Heroes
- Leotard of Power: Post the Flashpoint reboot for the DC Universe. Although other versions of Supergirl had used it before.
- Magic Skirt: Some artists draw it so short, but so short that you will need a massive Willing Suspension of Disbelief to accept something so short not allowing Panty Shots free of charge.
- Mini-Dress of Power
- Modesty Shorts: Used more recently as an alternative to her Skirt.
- Most Common Superpower: Although smaller than a lot of heroines, she would still be above average in real life.
- Not Allowed to Grow Up: Supergirl goes forth and back with this, only Kara has been given a few continuities where she actually grew up to be a young woman, other Supergirls never went past their late teens. This is more prevalent when Power Girl exists in the given continuity, having Supergirl as an adult woman would basically negate Karen's character, as she serves as the adult life for a Distaff Counterpart of Superman.
- Pieta Plagiarism: The famous cover image of Crisis on Infinite Earths when she dies.
- Pink Product Ploy: A clothing line.
- Plot-Relevant Age-Up: Along with Dick Grayson, the original Kara was allowed to grow up, even if it took thirty years. She started out as a cute little teenybopper, and became a beautiful young woman. There's a huge Tear Jerker in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, when time-travelling young Kara asks Superman if she grows up to be pretty. This is after Kara's own death, and Supes can't tell her that; but he does tell her, as they pass a statue of her adult self in the Fortress, "You grew up beautiful, Kara."
- Positive Discrimination: With her reintroduction in the Superman/Batman series, many efforts were made suggest that Kara was possibly a greater Flying Brick than her cousin. Many stories written soon after her introduction as Supergirl had other heroes saying that she might be faster than Superman, might be stronger than Superman, etc. Overall, characters seemed to believe Kara would eventually surpass Clark in all parameters. Later these cheap compliments and expectations simply vanished, and the more traditional "as strong as Superman, but maybe slightly less so because she's smaller" interpretation again prevailed.
- In the lengthy 1959 story arc about Supergirl's secret apprenticeship and training, Kara had a power outage. Then she briefly got everything back — along with invulnerability to Green Kryptonite. (Mr. Multiplex was responsible.) Superman seriously regarded her as superior to him, and wondered if he should become her assistant.
- Retcon: Just look at the description above!
- Ret-Gone: For a long while, Kara Zor-El was retconned out of existence by the Crisis on Infinite Earths - until a storyline with the Linda Danvers Supergirl had Pre Crisis Kara entering the Post-Crisis timestream by accident. Later, a Post-Crisis Kara was reintroduced, replacing Linda.
- Superheroes Wear Capes
- Teach Me How to Fight: Pre Crisis Kara was trained by Superman. Post-Crisis/Pre-New 52 Kara was trained chiefly by Wonder Woman.
- Thigh-High Boots: In her New 52 costume.