June is Superman Month. Last week, we presented a two-part timeline on the hero’s evolution. But almost since the beginning of Superman’s career, there have been women calling themselves Superwoman or Supergirl, the most famous of whom is Kara Zor-El, Last Daughter of Krypton. As June winds down, and as we get closer to the premiere of the new Supergirl TV show starring Melissa Benoist, let’s remember the history and evolution of these various women heroic women in colorful costumes.
1938 – Lois Lane, the first person who will be called Superwoman (later on) is introduced in Action Comics #1, alongside Clark Kent AKA Superman. The Golden Age of superheroes truly begins.
Lois is inspired by fictional movie character Torchy Blane (who is played by Lola Lane, among others) and real life journalist Nelly Bly (a lady who once circled the globe in less than 80 days in the 19th century). Lois Lane’s look is based on model Joanne Carter, who later marries Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Years later, it is established that Lois Lane’s middle name is Joanne.
1940 – On February 12, Bud Collyer (age 32) becomes the first actor to play Superman, starring in the radio series The Adventures of Superman. In the same program, Rolly Bester (age 23) becomes the first actor to play Lois Lane. She leaves after three episodes, succeeded by Helen Choate. Two months later, Choate leaves and the role goes to Joan Alexander (age 25). Alexander will play the role for the rest of the radio series and also do so in the 1941 Fleisher cartoon serials.
In Superman #6, Lois Lane is ill and needs blood. By piercing his skin with his super-strong nails, Clark Kent is able to give a blood transfusion and Lois quickly heals. In future stories, Kryptonian blood seems to do more. Such as in…
1943 – … Action Comics #60, featuring the story “Lois Lane: Superwoman.” Lois Lane dreams that a blood infusion from Superman gives her the same powers, allowing her to become the costumed hero Superwoman. When Clark Kent quickly recognizes her, she threatens to injure him if he doesn’t keep quiet about her secret identity. Then she finds Superman and promptly informs him that they’re going to get married, only to wake up a minute later.
1947 – The magicians Hocus and Pocus seemingly cast a spell that grants Lois Lane powers, so she becomes Superwoman for real. We later learn that she had no powers and Superman was aiding her unseen.
1948 – The live-action Superman movie serials begin, starring Kirk Alyn (age 38) in the title role and Noel Neill (age 28) as Lois Lane.
1949 – Superboy becomes smitten with Lucy Regent, a princess without any powers who adopts a “Supergirl” costume for a festival show. Sadly, they have to break up when she’s called back to be queen of her native country. It’s a tale as old as time.
1950 – Lana Lang is introduced as Clark Kent’s childhood love interest and one of his best friends. Like Lois, she winds up temporarily becoming a superhero herself on occasion.
Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn reprise their roles as Lois and Clark in the movie serial Superman VS. The Atom Man.
1951 – Not a hoax. Not a dream. Lois Lane gains powers and becomes Superwoman for real (temporarily). As Superwoman, Lois wears a blond wig and a new rocking costume. In later years, the character Kara Zor-El will be blond but don a brown-haired wig in her secret ID.
Actor George Reeves (age 37) stars alongside Noel Neill in the film Superman and the Mole Men. This 58-minute film serves as a test pilot for an ongoing Superman TV show in the following year.
1952 – The TV show The Adventures of Superman debuts, starring George Reeves and Noel Neill. It lasts for six years.
1956 – The Silver Age of DC Comics Begins! Barry Allen is introduced as the new Flash, with a different costume and origin than the original hero Jay Garrick. New versions of many of DC’s other superheroes are introduced. It is later established that the Silver Age DC heroes live on Earth-1 in the mainstream universe, whereas the earlier Golden Age heroes live on Earth-2 in a parallel universe.
The Earth-1 Superman’s birth name is Kal-El. The Superman of Earth-2 was born decades earlier as Kal-L.
1957 – “The Forbidden Box from Krypton.” A box is discovered that contains clothing Jor-El specially treated to grant its wearer superpowers. Lois Lane dons the gear herself and becomes a superhero to advance her career, but acts very recklessly in the process and causes several problems that Superman has to fix. Deciding she’s not able to handle such powers responsibly, Superman uses kryptonite radiation to de-power the clothing.
1958 – The Silver Age Superman Era truly begins! It is officially decided in the DC offices that stories previous to this year don’t need to have any hold on continuity and can be revised. Superman’s mythos are given a higher level of science fiction, introducing concepts and characters such as the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone, the imperfect duplicate Bizarro, and the future era team the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Superboy #64, “Lana Lang’s Super-Birthday.” Back in their younger days in Smallville, Clark Kent brings Lana a special birthday present that accidentally gives her powers for a day.
Superman #125, “Lois Lane’s Super Dream.” Lois once again dreams of becoming a superhero. This time, she wears a red wig along with her costume and calls herself Power Girl. In the same dream, Clark gains powers (since Lois doesn’t know he has them anyway) and becomes Power-Man.
Jimmy Olsen rubs a magic staff and makes a wish for Superman to have a female counterpart, bringing into existence a blonde, red-skirted hero called Supergirl. Sigmund Freud laughs in his grave at the symbolism (ok, maybe not, but he would). This Supergirl’s later becomes deathly ill. Rather than let her suffer, Jimmy Olsen undoes the spell and she vanishes from existence. This temporary Supergirl was created to gauge whether or not fans would want to see such a character, an independent female spin-off of Superman, rather than just temporarily giving super-powers to supporting cast characters such as Lois and Lana.
During his first encounter with the villain Brainiac, Superman discovers that Krypton’s capital Kandor survived the planet’s destruction and that it’s people survive as miniaturized prisoners in a bottle-like prison. He brings the Bottle City of Kandor to his Fortress, in hopes that he’ll one day find a way to enlarge the survivors.
1959 – In Action Comics #252, a new, true Supergirl character is introduced: Superman’s teenage cousin Kara Zor-El. Krypton’s Argo City survived the planet’s death, protected by a special dome, and Kara was born there years later to Zor-El (Superman’s uncle) and Alura In-Ze. 14 or 15 years after Kara’s birth, a meteor shower devastates Argo City. To save Kara, her parents send her to Earth so that her cousin can look after her.
Kara goes to an orphanage and assumes the alias Linda Lee, donning a brown wig in that identity. Superman trains her and occasionally recruits her as his “secret weapon.” The public is unaware that Supergirl exists, similar to how the general public considered Superman to be an urban myth during his early adventures and the first months of his radio show.
In “The Flying Girl of Smallville,” we learn that one day teenage Lana Lang found a way to prove who Superboy really was. In exchange for not investigating further or revealing this to others, Superboy used a “cosmic belt” device to temporarily give Lana flight.
1960 – During two separate adventures this year, Lois Lane and Lana Lang temporarily gain powers and become Super-Lois and Super-Lana. They spend a fair amount of time fighting each other.
Action Comics #267. “The Three Super-Heroes.” Kara meets the Legion of Super-Heroes, the 30th century team that visited Clark during his teenage years in Smallville and made him a member. During this adventure, red kryptonite temporarily turns Kara Zor-El into an older version called Superwoman, making her too old to officially join the LSH.
The first Bizarro-Supergirl debuts (a later version will be called Bizarrogirl). This imperfect duplicate soon dies from exposure to blue kryptonite (which is deadly to Bizarros).
Action Comics #261. Supergirl is experimenting with kryptonite and creates a new version called X-kryptonite, which then grants powers and increased intelligence to a cat named Streaky. He becomes Streaky the Supercat, colleague to Krypto the Superdog.
1961 – Action Comics #276. Supergirl meets the Legion of Super-Heroes again and is invited to officially join the team, even though she’ll still live in the modern era rather than the future. During this adventure, she meets fellow new member Brainiac 5, heroic descendant of the villain Brainiac. They fall for each other, but Supergirl returns to her native time era.
After spending a couple of years in the Midvale Orphanage, Linda Lee (Supergirl) is adopted by kindly couple Fred and Edna Danvers. She alters her civilian alias to Linda Lee Danvers.
In an imaginary story entitled “The Day Superman Married Lana Lang,” the Man of Tomorrow realizes he’s in love with Lana and wants to marry her. He gives her a special chemical that contains a rare element he calls “korium-66-beta, will give you super-powers because you have blood-type A! It wouldn’t work for Lois because she has blood-type O!” Lana becomes Super-Lana, who is equal to Superman in power but immune to kryptonite because she’s human. This leads to several times where Lana saves Superman. Feeling that Lana is better at being a superhero than he, the Man of Steel falls into a depression, and he and Lana break up. Wow.
1962 – Adventure Comics #293. The Legion of Super-Heroes goes back in time to Superboy’s days in Smallville to help him defeat the evil Brain Globes of Rambat. To aid the battle, the Legion summons allies from Clark Kent’s future, the Legion of Super-Pets, founded by superpowered animals such as Streaky the Supercat and Krypto the Superdog. This marks the first appearance of Comet the Superhorse.
Months later, a present day story in Action Comics #292 has Supergirl meet the horse Comet. Realizing the horse somehow has great intelligence and superpowers, Supergirl claims ownership of the “super-steed” and they wind up having many adventures together.
Believing she’s had enough experience to start adventuring on her own, Superman introduces his cousin Supergirl to the world.
Supergirl attempts to play matchmaker for Superman. He remarks that if Kara weren’t his cousin, someone like her would be the ideal romantic partner for him, a woman who had powers so she could share his adventures. Supergirl tracks down Luma Lynai, a hero of the planet Staryl who calls herself Superwoman and looks identical to Kara, only a few years older. Superman and Luma meet and fall in love, which isn’t creepy at all, nope. Kal and Luma plan to marry but then they realize that Earth’s environment is lethal to her. Luma insists that Superman can’t abandon Earth for her, so they split.
1963 – Comet is temporarily sent to Sorcerer’s World to help Prince Endor. As a reward for his service, Endor casts a spell so that Comet may temporarily become a non-powered human whenever a literal comet passes through Earth’s orbit. In his human identity, Comet assumes the guise of rodeo performer Bill Starr AKA “Bronco Bill.” He kisses Supergirl and goes out with her without reveal that he’s also her horse. Eventually, the comet leaves Earth’s solar system and Bill once again becomes a superhorse. Whenever another comet passes by, Bill Starr reappears and resumes his romance with Supergirl. Readers will later learn that Comet was born a centaur named Biron and was turned into a full horse by Circe’s magic. Sigmund Freud can’t even deal with this story.
Adventure Comics #313. During an adventure with the Legion of Super-Heroes, Supergirl is exposed to red kryptonite once again. Just as red-K once created an evil version of Superman, this sample causes Supergirl’s dark side to split off and become an independent entity called Satan Girl. Eventually, Supergirl re-absorbs Satan Girl back into herself. This story will inspire similar Supergirl villains decades later.
1964 – Kara discovers her parents survived the destruction of Argo City by entering another dimension known as the Survival Zone. She rescues them and takes them to the Bottle City of Kandor to live with Krypton’s other survivors.
“Crisis on Earth-Three” introduces the Crime Syndicate, an evil Justice League living in a twisted mirror of the DC Universe. Earth-Three’s evil Wonder Woman is called Superwoman. Like Wonder Woman, she is an Amazon warrior.
1966 – Filmation releases the animated series The New Adventures of Superman. Joan Alexander and Bud Collyer reprise their roles as Lois and Clark. The show lasts for 68 episodes across four years.
1967 – Supergirl and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) team-up for the very first time. The two will become good friends and continue to team-up on occasion over the years.
Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #78. Lois Lane and Lana Lang are temporarily living in Kandor. Lana becomes an archeologist while Lois becomes a private detective. Not technically a Superwoman or Supergirl story, but worthy of mention to see Lois take on a heroic role in a Kryptonian city.
1968 – “When Lois Was More Super Than Superman!” A Kandorian scientist gives Lois Lane a serum that temporarily gives her superpowers but causes madness when she’s in withdrawal.
1970 – Adventure Comics #394. Supergirl and Streaky are transported by a warp-tornado to an extra-dimensional world called Doov. Supergirl realizes that author L. Frank Baum learned of Doov and its inhabitants decades earlier and was inspired by them to write the story The Wizard of Oz. Yeah, people. Oz was real and Supergirl went there. Deal with it.
Supergirl gets a new costume from Wonder Woman’s boutique (this was during the time that Wonder Woman had lost her powers and owned a boutique in-between traveling the world as a martial arts hero).
1971 – Kara/Linda Danvers graduates from Stanhope University and gets a job on the news crew of KSFTV in San Francisco.
Adventure Comics starts a regular practice of changing Supergirl’s costume every couple of issues, sometimes using submitted designs in order to increase reader interest.
1972 – Supergirl finally settles on a new costume design that involves hot pants, pixie shoes, and a loose blouse with a smaller S-shield over her heart.
Linda Lee Danvers meets Nasthalthia “Nasty” Luthor, niece of Lex Luthor. Nasthalthia starts as a friend but then comes to hate Supergirl and realizes that she and Linda are the same person. She repeatedly attempts to complicate Linda’s life and ruin her career.
After confronting Nastalthia about her constant scheming, Kara/Linda quits KSFTV. This ends her starring role in Adventure Comics. The next month, she gets her own series. In Supergirl #1, she enrolls at Vandyre University in San Francisco, wishing to get more education. Nasthalthia is not seen again until Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman story, which runs from 2005 to 2008.
1974 – Supergirl #9. Supergirl goes to Paradise Island and saves the life of Wonder Woman’s mother, Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. She welcomes Supergirl to the island and has the young hero pass through a series of tests. After the tests are finished, Kara Zor-El is officially considered an Amazon of Paradise Island and Hippolyta regards her as a daughter just like Wonder Woman.
Supergirl’s first self-titled comic book series ends with issue #10.
1976 – In the parallel universe of Earth-2, we see the debut of Kara Zor-L AKA Power Girl, an older version of Supergirl with a different costume and personality. Her parents are Zor-L and Alura In-Z. Power Girl’s origin differs from Supergirl’s. Instead of being born years after Superman and growing up in Argo, Power Girl was born on Krypton. She was a child and sent away in a starship at the same time as her infant cousin Kal-L, but her ship went off course and took much longer to reach Earth, by which point Kal-L had lived on Earth-2 for decades and already established himself as Superman.
Young Kara Zor-L (who later adopts the alias Karen Starr) lives with Earth-2’s Clark Kent and Lois Lane-Kent for a few years and comes to see them as second parents. As an adult, she assumes the costumed role of Power Girl and quickly joins the Justice Society of America. As many of the JSA heroes were patriotic champions of World War II, it’s fitting that she wears an outfit of red, white and blue. Just as Supergirl is close friends with Batgirl, Power Girl becomes close with Helena Wayne (Earth-2 Bruce Wayne’s daughter) AKA Huntress.
1978 – Superman: The Movie. Christopher Reeve (age 26) plays Clark Kent while Margot Kidder (age 30) plays Lois Lane. Both will reprise the role in multiple sequels. Diane Sherry (age 26) plays teenage Lana Lang, while Jeff East (age 19) plays teenage Clark (though his voice is dubbed over by Reeve). Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn play Lois Lane’s parents in a scene that was cut from the theatrical release (but restored in the director’s cut and certain broadcast cuts).
1979 – Superman restores the Bottle City of Kandor to proper size. The Kryptonians, including Kara’s parents, establish “New Krypton” on Rokyn, a planet that sometimes phases into another dimension for long stretches of time. Think of it as DC’s version of Brigadoon. This means that Kara can only visit her parents at certain times.
1981 – The Superman novel Miracle Monday is published, written by comic book writer Elliot S! Maggin. The book introduces Kristin Wells, a time traveler and descendant of Jimmy Olsen.
1982 – Kara Zor-El gets another self-titled series with the debut of The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl (later just called Supergirl vol 2). Linda Lee Danvers leaves the West Coast and transfers to Lake Shore University in Chicago. While on campus, she encounters a psychic named Gayle Marsh, who becomes the costumed villain Psi.
Kara Zor-El learns she will be mother of a legacy of heroes when she meets Louise-L, the Supergirl of 500,000 years in the future.
A flashback tale reveals that the Earth-2 Superman and Lois once met and cared for an alien super-powered girl named Liandly (a slurred version of “Linda Lee”), who at one point is referred to as a “super-girl.” She isn’t on Earth long before she is teleported back to her home planet Rolez (an anagram of Zor-El).
1983 – Kristin Wells of the novel Miracle Monday makes her comic book debut, returning to the 20th century to investigate the debut of a masked hero called “Superwoman.” Employing future era technology that simulates super-powers, she realizes that she herself is actually history’s mysterious Superwoman.
The movie Superman III hits theaters. It stars Annette O’Toole as an adult Lana Lang. Years later, she will play Martha Kent on the show Smallville.
Kara Zor-El has her first meeting with the villain Reactron. In a later version of the DC Universe, Supergirl will regard Reactron as a mortal enemy. In Supergirl #13, Kara Zor-El adopts a new costume that incorporates ideas from her adopted mother Edna Danvers.
1984 – Supergirl #17. Supergirl adds a red headband to her look, mimicking how Kryptonians often wore a variety of headbands to symbolize their status as an official adult and citizen.
The feature film Supergirl is released, starring Helen Slater (age 21) as Kara Zor-El. Originally, this movie was going to feature the headband costume, which is why the comics pre-emptively changed Kara’s outfit. But then the movie makers decided not to use that look after all. (Thanks to Brian Cronin for confirming this story).
To commemorate the anniversary of her arrival on Earth, Superman erects a Supergirl statue on the spot where her ship landed (actually, it hovers just above the spot thanks to anti-grav technology from the planet Thanagar). The Justice League and Teen Titans are present for the statue’s revelation and celebrate Supergirl’s anniversary with her.
Supergirl’s series ends with issue #23.
1985 – The Crisis on Infinite Earths begins. The DC Multiverse is under threat by the cosmic villain called Anti-Monitor. Halfway through the crossover, Kara Zor-El sacrifices herself to save Superman from the Anti-Monitor and to destroy the villain’s armor and machines, forcing him to pause his plans and granting the heroes enough time to save the day in the end. Superman holds Kara as she dies. Later, he takes her to be buried on New Krypton.
1986 –The events of the Crisis (later known as the First Crisis) results in many realities of the DC Multiverse being fused and rebooted into a new “Post-Crisis” DC Universe. DC Comics decides that Superman is to be the only survivor of Krypton, which means that Supergirl, Krypto, Kandor and the Phantom Zone villains are removed from history. Kristin Wells is removed from history, as are Luma Lynai, Streaky, Comet, and all the stories where Lois and Lana temporarily gained superpowers (although new versions of some of these characters and stories will later appear). Helena Wayne of Earth-2 is removed from history, and later a new Huntress appears on the mainstream DC Earth. Her real name is Helena Bertinelli. She is not related to Batman and will not really be friends with Power Girl.
Although Superman and the other heroes remember fighting in Crisis on Infinite Earths, they do not remember Supergirl’s sacrifice or that she ever existed at all. The Post-Crisis versions of Krypton and Superman are introduced in the mini-series Man of Steel.
In Christmas With the Super-Heroes #2 (1989), a special epilogue to the Crisis is presented in the story “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot,” written by Alan Brennert with art by Dick Giordano, edited by Mark Waid. The hero Boston Brand (also called “Deadman”) meets a woman who can somehow see his ghostly form. Seeing that Boston doubts whether his acts are worth the effort when few know he even exists, the woman says that heroes must to what they do because it needs to be done, that it doesn’t matter if they aren’t recognized or if no one knows or remembers they ever existed in the first place. The woman vanishes into the night then. When asked who she is, she says, “My name is Kara. Though I doubt that would mean anything to you.”
That’s it for now, folks! In Part Two, we’ll look at the Post-Crisis Supergirl(s), a new version of the Crime Syndicate’s Superwoman, a new masked Superwoman, Power Girl’s ever-changing status, and the New 52 Kara Zor-El!
Alan Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is the New York Times Best Selling author of Doctor Who: A History. He is a geek consultant, writer and actor who hops between New York City and Los Angeles. He regularly speaks on the history of superheroes and science fiction, as well as representation and feminism in pop culture. He very simply loves superheroes. Look for him at SDCC panels.
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