The Many Faces of Supergirl

With six versions of the character to choose from, who will CBS' superhero end up being?
Al Plastino/DC Entertainment.

CBS has committed to a series based on DC Entertainment’s Supergirl, bypassing the pilot process altogether, but exactly which Supergirl is going to show up on screen? In the 55 years since the character’s debut in Action Comics No. 252, there have been multiple incarnations of the Maid of Might — some more complicated than others.

The “traditional” Supergirl is Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin. Introduced in 1959 by writer Otto Binder — who also created Mary Marvel, sister to DC’s Captain Marvel, years earlier — and artist Al Plastino, the heroine was revealed to be the last survivor of Argo City, a part of Krypton that survived the planet's destruction. Raised by adoptive parents Fred and Edna Danvers and operating under the secret identity Linda Lee Danvers, the first Supergirl lasted more than two decades (including one movie, with Helen Slater in the title role) before the character was killed in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths series.

With executives eager to maintain Superman’s status as the last survivor of Krypton, the next Supergirl to appear had an impressively convoluted backstory. Introduced in 1988 as a refugee from an alternate reality where she had been created as a shape-changing clone of Lana Lang by a heroic Lex Luthor — see what I mean? — the character spent some time being raised by Clark Kent’s adoptive parents before claiming the identity of Supergirl and playing an important role in the popular 1990s “Death of Superman” storyline.

When the popularity of that character led DC to consider another Supergirl solo series, the decision was made to revamp her once again, with 1996’s Supergirl No. 1 seeing the character merge with a regular teenage girl called Linda Danvers. (No relation to Linda Lee Danvers, of course; all of reality had been rebooted, because comics.) The new, merged Supergirl/Linda was later revealed to be an angel, with powers that differed from those of Superman, including teleportation and “wings” made out of fire.

After the third Supergirl was written out of continuity (literally) with the end of her series in 2002, another character appeared the following year to claim the identity. Cir-El, claiming to be the time-traveling daughter of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, lasted less than a year in the role before being removed from history in favor of a fifth take on the concept that harkened back to the original.

Superman/Batman No. 8, released in 2004, brought a new version of Kara Zor-El into the DC continuity. Once again allowed to be Superman’s cousin, the new Kara went through a period of uncertainty in terms of purpose; at one point, it was revealed that she was a sleeper assassin sent to kill Superman by her father. That controversial element was later dropped — the plotline explained away as delusions brought about by kryptonite poisoning — thus allowing a return to the optimistic, kind model of the original character.

In 2011, the second Kara Zor-El was replaced by a third when the entire DC Comics line was rebooted as part of the publisher’s New 52 initiative. This sixth Supergirl remains in place in the comic book world today and offers a synthesis of the earlier incarnations of Kara: she has been established as more headstrong and less willing to accept Earth as her new home, leading her to turn against Superman on more than one occasion.

While not necessarily an antihero, the current comic book Supergirl is a more complicated (and ambivalent) superhero than many. Whether or not the television show will follow this version, or create another version with elements of all of her previous incarnations, remains to be seen — as does the possibility of whether or not there’ll even be a Superman in the new show. One thing is clear, however: There are more than enough Supergirls to choose from to make a well-rounded character.