From Earth Angel to the Grave: Burying Peter David’s SUPERGIRL

During this period of upheaval and death due to the COVID-19 pandemic, who among us doesn’t fear for the future? Alongside trying not to get sick, I’m worried about keeping my comic shop open, the health of my parents, and the life of my grandfather (who just suffered a major stroke and has the virus). Not to mention I’m worried about the wellbeing of my friends in this country and out.

Sometimes a person just has to make the best of a bad situation and work with what they’re given.

Now, there are times when the end result is a complete disaster for all involved. There are also times when a person can create something amazing despite their less-than-stellar materials. That’s when you get Peter David, Gary Frank, and Leonard Kirk’s Supergirl run.

I’ve been recently drawn back to Supergirl, one of my low-key comic favorites whom I don’t normally talk about. It’s a comic that surprisingly talks about faith, redemption, and sacrifice from a period in comic history that did not normally talk about such things.

Cover art by Gary Frank

Peter David’s run — alongside pencillers Gary Frank (year one) and Leonard Kirk (years two to six) — on Supergirl is an underrated jewel, unfairly overlooked because the title character wasn’t Superman’s cousin and because David explored things like spirituality.

And yes, it did get weird, but when have Supergirl’s comics ever NOT been weird?

One of her ex-boyfriends was a literal horse and she once fought a villain who came out of an evil pocket dimension inside her mind. I don’t mean this as a dig against Kara Zor-El, of course, nor do I wish the current Kara would die again so this previous Supergirl can return. But I truly believe David’s Supergirl shows how one can make the best of a bad situation, something we all need to remember right now if we’re gonna make it through the pandemic.

A little back story: The Supergirl of the 1996 ongoing was not Kara Zor-El. Kara was one of many continuity casualties of Crisis on Infinite Earths, alongside Donna Troy, Hawkman, Power Girl, and the Legion of Super-Heroes. After dying while fighting the Anti-Monitor, Kara got retconned out of the post-Crisis DCU entirely. Editorial decided Superman would be the only remaining Kryptonian character, so they erased his career as Superboy alongside his surviving cousin Supergirl.

To say this was a poorly thought out move is retrospectively a massive understatement, because the removal of Superboy and Supergirl screwed up the Legion of Super-Heroes’ continuity in ways that still haven’t been properly resolved — and likely never will be. What happens if you have a team from the future and remove not only their founding inspiration, but two members crucial to their earliest AND current stories?

Interior art by John Byrne

The creative team on Legion of Super-Heroes first tried to fix this with the Pocket Universe retcon. The Time Trapper, the Legion’s greatest and most mysterious enemy, claimed he was responsible for the Legion’s creation. Wanting to stop Mordru the Merciless from becoming powerful enough to oppose him, the Trapper pulled some strings to bring the Legion together. He created a pocket dimension with an alternate version of Earth home to a teenage version of Superman. As a result, any time the Legion traveled into the past, the Trapper diverted them to the Pocket Earth.

How does this tie into Supergirl?

Instead of creating a new version of Kara Zor-El, the Supergirl of the Pocket Earth was… different. She was Matrix, a shapeshifting, protoplasmic being created by the Pocket Earth’s Lex Luthor. Luthor, on this world a hero, created Matrix with powers similar to Superman to fight against Kryptonian villains from the Phantom Zone. He also modeled her initial personality after the deceased Lana Lang of that Pocket Universe.

Unfortunately, Matrix wasn’t strong enough to defeat the Phantom Zone criminals on her own and needed the real Superman’s help from across the universes. The criminals were beaten, but the Pocket Earth was left lifeless in the process with Matrix the sole survivor.

Art by Dusty Abell

Superman brought Matrix to his Earth, but her life was unsteady. She tried living with Ma and Pa Kent, and she even had a relationship with the main version of Lex Luthor (who, at the time, was posing as his “long-lost son”) assuming he was good like his Pocket Earth counterpart.

She eventually gained the name “Mae Kent,” briefly joined Arsenal’s version of the Titans, and did what she could to protect Metropolis following Superman’s death. Mae’s break up with Luthor was cataclysmic after she realized how evil he truly was, such as learning of his attempts to clone her for an army. She was also briefly corrupted as one of the “Trigon Seeds” under the thrall of Dark Raven.

During all this, it was clear no one really knew what to do with Mae as Supergirl. She lacked any significant motivation and character development. Finally, in 1996, Peter David got the chance to write a new Supergirl ongoing series with Mae initially as the main character. This was after her creator John Byrne made it clear he apparently didn’t want to do anything with her (David later mentioned Byrne ironically hated the series).

First and foremost, David needed to get to the root of Mae’s problem: the idea of her being a blank slate. It provided a driving force for the series by not avoiding the issue, but addressing this problem in-universe. Who was Matrix, or Mae Kent? Was she a person, or just a lump of protoplasm? Did she even have a soul?

Cover art by Gary Frank

The end result was a much-needed breath of fresh air as David attempted to explore areas no other comics had touched upon, while deconstructing the idea of “Edgy Supergirl.” Now this is especially ironic when looking today at the last three titles Kara Zor-El helmed, from her “Super Brittney” period, her “Red Daughter” period, and most recently her “Infected” arc. But where other writers and editors talk about “change,” David’s work on Supergirl stands out.

The first nine issues of Supergirl featured the surprising debut of a character most Supergirl fans knew by name, but in a way no one expected. David brought back the “Linda Danvers” concept, which was Kara Zor-El’s first alter ego in the Silver and Bronze Age, but turned Linda into a complete separate character from Kara. Fred and Edna Danvers, Kara’s foster parents, were now Fred and Sylvia Danvers.

Mae first learned of Linda Danvers after she went missing, with Fred and Sylvia making a public plea for Supergirl to find their daughter. Mae found Linda about to be murdered by a satanic cult, but arrived just as Linda was succumbing to her wounds. In a desperate attempt to save Linda’s life, Mae merged her protoplasmic body with Linda. As a result, Mae and Linda were now two beings in one body. Mae, who had been struggling with her own identity and questioning whether or not she was an actual person, essentially got a life…

And then found out how especially dark said life was.

Interior art by Gary Frank

Mae was horrified to discover Linda was in fact a member of the cult that tried to sacrifice her. Having committed several evil deeds, including murder, of her own volition, Linda was an unhappy woman who appeared beyond salvation. Linda’s merging with Mae essentially gave her a second chance she probably didn’t even deserve. While struggling to come to terms with the truth about the soul she now shared, Mae also dealt with adjusting to life with Linda’s parents and friends alongside life with Superman and the Kents.

By the time the series began, it was clear Supergirl was still Mae Kent even though she now shared a body and memories with Linda Danvers. There wasn’t much indication in the earliest issues that Linda’s soul or personality was still present until issue #9. After that, it became increasingly unclear where Mae started and Linda began as Supergirl slowly became a genuine combination of the two.

Think of Garnet from Steven Universe being a fusion of Ruby and Sapphire and you get the idea.

Around #50, the status quo changed again when Mae and Linda were forcibly separated back into two people. This began a long arc where Linda, retaining some of her powers, became Supergirl on her own as she tried to find Mae. Amusingly, she adopted a new costume making her identical to Kara In-Ze of the DC Animated Universe. But even after Mae was found, the two didn’t re-merge and Linda was officially considered the main Supergirl.

Cover art by Rob Haines

At this time, however, sales on Supergirl were reportedly dropping and Peter David again tried something unexpected. The title’s final story, “Many Happy Returns,” introduced Linda Danvers to Kara Zor-El. THE Kara Zor-El — literally the original Kara from the Silver Age.

Due to the machinations of the mysterious villains known as Xenon and the Fatalist, Kara’s rocket was deviated from its crash course to Earth-One and sent into the Post-Crisis DCU. There was initially some confusion over who Kara truly was, since Superman was supposed to be the only survivor of Krypton. Kara’s quirky innocence and naivety sort of threw Linda through a loop, but the two women quickly bonded.

But this Kara Zor-El’s time in the modern day DCU wasn’t meant to be. The Spectre tried to intervene and showed both Supergirls how Kara was meant to live and die in the Pre-Crisis DCU, so their current universe could be born. Linda stepped forward and tried to take Kara’s place so by venturing to Earth-One’s past.

For eight years Linda lived in the Pre-Crisis DCU, her first three spent pretending to be Superman’s cousin. Superman, however, knew they weren’t related because he recognized Linda’s clothes were made from Earth fibers and she wore a wig. He went along with her charade trying to figure out what her deal was, until he realized Linda was a genuine hero. The two got married and had a daughter named Ariella Kent.

Around the time the Crisis on Infinite Earths was starting on Earth-One, the Spectre returned and told Linda she had to switch back with Kara. He cited this was a noble effort on her part, but Linda couldn’t really take Kara’s place no matter how badly she wanted to spare Kara’s life. Kara’s sacrifice was simply too fundamental to existence.

Interior art by Ed Benes

Heartbroken all her work at atoning for her past deeds seemed to be for nothing if she was dooming a young woman, Linda only agreed so long as Ariella wasn’t erased when time was set right. Unfortunately, the Spectre pulled an utter dick move and left Ariella in the very, VERY far future without her mother — thereafter known as R’E’L, the Supergirl from DC One Million.

Linda dreamt of Ariella’s status afterwards, but having lost her daughter and been forced to send Kara Zor-El to a life that’ll eventually kill her, Linda basically died inside. She felt she didn’t deserve to be Supergirl anymore.

Notably, this is NOT what Peter David originally planned. He pitched the concept of Linda and Kara forming a Birds of Prey-esque team with Power Girl, called Blonde Justice. Kara would’ve stayed as Supergirl while Linda officially became Superwoman. Editorial passed on the idea. Once Blonde Justice was vetoed, Supergirl came to an end.

Later on, David wrote Fallen Angel which strongly implied the mysterious main character was a darker Linda Danvers. The title ended before anything was confirmed, but after it was brought over to IDW, David wrote a short arc featuring Linda in everything but name, opposite the titular Fallen Angel.

Cover art by J.K. Woodard

Linda’s only appearances in the DCU after her title ended were in Superman/Batman and Reign In Hell. In the former, she was one of five Supergirls brought together to help rescue Superman at the end of Jeph Loeb’s run. In the latter, Linda was pulled into hell as a “fallen angel” after the Shadowpact tried to retain her because she was “too dangerous.”

Mae, on the other hand, was only ever referenced during DC’s Convergence crossover. She received a two-issue miniseries set in pre-Zero Hour Metropolis, before she merged with Linda. The story was basically a joke filler featuring Ambush Bug, repeated jokes about Mae “smelling like spackle,” and her eventually kicking the shit out of Lex Luthor.

So why have Mae and Linda have been cast aside so harshly? Sure, they’ve reprinted Peter David’s Supergirl run in trade format, but any acknowledgment of their roles in the DCU proper’s been stamped out.

In one respect, this is because they created a new “classic” Kara Zor-El as Supergirl in Superman/Batman. But it’s also possible that they just don’t consider Mae and Linda as a valid Supergirl (or two) because neither of them are Superman’s cousin. Or is it because they’re too different from Kara and thus complicate things? That’s never seemed to stop DC before.

This feels much like the same logic behind DC’s attempts to get rid of Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, simply because they weren’t Barbara Gordon and made things “complicated.” And although Cass and Steph have indeed returned (albeit their careers as Batgirl are gone), there hasn’t been hope for Mae and Linda for over a decade.

Following the New 52 and DC Rebirth, Mae and Linda were wiped out in every way possible. I’ve especially been annoyed that Linda’s role in the Our Worlds at War crossover was retroactively revised so Kara took her place in an arc featuring Strange Visitor. There was a brief flashback panel to the character’s original death, wherein Linda was replaced by Kara.

Cover art by Leonard Kirk

What made Mae and Linda’s Supergirl run so different editors practically consider it poison?

Two words.

Earth Angel.

The ramifications of Mae and Linda’s fusion were further explored beyond the opening nine issues when Supergirl began displaying powers that were very un-Supergirl. These two women were not only becoming one person — they were also becoming more than human. Supergirl’s evolving powers were solidified in #17 when she developed a rather gorgeous set of angelic wings made of fire. The whole thing sort of had an early Vertigo Comics feel, but not necessarily as “adult.”

David explained that Mae’s sacrifice to save Linda is what actually granted them this new set of angel-like powers. Beyond saving Linda and combining them, the act made Supergirl into an “Earth-Angel,” a being born when a good person sacrifices their life to save someone truly damned. The Earth-Angel arc took up most of the Supergirl series, even after Mae and Linda were split apart. A couple of the mechanics on the process still confuse me a bit, but further explanation included Supergirl meeting two other Earth-Angels, Blithe and Comet, and learned about a previous one named Ember.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve always loved this imagery by Leonard Kirk.

Interior art by Leonard Kirk

The merits of the Earth-Angel arc aside, there were a plethora of discussions about faith and redemption that David wove into the series. The earliest issues offer a good look into these ideas in the beginning days of Mae’s transformation.

While trying to dig deeper into Linda’s memories, Mae sees how Linda became disillusioned with humanity and eventually damned herself.

Linda Danvers started off as a happy young woman whose world changed forever when she witnessed the local reverend beating his wife to death. The next day, Linda saw a moving van carrying a rolled-up rug out of said reverend’s house, with a familiar looking scrap of fabric sticking out of it.

From that point, Linda became prey to the rather depraved Buzz, the leader of a cult that eventually tried to sacrifice her. Buzz needled Linda’s growing doubts, slowly pressed on her for years about the unfairness of the world and then got her to exact some revenge. He had his men deliver to Linda the very same murderous reverend and his new wife (implied to have been his mistress). Linda gave in to temptation and killed both of them, not realizing it was Buzz’s group that helped cover up the first wife’s death. The two then became lovers, right up until Buzz tried to kill her.

Knowing what kind of person Linda Danvers was, where did that leave Mae Kent?

Supergirl #1-9 put Mae through the wringer, forcing her to see some of humanity’s darker tendencies and doubts. And Buzz proved to be a constant thorn in Supergirl’s side. He wasn’t simply an evil con man. Buzz was positively demonic and worked at trying to make Supergirl succumb to the dark side much like he did with Linda. He was a demon who started out as a human, so he tried to corrupt an angel that was once human (foreshadowing the Earth-Angel reveal).

Aside from the truth about Linda, Mae dealt with Gorilla Grodd trying to bring out humanity’s animalistic ruthlessness during the Final Night crossover, the robotic Chemo coming back to life, and Kitty Faulkner, a.k.a. Rampage, trying to get revenge on a woman who framed her.

All these experiences forced Mae to keep asking questions about herself, about Linda, and about Supergirl. She saw the worst Linda was capable of, and she saw the worst humans were capable of. She encountered a creature who, like herself, wanted to be more than their programming and essentially killed itself to become something different. She saw Superman express faith that Rampage would do the right thing instead of killing her betrayer.

Finally, everything was brought to a head in issues #8 and #9 when Buzz made his move to acquire Supergirl’s soul. Using his demonic co-conspirator Tempus Fugit, Buzz attacked the Danvers household and seemingly murdered Fred and Sylvia. Emerging from the burning household unharmed, yet with flames around her, Supergirl reached her breaking point and decided “Screw it.” She tried to do good, tried to play by the rules, and in doing so, the Danverses died. If she’d killed Buzz from the start, this wouldn’t have happened. Supergirl felt doing good wasn’t worth it if innocent people kept dying. If the only way to punish evil is by doing evil, that’s exactly what she’d do.

Interior art by Leonard Kirk

However, during her fight with Tempus Fugit, as Mae’s senses are assaulted by twisted images of everyone she knows and cares about, an image of Linda Danvers appears and for the first time we get a genuine sense of the real, merged “Linda.” This Linda, who gave in to her darker desires because she believed the world was unfair, tries to talk Mae down. Linda says this whole time she was wrong about everything, because after living and seeing through Mae’s eyes — seeing everything good Supergirl’s done — Linda believes Mae’s the most human person alive.

Mae’s in no position to really accept Linda’s words because of how angry and upset she is, so it’s Buzz, of all people, who asks the important question. Just as Mae is on the verge of killing Tempus and avenging the Danverses, Buzz asks if this is really what she wants.

Yeah, it used to be Linda’s way, but is it Supergirl’s? Does she make Linda’s way hers, or her way Linda’s? Or is this the moment when Linda and Mae finally join as one? The question is what are they going to be?

Linda made her choice, and now Mae has a choice.

We always have a choice. Do we give in, or do we try to be stronger?

Supergirl doesn’t kill Tempus. She refuses the temptation to kill, because no matter the circumstances, it’s still killing. We can argue all we like about killing for revenge or self defense, about people who we think deserve to die because they’re awful, but it’s still wrong.

Even if you act evil for a good cause, that’s still evil.

With these opening nine issues, David showed exactly why a dark Supergirl who does evil deeds — no matter the reason — does not work. It misses the point of Supergirl entirely. David’s opening arc rebuked the previous stories about Mae’s berserker state and her time as a Trigon Seed, and it rebuked future stories such as Kara Zor-El’s super angry phase, her Red Lantern phase, and her current Infected phase, that essentially killed her current volume.

The act of sparing Tempus Fugit acts as a reset that undoes the deaths of Fred and Sylvia Danvers. After this arc, Supergirl had to struggle with her two identities once she finally revealed herself to the Danvers, the Kents, and Superman.

The themes of redemption are at their next strongest in a two-issue story during #40 and #41. Supergirl seeks to learn more about Ember, an Earth-Angel who was damned when she used her powers selfishly. This brings Supergirl into conflict with Satan Girl, Peter David’s reimagining of an old Pre-Crisis villain. Supergirl discovers Ember was a Black woman owned as a slave in the 18th Century. She was burned at the stake for crimes of witchcraft, but reborn as an Earth-Angel when Rachel Pratchett, a young woman Ember looked after, tried to save her. Rachel’s innocent sacrifice earned Ember a second chance when the two merged much like Mae and Linda had. Like Linda, Ember was a genuinely bad person even if she truly cared about Rachel.

Rachel’s mother Dolores was a Satanist and Ember’s teacher in witchcraft. She had Ember executed after learning she slept with Dolores’ husband. In her despair over losing Rachel, Dolores sold her soul and murdered a bunch of kids to gain power as Satan Girl. The very act that damned Ember and by association Rachel was Ember finally killing Satan Girl.

Interior art by Leonard Kirk

When circumstances allowed for Satan Girl to be reborn in the present, her encounter with Supergirl gave her an opportunity to get Rachel back. Thanks to an errant spell, Supergirl and Ember swap places in time. Satan Girl hoped to use this to circumvent Rachel’s ascension as an Earth-Angel, by convincing Ember to let Supergirl die in her place.

Ember’s own conscience — despite everything she’s done already (like not really doing anything with her Earth-Angel abilities) — leaves her conflicted. Unsure of what to do, Ember briefly faces Supergirl and confides her fears. Once again, Supergirl demonstrates her selflessness and assures Ember it’ll be okay. If Ember doesn’t want to die, Supergirl will take that burden from her. She’s more than willing to sacrifice herself so Ember doesn’t have to suffer damnation all over again.

Much like in #9, it comes down to a choice, and Ember doesn’t give in. Moved by Supergirl’s willingness to help, Ember takes back her place in time even if it means dying and going to Hell all over again. Satan Girl returns to the dead, having been unable to get her daughter Rachel back. Just as Ember making the right choice grants her and Rachel entry into heaven.

But with all this talk about not giving in to darkness, how does that stand true despite the ending of the series? After Linda’s forced to send Kara Zor-El to her life on Earth-One where she’ll die, and then loses her daughter to the far future, which basically drains the life out of her? Because Kara Zor-El later showed she never held it against Linda for her actions, and if Linda had known that might’ve made a difference.

Peter David technically wasn’t the first person to use the angel imagery with Supergirl. In Christmas with the Super-Heroes #2, released in 1988, Deadman has a brief encounter with a young woman somehow able to see him despite being a ghost. The young woman encourages Deadman not to give in to despair and, before she leaves, cryptically reveals her name.

“My name is Kara. Though I doubt that’ll mean anything to you.”

The story basically implied the original Kara, after she died and was erased, ascended as an actual angel.

Interior art by Dick Giordano

So, in issues #48 and #49 of Peter David’s Supergirl, Supergirl encounters a mysterious being seemingly made of flames. The being, much like Deadman’s Kara, encourages Supergirl to keep going. She says she’s been with Linda Danvers since Linda was born, her imaginary friend and guardian angel. Among the many names she’s had, this being prefers “Kara.”

Taking “Many Happy Returns” into consideration and looking back, Peter David implied the original Kara Zor-El had been watching over Linda Danvers her whole life — even after Linda sent her back to Earth-One. Linda believed she damned herself all over again by sending Kara to die, when she allowed a young woman to live a good life, die protecting her loved ones and so the universe could live. And she could continue looking after people, even when no one remembered her and she got replaced by an entirely new Kara.

It isn’t fair to define Supergirl as only being Superman’s cousin. If you were to define Supergirl, it should be by her willingness to sacrifice herself for others.

The original Kara Zor-El sacrificed herself to fight the Anti-Monitor. Matrix was willing to sacrifice herself to save Linda Danvers. Linda Danvers believed she was sacrificing all her hard work at atoning for her sins, and basically her soul, when she had to send Kara back to Earth-One. Even Cir-El, the Supergirl who followed Linda, sacrificed her very existence to save Superman’s life.

And all of them still did it, no matter how uncertain or painful it was.

Interior art by Leonard Kirk

More than that, Mae Kent and Linda Danvers showed optimism and strength during darkness and pain. And even if Linda thought she failed and fell back into despair, well, that’s okay too, because her story showed she and Mae were both human. She managed to get out of that despair before, there’s no reason why she can’t do it again. Her story was about redemption and second chances, even for people who already had one. Linda was never allowed to understand the scope of what Kara’s sacrifice meant.

Mae Kent was a woman who believed she didn’t really matter, because she didn’t believe she was a person. She felt empty inside.

Linda Danvers was a woman who believed nothing mattered, that doing good was a joke and the world’s a horrible place.

These women proved each other wrong. That is why I think Mae Kent and Linda Danvers matter and deserve to be remembered as Supergirl.

For those of us right now who feel like we don’t matter, who feel the world’s a horrible place because of everything that’s going on: please, I implore you, do not give up. Yes it’s scary and painful and you want to give up. Yes, some of you already have given up.

I ask please, remember, I know it’s hard, especially when you’re down. You can get back up and you can keep going. You can stumble along the way but you have to keep trying despite how much gets thrown at you.

The world is not a bad place, and who you are and what you do matters.


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