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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cover Story - Top 25 Supergirl Covers

Edited by Robert Beach 

This Monday could mark the end of a brief, but amazing, era in geek culture. Supergirl season 1 is coming to an end. At time of writing, it’s unclear if Supergirl is getting renewed for a second season, which means this Monday could be the last time Kara Zor-El gets to grace our scenes for a good long while. It’d be a damn shame if that happened given Supergirl is really good and the best adaptation of the Superman mythos since Christopher Reeves’ Superman in 1978. 

With that level of awesomeness, I figured we’d give the show a proper send off if this really is the end for Supergirl 2015. So I’ve culled covers from across Supergirl’s massive history from early appearances in Action Comics, her cavalcade of ongoings and minis in the ‘70s, the metaphysical weirdness of the 2000s show, and even the New 52. Let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on Supergirl. 

Starting soft with a pretty funny cover from one of those weird Bronze Age minis I mentioned earlier. A lot of that weirdness was due to the explosive success of the Superman movie in 1978 and the desire by DC to capitalize on the Superman brand. This cover popped up in the mid ‘80s, specifically 1984 as part of the attempt to promote the Supergirl live-action movie I already reviewed. Weirdly enough, this kind of pretty basic, “pie in the face”style comedy isn’t really endemic to the series as a whole or the movie, but it is pretty funny. 

It reminds me a lot of the John Byrne series Sensational She-Hulk, where the emphasis was on broad comedy and fourth-wall breaks, only that series came out about 5 years after this cover did. Still, the similarity fits given for the longest time the whole point of Supergirl was that she was incredibly powerful and also a teenager, so she was more inclined to show off and just enjoy her godlike abilities compared to Superman’s stoicism and seriousness. Also, I remain a massive sucker for covers that feature speech bubbles, so this was always guaranteed a spot on this list.

Here’s another ‘80s entry that comes from Supergirl’s second ongoing series. By this point in Supergirl’s history, she only had a few more years left to live as interest was beginning to wane in her character. This was still a pretty fun time for her, more of a classical superhero series than a lot of hero other features. As a cover, my favorite part of this has to be that expert use of the black and white circle background. Using that hypno-wheel set-up can be a really tricky exercise, but it’s so well textured and eerily minimalist it’s instantly striking and decidedly memorable. 

It also adds a judicious amount of depth to the image in a literal sense. Even though I know this is just a hypno-wheel, it does look quite a bit like Supergirl is falling through some kind of weird black-and-white vortex. Incidentally, in case it wasn’t obvious, Supergirl had been aged by editorial mandate, so the cover artist might draw her to be more…developed shall we say (hence her generous proportions, V-neck line, and hot pants in this particular depiction). 

Admittedly, this cover isn’t actually that great, but I’m putting in on here because I’m a sucker for the early ‘70s surrealist political satire character Prez Rickards. Created in 1973 by Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, Prez was a teenage President who fought vampires and evil Russian chess masters and such, like one does.  He was canceled as part of the great DC crash in the later ‘70s and wasn’t actually part of the main continuity, so I have no idea how he ended up in this issue of Supergirl. I’m immensely pleased he did. 

His appearance does fit the overall tone of DC in the ‘70s though. It was a time of free exploration and unrestrained creativity in a big way along with a major burst of effort to try and attract newer young adult readers rather than the older kids who’d made up their previous audience. Remember, this was the time when X-Men was becoming a massive hit. DC was very keen to get teen heroes of its own. If you don’t know or care for Prez, or obscure comic trivia in general, you might not have much use for this cover. For the rest of us, it’s a real treat.

Getting more current with this cover, this is from Supergirl’s mid-90s comic by Peter David. The ‘90s are often considered a fallow period by comic book fans. That’s more regulated to the early ‘90s because the latter half of the decade was awesome, and Peter David’s Supergirl is a prime example of that. This cover is a great look at one of his book's more interesting aspects: freaky metaphysical quasi-horror. At this time, Supergirl wasn’t a Kryptonian but a weird, shape-shifting entity turned angel, so the question of identity came up a lot in David’s series, and this cover really draws on that idea. 

You’ve got the hideous, slime creature similar in design to Supergirl’s amorphous design. On top of that, she shape shifs along with that really eerie and well-placed “S” in the slime she left behind. Add on the question mark in the title, and it creates a very unnerving picture that really does make you doubt Supergirl’s identity, especially given all the crazy identity shenanigans the book actually pulled. 

Another Peter David cover, this one coming from closer to the end of his series. The cover design is actually a direct reference to Supergirl’s first appearance in Action Comics #252. That issue has become one of the cornerstones of comic cover culture; a visual that’s been reused, referenced, and composited over and over again through the history of developing comics as one of the most lasting and striking designs. While I’m not terribly fond of the line work on this page, it’s a little block-y, especially on the character’s hair. Despite that, this is still a pretty great twist on the classic cover. 

As I mentioned, Supergirl at the time was very much consumed by questions of identity as the writers went through several explanations for her powers as there was editorial mandate against her being Kryptonian. Having her meet up with her original counter part, full Kryptonian and all, was a big deal. It was rate to see during pre-Crisis (on Infinite Earths) stuff like the original Supergirl show up in main comics continuity. 

This is actually issue 1 of the Peter David Supergirl series, and it’s also a serious favorite. A lot of that has to do with how much the image tries to be a synthesis of the classic conception of Supergirl and the modern idea of what that might be. As mentioned, Supergirl was initially imagined as, predominately, a teenager. Someone who is fraught with teen melodrama and the mistakes and screw-ups that come from being so young. 

This placed a lot of her early adventures somewhere between Archie with super powers and the X-Men without all the sex. This is exactly what David is drawing from when designing this cover.  This design is pretty much exactly what “A Teen” was considered to be in the mid-late ‘90s: grungy plaid shirt/jacket, skateboard, organic jewelry, the whole package. It exudes the sense of a Supergirl for the moment by drawing from the Supergirl of the past. And the idea of her just wearing her costume as clothes was so great, they had to copy it for Kon-El Superboy about a decade later. 

Back to the ‘80s for this slice of complete and beautiful madness.  I’ll be real with you here. I have no idea how or why Supergirl is fighting a bunch of tiny versions of herself, but having gone through a ton of Supergirl covers to develop this, list I can tell you it’s hardly the only time something like this has happened.  Seriously, Supergirl’s history is peppered with duplicates and tiny monsters like crazy. It’s just comics 101. 

Anyway, this cover is great, owing mainly to how completely at ease it is with just featuring Supergirl v. tinier Supergirls as the selling point. There’s no indication of how this is happening or even where this is taking place beyond the land of white and orange. Honestly, that’s all the cover needs. I like that the various little Supergirls are all attacking her in different ways. One's blasting Supergirl’s armpit with heat vision for unaccountable reasons. There’s going to be a lot of crazy/comedy covers on this list, so might as well settle in for that now. 

Told you there’d be more crazy comedy covers didn’t I? In case you don’t know, Super-Horse is actually a humanoid alien named Comet who is in love with Supergirl, but he was cursed to turn into a horse. Supergirl has no idea Comet is actually a person who loves her in an adult and intimate way, so you can draw your own conclusions about how messed up that all is. Anyway, this cover is amazing and a perfect example of the great ‘60s craziness that was the Silver Age.  

During this era, Supergirl didn’t have her own comic, though she appeared all the damn time in the pages of Action Comics to get up to shenanigans or act as Superman’s secret weapon. I don’t even know what my favorite part of this cover is. It’s so amazing. There’s the sign Supergirl chose to hang over the fortress specifically barring Superman from entering; the way she’s dwarfed in size by Comet; and Superman’s incredibly specific internal monologue “no girl and a horse” indeed Supes. I also have to wonder why the arctic background features a bright pink sky and craggily orange rocks. Then again, I’m not a polar explorer or a comic artist. 

Jumping way ahead to the New 52 era now, this is technically a cover that was never used. It was created as an alternate cover that never got implemented, but it’s such a great image I couldn’t let it go. Something I really like about New 52 Supergirl over 2000s Supergirl is that she traded directionless anxiety for a violently powerful anger that’s deeply endearing. It fits into the whole context of Supergirl as “A Teen” only trading out the safe and acceptable aspects of that idea for something more violent and aggressive. 

As for this image, I love it mainly because of how easy it is to forget that Supergirl could totally destroy the world if she wanted.  Everyone always worries about “what if Superman goes wrong,” forgetting Supergirl is every bit as powerful as him. Additionally, she's a lot smarter too given she understands Kryptonian technology as she grew up using it and learning Kryptonian super science in school. If anyone was going to just get fed up with humanity’s bullshit and throw the world in a choke hold till it behaved, it’d be Supergirl. 

Damn, this image is awesome. Seriously, Red Lantern Supergirl is one of the most badass visuals I could ever imagine. It completely fits the nature of her character in the New 52 (see: previous entry).  Actually, it’s a pretty clever inversion of the standard idea that women shouldn’t be angry or at the very least anger shouldn’t be what defines them. Casting Supergirl as a living embodiment of rage completely inverts this concept and digs into an interesting and overlooked element of her character. Unlike Superman, who never knew Krypton enough to miss it, Supergirl grew up with highly advanced tech surrounded by a loving family, all of which were brutally ripped from her. 

Afterwards, she was left stranded on some backwater planet to grow up with her hick cousin. To Supergirl, Earth’s tech is basically the Stone Age. Of course, she’d be angry. She’s been forced to go live in the middle of nowhere with no amenities after the death of everyone she’d ever known or loved. You’d be pissed off too, so having her anger eventually boil over and abandon Earth for the Red Lantern Corp makes so much sense it hurts. 

Another evil Supergirl cover, these happened a lot in the ‘60s. The unfortunate thinking at the time was that Supergirl, being a teenage girl, was too consumed by her hormones and womanly continence to be trusted to make adult decisions. Stuff like barring Superman from his own home or revealing his secret identity were the things she’d just probably do. That’s pretty unfair, product of the time or not, but it did gift us with a heroic amount of great covers like this one. 

My favorite part has got to be that smirk of absolute malice and gleeful evil on Supergirl’s face. She’s savoring this more than any Superman villain ever could. I also like that Perry White just decided to dress like the Joker today for no real reason. I will say this cover certainly brings up the good point that Clark Kent changing in the unlocked broom closet was probably a pretty bad idea. I mean, most folks just change in the bathroom, but I guess that never occurred to him. 

Another New 52 cover, specifically this is from a month-long cover variant series DC did where they produced movie poster-themed covers for all of their on goings. Obviously, this cover is drawing inspiration from the American classic The Wizard of Oz, with Supergirl cast as Dorothy and villains Bizarro, Cyborg Superman, and Silver Banshee as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. I’m honestly not sure who’s meant to be who given those descriptions don’t really gel with the personalities on hand, though I guess Cyborg Superman is pretty close to the Tin Man in terms of not having a heart and all. 

Still, this is a really great cover and a great use of non-comic iconography repurposed to fit a character. The city in the background seems to swap the Emerald City for Supergirl’s home of Argo City, which makes a good deal of sense as far as goals go.  In all honesty, I’d rather read this story than whatever that month’s Supergirl plot was. I mean, Supergirl and three of her enemies teaming up on the other side of the rainbow to find her home city sounds honestly pretty cool, especially given how often Supergirl ends up on the villain circuit herself. 

Before I get into the context of where this cover is from, DAMN is it awesome. In case you don’t know, this visual design for Supergirl with the white mid drift t-shirt comes from the Superman animated series that was doing really well at the time of this comic. Though the series didn’t draw too heavily from the animated series, this cover could be a direct reference for the joyous action and animated look. Actually, in the Superman/Batman animated movie World’s Finest, “Banzai” is Harley Quinn’s war cry, so I like to think this is a direct reference to the animated universe. 

As for what this actually is, it ties to a relatively forgotten event comic called Our Worlds At War. Our Worlds At War wasn’t really anything special as far as these things go: a big, end of the world, smack-down in which Earth teamed with a handful of not terribly interesting alien races to fight a universal menace named Imperiex who was too boring to ever get brought up again. One day, I’ll just devote an entire month to underwhelming or forgotten event comics like this as, despite crossing into every DC comic at the time and being the biggest event to spin out of Lex Luthor’s presidency, the only lasting impact of Our Worlds At War was the death of the original Mongol. 

Another Our Worlds At War cover and the beginning of a collection of more somber covers that’ll populated the top half of this list. In the case of this cover, it’s all about the excellence of this juxtaposition. Supergirl, like her cousin, is fundamentally built on the fantasy of being immune to harm and flight. Those are her defining abilities as a power fantasy more than the power to bench press the moon. Covers that juxtapose her innate position as invulnerable flying super being with legitimate weakness are always deeply affecting and this is a great example of that. 

Not only is it implied Supergirl has been deeply physically injured by whatever happened to her here, you’ve got the literal fact that she’s been buried alive under all this rubble. I also really love the little nod with the newspaper being from Kansas. Add that to the old time-y soda can in the right-hand corner, and I get the sense this is meant to take place in Smallvile. That's a pretty creepy prospect in its own right given the shield of innocence that tends to protect Smallville. 

And now for a cover that’s much more upbeat and heroic. This cover is actually the only one drawn from the 2000s Supergirl comic that spun out of her debut in the pages of Superman/Batman. I’m not really a fan of that era for a lot of reasons, but this is still a really great cover. Like most comics fans, I’m a sucker for iconography, so there was always going to be at least one cover on this list that featured Kara ripping open a button-down shirt to reveal the Superman S under her clothes. This one took that role mainly because of just how unabashedly old fashioned, joyous, and heroic it comes off. 

The reason I don’t care for 2000s Supergirl is she tended to stay locked up in her own insecurities and directionless anxiety, so a cover like this, so bright and strong and actually happy to be engaging in heroics, is a real treat and a great change of pace.  That’s something Supergirl the show understands really well about the whole conception of the Superman mythos: the characters are most enjoyable when they like being super. 

This is the other thing that the Supergirl show really gets that so many Superman live-action adaptations seem to miss: she’s Linda Danvers first and Supergirl second. The same rules that apply to Superman apply to Supergirl. As far as he’s concerned, it’s his humanity that makes him an actually compelling character rather than his incredible powers. That’s why people are actually able to tell straight Clark Kent stories and have them be thoroughly fun and engaging. 

Taking that idea and filtering it through the inverted classic visual iconography of the costume beneath the civilian garb is a perfect way to sum up how Supergirl should be handled. I’m usually not a fan of big, full-frame body covers like this as they tend to be pretty lackluster, but the use of iconography and symbolism here is superb. It’s a cover based around the idea that not every task is a job for Supergirl; sometimes, it’s just a job for Linda Danvers. 

Even though Action Comics #252 is the more famous cover of Supergirl’s debut, I’ve always preferred Action Comics #285 as the best premiere of Supergirl. This was the issue where Superman finally decided Supergirl didn’t need to hide her existence anymore and could be publicly “out” as a superhero like him. It was a big deal at the time in so much as it changed their relationship within the comics and paved the way for future Supergirl stories and comics through the ages. 

I’m hard pressed to say exactly why I like this cover so much other than that it’s just so unashamedly joyous and triumphant. There’s no hint of irony or darkness or tragedy about this cover, just a pure and delightful celebration of the world’s greatest super heroine. In a world so often filled with compromises and naysayers, it’s nice sometimes to have an unabashedly victorious image like this one. 

As I think I’ve made clear throughout this article and my previous Comic Book Rainbow about her, there have been a lot of different variations on Supergirl. This level of variance has only increased in recent years as she’s gone through several changes like her time as a Red Lantern and as a soldier of New Krypton. As such, this cover perfectly sums up the massive struggle of identity and heritage that has come to very much inform the character of Supergirl.  

She’s one of those heroes with an incredibly easy concept to grasp: Superman but a woman with of the most convoluted and conflicting personal histories ever. The idea of her grappling with the many aspects of her history and personality makes for a perfect visual metaphor on this cover. Granted, the version of Kara featured here are more recent concepts like Red Lantern Supergirl or her New 52 civilian identity, but the concept still works and harkens back to her long and befuddling history. 

We’ve talked about this before, but the image of a hero screaming an anguish while holding the broken body of another fallen hero is a cornerstone of the comic cover art form. It goes back to Crisis on Infinite Earths where Supergirl actually died, adding an extra-layer of joke-y irony to this cover as it’s an inversion of the classic design. In this case, Silver Age Supergirl is the one holding the broken body of modern age Supergirl (it was a whole cross-universe mash-up at the time that’s really not worth digging.) 

Incidentally, that particular universe hopping is why this cover features 2 version of Batman, Superman, and Superboy. Hell, both Jay Garrick and Wally West Flash are framed behind the two Superman’s on the bottom of the page. I also really like the Highlander tagline the top of the page gifts us. Maybe this is something more rooted in my personal geekery, but I’m a sucker for this kind of dopey geek iconography reworking. 

This cover comes from us from the time when Luthor was President. It was a brief and weirdly uneventful period in DC history. Mostly, it was notable only for the lack of evil schemes perpetrated by the super villain-turned-commander in chief.  Putting Luthor’s ignominious regime aside, this cover is just great.  Crosshair covers can be hit or miss, so it takes a little more than just a spot-on, point-of-view shot to sell them. Featuring Supergirl defending Luthor is a great twist on the idea. 

It plays well to the concept of Supergirl being, like her cousin, dedicated to the ideals of justice outside of her personal feelings.  However, the twist that Supergirl looks like she’s about to turn into the Hulk here is a pretty nice addition and helps separate her from her cousin in how calm and statesmen-like Superman usually comes off. Also, the cover is punctuated by a ridiculous play on words that I absolutely adore. 

Well this just got serious. I don’t really get the “Someone’s Watching” surtitle here, but the image is incredibly striking and very creepy. As I mentioned earlier, Supergirl’s whole character is a fantasy based on a handful of core concepts like invulnerability, flight, and the fact she can save anyone regardless of her limitations. 

Juxtaposing such intrinsic parts of her character with the image of someone she so clearly didn’t save is a great inversion of expectation and creates a sense of dread and unnerving wrongness.  It’s the image of a universe that’s nowhere near as safe as we’d thought; a universe where seemingly unalienable truths no longer hold sway. At the same time, the dearth of information about the victim here leaves a lot to the imagination, and your brain knows exactly how to fill in the most unsettling details it can. 

This is basically the last idea cranked up to 11. We’ve got even fewer details than the previous image. Somehow, the actual inclusion of Supergirl as part of the cover makes it even more impactful and distressing. Images of Superman or Supergirl next to a gravestone can run a full gambit of emotions from hopeful to tragic. This one comes off decidedly hopeless. A lot of this comes down to posture and framing: the way Supergirl is hunched down and on her knees, facing away from the camera; there’s no heroism in this image only raw emotion and, by extension, weakness. 

It’s an image that plays off a burning truth. Despite all her amazing power and all her strength, there are some things not even Supergirl can fix. A big part of what sells this as personal weakness is the anonymous design of the tombstone on display here. This isn’t the big, ornate-type grave that’s usually ascribed to a superhero or even a human hero. It’s a small and inconsequential grave that you’d just pass over without thought. It’s unimportant, except for those tied to it like Supergirl. 

And now for something completely different. I admit, this cover is a massive tonal shift from the raw openness and grief of the last cover. I don’t care; this is an amazing image. It doesn’t even really make sense in-universe. In case you didn’t know, during the Silver Age when Superman routinely had adventures in the bottle city of Kandor, he had a whole team of tiny Kryptonians who would occasionally leave the city to aid him or handled disasters when he was otherwise occupied. They were the Superman Emergency Squad, and that’s allegedly who’s fighting Supergirl here. 

The thing is, the Superman Emergency Squad were a whole collection of different people in unique costumes, not a platoon of tiny Superman duplicates. I really don’t know what it was about the Silver Age that attracted creators to tiny duplicates, but it gave us AMAZING covers like this, so I can’t complain. My favorite part has to be Supergirl’s completely nonchalant expression here. She could not be more unimpressed with the Superman Emergency Squad’s assault against her.  This is the craziness modern comics just need more of. 

Let’s start this cover discussion with a gentle reminder that for a time Supergirl was a literal angel on Earth, just so that this cover can make a little more sense in context. That having been said, this is just a great visual. One of the cornerstones of the DC Universe is people love their heroes (to the point they almost worship them as new Gods). 

This has always been a great way to make the world feel more richly nuanced and alive, especially in crafting parts of the universe like the Flash Museum or Metropolis’s adoration for Superman.  This cover flips that idea on its ear, elevating Supergirl to literal godly status as would befit her being an actual angel. There’ve been a lot of great Superman stories about the religious magnitude surrounding his identity and the question of whether the cult of Superman is really for the best. But there are only a precious few that translate the idea to Supergirl, even though it’s just as worthy of examination. 

This is a bit of a weird one.  What we have here is a sideways cover, a rarity in its own right. This is also a special variant meant as a deliberate throwback to the best and brightest elements of the Silver Age and illustrated by the great Darwyn Cooke. Cooke is one of the all-time greatest artists, mainly for his work with Silver Age iconography. As soon as I stumbled on this variant, I basically knew it would top this list. After going through the entire Supergirl cover-ology, yeah, I feel confident saying this is the best Supergirl cover ever made. 

What it really boils down to is that this is the Supergirl cover that most embodies the sense of joy that should inform her character while touching on the bizarre form of isolation that’s baked into her core conception. Remember, Supergirl is more removed from the rest of humanity than Superman ever was because of her time spent as a citizen of Krypton. She doesn’t have the same connection to the Kents or Lois Lane that Superman might. Instead, her closest connections in life are to the family she builds for herself: her animals. 

No, seriously, Supergirl creates Streeky the Supercat and adopts Comet the Superhorse. They're some of the only creatures in the universe that actually understand what it’s like to be trapped in a world that affords you incredible powers at the expense of interpersonal connections. It’s a sense of finding happiness and community in the strangest of places but still having that community be entirely valid. It’s an image that shows off Supergirl taking to the sky, enjoying her incredible powers even as they render her forever apart from the people of Earth, yet never truly alone. 

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