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The Dark History Of Stargirl

While the DCEU seems to favor grim-and-gritty superheroes and antiheroes, DC Comics' Stargirl proudly bucks the status quo. Reviewers heaped praise on the CW's "Stargirl" TV series upon its 2020 debut, citing lead actress Brec Bassinger's ability to bring a refreshing dose of optimism and idealism to DC television shows. Much of this is attributed to Stargirl's original comic book counterpart, Courtney Whitmore, who's often seen as one of DC's more wholesome heroes thanks to her willingness to do everything she can to make things right.

Like all superheroes, however, Stargirl has a dark side. From the disturbing aspects of the legacies that she's following to the homicidal actions of her enemies to some of Courtney's own questionable decisions, Stargirl's life may be defined by the bright sheen of youthful optimism, but it still carries multiple spots of tarnish thanks to the mistakes of a superhero-in-training. Looking back on the character's comic book origins, here are a few of the darker events in Stargirl's history.

Her real-life inspiration died in a plane crash

Since she was first introduced as the new "Star Spangled Kid" in 1999's "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #0," Courtney Whitmore has been treated with great affection by her comic book creators. This is likely due to the fact that her writer Geoff Johns based Courtney's personality, appearance and name after his sister Courtney Johns. In several interviews about Stargirl, Johns spoke of the real-life Courtney's "spirit and optimistic energy that I wanted to put back in the world with Stargirl." adding that Stargirl's story was his "most personal on every level."

Tragically, Courtney Johns died in the TWA Flight 800 disaster of 1996, three years before Courtney Whitmore debuted in DC Comics. Her comic book counterpart became a tribute to her real-world inspiration, and Courtney Johns was even memorialized in the pilot episode of "Stargirl" by placing an edited image of her in a photo alongside "Stargirl" actress Brec Bassinger. The photo appears on Courtney Whitmore's bulletin board, indicating that the two Courtneys were friends — although their true relationship goes much deeper than that.

Her stepfather spent time as an Egyptian slave

In the "Stargirl" TV show, Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson) is Courtney Whitmore's stepfather and the former sidekick to the superhero Starman (Joel McHale). Together, the two fought crime in the early twenty-first century before Starman was killed and Dugan semi-retired. In the DC comic books, however, Dugan and Starman's history is much darker.

In the original comic book history, Dugan was born in the 1920s and served as the sidekick "Stripesy" to the Star-Spangled Kid (aka Sylvester Pemberton) during World War II. The duo even joined the Justice Society of America, but by 1948, the JSA was caught in a battle that threw each member into various points in the time stream. Dugan wound up in Ancient Egypt where he was promptly enslaved, forced to work on the pyramids, and endured "thirty lashes a day." Thankfully, after a week of this torture, members of the JSA and Batman rescued him and brought him back to the present.

Only it wasn't the present Dugan knew. To his shock, he discovered he was now stuck in the 1980s. Forced to adapt to this new time period like a DC Comics version of Captain America, Dugan eventually found love with Courtney Whitmore's mother Barbara and took on the mantle of the armored hero S.T.R.I.P.E. when his adopted daughter decided to become a new Star-Spangled Kid. While his new life came with plenty of challenges, he's probably glad he didn't have to die in Ancient Egypt.

She became a superhero to ruin her stepfather's life

While most people accept that Courtney Whitmore is a smart and capable young woman eager to help others embrace the best sides of themselves, she didn't start out that way. In fact, in her early appearances (written by Geoff Johns), she came across as a self-entitled brat who gets into the superhero life for the most selfish of reasons — to screw with her step-father's life.

In the original "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E." series, Courtney discovers the original Star-Spangled Kid's gear in her step-father's belongings when they first move to Blue Valley, Nebraska. Discovering it amplifies her strength, speed, and agility, Courtney uses it to create her own version of the Star-Spangled Kid's costume and promptly starts getting into trouble. When Pat asks her why she's doing this, Courtney snidely responds, "Because wearing this belt ticked you off. And that makes me smile."

Courtney even attempts to use her knowledge of Dugan's superhero past to get her mother to leave him, although fortunately, Barbara is too distracted to pay attention to what her daughter is saying. Luckily, Dugan and Courtney gradually form a closer relationship and Courtney's experiences as Stargirl help her mature. Eventually, she admits that she became a superhero for the wrong reasons and that her stepfather was born with a moral compass that she had to learn how to develop for herself.

She has a very violent streak

Superheroes need to know how to take care of themselves on the battlefield. This is particularly true of young superheroes whose inexperience might get them killed. However, Courtney Whitmore often displays such a violent streak in her fights that readers are left feeling almost sorry for her enemies.

In "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E." #1, Courtney meets a school bully on the first day at her new high school and decides to kick him in the face when he starts mouthing off. Later, she reveals she practices kickboxing because it burns off a lot of carbs — and decides to use those skills for a more violent purpose when she becomes the new Star-Spangled Kid. "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E." #0 actually shows Courtney kicking a bad guy in the crotch during a battle and relishing the opportunity to use such dirty fighting tactics.

To be fair, many of the foes Stargirl faces off against are homicidal and Courtney probably does need to use such extreme force in certain fights. Still, her hair-trigger temper does drive her to fight nastily in her early appearances, making her seem more like a super-powered delinquent than a hero.

Her birth father is a con man and a thug

Family relationships can be tough for superheroes, and Stargirl is no exception. In fact, Courtney Whitmore's birth father Sam Kurtis just gets worse in each of his appearances. 

In a scene from "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E." #14 that was adapted for the TV show, Sam shows up at Courtney's house on her birthday and cons her out of a valuable locket, claiming he needs to help a non-existent brother. While Courtney sees through the con, she hands over the locket anyway, crushed by her dad's selfish cruelty. Later, Pat Dugan cheers Courtney up by giving her a restored 1959 Lincoln convertible as a present, resulting in Courtney calling him "dad" for the first time.

Later, Courtney discovers Sam has become the thug "Two of Clubs" for the supervillain group the Royal Flush Gang. Later still, during the "Infinite Crisis" storyline, she's informed that Sam is dead, making Courtney decide she doesn't want to waste her time hating a dead man who never reformed. Instead, she accepts that Pat Dugan is the real father figure in her life and chooses to identify as his daughter.

Her arch enemy is a homicidal maniac created from years of abuse

Courtney Whitmore met her original arch-nemesis Cindy Burman (aka Shiv) in high school during the "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E." series. In fact, Cindy was the captain of the cheerleading squad and a variation of the popular "mean girl" trope. Sounds like a fun way to explore high school rivalries in a superhero setting, right?

Well ... not so much. Turns out, Cindy was the daughter of the Dragon King, a crime boss with some pretty nasty plans for the city — and his daughter. While Cindy was the queen bee of her high school clique, at home she was tortured and experimented on by her father's scientist Doctor Graft who sought to make her a living weapon. Despite Cindy's pleas not to be locked up and cut open, the Dragon King regularly had Doctor Graft install cybernetic implants in her — often without any anesthesia.

By the end, Cindy's arms were so full of knives and other weapons that she became a "human Swiss army knife." Choosing to focus all of her anger and pain on Courtney, Cindy attacked her superhero counterpart with a homicidal rage born from a life of constant abuse. Her tragic story is so intriguing that the "Stargirl" television series made it a major plotline in Season 1. As portrayed by Meg DeLacy, Cindy/Shiv is frightening and truly abhorrent ... but also difficult to entirely hate or not feel sorry for.

She indirectly caused the death of her arch enemy's father

Superheroes and supervillains tend to get tied together by some tragic element in their shared history, but in the case of Cindy Burman/Shiv, that tragic element is largely one in her own head. During the events of "Star and S.T.R.I.P.E." #12-13, the Dragon King used a special mind-control technology to force the children and young adults of Blue Valley to turn against the older adults. The brainwashing technique even proved effective on Courtney, but she shook off its effects — distracting the Dragon King long enough for the superhero Shining Knight to battle the villain on the back of his flying dragon.

During the fight, Dragon King fell off his dragon and onto a broadcasting dish which subsequently blew up. Blaming the Dragon King's apparent death on Courtney, Shiv — who was still obsessed with making her father "proud" — swore to kill Courtney and everyone she cared about.

In truth, Courtney's actions were merely very indirectly responsible for the Dragon King's fall — but Shiv's interpretation of the events earned the future Stargirl an arch enemy. Ironically, during the climactic battle with Dragon King in the "Stargirl" television series, it's Cindy who stabs her father in the back, in retaliation for locking her up. Nevertheless, she continues to see Stargirl as her enemy and continues looking for powerful tools to take her down.

Her first major love interest looks like he's twice her age

The path of true love never runs smoothly for superheroes — and that's definitely true for Stargirl who found herself falling for Billy Batson, a sixteen-year-old boy who worked alongside her with the Justice Society of America. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well ... not quite. As fans of the movie "Shazam!" (2019) know, Billy Batson is the teenage alter-ego of the superhero Shazam (or Captain Marvel as he was known at the time), who looks like he's in his late twenties or early thirties.

This made it look like Captain Marvel/Shazam was flirting with an underage girl when they were hanging out with the Justice Society of America as superheroes. Although the two only actually dated when Billy was in his teenage form, the rest of the JSA (who were unaware of Captain Marvel/Shazam's true identity) called him out on the seemingly inappropriate nature of their relationship. Unwilling to reveal the truth about his age (and later believing the Wisdom of Solomon prevented him from coming clean with the heroes), Billy left the JSA, breaking Courtney's heart.

Her other love interest was corrupted by Black Adam

Stargirl's first major romance might have been rough, but her second was downright tragic. Following Billy Batson's departure, Courtney found herself developing feelings for Albert Rothstein (aka Atom Smasher), a super-strong hero with the ability to grow to gigantic size. Al eventually reciprocated, but he later fell under the influence of Shazam/Captain Marvel's old enemy Black Adam, who befriended Atom Smasher and convinced him to help invade the oppressed country of Khandaq. Atom Smasher actually ended up killing Khandaq's dictatorial president, enabling Black Adam to take over the country.

His actions put him in direct conflict with the Justice Society of America, and Al ends up dying while fighting the Spectre, although Black Adam's lightning is able to revive him. Ultimately, Al and Courtney make up, but Atom Smasher realizes he still needs to pay for his criminal actions and pleads guilty during his criminal trial. In the aftermath, Courtney promises she will be there for him "and I'll wait as long as it takes."

Making matters more difficult, there's an actual age difference between Courtney and Albert, although that doesn't seem to matter in a possible future where Courtney (as Starwoman) is married to Albert. Audiences can also look forward to seeing Noah Centineo play Atom Smasher in the 2022 "Black Adam" movie alongside Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Black Adam ... although considering their comic book history, this might not be so great for Atom Smasher.

Her entire family was murdered in the comics

At the core of Stargirl's appeal is her amazing family dynamic. Few sidekicks are older than the main hero, but S.T.R.I.P.E.'s relationship with Stargirl is made special by the fact that Pat Dugan is Courtney's stepfather and became a superhero to support and look out for her. In fact, Courtney regularly sees her family as the inspiration for her superhero activities ... which is why it was so traumatizing for her to see them all murdered before her eyes.

This happened in "JSA" #68 when the Red Morgue (a fascist group of genetically engineered soldiers from the year 2666) went back in time and slaughtered Courtney's step-father, step-brother, mother, and infant sister just as they were all having breakfast. Luckily, Time Master Rip Hunter arrived soon after to save Courtney in his time machine. Informing Courtney that the last six hours of her life were fluid, Rip helped assemble a team of JSA members to travel to different points in time to erase the events leading up to the Dugan-Whitmore family's murder and set things right.

Ironically, during her time traveling adventure, Courtney discovers that her baby sister Patricia is destined to become the adult superhero "Starwoman" in the future. While DC Comics universes tend to get rewritten and rebooted a lot, the fact that this future is now a possibility makes it a bright spot in an otherwise grim storyline.

She was briefly institutionalized

Saving the universe and leading a double life can be tough on a person's mental health, but one adventure saw Stargirl literally land in an insane asylum. 

During the events of the "Black Vengeance" JSA storyline, Courtney traveled back in time to erase the events that led to her family's murder. Courtney's mission was to travel to the year 1951 and recruit Ted Knight, the original Starman ... but unfortunately Ted was committed to an insane asylum where the nurses kept him hooked on drugs while his mind struggled to solve complex equations.

Stargirl approached Ted, but before she could convince him that she wasn't a drug-created hallucination, the asylum orderlies spotted her and knocked her out with a drug. Courtney was subsequently strapped into a straitjacket and tossed into a padded cell (although strangely the orderlies let her keep her costume). Luckily, by "JSA" #70, Courtney's time-traveling sister Patricia managed to free her and put her mission back on track. While her time as a mental patient was brief, it likely remains a dark spot in Courtney's memory of how superheroes are viewed by some people.

Her activities regularly endanger her loved ones

Despite the fact that she's a superhero who wears a mask, a lot of people know that Courtney Whitmore and Stargirl are one and the same. Her family, the entire Justice Society of America, and even several of her villains know Stargirl's true identity. As it turns out, a lot of this is due to Courtney's carelessness — she once exposed her secret identity to her friend Mary on the night of her first adventure as the Star-Spangled Kid.

Sometimes, the fact that practically everyone knows Courtney is Stargirl is used for comedic effect — like when the JSA visit Courtney during her dentist's appointment in "Justice Society of America" #26. Other times, however, writers and artists make sure to remind readers that the original reason for the secret identity was so villains wouldn't come after the hero's loved ones ... something that tragically happens to Stargirl.

In "Justice League of America" #10-12, for instance, Courtney goes after the supervillain Shadow Thief shortly after becoming Stargirl and gets on his radar. A few issues later, Shadow Thief tracks down Courtney's family and manages to wound her mom ... and kill her little brother. Although the experience helps motivate Courtney to be a better superhero, the cost is extremely high ... and extremely dark.