Sunday, October 1, 2006

Looking To The Stars - All American Supergirl

I had something of a revelation this week at the comic shop while I was reading the new Supergirl. You see, last month I was told to read the book and I didn’t regret it, though I usually find Joe Kelly’s writing to be hit or miss. But this time – now that he is not tiding up Greg Rucka’s abandoned storylines – it seems that he is hitting the kind of notes he once played back in the days of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.

I say this because for the first time since her return, Kara Zor-El seemed to be a real teenage girl. I thought about why this should be so after reading Supergirl #10 and why so many of the professed fans of Supergirl whom I know can’t stand the way that Kara Zor-El is portrayed these days. And no, it has nothing to do with the anorexic way she is often drawn nor the belly-baring costume. Lest we forget, we’ve had a belly-baring Supergirl for a goodly while now – just not in the classic blue costume.

These friends of mine don’t like the idea of a Supergirl who tries smoking, hangs out with Captain Boomerang or who is actively trying to get away from her cousin’s shadow. But all of them agree with me that since her return in the pages of Superman/Batman, Kara Zor-El did not seem like a real teenage girl.

I reread the story that reintroduced Kara into the modern DC Comics Universe this past week and I had a further revelation – that the character of Supergirl has, in an odd way, always been a reflection of the zeitgeist (or spirit of the times) for young women in the United States of America.

Unfortunately for me, my research into the history of Supergirl found that someone had already written a rather good article on this point– Supergirl as the ideal All-American Girl – that repeated most of what I thought were brand new, original ideas. I highly recommend you all read this article by Mike Madrid [EDIT NOTE: Apparently Mike turned his articles about Supergirl into a book. You can read this chapter on-line here.] as it is one of the more thought provoking pieces regarding the character of Supergirl and how female characters are viewed I have ever seen.

Regardless, this had little effect on my original idea of Supergirl’s becoming more “real” as a female character. And having reread Jeph Loeb’s original story, I now see what the problem is.

Now, don’t misunderstand me- I like Jeph Loeb’s writing quite well and think he’s a very talented man. But I do believe that he is better at writing Icons than he is People. That is to say, he can write the larger than life colorful characters quite well but that he is somewhat less skilled in handling more common and realistic characters. To put it another way, he writes in metaphors quite well but isn’t much for plain speech.

This is all very well and good when dealing with iconic figures such as Superman and Batman... but not so good when you are introducing what is essentially a brand new character with a new personality. And here we have the problem. Kara, as written by Loeb, was not so much a teenage girl as she was a metaphor for ALL teenage girls.

Here’s the basic back-story. Kara arrives on Earth in a rocket launched from Krypton. She is found by Batman and Superman, who is astonished to find that the girl in this Kryptonian rocket is his cousin. After that, he locks her up inside the Fortress of Solitude and doesn’t let her out for an extended period while he himself is forced into hiding due to the Kryptonite raining down on the Earth at this time. Even when Batman chides him into letting her out, Clark is severely over-protective and doesn’t let this 16 year old girl out of his sight for a moment.

An overreaction? Without a doubt. And yet, this goes beyond Clark’s need to protect people in general or his worries about her adjusting to her new strength on Earth. It even goes beyond his selfish wanting to keep her around so he can learn more of Krypton from one who was old enough to (amnesia aside) remember it. Quite simply, Clark has fallen into the traditional father role – wanting to protect Kara from the world regardless of how mature she is and how ridiculously well protected she is from the physical dangers of Earth. He even goes so far as to literally lock her away from the world in an effort to protect her.

Wonder Woman learns of this and insists that being locked up anywhere is no place for a young girl who is, eventually, going to have to learn how to live in the world. Diana takes Kara to Themyscira – the Amazon homeland – and starts putting her through a boot camp of sorts over Superman’s objections. All part of Diana’s efforts to prepare Kara for what will, presumably, be a life of superheroism.

The problem here is that despite Diana’s good intentions in trying to prepare Kara for “the real world”, Amazon warrior training is not doing much in that regard. Oh, Kara has learned how to fight and how to control her powers much better. But Themyscira is not, for most people, the real world. Diana has forgotten that despite her power, Kara is still a young woman. More intelligent and wiser than her years, perhaps, but she still has a lot of growing up to do.

What is more, Diana has fallen into the same trap that her mother, Hippolyta, did years before. Hippolyta tried to guide Diana’s destiny and decide what was best for her – forbidding her to compete in the contests to become an ambassador to Man’s World because she thought Diana’s place was to be her successor and watch over the Amazon homeland. But Diana wanted more than that and knew she was destined for something other than what her mother saw for her. So it is with Diana and her own blindness as to the difference between what Kara needs and what Diana THINKS Kara needs.

In essence, Diana has become a foster mother to Kara. Like most mothers with regards to their daughters, they are a little more realistic about what to expect – at least, more so than fathers. Despite this, mothers are often quite clueless about how things have changed from when they were young. And despite Diana being the only child to be born and raised on Themyscria she seems surprisingly dense in regards to Kara’s similar status as an outsider. Wonder Woman confuses education with empowerment and leaves Kara with little of what she really needs – support. Small wonder then that the closest friend Kara seems to have among the women on Paradise Island in this opening story arc is the heroine Harbringer – who is not an Amazon and also separated from the Amazons who have never left the island by her power.

So here we have this girl – ripped from everything she ever knew and granted the powers of a god. She doesn’t remember much about her homeland and she’s as much of an outsider as you can be in her new one. Her closest relation has basically imprisoned her as part of his misguided efforts “to protect her” because he doesn’t trust her to be able to take care of herself. And then, when she finally does escape the prison she was in, she finds herself on what is an island paradise but is essentially just another prison. And yes, there are other women here she can talk to but they all see her as an outsider because of her age and her alien nature.

Taking all of this into account – an controlling father figure trying to keep her innocent, an oppressive mother figure pushing her towards adulthood and the general atmosphere of feeling imprisoned, mistrusted and like a perpetual outside and freak... Sweet Lord Almighty, is there any better description of the feelings of your average American teenage girl?

And I’m not even going to touch the fact that Kara’s first exposure to Earth culture is an island full of mostly gorgeous, mostly young, all-thin, physically perfect, scantily-clad women and the obvious comparisons to women’s portrayal in American Pop Culture. Too easy.

What isn’t immediately obvious is that until recently, Kara has been a blank slate with no real personality outside of being a metaphor for teenage girls in general. Her stories by Loeb were not so much about Kara as they were the reactions of other, more-developed characters to Kara. Much was said about Superman’s feelings about this cousin and wanting to protect her. Much was said about Batman’s suspicions regarding this long lost relative suddenly showing up. But even in the first few issues of her own book, Kara seems to be more of a reactive character – with the first few issues showing how The JSA, The Outsiders, The Teen Titans reacted to this new Supergirl – but very little was done to show how Kara was feeling about everything apart from her not feeling like she belonged anywhere and still felt mistrusted by everyone.

This is why Kelly’s run, even after only two issues, has been such a breath of fresh air. Yes, the idea of Kara being an outcast who feels (forgive the unintentional pun) alienated from everyone around her is still a strong theme but at least now she is doing something about the problem and trying to make a life for herself and friends outside of her being a superhero.

Speaking of friends, Good on Kelly for doing something Loeb neglected – setting up a friendship between Kara and Cassie “Wonder Girl” Sandsmark. Given the connection that both girls had as having Amazon-training while not actually being born and bred Amazons, it is amazing that the two never had a peaceful on-panel meeting until Supergirl #9 where Kelly showed the two morning the loss of Themyscria during Infinite Crisis together. Ditto Captain Boomerang.

Yes, I know. He’s a reformed (somewhat) villain in his early 20’s who is trying to make good and become a hero. And yet, who better for Supergirl to befriend out of all the new generation of heroes? Yes, he has a bad streak and no doubt part of Kara is attracted to the bad boy element and the fact that Clark would probably flip if he knew. But it goes deeper than that. For all his personality problems, Owen Mercer isn’t a judgmental person which is probably a welcome change for Kara given all the expectations everyone has of her based on her costume and her legacy. And who knows better about being mistrusted by other superheroes than a villain who is trying to reform?

Issue #10 was a perfect continuation of this theme and these relationships, with Kara trying to adopt a secret identity and become a “normal” girl for a time because of her need to try and fit in somewhere. And for a time, she does find a cliché that she can fit in with. But Owen and Cassie both warn her that what she’s experiencing isn’t typical and indeed Kara starts to remember her youth on Krypton and being taunted because of her family name (presumably Jor-El was the Al Gore of Krypton only even less respected) and this leads her to try and reach out to an overweight, unpopular girl.

Sadly, all Kara gets for her trouble is the experience of finding out that her friends aren’t really her friends and that the girl she tried to help would forget everything in order for a chance at revenge. – Kara having been blamed for a prank that completely humiliated the overweight girl. With nary a word, Kara removes her disguise and walks out of the school in costume, declaring that she’s decided she’s better off being herself than trying to fit in by being someone she’s not.

This is all metaphorical as well, of course. But for the first time, Kara shows signs of being concerned with acceptance on a normal level – not just as a superhero wanting the respect of her peers. And what is more she tries to be a better person and to make a difference on a level that doesn’t involve beating up Lex Luthor or pulling girls out of the way of oncoming cars. In short, she tries to be a good person and seems like an ordinary girl without doing anything super.

And that, to my mind at least, is everything Supergirl should be. Belly-bearing outfit or no.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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