Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Wholesome

There's a neat conversation raging in the comments on this post over at Pretty, Fizzy Paradise (why don't conversations ever rage in my comments?), over some things that I've been considering quite a bit lately. There's a good deal of disagreement regarding the current Supergirl, her portrayal, and what the character ought to be like. The word "wholesome" keeps popping up, and how this Supergirl, with her midriff-baring, tattoo-wearing, cousin-kissing, naked-prancing, cigarette-burning ways, falls far short of that description.

I thought of that criticism for a moment, trying to develop a response, when I recalled my own disappointment in a changing-of-the-Kara. I was an unabashed Kara-purist as a kid. I tolerated Matrix, but I even wrote a backstory (long before I ever heard of 'fanfic') detailing how Supergirl could have survived the Crisis (having not read the story in question). I don't recall how the story went, but I remember it involving a super-criminal Khund/Kryptonian hybrid.
Yes, I had a lot of time on my hands as a kid.
Naturally, I was really, really excited when I saw the new Kara pop up in Superman vs. Aliens. There was some buzz at the time about how the character would become important, but that buzz was nowhere to be found by the time I heard about Peter David's Supergirl series. I read about it in Wizard (and probably Comic Shop News), and I was incensed. Clearly, this new ersatz Linda Danvers would preclude the return of the real thing.

And oh, how far this new "Supergirl" was from the real thing. I refused to read the series, and the more I read about this nasty Linda Danvers and her dealings with demons, her sordid past, and eventually, her weird angelic powers, the more secure I felt in my boycott.

Then, I actually picked up an issue. Sure, I was thoroughly confused (sampling a series at issue #50 doesn't always work out), but hey, maybe she wasn't so bad. Eventually I picked up the series again (as part of collecting Our Worlds at War in its entirety--an expensive and not altogether unrewarding venture) and got hooked. When the series ended not too long after, I had already honed my love for Linda, and I was quite sad to see it go.

When Cir-El showed up, a little month, or ere that cape was old with which she followed my poor Linda's series, I naturally felt many of the same outrages as I had with Kara's elimination, since it sure looked like Linda was shoved aside to make way for Cir-El, a fact only increased by the fact that Linda didn't garnish so much as a mention throughout the Cir-El storyline. Of course, with Cir-El, most of that reaction was justified, especially since she never really justified her existence. She was a plot contrivance given form.

To the point, then: a wholesome Supergirl, over the course of the last thirty years, is not the norm. In brief:
  • Naïve protoplasmic entity with an identity crisis.
  • Slightly less naïve protoplasmic entity engaging in a naïve and vaguely Electra-ish relationship with the evil alternate-universe (well, alternate to her) version of her creator (masquerading as his own son, making him at least an estranged stepbrother of sorts), at least until she flips out and tries to kill him.
  • Protoplasmic entity merged with a troubled girl after her attempted suicide, who later turns out to be an Earth angel, engaging in a complicated relationship with a demon, and romantic-but-complicated relationships with a gender-bending update of a Silver Age character and a female Earth Angel who turned into a male horse-person.
  • Young, relatively normal woman trying to be a superhero despite a major power downgrade.
  • Future daughter of Superman who may or may not be evil, but turns out to be a Brainiac-developed trick clone thing.
  • Superman's seriously messed-up cousin from Krypton.

Go back to the beginning, and you find that Supergirl was the first super-character to operate completely in secret, and eventually the only one (outside of Superboy) to have living parents. I can't say for certain if she operated superheroically before revealing her identity to her foster parents, but she'd be the first to have operated under parental radar as well. Apparently she was also the first to have her Kryptonian parents turn up alive and well, too (the things you learn through Wikipedia). Details, perhaps, but significant details.

Increasingly since her debut, Supergirl has been the 'experiment' character in the Super-franchise. No matter what changes happen to Superman, everyone knows he'll eventually be back in the blue-and-reds with the cape and whatnot. Superman is a constant, with a well-established history and supporting cast. Supergirl came onto the scene as a tabula rasa, and years as Superman's 'secret weapon' did little to ameliorate that. She languished when her adventures were 'Superman lite' or 'the adventures of Superboy when he was a girl,' and so writers were forced to find new avenues and options to distance her from her cousin. She's been a college student, a news anchor, and a soap opera actress; she's changed costumes repeatedly, all in order to give her some distinct identity of her own. When Kara was wiped from the timeline and the "only one Kryptonian" order came down from on high, making Supergirl a viable, distinct entity became the only way to fit her in the new universe. Since that point, the character has increasingly been the platform for experiments with the Super-family. Maybe you can't introduce religious dilemmas into Superman comics without Editorial watching you through a microscope, but writing Supergirl allows you a bit more freedom, since the desire to tell new and different stories with the Super-family dovetails nicely with the need to distinguish Supergirl and justify her existence (or at least her own title).

So, while I can see the argument for wholesomeness, I also see that Supergirl's lengthy history doesn't always point in that direction.

That being said, "Bratz" Supergirl is about the last thing I ever want to see. I think Jeph Loeb fell into several traps with Supergirl, which are really kind of the tics that detract from his work in general. First, he gave her inflated importance by ignoring the history of the character in continuity, by suggesting that she was more powerful than Superman, by connecting her intimately to the other two members of the Trinity, and by pitting her against the two biggest villains in the DCU early in her career (see also: Thomas "Hush" Eliot). Second, he gave her a mediocre mystery, which was all build-up and no resolution: 'nope, she isn't that powerful. Forget what we said' (see also: Hush, Dark Victory, the President Luthor storyline). Third, he fell prey to visitor vomit, where guest stars are thrown up all over the place, diluting the story and diverting attention from the supposed star or focal point. The attention is spread among the special guests and regular cast, either to drum up sales or as a deliberate attempt to cover a lack of characterization and plot depth with flashy panels chock full of characters (see also: Hush, every issue of Superman/Batman). Finally, he ended both arcs with Status Silverization, the tendency to, no matter what the story or character logic might dictate, no matter what might be more interesting, restore a Silver Age status quo (see also: President Luthor storyline, Return to Krypton).

So Supergirl got immediately involved with Darkseid, as guest stars from the New Gods to the Amazons to Harbinger showed up to fill out the storyline. The mystery of her true nature developed and got at least one mention from its inception up to the 'big reveal' (or 'big anticlimax') in Supergirl #5. Then, at the end of the Superman/Batman arc, she faked her death...only to immediately introduce herself to the assembled superhero community, despite the fact that keeping her in "secret weapon" status would have been far more interesting than her first story arc ended up being. The deadly Loeb combo killed any chances of character definition as long as Loeb was on the book. The only consistent characteristic was her sexualized, waiflike, anorexic appearance. So that came to define her, much to everyone's chagrin.

I can't blame Kelly for that. Rucka was tossed a hot potato of a character defined by her looks, and he passed it to Kelly in mid-confusing-storyline. Kelly did his best to wrap things up quickly, and I think issue #9 represents the turning point for the status quo. He's trying to take the character in a different direction (or just "a direction"), and until he flubs that, I'm willing to give him a chance. Yeah, incest-girl was weird, but he was tossed into a bad situation, and we can't say with any certainty what part of that story was continuing Rucka's plan, and what part was Kelly's own.

I've kind of misplaced my point, so let me lay it out here in the open: Supergirl has been unwholesome before, and it turned out pretty damn good. No, she hasn't been sexualized like this before, but I don't think Kelly wants Bratz Supergirl any more than anyone else. This issue gave her the first character definition she's had that wasn't based entirely around her looks, and that's a major step forward. Yes, maybe he's trying to justify her oversexualization, but that's been her primary characteristic for two years, and failure to address it would be an oversight. The clear sentiment by the end of issue #9 is that things are going to change; Supergirl's previous definition "didn't fit," and now she's going in a different direction. We can only hope that it's a better one.

But to damn this Supergirl because she's "not Supergirl enough" is to deny Supergirl's history, and to damn Linda Danvers for being similarly unwholesome and impure. And Linda's the most popular, successful, and original Supergirl that there has ever been.

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3 comments :

The Fortress Keeper said...

I loved the Linda Danvers Supergirl as well, although it helped to concentrate more on Peter David's characterization and less on the character's convoluted origins (protoplasmic blob merged with satanist to become earth angel ...ouch!).

To be honest, the series also fell apart for me after the Carnivore arc. I would have rather left Matrix dead and buried and let Linda go about her own life as the new Supergirl without Twilight and all that other confusing stuff ...

But, to pick a nit, I wouldn't characterize the original Supergirl - who existed in print for more than 25 years - as unsuccessful.

I would argue that she was quite successful during the Weisinger era, where her adventures were less Superboy-lite than romance/fantasy comics written for girls.

It's not a formula that later writers were able to master (as the Bronze Age Supergirl proved, but Wonder Woman didn't fare much better), but it's the Silver Age character and the Silver Age storylines that people still remember fondly to this day.

Something must have worked back then.

I agree that Kara doesn't have to be wholesome. Like fairy tales, some of those Silver Age stories were quite dark (such as one where she was brainwashed to poison Superman. It ended with an entire race of criminals being murdered ...).

I would just like her to have a defined personality and storylines that are a bit more complex than superhero team-ups and less creepy than the Kandor incest arc.

It seems Joe Kelly is taking steps in that direction, and like you I'll stick with him until it gets botched.

Tom Foss said...

I wouldn't say that the pre-Crisis Supergirl was unsuccessful, not in the least. However, for ten years her adventures appeared primarily in Adventure Comics (IIRC), an anthology title which she shared with the Legion and various others until it finally became her version of "Action Comics" in '69, and she only maintained that position for a few years. Aside from the David series, she hasn't had a solo series go past 12 issues. Achieving solo control over Adventure was a testament to Supergirl's popularity, but it took ten years to happen, while her cousin starred in three books of his own (including Superboy).

Certainly the Silver Age Supergirl is the most well-remembered of the extended Super-family, enough that it warranted a movie about her, but memory doesn't translate into sales. It's one thing to know who a character is, it's quite another to actually buy the book.

It's because of this that I say Linda was the most successful version of the character (though certainly, pre-Crisis Kara would come very close behind), at least in terms of the comics, and not the general public.

ShellyS said...

I grew up with Supergirl, pretty much in real time. So I have very definite feelings about the original Kara Supergirl. When she was killed in Crisis, I boycotted DC (except for Titans, which I read for 6 more years before I gave up on it due to its deterioration) and (except for the Titans as mentioned), didn't read comics for 10 years. That's how upset I was. Heck, I had LoCs published in the Supergirl comic! When she died, a part of me died, too.

I didn't read that Matrix Supergirl and only read Peter David's series toward the end because Kara, in some weird turn of fate, ended up on Earth and had to die back in Crisis to set time back on its course.

Yes, as I recally, the original Supergirl acted super before she told her foster parents she was Supergirl. At first, she was a complete secret, being super on the sly, but I believe she was out in the open for a while before telling the Danvers.

Was she wholesome? Hell, yeah. So was pretty much every character back in the '60s to some extent. And she spent plenty of time mooning over Dick Malverne, having a thing for Comet in his human form, and moved through the '70s as a typical female character of her era. Of course, it didn't stand out as much as some of the nonsense in Wonder Woman because WW was supposed to be one of the big 3 and Kara was just a "lesser" version of Kal.

They finally let her graduate high school, moved her through college, then had no clue what to do with her and that was the beginning of the end. In her own comic, finally, she worked for a TV station, to parallel Clark Kent's journalist job, then was returned to the college environment as an advisor where her stories were throwbacks to the '60s in many ways, the plots fairly frivolous. We won't discuss how many times she changed her super costume. Sometimes, it was issue to issue, and some were fairly ugly. And yes, while she was a successful backup character to that point, she was not successful as the star of her own title. I was relieved in a way when they cancelled it, because they clearly had no idea what to do with her.

I loved Kara dearly, but it took Crisis to make her interesting again. That's typical, as I've seen it happen on TV, too. Make a character interesting when you know they're about to die so folks will care more. And damn it, I cared, so much so that I never even read the rest of Crisis.

No, the new Kara isn't what she could've been and unless we off her and get a new one, or they come up with some sort of multiple Karas and the "real" one is the one who's left by story's end, this is the Kara we're stuck with.

When I got back to comics, I decided I had to let go of a lot of things that once mattered to me, feelings and memories, because retconning and rebooting had changed most of them.

This is Kara. This is Supergirl. I'm willing to let the current team develop her into an interesting, exciting character who will appeal to all ages. I like her trying to find her way. She has a horrible background to overcome, not the loving one the original had.

So she's not wholesome. I don't think it's written in stone that she should be. Other than Superman, who should remain noble, and Batman who should remain the avenger (though he's been redone more times than I can count), there is no character who is IMO immune to change. Even Wonder Woman has undergone personality changes.

I'd love to say that it's because the writers are men and can't write good female characters, or couldn't back then, but it was never limited to the female heroes. Batman has had his eras, too, from good natured detective (the camp years) to brooding and fairly psychotic avenger. Even Superman was tampered with, going through a soul-searching phase and probably others I missed during my boycott.

So, I'm hopeful Kelly and his successors, because there surely will be some, will be able to build something most readers can enjoy and make Kara real and interesting. I'm giving him plenty of time to do it.

--Shelly