I’ve spent the past couple of days immersed in the Back Issue magazine dedicated to Supergirl. I enjoy their in-depth articles on the Bronze Age of comics, in opposition to every click-bait website promising spoilers from comics that haven’t even been published and listicles on the top ten worst Avengers.
From a writer’s point of view, it’s also a chance to read on how certain events and characters came about. It may be a romantic notion, but there’s something about the “just another job” aspect of the creation of both Marvel and DC Comics that seems to lend it most of its magic. Here were a group of men not getting paid particularly much, juggling a handful of titles and just trying to keep up with the looming deadlines.
It seems to be a given that nobody set out to make Spider-Man, for example, the cultural icon he is now. They were just hoping the title sold from month to month and they wouldn’t be fired. Stan Lee especially notes that he wanted to write novels, that most comic book creators at the time would not even openly admit to writing comic books.
There seems to be a magic to not thinking too much about something, and seeing what sticks. The closest there seems to be right now in the industry is something like Image Comics, where creators own their titles and aren’t editorially mandated to do anything related to cross-platform promotions, or tying into events.
That said, a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks means companies often ended up with a lot of content that wasn’t exactly well-written. It seems Supergirl was created out of need to attract girls into comics, and most probably to secure the copyright to the name.
There’s an oddness to those early Supergirl stories, about a young alien girl relegated to an orphanage by her premier superhero cousin. There’s a strange mix of adoption stories, hi-jinks and robot duplicates, yet the stories are surprisingly readable. There are no high stakes, no major villains, it’s all very twee and cute.
What strikes me the most about Supergirl’s treatment through the years is that nobody quite seems to know what to do with her. When she was killed off in 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, Dick Giordano refers to her as a “Superman with boobs”, essentially rendering her irrelevant. In the comics that came before, Supergirl bounced from job to job, going from sophisticated woman to teenaged college-bound girl with no real thinking.
This made me sad. I like Supergirl, and although I am in the minority, I like her quite possibly more than I like Superman. There is more conflict to her, a girl who turns up on Earth with memories of her home planet, unlike Superman’s rose-tinted view of Krypton. Sent to look after her cousin, she ends up knocking around space and arriving to find herself in the shadow of the boy she was supposed to look after. Now she has to adapt to a world that both terrifies and delights her, at what is probably the most awkward age of all.
So what seems to be the problem? I can’t help but feel that if your editor in chief thinks of Supergirl as “Superman with boobs”, what chance does she have? In a recent interview, Jeb Bush referred to her as “hot”. A character who is supposed to be around sixteen to twenty years old is considered hot by a crumbly politician. A character who unfortunately every Playboy bunny dresses up as for Halloween.
There seems to be a larger problem with Supergirl that relates to women in comics in general. Even during the New 52 reboot, where some of the Supergirl stories were certainly promising, they decide to dress her up in what resembles a bathing costume with a metal jockstrap. Just in case you forget where her vagina is.
I find that for a character who has been around since the late 1950’s, Supergirl is woefully underdeveloped. Those early stories are fun, some of the pre-Crisis stories show promise, Peter David’s run was interesting but she wasn’t Kara Zor-El (much too complicated), and Sterling Gates has probably written the best Kara to date.
However, the “best” Supergirl story seems to be the one in which she dies. Elektra’s also seems to be the one in which she dies. Jean Grey’s, likewise. Can we do nothing with female superheroes but kill them off?
On a larger scale, Rob Liefeld once mentioned that the problem with Wonder Woman is that nobody could list five of their favourite Wonder Woman stories like they do for Batman and Superman. I don’t think this is a problem with Wonder Woman as a character, I think this is an industry problem. It’s a problem with the writers and editors who sit there baffled at what to do with a character because they can’t see beyond her being a Superman with boobs.
When The Hunger Games was released to massive acclaim, and box office success, I thought the comic industry would be the first to try and cash in on the strong female superhero. Marvel is certainly doing interesting things with female-led titles, but what’s up with DC?
I was overjoyed to see a Supergirl TV show brought to life with care and respect. The pilot episode made me feel emotional at a well-balanced, funny, interesting Kara Zor-El finding her way in the world. There’s no comic book to accompany that yet though. If DC Comics are really that perplexed in how to market a character with an audience that is being handed to them on a silver platter, that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs in what is increasingly looking like a crypto-boys club.