Aug 29 2011 4:03pm

Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe: Supergirl

Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe: SupergirlEach weekday, Tim will take a look at what we know about each of the upcoming 52 new comics from the September DC relaunch, one series at a time. Today: SUPERGIRL!

The Concept and Characters: “All teenagers are aliens in some way or another.” That’s the unofficial tagline for this Supergirl relaunch, written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, a pair of writers with plenty of experience with aliens, superheroes, and characters trying to find their place in the world.

Though many of us may still have memories of the terrible Helen Slater movie to clog up our nostalgia for the character, Supergirl has been a strong property for DC Comics for a long time. A young girl with the powers of Superman. His Kyptonian cousin. It’s a simple concept, with strong visual appeal. She’s arguably second only to Wonder Woman as the most recognizable female superhero in history. Yet, her inherent wide-eyed innocence has given writers trouble since the end of the Silver Age. She is such an embodiment of that sci-fi, silly, enthusiastic age of bygone superheroes that attempts to rebrand the character for a modern audience have led to variations and reboots, revamps and reimaginings.

Some would say that the real Supergirl died 26 years ago, in the self-proclaimed “shocker” Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, and every version after that has been some kind of scramble to return the character to relevance, even as the creative team grapples with her Silver Age innocence clashing with the much more cynical trends in contemporary comic book storytelling. Sometimes it has worked, and sometime it hasn’t, with, until recently, the best versions appearing outside of traditional DCU continuity, like her appearances in the Bruce Timm-designed Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, or in the Bizarro Comics anthology where her whimsical story is recounted by Dylan Horrocks and Jessica Abel.

Besides those alternative takes on the character, Supergirl, post-Crisis, has been either a shape-shifting protoplasm or a genetic experiment by Brainiac or a Kryptonian assassin sent to wrap-up a long-standing grudge. It wasn’t until Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle came on to the Supergirl series in 2008 that the character returned to something close to her pre-Crisis characterization. But even though they did fine work on the series, they still had plenty of baggage to deal with (not just from Supergirl’s weird revamped past, which they were mostly able to streamline, but from the repeated crossover events involving New Krypton and War of the Supermen), and Supergirl, aka Kara Zor-El, was never fully given a chance to rise to the top ranks of DC characters. Gates and Igle patched her up, but Supergirl has never been able to recover from the events of her fictional life after the end of the Silver Age.

This new Supergirl series, like the rest of the Superman Family comics, seems to give the character a fresh start. Just like we’ll see in Action Comics, Superman, and Superboy, this is a much harder reboot than other prominent corners of the DCU. The concept of the character isn’t changing — she’ll still be a girl from Krypton with the powers of Superman – but her new series begins with her reactions to her newfound home on planet Earth. The baggage will be swept away, or at least hidden in back issue bins where few will bother to look, and this new series will show her at the beginning of her career. As Michael Green puts it, “The first set of stories will be her getting to that place. She doesn’t just land on our planet and immediately turn into a superhero. It’s a learning process. It’s right there in the name: Supergirl. She’s not an adult yet. She has a ways to go.”

The Creative Team: As I mentioned, writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson have experience with this kind of story before, on multiple levels. They’ve not only written plenty of solid issues of the Superman/Batman team-up series, but Green, in particular, has television experience that shows his capability in dealing with characters coming of age in a complex world. He not only wrote episodes of Heroes and Smallville, but he also created the short-lived Kings for NBC, and the quality of that latter series redeems him of any sins from the former.

In their comic book work, Green and Johnson have shown a tendency for blending inventive sci-fi ideas with relatively realistic approaches to characterization. They seem to be able to understand the difference between emotional impact and cheap violence, which is something that can’t be said for some of their comic writing peers.

They haven’t done anything particularly extraordinary in the comic book field yet, but out of all the guys who have jumped from television to comics, they are near the top. And their strengths as writers seem to mesh nicely with a Supergirl series they can craft from the ground up.

Artist Mahmud Asrar caught everyone’s attention in 2007 with his sturdy work on launching Dynamo 5 from Image Comics, which, in its own way, is an unofficial Superman Family book. Asrar is a superhero artist in the post-Neal Adams school of Ivan Reis, and if his work on Supergirl looks like his part work, it will be slick contemporary superhero art, but it won’t be anything particularly memorable. It will be just fine, maybe even nice, but nothing about it will surprise you.

Recommendation: Wait for the collected edition. Asrar will do good-enough work on the series, and Green and Johnson will no doubt tell a compelling story. But this is a series that will most likely unfold in substantial story arcs, multiple issues in length. The past work of the writers shows them to be more interested in developing stories over time, rather than doing quick single-issue doses of genius. This new Supergirl series looks to be a series worth reading — particularly if you like the idea of an alien teenager as a metaphor for growing up — but waiting for the collection will give you a more satisfying story to dive into.

Tim Callahan writes about comics for, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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John R. Ellis
2. John R. Ellis
"Self-proclaimed shocker"

Well, yes. At the time, it was a shocker. DC had been promising they'd off major Silver Age characters like Kara and Barry for a while, but up until that point, nobody really seemed to buy that they'd go through with it.

Keep in mind that major character deaths outside of origin stories (and very uncommon cases like Gwen Stacy and Ferro Lad) were still extremely rare in Big Two stories during the Bronze Age. And Kara and Barry stayed dead a long, long time.

(Heck, even the memory of Supergirl was swiftly erased.)

As opposed to these days, where it seems major character deaths happen several times a year, and last at least a few months.
Nevin Steindam
3. TheNevin
Are you saying that if a writer aims for stories that last a long time, that's a reason to wait for the collection? I would argue the opposite: Watching serialized stories unfold over time is one of the unique pleasures of comics.
(I still agree with your wait-and-see recommendation for this, since it's hard to predict the writing quality ahead of time.)
John R. Ellis
4. James Davis Nicoll
(Heck, even the memory of Supergirl was swiftly erased.)

"We don't do it for the glory. We don't do it for the recognition... We do it because it needs to be done. Because if we don't, no one else will. And we do it even if no one knows what we've done. Even if no one knows we exist. Even if no one remembers we ever existed."

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