I started to watch the first season of Supergirl just as I was reading CB Lee’s debut superhero-pulp YA novel Not Your Sidekick, so superheroics are a little on my mind. Even if I haven’t made it to the end of Supergirl’s endless optimism and antics yet. (I’m savouring it. It’s gorgeous fluff with problems and great dialogue. And Kara Danvers is—there is no other phrase for it—an adorable dork.)
For me, superheroes are a problem. Fundamentally, they’re unaccountable: violent vigilantes who frequently see themselves as better than everyone else and, because of their abilities, are beyond the power of the law to discipline when they—inevitably—ignore things like the right to due process, and, you know, the importance of not murdering people or locking them up indefinitely on mere suspicion of wrongdoing. Superheroes are might makes right personified and given narrative support.
Fortunately, CB Lee’s Not Your Sidekick isn’t a traditional superhero story. Set in a future America, one with greatly diminished resources, a couple of generations after a catastrophe led to humans manifesting superpowers for the first time, it stars seventeen-year-old Jess Tran, whose major ongoing life disappointment is her lack of superpowers. Her parents both have them, and are employed by the government in a minor fashion as local superheroes with secret identities. Her elder sister is a full-fledged official superhero, fighting major-league villains and having amazing hair. Her younger brother may not have superpowers, but he’s a genius with technology. Jess, though? Jess is a middling student with no extracurricular credits and an awkward crush on the captain of the softball team—a girl she’s really, really shy about talking to.
And she has no superpowers at all.
In a bid to improve her college prospects, Jess applies for an internship with a local technology company. Once there, though, she finds that the division of the tech company she’s working for is a front for the local supervillains, Master and Mistress Mischief. Except they’ve gone missing, and the only other people working there are a mysterious girl in a full-body suit called M, and Abby—Jess’s crush, who’s working reception.
Jess is happy working for supervillains—they’re not really bad people. But then she learns that there’s more going on than she ever realised. And eventually, that the government and the top-level superheroes are colluding in some really bad shit. She and Abby have to work together if they’re to have any hope of bringing the truth to light and saving the people they’re close to.
Not Your Sidekick is slow to get started, and it feels like it’s a little on the young side of YA. Once it gets properly started, though? It’s a really solid, really fun, really generous hopeful story. I recommend it.
It also makes me think about Supergirl differently. Because reading a book that’s about queer girls with superpowers makes it pretty hard not to acknowledge how much Supergirl is working with the metaphor of the closet: Kara Danvers talks about coming out and being her true self. Weirdly, Supergirl seems to be managing to have a dialogue about power and privilege and feminism (even if so far as I’ve seen, it’s a really white feminism) while being a hopeful, upbeat, fundamentally optimistic show about teamwork and friendship and family.
It’s weird, guys. I’m not used to enjoying a DC superhero show. At least its underlying paranoia about illegal alien immigration is keeping me morally conflicted about enjoying it wholeheartedly: I don’t know how well I’d deal with a show that left me with wholly unmixed feelings.
Still. It’s good to have hope.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.