Supergirl: Being Super

Originally published at AiPT!


According to James Robinson (writer on New Krypton, Justice Society of America, and Earth-2) during an episode of the ComicVine podcast, “the Kryptonian anus is vestigial.” While I can’t for the life of me recall what had prompted the conversation in that direction, the point he was illustrating was that Kryptonian physiology had evolved to such peak perfection (even under the red rays of Rao) that their bodies absorbed and utilized every bite of food, every photon of sunlight, such that there’d be no waste to expel. From this followed a quite pertinent point, that although Kryptonians have a morphology in every way exactly identical to that of humans, their underlying biology is utterly different.

As someone whose would-be idyllic high school years were daily devastated by acne – I did not attend a single day between freshman and senior year without at least one pimple, and often more as well – I would weekly watch Clark Kent on Smallville, and much more than his super strength, speed, or ability to peer into the women’s locker room, it was this alien biology that I envied most. Kryptonians weren’t subject to the same genetic disorders, couldn’t contract the same bacterial or viral infections as humans. And most importantly, bulletproof skin never suffers breakouts.

Or so I’d thought, till reading Supergirl: Being Super #1. Inexplicably, the Kryptonian Kara suffers the same affliction as I had and innumerable Terran teenagers do to this day. Albeit, just as her quickness and might are enhanced, so too are her adolescent awkwardness and pubescent growing pains. Popping a pimple, puss explodes with violent force all over her bathroom. Far from the action-packed power fantasies of most mainstream comics, Being Super seems to be attempting for Kara what American Alien did for her cousin Clark, offering a surprisingly human and familiar coming of age story in which typical teenage highs and lows are given greater dramatic height and depth through the lens of a super-powered protagonist. Such is fantasy’s primary purpose as a literary device, ringing more true to the experience of living than plain realism because, as the central figures of our own personal narratives, what happens to us feels like its of cosmic importance – especially as teenagers. Every zit and blackhead ever to blemish my own face has sure felt like the biohazard that Kara dealt with. In that sense, Being Super is surprisingly relatable.

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In other senses, it is far from. Within only a few pages it was clear that this miniseries was not written for me, fan though I once was of the character. My first real introduction to Supergirl was with Loeb and Turner’s reintroduction of Kal-El’s cousin in the pages of Superman/Batman, and loved where Loeb and Churchill went with her eponymous series which followed. I’ve jumped on with many new arcs and number one issues since, including the New 52 reboot and the recent Rebirth, but increasingly over the past ten years DC has focused the target demographic for Supergirl series at young girls. From a purely business standpoint, such certainly makes sense, as courting diverse demographics has the potential to bring in new readers from outside the traditional comic-buying audience, and such is consistent with the overall industry trend which I’ve identified as the Postmodern Age of Comics.

Nevertheless, the result has been that males like myself have becoming correspondingly alienated. It’s an inevitable consequent that whenever stories start to be written for them, they’re no longer written for us (whomever them and us may be –  in this particular circumstance, its male and female readers). I don’t begrudge DC for trying to expand their readership. But my personal pull list – which once included numerous female figures – is becoming increasingly fallocentric. The comics medium as a whole is absolutely losing its ability to tell a certain species of story – one with its own particular mood, not found anywhere else – in its eagerness to excise from series starring heroines any hint of the “male gaze.”

By which I do not merely mean “titillation” – though I do argue that there is a place for such even in mainstream comics. That the medium attracts artists of such talent that they can render with a few skillful strokes of ink illustrations which are not in fact smutty but genuinely sexy should not be a source of shame. Nor should such images themselves. Kara’s own uncle famously said to her cousin, “You shall give the people of earth an Ideal to strive for.” When we hear such, we think first and foremost of the moral ideal Kal-El represents, but he embodies no less an aesthetic ideal as well, one we likewise ought to race behind him towards (knowing full well that we will stumble and fall). I personally do. My fandom for comics and superheroes is in no way incidental to my focus on physical fitness. Seeing such larger than life figures proportioned like the Greek gods of old is indeed inspiring – and entertaining, and aesthetically-pleasing, and, in the case of the goddess-like heroines, sometimes even titillating.

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But more than merely such, I’m referring to the whole host of sensibilities endemic (if not exclusive) to masculinity, an indescribable je ne sais quoi that Loeb’s Supergirl has in spades and Mariko Tamaki’s lacks any hint of. And I specify the distinction as being between Loeb and Tamaki to emphasize that Kara is not merely being drawn differently – she’s being written differently as well. Less epic action heroine and more soap opera starlet. Of course, the difference in intended audience and authorial tone affect the artistic approach as well. As evidence, merely contrast Being Super’s indifference to the female form, even in its locker room scene and other potentially risqué locals, with Joëlle Jones’s work on the series I suspect inspired this one, American Alien, the cover art to which depicts a curvaceous bikini clad body, the head and face to which are cropped off as if the person attached to the slender-yet-voluptuous physique were besides the point – and in this case, indeed is. Jones is clearly drawing to different readers with American Alien and Being Super just as Tamaki communicates clearly in her writing style and subject matters who it is whom she’d writing for.

Unfortunately, it’s not me. I can recognize the skill with which Tamaki is drawing Kara as a more relatable character; more down to earth both idiomatically and literally. Likewise, I can recognize Jones’ pencils here to be every bit the equal of those I’d previously praised in American Alien. Being as objective as possible, Supergirl: Being Super is an absolutely superlative comic. But subjectively, it’s not an issue I derived a great deal of enjoyment or insight from. I hope one day DC does put out another Supergirl title in the vein of Loeb and Churchill’s. But Being Super definitely is not that comic, and it’s definitely not for me.


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