25 in 12: Superman/Batman: Supergirl

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Well, it didn’t take me very long to start totally cheating within the bounds of this project.

At the beginning of the year when I decided to set a goal of reading 25 books over the next 12 months, I remember thinking “I’m probably going to end up including a graphic novel or two.” Not that graphic novels aren’t, or can’t, be literature. They are, and can. But making time for reading comics in any form isn’t a problem for me. It’s sitting down with a novel or non-fiction tome and carving out the time to finish it that presents a challenge. Still, I knew if I was going to hit this goal without cutting down on my other media consumption, a few comics would sneak in here. And as I’ve still been trying to slog through two books that I’m not at that wild about, this one certainly did.

Even worse, Supergirl doesn’t even qualify as a proper graphic novel. It’s merely a collection of the Superman/Batman team-up comics (numbered #8-13) – a novella one might say – which deal with the Supergirl’s re-appearance in the DC Universe.

(This is probably confusing for the non-comic-geeks among you but know this: every so often comic book characters – including and especially the most iconic of them from Superman to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman – have their backstories revised. It keeps the characters fresh, helps bring in new readers and also gives writers new stories to tell. It also brings out the nerd fury like little else in comics. In any case, this is story is a re-introduction of Supergirl into the DCU. If you want to know how it got this way, there’s always Wikipedia.)

Like any volume of Superman/Batman, even a story about Supergirl is always a story about Superman and Batman. And, by extension, a story of identity.

In this story, Kara Zor-El (Supergirl) is a teenager sent to planet Earth soon after her baby cousin Kal-El (Superman) is rocketed away from their dying home planet of Krypton. Her father intends for her to be Kal-El’s protector, but due to some interstellar traffic jam, she ends up arriving on Earth several years after he does. While Supergirl’s arrival feels like home to Superman, Batman is suspicious of her, and remains so throughout the story, never quite sure of who she is.

Wonder Woman harbors similar concerns, and she brings Kara to Paradise Island for training and observation, over the objections of Superman who finds himself in conflict with two of his closest friends, due to his certitude over who Kara is meant to be. But her training is interrupted by a visit from the malevolent Darkseid – ruler of the hell planet of Apokolips and generally bad dude – who brainwashes Kara into becoming his handmaiden, leading Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to rescue her not once, but twice as Darkseid follows them back to Earth to make an attempt on Kara’s life.

If this volume of the Superman/Batman stories were a TV movie, it would be considered a backdoor pilot, as Supergirl was mainly a way to re-launch the character into her own title within the DCU. As such, there’s a feeling that all the “good stuff” about the Supergirl character was saved for later.

At times, it’s hard to tell if writer Jeph Loeb wants this new Supergirl to be a teenager just coming to terms with her adolescence or a fully-grown woman who realizes the person she was sent to protect is now protecting her. It leads to an odd juxtaposition of moments: Supergirl will be standing up to an accusatory Batman one moment – no mean feat – while in the next she’ll be gaily shopping for clothes, dressed in a baby-tee and low-rise jeans, the straps of her thong hiked up somewhere around her rib cage (granted, this book came out in 2004 but it just goes to show that boys on both sides of the inks and pencils have a hard time coming to terms with young women). But Loeb is smart enough to show us that when Supergirl is at her sharpest and best-defined is in moments of conflict whether with Batman, with an expert swordswoman on Paradise Island or even with Superman himself.

As I said, this is a Superman/Batman story. The through-line in these volumes is that each man finds a little of himself in the other, and vice versa. In this volume, Superman discovers that he shares Batman’s tendency to do “whatever is necessary.” Here, his desire to keep his family – Supergirl – safe, leads him to eventually bury, though not kill, Darkseid at the far end of the universe. It’s a frequent theme in comics: through adversity you find out who you really are. And family is at the core of who Superman is, whether on Krypton or in Kansas. At the end of Supergirl, Superman realizes that though Kara is Kryptonian and capable of super-heroism, it is up to her to discover her own place on Earth, as he did, away from the safe embrace of family.

I have to believe this has a resonance for other people the way it does for me: The moments in my life when I felt the most secure in my identity were the times immediately following periods of great conflict or insecurity.

In any case, the next time I sub a graphic novel in for a “real” book, I promise it’ll be something a little meatier. Like DC: The New Frontier.

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