Back when Greg Berlanti first announced that he was making a Supergirl TV show, I realized something very important.
I knew embarrassingly little about Supergirl herself.
Sure, I knew that she was a Kryptonian, and Clark Kent’s cousin, but beyond that? Yeah… not so much. To rectify this, I found myself hitting up my library, looking for Supergirl comics. The first thing that caught my attention was a graphic novel titled Supergirl, Vol 1: Last Daughter of Krypton.
Last Daughter of Krypton — and the five trade paperbacks that came after — were part of The New 52. For those not in the know, The New 52 was a reboot of DC Comics’ timeline in 2011. Depending on the character, some or all of their back stories were erased from history. Having since been abandoned for the DC Rebirth, The New 52 is usually looked upon negatively by comic book readers. And while I don’t agree that the experiment was a complete waste of time (I am fond of the Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang run on Wonder Woman, for example), there’s no denying that when you take a step back and look at it, the whole thing kinda seems like a big mess.
This, ironically, is not a bad description of The New 52’s Supergirl.
Let’s start off with the positive, because I personally feel that Supergirl actually had a pretty strong start. As a result of The New 52, Kara’s history was completely erased from the timeline, making her first issue very accessible to new readers. As the comic begins, we watch Kara’s pod streak through the sky before crash landing on earth for the very first time. After pulling herself out of the steaming wreckage, Kara Zorl-El of the planet Krypton emerges into strange new place. She is immediately surrounded by soldiers who speak to her in a language that she cannot understand, and then attack her. Kara fights back, discovering that she now has superpowers, like the dreaded Worldkillers of Kryptonian legend. Her first steps on Earth are cold, uninviting and filled with threats from within and without, leaving Kara overwhelmed and confused.
And this is all before she ever discovers that Krypton has been destroyed, and most everyone that she knows and loves is dead.
It’s a strong entry point into the series, and the first two volumes of The New 52’s Supergirl do a pretty solid job of building upon that. Kara is successfully established as an outsider, a stranger in strange land. Unlike Earth-raised Clark Kent, Kara Zor-El is Kryptonian both ethnically and culturally, having spent her entire life on the now destroyed planet. We watch in the first several issues as she faces several impressive enemies — evil billionaire businessmen, Kryptonian Worldkillers, and powerful Earth magic — but Kara’s biggest enemy is actually culture shock. She struggles to learn a new language, and understand unfamiliar customs. Even ordering food from a pizza place comes with unexpected challenges when combined with both the language barrier and her newly enhanced senses. And it’s this sense of culture shock that keeps her from truly connecting with the people she encounters on earth, including her Kryptonian cousin. When you combine this with the loss she feels over the destruction of Krypton, the results are clear. Kara is lonely and depressed.
Sure, these two volumes are not perfect. Kara’s new roommate Siobhan Smythe (whom fans of the television show will instantly recognize as The Silver Banshee) speaks in an Irish accent, which is spelled out in the most cringe worthy dialect that I’ve seen in a long time. And sure, the bad guys can feel a little standard, but get me to fall in love with a protagonist, and I find I can forgive a lot.
And then DC starts to drop in crossover events.
I think it’s only fair at this point to own up to my own biases. I hate big crossover events. Hate them with the fiery passion of ten thousand suns. Don’t get me wrong. There’s clearly a place in comics for large scale events, involving many different players, and world changing plot lines, but more often then not, the crisis du jour just ends up interrupting otherwise exciting storylines and character arcs. Perhaps I’m an atypical reader of comic books (crossover events sell very well, after all), but I don’t read comics to see what the next universe breaking event is going to be. I read comics out of love for characters, writers, and artists.
So you can imagine my dismay when I learned that starting with volume three in The New 52’s Supergirl, every single trade paperback in this series is impacted by some big crossover event.
Despite the fact that I’ve read every volume in The New 52’s Supergirl (many of them twice to prepare for this column), I can’t honestly tell you if the crossovers are particularly good or bad. The reason behind this? I didn’t get to read all of the issues. No, for whatever reason, when comes to packaging these trade paperbacks, DC has decided to only include the Supergirl issues of the crossover, and a smattering of others. It’s kind of like picking up a book, only to discover that every third chapter is missing.
Scratch that. It’s not kind of like that. It’s exactly like that.
As one might expect, this is incredibly frustrating. You end up missing parts of the story. Sometimes, you find yourself missing the end of the story (that would be the “H’el on Earth” crossover, collected in Volume 3, Sanctuary), and when those missing issues feature important emotional moments for the character (again, “H’el on Earth”) you feel as if you’ve been robbed of something big. And the most frustrating thing is Supergirl is not the only comic to do this. No, DC has an especially bad habit of taking this route with their trade paperbacks, something that would be unacceptable in any other medium. Would you be okay with buying a box set of a TV series, only to discover that several episodes are missing, including the finale? Nope!
But I digress, because as frustrating as the constant incursion of incomplete crossovers may be, it’s not the only issue that crops up with The New 52’s Supergirl.
After doing a great job of establishing Kara and her situation, it appears that the writers (of which there are at least SIX here) aren’t exactly sure where to go with the character’s emotional development, so she ends up kind of treading water for a while. Whether it’s discovering the true identity of Cyborg Superman, Kara becoming a Red Lantern, or attending the Superhero version of Hogwarts, we see genuinely BIG and potentially interesting things happen, but the comic is far to eager rush to Kara back to Earth where she can feel lonely, and clash with the few people who profess to care about her. The final volume of the series, Crucible (that’s the Superhero version of Hogwarts storyline) is clearly trying to push Kara in a new, more positive direction, but the whole thing just feels so damn rushed (perhaps due to the unexpected end of the comic?) that it’s not quite the pay off that Kara deserves, nor much of a fitting end to the series, despite the genuinely good art.
Oddly enough, while the book feels lacking in direction, it can also feel weirdly repetitive, as the many writers all appear to be pulling from the same tool box. Whether it’s being forced to stab her shirtless evil boyfriend with a Kryptonite shard, having her body liquefied and used as building blocks to build Cyborg Superman’s original form, being forced to become a Red Lantern, or whisked away to a planet against her will, far too many of the plotlines revolve around the question “how can we next rob Kara of all agency and/or do awful things to her?”And sure, Kara does end up wrestling that agency back, but there’s only so many times that this can happen before it starts to look less like a noble hero in a quest with high stakes, and more like kicking a puppy.
And I’m sorry, but puppy kicking is not what I signed up for here.
Now, I’ve been told that the new Supergirl Rebirth title (when this column comes out, there will be two issues available to read, including a one-shot) is better, and more in line with the television show, but I’m skeptical about picking it up. After all, I really liked this title at first. The New 52’s Supergirl begins with Kara Zor-El crash landing onto the earth, but it’s in those first few issues when the title really soars. It’s not until later, when the comic has become so mired in incomplete crossover events, and clunky handling of the characters and story arcs, that we really see Supergirl crash and burn.
And I don’t know if I want to sit through that again.
Supergirl, Volume 1: Last Daughter of Krypton
Supergirl, Volume 2: Girl in the World
Supergirl, Volume 3: Sanctuary
Supergirl, Volume 4: Out of the Past
Supergirl, Volume 5: Red Daughter of Krypton
Supergirl, Volume 6: Crucible