Wednesday, 9 May 2012
The Original Supergirl (1962 -1986 - 198- ) The 12 Greatest Super-Heroines (No. 2:a)
Good luck with that article about "The 12 Most Politically Acceptable Super-Heroines". I've no idea how you might pull that trick off. One cause's family-undermining left-radical icon is another's ignobly subservient matron of the white picket-fenced homestead. Whose politics would you regard as being the most acceptable, which flag would you be recruiting the women of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade to stand behind? And how would you deal with the fact that most if not all of the super-women have always tended to be politically confused - if not entirely compromised - characters? How to retain even the slightest trace of objectivity and fairness given that the evidence for whether the likes of Wonder Woman and the Black Widow stand unimpeachably for this good or that ill simply doesn't exist in any closed, literal minded sense?
But fiction doesn't, of course, work in a closed, literal-minded sense, and readers have the doctrinally inconvenient habit of recasting the most apparently problematical representations into symbols of the most radically oppositional beliefs. We all have a habit of filleting our favourite character's histories of their least appealing aspects, rationalising away the uncomfortable and the objectionable, qualifying the contradictions, redefining the inconvenient. Especially where franchise properties with publishing careers spanning several decades and more are concerned, such a process of both deliberate and unconscious reinvention on the reader's part is actually the only way to prevent the sense of it all from collapsing into meaninglessness. There quite obviously is no single "Wonder Woman", no unarguably self-consistent "Black Widow", and in the face of careless inconsistency and purposeful innovation, the fans of serial characters are compelled to either recreate the material before them or, abandoning the effort, opt for a favourite period, or even, opting out, for no period at all. In its endless quest to generate new readers and storytelling opportunities alike, the habitually-rebooting comics industry constantly whips up centrifugal forces which send the less compulsive readers flying off in the direction of more stable, more compassionately consistent fictions. Those of us who choose to hang on to what's left become counter-intuitively all the more likely to deny its worth, valuing the new less as an experience in its own terms and more as a tool to sharpen our understanding of why we tend to prefer what came before.
Or; the more comics that get produced and consumed, the more there are that tend to get assigned to the dumper in the name of tightening up the personal canon.
I'd never deny that there's more than just a few aspects of the career of the very first Supergirl which would, if allowed into this particular court as evidence, define her as little more than a subservient Superman knock-off, as a second-class, second-rate, sexist marketing opportunity aimed at appealing to supposedly romance-minded girls while avoiding alienating the typically blokish boy-readers. That's all true, and yet, it's not in any way the whole of the story at all. There's also a great deal of evidence on the printed page that Kara Zor-El - the Kara Zor-El, who just like Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197-) has three key dates on her tombstone - was the most remarkably stoic, selfless, and admirable of all the various and many super-women and men.
It's not that the evidence alone, such as it is, could ever definitively close the case for such an extreme and clearly idiosyncratic point of view. Supergirl as the greatest superhero of them all? That's obviously not a argument that the facts alone could either inspire or support, but then, that's the point at which personal experience steps in and shapes fiction to its own needs. As a young boy who found himself trudging towards double-figures while in what felt like perpetual exile in another country, Supergirl's first adventures expressed a quality of profound loneliness matched to a defiance of despair which both intrigued and genuinely moved me. Encountered in tatty old comics scavenged from jumble-sales and reprints to be found in rare, imported, uncrumpled 80 Page Giants, Supergirl's early life seemed to be little but terrible isolation and admirable self-denial. As far as the Boltinoff-era Superman books were concerned, she was the second most powerful super-person on Earth, and yet she spent her first three years on the planet not just living in anonymity, but placed first in an orphanage and then with the Danvers, who knew nothing at first of Kara Zor-El, Krypton or Argo City. Biding her time while training for the super-heroic role for which Superman assumed she was destined for at their first meeting, Supergirl found herself warming the substitute's bench as her cousin's secret, last-ditch stand-in, and yet there was never a moment when he'd asked if she truly wanted to assume such a responsibility. "You too can gain fame as Super-Girl, the Girl of Steel" he'd declared within a few minutes of their meeting, and at that point, the matter was apparently settled. Perhaps he was attempting to focus her mind on something other than the memories of the horrors she'd experienced, or perhaps he simply assumed that it was any Kryptonian's duty to assist him in his planet-protecting duties. Whatever, the barely-adolescent Kara Zor-El was from the off assigned the greatest of responsibilities while being asked to assume the least satisfying of private lives.
It's often not the political purpose that a character's designed to express which most inspires, but rather the way in which they deal with the trials they've had imposed upon them regardless of the broader ethical context. In such a way can characters which appear to be designed to appeal to the privileged majority also speak to those obviously excluded from its privileged ranks. What's most inspiring about Supergirl's years as apprentice and substitute superhero isn't how she fulfils the role of unassailably feminist protagonist, because that patently never happens. She's only ever the prime mover in conflicts if Superman is incapacitated, and both the life she lives and the rules she lives it by are encouraged even when they're not actively imposed by her dominant older cousin. But to admire how Kara Zor-El embraces the sacrifices of her heroic responsibilities, while also bearing the costs they impose, is to recognise her strength without ever needing to embrace the values of the culture she inhabits. Though there are moments when the isolation and the lack of fulfilment clearly overwhelm her, she's never so much compliant as disciplined, passive so much as longing to be able to act for everyone's best interest. Regardless of the undeniably chauvinistic culture she inhabits, Supergirl's absolute conviction that power brings with it the responsibility of serving the common good on a global level was surely always an admirable quality. In order to ensure that she really did do the right thing, it's notable that Supergirl never allowed herself to lastingly retreat into traditional roles which compromised her duty as Superman's declared partner in the defence of the Earth. The love affairs and the jobs came and went, but Kara Zor-El remained first and foremost a defender of her adopted world.
It's tempting to imagine that there's a great deal of Krypton's culture informing Supergirl's obvious strength of character. It's hard to think of any other explanation for her behaviour when she first lands on Earth and encounters her cousin in 1959's The Supergirl From Krypton. During her account of the miraculous survival and then appalling destruction of her home city which follows, Supergirl only once shows the slightest sign of sorrow. In truth, she's conspicuously, and rather disturbingly, cheerful, traits which she tends to publicly maintain in those first few years of her appearances. In short, she's simply far too sanguine for a human being who's come through the ordeals which she has. Amateur psychologists might choose to identify a psyche overwhelmed by trauma and focused on goals which permit a grief-stifling sense of denial to be maintained. She's cheerful because she daren't not be, perhaps, and principled and driven because that's a distraction from the ghosts of Argo City. And yet, those qualities of optimism and principle remain with the character across the years, and most of the generally accepted high-points of her career find her expressing those very same traits. Unless we're to believe that she remained fundamentally traumatised for the rest of her life, and therefore define her buoyant determination as a necessary front protecting a deeply wounded heart and mind, our conclusion has to be that she'd long-since internalised the most demanding principles of a stoic, stay-cheerful society. What we see in The Supergirl From Krypton is neither simple-minded smiling or the brave fakery of the traumatised. Instead, Kara Zor-El was from the first an essentially steely and purposefully positive character, capable at even a young age of taking the best aspects of her homeworld's values and bravely applying them to new challenges. In essence, she's a strong personality buttressed by demanding standards of thought and behaviour. These virtues of optimism and principle are those which will still define her in her final appearances some decades later, as during her fatal sacrifice in Crisis On Infinite Earths #7 and her return as the most unselfish of ghosts in Christmas With the Super-Heroes #2.
Anyone who wants to recognise how impressively tough and life-affirming Kara Zor-El's character always was only needs turn to her account of the end of Argo City. Hers is an origin tale that's rooted in the most profoundly horrific of Cold War nightmares, namely the fatally toxic poisoning of the environment through the irresistible contamination of radioactivity. She'd known nothing but the tiny slither of rock upon which Argo City had by chance escaped Krypton's destruction, having been born several year after the planet's end. Yet having reached adolescence, or "girlhood" as its politely put, she then experiences the deaths of everyone she's ever known, including, supposedly, that of her parents. It's a part of the character's backstory which was always treated with a remarkable and understandable restraint, for it's a far too gruesome scenario for the comics of the period to ever do anything other than skirt around. Yet it's obvious that Kara must have witnessed the no-doubt largely-suppressed despair of her fellows as the lead shielding they depended upon for their survival failed them. With a month to live and no prospect of survival at all, living as they were upon a substantial lode of Kryptonite, Kara Zor-El had lived through the inevitably final days of her people, and unlike Kal-El, who'd been just a baby and experienced nothing more or less horrifying than a single blinding explosion, Kara had survived to count off the minutes until everyone she'd known had been poisoned. So overwhelming is the K radiation which finally overcomes Argo's citizens just as her rocket is "shot free of my doomed people" that death takes them even as she's escaping. To have borne all of that with so little sign of what must undoubtedly have been its profound and potentially soul-crushing effects, and to do so while constantly striving to do her very best for others, only emphasises what a remarkable character, let alone super-heroine, Kara Zor-El was.
It's notable that the only moment that her reserve cracks in that very first appearance is when she discovers that Superman is her cousin, a sign perhaps of not just a culture which values stiff-upper lips and positivity, but also the bonds which bind extended families together. The Els were an ancient and famous line in Kryptonian history, and no matter how DC's American creators tended to present the family's exploits as reflecting essentially egalitarian values, it's hard not to regard them as an alien and yet still recognisable form of aristocracy. It was often suggested that the Els typically regarded themselves as servants of the public interest, although I'm unaware of any incidents when they sacrificed their own advantages for the greater good beyond Jor-El's loss of status as he desperately fought to warn of the planet's coming end. Perhaps Kara Zor-El had absorbed that family ideal of public service as she grew up, or it may be that life in the Argo City following the cataclysm encouraged the kind of community-minded values which can develop in the most precarious of situations. Whatever the source of her values, Kara Zor-El emerged from the wreckage of the spaceship which brought her to Earth with an unquestioning sense of social duty. As such, she never lastingly associated her own personal destiny with the traditional gender roles of lover and wife, homemaker and mother, though there were of course tales where she deeply regretted the absence of such in her life.
From her first appearance to her last, Supergirl's raison d'etre was the defence of her adopted homeworld, and from that embracing of duty comes the sense that she was in many ways a far more admirable role model than even her Sun-God cousin Kal-El. He had, after all, never known his homeworld or its people as anything other than drips and drabs of exiles and criminals, shades encountered during time travel, memories mechanically extracted and images experienced from the light that had once left the planet. In essence, Earth had always been his home, and the defence of the planet and its people a responsibility supported by sentiment as much as obligation. But the globe was very much alien territory to Supergirl, and yet she immediately assumed her role as Superman's "partner" - in Kal-El's own words when he publicly announced her existence - with a determination which had to be at least as much a matter of deliberate choice as unconscious empathy. Of course, losing one world would likely make a body desperately keen never to see the same occur again, and the example of her sole remaining kinsman and the only other apparently free Kryptonian must have been a powerful influence too. It's certainly impossible to imagine that her parents Alura In-Ze and Zor-El wouldn't have encouraged her to stand beside Superman in his struggles. Regardless, all of time and space was Kara Zor-El's to explore, or even hide in, and yet the cause she choose, and always remained loyal to, was that of defending billions of Terrans who must always have been alien to her in a way that they never were to Superman. Even when her parents were discovered to have survived the destruction of Argo City and relocated to the bottle-city of Kandor, Supergirl never turned her back on humanity and retired to the comfort of her own family, her own people and her own culture.
To be completed, with a look at Supergirl at her best, with a blind eye cast to the more worryingly sappy sections of her history, a discussion of the "girl" problem, an explanation for the Aladdin Sane comment, and one last look backwards at Kara Zor-El the ghost. But first, the reviews nominated by TooBusyThinking's kind visitors.