Our book today is the 2007 Supergirl volume of DC Comics’ “Showcase Presents,” which was brought to my mind by the recent announcement of a live-action WB TV “Supergirl” series coming up soon, starring a pleasant-faced young woman named Melissa Benoist (and also starring, in a bit of a casting coup, Dean Cain, who played Superman on TV, and the beautiful Helen Slater, who played Supergirl – opposite Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway, no less – on the big screen) as the Girl of Steel – a show that might very well end up enjoying as long and healthy a life as the WB’s “Smallville” series about Clark Kent’s life before donning his costume.
The prospect of a new incarnation of Supergirl gaining a new generation of fans naturally sent me back to this volume, which collects the first few dozen appearances of the character, from the famous “The Supergirl from Krypton!” by Otto Binder way back in 1959, in which a cruising-by Superman spots a rocket ship crashing to Earth. He gets there too late and assumes that the crew must all be dead, but instead, out pops a cheerful teenage girl wearing a skirted version of his own costume!
Superman, naturally, has lots of questions. What’s up with the costume? The invulnerability? How can she be from his lost homeworld of Krypton when she’s a teenager and it blew up around 30 years ago (33 and a half, in the old-DC reckoning)? How can she know English? How can she know who he is?
Smiling and well-prepared (did she guide her rocket ship straight to him? Did she rehearse?), she explains: when Krypton exploded, her entire home town – and the chunk of real estate on which it was built – was blasted intact into space. The townspeople erected a dome to protect themselves (and, presumably, they had similar ways to restore gravity and manufacture a breathable atmosphere, etc.), and when the very ground under their feet turned to deadly radioactive kryptonite (no explanation there – probably Binder was told by his editors that ‘all chunks of Krypton after the explosion of Krypton became kryptonite”), it was discovered that – through sheer luck – Supergirl’s scientist father just happened to have, rolled up in his basement, enough lead sheeting to cover every inch of ground in the entire town – parks, sidewalks, streets, sewers … all of it! A rather large amount of lead sheeting to have in your basement, but there you have it – population saved!
For a time, everything’s fine. The marooned city flies through space, and a little baby girl is born, grows up, and becomes a perky teenager. But then the city is hit by a meteor storm that damages the lead sheeting, exposing the population to deadly kryptonite radiation again. In desperation, the teenage girl’s father builds a rocket capable of allowing her to escape from the town: “We have a month before Kryptonite radiations slowly poison the air!” he says. “But before that fatal hour, this rocket will send our daughter to another world!”
“But which world?” his wife asks. “I’ll use the Super-Space Telescope to find some civilized world where Kara can grow up safely!”
After an indeterminate amount of time looking, it’s the girl who spots something unusual: “Look, Mother! Who is that flying man?”
“I … I don’t know, dear!” her mother replies. “But that is a civilized world! I’ll pick up their broadcasts with our space radio, and decipher their language!” And this is what they hear:
“The city of Metropolis pays tribute today to Superman who originally came from the planet
Krypton! He gained his super-powers in earth’s lesser gravity!”
They can’t understand the language, of course – we’re dutifully told they took time to ‘decipher’ it. At which point the fate of the girl, Kara, is sealed: “Then you too would have super-powers on Earth, Kara! We’ll send you there to meet Superman, who is one of our people!”
So, Kara tells Superman, that’s how her heroic father, Zor-El, saved her life. Zor-El! Superman is astounded yet again: his own father was JOR-El! He and Kara are first cousins!
He straightaway tests her superpowers, then parks her in an orphanage and orders her to assume a secret identity, and she proceeds to have lots and lots of adventures. And reading these earliest stories again for the first time in decades, I’m struck anew by just how awfully, incredibly, nauseatingly bad the whole character-story is from start to finish.
Don’t get me wrong, most female super-hero character-stories are incredibly bad. But they’re usually harmlessly so. For every actually original concept – like Wonder Woman – you’ve got ten that are only straight-up female derivatives of established male characters: Hawkgirl, Batgirl, Bulletgirl, She-Hulk, etc. But in most of those cases, at least the derivation baseline works. Gamma radiation, Nth metal, cowl-and-utility belt … these things can be transferred. It’s dumb and lazy and sexist, but it’s at least plausible.
But there’s a lot more to Superman’s character-story than the fact that Earth’s lesser gravity and yellow sun give him superpowers. In the classic version of his origin, his father Jor-El is the only planetary scientist smart enough and visionary enough to see that Krypton is doomed, and when he rails at the Science Council (telling them, among other things, that they must begin work on a fleet of space-arks immediately), they consider him insane. He has a baby son and no choice but to work in secret to create a rocket that will send his child safely off-world – and it works: infant Kal-El is safely on his way to Earth when vain, oblivious Krypton explodes. It’s an elegant, even elemental story.
And it doesn’t transfer. It’s not that it doesn’t transfer well, it’s that it doesn’t transfer at all. Even if we credit that Kara Zor-El’s home town would have been miraculously jettisoned intact rather than destroyed by Krypton’s explosion, the one thing every single person in that town would now believe beyond a shadow of a doubt was the very thing poor Jor-El couldn’t get anybody to believe: planets explode.
But what do the space-stranded Kryptonians of Kara’s home town do, once they find themselves sailing through the galaxy? Do they attempt to find an actual world to live on? No. Do they manufacture more lead sheeting, in case anything happens to the flooring on which all their lives depend? Apparently not. Do they build … a fleet of space-arks?
Well, one of them does. Zor-El specifically says “WE” have a month before the deadly
kryptonite radiation seeps through the damaged flooring and kills everybody in town … but not only does he not use that time to repair the damage, he clearly doesn’t tell any other townspeople that he’s working on a rocketship to save his daughter. HE has the equipment to manufacture such a thing – surely other people in town might too? Surely there are other teenagers, equally brimming with life, who’d be every bit as enthusiastic about the idea of going to Earth and getting superpowers? But for that entire month, during outings and trips to the grocery store and the bookstore and to Mass, Zor-El and his wife and his teenage daughter smile and chat and don’t mention to any of their worried, terrified friends and neighbors that Kara’s got a one-way ticket to safety. It’s the exact opposite of Jor-El’s doomed bravery; it’s positively grotesque villainy, worse than anything Lex Luthor would ever dream of doing.
And when the big day comes, Kara blasts off safely, the roar of her personal rocket ship drowning out the screams of her irradiated parents and friends and neighbors and teachers. Young Superman is rocketed alone because Jor-El doesn’t have time to build a vessel big enough for all three of them – the planet’s breakup accelerates with a speed that catches even him off-guard. Zor-El has a full month and knows it – we’re never given an explanation why he doesn’t at least save his whole family, especially since they wouldn’t exactly be wretched immigrants at Ellis Island – they’d all have superpowers.
Even way back when I first encountered this origin story, I detested it. Not only did it completely undercut the conceptual originality of the character of Superman (and those of you weisenheimers eager to point out that Krypto the Superdog had already done that, kindly stifle yourselves), but it plastered over with white bread American smiles the fact that Kara Zor-El’s parents were out-and-out monsters – and so was she. She knew for an entire month that her parents were planning on saving her from her doomed city, and that they weren’t planning on saving anybody else, or even telling anybody else that salvation was possible. It’s despicable.
And on top of all that, the character herself was so, you’ll forgive the term, unoriginal. All the
infinite possibilities for personality and appearance, and Otto Binder decides to give us a grinning, hyper-earnest, incorruptibly good duplicate of Superman himself.
Of course, that’s changed a few times over the decades, and it’s certainly different now, in DC’s “New 52” lineup of comics, in which young Supergirl is much of a piece with all their other characters: grim, joyless, ultra-violent, calmly homicidal – a floating sociopath in a G-string and a red cape.
Which makes this upcoming WB incarnation of the character a bit interesting: in a couple of the publicity shots, she’s smiling. That might be something DC heroes on the WB do fairly regularly, but it’s actually forbidden in the comics themselves. It’s possible this WB version of the character will at least be watchable … even if she is encumbered by a sheer amount of baggage so large it might be tough even for Supergirl to carry it all. We shall see. My guess is that the uber-geeks at the WB comics-shows division (booming right now, with half a dozen more ‘properties’ in the works) have already noticed, over endless Red Bulls, all the problems I point out here and are intending to give their Kara Zor-El a very different origin story from the one Otto Binder gave his all those years ago.
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