When we started discussing our ’40 Days of Supergirl’ event, we began to discuss who the essential Supergirl creator was – who was the Chris Claremont to her X-Men, if you were – and one name kept popping up over and over again: Sterling Gates.
Gates wrote the character, pre-“Flashpoint,” over 25 issues, two annuals, and two-plus years. Recently, he has returned to the character for “The Adventures of Supergirl,” a digital-first series that takes place in the universe of the television show. The first volume of that series just went on sale in trade paperback at the end of September.
I spoke to Gates about why the character resonates with him, what he feels are Kara’s essential elements, adaptations of Super-films, and more.
I think you and I are about the same age, and so we grew in a time when Supergirl was a character that wasn’t really around that much, but also had a lot of different iterations. When you were growing up, what was the Supergirl that you mostly identified with? What was the iteration that spoke to you initially?
Sterling Gates: By the time I was getting deeply into comics, there wasn’t one. There’s a really strange period in comic’s history following “Crisis on Infinite Earths” where Supergirl just wasn’t around. They’ve done a couple of stories. John Byrne had done a couple of stories in his Superman run giving us the Matrix, protoplasmic Supergirl, but when I was, I don’t know, 7, 8, 9, there just wasn’t a Supergirl. Then Superman died in the early 90s, and then Supergirl came a little more to the forefront, but I as a, oh I don’t know, 11-year-old, really had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around that character. But I will tell you, reading “Crisis” around that age, I discovered the Kara Zor-El or our classic, what we think of as classic Supergirl. Her death, obviously, in “Crisis” is a huge moment for that character, and I really was inspired by that and went back and dug out “The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl” that Paul Kupperberg and Carmine Infantino series from the early 80s and really enjoyed all of that stuff, and that sort of became my touchstone for Supergirl as well as the movie [Read our review of the movie here – Ed.].
In the movie, Helen Slater is awesome. There are things that I don’t understand about that movie plot-wise, but character-wise and tone-wise, Helen Slater was awesome. There’s a really great comic adaptation. Actually, I probably read when I was, I don’t know, 5 or 6 that Joey Cavalieri did with this really great José Luis García-López Supergirl cover.
I remember it well.
You would go see a movie, and then you take the adaptation home and you read the adaption because you couldn’t pay the 10 bucks to go see the movie again.
I took it even a step further. I read the novelization of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
SG: I remember that! Yeah, so for me, that’s sort of what I liked. The version of Supergirl I really liked when I was a kid came from those places, and it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I read Peter David and Gary Frank’s “Supergirl” and followed that character along. Then when Jeph Loeb and Mike Turner relaunched “Supergirl” in the early 2000s, obviously I was drawn back to that character and really liked that character, like really liked the young superpowered girl who doesn’t know where she stands in the world. I thought that was a really interesting take on Supergirl.
By the way, Peter David’s “Supergirl” is awesome. That stuff is good, but it’s so different from what I think of when I think of Supergirl. Maybe that makes me a, I don’t know, like a Supergirl purist or whatever. I think that work is a really awesome run, and I’m really glad that that’s coming back out and people are going to see that stuff, but it’s not my touchstone for that character.Continued below
Yeah. I totally understand that.
Supergirl is one of a handful of characters that I could show my mom and she would instantly know who Supergirl is, but if I ask her, “Well, tell me something about her other than the fact that she’s Superman’s cousin,” and I don’t know if she could say one thing. It’s an identifiable character that not a lot of people know about, or at least they don’t have a lot of concrete details about them. One of the things about your run is I felt like you spent a lot of time filling in a lot of those details as to who Supergirl is besides just being Superman’s cousin. Looking back on your run on the book, what would you say the 2 or 3 most important details about the character outside of her heritage?
SG: One of the important things for me during “New Krypton” [the story line that Gates, Geoff Johns and James Robinson helped craft across the Superbooks in 2008-2009 – Ed.] was to really establish Supergirl’s relationship with her family and define her family outside of just Superman. We spent a lot of time with her mom Alura, and some time with her dad Zor-El, trying to really build up what makes them tick, because one of the things about Supergirl is she’s put in that pod and she goes to sleep and she wakes up into Earth the next day. I really felt like if we examined what her family dynamic was like on Krypton and what her life was like with these parents, it would give us a fuller understanding of who she was as a teenager.
For me, it was very important to establish family dynamics between Alura, who at that time was grieving the loss of her husband, and Supergirl, who at that time was grieving the loss of the dad. One of the things I talk about when we talk about Supergirl is she has lost a lot. She is strong because of those losses. She lost her planet, and then she lost her parents. That, as a teenager, that’s a hard road. Any normal teenager would be just awash with grief constantly, and that grief would probably color every action. Supergirl comes to terms with that and then decides that no one else should have to deal with that. She’s going to put on this costume and try to make life better for everyone on her adopted planet Earth. I think that’s a really interesting message and a very positive, positive message for a superhero to carry with them.
For us, it was really just about giving Supergirl a fuller life, spelling out what makes this teenager interesting and what makes her tick in a lot of ways, why she makes the decisions that she does, how she responds to adversity, either personal adversity or superhero-type situational adversity, really defining her actions and her reactions so that we, the readers, can really feel like, “Well, this is how a person would react to this type of stuff. This is how a person would react to these supersized emotions, because that’s one of the things that we do when we write superhero stuff is it’s reality turned up a level, right?” Superhero books are reality turned up to 11. Therefore, emotional problems that these characters encounter should be emotional problems turned up to 11, and their responses are what makes them heroic.
Again, that can be situational. That can be a hostage thing and how does Supergirl reacts to a hostage situation where she can’t reveal that she’s Kryptonian, or gosh, I don’t even know, how she reacts to her mother asking her to retrieve the man that killed her father. I don’t know how I would react to that if my father asked me to do that. I don’t know how you would react if your parent asked you to do that, but that’s what made, for me, the story “Who is Superwoman?” so interesting is figuring out how Supergirl reacts to that situation. Does she do it? Is it weird to forcefully extradite someone from the planet Earth no matter what his crime? What’s going to happen once she brings Reactron back to Krypton? It begs a lot of questions, and we get a lot of interesting character story out of that.Continued below
I think that’s what a lot of what made that run important to us at the time to me and Jamal Igle is really exploring the emotional depths of this situation and building out a fuller life for that character, giving her friends, giving her people she could talk to and react to. I think a lot of writers tend to make Supergirl a loner. The only touchstone they really give her is her cousin Superman, and we wanted to expand her world, even expand the world’s response to her.
That was what was so important with us establishing Cat Grant as a foil for her, because she’s never really had someone at the Daily Planet constantly questioning her actions. That was the first things Jamal and I did in that first issue, was make Cat Grant the human foil, and make Cat Grant the person asking, “Do we really want this superpowered teenager? Yeah, her reactions or emotional level up to 11, well she could break the planet in half. Do we really want her around?” She writes this caving editorial called “Why The World Doesn’t Need Supergirl,” and because Cat Grant is Cat Grant, she gets placement for it on the first page. That was the first page of our run all those years ago, which makes me feel really old, by the way because that was 2008.
One of the things that I think has been so fun about reading your “Adventures of Supergirl” comic now is obviously you’re playing in a slightly different universe with elements that you can’t subtract or add from with as much ease as you could, the title that you were writing, but there are so many elements of your Supergirl that seem the same over both books. There’s a real consistency in tone as how you write Kara and what it is about here that shines through. What are some of the challenges of writing a story that takes place in somebody else’s sandbox and how do you still make that feel like your own?
SG: Well, I mean, the challenge of writing the show book was knowing the show well enough to know the characters, and then knowing the show well enough to be able to dance between episodes with our stories. We very carefully slot between episodes in early season 1, and that became a challenge just because there was a lot more research I had to do into what the show events were and what was happening episode to episode just so I would be sure not to step on any of their beats. The producer of the show, Andrew Kreisberg, Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti, they were really, really great at answering questions I had and helping me where we could fit in and slot in effectively.
As for character and tone, I mean, it’s funny, like Melissa Benoist is perfect as Kara Zor-El. The voice that she uses on that show was very easy for me to put in the book. She nails that character so well that that is the voice that came spilling out once I sat down to write this book. I mean, it was just this…I don’t know. I liken it to talking to one of your old friend, because it’s like if you hang out with someone for a long time and then you don’t talk to them for 4 or 5 years, and then you call them on the phone and talk to them again and they sound almost exactly the same, that’s kind of what that was like. It was just like picking up with someone I hadn’t talked to in a long time. I’m glad to hear you say it’s consistent. I was hopeful that that would be the case.
One of the things that’s been so great about your comic and Steve Orlando’s new book and the show, there’s just this sense of optimism around the character. The optimism and the hope, and you mentioned the grief, fighting through that grief and finding something great. I have a young daughter, and she’s actually the inspiration for our Supergirl event because I saw how much my 4-year-old reacted to seeing Supergirl for the first time.Continued below
SG: Cool. That’s great.
It was actually an episode of Justice League Unlimited that she was watching with me. She saw Supergirl and she was instantly taken by Supergirl, and so it’s just been this really great avatar for hope. We’re partnering with a charity called Room to Read to get more kids reading around the world. We just think that Kara is the perfect avatar for empowerment. What do you hope people get when they read your Supergirl comics? What are the things that you hope translate when someone is picking up a book that you wrote?
SG: We just did this bit in “Adventures of Supergirl” where Kara develops a new catchphrase. Superman classically is “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” which I think is a very powerful message. That character is a great paragon of that message, and that’s absolutely something that I think Superman should stand for. In “Adventures of Supergirl,” I wanted to develop a catchphrase that was the same thing for Kara, like something that she believes in and embodies much in the same way that Superman believes in and embodies truth, justice, and the American way. What we put in the book was a phrase, “Hope, Help, and Compassion for all.” I spent a long time trying to figure that one out. I have been working off and on with this character for now almost a decade and I only just now came to understand and distill the values of that character down to a simple metered phrase that rolls of like truth, Justice, and the American way.
For future creators and for future readers, I really hope that becomes what people think about when they think of this character, because to me, that is who she is and what she stands for, and what she believes. She believes that you should always have hope. There is always hope. She believes that you should always help people, or that help is on the way. Help is a 2-way street in her brain, and compassion for all is a message that everyone needs. It’s a message that hopefully she embodies, like that’s what she aspires to, in the same way that Superman aspires for truth and justice and the American way. For me, what’s important about that character is that phrase. It’s taken me a long time to figure that out and even longer to put that in writing in such a way that made sense and fit within a story.
That is who Supergirl is to me. It is both she believes that and she hopes to embody those qualities because that’s all we as people can ever aspire to do. We have hope. We offer help, and hopefully, compassion for all. That is who Supergirl is to me. I was very glad to be able to finally put that in a book. I’m very glad that people seem to respond to it.