You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl, and curse… and finally, the will join you in the sun, Kal-El.
Those words, spoken by Jor-El to this son, Kal-El, from “All-Star Superman” #12 are words that, I feel, embody Superman more than any other. They perfectly capture what he embodies, why he exists and concisely explain why people like me love the character so much. He exists as a reminder of a better way of living. He exists as a reminder that kindness will win win out, no matter what. He exists as a reminder to be a better person, no matter who stands in your way.
As Superman grew in popularity through the 50s and 60s, DC gradually expanded the cast of characters around him. The majority of these were, weirdly enough, pets of one form or another, but the dynamics of these additions show something about the kind of a character that Superman is. With, say, Batman, DC expanded that cast of characters in what we consider a very traditionally superhero comics way; they gave him a younger, more vibrant sidekick and an elderly, supporting mentor and a peer whose shoulder he could lean on in times of strife. These are the dynamics that have stuck with Batman pretty much every since and many new additions to the Bat books even nowadays tend to fill one of these roles.
With Superman, DC gave him a family. That is the core of his extended cast from the Kents to Lois and Jimmy to the character we will be talking about for the rest of this month: Supergirl. It’s telling that Supergirl’s most popular and long lasting incarnation is as Kal-El’s cousin and for good reason. By being the lone survivors of the House of El, they become each others’ only link to Krypton. Their familial bond becomes something that carries on the legacy of their lost homeworld and begins the foundation of this superfamily that would soon add Kon-El, Power Girl, Cir-El, Krypto, Lor-Zod, John Henry Irons… the list goes on, but these two created a family dynamic built on hope.
What I want to look at here, specifically, is what Supergirl means, what Supergirl represents. I believe that there is a superheroic pantheon of stories where each superhero represents a different quality that builds upon a larger metanarrative that teaches us how to live better lives. If Superman represents an ideal to strive towards, if he represents the inherent responsibility that comes with living with such awesome power, then what message does Supergirl have for us? Superhero stories exist as moralising tales and their characters often represent their specific parable through each of their stories. For Superman, it is the responsibility of those with power to act in the benefits of those without. It’s a simple throughline that connects every Superman story. What, then, does Supergirl represent?
To me, Supergirl represents the freedom of youth. Supergirl is, more than most comic book characters, a character that connects to a younger audience. She is, in almost every case, portrayed as a young adult coming to Earth and having to learn the customs of its peoples as well as living with the incredible power she now has under Earth’s yellow sun. This is why CW’s Supergirl works so well; because the show understands this and builds every story the show tells around this. People tend to decry Superman as a character when he is portrayed as perfect and infallible, but it is actually something that works when the story focuses on Supergirl. In Supergirl, Superman is portrayed as this perfect, unobtainable ideal that Kara believes she cannot possibly attain. She can never be as good or as pure as Superman, she can only be a pale imitation.
This, of course, is something the audience knows not to be true, but the journey of Kara’s story is how she learns to be her own kind of hero. Sure, she is still a hero that balances awesome strength with an unmatched kindness and optimism because she has such a strong connection to Superman, but she embodies that in her own way. She is able to rejoice in her powers in a way that Superman never really could. Clark is a character that is often shown as paternal and patriarchal (not in the societal patriarchy sense, but in that he is the head of this family he has created and the most responsible of them) and so is rarely shown revelling in the fact that he can, you know, fly. This is something Supergirl has the freedom to explore and the best of her stories juxtapose her want to revel in the freedom that her powers give her with the responsibility that having those powers burdens her with.Continued below
Supergirl‘s way of exploring this was in the episode ‘Falling’ and, in my opinion, is one of the best episodes of the show. Kara is exposed to red Kryptonite that, at first, eliminates all of her inhibitions before gradually poisoning her mind into believing that her powers give her the strength to lord over others. It’s an episode that explores the humanity at the core of such an alien character. Cut off from that core, those teachings from the Danvers family, Supergirl becomes drunk with power and a menace to society. She becomes everything anyone ever feared her to be. In the end, Supergirl’s freedom to do anything with her powers is married to the notion that she is responsible for what she does with those powers. I am like seconds away from just quoting that Spider-Man parable, but it’s one that applies to Supergirl as much as any superhero.
So what does Supergirl represent? Why do we read Supergirl stories? She represents the ability to make mistakes, to journey through life and learn from your missteps. The only difference is that her mistakes are on a grander scale from ours. Supergirl is not perfect as a person. She is learning how to be better at who she is every day of her life. She is learning to be a better human just as much as she is learning how to be a better hero just as we are learning to be better people. While we looking to Superman for an ideal, a goal to reach at the end of that learning, we look to Supergirl for the journey. We take that journey with her to be a better person, to live better lives and to help as many as we can along the way.
She may be an alien from another planet, she may be a fictional character, even, but Supergirl is a character that represents very real and very important lessons for all of us to live be.