In early 2008, the end of my time in middle school, I subscribed via mail to “The Batman Strikes!” so I didn’t have to stake out the Borders comic book rack and hope I didn’t miss an issue. In error, DC ended up sending me “Supergirl” instead. I soon discovered my local comic shop and started getting books there, and after letting a few months worth of “Supergirl” issues pile up, now firmly in high school, I decided to dig in. Those first few issues were okay: one-shot fill-ins and endings to stories where I hadn’t read the beginning. But then I got to #34, the last issue in the stack. I loved it so much that I immediately started following all of the Superman books.
By now, we know that this creative team’s run on the book served as a major influence on the hit TV show. It’s also been years since I’ve reread the issue, and my taste in comics has evolved. So let’s see if it holds up, see how it influenced more recent interpretations of Supergirl, and try to figure out why it worked so well back when I was a new reader.
Written by Sterling Gates
Penciled by Jamal Igle
Inked by Keith Champagne
Colored by Nei Ruffino
Lettered by Rob Leigh
Beginning the new direction for SUPERGIRL, which will tie the book and character firmly into the Superman franchise!
If that solicit didn’t make it clear enough, this issue was clearly written to bring new readers on board. Gates and Igle were both debuting on the title and wanted to establish their take on the character upfront. They also seem to be purposely taking the character away from her previous status quo and pushing her into a new one. For the most part, they succeed.
The plot isn’t a very complex one: Cat Grant, having recently returned to the Daily Planet, has published a derogatory article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need a Supergirl,” which ends up causing Kara to question her purpose and establish a new identity. In truth, the plot isn’t particularly structured and feels like it’s going from scene to scene for no real reason. It works well enough, though: we get to share in Kara’s feelings of being lost and searching for meaning in her life.
Given that, the most important story aspect of the issue is its themes. In having Kara face up to the article, Gates had an effective reason to introduce the themes that have always followed the young hero around: trying to find yourself, dealing with public perception, and accepting what you do and don’t know about yourself. None of this is particularly revelatory, and none of it is done in a particularly memorable way for those who have been previously exposed to similar coming-of-age stories. But there is a certain honesty to the portrayal that caught me as much back then as it did now.
With the structure of the issue, Gates and Igle are able to pack in a ton of guest stars from around the DC Universe without ever feeling insular. Together, the creators have a way of getting to the core of a character and putting those core aspects on display as soon as they show up. The issue starts in the Daily Planet, where the aforementioned Cat Grant is defending her article to a recognizably sheepish Clark Kent, confident Lois Lane, fresh-faced Jimmy Olsen, and strong-willed Perry White. This interpretation of Cat Grant, sporting an Asian-inspired red dress that accentuates her breasts and with a Starbucks frap in hand, at first seems a bit far from the Calista Flockhart version viewers of the Supergirl TV show have come to know. But get past the appearances and you’ll see the template for the TV version: independent, outspoken, and strong in her convictions. (Note: The character doesn’t appear much more in this issue, but the antagonism against Supergirl that Gates started here did end up being a major influence for the show.)
Joining the guest star train are Superman, some Teen Titans, Wonder Woman, and Lana Lang. One by one, they all share their experience with Kara in immediately iconic scenes. Superman, for instance, finds Kara on top of a gargoyle and majestically arrives with coffee in hand to discuss the article and comfort Kara. With Wonder Woman, the two fight a griffin while discussing personal identity, showing off both Diana’s warrior side and her endlessly compassionate side. Gates and Igle work in harmony to provide fully realized characters, from concept to visuals to dialogue. And with this, readers of any familiarity with the characters are able to jump in and appreciate every guest star.Continued below
On the down side, just as Gates’s story can feel a bit unstructured, Igle’s art is also not without fault. He does have a great handle on a wide range of facial expressions, and he’s able to adapt them to each character’s core personality. For instance, Kara’s disgusted face looks slightly different than Cat’s, but they both clearly express the same emotion. The downside, however, is that Igle can lack consistency. Sometimes the same character can look completely different in adjacent panels, because of the distance between their eyes or the length of their nose. It’s like Igle has such a good feel for how to manipulate facial features that he forgets to anchor them, and they end up looking like they’re floating around the head. Also, Ruffino’s colors place Igle’s art firmly in the DC house style of the time. Another colorist might have been able to elevate the pencils to accentuate their unique qualities, but even with each scene having one primary hue apparent, the art still looks exactly like every other well-lit, “realistically” colored superhero comic from the time.
Okay, so looking back as an experienced comics reader, this issue may not be the holy grail of Supergirl comics I once thought it was. But there’s no denying what Gates and Igle did well here: this issue set up a new status quo, established some supporting characters, announced the themes and overall direction of the book, and used a large number of guest stars in an easily digestible way. This issue did all of the things a first issue should do, especially for a new direction of an ongoing title.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the “Supergirl” series had to tie so heavily into the ‘New Krypton’ storyline starting with the very next issue. Sure, it got my young self to go all-in on the Superman titles, and I’m sure it did the same for others. But for readers looking to get into this “Supergirl” run today, many of whom are looking for Supergirl comics after watching the tv show, there’s going to be some major context missing unless they read the other major ‘New Krypton’ stories. And that’s both the positive and the negative of comics that take place in a larger universe: great for getting monthly readers into multiple titles at a time, yet not so great for creating a true evergreen product. As it stands, this issue is an effective, if imperfect, debut. But your mileage may vary if you choose to read the rest of the run.