Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: Power Girl #4

Power Girl #4

Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Amanda Connor
DC
Released: August 19, 2009






The common perception of the character of Power Girl is generally simple; she is walking cleavage. Sporting a toned physique that wavers, depending on the artist drawing her, between athletically sturdy to amateur bodybuilder, and the full superpowers of an Earth-dwelling Kryptonian, the most striking characteristic has always been her ample bosom cleverly and satirically shown off by the peek-a-boo opening on the chest of her costume. For even in the world of tights-and-flights, where there are no mosquito-bites, Power Girl definitely dwarfs them all.

Traditionally, the chest is where all good superheroes bear the emblem or crest (or logo, for the cynical) of their family or that indicates their power. Batman and Batwoman where the bat-symbol. Superman and Supergirl, the crest of the House of El. Saturn Girl of the Legion bears the planet Saturn. Where is PG's crest? Why is she not afforded the same right and honor of being bestowed with a symbol? Power Girl has no absence of symbol, for essentially, her symbol is her ampleness, her Botticelli-esquness. She is Power Girl, after all, and for many cultures for many millennia, the voluptuous chest of a woman has been a powerful symbol of strength, fertility, comfort, and, yes, sexuality. Power Girl's symbol here is not missing, it is, in fact, completely exposed, and possibly even, the most honest.

That is all well and good, of course, and a nice way of making it seem OK to ogle the pen and ink cheesecake of cape-wearing flying breasts. These are modern times we live in, however, and any comics publisher looking to sell what they do as a medium for good storytelling, can't be seen parading around barely dressed heroines for the simple and raw titillation of adolescent boys. At least, they can't be seen to be only doing that. The characters now, especially the female characters, need to be more three-dimensional, more fully-formed of personality, not just physique. This change of attitude can be seen in subtle and overt ways across the DCU. The character of Supergirl has seen a change in her personality; she is stronger of will and determination, both better reflecting her lineage as a member of the Superman family. To go with this, her costume has changed as well, the skirt has elongated in hem and comes up higher at the waist, no longer revealing the pelvic bone; and she now sports a pair of shorts underneath that skirt, affording her the modesty befitting her age. She is, after all, 16-years old. These changes were brought to life by new regular artist on the Supergirl book, Jamal Igle, but they were born of editorial mandate by Matt Idelson. ("The Supergirl Shorts Story: Talking to Jamal Igle", Newsarama.com, June 26, 2009)

In the above referenced interview Mr. Igle discusses those changes and compares his Supergirl with PG:

"The thing is, Kara's not Power Girl. Power Girl is an adult. Part of her character is the smaller costume with the boob window. That's not part of Supergirl's character. So I'm going to draw her visually different. If I have a character who's supposed to be visually sexy, then I'm going to draw her sexy. It's two completely different things."

We see in this comment a de facto defense of the overt sexualization of Power Girl as being a defining character trait, and not just being the hyper-lusty inclination of whatever artist is drawing her. The artist has no choice, it is her design, and like the squared jaw is to Bruce Wayne, the "boob window" is to Power Girl. It's not her fault, it's how she was designed. To paraphrase another illustrated bombshell, she's not bad, she's just drawn that way. Again, all well and fine, as long as she proves to be more than just a costume.

The new monthly title bearing her name is a testament to the fact that Power Girl has emerged as a strong and three-dimensional character, a fan-favorite, and an important property for DC, all hallmarks necessary for a character to support their own stand-alone book. Power Girl has seen a strong resurgence in the DCU since Infinite Crisis, and she has played a major role in what has made the most recent relaunch of Justice Society of America work so well. As Chairperson of the JSA, PG gets to flex serious leadership muscle and show off a strategic and logical mind. As part of the team, however, she suffers the inevitability that befalls all players in a team book, that of wavering "air time". Writers can not delve too deeply into only one character for too long without it negatively affecting the team aspect of the book. Enter, then, the new solo title, and it is a strong, imaginative, and joyful book, showing strong legs in quick order.

The writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti bring an honesty to the character, dealing with PG's sexuality and body issues fairly quickly in issue #1. As her alto-ego Karen Starr, she catches a gentleman she is interviewing for a position in her company, Starrware, taking the inevitable glance at her chest. With one simple, strong, non-verbal gesture, she takes him to task for it, but does so with grace, a healthy dose of flirtatious charm, and without malice or righteousness. She knows what she looks like, understands the impulse human beings have to fall prey to base instincts even in moments where such behavior would be inappropriate. She sees beyond this man's momentary peek, puts it into proper perspective, deals with it, and moves on. This scene shows us the confidence, humility, and intelligence we will be dealing with with this character from this moment forward.

This scene is also our first real introduction to the alto-ego of Karen Starr and we see her as the forward-thinking CEO of a scientific-research facility. It is an important moment, and not just because of the business-speak she throws out with ease and aplomb, but because it signals that this title will be about more than just "Pee-Gee" punching robots from outer-space. It will be about a woman, balancing two different roles, and forging a life for herself in the big-city of New York. We see Power Girl show the beginnings of being the anti-"Sex In The City".

Power Girl #4 continues along this line, as we see Karen deal with finding an apartment in the crazed, over-priced New York real-estate market. Gray and Palmiotti have a firm understanding with how to make a superhuman character a genuine person, by placing them in real-world situations that serve to showcase larger themes. They fill this scene with small moments that are relatable to anyone who has ever rented an apartment in a major city. We see Karen test the plumping by flushing the toilet, and peek inside the closet to check out the amount of space, or lack thereof, you get in New York. Just as she settles on a great find in Park Slope, Brooklyn, something sinister, no doubt, crashes to Earth. It is a metaphor for the plight of the superhero and of the working woman. One minute she is finding happiness and comfort in her personal life, the next the duties of her work life come crashing in to rain on the parade.

The opening scene also serves to encapsulate almost everything that is proving to be special about this book. We see Karen in a movie theatre, accompanied by fellow superhero Terra, a young girl new to the scene who Karen has taken under her wing. Together they form a very powerful and quite charming crime-fighting duo, a far more comedic take, and surely intentional critique, on the more twisted, brooding, and dark Batman & Robin dynamic. Here, our heroes sit under dimmed theatre lighting, watching the trailer of a film itself an absolute spot-on satire of comic book summer events. (The words "crisis", "invasion", "countdown", and "dark reign" all used here like little knives stabbing at the readers consciousness of the fictional universe these characters inhabit. It's meta-fiction but done with genuine humor.) The best page of this scene features very little dialogue and showcases the stunning talent of the books artist, Amanda Connor. Through a series of six simple evenly spaced panels, we watch the reactions of our heroes as they watch the movie reel away. Their body language and facial expressions are ebullient, barely contained by the page; they are true, emotionally complete, pumped full of blood. This page is so good, it made me want to buy a second copy of this issue so I could cut this page out and frame it.

Connor has a natural gift for bringing her characters to full-realization while revealing to us the small moments of their real lives. In her hands, these people are not flat on a page, but living, breathing people in a fully-formed New York City. Connor gets everything right. She captures the superhuman strength of Power Girl as well as the big-city sophistication and natural stylishness of Karen Starr, all without missing any chance to inject humor through the little details, such as showing Karen drinking her morning coffee out of a mug emblazoned with the Wonder Woman symbol. She may be hemmed in by the Power Girl Character Design Template, but Connor manages to imbue the cheesecake elements with genuine humanity, so we as readers, get our cheesecake without any guilt. This is a superhero comic book, after all, and Connor knows that part of that great tradition is showing the human form, both male and female, in moments of peak physical and sexual grace. Tight, skimpy costumes and rippling muscles are part of that heritage, as well as part of the unabashed joy of these books, and Connor isn't looking to take any of that away. She is simply showing us a better, more mature way. She is providing the outstretched pinkie on the hand that holds the candy-bar. Connor puts to shame all other artists who are hunched over their light boxes, tracing out swipes from magazines (I'm looking at you, Greg Land) and says this is how it's supposed to be done. She's schooling them and it's so good to witness.

Amidst all of this, robots get smashed, ogres and witches run rampant, New York City is imperiled for the ba-zillionth time, and a hero swoops in to the rescue. She is a real hero, renting an apartment, settling into a new life, coming to terms with being a career-woman in the Big Apple. She is Power Girl, and she truly embodies that name.
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