Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: Supergirl Annual #1

Supergirl Annual #1

Writer: Sterling Gates
Penciller: Fernando Dagnino
Inker: Raul Fernandez
Released: September 2, 2009

Regression is a terrible thing. It implies the loss of something important, of quality and consistency; a step backwards into a previous state of existence or being that is inferior. Regression is the loss of progress and in the arts it is a disheartening occurrence. The forward progression of the Supergirl book and, most importantly, the character that has occurred over the last year takes a step back into tired territory with the release of the Supergirl Annual #1, and one hopes this is a mild hiccup with no lasting repercussions.

It is rare for me to criticize the work of Supergirl scribe Sterling Gates, as I have found most of his work on the book since issue #34 to be very strong. Along with artist Jamal Igle, they have forged a new Supergirl out of the disheveled bits of flotsam that had formed a rather weak character. Before, she fluctuated between the dumb-blonde stereotype thinly and unconvincingly disguised as teenage naivete, to the reckless and unfeeling alien; both incarnations suffering from a sad lack of forethought, both leaping into action without plan or thought to consequences. Under Gates and Igle, she has become a stronger character, more diligent, more apt to learn from her mistakes and tread carefully. She still demonstrates a youthful zeal, but this now takes the shape of passion, not carelessness. Now, in the Supergirl Annual story "Secret Identities" we are shown a Kara Zor-El who reverts back to a former self, one who plans poorly, and whose failures are tinged with severe cruelty.

The story focuses on Supergirl's alto ego of Linda Lang, a character not focused on much since being introduced as a main plot point back when the book was relaunched with issue #34. This has been fine by me, as most of Supergirl's stories to date have dealt with her coming to grips with her role as Supergirl, shoe-horning in the Linda Lang persona would have felt superfluous. That is exactly what happens here. The whole point of this story seems to be just to show off the alter-ego and remind us that Kara has one on Earth, but it is a device illogically used. The whole story feeds from this plot device, and so therefore the entire story crumbles apart from being built atop such rickety foundations.

Kara enters a bank to stop a robbery and hostage situation. For some reason, she believes she can not do so as Supergirl, since, as a Kryptonian, she is banned from Earth. So, she infiltrates the bank as Linda Lang and proceeds to deal out super-powered justice to the gang committing the heist. Obviously, she uses her powers of super-speed, strength, and heat vision to swoop in and take care of the baddies in the blink of an eye, so why then, was she afraid of doing all of this in costume? If she is going to act as Supergirl, and use her powers as Supergirl, then why stop short of wearing the costume of Supergirl? Why shroud herself in the secret identity of Linda Lang and then proceed to use Kryptonian powers? Does this not completely subvert the whole reason for having a secret identity? Of course it does. The whole scene devolves at this point, as she finds herself, somehow, stuck in the bank, trapped by Science Police hell-bent on outing the hidden Kryptonian. This, of course, begs the question as to why she did not just speed out of the bank upon subduing the criminals. Why did she stick around to put herself in a position of being found out? To make matters worse, there are Kryptonians in the bank, hidden amongst the civilian human population, attempting to live normal lives as refugees on Earth. They are quickly outed. Kara aids in their escape (now finding it OK to don the Supergirl costume) but not before they are all photographed, not before there lives are completely compromised, and not before she has opened a Pandora's box of fear and xenophobia. It is the absolute worst outcome and harkens back to an older version of the character, one who would have the best intentions only to spoil them with the worst and most non-sensical decision making.

The true heartbreak of this story is that the core idea is one of real meat; that there are Kryptonian refugees living on Earth, not as cell agents or terrorists, not as super-powered heroes in waiting, but as innocent immigrants hoping to live as all beings hope to live, in peace. The idea that they would be hunted out by government agencies as deadly invaders, painted in the media as terrorists here only to undermine human freedom, is a strong and thrillingly evocative plot point that is lost in the shuffle of superhuman fisticuffs and dulled by the blunt-edge of a character who finds herself playing the dumb blonde yet again. There is so much room for social and political drama with these ideas, and to see them handled so ineffectively, with such awkward juvenile simplicity, is immensely deflating. This could be a story to transcend the conventions of the genre, to finally launch Supergirl into the top-shelf strata of comic books. As executed here, it is the very definition of regression.

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