Sunday, March 04, 2007

Katching Up with Kara Part One: Expectation vs Experimentation

Ok. I’m going to start what may promise to be a bit of a long entry with a moment of internet silence, while we all gulp back those initial gut reactions to seeing yet another blog thread with ‘Kara’ in the title. Yes, this shall be another discussion of the current Kara Zor El, otherwise known as Supergirl, and yes, I gather that we (the comic-blog-reading folk among us) are probably quite sick of these by now. And no, I can’t promise you originality. All I can do is give you my honesty on a subject that has bugged me since the revamp, and continued to as its been argued so heatedly about it across the net. (For those of you wanting to read up on what’s gone before, hop on over to ‘When Fangirls Attack’, you’ll find more than your pleasure.)

Phew, and so after my premise, I guess I want to get right stuck in there, though I fear my ideas might be a bit disparate, and I’m also about two or three issues behind (my most recent Supergirl issue was 12 due to a seriously uncooperative comic shop here in Palmerston North), so bear with me and feel free to give me some info on what I’m missing.

Part One: Experimentation vs Expectation

I can’t help feeling a whole lot of what seems to be the problem with latest incarnation of Supergirl is this massive disjuncture between expectations of what the Supergirl title should invoke (sweetness, honour, heroism, a female readership(?) being among the many debated points recently across the net) and the experimentation that seems to be going on with Kara as a character by her writers (roughly and concisely described in a number of places as ‘Paris Hilton in a cape’).

So far, or at least in the past few months, the Kara we have been presented with has been a ridiculously complicated character; a sixteen year old female alien who has arrived on Earth after a period of semi-lucid suspended animation in order to carry out her destiny of killing her younger (and now older) cousin Kal-El only to find that she a) doesn’t really want to, b) he just happens to be the greatest super-ist hero on the planet and c) she is expected to inexplicably become a part of that legacy with her newfound awesome power.

As a result of these intricacies the Kara we have is petulant, avoidant, often sullen yet with a wicked sense of humour, considerably flippant and yet continuously curious, and tortured over what her life should be about. She’s not sure if she wants to be a hero, and for the past few months at least has tried her hand at a number of different projects trying to figure out what she wants. What differentiates hers from any other super-hero coming-of-age seems to be a) the length of time she is taking to ‘find herself’, and b) just how unattractive a person she often becomes along her journey. Lets face it, this girl isn’t the poster girl for good, or even cool. She swears like a fiend in front of her elders, seemingly to impress them, flaunts her sexuality as ‘jailbait’, picks fights with seemingly every other hero she meets, avoids her older heroic cousin, complains, moans, and generally bumbles through life with no tact and little finesse. This isn’t the Supergirl of your childhood folks, and I’m not even sure she’s meant to be, or if she’ll ever get there.

The thing is, as a character I find Kara fascinating. I don’t like her, in fact I would find her obnoxious arrogance grating on a real-life person or friend. But I am intrigued by her, and I am interested in where she’s going. What’s more, I enjoy reading her, because the creative vision behind her does seem to be consistent in its difference. It would be simple to say she’s just a complicated teenager. She’s not, she’s the horribly contested site of multiple identities, she’s from an entirely different planet, one she remembers, she is time and age displaced, in a body that may possibly be too young for the foreign intellect of her mind, yet hopelessly emotionally inexperienced. She’s got two completely different legacies placing demands on her, a past that seems riddled with murder, bullying and darkness, and a possible future at the side of one of the greatest heroes of all time. She is neither child nor adult in the conventional sense, yet she straddles too many borders to be simply be a teenager, or even simply a teenage superhero. Is it any wonder that as a result she is impulsive and demanding, at times hedonistic and at others self-involved with melancholy? I don’t know, all of this makes sense in context to me, as much as it can anyway. The literary license here is that the writers are in a lovely position of being able to write however they wish; the only convention for an alien character like Supergirl comes from the girls we’ve been familiar with in the past, and those have quickly been rendered irrelevant to the girl we’re meeting now.

And therein lies the problem; that she’s Supergirl, and this isn’t the Supergirl we’ve been expecting, or been used to. Supergirl, in her many incarnations, has tended to be incredibly heroic, sometimes vulnerable, but strong-willed and minded, even Post Crisis. Even Matrix and Linda, with all their individual complexities (Protoplasmic shape-shifter and Earth-Angel) seemed more solid Supergirls, and shared in common with their Pre-Crisis predecessor this iconic sense of goodness it seems. And here we have the current Kara who isn’t sure if she’s coming or going, and sure doesn’t care much what we think about it. There is an expectation here, and I stand to be corrected if anyone disagrees, that whoever wears the Supergirl title, the cousin of Kale-El, should be good, should be optimistic. Not necessarily uncomplicated, but in no uncertain sense, a likeable character. And this Kara is seriously undermining that.

The question becomes whether or not the Supergirl moniker should be one that is allowed such radical reinterpretation as, say, the Green Lantern moniker, which survives because it is allowed the idiosyncrasies of its different title bearers. It is written into that mythos that there will be many (in the corporation at least) and not simply one (and while fan divisions over the ‘true lantern’ can be strong, it is a division that is catered for by the writing). Whereas Supergirl doesn’t seem to be intended as a legacy. If it were, we wouldn’t keep erasing previous Supergirls from continuity. And it therefore becomes more important to establish, apparently (and I’m going mostly on the seeming contempt people are having for the changes so far) what the parameters for the character should be. Should Supergirl always be heroic? Should she be likeable? Should she be a character girls want to read, and how on Earth do you define that quality anyway? The feeling I get here is that fans are saying there are or should be limits to what the Supergirl identity is constituted by, and that arrogant flippant party-girls like the current Kara are unacceptable.

The disjuncture between expectation and the experiment that seems to be going on here, and I do believe it is a character experiment, gets a fair nod within the text of the book, no more so than in the recent Terra guest-issue, where Terra and Kara clash over what Supergirl ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be. In an earlier issue, a young girl turns to Kara and says ‘Supergirl shouldn’t wear black. Too dark’, another self-referential nod to the dark direction the character has taken with regards to her past, and also her flippant skirting of the no-killing rule. Its nods like these that lend me a certain faith in the creative team, an awareness that what’s going on here isn’t your usual Supergirl, and that maybe that might be ok. As Kara says herself in issue 10 ‘Be yourself. It makes life a hell of a lot easier.’ This Supergirl is on a journey, and at some point she will find herself, and her purpose, and her place, and I will be intrigued to see where that is. What matters is whether enough fans are invested in this Kara to see where she ends up, and whether or not there is going to be some fusion of horizons in terms of the girl we have now, and the Supergirl that we want to see. Inevitably, that fusion is never going to satisfy everyone, but I am intrigued to see how you get from the vitriolic dislike I can see fans are having with the current Kara, to something that is broadly less controversial, and still keep that a natural progression of the character we have at the moment. And are we willing to wait the length of time that might require to happen? Is there really enough agreement on what the ‘Supergirl parameters’ are to produce that kind of result, and should we be revising those parameters or not? While I would like to suggest that we should be, I understand that has more to do with the fact that I am less invested in an idea of what Supergirl should be, than finding out where the writers will take this one.


Anonymous said...

Speaking as one reader, I like it when she's bad. I really do. I'd love her as an anti-hero. But it's the whole tortured-past-wanting-to-be-good thing that ruins it for me. And also the constant 'hubba-hubba' shower/underwear scenes.

This isn't meant to contradict your perspective at all. Your post is very interesting. I never thought of Kara like that before.

Saranga said...

I'm glad to see some pro Supergirl writings. I really like the current Supergirl comic. Granted, I haven't read any other Supergirl stuff, so cannot comment on how she siffers from an older incarnation but I do like this version. (And not because of the smexy drawings).
My view isn't identical to yours, but I appreciate someone standing up for her! Interesting post.
(I am very tired, I am not making enough sense. I go now.)

AlexinWonderLand said...

hey anonymous,
what is it you like about a bad Kara? do you mean the attitude, or wanting to kill Superman? And what is it about the wanting to be good, or her dark past, that you don't like? surely those things provide resonance to when she does bad things?

I agree, it isn't necessary to see Kara in the shower or underwear all the time. I mean, if we're going for 'typical situations', then we could always have her paying her bills, shopping for groceries, going out for food, or chilling out to music to instill that sense of 'a girl doing normal things' rather than always having her in contrived situations of nudity. But meh, maybe the artists don't know how to draw musical enjoyment :)

Its nice to see someone who doesn't already have an expectation of what Supergirl should be, though I am intrigued to find out what you think works, and why. And don't be silly, you were perfectly coherent, and who says i'm striving for choerence anyway. clearly you haven't read all of my posts :)

alex x

Saranga said...

What I think works? Well, what I like about this depiction is she's tough. She's more powerful than Superman for chrissakes!
She's sometimes stroppy and sometimes lovely. She wears the S even though she's not sure she wants to officially be super, I think that's interesting.
She's mostly in control of her life (by that I mean she won't take any shit off anyone), even when she doesn't know her life wants to be.
And at the same time she's plagued by guilt and flashbacks of her time on Krypton.
I think she is fairly real, and I think her mess of emotions and partying is a fairly understandable reaction to her situation.
I find Kara of the Legion of Superheroes far too nice. And a little weird.
Yes Kara is drawn as a fanboy w*nk fantasy, but so are plenty of other women in comics. I choose to look past that or i'll cry. Lots. There are good things about the character.
And lastly, I really wish people would stop saying she's crap cos she's a Paris wannabe, I find that fairly offensive in itself.

AlexinWonderLand said...

I definitely agree on some of your points there; the mess of emotions we find this Kara in makes for some wonderful character moments, contradiction, confusion; the type of stuff identity can be about.

I'm not sure I find it as easy as you to look past the sexual elements of her representation. I guess I prefer to cry lots, and then rage out afterwards for some change, rather than look past it. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy the book, just that I have my limits of what content I find acceptable, and in need of revision. I mean, if there are elements that are making people cry with annoyance/despair...HELLO? DC?

alex x

Neal Summers said...

We already have Power Girl who is a far superior character and cousin to Superman. What do we need Britney Zor-El for?

AlexinWonderLand said...

Power Girl is an awesome character, when she's given the respect she deserves; constantly strong, no-nonsense, yet nuanced with a vague melancholy that makes her very interesting to read. She is considerably different to the current Kara to be sure, though they share similar identity issues expressed in different ways. Is it not possible to have both. Whatever we think of Britney, the fact that she exists, and that many find her interesting enough to comment on her lifestyle says much about the interest one might have in the current Kara, for better or worse. I certainly wouldn't view Britney as a role model, but heck, you brought her into the discussion; maybe we need 'Britney Zor-El' because we're familiar with that currently messed up kind of young woman trying to figure out who she is amidst a sea of expectation and attention...

alex x