Friday 31 October 2014

The Best of Power Girl: All-Star Comics #58-59 Review

Title: All-Star Comics #58-59
Story: All Star Super Squad/Brainwave Blows Up
Characters: Power Girl (Kara Zor-L), Flash (Jay Garrick), Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Dr. Fate (Kent Nelson), Wildcat (Ted Grant), Brain Wave, Per Degaton
Creators: Gerry Conway (writer), Ric Estrada (artist)
Publication Date: February-April 1976
Available In: Print | Digital

Introduction: When I decided to go back in time to cover Huntress and Power Girl's comic book Golden Age, I realised I couldn't begin this coverage without discussing the first female member of the Justice Society since the actual Golden Age: Power Girl. Not only was Power Girl the most prominent female character fronting the Earth-2 Justice Society books during the Bronze Age, but her membership into the Justice Society also led to creation of (and subsequently, the character's first meeting with) the Huntress, Helena Wayne. While Power Girl would undoubtedly become an important person in the Huntress' life as well as one of her most enduring friendships, this friendship would also become of equal value to Power Girl for reasons that will be explored in these first set of reviews. Beginning with her first appearance in All-Star Comics #58-59, we humbly explore the origins of the Earth-2 Kara Zor-L, better known to everyone as Power Girl.

Summary: All Star Super Squad begins with six of the Justice Society members (Flash, Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, Doctor Mid-Nite, Hawkman, Wildcat) coming together to discuss a recent world threat they received on their private computer from an anonymous source. The details of the threat are that major disasters will strike three major cities the next day--from Seattle to Capetown to Peking--and at their peak will cause a chain reaction that will lead to a world-wide cataclysm. Knowing that they have no time to waste, the group splits into groups of two with Hawkman and Doctor Mid-Nite heading to Seattle, Green Lantern and Doctor Fate to Capetown, and Flash and Wildcat to Peking.

In Seattle, the Star-Spangled Kid patrols the streets looking for any trouble. Newly arrived from the 1950s, he reminisces about how very out of place he feels in the 1970s. Along the way, he witnesses a bank robbery in action and decides to stop it, which he does successfully. Shortly after this, an earthquake strikes Seattle, and Kid springs back into action to help as many people as he can in an emergency situation. Hawkman and Doctor Mid-Nite arrive in Seattle just in time to help out with the quake, but catch sight of Star-Spangled Kid, and decide to let him handle the situation on his own as a way of helping his self-esteem.

Over in Capetown, an adult Dick Grayson is seen dining with a friend when an explosion goes off in the middle of the city, releasing poisonous gas that causes people to pass out. Deciding to investigate the situation, Dick returns to his (flat? hotel room?) and puts on his Robin costume. Green Lantern and Doctor Fate arrive at the scene, and both discover that the gas hitting the skies is composed of fluorocarbons, the same compound believed to cause damage to the Earth's ozone layer, the same compound that was eventually banned from use in aerosol cans in 1976. Both Lantern and Fate conclude that the disaster is an artificial one, and Fate attempts to neutralise the gas with rain. Lantern then uses his power ring to plug the hole (geyser?) releasing the gas, and to keep it from causing any more damage. On sight, they also spot Robin who passed out within close proximity of the hole. They help Robin get back up once he regains consciousness, but are themselves knocked out when the hole releases the plug created by Lantern's power ring. Robin is then left to deal with the situation on his own.

Over in Peking, Flash and Wildcat arrive to help out, and discover to their surprise an erupting volcano that shouldn't be there. Powerless to stop the lava from flowing into the city itself, Flash decides to crack the ground with his running speed, hoping to create a large enough trench that could slow it down. Without much else to do, Flash and Wildcat standby hoping to come up with another plan for diverting the lava flow from reaching the city. Fortunately for them, help comes in the form of a blonde-haired woman flying in and diverting the lava back inside the volcano itself. The woman introduces herself as Power Girl to both Flash and Wildcat, and identifies Superman as her cousin, much to the surprise of Flash and Wildcat. She further reveals that she outed herself against her cousin's wishes in order to help them out with an emergency situation.

Before they have the chance to get to know their new comrade further, the trio are met with the Chinese military who are ready to fire at them. Wildcat get's excited for this since he'll be able to do something useful (as in he'll get to punch people), but his excitement is quickly cut short when Power Girl knocks them all out at the stomp of her foot. With the Chinese military out of the way, Power Girl reveals to her male comrades that the disasters being triggered in the three cities are decoys designed to exhaust the Justice Society, and suggests that they all get together to stop each of the disasters one by one as an entire unit. Wildcat doesn't think the older Justice Society members need help from 'a bunch of kids' given their age and experience, but Power Girl disagrees believing everyone needs help at some point. She even suggests that they call their new group--comprised of both old and newer heroes--"Super Squad." Wildcat then demands to know who they are fighting if they are going to fight together. Power Girl reveals that the villain behind this latest scheme is none other than Brain Wave!

In a space station above the Earth, we see a man in a red strange looking costume talking to himself about about destroying his mortal enemies and even the world itself. The man is identified as Henry King, the Brain Wave. In his isolation, King goes on about how he languished in a dark, miserable prison for many years, unable to touch or even marvel at the world's beauty (and especially female beauty). He admits to being the man behind the artificial disasters being triggered around the world and wonders if any of the Justice Society members know or even care to know why he picked these three cities in particular.

Later on in the narrative, Brain Wave is seen practising taking down the Justice Society using images created by his remarkable brain. A strange man in a hat and trench coat approaches and asks him if he is done playing around and can get down to business. He admits that they are, and specifically notes that through their partnership they will succeed at accomplishing their goals.

Back on Earth, Power Girl, Wildcat, and Flash arrive at the Justice Society headquarters. Wildcat is annoyed that Power Girl has been 'bouncing him around like a ping-pong ball' and isn't particularly pleased with letting her inside the main headquarters. Unimpressed with his hostility, Power Girl ignores him, which doesn't go unnoticed by Flash. He advises Wildcat to give in since they're dealing with an emergency situation. Wildcat reluctantly lets Power Girl in, admitting they got off on the wrong foot,  and even goes on to suggest that 'for a broad' she's actually pretty [cool]. Power Girl is not impressed with his sexism and slams the door in his face, stating she is 'no broad.'

On the Justice Society's computer, the trio witness what happened to their four remaining comrades. In Capetown they witness Robin crashing a dynamite truck into the hole releasing the fluorocarbon-rich gas and sealing it with an explosion. The gas continued to escape, but Robin deduced that the whole thing was an illusion. He is then attacked by mysterious men in yellow suits who turn out to be ordinary people that Robin hallucinated as enemies. Green Lantern and Doctor Fate (having woken up) reveal to Robin who he's really fighting and stop him from beating them down. Lantern and Fate then deduce that the person they're really fighting is Brain Wave.

In Seattle, the trio witness the same yellow-suited men fighting Hawkman and Doctor Mid-Nite. Mid-Nite attempts to disorient the yellow-suited men with a blackout bomb and hopes to be able to latch on to Hawkman's leg while he fights them off. Instead, he slips and falls only to be saved by Star-Spangled Kid, who earlier stopped the earthquakes with a counter-quake vibration deep inside the Earth's tectonic plates. (Give a moment to suspend my disbelief on that one). Kid is quick to realise that Hawkman and Doctor Mid-Nite were keeping an eye on him to see if he could handle himself, and offers to help them out. Kid uses Starman's cosmic rod to fend off the men in yellow suits, allowing Doctor Mid-Nite to interrogate one of them. The trio also learns that Brain Wave is the villain behind the world disasters, but are themselves not sure why he is doing what he's doing.
With this information, Power Girl, Flash, and Wildcat head to the space station Brain Wave is in using the Justice Society sky rocket.

At the space station, Brain Wave reveals his plan, which was to restore the man in the hat and trench coat to his strength. The man is revealed to be Injustice Society member Per Degaton, and asks Brain Wave how he managed to pull this off. Brain Wave reveals that he tricked the Justice Society members into active situations, thus allowing him to drain their 'will energy' in order to redistribute that power to Per Degaton himself. Before they have the time to celebrate their victory, the Power Girl busts into the space station along with Flash and Wildcat. As they fight, Flash recognises that the Brain Wave they're fighting isn't the same guy they've fought in the past. In particular, he makes note of this new Brain Wave's taller stature and strength.They are soon joined by the rest of the Justice Society members, including Robin and Star-Spangled Kid.

Reunited, the Justice Society take on both Per Degaton and Brain Wave, but neither one is easily defeated. Before they have the chance to come up with a strategy to defeat them, Brain Wave threatens to turn off the Earth's gravity in order to force it out of orbit and off into space unless the Justice Society submits to him. With such an ultimatum, the Justice Society realise they need to consider their options carefully, but there is one more problem they can't shake off: Brain Wave's new appearance. Green Lantern deduces that the key to defeating this new Brain Wave is to figure out who this new guy is. They eventually learn that Brain Wave simply tweaked his appearance in order to embody strength and power.

Without much time for further thought, the Justice Society members spring into action, with Power Girl bursting out of the space station, and pushing it away from the Earth towards the sun. With help from Doctor Fate and Green Lantern, Power Girl accomplishes her goal, and successfully sends the space station out into oblivion.

In the epilogue, the Justice Society are seen reunited at the main headquarters, celebrating their victory. Not wanting to feel like he needed the help of some 'youngsters,' Wildcat comments that maybe the Justice Society's new young members could learn a thing or two from the 'older, more experienced pros.' Power Girl is quick to correct him on the fact that it was herself that put out the volcano in Peking, that it was Star-Spangled Kid that stopped the Seattle earthquakes, and Robin who stopped the illusionary geyser. The other Justice Society members laugh while Wildcat grunts over the 'youngers' lack of respect.

Review: So I spent a great amount of quality time this month with the pre-Crisis Power Girl, reading most (if not all) of her All-Star Comics appearances prior to the arrival of the Huntress. And OH MY GOD! Do I miss this Power Girl so much. It was even painful reading these earlier Bronze Age comics knowing what we did lose with the character in the New 52, so much that it literally brought me to tears. It was that serious. I think somewhere between 01 October to today, I cried an ocean over her loss in the New 52, because yes, it is a big damn deal to me who Power Girl really is.

Starting with the her first two appearances in the comics, we learn right away who Power Girl is. On the first page of her first appearance alone, we learn that Kara is determined to be a hero of her own standing, and with that, she brings an attitude that startles the older Justice Society members, namely Wildcat who's more conservative in the way he views women, and even young people. Kara is additionally established as intelligent, investigative, meticulous, and proactive. Without seeking her cousin's permission, if there is trouble in the world, Power Girl goes out and uses her powers to help out in an emergency situation. She also wastes no time introducing herself to both the Flash and Wildcat while making it known that she will not be treated as an extension of her cousin. She especially makes it clear to Wildcat in particular that no job is ever 'just a man's job,' nor should she ever be treated differently for being a woman. Lastly, she reveals to the Flash and Wildcat what is really going on with the artificial disasters being triggered around the world, specifically noting that they're decoys to wear out the Justice Society and that the culprit behind this latest plot is none other than Brain Wave.

Now, how bloody awesome is that? First two pages of Power Girl in the entire history of her character, and she lays down her entire foundation at the stomp of her foot (literally and figuratively speaking). What's interesting, however, is that despite her telling the Flash and Wildcat (and even us the reader) that's she's Superman's cousin, we don't actually learn her civilian name right away. In fact, aside from one major hint as to Power Girl's identity in issue #58, we're not even immediately informed that she's actually the Earth-2 doppelgänger of the mainstream Earth-1 Supergirl, Kara Zor-El, but that's a discussion for another day.

Putting aside all of the whacky comic book science in these two issues (and believe me, there were times when it did suck me out of the story), it's interesting to me how the narrative as crafted by Gerry Conway doesn't take itself too seriously but at the same time tries to be politically relevant. For example, both Doctor Fate and Green Lantern are seen discussing the 1974 Rowland-Molina Hypothesis, which actually sets premise for the first half of narrative itself. Additionally, the two heroes also bring up the banning of aerosol sprays as a consequence of this publication by Rowland and Molina, which is also a real thing that happened back in 1976, the same year this comic was published. Most significant, however, is how Power Girl is established from her first appearance as embodying (if not representing) second wave feminism.

One of the major ways that Power Girl embodies the ideals of second wave feminism is that she is written as equal to her male comrades, and puts herself in a leadership role. She does not subordinate herself for the comfort of anyone--especially not men like Wildcat who often feels emasculated in her presence--and openly takes credit for her own accomplishments within the group. Another major way that she embodies the ideals of second wave feminism is that she is not afraid to speak her mind whenever she feels offended, nor whenever someone (especially Wildcat) tries to downplay her own contribution to the group. If she has any ideas of her own, she is quick to share them and even acts on her own gut feelings, often with success.

In contrast with the way female superheroes were depicted in the past (most notably during the Silver Age), at no time is Power Girl ever humiliated or disempowered as a way of progressing the narratives of her male comrades. She is, instead, written as a competent heroine capable of leading herself and others, and she is characterised as highly intelligent and capable of solving problems on her own. She is given agency in a narrative that she shares with (literally) ten men and is established from the go as a force to reckon with. Lastly, despite being drawn (intentionally) with a bigger bust than most heroines, Power Girl was surprisingly not drawn with a ridiculously sexualised body that put her in the male gaze. She was not drawn in any cheesecake poses that emphasised her assets, nor was she at any time presented in a way that made you think of her as a sexual object that you want to wank to.

Considering where Power Girl is these days (which is regrettably nowhere near as progressive as in the past), it is very refreshing to be reminded of the fact that Power Girl did originally get her origins in second wave feminism. It is especially refreshing to know that there was time in DC Comics history where industry professionals embraced feminism, and committed to being more inclusive of women and young girls by writing narratives about women for women. Power Girl was one such step in that direction since the debuts of Lois Lane, Selina Kyle (Catwoman), Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl).

Given all that Power Girl has had to offer since her first appearance in comics, it's a bloody shame that industry professionals have really lost their way since then. It's especially sad that instead of continuing the progressive developments that were being made with female characters during the Bronze Age, the industry has opted to bring female characters back to a place of misogyny as evidenced by the way female characters are often disempowered, dehumanised, and even wholly repurposed to service male narratives in modern superhero comics.

Next up: the origin of Power Girl's lack of a 'P' logo.


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