Saturday 31 October 2015

Supergirl Week: Revisiting The Earth-2 Power Girl

The much anticipated Supergirl television series made its smashing debut this week to sky-high ratings in both the United States and Canada. It also garnered a whopping 500K viewers in the United Kingdom when it debuted on the satellite/cable network Sky One this past Thursday.

This is tremendous success for one of DC Comics' iconic heroines that had everyone talking all week, including at my workplace and at various other public spaces that aren't typically fronted by comic book nerds like myself. The fact that Supergirl resulted in the highest rated show of the fall season led iTunes to offer the pilot episode for free download in the US, and a massive Supergirl digital comics sale on Comixology that ends on Monday.

Without question, Supergirl is one of DC's most beloved heroines and also one of the most important. Her introduction in 1959 expanded the Superman mythology by including a female Kryptonian with the same power levels as Superman, and especially introduced readers to the world of Krypton, its culture, and its people. Prior to her creation, little was known about the Kryptonians other than the fact that they were an advanced alien civilisation that existed on an exoplanet orbiting a red sun, and that they died with the destruction of their planet. Because Kal-El evacuated the planet as a newborn infant, he had no recollection of the planet of his birth or his biological parents. By contrast, his cousin, Kara Zor-El, filled in those blanks with her origin story in Action Comics #252, first published in 1959.

Through Kara's eyes, we learnt that a chunk of Krypton (later established as Argo City) did survive the destruction for a while, until a meteor shower destroyed the lead linings that protected the survivors from radiation exposure in the form of Kryptonite. During that time, Kara was born and raised in Argo City until the threat of radiation poisoning forced her father, Zor-El, to build her a ship that would send her to Earth where her cousin was already residing. Her mother even made her a suit that resembled her cousin's so that he could recognise her as one of his own, and her story established Kryptonian fabric as indestructible material on Earth. Upon her arrival to Earth, Kara chose the name 'Linda Lee' as her civilian identity and was placed in an orphanage by her cousin until she learnt how to use and control her powers.

Throughout her pre-Crisis history, Kara Zor-El's narrative would centre on her being a part of Superman's legacy while establishing a place for herself on her new world. Her story was in fact feminist in that she was given equal status to her cousin and was depicted as a fully capable heroine who took on any villain, not just ones that were unique to her gender. She also formed enduring relationships with other DC heroines, especially with Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) who became her closest friend. On that note, it was also her existence that opened doors for the creation of other spin-off heroines like Batgirls Betty Kane and Barbara Gordon, and even Wonder Girl in the form of Donna Troy. In addition to the major contributions she made to the Silver Age Earth-1 universe, Supergirl was also an enduring contribution to DC's Golden Age universe with the creation of her Earth-2 counterpart, Power Girl, in 1976.

A Different History

One of the things that really stood out about the Earth-2 Power Girl was that she wasn't any ordinary spin-off character. In huge contrast with the previous female characters of the 1960s who were mostly spun-off from existing male characters (Donna Troy being the exception), Power Girl was actually created as an Earth-2 doppelgänger of an existing female character, Kara Zor-El. While the Earth-2 Power Girl had the same physical appearance as her mainstream counterpart, and even shared the same name with a slight spelling difference (Kara Zor-L), she actually had a very different personality and fulfilled a very different role in the Golden Age Earth-2 universe.

One of the major differences between the Earth-2 Kara and her mainstream counterpart at the time was how they were born. Whereas the Earth-1 Kara was born after the destruction of Krypton (thus making her younger than Kal-El), the Earth-2 Kara was actually born at the same time that Kal-L was, thus making the two cousins the same age. She was also born on Krypton prior to its destruction and was actually rocketed off of the doomed planet as an infant herself at the same time as her cousin. However, because her ship was designed differently from Kal-L's by her father, her ship actually took decades longer to arrive on Earth and was in suspended animation during that time. By the time she arrived on Earth-2, she looked younger than her actual age.

Another major difference between the two Karas was the design of their ships that brought them to Earth, and how both women experienced Kryptonian culture. Because the Earth-1 Kara was born on Argo City and grew up there for some time before being sent to Earth, she actually got to experience Kryptonian culture first hand. She also got to know her biological parents in person. The Earth-2 Kara did not share that same luxury. Whereas the Earth-1 Kara travelled in a regular, fast-travelling spaceship devoid of any enhancements as a teenager, the Earth-2 Kara travelled in a symbioship as an infant and slowly grew-up within the confinements of her vehicle. She was also placed in suspended animation and was socialised through the use of a virtual reality programme that substituted her experiences on Krypton. It was through this virtual version of Krypton that she came to know virtual versions of her parents and was educated as a Kryptonian. All of her childhood experiences, her friends, and major life events (like going to a Kryptonian version of prom) happened within the world created by her symbioship.

By the time Kara arrived on Earth-2, she arrived as an 18-year-old looking woman and was never placed in an orphanage by her cousin when he found her. Instead, he secretly took her in and started teaching her how to use and control her powers right away. He also helped her adjust to life on Earth, though she hadn't by this point adopted a civilian identity yet. By the time Kara outed herself to assist the Justice Society of America with a catastrophic situation in All-Star Comics #58, she introduced herself as Power Girl.

A Different Identity

One of the developments that set the Earth-2 Kara apart from her Earth-1 counterpart was the identity she chose for herself. While the Earth-1 Kara proud herself in being a part of the 'Super' legacy to the point of wearing the same colours and symbol as her cousin while embarking on her own missions, the Earth-2 Kara felt very differently about that. One of the things she became aware of right away when she arrived on Earth was that women didn't have equal status on this world, and were often thought of as extensions of men in some capacity. The Earth-2 Kara decided to challenge this widely accepted notion of women's place in society by creating a name and costume that reflected her mission statement: Power Girl.

Kara chose the name 'Power Girl' because she wanted to embody female empowerment and because it was a very different name from 'Supergirl.' Whereas Supergirl would've gotten Earth's people to think of her as 'Superman's cousin' (and therefore his extension), the name 'Power Girl' would've forced them to think of her as her own independent heroine while simultaneously reinforcing the message of gender equality. The words 'Power' and 'Super' convey similar ideas about capacity, but also hold very different meanings, and neither word is valued differently from the other.

The other way the Earth-2 Kara established herself as an equal but independent hero to her cousin was by choosing a different design and colour scheme for her costume. Whereas her cousin was easily identified by his blue and red motif, the Earth-2 Kara was distinguishably identified by her white, blue, and red motif with a pinch of gold on both her cape and belt. She also had a cleavage window on her costume in place of an actual symbol, which ironically came to be identified as her own personal symbol.

When done right, the cleavage window on her costume embodied the Earth-2 Kara's idea of female emancipation and freedom of expression, including the freedom wear clothes she felt comfortable wearing without being shamed for it. Whenever other people called attention to her choice of dress, she always fought back by reinforcing her position that she only dressed for herself and how other people felt about her choices was of no concern to her. She only did what made her happy, not what made other people happy. She especially made this clear when she was once presented with a 'P' insignia (similar in design to the Superman 'S') to wear on her costume, which she quickly crushed stating that she was 'her own woman' and 'not a carbon copy' of her cousin.

The Earth-2 Kara's strong sense of identity also reflected in the way she interacted with other men and women in her life. With her male friends and family members, she always called attention to their sexist behaviour and requested that they not patronise or disrespect her in any way. She was also very vocal about wanting to be treated as an equal and to not be given any special treatment because of her gender. She also highly valued her privacy and space to the point where she found news reporters of all genders intrusive, and was not particularly fond of Andrew Vinson (her Lois Lane) at first because of that. She also took on cases that were of interest to her and stopped crimes wherever they surfaced on her new world, which made the majority of her villains male. Needless to say, she always took unique pleasure showing off how powerless they were to her whenever she captured them. As for how she identified with other women? I dare say it was the Earth-2 Kara's assertive personality and fighting style that got the attention of the Earth-2 Huntress, Helena Wayne, who became her most cherished relationship.

The Earth-2 Kara's relationship with Helena Wayne provided some interesting developments for her character. Whereas the Earth-2 Kara always presented herself as having a leader-type personality complete with a 'punch first, ask questions later' style of fighting, Helena Wayne often brought out her softer side. Whether it was fighting alongside Helena as the Huntress or having lunch with her at one of Helena's favourite restaurants, Kara was often shy around her and more susceptible to doing things differently than she normally would in her presence. This didn't mean that Kara would do everything that Helena said or validate all of Helena's thoughts and ideas, but it did mean that Helena had tremendous influence over her. Part of that was facilitated by the fact that Helena shared many of Kara's feminist views on life, and--like Kara--also established a superhero identity independent of her father and mother (Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle respectively). The other part that facilitated this enduring relationship was Helena's own attraction to Kara as a member of an amazing family that was very close to her own: Clark Kent and Lois Lane. The existing history between the Super and Bat families on Earth-2 that enabled the close friendship between Huntress and Power Girl was one way that they differed from the Batgirl and Supergirl friendship on Earth-1 which was more casual.

A Different Raison D'être 

With a different history, a different personality, and different relationships in place, the Earth-2 Kara was naturally bound to have a different existence from her Earth-1 counterpart. Whereas the Earth-1 Kara was written as a prominent member of the Superman family, the Earth-2 Kara was by contrast written as a prominent member of the Justice Society, DC's original superhero team that predated the Earth-1 Justice League. While the Earth-1 Kara's narratives were often centric to her place within the Superman mythology, the Earth-2 Kara's narratives were often centred on her inclusion into the Justice Society, and her existence within the larger context of her world. On Earth-2, she was defined less by her relationship to Superman and more by her status as a second generation hero who was now her world's Kryptonian protector.

Another major difference is the civilian identity the Earth-2 Kara eventually established for herself. Whereas the Earth-1 Kara chose the name Linda Lee (later Danvers) as her civilian identity complete with a brown wig and glasses, The Earth-2 Kara maintained her natural appearance and simply adopted the name 'Karen Starr' as her legal identity. She also established a career for herself as a computer engineer, effectively allowing her to continue her biological family's legacy in science. This was her narrative prior to the multiverse-shattering event Crisis on Infinite Earths that rebooted the DC Universe between 1985 and 1986.

Regrettably, reboots have not been kind to the Earth-2 Kara, or even her mainstream counterpart. In the Crisis reboot, the Earth-1 Supergirl was killed off in a fight against the Anti-Monitor and later retconned out of existence until her reintroduction in 2004. The Earth-2 Kara survived the Crisis, but was now without a solid existence. Her origin changed from being the Earth-2 cousin of Superman and prominent JSAer, to becoming the Atlantean granddaughter of Arion with magic-based powers. Even with this new origin, the post-Crisis Kara still struggled with her identity and place on this new world until her Earth-2 origin was reinstated in the 2006 Crisis sequel Infinite Crisis.

Even after getting her real origin back, Kara still existed as an anomaly on a world that only contained versions of the friends and family she once knew, and never her actual friends and family from Earth-2. The brief moment that she got to reunite with the Earth-2 Helena Wayne, she turned out to be a doppelgänger of the best friend she once knew, and she never hit it off with the Huntress that did exist on her new world, Helena Bertinelli. In the end, the Earth-2 Kara gained nothing from having her original memories reinstated, and had no choice but to carry on with her life as she always did post-Crisis. At best, she started her own company in the form of Starrware, which later became a major corporation and Kara herself one of her world's most influential female CEOs. Beyond that and the Justice Society, the Earth-2 Kara had nothing else going for her.

With the Flashpoint reboot four years ago, the Earth-2 Kara lost even more of her conceptual originality than when Crisis on Infinite Earths made a mess of her story nearly three decades earlier. On the new Earth-2 that emerged, Kara was still the cousin of Superman (who was still married to Lois Lane), and was still best friends with Helena Wayne. But now, she started off as her world's Supergirl and only became Power Girl when she found herself stranded on the mainstream universe, where she also met her mainstream counterpart. Ironically, the new mainstream Supergirl got a complete makeover as well, and was essentially given the post-Crisis Power Girl's story: she was now the refugee of a dead world existing on a new world she didn't really fit into. The new mainstream Supergirl was now depicted as angrier and less accepting, while the new Earth-2 Power Girl inherited the Classic Supergirl's personality. Additionally, the Earth-2 Kara was now being presented as less intelligent than before, and far less heroic than in her previous incarnation. Both developments completely missed the point of her character in the current continuity, and even robbed the mainstream Supergirl of her own conceptual originality.

In addition to Power Girl getting completely repurposed in the new DC Universe, she was also robbed of her place on Earth-2 by DC editorial when they decided to remove her from her own story to make it about a new male Kryptonian succeeding her cousin as Superman. This blatant sexism didn't go unnoticed by Power Girl fans that it hardly surprised any of us she got written as an extension of this new male character once she was brought back to Earth-2. She even had her relationship to Helena Wayne reduced and even ignored in order to develop her as a love interest for this new Superman. I dare say this new DC Universe has proven to be an even greater disservice to both Power Girl and Supergirl than the Crisis reboot, as it completely gutted their conceptual originality worse than before, and completely misrepresented both characters to a newer audience.

While the last four years has been a truly disheartening experience for me as a Power Girl fan, I do hold on to the hope that we'll eventually get back the more classic version of the character most of us knew pre-Flashpoint. The character I described throughout this post is, in my opinion, too valuable to see her cast into the fires of oblivion, especially in a real world where women are still fighting to have basic rights. She represents something far greater than what current DC editors want to develop her as, and deserves better respect than being the living embodiment of every dumb blonde joke in the English language, coupled with having her existence defined by her relationship to men. Again, both developments go against the raison d'être of her character and completely takes the power out of her name. Her relationship to Helena Wayne should also be treated as sacredly as the Lois and Clark relationship, and shouldn't be developed in ways that damage one or both women.

No comments:

Post a Comment