Under the guidance of the creative team of writer Judd Winick and artist Sami Basri, the titular heroine of DC Comics’ “Power Girl” has gone toe-to-toe with some of the universe’s nastiest and most outrageous villains, from Max Lord to magical dinosaurs. This summer, however, fill-in writer Matt Sturges pits Karen Starr’s super powered alter ego against her greatest foes yet: rabid fans at a Power Girl convention!
Sturges, best known for his work with Bill Willingham on “Jack of Fables” and “JSA” as well as Vertigo’s ongoing “House of Mystery” series, is stepping onboard “Power Girl” for two issues starting this July. With Basri providing the art and covers, Sturges spoke to CBR about his two-issue arc, entitled “Girl Power,” his approach to writing his favorite super heroine and feminism in the DCU!
CBR News: Matt, July sees you and Sami Basri teaming up on “Power Girl” #26. Will you be writing more issues of the series beyond that?
Matthew Sturges: It’s actually two issues, so it’s twice the fun! For the time being, I’m just doing the two issues. I love Power Girl; she’s always been one of my favorite characters in the DCU. Some might say she’s been my favorite character in the DCU. I love her personality so much, she’s just sort of brash and brassy. There’s not another character really quite like her and writing her has always come really naturally to me. It’s always a good time to do Power Girl.
Your story takes place at a Power Girl Convention. Is this you getting some of your PG fandom out there?
[Laughs] Maybe so! The image occurred to me of a bunch of people running around dressed as Power Girl. I think when you are at conventions, especially San Diego, you tend to see a lot of Power Girls — and it’s a look that not everyone can pull off. It requires a certain body-type in order to be convincing. The Power Girl costume leave zero to the imagination! The whole sexual politics of Power Girl is something that’s kind of interesting, so that’s kind of where the idea came from: seeing all these gals at conventions running around in Power Girl costumes and thinking about who those people were. If you had a convention in the DCU that was focused on Power Girl, what would it be like and what would happen? How would they get Power Girl to actually show up at it and what chaos would ensue when she did?
Why would people in the DCU have conventions about heroes (like Power Girl) who actually exist in their world?
My idea has always been that superheroes are sort of the celebrities of the DCU, in the way we look at movie stars or the British look at the Royal family. I’ve always envisioned there are tabloids devoted to the comings and goings of superheroes and trying to figure out who they really are and wanted to work that concept into comics. I’ve always been interested in subverting genres and doing meta-commentary on them. This seemed like a good way to do it. I mean, when you think about the DCU and how it functions — and the Marvel universe in the same way — the rules and physics of social existence are significantly different from our world. So you have to plot the crossovers with how we act and how people in that world act and find your metaphors. Dealing with a world where things are significantly different from ours gives you the opportunities to create situations you can’t have in our world. Moving beyond just bad guys showing up and people fighting, it’s trying to make a comment on who we are as people and to show this through the lens of this weird alternate reality that’s been created and molded over seventy years.
Because Power Girl, at least in Judd Winick’s current run, as well as the previous one by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Amanda Connor, is an comedic and off-beat character, did you feel her comic would be an especially good place to explore those meta ideas, rather than with established heroes like Superman or Batman?
Absolutely. The thing about Power Girl is that she’s a character that hasn’t been around as long as those characters and isn’t as iconic as those characters. She is herself a comment on superheroes because she’s this alternate version of Supergirl. The fact that her personality is a little more aggressive and a little brasher gives you a lot of comedic opportunities and certainly that’s something that I always play into. It’s fun to watch her get annoyed by the things that are going on around her. She’s not the most patient person and she doesn’t have time for a bunch of crap.
For me, the best thing to do with Power Girl is put her in a situation where she’s incredibly annoyed and watch her react. And I want to make comics that are fun and let the reader have a good time; when you are doing a fill-in it’s especially important because you have to get in and get out quickly. You don’t have the luxury of spinning some big cosmic tale. You have to get in, say something and leave. Sometimes a lighter tone makes that easier.
So, what can you tell us about your Power Girl Con story?
Essentially, Power Girl shows up at a convention she’s been talked into appearing at. The reason she’s agreed to come is she decided she wants to take advantage of this captive audience of women to talk to them about empowerment. The whole issue is a story about female empowerment. People might say, “What does this guy know about female empowerment?” I guess the answer is not as much as maybe a woman writing the same book, but at the same time it’s a subject that deserves to be talked about. I think the more we talk about these kinds of things, the better off we’ll be. Even if someone says, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about; to be empowered as a woman is X,” then I’ve still done my job because I started a conversation.
It’s also a story that could appeal to younger readers. You could take an issue of this comic and hand it to a girl who was eleven or twelve years old and they could read it and get something out of it, without having to know anything about Power Girl or the DCU. Make it a gateway drug in a sense, without being condescending. The basic story appears to be about a rabid fan of Power Girl who wants to know everything about her and is actually writing a Master’s thesis on Power Girl and her powers. She’s done all the comparisons and has decided Power Girl is the most powerful woman in the world. But then you find out her motives are a lot more sinister and she’s taken her admiration for Power Girl to a level that is clearly unhealthy. Also, this issue takes place in the zero gravity of outer space, which will be fun, though I’m sure artist Sami Basri is going to miserable. My apologies to Sami that you have to draw the same people floating a room for twenty pages — best of luck with that!
Where were you first exposed to Power Girl? She’s not normally a character people point to when listing their favorite DCU superheroes.
You’re right. I think my first exposure to her was in Geoff John’s “JSA,” which is a book I really enjoyed. Geoff is someone who has had a clear understanding of the character, who made the character his own for a really long time and did a really good job in the four issue “JSA Classified” about her origins. That portrait of the character has always stuck with me. He really humanized her and showed this vulnerable side, so that’s really where my love for her started. It occurred to me that I’ve been writing the character for two years, so I guess I’ve also made some minimal impact on who the character is and how she is to be viewed.
During the time you’ve been writing her, have you been able to consciously see Power Girl change?
I think so. One of the things I wanted to do was open her up a little bit as a person. She is often in this role of leadership and I think she sees herself as someone who has to be really tough and really strong, often to the detriment of her own relationships. That’s something I played with a lot. Also, she’s seen as this Marilyn Monroe in spandex and there’s a lot of attention paid to her chest. I think she’s very cognizant of that and it makes her a little standoffish. That’s something I’ve been very careful about. If you notice, in “JSA” and “JSA All-Stars” I’ve never, ever once mentioned her breasts. It’s a subject I don’t want to get into. I don’t think it’s funny. This issue is the culmination of that because she’s decided to open up to these young women and tell them what she thinks it means to have power. The title of the issue is “Girl Power,” so that’s what it’s all about.
That’s interesting, as with Power Girl you have this dichotomy of her being a feminist but also being sort of a sex object.
That’s the big inner conflict to Power Girl, isn’t it? She looks like how she looks. She certainly makes no attempt to hide how she looks. I think that is a legitimate conflict a lot of women have. Again, this is me talking from a man’s perspective. I can only talk about my observations and not my experiences. But this desire to want to be beautiful and attractive but at the same time be taken seriously as a person irrespective of that, that’s something that men don’t have to deal with as much. I always try to play her as a real person. In the DCU the notion of a woman dressing in tight clothes and jumping around and punching people has a different meaning within its own invented culture than if someone was doing that in the real world. We look at that and we say there’s obviously selling of sex here, metaphorically speaking. But if you look at how society functions in the DCU, people don’t see it that way. There’s always that dichotomy of a woman who obviously wants to be taken serious but at the same time dresses in this extravagant, almost outlandish way given her figure. I think that’s got to be a source of conflict for that character. But at the same time it’s something I’ve shied away from because I don’t want to get involved in gender politics.
I don’t know, it sounds like you could write your own Master’s thesis on Power Girl!
[Laughs] Maybe I could! I try to be sensitive to that stuff. It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially since I have daughters. I want my daughters to be raised in a world that respects women and gives them the opportunity to be who they are without trying to pigeonhole them. Power Girl embodies that. She doesn’t allow herself to be pigeonholed as a sex object or a stone bitch. It’s the same problem Hillary Clinton had when she was running for President; there’s this weird cognitive dissidence between her perception as a woman and her perception as a politician. When you see a woman being very forceful or aggressive it’s perceived differently than if a man is forceful and aggressive. So there are parallels. Anything I can do to help soften that dissonance is a positive.
This story is also about fandom. On a personal and professional level, what has been your experience with conventions?
I’ve been to a few, probably not as many as my peers as it is expensive and I have kids. There are certain conventions that hit this sweet spot of not too big, not too little — the Baby Bear porridge of conventions! Those are my favorite, things like Emerald City and Heroes Con, where you can relax and spend time talking to people, as opposed to San Diego where its this huge, enormous event but lacks the intimacy of other shows. But I really enjoy going to conventions. Comic book creators spend the vast majority of their time in a room by themselves typing or drawing. The opportunity to get out and connect with human beings who are reading your books is really good and sometimes the reactions are different from you expect. You might think that, because of the way people talk about it online that’s how everyone feels about this book. Then you’ll meet someone at a convention who will have every issue and say, “This is my favorite book — I love it!” That reinforces your own feelings about your ego and insecurities that inevitably develop in your writing life!
How do you feel about the explosion of convention attendance in recent years?
I think the best part about it is, the demographics have changed a lot. You see a lot more women at these things than you used to. And that’s really great! A lot of things I write, like “House of Mystery,” are very girl-friendly, and intentionally so. Seeing girl fans getting out there and having their own perspective on fandom and on the community and doing all the costumes — there’s a little bit in this issue about cosplay and what it means to people — but I tried to take these convention-goers seriously and not just score cheap laughs off of them. You have this big community of people who, when I was a kid, would have been total outcasts. Now you see young people in their 20s who grew up in a world where being geek was totally cool and totally OK. They are more confident and self-possessed than my peers and I were at that age, because we thought what we were doing was sort of weird and offbeat. I don’t get that sense anymore. I think it’s a really positive change and it’s a pleasant environment for me to be in.
Does this mean we’ll see you spying on convention-goers at this year’s San Diego Convention for future “Power Girl” material?
[Laughs] I don’t know! I try to make a beeline for my table and sit and sign things and then run away since I’m not a crowd person. I like to hold court at panels! I’m really good at that part, but crowds freak me out, so I try to stay as low profile as possible.
So, is there a little bit of Matt coming out in “Power Girl?”
Maybe so! There’s always that slight discomfort being at conventions because you never know what you are going to get. Ninety-nine percent of fans are wonderful and gracious and made you glad you showed up. But there’s always that one guy who wants to tell you his theory on the Lantern emotional spectrum that is forty-five minutes long and has diagrams! But again, that’s just a small part of the experience.
Any favorite Power Girl fan you made up for these two issues?
I saw the cover when it was solicited, and on the cover, which is gorgeous, Sami Basri drew this adorable little ten-year-old girl on his own accord. I thought that was the cutest thing I ever saw, so I injected her into the story. She’s my absolute favorite. She has this subplot going on where she has this weird magical belief that if she touches Power Girl she can absorb her powers! [Laughs] So she has a whole subplot that really makes the issue for me and it has a surprise ending!
How does writing Power Girl differ from your other DC superhero work like “Shadowpact” or “Blue Beetle?”
That’s a good question; in my mind they are all real people, so they are all individuals. To me, it’s like saying how your kids differ from each other. I see them as completely separate. But one of the places where you can draw a line from writing “Power Girl” and writing “Blue Beetle” is that they are predominately optimistic characters. Even though Power Girl can be difficult, she’s ultimately a powerful, optimistic symbol, as is Jaime as Blue Beetle. Whereas Jack Horner in “Jack of Fables” is a cynical character. So when you’re writing characters like that you are writing different aims and motivations. I guess you could say there are some similarities there.
Besides these two issues, what else do you have in the works?
There is an issue of “The Spirit” that I wrote that comes out next month. It was drawn by Victor Ibanez, who did a great job and really captured the story I wanted to tell. I don’t know why I keep getting called up for these fill-ins lately, but its fun to do after doing fifty issues of “Jack of Fables” and forty issues of “House of Mystery” — and not so many of “JSA All-Stars,” not necessarily by choice! [Laughs] I also got to do the “Doctor Who” miniseries for IDW, which was a big labor of love. I have a creator-owned series that is going to be announced at San Diego. So it’s that whole, “I got a cool new thing, but I can’t say anything about it!” I’m sure I’ll do more stuff in the DCU too. We’ll see.
Talking about “JSA,” one of your biggest collaborators in comics is Bill Willingham. Now, the two of you and “iZombie” writer Chris Roberson have mentioned the group Clockwork Storybook before — for those who don’t know, what is Clockwork Storybook?
It was a secret cabal of villains bent on taking over the world which met with moderate success — we’ve taken over the World Bank, but other than that we haven’t done much!
No, it was a writing group Bill Willingham started in 1998. Chris Roberson and I actually go back further, we were best friends in college. He was the guy who turned me onto comic books in the first place, so I owe my entire career to him and also to Bill who helped me get my first work. There were three of us and a guy named Mark Finn — who is a prominent Robert E. Howard scholar, of all things. The goal was to become better writers. It was rigorous because we had to write something every week and we would churn out pages of prose and then rake each other the coals. It was like, “Well this is OK, but this part sucked!” It was no holds barred, so it was a great crash course in becoming a better writer and may have had something to do with Roberson and my ultimate success. I tell people when they ask, “How do I get into writing comics?” to start a writing group and really rake each other over the coals. There’s this perception that if you want to write something you just sit down and write it, but it doesn’t work that way. The rule of thumb is that you have five hundred thousand words of garbage before you get to the good stuff, so start now and the five hundred thousand words will come quicker.
Finally, one of your stated goals for these issues is to appeal to younger readers. Does this mean you are going to have your daughters read it?
Yeah! I’ll stand at the door of their elementary school and hand out copies saying, “Hey, comics! Kids, comics!” [Laughs] But I should iterate that just because it’s all-readers friendly doesn’t mean grown-ups won’t like it. It just means I didn’t put in any overt bloodshed or nastiness into the pages. I think when you are writing for all-ages you still need to write intelligently. You don’t want to write down to anybody, you just have to be careful about the material you present.
“Power Girl” issue #26 hits stores July 20