It certainly didn’t take long for Sterling Gates to turn the good ship “Supergirl” around and set it back on course. Only three issues into his run, he has established this comic as a worthy companion to Geoff Johns’s “Action Comics,” and demonstrated that Supergirl can work — as a concept, as a character — in this new century.
Of course it helps that the whole Superman franchise has reverted to a back-to-the-Silver-Age approach, and it was that context in which Supergirl originally worked best. It was all downhill once the feathered-hair/headband era kicked in during the late Bronze Age. After that it was all bad movie adaptations, Crisis-deaths, protoplasmic rebirths, and skanky super-assassins. Supergirl didn’t fare well for decades in the world of comics, at least not a Supergirl who was recognizable as Superman’s innocent young cousin.
Gates has shown that such a Supergirl can still work today, even if the age we live in is far from innocent. What he’s done is to establish Kara Zor-El as a good-hearted teenager first, and a superhero second. That isn’t to say that we get pages and pages of Supergirl in street clothes, though Gates has found a way to give her a civilian identity. But even when she’s in her superhero garb, she’s a young woman trying to figure out her place in the world. The question of identity is implicit in the character of Superman — is he Clark Kent dressing up as a hero, or is he a Kryptonian pretending to be Clark Kent? — but question isn’t central to the character. It is central to the character of Supergirl. And it should be, because we don’t need a younger, female copy of Superman. Her character serves a different narrative purpose, and the exploration of identity is the core of that.
After establishing her new role in the DCU in issue #34, and then answering questions about previously inconsistent characterizations in issue #35 (Sparknotes version: Kryptonite poisoning, move on), Gates shakes up Supergirl’s sense of self once again in “Supergirl” #36. In this issue, part eight of the “New Krypton” mega-serial that runs through all the Superman Family comics, Supergirl not only loses a loved one, but must deal with the escalating conflict between her Kryptonian people and her adopted home. Plus, just to give her a third reason to question her identity, another female Kryptonian leaps into action under the guise of Superwoman. There have been a few characters calling themselves “Superwoman” over the DCU decades, but this one comes along at a time when Supergirl is trying to figure out who she is, and what she’s supposed to do. Perhaps this Superwoman can help, or perhaps she’s a threat. Gates imbues the relationship with the necessary amounts of mystery and subtle menace.
Jamal Igle does nice work on the art here as well, providing a kind of classic storytelling in which characters occupy well-defined visual space. Igle isn’t a particularly flashy penciler, but he’s a really good nuts-and-bolts comic book artist. He knows how to tell a story visually, and to give weight to characters who fly through the sky. He’s a good fit for the more classic type of story Gates is telling here.
Thanks to Gates and Igle, Supergirl the character and “Supergirl” the comic are important parts of the Superman universe once again. This isn’t an innovative, revolutionary take on the comic book medium. It’s just a good comic. A good Supergirl comic. And that’s all it needs to be.