Supergirl and Steel Debate the Limits of 'Free Speech'

Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me.

My buddy Mordechai suggested to me that it might be interesting to spotlight 1998's Supergirl #23 (by Peter David, Leonard Kirk and Robin Riggs), as the topic of that issue seems particularly topical nowadays. I think that's a good idea, so let's take a look.

To set things up, the concept of the Supergirl series that launched in 1996 (by Peter David and original artist, Gary Frank, who had worked with David on Incredible Hulk previously) was that a young woman named Linda Danvers in Leesburg, Virginia, was caught up in a demonic cult. She was turned into a sacrifice. The shapeshifting alien Supergirl (also known as Matrix) tried to save Linda's life but was also badly injured. The only option Matrix could think of was meld their bodies together. So now Linda gained the ability to shift herself into Supergirl. She also turned out to have gained some sort of angelic powers in the process. So anyhow, Linda (who had gone down a bad path - she was part of a group of demon worshipers, after all) now straightened her life out. She made up with her parents and became best friends again with her friend, Mattie Harcourt, who was a local doctor. Mattie had just started dating Cutter Sharpe, a local reporter who ended up becoming Supergirl's press agent. Okay, so now you know all of the players, let's see what's up with the issue.

So the local university is bringing in as a speaker an "anthropologist" who had some awfully racist ideas about African-Americans. Cutter interviews the controversial man, as well as the dean of the university (Dean Kane, wink wink nudge nudge) about why he was allowed to speak there...

Mattie is working with the local African-American student group to protest the speech and they get the superhero known as Steel to show up and say what he thinks about the situation. He thinks that they should peacefully block the racist guy from speaking...

Cutter then starts pressing Steel on this stance...

Mattie is distraught at her sort of kind of boyfriend asking these questions, but then he tells her a story about the famous Skokie, Illinois Neo-Nazi march of 1978, where a bunch of Nazis decided to have a march in a very Jewish area of Illinois (where a large portion of the population were directly connected to Holocaust survivors, either by being survivors themselves or being related to survivors). The American Civil Liberties Union famously decided to fight for the rights of the Nazis to march. Cutter basically aligns himself with the ACLU's stance. The whole "I disagree with everything you stand for, but I will fight for the right for you to say it" position. Mattie acknowledges that there could be some merit there, but notes that even though she was dating Cutter, she didn't even know he was Jewish, while she can't very well hide her race from people.

Anyhow, so the next day, Steel and his protesters are set to block the speaker from speaking when Supergirl shows up, deciding to side with Cutter's side of the equation and uses her powers to force a path for the speaker to get through...

Steel and Supergirl have a little scuffle and during the ensuing fight, a bomb goes off in the student union. The racist speaker saves the life of a black cop who was stationed there for the protest. Obviously, after the bombing, the speech is called off (for now). Anyhow, they're all hanging out with the black student group at the end of the issue when a Jewish student pops in to say that they the college's Jewish students group is set to protest an upcoming speaker invited by the black students group who is a member of the Nation of Islam. The Jewish students group don't think that he should be allowed to speak on campus because he's a bigot. The black student representative thinks that that is ridiculous and the whole thing ends with Cutter being amused at what he found to be the hypocrisy in the situation.

Obviously, Peter David wasn't planning on solving the world's issues in one issue and you certainly don't have to agree with any of the positions in the issue (it certainly seems as though Cutter is David's mouthpiece in the issue, but that might not be the case), but it's an interesting issue to look back on nonetheless.

Thanks to Mordechai for the suggestion!

If anyone else has an interesting piece of comic book history that they'd like for me to spotlight here, just drop me a line at brianc@cbr.com!

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