Review: Supergirl: Identity trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 10, 2008

To be sure, Supergirl: Identity is a pretty twisted little book, as I think only the mind of Joe Kelly could create.

Kelly gets the unenviable job of writing a character that, in the short life of this incarnation, has been nearly effectively ruined by other equally great writers with the best of intentions. In an effort to make Supergirl, the paragon of DC Comics virtue, both relevant to modern readers and yet inoffensive to DC Comics stalwarts, Jeph Loeb and Greg Rucka wrote a Supergirl who smokes, drinks, and generally avoids super-heroics, who can at the same time blame all her bad behavior on a mysterious dark side inherited from trouble on Krypton. The result was an apologist's Supergirl, a kind of Lindsay Lohan of the superhero scene, that appealed to almost none.

Enter Joe Kelly. Over the eleven issues collected in Supergirl: Identity, Kelly quite effectively breaks down this unworkable Supergirl character and then builds her back up, such that the next writer might start fresh free of the well-meaning Supergirl wreckage. Over the first few issues, Supergirl proceeds to fail in about every aspect of her life, leading her to "hit bottom"; from there, the new Supergirl fights her Golden Age counterpart in a sequence that's supposed to make us root for the new character and integrate her into modern reader's hearts. The tricks Kelly uses are pretty much textbook rebuild-a-new-character writing tropes, but this start-all-over-again approach was likely what was necessary given the unusable state Supergirl was in.

To be sure, Kelly uses about every "teen girl drama" cliche he can find in order to make his way through this story. Supergirl's team-up with the Outsiders is the best of the bunch, as Supergirl is faced with an Outsiders-style moral dilemma that she just can't work around. The preceding story, however, has Supergirl going to high school, only to fall in with the popular kids and then feel bad about teasing another girl; the following story has Supergirl falling in love with the Titan Power Boy, only to have him turn out to be a controlling stalker who beats her. The brushstrokes of "special episode of Blossom" here are especially thick.

Two things redeem this trade, and the first is my sense that Kelly understands the cliches he's using, and uses them almost ironically; in short, Supergirl: Identity is just so wrong, it's right. Much of the book turns on the new Captain Boomerang being in love with Supergirl, despite that he out-ages her, a fact Kelly reminds us, almost gleefully, at nearly every turn. In addition to Supergirl's clubbing, carousing, and other "bad super-hero" activity, the whole thing is richly perverse, with Kelly intent at every turn on making us think, "I can't believe Supergirl did that." In the right frame of mind, it's a book that's shockingly satisfying.

Let me spoil the other thing that makes this trade, and that's the gigantic Final Crisis tie that gets dropped in with a thud at the end. I'm under no illusions that any of this will actually matter come Final Crisis time; like the various OMAC attacks before Infinite Crisis, the Final Crisis material here is all character cameos and vague double-speak that could refer to anything when Final Crisis finally happens. At the same time, I'm still getting a kick out of seeing Crisis on Infinite Earths refugees stomping around the DC Universe proper, and at least the Final Crisis tie gives this book more relevance than, say, the most recent Catwoman trades that I wasn't as fond of.

[Contains full covers.]

So if you don't mind a non-traditional, perhaps tongue-in-cheek take on Supergirl, then Identity might be worth picking up, at least for the completists among us. The next team coming on Supergirl includes Kelley Puckett, who's work on Batgirl was bar none, and my guess is that'll be when this newest incarnation of Supergirl finally gets on track.

Thanks for reading!
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