Having read Supergirl: Who is Superwoman?, I'd like to nominate writer Sterling Gates for the comic book equivalent of the Nobel prize. The nomination, however, isn't for Gates' current work; though Who is Superman? is enjoyable, I nominate Gates in the spirit of current American politics -- not for his current work, but for the change his work represents and for what he might do in the future.
[Contains spoilers for Supergirl: Who is Superwoman?]
What surprised me most about Who is Superwoman? was how similar it was to Supergirl volumes past. Understanding from interviews that Gates wanted to break from the "screw up" persona that's marked DC Comics' current Supergirl, I expected a character specifically more poised and established. Instead, Gates' Supergirl remains as stubbornly headstrong, overly self-assured, and wildly emotional as she's been before; there's still the distance between Supergirl and the readers, who often shakes their head at the folly of Supergirl's actions.
Who is Supergirl? works because this Supergirl is naive, but no longer silly. Yes, this Supergirl gets so angry that she flies headfirst into an empty costume without realizing Superwoman is inside it, and yes, this Supergirl gets so mad at her mother that she bloodies her hand smashing a Kryptonian crystal, but these are actions that I can at least realistically attribute to a teenage girl. Gone are the days, first of all, of Supergirl hating Superman, and gone are the days of Supergirl in "riot grrrl" gear tarting it up in a nightclub. In comparison, Supergirl's bespectacled new Linda Lang persona is necessarily wholesome, more Clark Kent than Paris Hilton. Gates seems to realize that a "bad girl" Supergirl only reinforces the worst stereotypes of how comics portray women; better to err farther on the "nice" side, still without making Supergirl infallible.
Admittedly, I am tired of the "teenage superhero as well meaning juvenile" paradigm. It wasn't that long ago when sidekicks were precocious versions of their mentors -- Chuck Dixon's Robin, for instance, stumbled over his cape once in a while, but we ultimately knew he could handle cases just as well as Batman; today's Teen Titans, by contrast, bicker with each other about unauthorized parties in Titans Tower. An immature Supergirl isn't as interesting for me to read as the headband-wearing Supergirl of ages past who was a superhero on par with her fellows -- but then again, even that Supergirl took a while growing up in the Smallville orphanage, so maybe I'm idealizing the situation.
As far as the story, Gates' offers a cogent mystery in the identity of Superwoman. Read in conjunction with Superman: New Krypton, there's a bunch of red herrings as to who might be Superwoman, and Gates (with artist Jamal Igle) plays fast and loose with panel appearances to tease Superwoman and her secret identity in two places at once. Superwoman's identity ultimately ties directly into Supergirl's own troubles -- both are confused young women choosing poor paths in hopes of honoring their fathers -- and while Gates didn't explore this explicitly, I'm pleased to see the Superwoman mystery working on more than one level.
But, if I still had some difficulty with how Gates portrays Supergirl, I had even more trouble with how Gates portrays the people around Supergirl. Yes, I understand that the public's mistrust of Supergirl is a parallel to how normal teenagers can't catch a break, but I find it hard to believe that Metropolitans, used to Superman, hate Supergirl that much for interrupting a baseball game to stop a supervillain. Moreover, Lois Lane's reaction to Supergirl having accidentally killed Superwoman is gigantically over-the-top; it's obvious to the reader that Supergirl isn't at fault, and so the prolonged scene of Lois kicking her husband's only living relative out of their apartment instead of listening to and helping Supergirl (this, the same Lois Lane meant to have coddled the young Chris Kent not too long ago) seemed like more unnecessary drama in the life of Supergirl.
Who is Superwoman? is less perfect than I thought it would be, but it's still a marked improvement over Supergirl volumes past, and that alone is saying something important. Gates puts as Supergirl's primary focus catching bad guys, and Jamal Igle's art is clear, attractive superhero fare similar to Dan Jurgens or Jerry Ordway, without sexualizing Supergirl more than is necessary or appropriate. I wonder, frankly, whether Supergirl (or Teen Titans) is a book for me or not, but at least it's a Supergirl title I'm proud of and that has a place now in the DC Universe.
(For more on Supergirl, the Supergirl Comic Box Commentary does a nice job recapping issues collected in this book.)
[Contains full covers, introduction by Supergirl actress Helen Slater, Origins & Omens pages.]