With Supergirl: Death and the Family, Sterling Gates continues the great upswing this title has been on (just, unfortunately, in time to hear that Gates is leaving the title). His initial Who is Superwoman had maybe a touch too must angst for my tastes, but Friends and Fugitives offered a nuanced spotlight on the differences between secular Supergirl and her religious friend Flamebird; Death and the Family offers some similarly complex performances, as well as a nice take on some classic Superman villains and allies.[Contains spoilers]
There's not anyone who actually believe Gates was actually going to let Supergirl's friend and mentor Lana Lang die, and as such I had found the false drama of Lana's ongoing illness somewhat dull. As well, if you ask most seasoned comics fans what villain is likely behind an illness striking Lana Lang, they'd probably get it right on the first try. To that end, there's a lot stacked against Gates to make Death and the Family succeed -- but he does. What helps this book make it? Gangbuster, Silver Banshee, and betrayal.
At a very critical moment just before the last full chapter (Supergirl #50), when we already know Lana's not dead and we already know what villain's going to pop out of the mysterious slimy cocoon, Gates changes the scene completely. The story jumps forward in time, and we're presented with the hero Gangbuster (one of my favorites, late of Kurt Busiek's Trinity) bobbing and weaving to escape killer insects. It's just the right move by Gates, and re-casts Supergirl's ultimate battle with the villainous Insect Queen into a post-apocalyptic space that's just different enough from the battle over Metropolis that we might have been expecting.
Given Cat Grant's heavy hand in Gates's Supergirl series, teaming Supergirl up with Gangbuster has just the right undertones (go look up Gangbuster, I'll wait). Again, Gangbuster is a favorite of mine as a long-time post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman fan, and Gates further makes this feel like a Superman title through the use of that character. Now if he can get Supergirl to stop by the Ace of Clubs to see Bibbo, and maybe find some way to rehabilitate Emil Hamilton, we'll be all set.
It's in this same vein that Gates pits Supergirl against long-time Superman villain Silver Banshee in two of the book's chapters. Supergirl's fight with the Banshee doesn't have the most bearing on the story, but Gates's origin and motivations for the Banshee hew fairly close to the original Byrne version, if I recall correctly, and as such there's something about the two-parter that says "classic" to me. At one point, Gates even has Supergirl banshee-fied herself, a moment both unexpected and entertaining. That is, I think, the quietly growing power of this book -- with the trappings of "New Krypton" set aside for a moment, Gates tells a believable story of a Superman-type case handled by Supergirl, and it succeeded in ringing true.
The triumph of the story, however, is when the Insect Queen suggests that Lana only befriended Supergirl through the Queen's machinations, and that Lana and Supergirl's familial relationship is false -- a notion Supergirl can't quite disbelieve. Against the backdrop of "New Krypton" villain General Sam Lane betraying his own resurrected daughter Lucy, Gates avoids a sappy sitcom resolution between Lana and Supergirl -- Supergirl expresses her distrust, Lana makes a reasonable rebuttal as to why the Insect Queen who possessed her is of course evil and not to be believed ... and ultimately, Supergirl can't accept it and flies off.
The ending is not happy, but the reader is left understanding completely how important Lana-as-family is to Supergirl and what the hero has lost. This is angst, but good angst, believable angst, and it suggests to me that Gates has indeed hit his stride on this title. Again, unfortunately, it seems the number of issues he has left here are limited, but there's at least one more trade in the offing, and Supergirl: Death and the Family has convinced me to pick it up when I hadn't been so sure just a few books ago.
[Contains full and variant covers. Printed on glossy paper.]
More reviews on the way. Thanks for reading!