Review: Supergirl Vol. 3: Sanctuary trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, August 04, 2014

Supergirl Vol. 3: Sanctuary, like Superboy Vol. 3: Lost, is a book transitioning from one creative team to the next, all the while in the throes of the "H'el on Earth" Super-title crossover, which only makes the transition that much bumpier. Comparatively, Supergirl performs better issue-by-issue than the Superboy title does, though "H'el on Earth" is rougher on the character; also the final issue by the new team is less auspicious than Superboy's, though I've still found reasons to check out the next volume.

[Review contains spoilers]

The most egregious problem in Sanctuary is that the "H'el on Earth" crossover sees Supergirl falling in love with H'el. Their relationship is fairly chaste, at least, but H'el is such a creepy guy and the evidence against him is so staggering that it requires Supergirl coming off unbelievably oblivious throughout the story.

"H'el on Earth" is a story that succeeds in beginning to integrate Superboy into the larger DC Universe, but it has the opposite effect for Supergirl; this is a "Supergirl vs." trade rather than a "Supergirl and" trade. And it's not simply that Supergirl sides with H'el instead of with Superman, which presented reasonably might have worked, but rather that she falls in love with him. One can't necessarily fault writer Mike Johnson for this (now sans Michael Green), but rather I'm guessing this was embedded in the "H'el on Earth" zeitgeist; however, the fact that it's Supergirl in love with H'el and not Superboy siding with H'el smacks of a "girls are so emotional" trope that detracts from "H'el on Earth" overall.

That said, though the "H'el on Earth" crossover doesn't distinguish itself as a whole, there's plenty to like in the Supergirl chapters. Series artist Mahmud Asrar draws them all, continuing the book's distinctively tidy, slightly animated style. It's in Supergirl that we get our best glimpse of H'el's (supposed) origin; also it's in Supergirl that the reader ventures for the first time into the bottle city of Kandor that Superman rescued in Action Comics, all well depicted by Asrar.

Sanctuary also pits Supergirl against the Flash and Wonder Woman in separate chapters, and also teams her with Power Girl. Though again Supergirl gets short shrift in "H'el" consigned to the villain role, there's plenty joy in watching these characters meet again for the first time. In the Flash issue, especially, Asrar's style is enough like Francis Manapul for this to feel like a genuine Flash story. And I appreciated that Johnson wrote against the norm by having Supergirl and Power Girl become immediate allies, instead of the usual misunderstanding and battle.

Indeed, Johnson's best issues outside "H'el on Earth" are his first and his last in this volume. The first, before "H'el" rears its head, has Supergirl fighting old enemy Simon Tycho in her new Fortress of Solitude (the titular "Sanctuary") and also cameos Silver Banshee Siobhan Smythe, the character that really made Supergirl Vol. 2: Girl in the World great. The last is that against-the-grain Power Girl chapter, in which the two Karas team up against government agents and also the machinations of Lex Luthor. In these interactions, Johnson presents Supergirl, Siobhan, and Power Girl as amusing and interesting, and it's that same spirit again that buffeted this book's second volume.

As an aside, most of the Lex Luthor material comes in a single issue by filmmaker Frank Hannah, who's been doing some work for DC in the Super-titles. Hannah has an especially good bit in revealing the incarcerated Luthor's solar-powered "mind palace," and it makes me curious to read more of Hannah's work. Mostly, however, the issue underscores just how little the reader knows about Luthor and his interactions with Superman, now a couple years into the New 52; I believe we're going to get more Luthor soon with Forever Evil, but I'd like to see someone address why Luthor is imprisoned, when he "went bad," how he got those scars on his head, and so on.

New series writer Michael Alan Nelson finishes the book, but the vibe I got from his issue left me wanting Johnson to come back. In Johnson's issue, through a series of events that I'm not sure doesn't conflict with Worlds Finest, Power Girl gets a "new" costume from Supergirl, which unfortunately turns out to be the classic "boob window" costume. Too bad, but the fact that Johnson has Power Girl get the costume from Supergirl and Supergirl's reverential "You look beautiful" help mitigate it a bit.

But in Nelson's issue, he starts an ongoing joke about how Supergirl thinks Power Girl looks "too old" for the costume, which both reverses what Johnson just established an issue ago, and also resurrects the tired "look at Power Girl's rack" meme in the New 52, when we might've hoped it died during Flashpoint. Nelson obviously goes for a comedic tone in an issue where Supergirl has to convince Sanctuary to stop attacking her, and while some moments are funny, it goes on long enough I began to get bored. Troubled at times as the Supergirl title has been in the New 52, I began to think Nelson's Supergirl maybe just wasn't for me.

What will bring me back for the next volume is that in looking at the solicitations for Supergirl Vol. 4: Out of the Past, I see it introduces one of my favorite Superman villains to the New 52. This is one I can't miss (and then after that, I'll probably go in again for Vol. 5 and the "Red Daughter of Krypton" storyline). I hope I'm pleasantly surprised, however, because at this point my expectations are tempered.

[Includes original covers, including "WTF" gatefold cover, and Mahmud Asrar layouts and sketches]

Coming up, Action Comics Vol. 4 to finish out the week.
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  1. I'm going to have to disagree with you, CE, regarding Michael Alan Nelson's issue; I thought it was not only the best issue of this volume, but also the strongest issue of the entire series to date (and I say this as someone who has really enjoyed the previous two volumes).

    Nelson came on in the middle of an (admittedly intriguing) story, but really put his own mark on it by giving the final issue a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-esque feel--Sanctuary's "voice" is basically the Heart of Gold's computer mixed with Marvin the Paranoid Android. I thought it was not only a bold move on Nelson's part, but also well-executed as well. Admittedly, maybe the humor worked for me and didn't for you (different strokes for different folks as they say), but I thought that it really distinguished this issue from what came before it and got readers excited for a new direction.

    Man, though, this was a strange collection. The first issue really should have been included in the last volume, and there were no recaps or even references to Superboy and Superman during the "H'el on Earth" issues so a casual reader would have no idea what was going on (as opposed to the first volume of Superboy which at least had a footnote directing readers to the first volume of Teen Titans). I know none of us wants another "Throne of Atlantis"-type misfire with repeated issues, but DC has got to find a better way to collect crossovers or at least acknowledge that a series is in a crossover via footnotes or recap pages or something.

    1. OK, Heart of Gold/Marvin the Paranoid Android is a pretty good simile. And it did make me laugh, especially as regards following the blue lights (though I kept hearing Picard in my head: "There are four lights!").

      I guess it just seemed to me the Supergirl title had just suddenly "gone Peter David," and yes I know there's some irony to that statement, but given that this hadn't been that kind of book so far, to me it grated a little. Also my own silly pet peeve is when a writer comes on a title and "tap dances" away their first issue, like telling the story in the villain's head instead of the hero's or otherwise stepping away from the hero while the writer works to get the character's voice; Nelson's issue where Supergirl fights her own fortress seemed like that kind of tap dancing. So, it pushed a couple different buttons for me, but as you said, to each their own.

      You're right about the need for text recap pages. I feel like DC is almost there. I didn't mind reading between volumes for the Green Lantern Third Army/First Lantern books or H'el on Earth here, but as you said, if someone's reading straight through, it'd be nice if there was some kind of guidance.

    2. What do you mean by "gone Peter David"?

    3. Nothing insulting, to be sure; I'm a great fan of many of David's works. But any David fan knows he has a tendency to get "punny," sometimes in my opinion to great effect and other times to distraction. Nelson isn't punning per se in this Supergirl issue, but Scott hit it on the nose with the Douglas Adams comparison (an author whom I also like); there was a certain irreverence to the issue, and especially in following from the title not having that irreverence, that struck me as David-sonian (or alternatively, Adams-ian).

  2. I think overall I would have been fine with Supergirl siding with H'El if they hadn't forced the romance angle. The writers didn't really earn it. They just said Supergirl was in love with H'El and never bothered to really show us that. If they had stuck with her wanting to bring Krypton back it would have been better. The romance just rubbed me the wrong way. Supergirl really did come off bad in this cross-over. She fought most of the Justice League and beat Superboy into a bloody pulp and didn't care about killing billions (even if she believed that they would never truly die since they would never really blow the planet up once they saved Krypton).

    Count me in the "I loved it" camp for Nelson's Sanctuary issue. I laughed so hard at that issue. I really hope Bedard picks up the dangling Sanctuary thread.

    I think Nelson gets an undeserved bad reputation because of the Cyborg issues but I felt he did a great job with what was an editorially mandated story. Sure, they were some dark issues but it felt like he was trying to set Supergirl up to get past her anger and hatred for all things Earth. I also just really loved the sci-fi concepts he used. I'm interested to see you your take on it will be, CE.

    I have to admit I originally loathed the whole idea of Red Daughter of Krypton but Bedard and Soule knocked it out of the park. It was a great storyline and cross-over. I was actually sad when Supergirl stopped being a Red.

    Aside from a few hiccups, I think Supergirl has been one of the more consistent titles in the New 52. Or at last most consistent title that has undergone several creative team changes in a relatively short period of time. Nelson and Bedard both built on what Green and Johnson had done while adding their own stuff. The book never feels like it's going in a completely new direction and that everything we as readers had just read was meaningless. That's how I felt about the Superboy book. It had so many different directions and writers and artists that it never really built up the momentum it needed. Only now, with Kuder as a writer and the book about to be cancelled, has it really found its footing and become a great book.

    1. Agreed; it wasn't so much Supergirl siding with H'el, which could have been handled well, but the romance, which felt to me like "she's a girl so there should be romance" -- as if Supergirl and H'el simply having a platonic partnership wasn't a possibility.

      Can't wait for both the next volume villain and Red Daughter after that; both of those are what's keeping me on the book.