Review: Supergirl: Being Super trade paperback (DC Comics)

June 3, 2018

There seemed a long stretch of time without comics that were YA friendly, and the current glut of them is wonderful indeed. I appreciate them even as I recognize that for some I'm just not the target audience. I gave Supergirl: Being Super a try, however, because though I have not read anything by Mariko Tamaki before, I have very much liked Joelle Jones' art of late, and in all the concept of a seemingly Superman-less "Elseworlds" Supergirl series seemed interesting -- Kara Danvers nee Zor-El in the proverbial Superboy-of-Smallville role (though apparently Elseworlds stories aren't called "Elseworlds" any more, an exercise perhaps in hedging one's bets in case a particular alt-continuity origin really takes hold).

Ultimately I enjoyed Being Super a lot more than I thought I would. That's due in large part to the ambitious, daring amount of time Tamaki spends in this book not on superheroics and or any standard romantic or conflict-based tropes, but on positive female friendships and the foibles of adolescence. Each of this volume's four "books" are 48 pages; the sum isn't much more or less than the standard trade or graphic novel, but Tamaki uses the space to dig in, especially in the second chapter, to the mundane or at least the more emotion-based than conflict-based. That's so unheard of among DC's superhero storytelling set that I was completely engrossed. When the book inevitably comes around to a little more of what you'd expect, it's kind of unfortunate.

[Review contains spoilers]

Being Super has two or three acts to it, the first being Kara dealing with the rather normal highs and lows of turning sixteen (with mild sprinklings of super powers) and then Kara mourning the death of one of her best friends; and the second being Kara breaking into and out of a government prison, and rescuing and then having to defeat a rogue Kryptonian. Of these, the first half and change are so much stronger than the second. The cast of the first part is mainly Kara and her two friends Dolly and Jen, with no real conflict, jealousy, or angst (and also no boys or relationship troubles); instead it's just Kara negotiating her parents and trying to process not knowing her own origins while seeking guidance among her friends.

In and of itself, that seems different, braver, and more mature than standard superhero-crossed YA. But then Tamaki doubles down when Jen dies, with a sequence of twenty pages or more in which Kara mopes around, eats cereal, attends Jen's funeral, sneaks out of the house, talks to Dolly, and is essentially a normal kid trying to deal with a loss. That's fantastic superhero comics, with only the barest hint of superheroics and instead a story that seems to go where the character, and not the plot, needs to take it. Among other things, I was gripped page to page waiting to see just how long Tamaki would be able to draw this out before a supervillain was going to have to, probably contractually, finally be introduced.

That does happen, and again, I found it to be the weaker part of the book. Tamaki doesn't disguise that something's up with Kara's track coach, such that the hope was that Coach Stone wouldn't turn out to be evil scientist experimenting on Kryptonians, but indeed she is. That Kara is immediately head over heels for the imprisoned Tan-On, and that Tan-On's himself a villain within pages of his being introduced, all seemed too quick and too trite to me.

The one saving grace, I thought, was that at least Being Super turns the Supergirl mythos on its head not only in that Kara, like most renditions of Superman, doesn't remember her childhood on Krypton, but also that she's not there as Kal-El's protector and now, seemingly, the Kryptonian who arrived before her is both a new character and an antagonist. Unfortunately, by the end Superman himself does make an appearance. That dovetails this with more traditional Supergirl origins, but for me it made it lesser -- as long as Superman wasn't part of this Supergirl's arrival or motivations, I'd have been happier with Kara simply being the "Super" of this tale. Also, with Superman already active, in costume, and so on, all of the book's formerly Supergirl-centric concerns of Tan-On and Lex Luthor become then Superman's -- Kara brings them to his attention, but the buck stops with the older, wiser Superman and not with Kara any more -- and that feels something of a backward step at the end of this book.

As a take on Superman's Smallville-era origins with Supergirl in the lead, I thought one place Tamaki innovated especially well was with the Danvers. They are farmers of sorts, not scientists, more in that respect the Kents than the Danvers of recent TV and comics portrayal. But Tamaki makes them wonderfully, uniquely weird, especially Kara's father, who believes birthdays are a corporate conspiracy, digs for gold in his barn, and teases his daughter good-naturedly about her pimples. Jones' initial scene of the outsized Danvers set against a stuffed-to-the-gills dining room with Kara in the middle is a great visual representation of how Kara's begun to outgrow her young life.

Jones indeed is very strong in the beginning, rendering well (unsurprisingly) three very different-looking teenagers, and also bringing visual interest to a variety of scenes of people just standing around talking. The amount of detail in Jones' backgrounds is impressive -- see everything tucked in the nooks and crannies of the dining room, or Kara's bathroom, or Kara or Dolly's bedrooms. In keeping with my general impressions of the book, I thought some of this detail went away and there were too many big, plain panels in the final fight scenes, but overall Being Super did nothing to damper my enthusiasm for what Jones' Catwoman series is going to look like.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Supergirl: Being Super

Supergirl: Being Super struck me as very much akin to DC's Earth One graphic novels; those have not been uniformly Black Label "mature," and certainly the amount of character-introspection Being Super offers seems in line with Earth One's directives. (What negates this, of course, is Being Super's final pages cameo, but Multiversity notwithstanding, I think it's probably about time to give up on Earth One having any sort of inter-series continuity.) That this particular book seems marketed to a younger set should not, in my opinion, give you pause; I found this a refreshing change of pace that offered much (if not totally all) of what I wanted from a Supergirl Elseworlds story.

[Includes original covers, character sketches and unpublished cover]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Supergirl: Being Super
Author Rating
4 (scale of 1 to 5)

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