The Modern Supergirl: What Makes America Today

Man of Steel, John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths take on Supermanwith its trimming away of Silver Age sci-fi elements; changing of Lex Luthor into a greedy, corporate businessman; and strong emphasis on Kal-El’s human persona, Clark Kent—is now considered one of the most highly influential runs on the character of all time. Some readings note xenophobia as an equally significant element alongside these enduring changes to the character’s legacy. The move toward making Superman an all-American hero was a reflective characteristic of the time of Man of Steel’s publishing, which saw the United States at the peak of the Cold War with Russia. Americans found themselves highly paranoid of foreigners and this extended to the changes made to Superman’s origin, which saw him born as his Kryptonian rocket opened up on Earth and raised by Methodist farmers from Kansas.

Man of Steel by John Byrne
Man of Steel by John Byrne

Taken at face value, this seems to go against proudly touted American values of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” no matter how patriotic the imagery of Byrne’s run. Within the glorification of the United States came the first negative depiction of Krypton, which turned from Joe Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Canaan-like image to a dystopia doomed to hubris-fueled failure. In ignorance of the immigrant culture that formed Superman and with blind insistence on making the character as American (read: white, Christian, insulated) as possible, Byrne and those that followed him erased much of what made the character significant in the first place.

Reversal of this paradigm has crept up slowly in recent years. Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ run on New 52 Action Comics put Superman back into the blue collar world, with a t-shirt and boots to match, as the character discovered his origins. Gene Luen Yang—well-regarded for his graphic novel American Born Chinese, which is all about being a first generation American—had a recent crack on the Superman title with John Romita, Jr. But some still argue that Superman has often failed to represent what life looks like for the average first generation American or immigrant today.

However, I posit that that may be because readers are looking to the wrong character. That there may be better definition elsewhere of what people see today in a world that is rife with conflict and inequality, but is also seeing a rise in previously underrepresented groups, such as women and queer people. Could it be time for a character similar to Superman, but different enough, to better define 21st century America and the immigrant struggle? Could that character be, even, female?

Because Supergirl #1 by Steve Orlando and Brian Ching has already defined this new run as an antithesis to everything that Byrne got wrong.
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A word that Orlando has used to describe Supergirl, Kara Danvers, in his run is “outsider.” In American terms, this brings Kara closer to Superman’s original immigrant roots, far from the well-adjusted Midwestern life her cousin enjoyed in the same canon. And while many previous Supergirl stories involve the character recently coming to Earth and learning how to adapt to her new planet, Orlando and Ching’s Supergirl #1 certainly has a number of strong immigrant-related aspects not present in those past books.

In Supergirl #1, language and culture play significant roles in marking the difference between Kara’s first 16 years in globalized Krypton and her new life in America-based Earth. Although she speaks English fluently, we are told from cutting gossip in her school lunchroom that she has a strong accent to the point where her classmates have difficulty understanding her. Her parents—more like a host mother and father in the comic rather than the adopted parent roles in the television show—attempt to bridge the gap by learning Kryptonian, but their accents impede the pronunciation and meaning of their words as well. Then there’s the concept of food and primitive Earth technology, both of which Kara regard with utter confusion. John Byrne created a story about an alien as “American” as one could get. Orlando and Ching are creating a story about a naturalizing refugee.

It’s little wonder that Kara lacks friends at this point, and her loneliness is palpable. Although motifs such as love, hope, and goodness are the primary concepts associated with Supergirl and the Superfamily, loneliness is also persistent theme—the destruction of a whole planet and society certainly leaves its few survivors in a terrible state. This was something lost when Byrne changed Krypton’s nature in his run and the implication that its end was deserved carries through in DEO leader Cameron Chase’s lecture to Supergirl in Supergirl #1.

Supergirl #1 by Steve Orlando and Brian Ching
Supergirl #1 by Steve Orlando and Brian Ching

This one panel presents a direct counterargument to the morality issue of Byrne’s Superman’s xenophobia. No matter how foolish a people’s actions, a culture or a nation means more than what could be said for each individual raised inside of it. While Krypton to Kal represents a world he never knew, a disaster that he escaped, to Kara it will always be her lost home, the place that raised her with belonging and success.

Even without the context of other Supergirl comics or the television show, Kara in Orlando and Ching’s issue is a likeable character. However, while compassion for her is easy, within that comes a lengthier lesson that we must extend into our lives. Because Krypton is not a concept without real world significance. To Jews, the place of belonging and success—”the land of milk and honey”—exists, literally or symbolically, in Canaan, as described in the Torah. To refugees around the world today, their Argo City is Aleppo or Baghdad or Kiev. Kara cannot go home and neither can the millions of refugees. But like how Jews found belonging and success in America, home can still define one’s person as they build new lives in new places.

There is something to be said about the importance of classics—after all, Supergirl #1 homages Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman on its first page. However, getting to the true core of characters like Supergirl doesn’t necessarily mean trimming the fat, as Byrne did for Superman. Sometimes it means getting over the past and into a more compassionate present, looking into a current outsider’s perspective through an older character’s eyes.

Ray Sonne

Ray Sonne

A comics reader since the first Raimi-directed Spider-Man movie, Ray now works as a copywriter. When not writing or training in Krav Maga, she likes to expand her queer comics knowledge and talk with fellow nerds on twitter @RaySonne.

3 thoughts on “The Modern Supergirl: What Makes America Today

  1. I recently read Byrne’s Man of Steel run, and not being a reader of golden or silver age Superman, I did not pick up on the changes he made to the origin. I’m glad I came across this article, and will have to go back now and find some earlier Superman stories to compare. I want to re-read Mark Waid’s Birthright and see how it compares as well.

  2. Read the first Superwoman issue and wasn’t that into it. Haven’t checked out New Super-Man yet. Thinking of picking them up in trade, though!

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