Sterling Gates (Writer), Jamal Igle, Matthew Clark, Talent Caldwell, Fernando Dagino (Pencillers), Keith Champagne, Matthew Clark, Jan Sibal, Talent Caldwell, Raul Fernandez (Inkers), Nei Ruffino, Tom Chu (Colors), Jared K. Fletcher, Rob Leigh (Letters), Joshua Middleton (Cover Artist)
In 2004, the character of Supergirl was at a crossroads. After her death in the 1986 reality rewriting Crisis on Infinite Earths, the powers that be at DC Comics decided to make Superman the lone survivor from the planet Krypton once again. This effectively erased all other Kryptonian survivors, including Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, from existence. When Supergirl was reintroduced in 1988, she was as an entirely different concept — no longer Kryptonian, John Byrne’s Matrix existed in some form for the next fifteen years, with her own ups and downs. But in 2004, DC’s then Executive Editor Dan DiDio and writer Jeph Loeb decided to bring back Kara Zor-El. The moratorium on other Kryptonians had been lifted, and Peter David’s Supergirl series had just ended after a run that began in 1996. Kara Zor-El was reintroduced in Superman/Batman #8 and officially became Supergirl in Superman/Batman #13. This spun into her own solo series, and the book launched as a top ten book. After the initial arc, however, the series never really found it’s audience, and with sales dropping and criticism mounting, the book was on the verge of cancellation by issue 33.
That’s when DC gave the reigns to new comer Sterling Gates, who along with penciller Jamal Igle and inker Keith Champagne, would breathe new life into the book. The new team wasted no time in handling many of the criticisms of the past three years. Their first issue opens with an inflammatory Daily Planet front page, stating boldly, “Why the World Doesn’t Need a Supergirl,” complete with a very unflattering picture of an angry Supergirl. The article is written by a character familiar in name to fans of the CBS/CW show, Cat Grant. This Cat is a much different animal than the one the current TV show provides us. She’s antagonistic, and truly believes the vitriol she writes. In a way, she’s also the voice of the fans at this point, because she points out the many ways Kara had been reckless and irresponsible in the recent past, including injuring civilians and promising a dying child with cancer that she’d cure him. Her heart was in the right place, but her actions sometimes didn’t fall in line with her intent. She also provides a bit of public slut shaming in the form of calling her uniform indecent–another criticism from some fans, that the art teams kept making Supergirl’s skirt shorter and shorter.
We get our introduction to our main character with a fight with the Silver Banshee, who finds her way onto a baseball field mid-game. Kara saves lives, and finishes the fight, but not before trashing the field and drawing the ire of the angry sports fans who tell her the Planet was right about her. This is the first Kara’s heard about the article, and we get an amazing page of her taking every copy of the Daily Planet from a newsstand, including the one the shopkeep was reading. She spends the rest of the night in tears, before Superman shows up and offers her some advice: she shouldn’t try to be Supergirl all the time.
Supergirl, just like Superman, needs a secret identity so that she can have time to breathe and relax. As Kara is working to set up her new identity, by visiting the Teen Titans and Wonder Woman, we also get treated to a sub-plot of Perry White trying to hire Lana Lang to edit the business section of the paper. Lana turns him down, only to realize she’s hiding from her problems in the same way she’s telling Supergirl not to. She solves both problems by accepting the job at the Planet while introducing them to her ‘niece’ Linda.
The next two issues are part of the New Krypton arc, and not included in the Who Is Superwoman? trade, but the important things that happen in those two issues are that we get a soft retcon of Kara’s origin, we’re introduced to the mysterious Superwoman, and Kara’s father Zor-El is killed in a fight with Reactron. This results in Kara leaving behind her newly established Earth identity to join her mother on the planet New Krypton.
The crux of this collection’s arc is exactly what the title suggests, the mystery of “who is Superwoman”. We get a series of flashbacks that show Superwoman killing Agent Liberty and talking to the very anti-Kryptonian General Lane. We learn that she is “under orders”, but not truly whose side she’s on yet. We are then treated to one of my favorite sequences in the history of comics, with Kara finding solace in the warmth of the sun, using it to recharge both her strength and her emotions.
She’s met in space by Superwoman, and they enjoy a silent moment in the sun. When they return to New Krypton’s atmosphere, Kara is tasked by her mother, Alura, to hunt down Reactron and bring him to New Krypton for justice. New Krypton’s chief of security Thara Ak-Var continues to clash with Kara and Alura, but eventually relents. Kara heads to Earth, and is immediately waylaid by Superwoman. Superwoman knocks Kara out, and is about to take her back to New Krypton when she gets orders to leave her to take care of other business.
Meanwhile, Inspector Mike Henderson of the Metropolis PD Metacrimes Unit is investigating the death of Agent Liberty. In the middle of the autopsy, he is interrupted by Major Lucy Lane on orders from the President. She seizes the body, but not before the memory file from Agent Liberty’s suit finishes downloading.
Kara arrives back at the apartment she shares with Lana, just as Reactron violently attacks his ex-girlfriend. He’s interrupted not by Supergirl, but by Superwoman. We learn that she’s the reason he was able to escape after killing Zor-El. But now, she’s on orders to retrieve him and he’s having none of it. He attacks her with his power cancelling gold Kryptonite, and is surprised when it has no effect. The plot thickens as it turns out that Superwoman may not be Kryptonian, but we also know that her mask is lead lined, so maybe the rest of the uniform is as well. We find out that her orders come from General Lane, and that she has two. The first is to retrieve Reactron; the second is to make his ex-girlfriend’s death look like an accident. Kara arrives too late to save the girl, and flees before she can get caught violating the newly imposed Kryptonian ban.
Supergirl is called to meet with Inspector Henderson and Officer Broyles, who immediately tries to arrest her for being “an illegal alien.” Henderson talks him down, and Henderson shows her the evidence proving that Superwoman was Agent Liberty’s murderer. Broyles did, however, call Major Lane, to report Supergirl’s presence and Lane demands to know why Superwoman was just spotted with Reactron. We get an amazing ten page fight sequence between Reactron and Kara, where she uses her ingenuity to overcome her lack of powers. After the fight, she’s left feeling like a failure, alone with Superwoman’s cloak. However, when she examines the cloak, she gets a clue she hadn’t expected and suddenly knows who Superwoman is.
Superwoman attacks Inspector Henderson, and Supergirl rushes to the rescue. As they fight, Supergirl unmasks Superwoman, to finally reveal her identity as: Lucy Lane! Superwoman and Supergirl have a knockdown, drag out, before Reactron shows up to put the advantage squarely in Superwoman’s corner. As it looks like Superwoman and Reactron are about to put Supergirl down for the count, Inspector Henderson overcomes his injuries to put a bullet in Reactron’s faceplate. When Reactron falls, he damages one of the disks on Superwoman’s costume, which appears to injure her. As Supergirl destroys the suit, Lucy gets wracked with pain, and finally, violently, explodes.
The last issue of the arc serves as it’s epilogue. We see Kara break the news to Lois Lane, and decide to return to New Krypton to explain what happened to her mom. Lana gets a phone call that moves her own subplot forward a little. And Lois and General Lane both mourn Lucy in their own ways. General Lane does so where she fell in battle, and Lois does so by further investigating her death.
All said, Who Is Superwoman? is an excellent introduction to the character of Supergirl, and the one I most often recommend as a starting place. Gates and Igle firmly cement themselves as one of the most influential teams to ever work together on the character, showing an understanding for her that few teams ever manage. The opening salvo to their long run on the title opens with some heavy subject matter. We see how families struggle with grief, and can tend to lash out at each other because of it. We see how immigration laws and fear can affect regugess and immigrants, though like many things set up in this book, this is something we’ll see expanded even further in upcoming arcs on the title. Who is Superwoman? was recently reprinted due to overwhelming demand because of how much it influenced the TV show, so it’s easy to find, and again, I can not recommend this book enough.