I have a history with Tom King’s books. That history is that I don’t much like them at all. I feel like King tries too hard to write smart books, that he often veers too far into it. He tries to set up mysteries in the laziest way possible by just omitting key information from the reader and revealing that in a later issue as something we should have known all along. King likes to play within formalist settings and likes a bit too much to tell stories a bit out of order to draw out dramatic tension. I was notably nonplussed when DC announced King would be writing Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, and in issue #1, my fears have already been realized.
Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow #1
Clayton Cowles (letters), Bilquis Evely (art and cover), Tom King (writer), Mat Lopes (colors and cover)
June 15, 2021
This review contains spoilers for Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow #1.
My biggest worry with Tom King taking over as the writer for a Supergirl series was that King would struggle with writing the character’s core. All too often, he eschews a character’s history to twist them into the character he needs for a particular story. I am sad to say that that remains true in this series as well. Since her reintroduction as Superman’s cousin in 2004, Supergirl has struggled with middle-aged white men writing her with the mindset of “young girls are confusing to me because I wasn’t one, and they all seem angry so that’s all I will write for Supergirl.” It happened with Jeph Loeb. It happened with Joe Kelly. It happened with Michael Green and Mike Johnson. It is a persistent pattern that has befuddled fans of the character for nearly two decades, and now here we are. Just a year removed from Supergirl getting infected by the Batman Who Laugh’s Jokerification, we have another go at rowdy and angry Supergirl.
Her attitude isn’t the only problem with Tom King’s take on Supergirl, though. The preview pages for this issue that were our first glimpse into what King was going to do with her establish that this Supergirl is freshly 21 and ready and willing to get plastered. I have no problems with young women getting drunk, lord knows I did when I was young. The problem I have is King tossing continuity on its rear just to have this moment. In Supergirl: Rebirth #1, no direct age is given, but the book does establish that Supergirl is a high school student in her secret identity of Kara Danvers. Her colleague in Cat Grant’s internship program is a junior in high school, meaning likely 16 or 17 years old. So when I read the preview pages, it came as a shock to me that suddenly she was 21 years old, just so she could get drunk. This is weird, since most countries have a lower drinking age than 21, and Kara could easily go to any of those at a moment’s notice, but no, King needed her to be of drinking age in America dammit. Beyond that, it is even more pointless since she’s on an alien planet with a red sun, so wouldn’t be beholden to American laws or even Earth laws. It is a bizarre choice that makes drastic changes to a character’s established canon for no reason at all. Moving beyond the reservations that were in place the moment that I saw the preview pages, King to establishes on the second page that during this eight-issue miniseries, Kara Zor-El is going to kill a man. King is framing the story a bit out of order to establish dramatic stakes, and set the reader up for some big reveal that will come, I’m sure. But as of right now, in the text we’re given, we have to expect that Supergirl will kill someone. This, after King spends a good bit of dialogue establishing that that’s something Kara would never do because it will be all the more shocking when she does. Of course, by the end of the issue, he gives her a reason to do that vastly out-of-character thing. But more on that later. I have looked at bizarre changes and out-of-character actions, but let’s talk about the story a bit. This is not a Supergirl story. Not really. That much is clear from the first page, with the narration being King’s OC – Ruthye. Ruthye is searching for the cowardly killer of her father, Klem, offering a reward to the most ruthless bounty hunter she can find. If this setup sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost beat for beat the plot of Charles Portis’s True Grit, a novel that has been twice adapted, most recently in 2010 by the Coen brothers. King’s story does stray a little bit from Portis’s but not enough to make it distinct.
In fact, a look at the first page of Portis’s novel compared to the first page of King’s comic book, and the similarities are not only striking but blatantly so. Both share the same narrative structure, down to a well-worded girl of young age telling the story of the murder of her father by a liar and an outlaw. The tone and style are almost identical, and even major plot-relevant portions are lifted. “My dear father was unarmed.” narrates Ruthye. “My father was not armed at that time.” writes Mattie. It’s likely that many comic readers have never read the novel, I know that I was among them. It’s even possible that most never saw the recent film. But the comparisons are so close that it feels impossible to ignore.
Beyond the basic setup, other things make it almost too blatant of an homage. Supergirl is at first an unwilling ally to young Ruthye, saying that she has other obligations to meet and that it’s too dangerous a task for such a young girl. In another scene, a determined Ruthye tries to convince a violently hungover Supergirl to help her, much like Mattie Ross did with Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Ruthye crosses a vast expanse of water to follow Supergirl, much like Mattie did with Rooster.
The differences in the stories are also notable but not vast. Supergirl is nicer and less rough than Rooster Cogburn; she winds up being a mix of both Cogburn and LaBeouf to make the story a little more central to her. There is a more direct Cogburn analog in the story in the bounty hunter that Ruthye first approaches, who tries to rob her of the payment before getting into a barfight with Supergirl. That bounty hunter winds up betraying both of them to the killer Klem, and much like Tom Chaney stole Mattie Ross’s dad’s horse, Klem steals Supergirl’s spaceship, leaving both girls and Krypto in a bad way at the end of the issue. This brings me to what angers me the most about this book that did not need to be a Supergirl book. Tom King could have told this story without using Supergirl, indeed without using any DC characters. Without the recognizable superhero, it might not sell as well, but it would be a better story. It is a western mixed with fantasy set in space, and it would have done just fine solely on King’s name. But by making it a story with DC characters, one within the mainline continuity (this is not a Black Label book), King can make drastic and lasting impacts on beloved characters. That much is true at the end of the issue. While trying to protect his owner, Krypto takes an arrow to the neck. We do not have direct confirmation that Krypto is dead, but Ruthye’s narrative captions proclaim Klem to be a “killer of dogs” as he flies away.Now, if Tom King actually killed the dog? This story skyrockets to the top of my least favorite stories list. Krypto might turn out to be fine. But I have to meet the story where it is, and right now, that seems highly unlikely. Killing a dog or a kid is a cheap narrative trick to get audiences’ emotions up. While it usually works (it certainly made me angry here), it is lazy, manufactured emotion instead of earned emotion.
Problems with the story aside, Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow is an artistic masterpiece from Evely and Lopes. The two worked beautifully together on The Dreaming and they continue to do so here. Every page is stunning both in linework and color and would be an incredible art book. If there were any way to get this book with just pictures and not the script that King provided? I’d buy it in an instant.
But with the script and plot as is? Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow #1 certainly does not leave me hopeful for the rest of the series.