Superman and Supergirl: Observations on Character

If you are a fan of comic book super heroes it is a good time to be alive. After decades of being relegated to comic book stores and garage sales, comic book characters have hit the big time: movies, television, toys. No matter where you look there’s an Avenger, a Justice Leaguer, or some comic book themed movie or show you didn’t even realize was from a comic book (“Walking Dead” anyone?). Yep, it’s a good time to be alive…

Except when it isn’t.

One of the frequent complaints from fanboys and girls) is that whenever a character makes the leap from the printed page to the silver or small screen is that the character isn’t treated properly (just listen to the amount of complaining, grumbling, and skepticism surrounding the new Fantastic Four movie – much of it, in my opinion, justified). However, I think that there is a bigger problem and that’s when writers in the characters home medium (comic books) don’t seem to understand the characters that they are writing about either.

Now, some difference in interpretation of character is to be expected in comics. Most characters are handled by multiple writers and artists over many years, if not decades for the most popular, and let’s face it – times and expectations of the audience change. However, in some cases, the mishandling of the characters actually happens from the beginning. For example, let’s look at the last survivors of Krypton – Kal-El and Kara Zor-El aka Superman and Supergirl.

I’d be willing to wager that Superman’s origin is well known to the vast majority of the western, and possibly the rest, of the world. Rocketed as a baby by his parents, Jor-El and Lara, from the doomed planet Krypton, he was found by a kindly couple, the Kents, and raised as their own son in America’s midwest and grew up to be a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

Now a lot of this makes sense (in a comic book way). If Superman was raised on Earth in America’s heartland (Smallville, Kansas for those who don’t know) of course he has good old fashioned American values. And for several decades he was portrayed as pining away for the planet he never knew. Presumably, like the adopted child who never knew his parents he searched and did everything he could to embrace their culture without ever knowing it. This was sometime’s taken to extremes though and even dealt with in a wonderful story by Gerry Conway (I think) where Supergirl and the Kandorians (more survivors of Krypton…for a time there it appeared that only Jor-El and Lara actually died when Krypton exploded) go so far as to try and convince him that he is not actually Kryptonian and needed to stop obsessing about it. This plot was undone in part because they never came up with an explanation for Krypto (Superman’s dog) and other small loose ends. Okay, I can go with that…mostly. I actually prefer John Byrne’s interpretation that though Superman learned about Krypton’s society later in life he never really missed it – because he didn’t live it. Heck, for most of his formative years he didn’t even know where he was from!

My real issue is that Supergirl (Kara Zor-El by the way, not one of the other similar characters to be named Supergirl over the years, including a clone of Lana Lang who later was merged with a human being and became and angel…yeah, it’s complicated) has usually been portrayed as completely accepting her lot, loving people, and rarely if ever misses Krypton. The problem? To my memory every version of Kara Zor-El, including presumably the version who will be seen on CBS this fall, actually spent her formative years on Krypton! She was a teenager when sent to Earth by her father (Jor-El’s brother). She was not raised by humans, let alone in the American heartland. She is truly a stranger in a strange – and technologically primitive – land. Superman was the baby rescued when adopted. Supergirl is the refugee who’s world has been destroyed and thrown into a situation completely against her will.

To be fair, Supergirl was first created in what we would call a more innocent time when kids, not adults, actually were reading the comics. Her purpose was to not only expand the “Superman” brand (i.e. merchandising) but to draw in young girls to comic books so many of her early adventures involved romance (a trap that even Wonder Woman fell victim to, by the way).

My point in all this? Not sure I really have one. However, I think that as a writer it is important to pay attention to the origins of any character you might be writing about. Whether it is a play, a short story, novel or even comic book, you are better off if you don’t deviate from your core character without writing in a reason. And when it comes to movies about comic book characters it’s always my hope that the writers of the movie or television show remember what made a character popular for so many years. And for the writers in the comic book world to do the same,

Onward!

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