Earlier this week, TV’s Supergirl returned to our screens for a second season on its new network home, the CW. Just as the series kicked its new season off to fans’ delight, Supergirl faced a surprising new foe; Miley Cyrus.
In a recent interview with Variety, the pop star commented on the concept of Supergirl:
A lot of it could be changed if we had a female president. That would give us a subconscious boost. I think people will have to realize they’re looking really dated. For example, there’s a show called “Supergirl.” I think having a show with a gender attached to it is weird. One, it’s a woman on that f@#*ing billboard — it’s not a little girl. Two, what if you’re a little boy who wants to be a girl so bad that this makes you feel bad? I think having a title like “Supergirl” doesn’t give the power that people think it does.
Her comments prompted a response from series show runner Andrew Kreisberg:
I think we worked hard in the early part of season one to address the discrepancy, and actually had a scene with Kara lamenting being called Supergirl and Cat with the great rejoinder about how the word ‘girl’ in and of itself is not offensive….That’s the biggest statement on having a powerful female on TV is by not talking about it and actually showing a powerful female on television. That’s the biggest feminist statement we could make.
The scene Kreisberg is referring to takes place between Supergirl’s alter ego Kara (Melissa Benoist) and her boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) when Kara asks whether or not the hero should be called “Superwoman”. To which Grant responds, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl and your boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”
Thing is, both Cyrus and Kreisberg have their points. And Supergirl has long been a lightning rod for feminist and anti-feminist debate, almost as much as Wonder Woman. When the series debuted, for instance, The Huffington Post praised the series for its feminism, using that scene as central point. But at the same time, Celina Durgin wrote a piece in the National Review decrying Supergirl’s way of suggesting that women communicate power and strength only by excelling in traditional male roles.
But a lot of people on the Inter Webs pointed out that Cyrus perhaps didn’t know what she was talking about mostly because she didn’t seem to know that the reason the TV series is called Supergirl is because the character is called Supergirl, and has been since her debut in 1959, and we continue to call her that more out of the value of brand identity than anything else. And recently, almost as an acknowledgement of the often problematic issue Supergirl raises amongst feminists, DC launched a new title called, and starring, “Superwoman.” But although current readers might be thinking that DC is redressing an oversight with a new character, it turns out that our most recent Superwoman is only the latest in a long line of attempts to create a Super-powered equal to the Man of Steel, rather than a feminine junior partner.
So, let’s take a look at the history of Superwoman.
Hoaxes and Imaginary Tales (1943 – 1962)
The idea of a super-powered female character similar to Superman wasn’t something foreign to the Golden Age. At the time, though comics were seen as kids’ entertainment, they weren’t yet seen as the largely boys’ reading that they would come to be in later decades. One thing people have to remember is that all kids read comics back then, whether in comic strip form in their daily newspapers or in comic books. And WWII saw comic readership explode as the lightweight, easily shipped books were sent to soldiers overseas much more easily than crates of paperbacks. Once in soldiers’ hands, they were traded and passed around until they fell apart.
And so, comics needed to cover a wide range of tastes and interests. And undoubtedly, there were readers who enjoyed reading about female characters equally as males. Wonder Woman is the obvious and definitive example of the female super-hero. But Superman, arguably comics’ most popular icon, experimented with tales involving super-powered women, albeit in one-off appearances and fantasies.
Action Comics #60 is an example of the Golden and Silver Age staple of “Imaginary Stories.” These were stories where a fantastic, alternate, or even shocking story was told in the framework of a dream or fantasy, thereby allowing writers to break established continuity without long-term consequences. In this issue, Lois Lane is injured and rendered unconscious. While Superman rushes to save her, Lois dreams that she gains super-powers following a blood transfusion from Superman and embarks upon a career as a super-hero. It’s largely a silly story, as Lois’ dream ends at the pinnacle of her hopes with Superman agreeing to marry her. There is an interesting part where Lois rescues Clark Kent and trusts him with the secret of her powers, perhaps a way of pointing out the underhandedness of Clark himself keeping his own secret. Lois may have to suffer a few groan-inducing moments of sexist writing from her male creators, but writer Jerry Siegel goes to great lengths to show Lois acting as an effective and bold crime-fighter, with an intrepidity and confidence that is in keeping with the star reporter she’s always been. It may have all been a dream, but Superwoman is just as engaging and exciting as her male counterpart.
It would be nearly a decade before the experiment would be repeated. 1951’s Action Comics #156 again saw Lois Lane become Superwoman, but the story is an infuriating hodgepodge of sexism and patriarchal arrogance that probably would have offended female readers of the day, though it’s perfectly evocative of the rigid gender roles of the era. While investigating a story, Lois is subjected to a fantastic process via one of Lex Luthor’s inventions. The process gives her superpowers and initially I was encouraged by the gusto with which Lois decides to become a super-hero. Except the rest of the story shows Lois making every kind of mistake you could make and being basically an ineffective daffy dame. Once she loses her powers and things return to “normal”, Lois says, “I’m so glad to be just plain Lois Lane again, now that I’ve learned how useless super-power is without the wisdom to use it!” Barf. Writer Jack Schiff shows none of the deftness or imagination of Siegel’s more joyful and equitable earlier story.
In 1959, Supergirl made her debut in Action Comics #252. Created by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino, Kara Zor-El was a teenaged girl from Krypton who quickly became Superman’s secret weapon and sidekick. Binder had created Mary Marvel for the Captain Marvel book, as well as Miss America for Timely, so he was an old hand at creating female heroes. But, like Mary Marvel, Supergirl was an inexperienced and naive adventurer who very much differed to older, wiser and of course male counterpart. But she proved hugely popular, and in her solo stories in Action Comics fared better.
1962’s Action Comics #289 saw yet another version of Superwoman debut, this time in the form of an alien woman named Luma Lynai. Her romance with Superman initially blossoms, and Luma is a powerful and effective hero. But her alien physiology makes the rays of a yellow sun fatal to her, so she and Superman are soon parted. Seeing as this was a love affair set up by Supergirl, Superman’s cousin who harbours a little crush on her older cousin, the story has that weirdly icky feel that a surprising number of Golden and Silver Age books have in spades.
A Life of Crime (1964-1985)
For the next two decades, the concept of Superwoman would take a very different path. With Supergirl securing the mantle of definitive Superman-family female representative in the more comfortable (for some) role of subservient to Superman, the Superwoman title was applied to a decidedly different concept.
1964’s Justice League of America #29 saw the Justice League and Justice Society team-up to battle evil versions of the League from an alternate Earth. Among the members of the Crime Syndicate was Superwoman, their Wonder Woman analogue. The idea of an evil Justice League resonated, and they would pop up over the next twenty years to battle the JLA. Probably the best instance occurred in 1982, when the annual Justice League/Justice Society team-up occurred in the pages of “Justice League of America” and “All-Star Squadron.” Beginning in Justice League of America #207, and written by JLA’s Gerry Conway and All-Star’s Roy Thomas, it’s a solid adventure that feels just as epic as it ought to. Though it certainly would have had more impact if George Perez and Joe Kubert had provided more than just the cover art, interior artists Don Heck and Adrian Gonzales deliver the goods. Superwoman in these issues is clearly in charge of the Crime Syndicate, and is pretty much the main antagonist besides the awesomely-named Per Degaton.
The Crime Syndicate would, like all other alternate-Earth concepts in the DCU, be erased from existence and continuity during the events of the classic “Crisis on Infinite Earths” series that streamlined the DC Universe. In the opening issue, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez give the Syndicate a somewhat noble send-off, as the lifelong criminals and psychopaths give their lives trying to save the planet they’ve spent years plundering.
In an odd way, this version of Superwoman is kind of the most compelling. She is never presented as anything other than the best version of herself, even if that version is evil. She may be a villain, but she is a top notch villain, never second to a male character or less than imposing. Her identity as Superwoman doesn’t depend on a relationship with a man or borrowed from a man. A lot of this has to do with her role as the antithesis of Wonder Woman, but it’s still more interesting than earlier versions. When the Crime Syndicate was revived, first by Grant Morrison in 2000’s “Earth-2” graphic novel, though Superwoman became more twisted and complex, that perverse quality to her character made her a little less interesting, not more so, in my opinion.
The Superwomen of Metropolis (1983 – 2011)
In 1981, the second Superman novel written by Elliot S. Maggin, “Miracle Monday,” was published. Part of the novel revolves around a time traveler from the far future named Kristin Wells coming back to the past to meet Superman. In 1983, Maggin brought the character to comics in the pages of DC Comics Presents Annual #2, with art by Keith Pollard.
In the issue, Wells travels back from the 29th Century to uncover more information about a mysterious but revered 20th Century hero Superwoman. Wells discovers that she herself was Superwoman, utilizing 29th century technology to give herself superpowers. Once in costume, she embarks on a crazy time-hopping adventure to defeat a despot named King Kosmos, eventually defeating him with Superman’s help. However, though this is a team-up book, Superwoman is clearly the starring character, the one with the knowledge and ability to defeat the threat. She’s kind of a great character, actually, and though her costume is an awkward mish-mash of classic Superman and 1980s Dave Cockrum-esque design, the whole thing works. I’m not sure she ever would have caught on, but she’s interesting enough. Sadly, Superwoman would only appear one more time, in DC Comics Presents Annual #4, shortly before that pesky “Crisis on Infinite Earths” wiped out every Super-person other than Clark Kent, including the popular and long-established Supergirl.
Post-Crisis, Superwoman and the concept were nowhere to be found. Supegirl would return of course, memorably enjoying a 1990s run written by Peter David. In 1996, another Superwoman made her debut in the form of Dana Dearden. Dana was a Superman-obsessed fan who somehow got a hold of magic coins that granted the bearer powers, and then decided to convince Superman to be with her. Superman of course rejected her advances, at which point Dana went bonkers but reclaimed her senses and managed to help out the Man of Steel. Throughout her appearances, Obsession seemed to represent the dangers of an obsessed fan, and having an antagonist to a super-hero be basically a stalker is kind of novel. In the 1990s, the idea of stalking celebrities and even average everyday people was a hot button issue. Anti-Stalking laws were going on the books, and here were several high-profile cases that brought the issue to the forefront of the public’s mind. By 2000’s Adventures of Superman #574, Obsession had gone far enough in her, well, obsession, to actually don a Superman-inspired outfit and call herself Superwoman. And then she died. Overall, Obsession is a hugely forgettable and slightly icky character, one that’s meant to come off as an unbalanced and pitiful ill person, but can’t quite escape the whiff of something sexist in the DNA of her creation.
The Superwoman concept would return in a few years during writer Sterling Gates‘ terrific run on “Supergirl.” In the Superman books of the period, the city of Kandor with its population of thousands of Kryptonians, is living on Earth, but not assimilating into the culture well. While Superman and Supergirl deal with that, a new masked hero named Superwoman appears in a costume inspired by the Kristen Wells version of the 1980s. Though Supergirl can’t uncover the new heroes identity, it’s initially assumed that she’s one of the Kandorians. Over time, this Superwoman is shown to be working for the US government, and having sinister intent. She was eventually revealed to be Lois Lane’s sister, Lucy Lane. Lucy wore a high-tech suit derived from alien science, and was working with her father, General Lane. Fuelled by xenophobia and a ruthless focus on controlling or destroying super-powered beings, the Lanes were working toward the eventual destruction of the Kryptonians. In the end, Lucy was defeated by Supergirl and taken in to custody, where she presumably stayed until the DC universe was reset following the Flashpoint series.
Superwoman wouldn’t return until the most recent series, which features not one but two versions of Superwoman. But if this look at the history of Superwoman throughout DC’s long history tells us anything, it tells us that the concept of a mature, complex and inspiring fully grown female hero in the Superman universe has been handled badly more often than well. Kristin Wells is really the sole example of a period when Superwoman was unambiguously heroic. While the “evil” Superwoman of the Crime Syndicate is more an analogue to Wonder Woman, she is the most interesting version until Wells’ short-lived tenure. The Lucy Lane version may be the most compelling and nuanced character to bear the title Superwoman, but her villainous character again doesn’t fill the role of an adult peer of Superman.
So, is Miley Cyrus right? Is there something to her argument about the need of a Superwoman? Based on DC’s history with the name, it’s pretty clear they are more comfortable with the idea of a young woman learning the ropes and perpetually growing into the role versus an adult woman taking on an equal role to the Man of Steel. The reasons for this may not necessarily be sexist. They, and readers, may have felt that Wonder Woman already covered that ground. Or that a Superwoman’s adventures would have felt too similar to Superman’s. Or that Supergirl as a concept was just more resonant, allowed for more interesting stories and was already established. Certainly over the years there have been a ton of great Supergirl stories. Or maybe it was a combination of a bunch of reasons. And, yes, there’s evidence that over the decades, writers and readers were likely uncomfortable with a woman encroaching on the space of comic books’ greatest icon. Keeping Supergirl resolutely a “girl” (in the junior sense) may have been a way of preventing women from achieving that kind of equality and equity.
But one thing is certain, in this age of Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Black Canary, etc, it’s certainly past time readers had a book featuring the adventures of a Woman of Steel. One who is as strong, confident and capable as any other adult hero. The most recent title seems to finally say, this isn’t an imaginary story, or a hoax, or a dream and nor is it a twist. We’re ready for a full-fledged Superwoman, and she’s here to save the day.