October 17, 2011

, , , ,   |  

Dust off the Panels: Power Girl Volumes 1 and 2

 Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Illustrated by Amanda Conner
DC Comics

It's time to Dust off the Panels and take a look at a comic I've enjoyed both times I've read it, the 12 issue run of Power Girl by the writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, paired with one of the best female superhero artists, Amanda Conner.

Power Girl is finally moving out on her own, setting up her own business, her own identity, and her own life.  With her cat Stinky, super heroine friend Terra, and big plans, this woman out of time is ready to begin anew.

There's just one problem: An old foe has other plans.  Watch as the Ultra-Humanite tries to destroy everything Kara is working for, sometimes with the help of his associates, sometimes on his own.  If that's not enough, earth seems to be party planet central, as aliens of all kinds come here for galactic spring break hijinks, with deadly repercussions.  Can even a cousin to the Man of Steel handle everything thrown at her and still be able to keep a day job, to say nothing of maybe trying to have her own social life?  Find out in these two volumes of Power Girl!

If DC comics was looking for a model of how to handle a female character that shows her off as a powerful figure in her own right, while placing her in the larger DC Universe, they could do worse than use this set of collections as a model.  Palmiotti and Gray manage to make Kara interesting by treating her as a real person who happens to have super powers.  She wants the same thing any of us who are trying for a fresh start wants--a chance to make in the world, without getting dragged down by what's happened in the past.  That's not nearly as easy as Kara would like, and again, that parallels the real world.

The problem many books with female characters have is that that they to make the character too heroic, thereby overcompensating for other representations (see Whedon, Joss) or they turn them into objects of sexual attraction, with poses and postures taking center stage and leaving little to no room for actual characterization beyond using their looks and acting badass (this looks like it's the direction Catwoman is taking in the DCnU).  In some cases, the character is indistinguishable from a male hero, which is just as wrong as trying to make them as feminine as possible.

It's not an issue unique to comics, but because of the visual possibilities of the medium, the heirs of Wally Wood have taken anatomy to the extreme, which is why I think comics--and superhero comics in particular--are frequently the target of so much criticism.

The fact of the matter is, part of being heroic is going beyond the norm, both in abilities and looks, and there is nothing wrong with allowing characters to be sexy, as long as it's not done just to goose sales and give teenagers an acceptable thing to ogle that won't get them thrown out of the newsstand or get banned from their bedroom.

Palmiotti and Gray get this with Power Girl, and they're aided and abetted by Amanda Conner, who draws incredibly attractive female characters who still manage to look like they are just as powerful as their male counterparts.  There are plenty of sexual references in this book, from the funny to the creepy to the slightly dangerous.  Kara's gender is a prominent part of the book, but we see her generally in control of the situation.  No one can handle everything, but instead of rejecting her looks or denying them (or worst of all, letting them be dominated), Kara makes it a part of herself.  It's a refreshing take on the idea of an attractive superheroine.

That doesn't mean it's perfect.  There is a clunky section where Kara explains her point of view, for instance, and one might argue that sexual themes are far too prevalent in these issues.  The thing is, this is written like a screwball comedy with a generally lighthearted tone, so the sexual jokes fit right in.  For the most part, Kara is the one in control of the sexual humor, not the male antagonists.  The idea of sex and power are a theme in the work, and as a result, we see it over and over again.  With the help of quite a few great Conner sight gags, this theme works perfectly.  This is a comic that's part romantic farce, part identity struggle, and part obsessive villain who cannot handle his own identity.  The foes Kara faces all mirror some of her own insecurities, and the ways in which she deals with them say a lot about her character.

That's the way you write a good comic--make it about something, with a focal character who is likable and (within reason) able to be someone you know in real life.  Palmiotti and Gray get this, and the comic works accordingly.  They made me interested in a character I care little about, aided and abetted by an artist who is able to blend titillation within the normal bounds of a heroic setting.

By the end of this all-too-short run, Power Girl is a character who won't let anything stop her.  She's going to find a way to make it in the world, based on who she wants to be, not who others perceive her as.  It's going to be a tough road, but hey, she's a tough character!  This is just the kind of story I like to read, one that can be both low-brow and have an uplifting message.  It's the kind of comic I think DC would be wise to look at as they keep tweaking their new universe.  Comics can have sexy people in them, without being an object of ridicule and shame.  You just have to put the characters in the right hands.  These two Power Girl trades are well worth finding.  I'd dust off the panels and look for them, if I were you!