November 17, 2021

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The True Grit of Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, by Tom King, Bilquis Evely and Mat Lopes

Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow
Written by Tom King
Art by Bilquis Evely
Colors by Mat Lopes
Published by DC Comics

I read lots of good comic books, and sometimes read excellent comic books, but it’s only occasionally that I read something that I would really describe as being extraordinary or special. Well,  Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow (SWOT) is one of those special, extraordinary comics and possibly my favorite comic of all of 2021. It’s a thoughtful, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, occasionally very funny comic, that’s brought to life with truly next level art and colors. This is some of my favorite work ever from writer Tom King (which is high praise because I love a lot of King’s work), and the combination of artist Bilquis Evely on art and Mat Lopes on colors is an absolute revelation. If you’re not reading this comic, you’re missing out on something really special.

As depicted in the below pages, our narrator for SWOT is Ruthye Marye Knoll. Her father has been murdered by a kingsagent named Krem of the Black Hills. Ruthye has left home in search of a bounty hunter she can hire  (with the sword that was used to kill her father as compensation) to exact revenge against Krem. The first one treats her with great disrespect (he takes the sword she was offering as compensation, and hits her), but he is stopped by another patron in the bar as he's leaving. Thankfully for Ruthye, and us, that patron is none other than Kara Zor-El, a/k/a Supergirl. Supergirl is on Ruthye's world because it's her 21st birthday, and she wanted to commemorate the occasion by getting drunk. Only, she can't do that on Earth since her powers prevent her from getting drunk. So, she made her way to Ruthye's world, which orbits a red sun. Even drunk and without her superpowers, Kara is formidable, and she makes easy work of the bounty hunter and gets Ruthye her sword back.


Unfortunately for Ruthye, Kara is initially reluctant to help Ruthye, as she has her own significant responsibilities to return to, and she initially tries to explain to Ruthye the differences between justice and revenge. But Krypto was hurt by an arrow from Krem, and the only way to heal him is to find Krem and find a way to undo the specific poison, and agrees to help Ruthye (time to go John Wick on that guy). They begin their travels across the universe in search of Krem, on what is essentially a space Greyhound Bus. Eventually making their way back to a world with a yellow sun, they begin their search in earnest. They learn that due to their shared love of violence and cruelty, Krem has joined a group called the Brigands, that roam from world to world bringing violence and death, and finding a way to profit from it (by only killing *some* people in exchange for compensation). Throughout the heart-wrenching fourth issue of the series, in particular, Supergirl and Ruthye go from world to world, always a few steps behind the Brigands, and always too late to stop the terrible violence. Issue 5 is out this week. 

There are so many interesting ideas that King is working with in SWOT, and the character depictions are fascinating, but where I want to start is the stunning art from Evely and Lopes. This is my favorite-looking comic on the stands now, and Evely (Sandman: The Dreaming, Wonder Woman) and Lopes (Sandman: The Dreaming, Batgirl) work together so seamlessly that it's impossible to think about the linework without thinking about the color, and vice versa. I recently learned that they've worked together previously, and I'm not at all surprised. I hadn't seen much of Evely's work prior to this, so her work was an absolute revelation for me. Beautiful doesn't really begin to describe it. 

First things first, Evely is an exceptional sequential storyteller. My standard for this is to ask the question “would you be able to understand this comic if there were no words on the page?" and in the case of SWOT, the answer is an emphatic yes (obviously this question doesn't work for all comics). Such as in the above page where the action between the parties is clear and the setting of the sun conveys the passage of time. Or in the immediately below page where Ruthye comes to her dead father and the camera moves to her hand, and pulls back to her eyes on the sword, and then to her whole body (as she decides to take the sword). We see her thought processes and her plans begin to take shape, even without the words on the page.

And beyond being able to tell her story sequentially, Evely does so much intricate, gorgeous work on every page. In fact every individual page of the comic feels like its own little story or tableau, and I want to linger on each page and not read through too quickly. Evely puts a tremendous amount of detail into each page. Whether depicting the inside of a spaceship, the office of a local official, or a sad hospital room, that rich sense of detail is present on each page.  Part of what makes Evely such an effective storyteller in addition to a great sense of pacing and rhythm, is the ability to portray some of the most effective, striking facial and body acting than I’ve seen in a comic in a long time. Evely draws the most expressive faces, there’s definitely a heightened sense of emotion on every single page and within every single character. I sort of think of this kind of like the comic equivalent of a silent movie, where silent movie actors and actresses used to have to act in a larger-than-life way in order to compensate for the fact that there were no words on the page. 

Thankfully, there are words on the page, and we'll get to those. But it’s the eyes in particular. Evely has an incredible knack for being able to portray so many different emotions just in the eyes of her various characters, whether those emotions are resignation, fear, steely determination, unbearable anguish, sorrow and frustration. All of these emotions come across incredibly clearly through the eyes of the various characters in the story. And what wonderful characters those are. If I were to try to describe the style of art Evely has, on a scale of more or less realistic I would say, it’s a it’s like a heightened sense of reality. Everything is a little bit bigger and more than realistic. 

But the emotions, the actions, and the way characters look an act and interact with one another, all feels incredibly grounded, notwithstanding the fantastical settings of the story. Ruthye is always steely and serious. Her sense of determination almost never seems to waver, and she is clearly a child that is wise and serious far behind her years. And Evely‘s Supergirl is a woman of beauty and strength and tremendous grace. She does not generally attempt to intimidate any of those who would challenge her, but her strength and determination clearly come across on the page, particularly in the initial issues of the story. Whenever she is fighting, she knows that she doesn’t have her superpowers and she is vulnerable but she fights with the strength and determination that is unmatched, regardless of the presence or absence of super powers.

But as I said before, this comic would not be what it is without the artistic team of Evely and Lopes. As gorgeous as all of Evely‘s work is, it’s the addition of absolutely stunning colors from Lopes that really helps bring this comic to life. These colors can vary from the rich warm colors of the hearth of Ruthye‘s home, the blazing red sunsets of her world, to the rich, varied, and weird selection of colors that illustrate all of the various alien species that Ruthye and Supergirl meet in their travels. In the below scene of the spaceship in which Ruthye and Supergirl travel, those bright colors are contrasted with the worn-out, faded colors of the ship itself. On the final few examples of pages below, the colors of tragedy and massacre and bloodshed are so rich and bright as to be almost overwhelming. It feels like the sky is the color of the blood that has been shed, and even the Supergirl is only one small being surrounded by that violence. 

But all is not gloom and doom in Lopes' colors. To the contrary, the richness of his color palette throughout the comic brings into extraordinary life even the most grim of situations. And in other parts of the story, Lopes and Evely work together to create images of unsurpassed beauty, such as a troublesome space dragon that Supergirl has to fight so that the spaceship can keep going without danger. Lopes has a wonderful grasp of light and shadow; there are panels in which one person is relaying the nature of the attack upon he and his friend by the merciless Brigands, and the use of light and shadow in his hospital room really brings to life the despair and desolation and pain of that moment. It’s really quite masterful work.

As I read SWOT I realized that the basic outline of the story reminded me of True Grit by Charles Portis, first published as a novel in 1968. It was made into a movie in 1969 starring John Wayne, and remade in 2010 by the Coen brothers (with a young Hailee Steinfeld). She stars as a girl who decides to hire a retired US marshal to hunt down the man that killed her father; he's initially reluctant, but takes on the assignment. SWOT of course does not have a plot identical to True Grit, but there are some meaningful similarities. The story of SWOT has a plot that sounds like that of a western; a man is murdered in cold blood, and his child seeks out a bounty hunter in order to exact revenge against the man who killed her father. She and her hunter/protector set out across vast landscapes and through all sorts of treacherous obstacles in order to seek vengeance (or justice), and to put a stop to this man’s reign of terror. While being very much a superhero/science-fiction story, that sense that a western provides, of adventure, a vast scope and simple, primal goals and motivations, all of that is quite present in SWOT.
 

I mentioned before that the art of Evely and Lopes is so good that you could understand the story without any words on the page.  However, I’m so glad that this isn’t that sort of story. King (one of my favorite writers in comics (my deep dive into Strange Adventures here) does some of his absolute finest work as a writer in the pages of SWOT. There’s a fair amount of text, as the entire story is being narrated by a much older Ruthye, decades in the future. Ruthye‘s narration is serious and informative and thoughtful, but also at times extremely funny, and always incredibly additive to the story. It is through this narration that we get so much of a sense of Ruthye's life. She is an entirely serious child, wise beyond her years, but it's also clear how little she truly understood (at the time) the task she was undertaking. 
 
Ruthye is steadfast in her focus, and King effectively conveys that in her dialogue and narration. When Supergirl wants to Stop Ruthye from seeing footage of some of these atrocities, Ruthye is completely offended and says “I am not some innocent with eyes moistened by the morning dew!” and later challenges Supergirl by saying “We both have our missions! My vengeance is not lesser than your nobility!”  It's an interesting juxtaposition. Ruthye is operating from some of the most basic motivations. And Supergirl feels responsible for Ruthye, and feels like Ruthye has already seen too much horror in their travels (and she wants to shield Ruthye from any unnecessary trauma). But Ruthye feels bound to witness all of the horrors. This is part of their journey and their mission, and she feels a moral obligation to see all of the suffering that has been caused by the man against whom she seeks vengeance. It’s not necessarily a motivation that can stand up to adult logic and scrutiny, but to a precocious and serious child who lost their beloved father to murder, Ruthye's motivation and logic  make perfect sense. Sometimes, when you’re attempting to deal with uncomfortable truths and pain, one of the most tried and true methods for dealing with that pain is to try to replace your sadness with anger. Supergirl understands this as a general matter, which is why she's willing to have Ruthye accompany her on this quest to find Krem. 



And who is Supergirl in the story? Almost all of our interactions with Supergirl are seen through the eyes of Ruthye. Ruthye speaks of Supergirl with reverence and admiration. But she also brings a great deal of insight as she describes the character and personality of Supergirl. More generally, as we see in the story, Supergirl is far more than just a heroic icon. She’s a real person and an extraordinary one, but a person nonetheless, subject to real emotions and reactions and limitations. She came to Ruthye‘s planet because she just wanted to get drunk on her 21st birthday like any person would on Earth. But for her to do something as mundane as get drunk, she had to travel halfway across the universe. And while she was initially reluctant to take on Ruthye's cause, she found her own motivation, other than just revenge, that would motivate her to take on this quest. Through Ruthye‘s descriptions and through the action we see on the page, Supergirl is a figure of tremendous patience and compassion. Her kindness towards children (and people who are suffering generally) is nearly boundless. 
 
But while Supergirl's compassion is almost infinite, her patience is not. We see that she can get frustrated like anyone else, and she can get weary. Even if not physically tired, Supergirl is not impervious to emotions, and as the pair make their way from one world to the next, the limits of her ability to process not just this much suffering, but this much cruelty, become apparent. In one of the powerful scenes in issue four, we see as Supergirl flies all the way inside a star just so that she can let out a scream and not hurt anyone or anything else in the process. This leads Ruthye to a really insightful observation about Supergirl which is that she has to spend most of her life being incredibly careful and constrained, making sure that she doesn’t grab a person's hand too firmly, or move something or someone too quickly. Ruthye imagines just how incredibly difficult it must be to feel so constrained, so slowed down by all of the regular, non-super people in her life. She speculates that Supergirl must be in pain as a result of having to limit herself so much. Her biggest super power seems to be holding back her own power and greatness in order to function amongst the ordinary, weak people with which she is surrounded. In this way, Ruthye (and King) make having superpowers (and being Supergirl) actually seem pretty sad and constraining.
Halfway through the story, I’ve wondered, what exactly King‘s perspective is on Ruthye and Supergirl's quest? What does he think about Ruthye's continuing motivation to seek vengeance for the death of her father?  Early on in the story, Supergirl attempts to dissuade Ruthye from going after Krem, and speaks of the difference between vengeance and justice. However, ultimately Supergirl agrees to work with Ruthye to find Krem so that he can be held responsible for his actions. It’s hard to say that it is justice that keeps these characters moving along from moment to moment as they attempt to track down Krem. Or even vengeance, really.  My sense is that the quest itself becomes all consuming, whether you call it justice or vengeance. They’ve gone down such a long road now (and invested so much time and emotion) that it's too late to back. At a certain point, when Supergirl feels that they’re getting a little closer, she wants to send Ruthye back home, to try to spare Ruthye from any more suffering. But Ruthye insists, and Supergirl is at this point too worn down by what she’s seen to push back too much. She understands, they're in this together and there's no turning back.

I think there are some pretty interesting ideas here at play, about the emotional toll that a single-minded quest for revenge can have on a person. As I mentioned earlier, I think Ruthye's single-minded focus on vengeance, and the seriousness of her character, are intended to function as coping mechanisms, for her tremendous sense of grief and loss. She says it herself, her father was her whole world and without him she feels adrift. Having lost a parent myself, I can say that anger and frustration and impatience are far easier emotions to reckon with than grief. Grief can feel like a bottomless hole from which you can’t return. With anger, I think you at least feel like you were in control. I’m not sure if it's ultimately helpful to try to cope with an emotion by covering it up with different emotions. But it can at least feel better to be able to direct those emotions somewhere as anger, particularly towards things where you feel like you potentially have some control. But it's a defense mechanism, and the grief is always still there, until you actually deal with it.


I've loved many of King's other stories for that sense of ambition, and all of the big ideas he explores such as those relating to identity, reckoning with war and the costs of those wars on all parties involved. Specifically he’s dealt with the shifting and elastic nature of morality in war, and the blurry lines that exist sometimes between a hero and a criminal. King has also confronted the profound sadness and loneliness of depression, particularly dealing with serious depression while also attempting to function in a highly stressful work environment. And some similarly interesting ideas are present in SWOT and I am sure that they will make themselves even more clear as the story moves along.

But ultimately, it’s not the ideas about grief and loss and vengeance that make me truly love SWOT. It’s the story, and it’s the characters, and it’s the way that they are all brought to life in such a stunning manner that makes me love SWOT as much as I do. Were it just a comic of great ideas, I don’t think I would have the emotional attachment to this comic that I do. But there’s tremendous heart on every page of this comic. Very much like a western, the values and motivations of the characters feel primal and fundamental, and ultimately extremely understandable. And it's brought to life by art that’s so evocative and rich and empathetic, that I can’t help but love the heroes of the story, and hate the villains. The conclusion of issue 4 is definitely a low point for these characters, but I trust King and Evely and Lopes in the story that they’re telling (and I'm certainly hoping that even if things get even worse, we're going to see a satisfying conclusion). And I absolutely couldn’t imagine not following these characters in their journey to the very end. SWOT is a special book. It's not always an easy read, but I think you'll love it as much as I do.