Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Pull List: Supergirl Gets It Right

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade (6-issue series)
Landry Q. Walker (w); Eric Jones (a)

That's right, Supergirl. Now this isn't the Supergirl you might think you know. For one thing, she's actually drawn like a teenage girl, as Tiina points out in her excellent review of the first issue at Comics Are For Everybody. Moreover, the comic is actually aimed at adolescents (including adolescent girls) rather than at adult men. Like the ongoing Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam (more on that book in a future post), the Supergirl mini-series is a real attempt by DC to write a book that starts with the concerns of kids and writes about them in a way that isn't condescending and that doesn't simply try to translate "adult" comics into a form that is deemed suitable for kids to consume.

The brilliant part of the book is that after Kara arrives on Earth (in the middle of a fight between Superman and Lex Luthor), Superman hatches a plan for her to learn about the planet, the people, and the culture by going to a public school. So, Kara becomes Linda Lee, a transfer student who doesn't know anyone at her new school or anything about how to fit in. She is, both literally and metaphorically, an alien, the outsider at whom everyone laughs.

She's trying hard to get it right, but no matter what she does, the laughter seems to surround her, enveloping her visually within each panel, and echoing the feeling that everyone is laughing at her. It's only in a beautifully unbounded image of flight near the end of the book that there is any sense that Kara/Linda might be able to transcend her circumstances and be who she really is (she's Supergirl after all). I won't spoil what comes next -- I'll just say that the reveal makes nice use of the comics medium to bring her back to earth.

Speaking of the medium, Walker and Jones do an excellent job of using the grammar of comics to tell the story (and introduce younger reader to the way that comics work). As you can see from the following page, the freedom that Supergirl initially feels is underscored by the fact that the image is unbounded by panel borders. The subsequent panels step down as she falls and our eye movement through the page follows her. Finally, the red and blue motion lines of the last unbounded panel tell the reader visually that Superman has come to save her (with the speed and sound represented by the zoom sound effect). And that's only the tip of what's going on in this page. We could easily talk about this one, fairly straightforward page in terms of any number of formalist theories of comics (as those in the Contemporary Graphic Novels seminar are learning), but what's important is that Landry and Jones use all the tools available and in doing so, help kids learn to read and appreciate comics. To my mind, comics such as this are exactly what are needed to get kids interested in the medium.

But that isn't quite what I've been telling people. What I have been telling them is that Supergirl: Cosmic Adventure in the 8th Grade, along with Kunkel's new Shazam book, is one of the smartest and most entertaining books around. Let's hope the mini-series (#2 is just out) yields an ongoing title.


Charles Hatfield said...

Dale, nice to hear that your students will be guest-blogging here! I'm going to be trying a similar assignment with my Comics & Graphic Novels at CSU Northridge, and I look forward to exchanging ideas with you about how it works!

Of course I'll send the relevant link once our class blog is up.

Re: the Supergirl book, it looks like a sincere effort, but I think the main hurdle books like this will have to overcome is the comic book package itself. It doesn't seem to make sense economically, at $2.50 to $3 for, what, 22 to 26 pages of story?. The quick, easy pacing of the book -- very pleasant reading, mind you, but also very quick -- seems to demand a chapter of 40-50 pages at a hop, not 22, and it looks as if it will take 10, 12, 15 dollars for readers to get a big dose of story. The better bet for young readers' comics would seem to be $10-15 for 100+ pages in bookshelf format, a la manga.

(On a related note, DC pulled its Minx line much too soon, no?)

For fast, breezy reading -- for pages that breathe, like the above sample page of Supergirl flying -- I would think that the conventional 32-page comic book format is just a killer, price-wise. It's a format that doesn't make sense for anyone trying to get their young children into reading comics, except of course for parents who happen already to frequent comic book shops.

I had a similar reaction to the Kunkel book upon paging through it in a comic book shop. (But I'm a bit biased there, as I didn't like Kunkel's "Herobear" comic, finding the writing weak alongside the energetic artwork.)

Sorry to be a wet blanket here, but the idea of bringing up young readers on comics would seem to require a leap from the comic book format (only relevant to comic book fans at this point) to something more likely to entice children and parents in, say, a bookstore.

Not that the current condition of book publishing is some sort of paradise. :(

Dale Jacobs said...

Thanks for the comment, Charles. I don't disagree with you, especially when it comes to the economics of it all. And, to be honest, I have some real misgivings about the survival of floppies period. Still, as long as floppies are around, I think that there is a place for them as part of the mix of formats we think about with kids and comics, though I think you're right that the book form will predominate. (And by the way, it really bothers me that the Minx imprint got axed).

I've been giving mini-comics (those ones you can get for Halloween) to colleagues' children and they love them. They read them over and over again, a bit like I remember doing as a kid. Of course, I've also been giving out copies of Ted Naifeh's _Polly and the Pirates_ (I found a whole lot remaindered) and they love that as well. It's just nice to give kids both because they are different reading experiences (a bit like wanting my students to read serially this term). Anyway, I think you're right that books will predominate when introducing kids to comics (because of libraries, if for no other reason), but I think there is a place for comics. Floppies are even available at Chapters (the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble).

When it comes right down to it, I'm more interested in the medium than the specific format. But as long as the majors want to promote floppies, I think they need to try to get kids to read them. And Supergirl and Shazam are good starts (Shazam is, I think, quite good and has great activities like cryptograms). Anyway, all this is to say that I mostly agree with your comments, but see the pamphlet form as having a place alongside the book.

By the way, I'm having students read your chapter on autobiography in conjunction with _Fun Home_.

Dale Jacobs said...

Of course, I expect there will be a trade version that collects all six issues, if there has been sufficient interest in the individual issues (since that's the publishing model for DC). It seems to me that $10 is the likely price point.