Book Club #3: Power Girl

For the third installment of the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club, the four of us decided to read Power Girl: A New Beginning, a DC comic written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and drawn by Amanda Conner.

If you want to get a jump on our next book club, we’ll be reading Madame Xanadu Volume 1 Disenchanted by Matt Wagner and Amy Reeder Hadley. We’ll be discussing that sometime in October, and more details will be forthcoming.

Today, though, we’re going to start our discussion of Power Girl, sometimes abbreviated PG, by sharing an email exchange that took place among the Fantastic Fangirls’ staff. This is a starting point for whatever our readers would like to say about the book. In the comments, feel free to address any of the points that came up in our discussion, or raise a topic/question of your own. Enjoy!

Jennifer: I originally thought I’d start out this discussion with a conversation about Amanda Conner’s art. It is, after all, the reason I initially picked up the book. I knew next to nothing about Power Girl before I read this comic, and I was buying it on the strength of Conner’s expressive art — and my desire to support one of the few A-list female creators — alone.

But what took me by surprise is how much I wound up loving Power Girl as a character. From the first pages of the book, where Power Girl retells her origin and states her need to start anew in New York, I was absolutely hooked. I love how she has so much in common with Superman — the first page is intentionally reminiscent of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s first page of All-Star Superman — and yet her personality, her gender, and her circumstances have given her life a very different shape. I love how the immigrant metaphor is used, especially since New York City is her home base; Superman has always spoken to the Jewish immigrant experience of the early comics creators, but with his all-American Kansas upbringing and Golden Age origins, it’s harder to tell that narrative so explicitly when he’s the protagonist. Power Girl fills that void nicely, and Gray and Palmiotti do a great job of using the metaphor to introduce new readers like myself to Power Girl’s resilience and determination.

I also love how Power Girl is smart — the entire first arc is about how her brains more than match her body, in both the sense of her physical strength and her attractiveness. Power Girl has been used as a punchline in the past, due to the size and exposure of her chest, but here that fact is acknowledged and then brushed off in favor of more important things. Power Girl isn’t a scientist, and it would be disingenuous to make her one, but I love that she’s the CEO of a scientific company and is actively surrounding herself with the biggest brains in the world (including female scientists!) to create technologies that will better the planet. The Starrware Labs storyline, in fact, reminds me a lot of the current arc of Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man — both stories are about a superhero coming back from a very low point and rebuilding a scientific company designed to make the world a better place.

So how about the rest of you? How did you feel about Power Girl as a character? Had you encountered her before, and if so, how did this portrayal stack up?

Caroline You said “stack”. Heh heh. Sorry, what were we talking about?

Oh yes, Karen Starr! I agree with you that Karen/PG’s character is what makes this series special, and that works on a couple of different levels. First, she has a lot of personality, which comes through in both the writing and the art. From the bluntly honest and often impulsive way she reacts to people to little details like the way she watches a horror movie, PG always feels like a complete and unique person. Knowing that Palmiotti and Conner are a couple, and having a general impression of Conner as a confident woman with a good sense of humor, I can’t help wondering if some of Karen’s personality is based on Amanda. That idea may have no basis whatsoever, but the point is that it’s the kind of portrayal that makes me think about the personalities of real people, rather than comparing her to “tropes” found in other comic book stories. That’s a real compliment to the work that this creative team has done.

But of course, we do end up talking about how the tropes compare to other comic book stories, and that’s where Power Girl got really interesting for me. I’ve read the TPB twice, now, and the first time I think I was looking for the wrong thing. I was expecting “B-but-would-like-to-be-A-list character has to figure out who she is as a meta-commentary for the creators and audience figuring out who she is,” because that’s something I’ve seen a lot in comics. Brian Reed’s Ms. Marvel series and the Bendis/Maleev Spider-Woman both use that idea quite a bit. It’s a solid idea — I like both those series — but on re-reading, I realized that isn’t really what Palmiotti, Gray, and Conner are doing here.

Karen Starr knows who she is. She has confidence in herself. She’s very aware of her strengths — physical, mental, interpersonal — and she finds herself in a position where she has a luxury of choices about what to do with those strengths. Jennifer’s comparison to the “Stark Resilient” storyline in Invincible Iron Man is apt, but in many ways Tony has been forced into that position. PG’s situation almost reminds me more of the place Fraction left Danny Rand in at the end of his Immortal Iron Fist run. Danny had discovered that his origin wasn’t everything that he thought, and decided to devote his fortune and efforts to making real improvements in the world. That story hasn’t gotten much followup, though; we occasionally see Danny teaching karate to poor kids or working in a soup kitchen, but that’s about it.

Maybe that’s because it’s a hard story to tell. Maybe serial comic books lend themselves more to stories about overcoming adversity and self-doubt than they do about a basically happy, competent character deciding to move forward with his or her life. Greg Rucka’s run on Wonder Woman, starting with Down to Earth has a similar setup, and that run eventually got swallowed in crossovers and big events. I can’t help thinking that this Power Girl creative team went into the story knowing that their run was going to be limited (they left/finished after twelve issues, so this TPB contains half the run), and if that actually freed them up to do a story like this. Does the relatively self-contained nature of this story allow the creators to tell better or, at least, different stories?

Sigrid As Anika said in her review of Brian Reed’s Ms. Marvel run, there is a lack of stories about grown women living their competent lives — in comics in particular, as well as possibly in fiction more broadly. This Power Girl story is one of those. Karen Starr isn’t a teenager searching for identity, she’s not a victim looking for revenge or redemption. She’s a grown woman looking to better the world and the people around her.

Do you have any idea how rare that is?

Okay, I know you, my fellow Fangirls, know, because we talk about it all the time. But, man, this is a breath of fresh air. I liked this story. I’ve never read it before, I don’t follow a lot of DCU stuff, and the only time I’ve seen Power Girl is in Birds of Prey, where she is really pissed off at her ex-girlfriend former boss Oracle for using her badly.

I realized something, reading Power Girl — Karen Starr is a fictional character I could sit down and hang out with. Most of my favorite characters are people I never want to meet, ever, nuh-uh, no way. But Karen is sane, she’s wry, she’s smart, she’s confident, she’s ethical, she’s compassionate — yet possesses none of those qualities in a smarmy, holier-than-thou way, like some Caped Crusaders I could kick across the room mention. This means that, while I liked the story a lot, and I want to send Palmiotti and Conner flowers and chocolates for writing this character, it didn’t grab me. I will likely buy the second trade, out of support and solidarity for the work, but I doubt I’ll follow Power Girl as a character.

Which is a roundabout way of addressing your question, Carrie — I do think this is a different kind of story. It’s a story there’s a lack of, it’s a story I appreciate. (The fact that I prefer protagonists to be less emotionally stable is, I think, a personal quirk and not a reflection on the value or saleability of the title.)

Caroline Ha! So basically we are discussing a story about a smart, strong, emotionally well-adjusted woman dealing well with conflicts that don’t involve her love life. . .and we (Sigrid and I, at least) are not sure that she’s interesting enough. How’s that for a feminist dilemma?

I should say that I think the stories in this book are very interesting. These 1 to 3 issue arc-light tales fit the characters and situations very well. But I’m coming away from this saying, “I would love to read more stories written by Palmiotti and Gray, and drawn by Conner,” not, “I would like to read more stories about Power Girl.” Karen feels so good, so successful, so complete that, I guess, I’m not overly attached to her because I’m not worried about her. I feel like I could stop reading the stories and she’d be fine.

To be fair, this isn’t exclusively a female-character issue. It’s one that occurs with Wonder Woman and (to be really fair) with Jean Grey if she doesn’t have Phoenix problems and love triangles to worry about. But it also happens with Superman, and it can happen with Hal Jordan or Steve Rogers if they’re not in the right hands. It’s the female version of the “Boy Scout” problem. I’d love to discuss this more (and to get Anika and Jennifer’s take on it), but I don’t want to completely veer away from what’s actually happening in this volume, either. Because I do think, when we get past the overall setup to the individual stories, the writers have created some interesting conflicts.

Anika: There’s an exchange between Karen and Terra that really stood out to me and I think it explains my “take on it” —

I wanted to thank you for helping me save the city.

That’s what I do.

I know, but it wasn’t the way I wanted it to go. I’m trying to be my own person, but I’m so used to being a team player.

Now, first of all, I love Terra. I love all Terras. The psychotic original. The Anakinesque toon version. And PG’s adorable sidekick is just as Terra-ific (I know, I know, I’m Terrable) (Shut up, you laughed). I don’t know why Atlee and Karen are BFF but I adore their dynamic. And that is, I believe, how “Boy Scout” or “Girl Scout” characters can be successful protagonists — the supporting cast. The team. Even the minor characters. If you know me at all you can guess that Teen Girl Who Wants to Save the World From Evil Anti-Environmental Practices By Using Unexplained Magic And Having Been Defeated Is Given An Internship is pretty much the BEST random encounter villain I can imagine.

And Karen also has a cat. I love the cat. And the chatty real estate broker and the shy scientist and the Agent guy who is totally from Lilo and Stitch and — you get the idea. As much as I really enjoyed Power Girl, I also really enjoyed pretty much everyone around her. I mean page 11 had a kid excited about nanites and grey goo and then on page 14 Mojo Jojo showed up. It was like they were writing for me! And I also like quite a lot that confident PG’s stated insecurity is that she’s too much of a team player. Working well with people is not a flaw, but we (Americans/Western civilization) do tend to admire and reward the people who stand apart and alone. Even in teams, leadership skills are valued the highest. Power Girl isn’t a leader, she doesn’t order her teammates around, she asks them for help and works with them to come up with the plan/solution. And she is perfectly capable of working alone, she doesn’t have to prove it to anyone, except maybe herself. As a dilemma, it is almost the opposite of the one most of my favorite characters have — my tough, angry, driven, independent women who have to learn how to accept help, depend on someone else, and form relationships — but I don’t like her any less for that. I like her a lot!

Jennifer: I’m sitting over here laughing at Caroline and Sigrid’s description of Power Girl as the female version of a “Boy Scout” (which is definitely not a Girl Scout — I was one for 13 years, I should know). It’s not a secret that so-called “Boy Scouts” are my favorite characters, and the fact that Power Girl fits into that category only makes me like her more. While I can read about characters who are screwed up and/or who I want to hit over the head, I’m always happy to read a story about someone who is competent and confident and wants to do good for the sake of doing good — it’s the trials they face, and, as Anika said, the people they interact with, that make the stories interesting. But those characters always grab me first and foremost.

I also loved the supporting cast, and I’d be very happy to read more about them in the future. Power Girl’s mentorship/friendship with Terra was probably my favorite part of the book, and one of the reasons every issue passed the Bechdel test — which is definitely not guaranteed in superhero comics, or even superhero comics about women.

Thinking about that supporting cast, and PG’s characterization, it occurs to me that the comic this reminds me of most is Dan Slott’s She-Hulk. Both comics are about confident women holding down adult jobs in an environment full of interesting characters while also being competent superheroes. And both balance humor, ingenuity (nanobots to fix collateral damage!) and continuity nods with serious character exploration. This is clearly a genre I love, and a genre we don’t see enough of. I’m not surprised that Anika and I seem to like Power Girl best of the four of us — she’s pretty much what would happen if you put She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel in a blender (with some teamwork and a pinch of alien DNA).

Anyway. I’m curious if anyone has thoughts about the craft-related parts of the book: art elements like layout, facial expressions, and costumes, and writing elements like plot and dialogue. Unlike Caroline, I actually didn’t think the superhero plots were all that original or compelling, though I appreciated the short arcs and the complete lack of decompression. This book was entirely about the character for me, and the little moments in PG’s personal life. However, I really loved the use of captions — Power Girl has a very distinct voice, and Gray and Palmiotti should be commended for that. A lot of her character can be found in those captions.

Caroline: I’m not sure I thought the plots were original and compelling, exactly, but they didn’t feel like the same thing I read every week, either. That backstory with the Ultra-Humanite was deeply weird and unsettling, and the story basically got there by taking a frivolous Silver Age concept and tearing it apart to ask what that would really be like. Also, like Anika, I found the environmentalist wizard girl a surprising antagonist. The runaway princess story was probably the most generic, but even with that one I didn’t always know where it was going to go.

What did strike me about the stories is that they didn’t feel very specific to Power Girl. You could pretty much have fit them in to any superhero’s story with slight tweaks. It sounds like, to Jennifer, that was a reason basically to handwave the plots and pay attention to the character parts. That’s basically how I read it, too — and I’ll emphasize I had a whole lot of fun with the book — but when I think over it, that suggests to me that there’s nothing really character-driven about the conflicts PG faces. She doesn’t need anything, particularly, so it’s hard for her story to have much of an arc. Tweak a few things and these plots could be happening to anybody, and at times I was wondering, “Why isn’t this a Wonder Woman book? Why isn’t it an Iron Fist book or an Emma Frost book, or a Superman book for that matter?”

This may be a weird criticism. I may have forgotten how to enjoy things just because they’re fun.

Maybe we should talk about the clothes.

Sigrid I’ll let Anika talk about the clothes. All I have to say is, I loved the entire supporting cast madly. I think I’m with Carrie — I would absolutely buy the next Palmiotti & Conner collaboration, but I might not buy the next Power Girl book. There’s something about the particularity of plot that is perhaps more important to me than I thought it would be, that is missing? But I would buy a comic about the people who work in Karen Starr’s company, and the trials they face. I would buy the hell out of that.

Okay, clothes?

Anika: I was excited for this book club because Power Girl was recommended to me by a few people — including Caroline — and most of them mentioned two things. 1. As Jen suggested, it is reminiscent of Ms. Marvel and 2. I’d love the art and specifically the clothing. I’ve read a bit about this series being written and drawn to combat Power Girl’s status as DC’s Hot Chick with Big Boobs and much like the comic, I don’t find it necessary to address that in detail, because it’s not what the story or the character is about. And of course I love Amanda Connor’s art but I don’t want to talk about the art specifically either. I want to talk about the clothes.

Our heroine has three looks in these stories: Power Girl, Ms. Starr the CEO, and Karen in her downtime. I love, love, love superhero street clothes. I love them when they resemble the heroes’ costumes to the point of absurdity and I love them even more when the hero is given a full and distinct wardrobe. Fashion and style mean a great deal to me so I read into it. Carol Danvers sleeps in t-shirts that alternately sport the words U.S. AIR FORCE, NASA, and AVENGERS. The fact that she labels herself this way says a lot about her personality without her having to say a thing (and it gives a little insight into her backstory if you don’t follow her as obsessively as me). Likewise, PG’s office wardrobe is business casual and that tells me she is serious but relaxed about her company — and the dialogue supports this. When she’s away from the office she lets her hair down — literally — and her wardrobe is playful. Both Karen and Atlee look like they shop at H&M (and Atlee likes Hot Topic). Karen’s red and yellow jacket reminds me of one Cassie Sandsmark has (falling into the resembling her Wonder Girl costume category) and the fact that Karen also has a Wonder Woman mug makes me think it is deliberate. Karen is wearing a shirt with a kangaroo on it when Atlee decides her secret identity should be Australian. The lady-bug on Atlee’s butt when her costume consists of removing her pants (because she forgot to always wear a costume) is genius. And Karen has a thing for boots, she wears them with everything.

Basically, I really like that Amanda makes Karen’s street clothes distinctive, it ties in nicely to the reoccurring discussion of secret identities. And as Christian points out over here at Red Carpet Superhero, Power Girl’s iconic costume doesn’t translate easily to street wear (but it is quite fashionable and if you’re looking to dress like PG, follow the link to find out more).

Caroline: I have to admit, I don’t love the Power Girl costume. It’s not that I think the boob window is an abomination, or anything, I just think the whole design is kind of ugly. But I have to admit, the way Conner draws her, she owns that look (and I think they had to keep the costume, because it’s the main thing that she’s known for). I like Anika’s point about her casual outfits, too. There’s some obvious thought in these, and I like that each of the characters has a distinct style. Finally, I just have to say much I loved the gag of Terra running around in her panties because she forgot her costume. It really doesn’t look much different from a lot of superhero outfits.

I liked a lot of the jokes in the book. I don’t always think “humor” books are really that funny, but there are moments in here — like the fake movie trailers — that had me laughing out loud. Still, it didn’t feel like a “joke-y” book overall. I went into this expecting something a lot more lightweight. Because the stories are more standalone, because the colors are so bright, or maybe just because I hadn’t perceived Power Girl as a serious character, I didn’t expect the book to give me as much substance in the storytelling. I think part of this has to do with the ways that it feels grounded in the real world, and I know Jennifer had something to say about the setting.

Jennifer: One of the reasons I’ve always been more of a Marvel girl than a DC girl is Marvel’s focus on New York City. As a New Jersey native, I’ve always felt a connection to NYC, and DC’s imaginary cities, no matter how detailed (Gotham) or appealing (Metropolis), never filled me with that same sense of connection. I like my fantasy to be grounded in the “real” world — Harry Potter rather than Lord of the Rings — and that’s what Marvel’s always given me.

But Power Girl also calls New York home — as does Jimmy Palmiotti — and the city as used here becomes a supporting character of sorts, in the tradition of some of the best place-specific writing. I mentioned the immigrant metaphor before, but it’s more than that — it’s the architecture of Park Slope, the fight in Prospect Park, the island geography, cheap IKEA furniture, Pete the firefighter, and the way the city’s denizens matter-of-factly refer to 9/11. I’ve always been wary of the use of 9/11 in fiction, particularly science fiction, and in a superhero universe it becomes even trickier. After all, with so many supervillain attacks happening every day, would 9/11 have had the same impact in these universes? But in this book, the characters repeatedly refer to moments of stress in the midst of disaster as “just like 9/11,” and I think it makes a lot of sense. Assuming superheroes have always been around to prevent permanent disaster, 9/11 remains the one instance in recent memory of a NYC disaster that wasn’t prevented, and is naturally the event residents would think of when faced with danger — just like real New Yorkers would, and do.

I think it’s this sense of realism, combined with Power Girl’s personality, that really sold the book for me. I can’t disagree with the comments about particularity of plot, but I’m almost glad the action plots were so generic, because they freed me up to focus on the smaller moments. I’d love to read a more continuity-dependent, Power Girl-specific story, and hope it’s written in the future, but I’m very happy with what we have here, and very happy that I got the chance to read it.

That wraps up our initial thoughts on Power Girl. What about you? What did you like about this ground-breaking work? Share your thoughts with us and the other members of the Fantastic Fangirls’ (Comic) Book Club in the comments below!

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  • Caroline

    Thanks again to everybody for the discussion. I think it’s cool that we all loved the book yet still found so much to talk about!

  • Great discussion. There is a lot to digest there. I would have been happy if they dumped the superhero sections and just published a story of a female CEO trying to run a start-up tech company and hanging out with friends. Those were my favorite parts.

  • Anika

    I agree with Ed! My husband and I were discussing how random the villains and villainous plots were in this (another similarity to Ms. Marvel) and I’d be more than happy to replace them with more of the business and home stuff.

  • Sigrid really hit it on the head why I really enjoyed this book: She’s a grown woman looking to better the world and the people around her.

    I do think that the plots get more interesting, or at least have interesting twists on the generic plots, in issues #7-12.

  • That was a really interesting discussion. I’ve always been interested in the character, but never read much about Power Girl in the past. Her background seemed so convoluted, it made me hesitant to go back and check her origins for myself. Power Girl #1 was the perfect “jumping point”, if you will, to tag along. I have to say I really enjoyed it. I’m not one to complain, like most, about super-hero stories being dark and grim nowadays, I actually welcome it and am probably part of that male demographic the big two companies aspire to captivate. But Power Girl’s stories were a nice breath of fresh air, as cliché as that sounds. They weren’t shining happy stories, but in a lighter tone, with lots of action, and yet solid character building. Faults? Yes, of course, most books have faults, so has this one, and I think it was Caroline that surmised it well, claiming the problem with Power Girl is that her life is too perfect, you never really fear for her. Still, it did not take away much from the overall entertainment value for the book. Two enthusiastic thumbs up, and no regrets about picking the book up. As a final aside, I also love PG’s interaction with the rest of the DC Universe, particularly her role in the Justice Society. If only they stopped that All-Stars nonsense and got everyone back together.

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