Writing good, action-focused comics is a surprisingly delicate business. Go too dark and serious, and you court self-parody; rely too heavily on humor, and it will be harder to sell readers on more serious moments when they become necessary. If the first four issues of Supergirl are any indication, creators Mike Green, Michael Johnson and Mahmud Asrar get this. Their re-introduction of Kara Zor-El to the new DC Universe nicely balances the gravity of the character’s origin with the fun of an almost non-stop brawl. Supergirl isn’t perfect, but it’s as good a no-frills superhero comic as you’re likely to find among the ranks of the New 52.
Supergirl is one of the few books in DC’s new line-up with the audacity to start its run with a straight-up origin story. Even though Kara’s origin shares most of its pertinent details with that of her more famous cousin, one simple change makes all the difference. While Kal-El arrived on earth as an infant, Kara emerges from her own escape pod as a fully aware teenager. What greets her is a squadron of mech-suited soldiers in the employ of new villain Simon Tycho (of whom more later) and the rapid onset of her godlike powers. In her fear and anger, she lashes out at anything within range of her heat vision, and basically doesn’t stop for four issues, even when Superman himself makes a vain attempt to calm her down.
As with other New 52 standouts such as Batwoman and Animal Man, the visuals in Supergirl are so integral to its overall success that it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Mahmud Asrar ever drawing the book. He conveys Kara’s strength and ferocity with a gestural lightness and even humor that always keeps the book feeling energetic. Her battle with Superman in issue 2 is one of the best punch-ups of the New 52 so far, largely thanks to the way Asrar’s pencils work in harmony with the story Green and Johnson are telling about Kara learning adapting to her new powers as they manifest themselves.
It’s a shame, then, that the same loose style that makes Asrar’s action scenes so exhilarating can be detrimental in more expository moments, with characters often sporting odd or unintentionally funny expressions that feel like they were dashed out without much thought. This is especially clear in his portrayal of Superman (who, would be unrecognizable as the character if he weren’t wearing the costume), and Simon Tycho, who despite being an international power-broker often looks like an overly excited child ripping into his Christmas presents.
Speaking of Tycho, his confrontation with Kara is the real meat of the first story-arc. A space-dwelling trillionaire, Tycho is obviously meant to be Supergirl’s Lex Luthor, and while he works well enough in that role, one might have hoped for a more imaginative nemesis. Green and Johnson do at least come up with a cute twist on the idea, as it quickly becomes clear that Tycho isn’t nearly as prepared to deal with an angry Kryptonian as Luthor would have been. Kara easily trashes his space-fortress, leaving him in a state that offers some hope that he’ll become a more interesting character in future appearances—though there’s also the chance that he could just end up as an angrier, wealthier Reed Richards.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a story-arc which is essentially a four-issue fight (albeit against a few different opponents) characterization would suffer. Still, if there’s a major problem with Supergirl so far it’s that we’re not getting to know enough about who Kara is when she’s not tearing through hapless opponents. A single, one-page flashback to her life on Krypton hints that she struggled with accepting her responsibilities there, but gives no hint as to why. What is clear for now is that Kara doesn’t always think her actions through as well as she should. In her fights against Superman and Tycho, she carelessly endangers hundreds of people. While she shows some remorse afterward, she’s hardly guilt-ridden in either case. Hopefully this will be explored in future issues, and in such a way that Kara forges her own identity rather than simply accepting Superman’s moral code.
That’s not to say that Supergirl needs to become yet another book about a brooding, introspective hero. What makes these first four issues such a blast is that Kara doesn’t always think before she starts throwing punches, or after she leaves billions of dollars worth of destruction in her wake. Supergirl may not be the best written or drawn book of the New 52, but it is the most unapologetically awesome, and in superhero comics, that counts for a lot.