Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Back Issue Review: Supergirl Annual #1 (1996)

Later this week, Supergirl #42 will be digitally released, the ending of the latest volume of Supergirl. Unfortunately, it seems like the volume will end on a bad note with the character reeling from a villainous turn and shunned by the public.

Not exactly a great legacy for a run which had a 'rebirth' to a more classic heroic turn earlier only to have Supergirl angrily take off into space and then infected by the Batman Who Laughs.

I have been thinking a lot about Supergirl's legacy these days. I think I know what Supergirl represents. But now I am wondering, given the more recent 'evil' turns of the character, that I am the one in the wrong. Maybe the characters has moved beyond my concept of Kara (or even Matrix), an optimistic, bright, smart, determined young woman who wants to fight injustice.

Somehow that led me to the long box and Supergirl Annual #1 from 1996. This was the summer where all the Annuals were under the trade dress Legends of the Dead Earth. Because this Annual actually has several tales about Supergirl's legacy and today I'll be covering one of them.

 We get a splash page explaining the foundation behind the annuals. Earth is dead. And in the far flung future in the vast universes, the Earth's legends live on.

I don't know, in our 'does the story matter' continuity obsessed culture that an idea like this could happen again. These are clearly just one offs, with a concept not likely to be revisited again.

Even more interesting is the timing of this. This is cover dated June 1996. That is two months before Showcase '96 #8.  And three months before the beginning of the actual Peter David scripted Supergirl title. An Annual before the actual book is released? Fascinating.

And already, in the story I am reviewing today, the concept of Supergirl as an angelic figure, a prime them in the PAD book, is mentioned. I wonder how much of where David was going was already known.

On to the book.

 'The Surrogate' was written by Chuck Dixon with art by Ron Wagner and Bill Reinhold. Dixon weaves an inspirational tale built on Supergirl's mythos. And Wagner brings an angular, extreme point of view approach to the story that works for its setting. Very slick presentation here.

Remember, we are a millennia away from the present and maybe light years away from Earth's location. This is the Dead Earth era.

We see how in this time, an underprivileged class is used as slave labor for their overlords. We see a young blond girl plugged into a machine, her body used as a transmitter to control a device on the planet below.

In many ways, the whole contraption and idea sounds a bit like The Matrix, three years before that movie was released.

 The young girl, Cryssia, has her consciousness downloaded. But as her individuality is being stripped away, she remembers stories her parents told her about Supergirl.

Supergirl was strong and beautiful. She could fly. She was like an angel in heaven. And nothing could hurt her.

It is a nice picture by Wagner here showing a flying Supergirl soaring above the city with birds around her. Appropriately angelic.

But the legacy is clear. Supergirl was someone who protected people, like a guardian angel.

This is years away from PAD finally revealing that in the main book. So for me this is very interesting.

 But that memory is nothing like Cryssia's reality. Her mind now controls an automaton on the harsh planet surface which mines ores from a planet inhospitable for humans. Should she fight her programming she will be in agony. Should she follow her programming, she will still live uncomfortably but in less pain.

Either way, this is a horrible life.  A life of slavery and torture.

Somehow she rejects the whole system and dies within the chair.

 But her consciousness remains within the malleable and adaptable and nigh-invulnerable mining automaton. We see how this device can form whatever tool it needs out of its body. It can shape change. It can survive the hellish environment of the planet.

When Cryssia takes it over with her mind, she makes it take the form of something she understands ... a girl.

You can see how this is a 'kind of, sort of' version of the Matrix Supergirl. She can shape-change. She has super-strength and invulnerability.

 The only thing missing is the S. Something which Cryssia takes care of, searing it into her new metallic body.

She has taken the form of her hero Supergirl.

And now she will stop the people who enslave others in this horrific existence.

 When the overseers send the other mining drones after Supergirl, she makes quick work of them.

 And then she hops onto a transit ray to head up to the satellite where the controllers are.

Stunning splash page here.

And nice text boxes as well. Cryssia remembers the words she used to describe Supergirl but now is describing herself.

 She pounds her way into the satellite to confront the enslavers.

As she makes her way into the control room, she sees her old physical form, dead in the chair.

This is also quite intriguing to me given the Supergirl series which is about to unfold. One of the main character beats in that series is Supergirl not knowing if she is truly 'alive'. Is she Linda Danvers? Or is she just the created protoplasm Matrix? Does she have a soul? Is she human?

Seeing this panel layout here, months before this topic is explored by Peter David makes me curious. Did Chuck Dixon just write this moment? Was there some summit where David explained to the Superman office what he was proposing and those themes were known to Dixon who included them here? Was this calculated? Or luck?

This new Supergirl decides to take matters into her own hands and destroys the satellite ending this morbid mining operation where humans are used as expendable tools.

Look at that second panel. Are those flame wings??

Seriously, did Dixon and Wagner know about those nearly 2 years prior to their reveal in the book?

We learn in the story that Cryssia's rebellion led to the other slaves' personas being downloaded into their drones. No slaves died in her rampage. You can see them on the planet looking up at her, a hero for them to love.

And so there is a new Supergirl up in the heavens.

Not a bad little Elseworlds. The timing of it and the ripples of the PAD series seen here before that book even hit the shelves really makes this interesting to a Supergirl fan.

But I just love the idea. Thousands of years hence, Supergirl is still remembered as a hero who fought for people. She is so inspiring, she helped Cryssia transcend and become a new hero. This is the Supergirl I want to see. This is the legacy I want DC to be creating.

If you are a fan of the PAD series, I recommend looking for this book in the cheap bins. It is a curiosity. Otherwise this is of very low importance in a Supergirl collection. But this works for an old timer like me.

Overall grade: B+


Bostondreams said...

Have you seen any of the new Stargirl TV series? It really is a bright, hopeful, cheerful look at a young heroine learning who she is...with some nice callbacks to DC history and the Justice Society.

Anonymous said...

Is this story referring to the Supergirl "known" to that era - Matrix? Or to Kara Zor-El? Or, just leaves it vague...

It is an interesting idea, a unified Dead Earth Elseworld theme. It's a stretch beyond their usual Elseworlds, but the idea of ignoring continuity where "everything matters" has perhaps never been stronger. The Giants, Black Label, YA and Kids book are all way outside continuity.

Tom Taylor wrote that post-apocalyptic story "Last Daughter" (with finished art by Yasmine Putri) in the DC Nuclear Winter Giant, where a future Supergirl was the hero.

Straying further off topic, but speaking of Taylor and Giants, she's also the surprise hero of his story "Bad News" in the DC Villains Giant.

And I think she came off well in his Injustice 2 series.

I think she has yet to appear in his "Elseworld" DCeased, which suggests he's holding her in reserve, which could be good or catastrophically bad. Or both.

In fact, can we lobby for Taylor to take over the next run of Supergirl? I don't think he has written a bad story featuring her. And he may be DC's most reliably good writer. A seeming inexhaustible fount of creativity. But he may be destined for only the biggest titles in the future.


Professor Feetlebaum said...

Peter David said that he was inspired by that panel in Action Comics 252, where Supergirl decides to act as a "sort of Guardian Angel" to the town of Midvale. Maybe Chuck Dixon was also so inspired.

Exchange the red skirt for a blue one, and that's the Silver Age Supergirl in that picture. The hairstyle is similar, the belt is not the Matrix style V-belt, but the Silver Age belt with the round buckle, and finally, the sleeves are not pointed. And Silver Age Supegirl did sport a red skirt on a few occasions early on.

I can't help but wonder if this was Chuck Dixon's backdoor tribute to the original Kara Zor-El. He couldn't come right out and say that she existed, so he told her story in fairy tale terms-"Once upon a time".

There's no way to tell, without asking the parties involved, but I've got a feeling that any similarities between Peter David's Supergirl and this one are just coincidence.

KET said...

The Dixon/Wagner story in the SG Annual certainly plays up the mythological aspects of the character, without actually using standard semantics tropes. Dark and grim setting, to be sure, but still there was hope to be found in resisting the expected norms. Still potent reading for today.


Anonymous said...

"Is this story referring to the Supergirl "known" to that era - Matrix? Or to Kara Zor-El? Or, just leaves it vague..."

Good question. Back then, Matrix was the only Supergirl. But flash-forward several years, and Kara is the only Supergirl to ever exist in Post-Crisis continuity. And that Supergirl resembled Silver Age Kara very closely.

"I think she has yet to appear in his "Elseworld" DCeased, which suggests he's holding her in reserve, which could be good or catastrophically bad. Or both."

Both Karas -Zor-El and Zor-L- make a cameo appearance in the first DCeased. They can be seen in the background during a crowd scene. However, when Superman gets infected, he says goodbyes to Ma, Lois and John... and he doesn't even mention his cousin(s). And when a zombie Superman is going on a rampage, SG and PG aren't even mentioned.

So I'd not hold my breat.