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Interview: Mariko Tamaki and Joëlle Jones Focus More On the “Girl” and Less On the “Super” In Supergirl: Being Super

Supergirl Being Super

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Thanks to my stint as a co-host on Supergirl Radio and The CW’s (formerly CBS’) Supergirl TV show, I’ve become obsessed with all things Supergirl. However, as much as I love Kara, I’ve often felt that, because of the circumstances of her backstory she, unlike her cousin Clark, has often felt even less human. Much attention has been paid to the fact that the character left Krypton as a teenager, and as such, she feels the separation from her homeworld more. Supergirl: Being Super gives us a different Kara Danvers entirely.

Here’s the official synopsis of Supergirl: Being Super from DC Comics:

Imagine this: You’re an alien. You have super powers. You are SUPERGIRL. But you’re also 16, a teenager just trying to survive the day-to-day life of high school. The upside is yes, you can fly, you can crush diamonds with your bare hands. The downside is that being super can be a super complicated and super confusing thing to be, especially when the whole being super thing is a secret. As Kara Danvers turns 16, her powers begin manifesting in bizarre ways. Two words: ALIEN ZITS. This new series that is more than just heroics. It is the action-packed and heartfelt story of Kara and her attempts to balance the roles of teenager and hero.

The 48-page “Book One” still presents an alien with powers, but in this version she really reads like your typical YA book heroine; a normal girl under extraordinary circumstances. And yet, her life in Midvale seems real, and this is the most grounded, authentic Supergirl I think I’ve ever read. This is owed in large part to writer Mariko Tamaki, an award-winning Canadian writer who specializes in writing introspective graphic novels about young protagonists, including 2008’s Skim and 2014’s This One Summer.

She’s joined in this project by one of TMS’ favorite artists, Joëlle Jones, whose work we know from Dark Horse’s Lady Killer, among other things. Supergirl: Being Super is decidedly a departure from her usual, bloody fare, but through her work here, she gives us a Kara Danvers that looks and moves like any other girl, even when doing things like lifting a tractor over her head. And while this story is not at all bloody, that doesn’t mean that Jones doesn’t get a chance to express grossness in very teenage girl fashion.

I had the opportunity to ask these talented ladies about creating this version of Supergirl, along with a nuanced cast of characters with whom Kara shares her very human life. DC Comics has also provided us with some preview pages, which you can check out in the gallery above!

I asked Tamaki what goes into writing a character like Supergirl as a YA heroine, and if there was anything special she needed to keep in mind. She brought up the obvious difference between Kara and other girls, but still talked about it in a grounded way:

“Well. Kara has super powers. So I had to decide from the start how those factor into her life. I mean, every character has stuff. They’re smart and/or their obsessed with something or someone. Everyone has big things in their life. Super powers, though, are a bit distinct. They carry a weight and come with consequences that are pretty unique. So I spent a lot of time thinking what Kara’s superpowers meant to her. Not that I came up with a clear answer. In the end it seemed to me that it would be like most other things in life, a mix bag of amazing and thrilling and scary and a drag and a burden.

Aside from that deep storytelling stuff, superpowers are kind of an amazing thing to have as part of a story about being a teenager. They’re big and expressive, you know? What’s better than flying to clear your head? What’s more satisfying than crushing a diamond with your bare hands? When you’re 16 everything feels so big so why not throw superhuman strength in there, you know?”

Meanwhile, Jones’ depiction of the character is amazing and really evokes the feeling of reading an illustrated YA book, or even a children’s book. Kelly Fitzpatrick’s colors make me feel that even more, as the colors are really warm, and don’t feel the way comics usually feel to me. “Thanks!” Jones replied. “I really just wanted to take what Mariko had started with in the story and character descriptions and do it justice on the page.” The talented art team was rounded out by Sandu Florea handling inking duties and Saida Temofonte as the book’s letterer.

One of the best things about the art, as well as the writing, is Kara’s friends who, as far as I know, are original to this book. Dolly and Jen contrast physically and personality-wise both to Kara and each other. Dolly is a young “badass” lesbian of color who has meat on her bones, piercings, and chafes against her parents’ country upbringing, while Jen is a self-assured, driven, Type-A athlete with an athletic build. Kara fits right in between them. Slight, but powerful. An outsider, yet (at least at first glance) the picture-perfect ideal of a Midvale homecoming queen. I was fascinated by the way the three girls were drawn.

I was particularly fascinated by Dolly both for LGBTQIA representation reasons, and because of the way Jones created her as being of color, a larger body type than Kara or Jen, and her epic, punkish style! “I can’t remember all of the descriptions in the original character outline I got from Mariko,” Jones says. “But I remember reading it and knowing exactly what she was going for. I think in comics you can get tired of drawing the same things over and over. Dolly was a nice break from all the abs and thigh gaps I usually draw.”

Tamaki talks not only about the differences between the three friends, but her reasoning behind putting all three girls on the Liberty Lions track team:

“At first I was really drawn to this metaphor of the relay race, this visual of four people who are connected in this singular task. I let that go, eventually, but ultimately I wanted Kara to be a track and field person, a bit of a jock, and I liked the idea of this team of friends. I also wanted her to have friends that were different but were united in having Kara’s back. Dolly is a dyke and, relative to the other students at her school, a weirdo, but she is also totally cool being a weirdo. She embraces the things about her that make her stand out at her school. Which I think is a great thing to have in a friend when you’re an alien. Jen is someone who Kara kind of idolizes as someone who knows what she is and who she wants to be. She’s a dedicated athlete, focused, which I think is something Kara wants to have in her life.”

And then, there are Kara’s adoptive parents, who are very blue-collar. Her dad, Jeremiah, is particularly interesting because he seems to have this conspiracy theorist thing going on. Her mom is sweet and loving, but also works a lot. “For me it connected back to the origin story,” Tamaki explains. “Like, what couple finds a kid in a field in a weird looking pod and doesn’t say, ‘Call the cops?’ The story I came up with was that at least one member of said couple would be someone who wouldn’t call in an outside authority to deal with that kind of situation, no matter what. So that’s Kara’s dad. He deals with everything on his own, he doesn’t see any reason to involve anyone else in anything in his life. Period. He’s got his family and his farm. That’s it. His business is no one else’s business. Which is how, I think, you manage to raise an alien. And Kara’s mom is the one who saw Kara and thought; I will look after this kid like she was my own. She’s the heart. Kara’s dad has a heart too, don’t get me wrong. But he also doesn’t believe in birthdays so, there’s that.”

Tamaki and Jones’ collaboration is a beautiful one, and they seem to have worked really well together. Tamaki “loved Joelle’s designs from the minute I first laid eyes on them. I feel very lucky to have her on this project. There’s so much expressiveness, so much emotion in her character artwork.” Meanwhile, Jones says that “Working with Mariko was very collaborative. I would get the script, which is very open and isn’t broken into panels. I got to feel very much a part of the storytelling process.”

You should definitely check out the fruit of their labor when Supergirl: Being Super drops tomorrow!

(images via DC Comics)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.