The Watchtower: From Images to Icons
    Photo by j_philipp on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    The power of images has always been vital to superhero comics. As such, the cover of Action Comics #1, the first of them, is no exception. Featuring a now-legendary image of Superman hoisting a car up in the air to protect a frightened bystander (and the title and price), the cover is otherwise blank. It doesn’t have a caption, it doesn’t say anything in words, because it doesn’t have to. The image speaks for itself, and with it, the first of many hugely resonant images of superheroes, an icon was born.

    Supergirl wasn’t so lucky. Though the original Supergirl (introduced in 1958’s Superman #123) fared pretty well, it took her death and martyrdom in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths to really mythologize the character. Ironically enough, this left fans clamoring for more of her and, consequently, left DC with the difficult task of remaking Supergirl.

    After a decades-long string of relative failures, DC wanted a Supergirl who could stand the test of time — not just a character, but an icon. She, like the pre-Crisis Supergirl before her, would need to stand on her own two feet, stepping out from Superman’s shadow to become a full-fledged hero in her right.

    It wasn’t until May 2004 that DC visibly got the ball rolling. Armed with considerable writing talent and a well-laid plan to bring Supergirl back and return her to her roots, scribe Jeph Loeb was all set to bring Kara Zor-El back into the DCU. To revive Supergirl, he gave her a revitalized, leaner origin (as Superman’s long-lost Kryptonian cousin) and hadwell-tested plan to legitimize the character to readers through her contemporaries (Superman, Batman, and the like).

    But that wasn’t enough. Despite Loeb’s revolutionary treatment of the character, he needed something more — “The Perfect Artist,” as he put it, someone skillful and bold enough to secure the popularity of the Girl of Steel. Thankfully, DC found just that, bringing the brilliant and, tragically, now-late Michael Turner on board for the project. With Turner’s bold, meticulous linework and gorgeous figure-drawing, he was the clear choice, possibly the only man who could secure the Kara Zor-El’s immortality. It was Turner, more than Loeb, whose phenomenal arc of the Superman/Batman series, gave both readers and editors not just a Supergirl fit for the modern age, but a Supergirl they could love.

    Though Turner’s work, like much of comics art, has been criticized (with varying degrees of validity) as sexist, unrealistic and idealized, there’s no denying that he makes characters look absolutely stunning. Really, they look almost divine, and in this case, that’s by no means a fault — in fact, it’s the entire point. Turner’s work makes “Supergirl” not just a generic character introduction, but a truly defining story arc, showcasing the character at her very best and affirming, once and for all, through the strength of images, her place in the universe.

    Anyone who’s witnessed the raw magnitude of the Tiananmen Square photographs or the stark, quiet humanity of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” can acknowledge the power of images—whether accessible or dramatic, have the power to mean so much more to us than words alone. And that power is by no means exclusive to photographs. Comics draw on that too, and as Turner shows, it’s one of their greatest strengths. Superheroes, if we expect them to endure, have to be, bigger, better and grander than we are, at least at some point. It takes that imagery, that same lofty elevation that gives every tragic hero somewhere to fall from, to forge characters into icons. That iconography, even with flawed heroes, is what gives the struggles, pains, loves and losses of our characters such a profound impact, and one communicable only through image. Though we certainly depend on good stories, it’s the imagery in comics that’s responsible for the legendary, mythical qualities in superhero comics. Turner taps into this, the raw immediacy, power and even humanity of images that, ever since Action Comics #1, created these icons, and it’s that same power that will allow Kara Zor-El to endure, both through the upcoming War of the Supermen and beyond.


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