There’s a new guy in town and he is as charming as the very devil. He’s a bad boy, no doubt, but is he a bad guy? Probably not. And there’s this one girl. She’s immune to his charms. God-given, charms, he reminds us.
A rugged survivalist and individualist returns to the big city and rather than claim the fortune his family built, instead builds a shadow conspiracy for enacting (rather than pursuing) justice. Other people join in this conspiracy, and later, people with super powers.
There’s this girl who’s new to the city and she’s got to navigate the usual minefield of what girls new to the city have to navigate. And it’s not going well, except sometimes when it is. And maybe if she can get through to her boss on some level, maybe things will turn out OK, and plot twist, she’s got super powers and the exact same tensions in her everyday ordinary life, the ones where she’s got to prove herself, well she’s face those same tensions in her superhero life where Top Secret military programs don’t trust her to get the job done just like her boss doesn’t trust her to get her coffee.
So we’ve got all of these tropes. Through Lucifer, not just any Lucifer, but the Lucifer written by the phenom Neil Gaiman, that eventually spun off into his own self-titled book. We’ve been through, for want of a better word, Justice Society, now being rebranded as Legends of Tomorrow, and we’ve certainly been through Supergirl. And especially after shows like The Arrow and the ridiculously first-class The Flash, and even before that, with shows like the hyper-successful Smallville (Ten seasons! That’s twice as many as Boardwalk Empire), we collectively, as an audience have been prepared for television being a kind of “science fiction” version of their “originals” in comic books.
But what exactly are we looking forward to when we’re looking forward to these forthcoming shows, Supergirl, this Fall, Lucifer next year, and much later in 2016, Legends of Tomorrow? At some level the answer’s the same for each: we’re just looking for entertaining television. But at another level entirely, our expectations around these individual shows get to the very heart of transmedia as a phenomenon.
In many ways Supergirl is the most hopeful of the three. But to fully appreciate why means going back to the roots of comics. Just because it’s buzzing in my brain right now, because of the Darkseid War that’s just kicked off in earnest in the pages of Justice League, why not throw in a Jack Kirby/New Gods reference? It goes something like: When Kirby introduced the New Gods near the close of the Silver Age, it could easily have been a meta commentary on the state of the comics art at that moment. Could easily have been, but back then, who was really interested in that kind of thing? Too few. But let’s not get distracted by talking about Phil Seuling and Denis Kitchen.
Kirby suggested that the factional, and ever-warring New Gods (Gods of Light and Hope who make their home on New Genesis, and Gods of Dark and Despair who inhabit Apokolips) both sprung from a single race of Old Gods who inhabited a single world, embroiled with a single, hyper-complex culture. That’s a really great metaphor, for the comics industry after Spider-Man, The Avengers, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Because roughly coterminous with these bold, new icons for an Age of sterling Silver, is the work of underground comix impresarios like R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. Work that predicates upon sexual anxiety, emotional angst, repressed libidinal flows.
New 52 Supergirl written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson and drawn by Mahmud Asrar
You get the picture: two hyper-simplified, abstract, Manichean cultures locked in eternal struggle. Silver Age comics with the bright promise, Believe Me Folks, Superheroes!, and the darker, more mature matter than exploits cultural expectations of the comics medium to deal with increasing mechanization not only of society, but of human psychology.
No doubt Kirby, along with other giants of the comics industry, introduced a revolution with their design of the Silver Age. But what was that revolution a response to? In Kirby’s creation of the New Gods, there’s a clue—a single culture, wherein both of these Manichean tropes were unified. So, the so-called Golden Age comics of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
Those books, those characters were really something. At its darkest, how is Batman not a crippling revenge fantasy? Criminals took the lives of my parents, so now I’ll beat criminals to a pulp? A single one-percenter’s war of the rich on the criminal poor. And at its darkest, how is Wonder Woman not a mainstream desensitizing of BDSM and sexual roleplaying? A woman who enters battle in stiletto heels and braces, who ties up her enemies and sits on them and then gets them to speak the truth.
(Just to be absolutely clear, I’m not going to say a single bad thing about Superman, because, he dismantled the Klan. And I don’t mean in the comicbooks, I mean for real with his radio show, but go Google that if you don’t know the story. On the other hand, the right hand in this case, one look at the trailer for Dawn of Justice, and the whole “Superman False God” that director Zack Snyder seems to pushing seems to hark back to Wertham’s original fears about the Over-Man. So I’m hopeful there, too.)
New 52 Supergirl written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson and drawn by Mahmud Asrar
So Supergirl wades directly into the middle of this. And our expectations are high. The show’s produced by the team of Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, the same team behind the hyper-successful Arrow and The Flash and of course the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow which will enter the fray with a built-in audience and then, possibly, like The Flash do spectacular and unexpected things. But, unlike the other three shows, Supergirl is not on the CW, in fact it’s far more mainstream, and will be debuting on CBS. So even if Kreisberg, Berlanti and Guggenheim make claims that all of their shows take place in the same universe, and by extension, that the dark and grim and badly lit world of Arrow is really the same as the bright and hopeful world of Supergirl, there’s some tension that will need to be overcome. At least at some level with the two shows being on different networks.
As an aside, I’m curious to get to know what are some of CBS’s expectations around for property? Do they think they’re buying a successful property and hope to transcend it? Supergirl’s never been a big hit. Even her time in DC’s New 52 (post their 2011 reboot) ended with Supergirl giving herself over to the galactic manifestation of anger by becoming a member of the Red Lanterns. Supergirl’s creators, and arguably even her publisher have never been able to develop a coherent long-term strategy for the character in the way they have for Superman or Batman or even Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (Shazam, I mean) or the Flash or Green Lantern or Green Arrow.
And in addition, CBS is pitting Supergirl up against shows like Limitless (also on CBS, a sequel of sorts to the 2011 movie of the same name, exec produced by Limitless lead Bradley Cooper), and over on Fox, Minority Report (also an of sorts sequel to the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg 2002? 2003? vehicle also of the same name). So what does CBS think its buying in buying Supergirl and the transmedia dream team of Kreisberg, Berlanti and Guggenheim? And why does CBS think there’s a market for small screen expansion of middling (albeit likable) big screen ventures from the past decade and a half or so?
It would be interesting to know. But ultimately, that’s not what’s most important about the show. Look at that trailer carefully, and you’ll see something that the transmedia dream team’s been missing thus far in their shows, even in their phenomenal spin-off The Flash. You’ll see heroism. Supergirl’s not doing this for herself. No one’s going to be inspired by the hyper-secretive deeds of the Arrow, a dark sentinel of justice, and no one can be inspired to do what the Flash does (you’d need super powers for that). But Supergirl, super powers or not, there’s a hope and an optimism there that seems to carry through, and more than that, that seems downright infectious.
Then there’s her ordinary everyday life. Which seems a little Sex in the City but not in a good way. But think back to the Kirby New Gods metaphor. Think back to libidinal flows and optimistic, hopeful superheroes as a single entity. Supergirl’s fetching coffee for Cat Grant is every bit as libidinal as Batman’s Bruce Wayne donning a tux and heading out with a trio of supermodels. That, really, is the only response you’d need for this familiar cynicism that’s crept in since SNL’s hilarious and thought-provoking skit on a potential Black Widow movie—that somehow female superhero characters are flawed by an inherent misogynistic design, that they can’t stand the test of time.
As for Lucifer, I’ll say this. I’ve read every panel of the original comicbook lovingly composed by Mike Carey and the various artists he’s collaborated with, and I’ve seen every episode of Californication, the show that was the brainchild screenwriter of the pilot episode for Lucifer, Tom Kapinos, created. And neither of those were a punchline.