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Exclusive: Tom King on the 'hidden strength' that drives Supergirl in new 'Woman of Tomorrow' comic
Tom King's comics writing career exists in phases, and to hear him tell it, he's coming out of a somewhat darker one at the moment.
"I had an idée fixe that was in my head that I had to scratch and get out, and that became Rorschach and Strange Adventures and, to some extent, Bat/Cat. And it was the other side of what Mister Miracle and Heroes in Crisis were," King told SYFY WIRE. "Those were about dealing with evil and still living. And the next [phase was] like, why do we have to deal with evil? Evil brings about two emotions. It brings about comfort in the fact that you fight it, and there's comfort in that, but it also brings about anger in the fact that it exists and it's frustrating.
"So, those books are, and I'm super proud of this, they're books of 2020," King continued. "They're books about why things are wrong and how that changes us, books written from anger."
Then came Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, King's new 12-issue series with artist Bilquis Evely, which launched last month and offered something considerably brighter than much of King's other more recent work, something inspired by what he dubbed a "glimmer of hope" for the future in 2021.
"I'm not saying everything's perfect or good or bad, but it just seemed for a while that we had just taken a wrong turn. And I really believe in this country and believe it can move forward. And it just felt like we weren't moving forward. And then it seemed like, 'Oh, we can move forward,'" King explained. "So when I write Supergirl, it's much more from a place of … not a place of naivete, but a place of optimism and heart. So, yeah, that's the difference to me, what I see as the start of an idea."
With that optimism in place, King began to build a new kind of adventure for Kara Zor-El, beginning in the series' first issue by placing her drunk in a tavern on a distant, almost sword-and-sorcery inspired planet, where she has a chance encounter with Ruthye, a determined girl looking for a warrior to help her catch the man who killed her father. The structure of an eager young girl seeking help from a reluctant, gruff, battle-scarred fighter is very much borrowed from classic Westerns like True Grit, something King credits to editors Brittany Holzherr and Jamie S. Rich. Then there are the strange new worlds Supergirl is exploring, which came from Evely's love of epic 1970s science fiction comics.
"It's written for her, with her art in mind. When she started, I had a vague idea of what the book would be about, the premise of the book, but then when someone says Bilquis is going to work on a book, it's just like you won the lottery," King said. "And so when she said yes, I was like, 'What do you want to draw?' And she sent a mood board of maybe 20 shots from basic comic books she loved. And it was very the '70s, European, French style, the Moebius, the more abstract stuff of [John] Buscema and Gil [Kane]. A lot of stuff with the camera pulled back where you can see an incredible background and a small figure against it and you can feel the immensity of a comic."
He continued, "And I was like, 'Oh yeah, that's what this is. This is our Incal. That's the style we're going to lean into, this '70s, European, sci-fi comic book art.' And I mean, she puts it together in a way that's just astounding."
In the exclusive preview pages below, you can see just how much that '70s science fiction comics influence creeps into issue #2, as Kara and Ruthye begin a long trek across the galaxy on what is essentially a space bus, complete with aliens who are none too happy with Superman and would like to take it out on his cousin. Despite the distractions, it's a bonding experience for both women.
"In a lot of ways, this is a love story. Not a romantic love story, but a love story between these two characters, Kara and Ruthye, and this is the beginning," King said of issue #2. "They obviously don't know each other very well in the first issue. And here, this is them together for two months stuck on basically a Greyhound bus sitting next to each other, and them learning about each other and learning how the other one clicks."
"I mean, it was stolen from that old movie, It Happened One Night, where it's Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert on a bus for the whole movie and getting [into] adventures and slowly falling in love. That was the sense of it. It was like, 'OK, these are two characters starting to bond right before they hit the dirt.' I think that that's what I wanted to do with their relationship."
Evely's art played a key role in shaping Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow both visually and emotionally, but King also credits other influences beyond his direct collaborators for helping to shape the story, including two fellow comics creators. One was former Supergirl writer Steve Orlando, who King called when he started work on the book for some insights into what sets Kara Zor-El apart from her Kyrptonian kin.
"Steve's insight was to say, 'Supergirl has an origin that makes her very distinct. [She and Superman] don't have the same origin, although they both come from a destroyed planet, Supergirl lived on that destroyed planet. She was not someone who was told about a Holocaust, she was the one who lived the Holocaust.' And Steve and I both being of the Jewish persuasion, it hits hard," King said. "And so, that's where it sort of opened my eyes to, 'Oh, that's what makes her different.' Because I'd written a Superman story which I loved, and I love Superman, and I think I could have written a very similar story for Supergirl where she's an ideal human being who keeps doing ideal stuff. I think those stories are awesome, but that's when I realized that there was something to play with there that wasn't in Superman, a hidden strength and a hidden pain, and those things often go side by side, that we could really emphasize to make this an incredible series."
The other key creator King credits as an influence was, sadly, someone not available to speak to directly: Legendary comics writer Otto Binder, who made Shazam (then called Captain Marvel) into an icon before moving to DC Comics and helping revitalize the Superman family, including creating Supergirl from a deeply personal place.
"[Binder] had this daughter who he idealized, every description of her is the ideal '50s American girl, and she was beautiful and smart and he put all his ambitions, it was his only child, into her and she was killed by a bus accident when she was 16," King explained. "And she was the inspiration for both Supergirl and for Mary Marvel. And the idea that Supergirl started out as someone trying to capture the essence of their daughter in fiction, and then the daughter later died tragically, but the fictional idealization went on, I don't know, that seemed to me like a piece of magic. His daughter passed away but this reflection of her lives. I don't know. There's power in that."
Though those books covering his 2020 preoccupations are still coming out this year, and he's now at work on a just-announced DC Black Label series starring Christopher Chance, the Human Target, Supergirl seems to hold a special place in King's working life at the moment. When asked what impact he hopes to have on the character's legacy, his response was simple: To add to the evidence that she deserves to be a "pillar" of the DC Universe, with the neverending supply of new adventures that entails.
"She should always have a book. There should always be a place for people to go for good Supergirl stories," King said. "So I hope that's the legacy: to prove that we can tell amazing Supergirl stories with this character, that she's vital to the DC universe. And I hope at the end, there should be a nice little trade, if anyone says, 'Supergirl sucks, she's not fun,' here's the trade that proves she's awesome. It's the same goal I had for Superman: Up in the Sky where you can just, if you hate Superman and you just want to read something where you'll learn to love him, you can read Superman: Up in the Sky. I had the same thing with Supergirl."
Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow #2 is in stores July 20.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.