Mariko Tamaki Talks Supergirl: Being Super, Teen Angst & Friday Night LightsMain Art by Joëlle Jones & Kelly Fitzpatrick Comics Features mariko Tamaki
Supergirl: Being Super isn’t your average origin story. Instead of a run-of-the-mill post-event reboot, award-winning author Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer delivers a heartfelt, modern take on Kara Danvers’ early years on Earth that’s heartbreaking and endearing all at once. Together with artist Joëlle Jones and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, Tamaki spins a Supergirl story that manages to capture the hopeful essence that’s characterized Kara’s cousin Superman for decades, even against the backdrop of teen angst and shocking, unthinkable tragedy.
The trade paperback of Supergirl: Being Super hits bookstore shelves this week, and Paste recently sat down to discuss Kara’s past, Friday Night Lights and what it means to turn 16 when your whole childhood has already been wilder than any Super Sweet Sixteen could ever hope for.
Paste: I reread Being Super this week, I’m very emotional about it. I think it’s one of the most modern and for me, as a young millennial, sort of relatable retellings of Kara’s origins that I’ve ever read. How did you connect with DC on doing the book in the first place, and how much did you know going into the book what you wanted to do with the series?
Mariko Tamaki: So DC Comics, I believe—it’s been a while—I believe DC Comics approached me and asked if I was interested, and specifically about doing something with Supergirl. And as soon as they mentioned Supergirl, I just had this real image of… I mean I’m a huge Friday Night Lights person, like hardcore Friday Night Lights. And I really loved this idea of the sort of struggle with greatness. This idea of a very sort of in-situ look at what it’s like to be this girl in a small town who also happens to be an alien who may or may not at some point need to save the planet. I sort of tried to take it from that sort of My So-Called Life approach to things, like what does it feel like to be that person on a daily basis? For whatever reason, it was so fun, and everything I brought to the story, DC Comics was super into, so it was really fun to write this book.
Paste: You mentioned Friday Night Lights—I think that kind of small-town, tight-knit community vibe was something that I really enjoyed through the series. One of the lines that stuck out the most to me was when Kara’s dad, when she’s a child, tells her, “There’s no magic, there’s power, and responsibility.”
Superpowers as a metaphor for puberty is a common theme in a lot of superhero comics and I really enjoyed how you turned that on its head, putting Kara in this position where she initially thinks, Well, my superpowers are being really weird because I’m 16 now, and having her navigate this space where actually, that’s not the case! Sixteen is going to be really weird for you because you have powers, it’s not being 16 that’s making your powers weird. It puts her in this position of not just trying to be a normal girl with superpowers, but being put in this position of—there’s a lot of things about you that we’re never going to give you the answers for, you have to figure that out. I think that’s a really relatable teenage experience, something I really appreciated that you brought to this book.
Tamaki: I really tried to think of the superhero thing as being a part of her personality and experience, but stripped of any context—like, if you really had no idea why it was that you could lift up cars and fly, how would that fit into your day-to-day experience? I think, you know, there’s parts of it that would feel sort of breathtaking and incredible, you could go for a fly, a little quick flight in the middle of the night, you know? Because you could just be like, I’m just going to go for a spin around the—you know, because it feels really nice, and I love flying.
And then there’s part of it that would be just sort of weird. Your dad would make you use it to help him move stuff around in the barn. But I also wanted it to be this very practical thing, and my notion was, who is going to pick this alien child up from the cornfield and bring her in and then make her part of their lives? And I love the idea that it was this very practical couple, who were like, “Look, we all have to pay the bills around here. It’s great that you can fly, but this is just one of many things about you,” that they wouldn’t treat her any differently, or give her this notion that she’s any more special because she can do these great things.
Paste: Right, and I think—obviously there’s also a moment in the book where Kara loses somebody incredibly important to her in her life, and I think that also really came through in the way that her parents kind of helped her try to cope with the loss but also weren’t really positive how to help her cope with that. There’s a moment where her mom asks her when she’s out running, would you mind picking up some cereal from the store, you ate it all, but that’s okay.
Paste: The very mom moment, where it’s like, I want you to know that it’s okay that you’re feeling this way, and I’m supporting you through this way that you’re reacting to it, but also, if you are going to continue to eat all the cereal, which is fine, please just buy more cereal.
Tamaki: Since you can run so fast and it’s not going to be a hassle for you to carry it home, then you should go pick up cereal. Yeah! I wanted there to be a real loss—I wanted it to be a significant loss in the book, which was also, just btw, heartbreaking to write, the loss that she suffers was one that I felt really bad about, and many a night [I] was very upset about it, even as I was writing about it, so I thought well, if I’m this upset about it, hopefully it will have some impact for other people as well.
Paste: It did, I cried.
Tamaki: Oh good!
Paste: That’s another moment that sticks out, as Kara’s trying to explore her grief, and she says, “All I can feel is empty space all around me.” From a different perspective, as somebody who’s dealt with depression in other ways as well, that’s an incredibly relatable feeling—from Kara’s perspective, as a 16-year-old, you’re dealing with this huge event. It’s something really life-changing, something you don’t ever stop to think that you’re going to have to experience, and also on top of that, dealing with what you think are these huge changes in your body at the same time.
Paste: And she has to stop—it’s like, I don’t have words for these feelings because I don’t know what these feelings are. There’s just nothing but also too much at the same time.
Tamaki: Right, yeah! Which is what everything—when you’re a teenager, everything feels like it’s the end of the world. Everything feels incredibly personal, and like it’s too much for you, and I think it’s kind of good to have that as part of a superhero story. It is a tremendous responsibility to feel like if you do not step up, then things are going to happen that will be your responsibility. And to establish that early in the story, that she’s had this thing happen to her, what the consequences are of not being the superhero you’re supposed to be. And it’s not fair. A lot of this book is about stuff that’s not fair, as opposed to stuff that’s heroic, or that the stuff that’s heroic is also really not fair.
Paste: A lot of that comes full circle towards the end of the series as well with Tan-On and Kara’s dealings with him. She gets to this point where she feels really hopeful, she’s found somebody else who she feels finally shares her experiences, and then has to come to terms with the fact that, you know, we share a lot of experiences but… we share a lot of background, so to speak, we come from the same place but our experiences are so different that we have perspectives that Kara can’t reconcile with. It brings it back to this idea of Kara’s dad telling her there’s no magic, there’s only power, and responsibility. And for Tan-On there was nobody in his life on Earth to have that talk with him, he didn’t get to have the dad talk that Kara had.
Paste: You have all these abilities, you have to do something with them that’s good.
Tamaki: I think also… I tried to make it so that the villains all had—or so-called villains—nobody does something without having some reason that is at least somewhat reasonable. So nobody’s just like, I’m just a huge jerk for no reason that you can figure out. I wanted it to be that everybody in this story has something that they feel justifies their behavior, and that’s the question for Kara as a hero is, what justifies what you do? What is the reason behind the thing that you’re going to do? I think that is, in terms of making the world a better place, I think that’s kind of a vague thing to think about, but we all sort of have to sit down and figure out what’s important to you as a person, in this world. What are you going to fight for?
Paste: I’d like to change gears a little bit—a book full of teenagers, and in comics there’s a lot of issues with people drawing books full of teenagers that don’t necessarily look like teenagers. What was it like working with somebody as skillful as Joëlle Jones, who’s able to bring these characters to life in a way that feels extremely real? Different looking—I love Dolly—people, different looking fashions, their own styles.
Tamaki: One of the first illustrations I saw that Joëlle was working on was this picture, I think it was the scene with Kara in the kitchen with her parents, and just all the detail that went into that. There’s so much storytelling in all of these illustrations, you really have an immediate sense of place and time when she draws something.
These are stories that are told by two people, and so it’s always reassuring to know that the person who’s telling the story, especially when it’s about teenagers, is on the same page that you are, in terms of their vision connects up with yours. Though conversely, sometimes I am really surprised by the things that an illustrator will bring to a story, and they’ll bring things that I didn’t really expect. Joëlle just has such a great sense of character in her illustrations, and there’s so many things in this that are purely Joëlle things.
Paste: Kelly Fitzpatrick did amazing work too—all of the color work was amazing. Dolly’s hair looks incredible, I love that purple.
Tamaki: I know! So good. Dolly’s outfits, I’m actually wearing my version of Dolly’s outfit…all leggings and jean shorts is all I wear, so I felt like, this is it, I want all of her t-shirts. But even just the way [Jones] drew Jen’s little sister and stuff like that, the way she draws the supporting cast too is just really incredible. And I love that Kelly Fitzpatrick kind of pulled so much of the Supergirl theme in, even when [Kara]’s just wearing a sweatshirt and jeans as Supergirl, right? As opposed to her always wearing the spandex. She’s the hero that she is by this blue and red theme that Kelly carried through, though not in this way that’s overwhelming, which I really love.
Paste: Even just with the tracksuits, I noticed, Oh, this tracksuit on Kara really looks like what would become her Supergirl costume in the future, just really interesting moments throughout that were pretty cool. One more question—if you had the opportunity to revisit Supergirl, would you want to do that again?
Tamaki: Oh yeah. I said to DC many times that I have the part two, this kind of crash version of part two, so if that ever happened, I would totally do it.