Power Girl is one of my all time favourite DC characters, and honestly, that’s not the easiest thing in the world to admit. Family and non-superhero comic reading friends have always looked at my favourite hobby as a pretty juvenile enterprise, but with a costume like Karen’s, empirical proof practically presents itself in the form of what’s often referred to as a ‘boob window’.
Geoff Johns rather famously attempted to make a character driven purpose for this revealing and unique attire as being symbolic for her never ending quest for identity. The hole was meant for a logo that never got made, a symbol like Superman’s S, expect Power Girl could never quite find something that defined her better than the absence she left. In the good natured (but occasionally embarrassing) sassy women’s lib world of the Bronze Age of comics, Karen’s costume often symbolized her feminist determinism and pride in her physical appearance. Modern readers may be most familiar with Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner’s POWER GIRL, a light-hearted series where Kara Zor-L’s colossal bust and revealing attire contrasted humorously with an often sexually awkward and confused young woman.
Regardless of the story, there was no escaping the fact that, in some way, Power Girl’s costume always ended up defining her as a character more than we see with other superheroes, and I constantly find myself struggling with how I feel about that.
Bright, colourful and uniquely designed costumes are a big part of what made superheroes popular in the first place. When the primary comics reading audience were still children, a character or cover that looked cool and fun was the biggest draw of all, and designing costumes that fit this bill was (and is) a real art. Wally Wood was one of the best of those designers, not to mention simply one of the best cartoonists of his time, and the Power Girl costume has always been one of my favourites in comics. The blue gloves, the solid white, the akimbo belt, the half-cape, not to mention the blonde bob, it’s an iconic look that could have appeared in 1962 or 2027.
But that dang opening at the chest – there’s really no escaping how a choice like that severely affects how seriously an audience will treat a character. I often think it was said best at the comicbookgrrrl blog – “With greater diversity in our women characters in superhero comics, such outfits would be far more palatable. If we had women characters in all shapes and sizes, all styles of costume, all manner of presentation, it would be grand to have some women in what is currently the stereotypical superwoman outfit.” It’s hard to escape a truth like that, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder. If Karen’s costume were to be an exception rather than the rule, wouldn’t we just continue to single out Power Girl as being the ultimate example of titillating excess? Obviously, I’m very passionate about seeing more diversity in all media, but there’s a reason why these questions can make a fans head spin.
With the launch of the New 52, DC had a chance to start the complicated and multifaceted histories of their characters over again (again). Power Girl was introduced about a year in, and with this introduction, she received an updated look that, while perhaps a little more suited to the member of the Legion of Superheroes, managed to be streamlined and iconic while looking a little more tasteful. And the internet had an issue with that.
I love being a superhero comics fan. I take great pride in the community, and especially in the strength I gain from reading the stories. That being said, I think we’ve all had moments that filled us with some sense of shame, and the reaction to the nu52 Power Girl certainly was one of those. I won’t go as far as to type any direct quotes, but a quick Google search will result in some pretty nasty stuff, often beginning with shady phrases such as “Now, you can call me a sexist pig but…” DC quickly offered a new new costume, but the lack of skin continued to rile fans.
Which brings us the the last few weeks, and the release of SUPERGIRL #19 and WORLDS’ FINEST #12, where Karen returned to her classic (with some small superficial updates) look. Not only is this an example of the strangest thing about superhero comics – the immediate and ultimate power we fans posses – but also of note is the lack of furor around such a change. And the reason, as I said above, is simple – unfortunately, as great a character as I think Power Girl is, her costume occasionally invites the sort of person that doesn’t want to see her treated with respect.
Imagine if Marvel announced Carol Danvers was going to revert from her beautiful Jamie McKelive redesign to her (admittedly equally fantastic) classic cheesecake look? I can’t see the response being nearly as muted. That isn’t to say Marvel has more politically minded or passionate fans, but that Carol was able to garner a larger fan base over the years by being more than an eye-striking costume. Karen is just as fierce and confident as Captain Marvel, so why not more of a backlash? It’s difficult to pretend that the answer isn’t staring us in the face.
I’ll always love Power Girl as a character, and I’ll always love her classic costume. That being said, reverting to her old look is not only a sad reminder of the strange and regressive practices of today’s DC and the New 52, it’s also a pretty clear case of the bad guys winning. A million bad arguments were made as to why Karen should wear a costume that reveals her breasts, while a few small but passionate voices tried to explain that the new look was a step in the right direction.
Because, no matter how you want to spin it, covering up ‘the window’ doesn’t represent prudishness or sexual repression. You can only come to that conclusion if you remove all context of history. Yes, I want to see women wear whatever they wish. No, there’s nothing wrong with having a statuesque and obscenely well-endowed superhero. But, as quoted earlier, we only see one of one thing, and I find that the opposite of empowering. I may love Power Girl’s costume for being a beautiful and memorable design, but I’d sure love to see a story or two where it wasn’t mentioned. Karen is a great character, and we can say a lot more interesting things about her than the size of her bust, and despite the fact that Mike Johnson wrote the best damn characterization of her I’ve seen in ages, the return of the window holds her back.
Power Girl’s costume, and by extension female superheroes, is a complicated issue. Luckily, we’re seeing more and more fans voice their opinions and debate about where strength ends and exploitation begins. Hopefully, Kara’s costume was a small causality in a bigger war, and a reminder that we, as fans, do hold as much power as the heroes we love reading about. And if I’ve learned anything from these stories, well, we’re gonna have to use them responsibly.