One of my favorite college professors once said something in a class on renaissance drama that changed how I looked at history and storytelling. While discussing the enduring power of certain stories, she said that people have been telling stories about the same things for centuries. What changes is the language used. A character from one of these plays written in the early 17th century could be dealing with alcoholism or depression, and the audience understood those problems, but we as a culture didn’t develop those words until much later.
In that spirit, while E.J., K.P., and Meagan have all discussed literal shapeshifting, I’m going to be taking a more metaphorical approach, specifically looking at the type of shapeshifting most seen in modern superhero stories. DC Comics: Bombshells is a comic series that takes place in an alternate universe where the DC heroines get involved in World War II. The various intertwining stories follow Wonder Woman, Aquawoman, Vixen, Zatanna, and many more, but I’m going to focus on Batwoman, Stargirl, and Supergirl.
The first volume opens in Gotham City in 1940 at a women’s professional baseball game, where the players are forced to wear masks to hide their identities to protect themselves from harassment. This isn’t an origin story. In this world, the Batwoman, AKA Kate Kane, has been active on the baseball field as well as in the streets fighting crime, even merging the two when a group of criminals attacks the crowd gathered at the stadium. When Amanda Waller offers her the chance to help end the war, Kate doesn’t hesitate because, as she says, “I want my life to have greater meaning”1 a meaning she can’t get on the home front. Whether that’s a character flaw or strength is left up to the reader.
No matter the reason, she heads off to Berlin on a spy mission, where she continues to be Kate Kane in public and the Batwoman in private. In every superhero story, the protagonist is, essentially, two people—their heroic identity and their secret one. Kate is no different. She feels unable to contribute to the extent she wants as Kate Kane, so she becomes the Batwoman.
While she represents America in the war, Stargirl and Supergirl hail from the Soviet Union. In this universe, Kara Starikov (elsewhere known as Kara Zor-El) landed in Russia when she was sent to Earth. Consequently, she was found and adopted into a Russian family, including an adoptive sister, Kortni Duginovna. In 1940, they join the Night Witches, Russia’s legendary squadron of female fighter pilots. After an accident with Kortni’s plane forces Kara to reveal her alien powers, they pressed into service as Stargirl and Supergirl, “pinnacles of Soviet civilization” and “defenders of the motherland.”2 Their identities are turned into propaganda.
The question with all three of these characters, and with superheroes in general, is which identity is the true one? How does donning a costume and wearing a mask alter the original identity? In “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities,” Tom Morris discusses this dual nature, particularly in regards to Superman and Batman, and comes to the conclusion that “a duality has replaced a singularity, but with a new, fused unity.”3 In essence, a superhero character isn’t their secret identity at certain times and their heroic identity other times. They’re both simultaneously.
In her essay “What Is a Female Superhero?” Jennifer K. Stuller argues that “stories about superheroes can teach us about our socially appropriate roles (or, if we’re savvy, how to subvert them), how we fit into our communities, and about our human potential, both terrible and great.”4 As we do with all fiction, we learn about ourselves and other people through superhero stories. So while we read about a superhero’s two identities becoming one, we realize that we, too, can transform.
Circling back to Bombshells, at the end of volume two, Stargirl’s and Supergirl’s story intersects with the Batwoman’s in London, where they face the threat of the Tenebrae, soldiers brought back from the dead. All the heroines we’ve been introduced to so far are here, so there’s a lot going on in this climactic scene. Among the chaos, though, the Batwoman says to Stargirl, “Symbols and stories got power, sugar. Fairy tales and propaganda. It’s all in the story you tell. It’s all in the story you sell. . . . Write your own ending.”5 This brief, powerful moment confirms that we don’t have to wait around for change to find us. We have the power to change our story, and through that, we transform ourselves.
The Batwoman’s words make an impact on Stargirl, too. The memory of them nudges her into an otherwise unexpected choice that forever changes her life and her sister’s. “I am a new story,” she says. “I am a story for mothers to tell their little girls. We must decide for ourselves what we would create, what we would change, and what we would leave behind. What you leave will be the thing that most defines you. What you save will be the thing that saves you.”6
These are tumultuous times, and the challenges we face personally and as a society can seem overwhelming. But since we’ve told stories, we’ve taken strength from them. If we start small, start close to home, save the things we love so they can save us in return, maybe eventually, the shape of our society will shift into something kinder and lovelier for everyone.
- Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 1: Enlisted. DC Comics, 2016.
- Morris, Tom. “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities.” Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris, Open Court, 2001, 250-266.
- Stuller, Jennifer K. “What Is a Female Superhero?” What Is a Superhero?, edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2013, 19-23.
- Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 2: Allies. DC Comics, 2016.