Women and Comic Books

I did not grow up on comic books, although that was for no other reason than they seemed like a lot of money to invest in such flimsy bits of colored paper with very few pages. Books seem like way more bang for their buck, if you are basing it strictly on page count. So I didn’t care for many of the famous super heroes, though I didn’t really know anything about them. The old Batman and Superman movies were okay, but they really weren’t my thing.

And then the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Iron Man movies all came out. I was in love, though not any more capable of affording the past-time. And then libraries started getting into the graphic novel/comic book game, I decided there was nothing standing in the way of my getting my comic-book-nerd on.

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Get a list of the top 50 female comic book writers, compiled by ComicBookResources.com.

At first I grabbed some classics (including Rocketeer and a compendium of D.C. Universe Secret Origins stories). Then I grabbed an issue of the new Guardians of the Galaxy. They were okay but they didn’t seem worth it. And then Ms. Marvel arrived. Followed by my discovery of an awesome parade of kick-ass females helming their very own books. And a genuine love was born.

Women authors have been on my mind lately, and many of the best comic books (including Ms. Marvel) feature women writers,  but they remain a minority. So I thought that a great follow-up post about reading more women authors, would be a post about reading more women comic book characters, since there aren’t that many female comic book authors. Keep in mind that I am a relative newbie when it comes to comic books. Many of these characters existed long before I discovered them, and, since my library is focused on building current series since we don’t have an unlimited budget, my experiences are with current runs that have generally debuted in the last  one to two years. If you have any suggestions for me to read, please leave them in the comments below. I’m constantly looking to expand my comic book/graphic novel knowledge.

New looks at classics

Super heroes are the classic subjects of this format, so I thought I would start with some of books I’ve been reading in that genre. The links I provide are to the Goodreads pages for first volume of the series because Goodreads does a great job of linking to the rest of the volumes. My library buys volumes, as opposed to issues because it is cheaper and we don’t have to process issues on a weekly or monthly basis.

  • Wonder Woman (New 52): Without going into too much detail, D.C. decided to reboot their entire universe, sometimes wiping clean all timelines for some heroes. The new universe is called New 52 and Wonder Woman’s New 52 story arc and origin story are crazy awesome. I love Diana. She isn’t perfect, even though she’s an Amazon. She makes mistakes and the world weighs heavily on her shoulders, but she never gives up. My only problem is that Meredith Finch’s style is so jarringly different (she jumps in at Vol. 7: War-Torn) that I found it difficult to enjoy. That’s an issue I’ve found with a lot of comics, though. Story is only 50 percent and art style actually makes a difference in the story. I’ll just have to learn to accept change.
  • Captain Marvel (Marvel NOW!): Just like D.C., Marvel relaunched several of their characters in an effort to attract new readers. This endeavor was called Marvel NOW! Both of these initiatives work to my advantage, since their whole point is to bring in new readers who don’t have the motivation or time to read countless issues to catch up on a storyline. The stories really no longer matter, so just jump in. Captain Marvel, who used to be Ms. Marvel, drops that name and reflects on her place on Earth and in the universe. I enjoyed some of the side characters, but while Carol Danvers’ introspection is compelling, I didn’t enjoy the series as much as Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel, who takes on Captain Marvel’s mantle. (Comics can get confusing real fast, especially with these character relaunches!)
  • Batgirl (Batgirl of Burnside and Cassandra Cain): Batgirl of Burnside is a soft reboot of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, although she’s not considered part of the New 52. While an interesting storyline that integrates social media and features awesome artwork, I’m not a huge fan of Burnside. Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl, on the other hand, is incredibly compelling. A teen who was trained from a young age to be an assassin, has a run in with Batman. He talks her into being the next Batgirl, since Barbara Gordon is now in a wheelchair. What’s so compelling about her is that she can’t speak, write or understand speech, an effect of her traumatic training. I love how she develops and how Batman begins questioning who she is – as well as who he himself is – as the comic moves forward.
  • Ms. Marvel (Marvel NOW!): This spunky little Muslim-American teen started it all for me. After a strange mist brings super powers out of Kamala Kahn, she must learn to be proud of who she is and stand up for her neighborhood, all while juggling school, overbearing parents and unrequited love. Kamala, a huge fan of Captain Marvel, initially takes her form until she learns that only she, as Ms. Marvel, can save Jersey City from the forces gathering to take it down. As she learns to control her powers and accept herself, she comes into her own. Really, stop reading this blog right now and pick up volume 1. You’ll thank me later.
  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Marvel NOW!): I literally just discovered this comic today and I already love her as much as Ms. Marvel. She’s much quirkier than Kamala and already in full control of her powers. But, Doreen Green is also grappling with issues of who she is, how she can better herself and how best to find friends in the non-squirrel world. So, she’s just like all of us, just squirrelier. Pay attention to the asides at the bottom of each page. They’ll make you laugh and appreciate the wonder of Squirrel Girl even more.
  • Thor: Vol. 1: The Goddess of Thunder (Marvel NOW!): This feels like some guy said, “Oh, they want more female characters? Let’s just make Thor a girl!” The mystery of who female Thor is will likely be the only thing that keeps me reading because I didn’t love this one. It was entertaining, but, it’s the whole “Add a bow and lipstick to make Pac-Man into Ms. Pac-Man” and that’s kind of cheating.
  • Black Widow (Marvel NOW!): Let’s face it: Black Widow is the best Avenger. An unpowered woman who can stand up and be counted with Earth’s greatest heroes and stand her own? Who also used to be a Russian spy/assassin? Yes, please. The pace is fast and the art is so Natasha. I’ve only read the first volume, but this is a fun series, if lacking in the quirkiness some of the new characters bring (I’m looking at you, SG!)
  • She-Hulk (Marvel NOW!): Jennifer Walters is a lawyer and She-Hulk. Unlike the Hulk, she’s green 24/7 and has complete control of her faculties, even when she lets loose to beat up bad guys. This one also didn’t float my boat, although Jennifer was likeable enough. And it doesn’t help that her art style changes in the middle of the volume (there’s that change issues coming up again!). Perhaps I need a little more quirkiness if I am to identify with a superhero. Despite being green, she’s just too normal for me.

Breaking out of the superhero genre

Comic books and graphic novels are breaking into the mainstream, which means we have a ton of artists/authors who don’t want to write superhero stories jumping into the genre. This is also where a lot of women can break in and do their thing, especially since it feels like DC/Marvel are still filled with barriers against women, at least judging by the male to female author ratio.

  • Star Wars: Princess Leia and Darth Vader: Disney acquiring LucasArts paved the way for a new batch of Star Wars comic books, and as a new lover of the format, I could not be happier. Of the round of books that came out in the fall ahead of Episode VII, my favorites were the Darth Vader and Princess Leia books. Princess Leia is obviously a strong character, but it was her new sidekick that made me happy! In the old expanded universe, Leia had a best friend who grew up on Alderaan and allowed her to be herself, even as she is this regal, strong princess and soldier. With the creation of Legends, Willow went away. Luckily, Marvel provided Evaan, a fellow Alderaannian who gets forced on a mission with Leia and ends up her friend and confidant. It was good seeing more strong women populate the known Star Wars universe. This is why I also mention Darth Vader. While focusing on Vader, a man, the book also introduces Dr. Aphra, a spunky female rogue archeologist who happily lends her knowledge to Vader. I love her. She’s funny and quirky and just what every villain needs: A knowledgeable and kick-butt accomplice. I can’t wait until I can get my hands on volume two and see where she goes from here.
  • Nimona: Speaking of villains and their accomplices, I would like to introduce you to Nimona. She is a spunky but awesome chick with fun powers and an attitude that makes you want to hang out with her. She signs on to be the sidekick of a villain. But when she seems incapable of toeing the line created by the hero/villain laws, will she get to continue doing what she loves? Can Nimona and I be besties? Pretty please?
  • In Real Life: Speaking of wanting to be besties, can we talk about Anda? She’s a gamer who grapples with bullying, age/gender/racial equality and, interestingly, workers’ rights. Anda kicks butt at the videogame everyone plays, rising to the top by taking down a certain class of gamers. Until she learns that their livelihoods depend on what they do. As she begins to understand how others live around the world, she begins to fight for their rights in the real world, too (In Real Life…get it?). It’s nice to see a teen not only caring about nerdy stuff, but about those around her. We all need that kind of role model.
  • Rocket Girl: Speaking of teens who try to save the day, Dayoung Johansson, a teen cop from an alternate reality 2013, ignores her superior’s orders to go back to 1986 to stop an evil corporation from committing crimes against time. Upon arrival, she learns nothing is as it seems. It’s an interesting take on the time cop narrative, putting a teen girl in the hero’s place. The series has a lot of potential, but I’m not sure if it’s really my cup of tea. This is another where I will hang in for one more volume to see where it goes.
  • Alex and Ada: In Volume 1, Ada is a vulnerable android who relies completely on Alex, her “owner” (for lack of a better word) to get by in the world. Indeed, she won’t even eat if he doesn’t give her permission. And he didn’t even want her around in the first place. So, why mention this series in post about strong women? Well, I think in some ways the book handily points out a lot of issues we should think about: Who makes decisions for women? What does sexuality mean as you age? What does love look like? And having only read volume 1, I am assuming that Ada truly comes into her own by the end of the 3-volume series. But I absolutely loved the art and story and I couldn’t not share it with you all.
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6 thoughts on “Women and Comic Books

  1. For some reason, the manga side of comics is way more dominated by females. Even works that target males have a strong female presence.

    What puzzles me is that many of these heroes are female version of male heroes – why? This is laziness to me. I also hope they could make a superhero film with more than one female character, and whose role isn’t to be eye candy. Black Widow is my taste but I watched the Avengers for action scenes, stories and characters. She had no personality whatsoever besides being tough.

    • I have only read a few manga, but I just finished Hollow Fields, which features a strong female teen, and I loved it.

      As far as female superheroes, the women in comic books have often translated to just eye candy in most movies. It’s rather disappointing when you have a complex character like Black Widow getting flattened instead of fleshed out on screen. That’s why I love a lot of the new stories in comic books. They are bringing a lot of depth to many of the female superheroes and letting them have their own books that have also been really successful. Hopefully, Hollywood will also get the hint and really let some of these characters shine. I’m hopeful for the Wonder Woman movie, but only time will tell.

  2. I liked Guardians of the Galaxy, but didn’t like Ms. Marvel. I haven’t read Nimona yet, but I just finished the first volume of Lumberjanes and I can see the appeal, but I haven’t decided yet how much I like it.

    Have you read Nothing Can Possibly go Wrong! by Faith Erin Hicks and Prudence Shen? I read it during the Hub challenge in 2014 and it really surprised me. It’s what made me rethink GNs. I also read Relish for the challenge which is a foodie memoir by Lucy Kinsley and liked that too. This year I’m planning on reading Nimona, Roller Girl (which we just got in), and a couple of others that escape me. I lot of the recent YALSA best GN winners have been by women. Raina Telemeir’s is supposed to be good too, but I haven’t gotten to hers.

    Oh and I’ve heard good things about Rat Queens. I put it on my order list so we will see how they are when, or if, they come in. I could still get overruled on those.

    • Great suggestions! With this post I was attempting to focus on the traditional comic book format, which features the issues that come out weekly or monthly that are then collected in volumes that are closer to book length. I think that time between issues can make a difference in how comic books are written (as well as who writes and draws them), in contrast to the chapters of a graphic novel, which all come out together. Nimona/In Real Life are two that are not in that traditional comic book format, but I can’t resist mentioning them in a list of great graphic novel/comic book female characters.
      I actually love memoirs in graphic format. Some that feature women would include Relish, as you mention, as well as Persepolis and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

      As a librarian, I get excited by all the formats we can share with readers, even those we normally lose by being so focused on traditional books. I’ve mulled over a graphic novel book club, but that’s something that will have to wait for when I have more time to launch such an endeavor.

      • We have a ton of collected editions in my system, unfortunately they either don’t buy them when they first come out or they get stuck in cataloging. We only have Vol.1 of Guardians, I had to get the other volumes from the City library. It also took forever to get all of The All New X-Men, we were missing a volume in the middle for a while so I couldn’t finish it. Or we only have Vol. 6 of the all female X-Men run.
        I actually recommended GN’s to a high school teacher who was asking about books for her students that don’t read on grade level.

        Have you read Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki? My new teen Anime movie group suggested the movie version so I figured we needed to order the book.

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