Comics are bigger than ever, both in our mainstream pop culture and in the world of literature, literary criticism and academia. As someone who grew up in a house full of comics – and grew to love them – this is awesome news!
But the not-so-awesome news: many of the comics that garner critical or public attention are woefully male-centric. Take a look at what’s made it to the big screen in recent years: The Avengers has Black Widow, X-Men has Mystique, and The Dark Knight Rises shoehorned Catwoman in for about three seconds (and for sex appeal) – but that’s it. I want to rejoice at the major presence of comics in our culture, but I find it difficult to do so when we only acknowledge and invest ourselves, both emotionally and financially, in the same male-centric stories. We push and we shove worthy female characters aside in order to spotlight the heroic journey (or the tragic downfall) of the straight white male – a journey that we’ve seen countless times before. Even in large casts, the presence of the token female or love interest fail, in a pretty spectacular way, to represent the multitude of female characters and female-centric comics that exist in this expansive and diverse art form.
The following list honors just a small sample of those female-centric comics that deserve recognition outside their imposed “niche genres.” Move aside, boys. You’ve had your turn.
Pretty Deadly (Vol. 1): Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick (a big name in Marvel’s comic-verse) and drawn by Emma Ríos, Pretty Deadly combines Western settings and mythological fables to tell Death’s origin story. And Death – the one we always see as a robe-wearing, scythe-carrying male – is a girl named Ginny. Her story isn’t the only one either. As the narrative unfolds, other characters arise – including a girl in a vulture cloak named Sissy, a mysterious and villainous woman named Big Alice, and Molly, a woman transformed into a raven. With a well-crafted and complex plot, gorgeous artwork and (according to Booklist) “a multicultural cast of tough-as-nails women who all fight for their own honor,” Pretty Deadly is exactly the type of epic, imaginative and diverse tale that the comic industry and the fantasy genre need.
Dumbing of Age: David Willis has been publishing webcomics for fifteen years, and his latest strip – now in its fourth year – throws characters from his previous works onto a Mid-western college campus. While the strip features several prominent male characters, it has more than its fair share of women, and it is their diversity that makes Dumbing of Age so unique and refreshing. Women of color, queer women, disabled women – you name it, it’s there. Willis gives depth and dimension to even his most secondary female characters, and it is impossible not to become invested in their lives as they grapple with issues of race, gender, sexuality, abuse – and of course, the injustice of girl pockets.
Princeless (Vol. 1 and 2): A new fantasy series by Action Lab, Princeless valiantly defies the tropes of traditional child-oriented fantasy. After her parents lock her in a tower to be rescued by a handsome prince (sound familiar?), Princess Adrienne decides to rescue herself, forgoing the life of a typical princess and instead exploring the land with her dragon Sparky and blacksmith friend Bedelia. Action Lab describes the series as an “adventure designed specifically for those who are tired of waiting to be rescued, and who are ready to save themselves.” It’s about time children’s stories – and children’s comics – became aggressively feminist. Take some notes, Disney.
The Plain Janes: Written for DC’s short-lived MINX imprint, targeted specifically at teenage girls, The Plain Janes follows a girl named Jane who moves to the suburbs after terrorists attack her home city. At her new school, she befriends three very different girls who happen to have the same name. Together they form P.L.A.I.N. – People Loving Art in Neighborhoods – a group that aims to combat the atmosphere of fear and complacency with public displays of art. Despite their identical names, young adult author and longtime comic book fan Cecil Castellucci distinguishes each Jane with unique characteristics while simultaneously commenting on the importance of women’s self-expression under the pressures of conformity.
Sailor Moon: It’s impossible to talk about comics without talking about manga, and Sailor Moon is one of manga’s biggest and best. Originally running from 1992 to 1997, Sailor Moon centers on Usagi Tsukino, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who discovers (from a talking cat!) that she’s a magical girl destined to save the Earth from destruction – while wearing a sailor suit. Usagi soon teams up with a group of fellow Sailor Soldiers to kick the butts of their (often female) nemeses and save the planet. Sailor Moon might be a “well, duh” sort of addition to this list, but for good reason; it blurred the often rigid line between shojo (female-targeted) and shonen (male-targeted) manga, and it spawned a sudden interest in the magical girl genre. With a new anime adaptation starting this month, Sailor Moon remains as relevant today as it was in the 90s.
Riddle Story of Devil: Unlike Sailor Moon, Yun Koga’s manga series Riddle Story of Devil has only two volumes under its belt, but the premise sounds promising: Thirteen girls from a boarding school are sent to the academy’s Class Black. Twelve are trained assassins, one is the target – and no one knows who is who. The assassin that eliminates the target is granted anything they desire, and the rest are expelled. The anime adaptation is now far ahead of its source material, but if the manga follows in the show’s footsteps, there’s sure to be plenty of interesting and complex dynamics forming within this group of kick-ass assassins. I’m crossing my fingers that this ends up being as awesome as it sounds.
Chiggers: Chiggers is, in simplest terms, a camp story. It doesn’t really try to be anything more than that, but what Eisner-award winning cartoonist Hope Larson does differently is treat the teenage girl – a figure universally mocked for her vain, shallow interests – with the respect she deserves. The campers in Chiggers are coping with feelings of insecurity, fading friendships, and potential romantic interests – and these problems are never trivialized. Chiggers validates the emotional turmoil of female adolescence, and in a culture that never tires of degrading the average teenage girl, that type of literature is indispensible.
The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag: Unlike many books about high school, Ariel Schrag wrote and drew about her experiences as they happened, transforming each school year into a comic during the following summer and then self-publishing it. I can’t imagine everyone was thrilled about this, but the four volumes that resulted are, in the words of Alison Bechdel, an “autobiographical triumph.” Schrag documents the trials of female adolescence and budding sexuality with frankness and clarity.
Bandette: A new digital comic series by Monkeybrain Comics, Bandette chronicles the adventures of a fierce, funny and fearless girl who loves bringing criminals to justice almost as much as she loves thieving. Her main opponent might be a master thief known as Monsieur, but the real scene-stealer is Matadori, a female assassin from FINIS, a criminal organization that has it out for Bandette’s life. Bandette and Matadori’s interactions are quick and witty – as is almost everything else in the comic. Written with a tongue-in-cheek tone and drawn with 1960s flair, Bandette is a lighthearted romp through France with a female protagonist who is all the more lovable for her contradictions.
Blue is the Warmest Color: The film version of Blue is the Warmest Color has become rightfully famous, even if it’s not entirely for the right reasons. But what some don’t know about the award-winning film is that it was adapted from a skillfully written and beautifully drawn graphic novel. Artist Julie Maroh began the graphic novel when she was only 19, but you wouldn’t know it from the art; each of Maroh’s panels is like a miniature watercolor painting. Art aside, Maroh excels in creating a lesbian love story that does not revolve around its lesbianism. It’s simply a love story – and a believable, heartbreaking one at that.
I Kill Giants: In this 7-issue series for Image Comics, Superman writer Joe Kelly dives deep into the psyche of a troubled girl named Barbara who fights mythical monsters to avoid fighting the real ones that haunt her family life. And if coping with the big problems isn’t enough, there are always people trying to break through Barbara’s thick shell, including her overworked older sister and a tentative new friend named Sophia. Kelly’s primary metaphor isn’t exactly unique, but I Kill Giants is a poignant look at the effects of trauma on a young girl and the people around her – dark and hopeful all at once.
Skim: Written by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Skim tells the story of an overweight Japanese-Canadian girl struggling through adolescence in an all-girls private school. As Skim questions her identity and sexuality after a crush on her female English teacher, she finds solace in the friendship of the most popular girl in school, whom Skim soon realizes is more complex than everyone thinks. While its thematic concerns might seem like standard bildungsroman fare, Skim is really anything but; it is unique and unusual in both its storytelling and art. Critics praised the Tamaki cousins for their work, and it’s high time everyone else took notice too.
Anya’s Ghost: The first graphic novel from cartoonist Vera Brosgol, Anya’s Ghost follows a Russian-American girl who gets more than she bargains for when she accidentally falls down a well and meets the ghost of a girl who’s been dead for almost a century. While the basic plot is supernatural, Anya’s Ghost is rooted in real-world problems. As ghost-girl Emily laments her limited experience and lives vicariously through Anya, Anya copes with issues of body image and ethnic identity, reluctant to embrace her Russian heritage in an all-American private school. Neither Anya nor Emily is always straightforwardly likeable (and neither are some of the other female characters, for that matter), but that is part of their charm. Brosgol’s characters – and her comic – resist simplicity.
Laura Costello is an English and journalism double major at the University of Connecticut.
Images via Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Broken Fronteir, Medium, Comics Bulletin, and Flavorwire.