The world of comic book heroes has always been a boys club. Although it doesn’t enforce a strict “no girls allowed” policy, the few female members it accepts are rarely able to break though the clubhouse’s glass ceiling — despite some of them being able to fly. A female hero in comics is often labeled with a condescending “ine” at to the end of her gender-neutral title, depicted as a passive pinup rather than as a woman of action and even subjected to vicious sexual assault. This kind of hazing keeps them in their place as less important, less powerful supporting players — or worse, mere points of character development — for their male counterparts. It also deprives real-life girls of easily relatable role models for traits like strength, courage, resourcefulness, perseverance and daring.
Having good role models is an essential part of growing up, and boys have no shortage of them, including men who model behavior traditionally considered feminine, such as cooking and making clothes. The reverse is not the case for girls. The achievements of women who excel in what have been traditionally considered masculine fields are often undervalued or even ignored.
Case in point: during the current World Cup finals, sportscasters have continually identified soccer player Landon Donovan as the “all-time U.S. leading goal scorer,” with 57 goals in international competition. As Valerie Alexander corrects in a recent Jezebel article, Donovan actually ranks sixth after Abby Wambach, with 167 goals (she is #1 not just in the United States, but the world). The top U.S. scorers after her are Mia Hamm (158), Kristine Lilly (130), Michelle Akers (105) and Tiffeny Milbrett (100). Donovan is the “all-time leading U.S. men’s goal scorer.” Leaving out this important footnote to his accomplishment continues to skew the popular perception that boys and men are doers, while girls and women are spectators (or at best, cheerleaders).
This may be one reason that the self-confidence of girls plummets during puberty, as they begin to get the message of how little society really expects of them. In response to this, the company Always has created a video and Twitter hashtag in a campaign to reframe the phrase “like a girl” as a compliment rather than an insult — as in, “scoring soccer goals like a girl.” The like-minded website, A Mighty Girl, similarly seeks to empower future women with stories of real-life female heroes and other resources for inspiration, including a recommended list of graphic novels. These include fictional exploits of adventurers, superheroes, geniuses, princesses and thieves that redefine acceptably feminine behavior.
Below are comics about female superheroes (and a couple of rogues) recommended by A Mighty Girl and/or me (I will follow this with a list of recommended science fiction and fantasy comics). All of these stories are either personal favorites of mine or are on my ever-growing must-read list. And with one exception, all of them were created, wholly or in part, by women.
I encourage you to share these stories not only with the young ladies in your life, but with any boys who you want to grow up seeing and treating girls (and eventually women) as their equals. Maybe one day, they’ll even be man enough to accept being bested — or even saved — by one.
Two of the most popular superheroes in the Marvel Universe right now are a woman and a girl who both bear the publisher’s name: Captain Marvel, whose adventures are written by the critically acclaimed fan favorite, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and the teen-aged Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson.
Captain Marvel, the original Ms. Marvel, is former Air Force pilot and military intelligence officer Carol Danvers, who gained super strength, near invulnerability, and the power to fly and fire blasts of energy from her hands after being caught in the explosion of an alien machine. Starting her career 37 years ago as a scantily clad female knockoff of the then male Captain Marvel, it wasn’t until DeConnick rebooted the character in 2012, giving her a title and uniform befitting her military background, that the new Captain Marvel really came into her own as a hero. In fact, the covers of her comics proclaimed her “Earth’s Mightiest Hero.”
Just this year, G. Willow Wilson launched the career of a new Ms. Marvel, who made world headlines more for her secret identity then her costumed one. When Kamala Khan, a 16 year-old Pakistani-American Muslim, discovered she had shapeshifting powers, she adopted a superhero outfit and name inspired by her idol, the current Captain Marvel. Only five issues into the series, Wilson is being praised for her sensitive portrayal of Kamala’s efforts to balance her culture and religious beliefs with her desire to fit in as an average American teenager, all while striving to live up to the standard of her unofficial superhero mentor. And Kamala isn’t the only person inspired by Carol Danvers’ example.
A legion of real life girls and women have joined together to form the Carol Corps, fans who meet at comic book conventions dressed as Captain Marvel to show their love for the character and her heroic ideals. One of the youngest members of the Corps is the daughter of photographer Yaro Jane, who posed in costume for a series of shots her mother took during a trip to the National Air and Space Museum, including this one mimicking the cover of the above Captain Marvel comic. And for less self-assured fans who aren’t ready to go out in public wearing full superhero regalia, a line of Captain Marvel and Carol Corps t-shirts officially sanctioned by Kelly Sue DeConnick is available from We Love Fine.
The impact Carol and Kamala are having on mainstream superhero comics can not be overstated. Together, Captain and Ms. Marvel are changing the face of both the comics industry and comics fandom.
While Marvel’s two flagship female superheroes have been making international headlines, several digital comics featuring female superheroes have been quietly gaining fans and critical acclaim on the worldwide Web. Strong Female Protagonist, written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and drawn by Molly Ostertag, and My So-called Secret Identity, written by Will Brooker and illustrated by Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan, both present a more mature and less sensational approach to superheroics. SFP follows the life of Allison Green, the former Mega Girl, a young middle-class American with super-strength, invincibility and a crippling sense of social injustice. MSCSI focuses on Cat Daniels, a doctoral student who is the smartest person in a city full of celebrity superheroes. Always taught that her remarkable mind was something to keep hidden from others who’d feel threatened by it, Cat finally gets sick of pretending and becomes a superhero herself. Thanks to successful Kickstarter campaigns, graphic novel editions of both SFP and MSCSI will soon be available.
The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks, is a much more lighthearted series that’s already available in a print edition. The title character in this story can leap tall buildings and defeat alien monsters with her bare hands, but has to buy her capes at secondhand stores and has a weakness for kittens.
Not all female protagonists are heroes. For some, the thrill of adventure and conquering a challenge against all odds are more important than always staying on the right side of the law or adhering to social decorum. Still, the following two characters provide great examples of a girl and a woman living life to the fullest and on their own terms.
Bandette is the nome d’arte of the world’s greatest thief, a costumed teen burglar living and stealing in swinging Paris. Her exploits appear in an Eisner Award-nominated digital series, written by Paul Tobin and illustrated by Colleen Coover, that was recently published as a hardback book. As the back cover explains, “Gleefully plying her skills on either side of the law, Bandette is a thorn in the sides of both police inspector Belgique and the criminal underworld. But it’s not all breaking hearts and purloining masterpieces when a rival thief makes a startling discovery. Can even Bandette laugh off a plot against her life?” Despite her penchant for robbery, Bandette has some admirable qualities in her criminal repertoire, such as showing kindness to stray cats. And the first printed volume of her adventures is educational as well as entertaining, with an appendix providing historical background on some of the pilfered objects featured in the story.
Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is another Web series that has also been published in a print edition, and is the only book listed here without a female contributor on the creative team. Despite this disadvantage, it was selected last year as a Best Children’s Book by Publishers Weekly and Best Teen Book by Kirkus Reviews. It chronicles the latest chapter in the exciting life of nineteenth century ne’er-do-well Delilah Dirk, a lovable, smart and foolhardy adventurer who’s traveled to Japan, Indonesia, France and even the New World. In this story, Delilah plots to rob a rich and corrupt sultan in Constantinople, with the aid of her flying boat and her new-found friend, Selim, fighting her way past royal guards and pirates in pursuit of her prize.