Where no girl has gone before

I hope my last post of female superhero comics proves that the feats of a fictional role model don’t have to be achievable to be inspiring. Likewise, I hope the following list of science fiction and fantasy comics proves that a story’s setting doesn’t have to be real to be familiar.

A literary garden signpost project to to instill young minds with a wanderlust for fantastical destinations.

A literary garden signpost project to instill young minds with a wanderlust for fantastical destinations.

To young readers, the strange worlds, bizarre creatures and alien civilizations encountered in the following eight works of graphic fiction may seem only slightly less intimidating and mystifying than the journey into adulthood that real-life children have been making since the dawn of human history. But the heroic examples set by the female protagonists of these stories are not just useful in exploring other planets, dimensions and magical realms. The models they provide of courage, selflessness, compassion, ingenuity, curiosity and strength are just as valuable to young people for overcoming challenges that aren’t extraterrestrial or supernatural in origin.

Or, as award-winning Sandman creator and bestselling fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman put it:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

[Quote compliments of a Facebook post from A Mighty Girl, which acts as an online clearing house for girl-positive books, movies, clothes and other merchandise.]

I’ve read more than half of these series, which include one of my all-time favorite works in comics, and all but two of them appear on A Mighty Girl’s recommended fantasy/science fiction reading list. Although a majority of them were created by male writers and artists, all of them feature female heroes who face adventures fraught with mystery and peril with as much (or more) bravery and determination as any male character in fiction. Although you might not have heard of them before now, the names of these young ladies deserve just as much recognition for their  heroic exploits as any Tom Swift, Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter.

Princess Nausicaä
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Vol. 1Few works of literature, graphic or otherwise, have engaged and moved me like Hayao Miyazaki‘s manga masterpiece, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. The story is set in a world that has been devastated by the Seven Days of Fire, a global war that took place in the distant past. Nausicaä is the princess of a settlement on one of the last areas of land still inhabitable by humans. It is located near the border of the Sea of Corruption, a dense jungle of fungus that constantly releases a miasma of poisonous spores deadly to anyone but the giant insects who live there. When her beloved Valley faces invasion by the imperial forces of Torumekia, Nausicaä must embark on a journey to save not only her people, but also the world.

Nausicaä is a remarkable character and born leader. She is a pacifist in the truest sense of the word, not only rejecting violence and war as a means of solving problems, but having a calming effect on any being she encounters. She possesses an uncanny psychic ability to communicate with animals — from her faithful fox-squirrel companion, Teto, to whale-sized armored caterpillars known as the Ohmu who live in the Sea of Corruption. Her powerful charisma gains her the unwavering devotion of friends and the admiration of her enemies. Despite her commitment to peace, she is also an accomplished fighter, which is evident on the rare occasions when her anger overpowers her. Lastly, she is an expert wind rider, sailing through the clouds in her jet-powered glider and performing aerial acrobatics no other pilot would dare to attempt.

This eco-feminist sci-fi fable is a tale of courage, honor, compassion, the folly of tampering with nature, and the power of love and friendship. English translations of this epic adventure have been collected into seven trade paperback volumes and one deluxe hardback slipcase edition that preserve the same back to front, right to left reading format of the Japanese originals.

Courtney Crumrin
Courtney Crumrin and the Night ThingsSurly teenager Courtney Crumrin hates it when her air-headed yuppie parents relocate to a musty Victorian mansion in the upper class suburb of Hillsborough to care for her Great Uncle Aloysius in his failing health. But her disposition quickly brightens when she discovers that her uncle is a powerful member of the local community of warlocks and witches and that the nearby woods are full of goblins, fairies and other supernatural creatures. Uncle Aloysius becomes Courtney’s mentor in magic and surrogate parent and she excitedly begins to explore the eerie — and sometimes dangerous — new world around her. Creator Ted Naifeh‘s utterly charming art and writing on this series bring to life such memorable characters as the goblins Butterworm and Butterbug, talking cats Boo and Quick, and the Twilight King and Dreadful Duchess. Courtney’s adventures are perfect for any girl (or boy) who isn’t afraid of making friends with the things that go bump in the night. Originally published in black and white, the series is now available in a set of full color hardback special editions.

Aliera Carstairs
FoiledIn Foiled!, New York City high school fencer and role game player Aliera Carstairs is another teen-aged girl thrust into an otherworldly realm. One day in Grand Central Station, she happens to put on her fencing mask and suddenly sees herself surrounded by ogres, pixies, dragons and other supposedly mythical creatures. Eventually, one of these beings explains to Aliera that the second-hand foil her mother bought her at a tag sale is actually an enchanted weapon, and that as its bearer, she has been chosen as the Last Defender of Faerie, champion of Helfdon. Foiled! was written by multiple award-winning children’s and young adult author, Jane Yolen, and illustrated by Mike Cavallaro. To learn more about the story, see the  book trailer.

A mighty girl armed with a plastic sword and a copy of Foiled!

In the sequel, Foiled Again, Aliera faces even greater dangers in her role as the Defender of Faerie, all while trying to balance her duties in the mystical world with those in the mundane.  To do this, she must face adversaries including the wicked ogress/witch, Baba Yaga, and the evil Dark Lord, who is preparing his troll armies to overrun Helfdon. At the same time, she has to deal with personal betrayals and friends who aren’t what they seem. In both books (a third volume is forthcoming) all the action set in the mortal world is presented in black and white, while the denizens of the magic realm are rendered in full color to emphasize their fantastical nature.

These two graphic novels would make great gifts for any kid who loves fencing and/or faeries, or is a swashbuckler at heart.

Agatha Heterodyne
While Aliera Carstairs relies on her skill at combat to overcome life’s challenges, Agatha Heterodyne relies on her talent for technology. A struggling student at Europa’s Transylvania Polygnostic University, Agatha learns she  is one of the last living members of a line of powerful “Sparks” who possess a nearly supernatural knack for creating machines of seemingly impossible complexity and ability. Taken aboard the airship of tyrannical Baron  Klaus Wulfenbach, Agatha expands her developing genius for invention as she faces the political intrigue and danger of an alternate Earth where the Industrial Revolution escalated into full-scale war.

Girl Genius is an example of “gaslamp fantasy,” a term coined by Kaja Foglio, the series’ co-creator (with her husband Phil). As explained on the Girl Genius website:

Influences include Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard. Expect big, clanking Victorian-style tech, old-fashioned clothes, Frankenstein monsters and airships. Lots and lots of airships. Is it magic? Is it science? A little of both, I suppose–it’s Mad Science.

This fun-loving, humorous series should appeal to any reader with a passion for early science fiction, modern steampunk, or real-world applications of robotics and engineering. Begun as a webcomic, Girl Genius can be read online, in digital format or in a set of collected print editions.

Amelia Cole
Amelia Cole and the Unknown WorldWhere Agatha Heterodyne uses science to achieve effects that seem like they could only be accomplished by magic, Amelia Cole comes from a place, or rather places, where these disciplines are literally worlds apart. Amelia is able to step between two nearly identical but completely different realities, one that runs on magic and the other built on technology. When the barriers between these dimensions begins to crack, Amelia’s Aunt Dani takes drastic measures that send her niece into a new, unknown world. Alone and confused, Amelia finds herself stranded in a strange land facing threats she doesn’t understand. Her only defenses are the monkey wrench she uses as a makeshift magic wand, a handful of teleport balls and a golem named Lemy she created from junkyard scraps.

Amelia’s adventures so far have been collected in a pair of digital and print editions, written by Eisner and Harvey award-winners Adam P. Knave and D.J. Kirkbride, drawn by Nick Brokenshire, and lettered by Rachel Deering. Fans of Harry Potter who were annoyed by the Boy Who Lived’s frequent bouts of indecision and self-pity, and/or thought Hermione Granger was the story’s true star, will be pleased with the strength of character and sense of responsibility shown by this young woman spell caster.

Princess Adrienne, Cleopatra and Zita
I haven’t yet read any of the following three series (one fantasy, two science fiction), but they’ve all been recommended by others for their girl-positive messages.

Princeless: Save YourselfIn the series Princeless, written by Jeremy Whitley and drawn by Mia Goodwin and Emily Martin, Princess Adrienne gets tired of waiting for a prince charming to rescue her from the tower she’s imprisoned in, and frees herself instead. Befriending – rather than slaying – the dragon who had guarded the tower, Adrienne and Sparky set out on a series of adventures, along with a girl blacksmith named Bedelia. Whitley explained in a ComicBook.com interview that he created the series with the specific goal of giving his daughter a strong and relatable role model unlike those “Disney princess types who have no agency and can’t do for themselves.” The series so far has been collected in two trade paperbacks.

John Carter, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon are just a few of the many male science fiction characters who have been suddenly and unexpectedly transported from their native earth to the far-flung future and/or reaches of the universe. Mike Maihack‘s Cleopatra in Space and Ben Hatke‘s Zita the Spacegirl add two welcome female names to that list of time- and planet-hopping heroes.

Cleopatra in SpaceAs a teenager, young Cleopatra is instantly whisked from her home in ancient Egypt to the distant future, where earth is engaged in a centuries-long war against the tyrannical rule of Xaius Octavian and his legions of Xerx warriors. When it is determined that Cleo is the prophesied hero who will be the savior of the Nile Galaxy, she is sent to school for the education and training she’ll need to fulfill her destiny. Struggling with academic subjects, Cleo discovers she’s a natural sharpshooter with a ray gun. Soon she’s off on her flying sphinx-shaped space bike on a mission to save the planet, accompanied by her talking cat adviser, Khensu.  Originally created as a webcomic, the story was revised and recently released in a print edition.

Zita the SpacegirlWhile playing with her more timid friend, Joseph, Zita accidentally activates a strange device she discovers in a meteor crater and the two children are transported in an instant to a strange planet a galaxy away.  When Joseph is captured by an alien doomsday cult, Zita immediately sets out to save him, aided by characters including the loyal, bumbling, huge doll-like Strong-Strong and the giant speechless Mouse, who communicates through a ticker tape printer worn around his neck. Also started as a webcomic, the adventures of Zita the Spacegirl have been collected in three printed volumes.


PG-13 PREVIEW: The Sirens
It appears that the soon-to-be-released and eagerly anticipated science fiction adventure series, Sirens, by fan favorite artist/writer George Pérez, will be more grownup in its tone, subject matter, attire and depiction of violence than the other titles described here (with the possible exception of Nausicaä). Still, based on Perez’s history of portraying strong and authentic-seeming female characters, such as his acclaimed take on Wonder Woman, I expect Sirens will be more than suitable for mature tween and teen girls — as well as for their older comics-reading sisters, aunts and moms.

The Sirens are a fighting team from the distant future made up of the time-spanning Highness; former assassin and weapons maker, Ammo; battle-loving brute, Agony; energy-blasting powerhouse, Bombshell; electricity-wielding Skywire; doll-sized Figurine; living computer virus, Interface; dragon-controlling mystic, Fanisha; and sword-wielding spirit warrior, Kage (pronounced KAH-Jeh). At the beginning of the story the Sirens have gone into hiding at various points in Earth’s past, and since forgotten their former identities, after having been unjustly branded as criminals. The periods and places of their exile  include ancient Rome, the Old West, Viking-era Iceland, feudal Japan, Victorian London and 1980s New York. Eventually, they return to the future where they must regain their memories to save Earth from intergalactic slavers.

George Perez's Sirens

George Perez’s Sirens: (from left) Fanisha, Kage, Interface, Bombshell, Agony, Figurine, Ammo, Highness and Skywire.

What makes these characters unique as comic book heroes is that all of them, as well as members of the supporting cast, are based on actual women Pérez knows personally, ranging from his wife and niece to cosplayers he’s met at conventions over the years. Pérez sees this as enhancing his art and storytelling. As he put it in an interview with Comic Book Resources:

I do take some pride in the positive reaction I’ve received throughout my career in my handling of female characters. The great thing about using so many real women as my models is that it allows me the pleasure of including heroines, and villains, of varying races, sizes and ages. I didn’t want to simply draw the typical Barbie doll heroine. While many of my models are indeed beautiful, I hope I can show that beauty, integrity and personality, as well as heroism and villainy, come in all forms. And that also includes the male cast members as well.

As publisher Boom! Studios puts it, this is the series for you “if you like strong female sci-fi characters like Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck, Star Wars’ Princess Leia, and Alien’s Ripley.” The first installment of the six-issue mini series is scheduled to be released on September 17.

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