Women and Comics: The Good–Part 1

Posted by on August 21, 2013 in feminism | 13 comments

Nate is an economist and EmilyCC’s spouse and co-Cubmaster.

The CatJessawhy’s post a couple weeks ago made me want to look more closely at how women are treated in comics. Obviously, comics have a serious superhero misogyny is a problem that has been well documented in dozens of articles, blogs and TED talks, but no one has made a decent list of the best and worst of feminist comics.  So in Part 1, I’ll show the comics that seem to be at least marginally feminist, and in Part 2, I’ll list the flat-out misogynist characters, storylines and themes we see in this genre (insider tip: the worst are better than the best):

The Good 

For this list I had to cut out anyone who was a knockoff.  So Spider Woman, batgirl, Super Girl, and She Hulk are disqualified.  Those are some great comics, but we can’t say they came about on their own two feet.  I also had to disqualify Cat Woman when I learned that even though she had her own series, she appears in more issues of Batman than she ever had on her own.

5. The Cat - This one goes back to the 70s and was Marvel’s first, and only, attempt to reach out to women.  The series featured all female superheros, their male villain counterparts were rather heavy-handed symbols of capitalism.  The series was written, drawn and edited by women (a first).  However, as with most comics, The Cat never made it past its initial 4-issue release.  The characters in The Cat did continue to reappear in various other comics for several years afterwards.  No comic has had an all female creative team and female main character since.  Even reading the summary of The Cat series makes me want to get it for my daughter.

Buffy4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (comic) – Many of the issues were written by Whedon, a proven feminist ally, and those that were not written, were approved by him.  Dark Horse comics (the third wheel to Marvel and DC’s comic book oligopoly) picked up the Buffy comic.  The series won several awards and ended up being one of Dark Horse’s most successful series.   The comic series ran from 1998-2004 which is a long time for a comic book, and has been republished in trade paperbacks.  The comic claims that it does not follow the T.V. show.  But there do appear to be some slight character resemblances.  

Witchblade3. Witchblade – This is an indie title.  Witchblade is one of the longest currently running female lead comic books (1995 – present) and it is most certainly not for children or anyone who is uncomfortable with sex, porn, violence or the idea of metal lingerie.   Witchblade also currently has the widest circulation for any female lead comic.  Witchblade was the first female comic to spin off TV shows, movies, other comic books, video games and become its own franchise since Wonder Woman in the 1970s.

That being said, Witchblade rarely has more clothing than skin, gets brutally beaten one or more times in every single issue.  Still, she has staying power both on the pages and in the market while being a “good” superhero, a very rare combination for women in comic world.  Unfortunately, Top Cow has yet to put a single woman on Witchblade’s creative team in her 18 year run.  Oh and did I mention that even the anime series which is already toned down from the comic is rated MA?

Phoenix-Jane Grey2. Phoenix/Jean Gray/Marvel Girl – Jean is the only one on this list who did not have her own series, but she dominated one of the most successful comic books of all time (X-Men) for almost 20 years.  In addition, she is one of the best Christ parables in the comic book world.  When the X-Men started in the 1960s, Jean was the team’s weakest member.  She had poor telekinetic and telepathic powers and was even worse at controlling them.  But in the late 70s, Jean saves the entire X-Men team by piloting their ship through radiation fields that should have killed her while her team remained protected.  Upon landing unharmed, the X-Men believe Jean is dead until she rises from the water transformed into “Phoenix” (baptism).  As Phoenix, Jean realizes the full potential of her power.  From then on she is an almost omniscient superheroine, her powers dwarfing the rest of the X-Men combined.  Eventually, she is put in a position where she must kill herself to save the universe, which she does (atonement).  This series has come to be known as the “Dark Phoenix” and is probably one of the most famous stories to come out of the comic book genre ever (Dark Phoenix ran from 1977-1980).

An interesting bit of depth is added to this story-line in that Phoenix actually created the situation that led to her sacrifice, a nuance often overlooked when we tell the Christ story in a religious context.   Jean/Phoenix were brought back in the 1990s and have been central to the X-Men storyline ever since (resurrection).  In 2005 she “moved to a higher plane of existence” (ascention) and despite a consistent and deafening demand from fans that has become so problematic for Marvel that when a Marvel editor declared Jean “Dead” at a comic-con event, he was booed off the stage, Jean has not been brought back other than cameo appearances.

Wonder Woman1. Wonder Woman – Only a few comics have runs that last more than 4-5 issues.  Fewer still last more than 5 years.  So when a comic book makes a 64 year run, spins off T.V. shows, movies, action figures and lunch boxes, it must be noted.  Wonder Woman officially ended in 2006 and with her went the only real stronghold women ever had in the comic book world.  But don’t worry, they are working on a movie with Megan Fox as Wonder Woman…ok, worry.

Want to know the worst of female comic book characters? Tune in next week…same bat time, same bat channel!

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13 Comments

  1. Great analysis, Nate! I’m so glad you posted this.

  2. Thanks.

    The worst is much more entertaining. Horrific even. I was shocked reading some of the stuff Marvel and DC have done over the years.

  3. I never really followed Witchblade, but the series was originally written by Christina Z. (that is her pen-name). She wrote or co-wrote many of the early issues.

    One title that I feel deserves being included is Runaways. This was a Marvel book about the children of super-villains. Written by Brian K. Vaughan, famous for Y: The Last Man (Literally. All the males in the world died except for the main character and his monkey. Tons of great female characters.) and a feminist ally, the series featured strong, original characters on a team led by one of the ladies. Great, great series. Check it out.

    • Totally forgot about the Runaways. That was a terrific series. I am surprised it did not come up in my searches. I had not thought about that storyline in decades. I need to go reread it. Thanks.

  4. Has anyone read Buffy Season 8 or Buffy Season 9? One of the best (IMO) comics is Fray – which takes place in the future in the Buffy Universe, but way in the future.

    • I have not heard of Fray. But I never read Buffy either. I think that series is going to get added to our kid’s list. (Our oldest just checked out his first graphic novel. I am trying not to get too excited).

  5. My whole family read the Dark Phoenix Saga when I was growing up. I still think about the Phoenix – she is my absolute favorite comic book character. In college, I took a class called “The Examined Life,” and I wrote a comic book as a final project, inspired by the Phoenix. Sometimes I still like to pretend I’m like her!

  6. I’ve not been into comic books, but love the shows and movies that spin off. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, NateCC. Also can’t wait for the light-hearted bashing to come next.

  7. This post makes me sad that I never read comic books–when one grows up with a literary fiction writer, I think comic books were only slightly better than p*rn.

    But, the next post makes me happy that I avoided them altogether.

  8. There’s an excellent essay on this topic in Michael Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs”. The book is in general one of my favorites, but this essay specifically delves into feminist comic book characters. I don’t know comics at all, but he highly recommends the character Big Bartha and goes into why he never really liked Wonder Woman (including that she’s supposed to be an Amazon priestess but dresses in American flags). He also discusses what he sees as the worst of the comic characters. I’ll be curious to compare your lists.

    • Big Bertha is one of those I have heard of on occasion. I know her image (she has some iconic art that is really unforgettable), but I don’t think I have ever read her story. For some reason, I assumed she was a villain. I will have to check it out.

      In way of confessions, I have never been able to get into Wonder Woman. I understand and respect her draw, but I find her character uninteresting for the same reasons I never could get into superman, captain America, spiderman, and pretty much the entire stable of early comic heroes. Their absolute devotion to being good and never being seriously morally challenged creates a flat one-dimensional backdrop.

  9. Hey! I somehow missed this, but how about Brian K Vaughan’s work? I’m currently enjoying (most of) Saga (some issues depict sexual content) – a comic about a husband and wife who are trying to evade a war between their two peoples, she was supposed to be his guard, but they escaped together, and the first issue shows (realistically) the birth of their daughter. It’s intentionally egalitarian, while also being just darn good entertainment and writing. Both men and women kick butt and perform selfless acts. Both men and women are bad guys.

    Also, I’ve read the first issue of Y: The Last Man, a comic about all the men on earth dying on the same day, and how the world (now populated only by women and girls) reacts to that. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, and intend to read the rest when I have the budget for it.

  10. (yep, shoulda read the comments)

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