As I promised in the comments thread on this post, here is a post about comics*.
I think a lot of people who don’t read comics have the impression that they are mostly for boys – that they are all about superheroes, explosions, and women with giant tits, impossible waistlines, and no personality. And there certainly are comics that are like that. Plenty of them. But there are also rich, fascinating, multi-layered comics out there. And some of my favorite female characters in fiction are from comics like these. Below I mention some greatest hits, which I’ve loosely divided into comics which incorporate feminist ideas or themes explicitly, and comics which are more generally just about interesting women.
Comics with feminist themes:
Persepolis – This is writer and illustrator Marjane Satrapi’s memoir, recounting her childhood during and after the Islamic revolution in Iran. I read this from cover to cover in one sitting – couldn’t put it down.
Fun Home – Another memoir, this time from Alison Bechdel (of “the Bechdel test” and the wonderful Dykes to Watch Out For). This recounts her experience of growing up gay in a small town and her slow realization that her father is gay as well.
A Game of You, The Sandman – This is the comic that turned me into a comics fan. (Until I read this, I’d pretty much had the attitude I describe above.) It’s all about gender, identity, and sexuality. And it is awesome.
Comics with strong female characters:
Queen and Country – Edge of your seat spy action? Check. Political drama? Check. Strong female lead character? Check. I didn’t hold out much hope for these comics when they were pitched to me as “female James Bond”. But they’re great, and the lead character is complex, interesting, and never objectified.
Promethea – You can’t really “get” comics until you’ve read something by Alan Moore. He’s not always the most feminist-friendly writer in the world, but his work does amazing things with the medium. Promethea gets overly preachy (and if you ask me, kinda boring) in its later books, but its beginning is a great depiction of a strong female character and a unique representation of shared female power. Also, it’s worth reading just for JH Williams’ amazing art.
Fray – This may be my favorite thing that Joss Whedon has written. And that is saying a lot. A lot.
Batwoman – When you combine Greg Rucka and JH Williams, odds are you’re going to get a good comic. Rucka writes female characters well, and JH Williams draws women who are supposed to be kicking ass to look like they can kick ass (no tiny waist and oversized tits in sight). This run of Batwoman is notable for being the first mainstream (read: DC or Marvel) comic with a lesbian lead character.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Comments are open, comics fans!
* I’m using the term “comics” to incorporate what are sometimes called “graphic novels”. A graphic novel is really just a non-serialized comic.
24 thoughts on “Comics for feminists”
A Game Of You is brilliant. The Sandman spinoff Death: The High Cost of Living is a story about the lesbian couple from A Game of You, and is also very good.
There are also themes of interest to feminists, I think, in Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. Many issues concerning male power are dealt with in a fairly good way.
And Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles is notable for having one of the few transgender heroes in a mainstream (ish) book that I can think of.
Y: The Last Man by Brian K Vaughn has its problems from a feminist perspective, but it’s still interesting in some ways. And Alias by Brian Michael Bendis is an excellent comic that has a great female lead character and touches mildly on some feminist themes.
One thing I was noticing, when I was coming up with my lists, is that I couldn’t think of many female writers of mainstream(ish) comics. I can think of a lot of really awesome female artists – Jill Thompson, Amy Reeder Hadley, Jo Chen, etc. But female writers (for serialized comics, at least) seem harder to come by.
Gail Simone is doing well as a writer of mainstream comics. Caitlin Kiernan has written some cool stuff for Vertigo (DC’s ‘mature readers’ imprint). And Jill Thompson has written some stuff as well as illustrating. But yeah, it’s massively male dominated amongst writers of mainstream books. Interestingly, women are relatively prominent in comics editing as well as illustrating.
Gail Simone is also awesome for being one of the creators to draw our attention to the ‘women in refrigerator’ phenomenon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Refrigerators
The first one that comes to mind is Castle Waiting. I’m just going to crib from the Publisher’s Weekly review and call it “a modern, feminist Chaucer for happy people” (two volumes so far, here’s the first: http://www.amazon.com/Castle-Waiting-Linda-Medley/dp/1560977477)
If you’re willing to accept webcomics, there’s
* Gunnerkrigg Court (http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/index2.php). The art’s kind of rough at the beginning, but stick with it (that page links to the current strip, so if you’re iffy on the art, just look at how good it gets).
* Cat and Girl (http://catandgirl.com/)
* And everybody knows about Kate Beaton (http://www.harkavagrant.com) , right?
Lynda Barry is a fantastic comics writer and artist. Her strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek is brilliant as are her books, What It Is and Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book. Plus she teaches and encourages others. Here’s a favorite Ernie Pook: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/788/ernie-pooks-comeek
All fine stuff, although pretty mainstream-heavy. For more in that vein I’d definitely second Gail Simone. For more great female comix artists, see Diane Noomin’s ‘Twisted Sisters’ and ‘Twisted Sisters 2’ (Kitchen Sink Press). Particular favorites from those volumes are Mary Fleener, Carol Lay, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. I’d also add Roberta Gregory. Also a bit funny to mention later-period Alan Moore without adding Melinda Gebbie, his wife and collaborator on the, uh, slightly controversial ‘Lost Girls’.
Daniel, I don’t think it’s funny to mention Alan Moore without mentioning Melinda Gebbie, insofar as it isn’t funny to mention someone without mentioning their partner. I was mentioning Moore in the context of recommending Promethea, which as far as I know Gebbie wasn’t involved with. I most definitely was *not* recommending “Lost Girls” – a comic which I hate with the level of passion I usually reserve for cockroaches and paper cuts.
If we’re including web-strips, there simply is no competition: Hyperbole and a Half. http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.ca/
It makes me happy that Image and Top Cow are considered mainstream now, since I remember when they were the scrappy breakaways!
Though not without some problems w.r.t. to gender, any Wonder Woman comics published before 1948 were written or plotted by William Moulton Marston, Ph.D., a gynocentric feminist, and for the most part they are a sort of propaganda for the sort of matriarchal, love-not-war society he favored.
Forgive me for adding my wife’s book in here, but it’s a book about women and women’s issues, by a woman.
It’s called Unterzakhn, from and you can read the GN copy here:
Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “Underthings”) tells the story of these sisters: as wide-eyed little girls absorbing the sights and sounds of a neighborhood of struggling immigrants; as teenagers taking their own tentative steps into the wider world (Esther working for a woman who runs both a burlesque theater and a whorehouse, Fanya for an obstetrician who also performs illegal abortions); and, finally, as adults battling for their own piece of the “golden land,” where the difference between just barely surviving and triumphantly succeeding involves, for each of them, painful decisions that may have tragic repercussions.
I’ve used both Persepolis and Batwoman for my first-year seminar “Thinking through the graphic novel.” Persepolis went over particularly well. From looking at a cross-section of student papers for each, what mattered was seeing a strong, believable woman carry a storyline — no white-horsed Prince Deusexmachina necessary. Also, neither character makes much sense apart from her personal and familial relationships: relationships we easily recognize as variations on our own.
I can also vouch for Promethea and Death (mentioned in a comment above) as worth your consideration.
A verbal thing: I know of several of these, and have given copies to friends. I am surprised to see them described as “comics,” and I wonder if S. Wallerstein, who started the controversy by declaring comics weren’t literature, would have thought these were examples of what he meant by “comics”.
I imagine s.wallerstein would have to check them out, to be able to respond.
Interestingly, Art Spiegelman himself weighs in on the comics/literature debate, saying, in short, that some is and some ain’t! “Already, it’s on par with anything in any other category you want to mention, whether it be literature or painting … You now have a Babylonian-sized library of comic book: it’s hard to sort through to find what’s worth finding…Now, I can’t possibly know what’s happening, even in the corner of comics I’m most likely to be interested in: the independent, oddball, strange things that still happen.”
Full interview here:
I would have to read them myself, with due attention, to decide if they are what I consider to be literature.
However, the above forum has convinced me that the genre of comics is full of new, vibrant ideas and reflects many of the ethical concerns and social issues which
we need to face today.
At this moment I’m reading Balzac’s Pere Goriot. Could a comic or a graphic narrative communicate the psychological depth and wealth of meaning of that book not the best novel I’ve ever read, but a fairly standard 19th century novel?
I’d have to read more comics in order to say.
In any case, I’d like to thank everyone who tried (and perhaps succeeded) in enlightening me as to the state of the art of comics today.
Anne, people in the comics industry don’t use ‘comics’ and ‘graphic novel’ to signify different kinds of thing, only a difference in presentation: a comic is serialized, a graphic novel is an entire story published in one volume. They very much resist using the terms such that ‘comic’ refers to the superhero stuff for kids and ‘graphic novel’ refers to the mature stuff you might teach in class – many comics creators find that usage somewhat insulting. In fact, the term ‘graphic novel’ seems to be getting used a lot less frequently: my impression is that it’s mostly used in the marketing when they think they might be able to sell it to someone who would never buy a ‘comic’.
And in response to swallerstein: “Could a comic or a graphic narrative communicate the psychological depth and wealth of meaning of that book not the best novel I’ve ever read, but a fairly standard 19th century novel?”
Yes. It could.;-)
In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, he offers a nice definition of “comics” by expanding upon Eisner’s notion of “sequential art” —
“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
With this def., “comics” — plural noun w/ singular verb — is an evolving form linking Mayan pictograms to the Bayeux Tapestry,Hogarth’s paintings to Yellow Kid, Fun Home to anime/manga. I’d find it difficult to meaningfully define “literature” in such a way as would exclude comics such as Frans Masereel’s text-less, wood block novels or Moore’s Watchman.
I’m a little late to the party, but Princeless by Jeremy Whitley is a fantastic new feminist indie comic. And it’s all-ages, in case anyone is looking for something to share with their kids.
Thanks, longtime lurker!
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Unwritten, by Mike Carey, is not a female focused story. But recent plot developments include a very savvy female comics artist that was active during the pulp era, that talked about the impossibility for female authors to do anything except write about ‘female subjects’, where men actually got to write about ‘being human’. It’s unashamedly frank and worth looking at for story alone. His other famous work, Lucifer, is also not female focused, but has amazing female characters in the forms of the lilim Mazikeen, and the half-angel Elaine Belloc.
The very Black Widow trade called Homecoming, and written by Richard K Morgan, is highly recommended: it’s a shame that Morgan’s run was cancelled, and he was unable to keep his momentum going with his new take on Natasha.
Jamie Hernadez’s ‘Locas’ is full of strong female characters and was already poking fun at the tropes of female characters in superhero comics back in the 80’s
[…] not expert in comics and/or superheroes and I know there ARE female superheroes, or better, superheroines, such as Firestar, Black Widow, Aquagirl, and Batwoman. (A wiki list […]
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