She Has No Head! – 10 Great Female Comic Book Characters Of The Decade
So I limited my list to female characters that debuted 2000 – 2009 (a couple of them technically debuted in 1999 – but the bulk of their appearances have been in this decade) in the US. So a character like Maggie from Love & Rockets, despite being a long time personal favorite is not going to be on the list, because she’s been around since well before 2000.
I also left non-fiction and memoir books off the list because I don’t love the idea of comparing fictional characters with real life people (albeit often fictionalized ones), which explains the absence of characters from books like Fun Home, Persepolis, and all of Gabrielle Bell’s work, of which I am a ridiculous fan. You’ll also notice that there is no Manga on this list and that is quite simply because I am totally unqualified when it comes to Manga and haven’t read enough to even begin judging what should and shouldn’t be on a list of this kind. Fortunately, CSBG’s very own Danielle Leigh covers Manga beautifully for this board already. Not that that makes it okay for me to be ignorant, but it does make me feel slightly better about it.
Okay, onto the list. There are definite spoilers, so read with caution.
10. Frau Totenkinder aka The Black Forest Witch aka Frau Baby-Eater – Fables
First Appearance: Fables #3 (2002). Vertigo. Created by Bill Willingham.
One of the reasons Frau Totenkinder is on this list, is simply because it’s pretty much unheard of that an old woman gets to have a featured role in a modern comic book as anything significant. I really battled between putting Snow White or Frau Totenkinder on this list, because Snow is important in Fables if only because she seemed almost like the test case for Willingham in seeing what he could do with re-imagining these characters – and he did a hell of a job with Snow White. However, I don’t love Snow’s current arc in that as soon as she became wife and mother she stopped having a major role. Not that I necessarily disagree with it, Willingham’s world rules are clearly set up and the way the story turned out there wasn’t much choice for Snow…but I can still kind of hate it a little bit. Regardless, Frau Totenkinder’s presence and power has only grown and become more fascinating. Totenkinder, once the The Black Forest Witch from the Hansel & Gretel fairytale was living in exile in Fabletown with the other fables, and has devoted herself seemingly whole heartedly to the cause of protecting her fables family. Totenkinder’s first awesome act was when she defeated Baba Yaba single handedly during the March Of The Wooden Soldiers arc (issue #27 specifically). Since then she’s been a major power player on the scene, and is currently engaged in an arc that could continue to change the Fables world. Unfortunately, for this arc she has transformed herself into a young woman again, which I’m not wild about (it would have been awesome to see her running around in her old lady skin and kicking ass) but beggars can’t be choosers and Totenkinder is still proving to be a fascinating boundary breaking character to watch. I mean, she’s a hero and yet her name roughly translated means “death of children”…very unexpected.
For anyone looking to learn more about Frau Totenkinder, her interesting origin story can be found in the pages of Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall.
09. Promethea aka Sophie Bangs – Promethea
First Appearance: Promethea #1 (1999). America’s Best Comics/Wildstorm. Created by Alan Moore.
Promethea is one of the most important female characters I think in the last decade, in fact, she may be the most important, just not my personal favorite (hence #9 and not #1). Promethea, Alan Moore’s incredibly powerful superhero-ish character, the title character in her own book, and with barely a man to be seen for issues and issues (something that seems completely natural here) is one of the most epic characters I’ve ever read in a comic book – Moore’s ideas barely contained on the page – even with J.H. Williams III’s insanely talented hand bringing them to life. Promethea feels important and vast in a way I think Superman is supposed to feel, but never quite has for me. By definition the Promethea character is essentially imagination, and despite being a force for “good”, her ultimate place in the world is to eventually bring about the apocalypse. Of course apocalypse doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and in fact the definition is more “revelation” than anything else, and revelation can of course be good or bad, or perhaps most accurately, neither…or both. And so Promethea’s purpose seems to me, so far beyond the good and evil that we generally boil things down to in comics, well, I’m getting away from the actual character, but suffice to say that Promethea was a revolutionary and important book for all the things that Moore and Williams were doing, especially as the series progressed and became so experimental. For my tastes, though I found it fascinating (and educational), the more experimental it became the more I had trouble connecting emotionally with the characters, which is usually what appeals to me most about a book, and so it kept Promethea from being higher on this list. She’s still incredibly important as a character however, even beyond the experimental stuff Moore and Williams were doing, and even if only as a fascinating look at the direction Wonder Woman could have gone if she hadn’t needed to always be age appropriate.
08. Tara Chace aka Minder #2 (and later Minder #1) – Queen & Country
First Appearance: Queen & Country #1 (2001). Oni Press. Created by Greg Rucka.
I came a bit late to Queen & Country, but I’m just glad I finally found it at all, as I fully fell in love with Rucka’s Queen & Country, and especially his tragic hero Tara Chace. As the only woman on a team of “minders” (basically special ops for the British Government) Tara is often considered the rock star of the group, despite being minder #2, not #1. Queen & Country as a whole is a brilliantly conceived political meets military meets international meets human drama book, that Rucka pulls off with nuance and grace, and Tara, to me, is made more impactful simply because it’s not a big deal that she’s a woman. She’s just one of this team of amazing people trying to do good (in a very shades of grey world) and often failing. It’s wonderful work and Agent Chace is a character I’d love to see continue indefinitely. At the end of the series in 2007, Rucka promised to come back to Tara’s story in 2009 or 2010 but I can’t imagine with all Rucka has been up to in the past two years he’s had time to come back to Q&C. I hope eventually he will be able to revisit the characters though – especially Tara.
Of note is that unlike most of the books on this list, several artists (with very different styles) have taken on Q&C at different points during the 32 issue series, and I didn’t always love each of them equally (especially when Tara becomes distractingly buxom for a handful of issues) but with Rucka’s strong writing always in place it’s still easy to enjoy arcs that don’t seem artistically as in synch with what he’s doing in the larger picture.
And that is really good writing.
07. Detective Deena Pilgrim – Powers
First Appearance: Powers Vol.1 #1 (2000). Image. Created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
It’s easy to see from glancing at my list that I’ve got a thing for badass ladies – and seemingly the stoic silent type – probably because I get a bit sick of seeing the opposite end of the spectrum in media – women played as hysterical chattering divas. Deena is proof that I don’t ONLY like strong silent badasses, because while Deena is still a badass there’s nothing silent about her. She’s got a hilarious smart mouth on her that just never stops, and I love her for it. Detective Deena Pilgrim is Detective Christian Walker’s new partner in the powers department of the police force – dealing with the superhero and super villain element in the city. Part detective story and part superhero story, Deena is one of the most alive characters I’ve ever had the chance to read on the page, and like many of Bendis’ creations, she is exceptional and yet highly flawed and human, making her so much more real and important. Maybe part of why Deena is so appealing to me is because truly funny women are hard to find in media – and Deena is absolutely the sharp funny tongue that compliments Det. Walker’s silent brooding shtick. It’s funny, I think I fell in love with Deena permanently in Powers #5, when Walker is trying to get her to transfer after she has betrayed his trust and she says,
“But—I mean, come on. How could you not want me around? I’m totally fascinating. And shit. I wear these little belly shirts all day. That’s gotta do something for you.”
06. Jakita Wagner – Planetary
First Appearance: Planetary #1 (1999). Wildstorm. Created by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday.
I always loved the fact that Jakita is the muscle on Planetary. And she’s not only the muscle, she’s also the leader (well until Elijah figures out he’s the fourth man), and she’s also got the best sense of humor and most of the best lines. You almost never get that combination in a character, but Jakita just embraces it all and makes it work so flawlessly that you forget it’s kind of revolutionary to see. Trying to explain anything from Planetary if you haven’t read it is like…hell, I don’t know, but it’s even harder than trying to explain Promethea. Basically Jakita is the strong right arm of a group of three (technically four) “heroes” that work for Planetary, a covert agency with limitless financial backing doing…well, crazy insane stuff. International investigator stuff meets golden age and hi-tech-y superhero-y stuff. That make it clear? Yeah, I thought not. Anyway, Jakita possesses heightened speed, senses, strength, invulnerability, and apparent agelessness making her the obvious brute force for the team. Jakita inherited her powers from her father (essentially Tarzan) and probably her big beautiful brain from her scientist mother that lived in a highly advanced secret city in Africa. Raised by a nice German family Elijah placed her with as a child, Jakita is bored easily, like both her parents, which lead her to work with Planetary, which is never boring. In Planetary #7 Elijah says something to Jakita that sums up nicely how I feel about her, “You’re never what I expect Jakita.” And Elijah means that in the nicest of ways, as do I. I hope now that Planetary has ended, there will still someday be more stories of Jakita.
As if Jakita isn’t awesome enough on her own, check out courtesy of Scans_Daily the bulk of her hilarious and yet exceptional fight with Batman.
05. Jessica Jones aka Jewel – Alias
First Appearance: Alias Vol.1 #1 (2002). Marvel MAX Imprint. Created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos
I love adult comic books. Not to say I’ve got a dirty mind or anything (that’s a whole other column) but I think just being an adult makes me happy to see cursing and sex in my comics…because as an adult those things are part of my life. I like to see real life reflected in comics, especially when it’s done as well as Bendis does it with Jessica Jones in Alias. I love that Jessica can curse and have sex and drink and be drunk and screw up just like anyone else – although Jessica does seem to have a particular gift at screwing up huge. Like Powers, Alias is a great mix of detective and superhero genres (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?) and Jessica Jones is a milestone of a character, running her own book without any sidekicks or boyfriends to speak of. Jessica Jones is an ex-superhero, and now a private investigator running Alias Investigations. She still retains some powers, but is out of practice and by her own admission was never much of a superhero. Because of who she is, what she does, and where she lives (both the city and the reality) her life and work often intersect with the superhero population for both good and ill. I liked Jessica Jones right off the bat when I started reading Alias, which is pretty important for the launch of a new book and character, but I fell in love with her slowly, almost like you do with real people. It was actually only when I finished the second trade (ending with issue #21) that I realized how invested I was in the Jones character and I tore through the last issues – Jessica’s origin story – unable to slow myself down, but feeling desperate because I knew once I finished it was all over. I was so sorry to finish the end of Alias and know that while she was continuing on in a fashion (Pulse was it?) it just wouldn’t be the same as it had been in Alias. Jessica starring in and running her own book, as it was meant to be.
I remember when I first read Jessica’s story, I was a bit annoyed with her that she kept falling in love, or thinking she was in love, or trying to be in love with various people in her life, but looking back, I don’t know, that just seems incredibly realistic to me. People are always looking for someone to love, or running away from it, or trying to convince themselves it’s there when it’s not there…it’s another case of Bendis really tapping into something real, though not ideal, and it’s part of what makes Jessica so layered to me. The flaws. You want to be her, and then you realize you kind of already are. Good stuff.
04. Cassandra Cain aka Batgirl – Batgirl
First Appearance: Shadow Of The Bat #83 (1999). DC. Created by Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott (costume by Alex Maleev).
Cass Cain is one of my favorite superheroes ever created – equal parts vulnerability and total badass. The vulnerability being the thing that both holds her back and simultaneously make her so wonderful. People always say that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness and I think Cass Cain is the perfect embodiment of that adage. For the uninitiated, Cass took up the Batgirl mantle long after Barbara Gordon was crippled by the Joker and had hung up the uniform to become Oracle. Cass, when she first appeared, could not speak or read because of how she was raised by her assassin father, but she could essentially fight Batman to a standstill. Wow. There was no doubt about Cass’ ability – more raw talent and skill than any other Bat save Batman himself – but the skill came at a price. Cass had been taught to communicate by reading body language, which in a fight, meant she could tell what you were going to do before you did it, but this special ability also meant she didn’t know how to communicate in other ways. Brilliant! Puckett and Scott, being the clever men they were, knew that making Cass perfectly invincible would ultimately be boring and would keep the character from evolving, and so early on in the series she comes in contact with a gentleman that unlocks her ability to speak within her mind, but with that new gift she loses her ability to read a person’s body language. As the man is unable to undo what he has done, Cass has to come to terms with being a far less effective fighter, but also with learning to read and having real relationships for the first time in her life.
I was heartbroken when Cass was pulled as Batgirl (although the heartbreak started long before that as any Cass fan knows). When she was allowed to do what Puckett and Scott wanted to do with her – she was one of the best characters in the DCU. I hope someday we’ll get that Cass back. I know I’d love to write the hell out of that character.
Check out highlights of an incredible fight between Batman and Cassandra Cain, again courtesy of Scans_Daily. Awesome stuff.
03. Agent 355 – Y The Last Man
First Appearance: Y The Last Man #1 (2002). Vertigo. Created by Brian K. Vaughan
Talk about badass strong silent types. They nearly broke the mold when they built 355. Agent 355 early on in Y The Last Man is assigned by Yorick’s mother to be his bodyguard but, and I kind of love that Vaughan set the story up like this, when we first meet 355 she’s on an entirely separate mission and one that is hinted to be the cause of the plague that kills the worlds’ men. It’s a nice way of establishing 355’s importance in the book independent of Yorick, even if that is what her world quickly becomes. Forever at Yorick’s side, sacrificing herself for the last man on Earth, even when he’s being a moron that deserves a bullet to the brain instead of someone to jump in front of one, 355 anchored herself as one of my favorites early on, but she only got better as Vaughan’s series progressed. Despite Yorick’s insane (but sweet) quest to find his girlfriend Beth and Agent 355’s emotionless front, the two characters become inseparable friends and tragically, lovers too late. But it’s hard to regret 355’s holding back of her emotions, as you can only respect her more for waiting until her mission is complete to admit her feelings and act on them – in a world gone mad with everyone reaching greedily for their share (or more than) that kind of fortitude takes a particularly level head and strength of character that I can’t even begin to comprehend.
Part of me hated Brian K. Vaughan for killing 355 the moment she let her guard down for love – but it was honest, and it was real, and I cried. Mission accomplished.
02. Michonne – The Walking Dead
First Appearance: The Walking Dead #19 (2005) . Image. Created by Robert Kirkman.
Michonne hasn’t gotten a lot of screen time as of late (what’s up with that Kirkman?) but it hasn’t diminished her influence as a powerful female character. As usual with any great character, a fantastic origin or first appearance is critical and Michonne has one of the best. Readers were introduced to Michonne in The Walking Dead #19, as she shows up at the prison with two zombies in tow, their arms and jaws removed, in order to help mask her scent from other zombies. The sight of Michonne, Katana blade in hand, on your doorstep with a couple of dismembered zombies (one of which used to be her boyfriend) as her protection? Hello, my name is badass, can I please come in? Michonne is the traditional strong silent type that I’ve become so found of – only speaking when she really has something significant to say – unless it’s a scene of her talking to herself – but that’s a whole other story. Kirkman put Michonne through the ringer later in the series with a highly controversial and brutal kidnapping, rape, and torture at the hands of The Governor. While the arc left me feeling a little less enamored of Kirkman it never lessened by affection and respect for Michonne. And while I personally wrestled with whether I felt Kirkman had stepped over the line or not in his storytelling, in the end I felt like it was a fairly realistic and horrifying reality of the world in which these characters exist. A character less than Michonne would probably not have survived it, and in the end it only strengthened my devotion to her. Michonne is a survivor in the truest sense of the word, yet she has kept hold of her humanity despite it all. In the zombie apocalypse Kirkman has created, nobody is a bigger subtle badass than Michonne, except maybe Rick, but frankly, I think she could take him.
01. Kate Kane aka Batwoman – Detective Comics
Hmmm. What to do here. I was planning to go with the “First” Appearance of Kate Kane – as in the “re-launch” that happened in 52 #7 (2006). But man do I hate that portrayal of Kane (it’s pretty much in direct opposition to what we’ve gotten in Detective) and if the character had remained what she was in 52, she wouldn’t have had a shot in hell of making it on this list…in fact she probably would have made it onto a ‘horrible female character clichés of the decade’ (which I am not planning to write)…so, since the big two ret-con whatever and whenever they please, I’m doing the same. As far as I’m concerned the first appearance (or re-appearance) of Kate Kane/Batwoman is Detective Comics #854 (2009). DC. And she is “created” by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III in DC #854. Do what you will with your own memories.
What can I say about Kate Kane/Batwoman that I didn’t say last week. I may be all gushed out…but I’ll give it a try. Kate Kane is quite simply the superhero I have been waiting for my whole life. A strong powerful female hero that seems equal to, though different than, Batman. It’s not an easy task standing up to Batman even just in concept. For my money he’s a perfectly conceived character from start to finish, and Batman has the vulnerabilities and the character flaws (i.e. he’s a dick) that Superman and Wonder Woman lack, the very things that I think make them hard to relate to for me. Yet Kate Kane has these things the same way that Bruce has them, all her own demons and baggage, both physical and emotional and it makes her fascinating, I literally cannot wait to watch her tackle the world. But the best thing about Kate (right now at least) is that she’s been given the absolute best writer and the absolute best artist to see her through these tough first years. Because they are tough years. It’s hard to get a brand new marquee superhero character (franchise?) launched. And it’s particularly hard to do it with a character that already comes with hype and speculation. But as far as I’m concerned DC nailed it this time. This is how you launch a new marquee female superhero. This is how you create a new Wonder Woman that will stand the test of time…you put your absolute best writer on it, your absolute best artist on it, you feature her in one of your longest running most respected titles, and you sit back and wait. You wait for people to see how well you’ve done. And I for one, say well done DC, well done.
Honorable Mentions: Amanda Walker from North 40, Renee Montoya as The Question; Madame Xanadu from Madame Xanadu (edit: looks like MX is ineligible anyway, I’d put up Gert Yorkes from Runaways in her place I think), Brody from Water Baby; Blythe from Air; Girl One and Irma from Top 10; and Ursula from Asterios Polyp.
I should also note that had I read the series in full (I’ve only read a few issues) I suspect Kate Spencer aka Manhunter by Marc Andreyko would probably be pushing Frau Totenkinder out of the Top 10. But fortunately for the Frau, I’ve yet to read enough of Manhunter to make that switch.
If I gave an award to best re-imagined character it would be Emma Frost/The White Queen. Grant Morrison (and then Joss Whedon) did something with Emma Frost that I didn’t know was possible. They made her fascinating beyond her giant tits and white bustier. I’m officially an unabashed White Queen fan now, in fact she’s one of my favorite X characters, something I had previously never even considered – and THAT my friends is a hell of a re-imagining.
Characters I’m most excited to watch in 2010? Well, other than seeing the ladies listed do more great things I’m anxious to see the end of Cindy’s arc from Crossed (Brian did a good review of Crossed 7 here if you haven’t heard of it), and I’m already wishing that series wasn’t going to end at #9. And of course Greg Rucka’s newest female private investigator Dex from his book Stumptown, of which I am hungrily awaiting more issues. As I mentioned above Amanda Walker from North 40 really caught my eye and I heard a rumor (totally unconfirmed) that there might be more coming on North 40, which would be great as she’s a unique and interesting character with a voice I don’t really think I’ve heard in comics before. Of course we’ve also got things like Girl Comics coming out which is sure to have a few interesting female characters and stories along with all those female creators.
Something that occurred to me while I was pulling this list together is that 7 of 10 characters from my list are not currently in circulation (and one of them only just began). And while it’s possible that that is part of what makes those characters so strong (i.e. they had clearly defined storylines with definitive beginnings and ends) I will say that it makes me sad to realize that most of my favorite female characters of the past decade don’t currently have ongoing stories I can read.
Also interesting – although not on a ‘this is rocket science’ level – is that all of these characters had one writer throughout their stories (with the exception of Cass Cain, and I think it’s generally accepted that it was when other writers took over for Puckett that her character went horribly wrong). I think that’s something the big two should really pay attention to – the power of a good writer to really drive a character and subsequently a book. We fans (okay, nerds) talk about it constantly – editorial throwing out mandates, and writers without the talent or experience, or respect for the character we love being tacked onto a book – but looking at this list and seeing that 9 of 10 (and most of my honorable mentions) were written by one writer – I don’t know, that seems pretty significant to me. That seems like science or something. Someone put together some kind of fancy science like equation and send that baby over to DC and Marvel, okay?
I’d do it, but I have trouble with anything over basic math…okay fine, I even have trouble with basic math…but don’t let it get around as that’s not going to help our argument any.