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And Now For Something Completely Positive About Women in Comics

With the new DC universe rolling out this month, a lot of the comic news and talk has been about that; what’s changed, what’s the same, and who’s still around. This past week, however, a lot of talk about that (and non-DC books) has been drowned out by the fresh but familiar controversy of how women are portrayed in comics. Instead of writing another piece on that (I rant enough on Twitter), I wanted to write on the superhero books I think portray women as solid, complex, and flawed characters. They’re women that I can relate to, women that remind me of my friends, women that -aside from the crazy super powers- I can imagine live just down the hall from me. These are examples of what I look for in female characters, not just in comics, but all media.

Gotham Central ~ Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka
This is easily one of my favorite series of all time. Brubaker and Rucka take the Gotham City Police Department and make it feel like a drama you’d see on HBO. It’s dark, gritty, and entirely believable. The two writers create a Gotham from the average person’s view, giving the reader an entirely different perspective on the insanity that is Gotham City. The members of the Major Crimes Unit get to deal with the same rogues gallery that Batman does, but without all the cool gadgets. Members of the MCU are varied and women are not a small minority. They make up about a third of the characters in the book and more than half of its focus. Renee Montoya is easily my favorite and -lucky for me- the series explores her character quite a bit. Early in the series Renee is outed as a lesbian at work, exposing her to ridicule and disdain from her co-workers. In her personal life she has to deal with the fact that her family still doesn’t know and it’s affecting her relationship with her girlfriend. While the book is a police procedural with a superhero twist, it’s mostly about the people and how their job affects their lives. This has some of the best, most well developed characters in comics and the women are not remotely an exception. I cannot sing enough praises of this book or its creative team.

Detective Comics Featuring Batwoman ~ Greg Rucka and JH Williams III
Batwoman taking over Detective Comics was pretty big. Not only did she finally get a book after years of limbo, she got Detective Comics. After Batman’s “death”, one of DC’s longest running titles went to a different character. Not only was the book headlined by a woman, it was headlined by a lesbian. Kate Kane has gone through some pretty rough events in her life: her mother and sister were killed by terrorists, she was kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and then there’s the little thing about her being stabbed in the heart by a bunch of cultists that worship crime. Everything that’s happened to her almost make Batman’s tragedies pale in comparison. The best part of the run is Kate’s history, from her childhood to when she decides to become Batwoman. This is where the characters really shine. Kate herself is fleshed out into a fully realized character and the reader knows her motives for being Batwoman. Rucka and Williams created another believable cast of characters, even with the supernatural element to the book. They also pull off something that can be hard for some writers (*ahem). Sex. In Batwoman it’s organic, it naturally flows from the story; and while it’s sexy, it’s not exploitative. These are two characters who happen to have sex. It’s not done for shock value or fan service it’s just a part of the story. I also love the practicality of Kate’s costume and the care they took to make her costume believable.

Manhunter ~ Marc Andreyko and Jesus Saiz
Manhunter is a pretty unique mainstream DC book. Kate Spencer is a workaholic, a divorced mother who is bad with kids, and a chain smoker. Oh, yeah, and she killed Copperhead. With her staff. Blew his brains out all over the sewers, in fact. If Gotham Central were a TV show, it’d be on HBO. If Manhunter were a TV show, it’d be on Showtime. Kate is, as you may have guessed at this point, is a deeply flawed character, as are all of the characters in this book. Yet even with all of her faults, you like her. You may not want to be her friend until much later on in the series, but you like her and find yourself easily identifying with her. The cast is well rounded and brilliant, Kate’s reluctant partner, Dylan Battle, her friend Cameron Chase, her ex husband, and her son Ramsey. It turns out Kate even has ties to the original JSA. The book, unfortunately, was relatively short lived and was canceled, revived then canceled again.

Birds of Prey ~ Gail Simone
Birds of Prey is the most well known superhero team that features mostly women. Gail Simone is, of course, a well known name in comics. Some may say it’s because she’s one of the few visible female creators, but in reality it’s because she writes fantastic characters. Birds of Prey is a book with a mostly female cast, one headlined by a brilliant partnership of Black Canary and Oracle. While that relationship wasn’t started by Simone, she made it rock solid. The BoP roster has changed over time but the relationships between the characters are always solid, always relatable. Each woman is her own person and each brings her own unique perspective to the team. This isn’t a book where the characters are interchangeable, this is a book that highlights the differences between each woman and how they work together. They don’t always agree with or even always like each other, and that makes this book so good. Where else can you see Big Barda, Misfit, Huntress and many others in one kick-ass book?

Exiles ~ Judd Winick
Your eyes aren’t fooling you, I really did write Winick’s name as part of an example of a book that features solid, strong female characters. He even pulled off sexy without being exploitative! Exiles is a book that combines Quantum Leap, Sliders, and X-Men into one fantastic plot device. The team is pulled from various alternate realities, becoming ‘unhinged’ from time. To get back home, they must travel to other alternate realities fixing things that had gone wrong in the hopes that they will eventually be sent home. Unlike a lot of books, no one is really safe in Exiles. Despite that, you come to care for the characters and even mourn them when they die or move on. Obviously, it also has fantastic female characters or it wouldn’t be in this list. Some of the characters are: Blink, the team leader, Nocturne, who is Nightcrawler’s daughter, Mariko Yashida as Sunfire, Heather Hudson as Sasquatch and many more. Seriously, the list is longer than this paragraph. The series featured a well rounded cast that worked so well off of each other. This was one of my favorite Marvel books for a long time and I loved that there was such a strong cast of women in this series. It’s also a series that has made me cry the most.

She-Hulk ~ Dan Slott
When She-Hulk started up again in 2004 with Single Green Female I was blown away by it. Up until that point, I hadn’t found myself identifying with the characters in any of solo female books. Dan Slott’s take on Jennifer Walters changed that. Jen as She-Hulk was beautiful and confident, but when she was ‘just’ Jen Walters, she lost a lot of that confidence. She was kind of geeky and more than a little shy. In this series, she’s forced to look at who she is as a person, not just the persona she projects as She-Hulk. The book deals with gender roles in her profession, as She-Hulk, even in the bedroom. I loved the fact that some of her boyfriends had a hard time dealing with her being stronger than them. This was also a book that was positive about female sexuality, that it was ok for women to like sex. It sounds obvious, but there are still not a lot of books that do that without coming across as fan-service. Because of this series, She-Hulk became one of my favorite Marvel characters.

Batgirl ~ Bryan Q. Miller
Stephanie Brown caught my eye when she took over the role of Robin. There had never been a female Robin in the mainstream Batman lore and it was very cool to finally see one. Of course, it turned out to be a very temporary situation and Steph was back as Spoiler, then she was dead. After a few years, she was back, briefly as Spoiler again and then finally as Batgirl. When I first heard that Steph Brown was taking over the mantle of Batgirl, I was incredibly excited. Not only was she back, but she was getting the mantle of Batgirl, which carries recognition beyond what she got as Spoiler. Byran Q Miller took the controversial character and made her into something awesome. Stephanie Brown became the Peter Parker of the DC Universe. She’s smart, funny and self-deprecating. Initially, very few people respect her and even less are thrilled with her becoming Batgirl, but she doesn’t give it up. Her life is mired in tragedy, but she doesn’t gives up. She became a character that almost anyone, regardless of sex, race or religion could identify with because she embodies what it means to be human. I miss this book so much and I really hope Stephanie Brown gets her own book again soon, preferably with the same level of humanity.

There are many other books, characters, writers and other creators that I haven’t mentioned, but that aren’t immediately on this list. This is not a definitive list of “Awesome Female Characters in Superhero Comics”. While most of the list features male creators, it doesn’t mean there aren’t women who create and write in mainstream superhero books, or that I prefer male writers. This is just the list that came immediately into my head because I’m the most passionate about them. Others that come to mind are Devin Grayson when she was on Gotham Knights and Marjorie Liu on Black Widow and X-23. Liu is actually the only one that made me care about Black Widow. Until her series, I found the character to be kind of boring. I could write more (and maybe I will) but this article has to end sometime. There are many more, so I consider this a partial list.

19 Comments

I really like Batgirl by Bryan Q. Miller. I haven’t finished it yet though since I’m waiting for the last trade. I agree with you about her being like Peter Parker. She has a similar personality and approach to crimefighting. She’s probably the first female character in comics that I really felt connected to. I think that like Peter Parker we can see ourselves in her, and I’ve never seen myself in any other female characters.

Definitely a great selection.

I was always struck by how bad Winnick was on many books because I first read his work on Exiles and thought it was great.

Chuck Dixon really deserves as much if not more attention for Birds of Prey especially given that he started that book at a time when the publishers weren’t even pretending to care about female readership. Also, the “date” issues with Nightwing and Blue Beetle were so freaking great. Doesn’t mean Gail Simone wasn’t a godsend after Dixon left the book, but I feel like, given the hate he gets, it is worth noting his role in creating BoP.

I will never see Steph as Batgirl, (Cain really owned the role for me) but I still liked the way that Miller handled the book.

I would add Secret Six to the list just for the strength of Scandal Savage and her relationships with Knockout(romantic) and Bane(paternal). So messed up, so amazing.

While I haven’t read all the titles on this list, I have read some of them (She-Hulk, Exiles) and I have to agree that they fit the bill.

I started to think about other books with strong female characters, and Fables was the first one to come to mind. Rose Red is the head honcho at the Farm, the upstate Fable hideaway. Frau Totenkinder is a very old witch who is perhaps the most powerful character amongst the regular cast. Snow White and Beauty (of Beauty and the Beast) have both held the role of Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, where it is no secret that they are the ones who really run the show. Cinderella is Fabletown’s deadliest assassin. The list goes on and on of strong female characters in that series.

Thor: The Mighty Avenger may feature a male in the title role, but Jane Foster is a huge component of that book and is just as important to the story as Thor is. She isn’t the defenseless girlfriend waiting for the male lead to save her, even though he does have to save her on occassion, she is a smart, capable young woman who, without her, Thor would be completely lost during his exile on Earth. The story is not about Thor, rather it is about Thor and Jane.

I could probably name more myself, but I too will stop at a partial list!

Gotham Central was one of those “superhero” series that managed to leave this 30 years old man-18 reading comics- completely breathless. Jim Corrigan; say no more.

@Lackshmana

Definately add the Six. You also have to include Jeanette’s, um, unique sexual appetites, and the relationship between Scandal and Liana.

I have a couple of friends (who are more than friends to each other) staying with me while they job hunt. One is definately not ‘fem’ I showed them the scene about Scandal riding the bike with Liana and they both busted out laughing.

Batgirl, Titans, and Red Robin were the last three books I was collecting as comics. With Titans, I was happy for the return of Rose (who I fell in love with when she stared down Barda in the Technis Imperitive) and the bit about the krpytonite in the last issue was like a knife in the chest. Batgirl I just loved Stephanie, she seemed ‘real’. My goddaughter’s 15, and I could get the Batgirl trades and I bet she’d love them.

Oh, and since I mentioned Red Robin, while she’s supporting cast, can we add Tam to the Positive women?

Hi Megan,

If I may, I’d like to add the following titles to your list:

THE SWORD by the Luna Brothers
NEXTWAVE by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immomen
LOVE AND ROCKETS by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez

I’ll add Stumptown, The Walking Dead and American Vampire to the list of books with strong female characters.

Slott on She-Hulk was so good… As much as I like PAD, that book completely fell off once Slott left and they tried to integrate it deeper into the MU…

Gotham Central? Manhunter? Gail’s BoP? Slott’s Shulkie? Judd’s Exiles?

I think I’m in love.

I thought about putting Dixon’s name in there, but ultimately it was Simone’s stories that I enjoyed the most, so those were the ones I wrote about.

I also almost put on Secret Six, but held off for length. Next list, I promise. :)

As for the other suggestions, some I’ve read, some I haven’t, but thanks for them!

Can’t argue with any of those selections. I’d also toss in Thunderbolts (Songbird and Moonstone have always rocked), X-Factor, X-Men: Legacy, and, more recently, Invincible’s portrayal of Atom Eve since the end of the Viltrumite War storyline. Young Justice was great with its girl characters, too, even if it has been cancelled for eight years.

You have perfectly encapsulated what I dislike about both Birds of Prey #1 and Batgirl #1 in the New 52.

You mentioned devin grayson. Is she even still working in comics anymore? I was a fan of her titans run and arsenal mini-series and also her black widow mini. I stopped reading reading comics for about 3 years,came back to it and found she wasnt on any books.

How about putting Tulip O’Hare from Preacher and Deena Pilgrim from Powers on this list?? I think Deena Pilgrim is one of the greatest supporting characters of all time.

Commenters: I don’t really think that “so-and-so is such a good supporting character” fits the bill here. A faithful girlfriend who always helps the Real Hero out is not a model for positive women characters – rather, it’s the sexist model that’s prevailed in heroic fiction for thousands of years.

Also “I think I’m in love” is a gross and creepy way to respond to this piece.

Ugh, Gotham Central started well and had potential, but “Half a Life” was so Lifetime Network Movie that it was gross, and the ending was completely lame and only served to tie into future DCU projects.

First, welcome to Comics Should Be Good, Ms. Parker.

second, I agree with your stance, though not with all your examples- for example I liked Montoya (before they turned her into The Question II anyway) but not Manhunter. But that’s probably more due to personal tastes.

I think female characters shouldn’t be treated any better or worse than male ones… That can cover the whole spectrum from champions to whores. It’s the writing that matters. Just make them interesting to me and I’ll read them.

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