It’s true that comic books haven’t always represented women well. (Google: “Women in Refrigerators” if you want to get depressed or inspired because its author, Gail Simone, is now a top notch comic book writer who is turning things around.) However, there are a ton of titles out there right now that are brilliantly written, beautifully drawn and feature fantastic female characters. You just have to know how to find them. Or at the very least, have a jumping off title.
Alias by Brian Michael Bendis This series has nothing to do with the Jennifer Garner show of the same name. Ironically, though, if you were a fan of that show, you’d probably also like this. The series follows Jessica Jones, a jaded former superhero who now runs her own private detective firm and is trying to distance herself from a traumatic past. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s sexy and it’s emotional. Also, you get to see superheroes like Luke Cage (he’s an Avenger–he was created in the 1970’s–he says “Sweet Christmas”–his skin is impenetrable) outside of the uniforms and from the perspective of a woman who’s dated them. It’s a really brilliant read and has been optioned as a TV show.
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and art by Pia Guerra You know the age old curse, “Not if you were the last man on Earth?” Well, hapless twenty-something Yorick Brown is the last man on earth in this absolutely brilliant coming of age story that deftly juggles sexual politics, emotional drama and Twilight Zone-style science fiction. Vaughan’s work is known for being intelligent, witty and filled with multi-dimensional female characters. He’s also responsible for Runaways (side note: give Runaways to the preteen girl in your life now!), Ex Machina and a number of the more brilliant later episodes of Lost.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi This isn’t a superhero story. There’s no murder mystery, no magic and no handsome man in disguise. This is an autobiography of an Iranian artist who had to leave her homeland. Satrapi has a gorgeous artistic style and her writing is full of both deep emotion and whimsy. This isn’t a fun escapist story; it’s a compelling portrait and a must read if you have any interest at all in learning more about what is happening in Iran right now.
Fables by Bill Willingham Imagine if all your favorite fairy tale characters lived in modern day New York. Beauty and the Beast are in couples’ therapy, the Big Bad Wolf is a smoldering detective and Prince Charming has to awkwardly juggle running into his three ex-wives (Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) at the same fancy events. The series starts off with a murder mystery and twists into an epic soap opera that features romance, war, tragedy, comedy, and a version of Little Boy Blue that will make you swoon. It’s a must read for anyone who likes modern fairy tale adaptations.
X-Men (various titles) The reason why X-Men stories are so female friendly is because there are literally hundreds of female characters within the X-Universe. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wrote a great series called Astonishing X-Men that focuses on Kitty Pryde and features complex female characters like Emma Frost and Agent Brand. If you liked X-Men First Class, then check out one of Marvel’s collections of the original comics. It’s really interesting to see how the characters changed from the very first issue and how much they stayed the same. Also, vintage Jean Grey is kind of amazing. The first thing she does when she puts on her X-Man uniform is to comment that Christian Dior could have designed it. Frivolous? Yes. Fun? Also, yes.
Birds of Prey by Gail Simone Alan Moore, who’s responsible for the graphic novel masterpiece Watchmen, wrote a really dark Batman story called The Killing Joke in which the Joker shoots Batgirl in the back and she becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Though it was not the greatest moment for feminism in comic books, publishing house DC committed to Moore’s artistic choice (until recently, but we won’t get into the complicated subject of reboots and retcons right now). Barbara Gordon could no longer physically be Batgirl, but that didn’t mean she could fight crime. In Birds of Prey, Batgirl is reborn as Oracle, a wheelchair bound computer hacker, and she teams up with the Black Canary and Huntress to fight crime in Gotham. It’s a cool girl power series because it shows how women can overcome personal tragedies, band together and still kick ass.
Manga Most female visitors to comic book shops are in there to buy manga, or Japanese comics. Just like Western comics, Manga runs the gamut from adventure series to drama to romance to science fiction to humor. For whatever reason, Manga is more popular with female audiences. That’s probably because there are more female protagonists, more romances and more humor titles in Manga. There are also way more female writers and artists working in Japan than in America, which is interesting to think about. Some great titles to start with are Fruits Basket (humor/romance), Fushugi Yugi (romance), Battle Royale (which is like The Hunger Games as imagined by Quentin Tarantino), and of course, Sailor Moon, which is set for English publication this year.
Manhwa The South Korean version of Manga is called Manhua. The art has more feminine flair and the stories are usually more historic or romantic. There’s typically also less humor than in Manga. My personal favorite is Bride of the Water God, it’s about a young woman who’s village offers her up as a bride to a tempestuous water god. If you’re into the Daenerys storyline on HBO’s Game of Thrones, you’d probably also like this.
All these titles are just jumping off points. The idea is you start with a couple, see what you like, and then try another title that’s similar, or by the same author, or has the same artist, or features the same character. The toughest thing for me was figuring out what that first purchase would be. The world of comic books and graphic novels can be overwhelming, but trust me, it’s not just for boys. Comic books have lent me escape in times of trouble, opened up my mind to new ideas and inspired me to conquer some of my own demons. I personally think they’re more than female-friendly; they’re female-empowering.