Robot 6

Female Superheroes: An Experiment

X-23's final issue

When Marvel cancelled X-23 and people pointed out that it’s the only comic that company currently publishes starring and named after a female character, it got me thinking. I get the explanation that publishers don’t put out books that people don’t buy. I also get the counter-argument that people don’t buy books that publishers don’t market. This isn’t an article about who’s at fault. What I’ve been thinking about is my personal reaction to superhero comics starring and named after female characters.

Generally, I’m for them. All else being equal, I’d rather read a comic starring a female superhero than a male one. For whatever reason, I’m less enthusiastic about characters that are too much like me. Okay, “whatever reason” is insincere. It has a lot to do with my being a straight, white guy and the extreme abundance of characters that I share that demographic with. I’d just rather read about someone different.

And I do. If I have any interest in the character and the creative team at all, I’ll always give a female-led superhero comic a shot. But what the cancellation of X-23 has reminded me is that there aren’t a lot of comics like that out there. Maybe – in order to support those kinds of series – I should expand my interests beyond characters and creators I already like. Try some new things. Give some series I’ve written off another shot.

Voodoo #1

Let me make something really clear though. I’m not talking about buying and supporting bad comics simply because they star a woman. As part of this experiment, I’m going to buy a few issues of some comics that have been described as horrible by people whose opinion I trust. The idea is to dig into these comics more deeply than just dismissing them as “icky.” By reading four or five issues, I can get a handle on what kinds of characters these are and what kinds of stories the creators are telling about them. But by no means am I committing to buying horrible comics just to support a demographic trend or even to “keep up with the industry.” I want to learn, but I’m not a masochist.

Because DC has some extremely recognizable characters and also several titles named after their female heroes, I’m going to start there. I’ll look at Batgirl next week, a comic that I gave up on after the first issue zagged when I thought it would zig. Its not meeting my expectations is all the reason I need as a consumer not to buy it, but as a critic, that also makes it a great place to begin this experiment. Having readjusted expectations, I’d like to take another look at it and judge it based on what it wants to be instead of what I wanted.

Later, we’ll move on to a universally praised series that I lost interest in thanks to all the broken promises over start dates (Batwoman), widely maligned comics like Catwoman and Voodoo, and some that I’ve been enjoying since they started (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Birds of Prey, for example). And eventually I’d like to move beyond DC and look at some other female-led books that I’ve never checked out. Stuff like Magdalena and Lady Mechanika. I’m on the fence about trying T&A stuff like Lady Death and Tarot, but for the sake of completeness, I’m leaning towards satisfying my curiosity.

Besides, my goal in this experiment isn’t to find out which series or characters best support feminism. I’m 100% in favor of women getting treatment and opportunities equal to men, but I’m going to try to avoid terms like “misogynistic” and focus instead on story and character. If a series has nothing going for it except titillation, I’ll say so, but I’m going to try not to prejudge. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a list of great, female-superhero comics that deserve wider support regardless of the gender or politics of their audiences.

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28 Comments

The bulk of books out there with male leads aren’t very good either. It takes the right writer and artist on any project to get it right. I sometimes wonder if we just aren’t getting the creative teams we need to on books with female leads. I think a lot of books sell just because their familiar they have familiar characters you have read for years. Your comfortable buying them regardless of whether or not their that good of a read.
Stepping outside of Marvel and DC definitely gives you a wider variety of very good material but you have to go looking for it.

but I’m going to try to avoid terms like “misogynistic” and focus instead on story and character.

Sometimes it’s okay to call a duck, a duck. You don’t think the people that use the term aren’t coming to that conclusion based on story and character?

Destro you piece a crap

Not a single writer, artist, or editor at DC or Marvel hates women.

Serial killers that live in the woods hate women, not professionals that have jobs and families

If you didn’t read Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna’s Black Widow, PLEASE do so for this experiment. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would’ve continued reading it were it an ongoing title. I didn’t follow Liu to X-23 because of the character and the artist, and I haven’t picked up Black Widow books before because of the creative team, but that came together very nicely.

It’s a shame DC are the company with more female lead books out there, I prefer Marvel generally speaking, so I’m definitely biased, but I think they have more interesting female characters. Black Widow, Elektra, Storm, She-Hulk, Elsa Bloodstone, Scarlet Witch, Warbird, Black Cat… while DC has like 12 genderbent Batmen.

If you’re going to go back and read some recent stuff, you should really check out Marjorie Liu’s Black Widow run, Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl run, Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman and Batwoman runs, and Sterling Gates’ Supergirl run.

Angelica Brenner

December 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Alas, Trey, there are many more people out there with creepy/hateful attitudes towards women than just “serial killers in the woods.” I’m sure the vast, vast, vast majority of people who work at Marvel/DC/whathaveyou are perfectly reasonable folks who honestly respect women and value their thoughts, opinions, etc., but just because someone has a job and family doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have some weird stuff going on int he back of their mind.

Likewise, someone doesn’t have to be a capital-M Misogynist to write/draw something that comes across as skeevy, much like someone doesn’t have to be a card-carrying member of the KKK to say something racially awkward.

Well-intentioned “everyone is equal” elementary school morals aside, our society doesn’t always do the best job of explaining how/why certain actions or attitudes can be harmful, and even the nicest people in the world can end up doing damage out of simple ignorance. Lord knows I’ve had to – and still do – work through my own internalized (insert icky prejudice here.)

Actually, I wanna add in Palmiotti and Gray on Power Girl, as well. That was a fun ride, while it lasted.

I would also recommend a further trip in time with:
“Death: The High Cost of Living”
“Death: The time of Your Life”

It’s a Vertigo character from the Sandman series. It def broke the mold in relation to how women and ppl in general are portrayed.

On a less serious and outside of the DC mainstream…check out Adam Warren’s “Empowered” series. A hero spoof of sorts but pretty good. Stars a heroine named Empowered who has the looks of a typical damsel in distress but a clingy supersuit that makes her a hero. As with many women, Emp is highly self-conscious of her looks which makes her actually more “real” than many of the other countless superheroines out there in comics.

Just a hint. If you’re looking for DC comics with female leads, Blackhawks usually gets ignored. Kunoichi seems to be the lead protagonist though.

Anyway, I feel the lack of female audience has less to do with the number of female protagonists but with themes and style of storytelling. For example, I’ve read about half of the new DC titles and I though there’s quite a lot of couples and even sex, I didn’t find anything you could actually call romance as a key plot element. Just stories about people falling in love with each other. Doesn’t exist. That stuff made manga so popular with female readers (here in Germany we have actually more female than male comics readers and creators thanks to manga).

So if DC and Marvel were actually trying to build female audiences (I don’t think they are), they would also need to work on the kind of stories they’re telling instead of just putting a girl on the cover. Superhero storytelling is very formulaic. Everything has to happen super fast because you only got 20 pages a month, so emotional depth or strong subplots about the relations of the characters usually get neglected. There’s simply no room for a love subplot in mainstream superhero comic books. You need a big action scene in every issue or people start complaining that nothing happens.

I don’t really read Marvel, so I can’t talk about them (though I doubt there’s much difference), but DC is certainly emphasizing action over emotional depth. Ironically, most Hollywood superhero adaptations put the romance aspects as strong sub-plots much more into the centre of the story than the comics they’re based on. Think about the Spider-Man movies or even Thor. Those also reach a female audience. If Hollywood can tell stories that speak to both main genders, why can’t DC and Marvel?

Buffy is a solid book (just started Season 9). Female lead and named afer her obviously.

I have been loving Batgirl, but it really doesn’t seem to be getting a big following. Then again, I don’t think it’s a superhero comic. It’s about a woman trying to rebuild her life after trauma, and who happens to be a costumed hero.

I disagree, Simon – Barbara Gordon seems to spend most of her time being Batgirl, or thinking about being Batgirl. I do hope we get more scenes with her possible boyfriend, or hanging out with her dad or flatmate.

Good luck with the experiment, Michael.

I´m one of those who love and vouch for the Marjorie Liu’s Black Widow series.

“It’s a shame DC are the company with more female lead books out there, I prefer Marvel generally speaking, so I’m definitely biased, but I think they have more interesting female characters. Black Widow, Elektra, Storm, She-Hulk, Elsa Bloodstone, Scarlet Witch, Warbird, Black Cat… while DC has like 12 genderbent Batmen.”

I’m partial for Marvel as well, I just add Karla Sofen as my favorite.

What do yoou think of Terry Moore’s Echo as part of the experiment?

I was a huge fan of “Leave it to Chance”, and I got the trades for my nice. VERY good stuff from Robinson & Smith – I wish they’d return to Devil’s Echo and give people what they want: a solid female lead with an all-ages concept.

…and by ‘nice’, I meant ‘niece’ (haha).

I’ll be honest here. I didn’t read X-23 because I don’t like the character. I mean, c’mon. Just what superhero comics and the X-books need, another grim, angsty “living weapon” character. Just not up my alley.

Lately I’ve found myself more interested in female centric books. The most recent comics that I’ve really enjoyed have been Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl and the new Birds of Prey. I think that I’m more interested in female books because I’ve been reading about the male heroes for years and I want something different now.

I don’t think the writers need to do anything differently for female books. Just tell a great superhero story that happens to star a woman.

I can’t believe that not one of Marvel’s heroines can support a solo book. What if they gave a popular team member like Storm or Kitty Pryde a solo book? It worked for Wolverine, why not them?

Buffy is the obvious one. It’s hugely popular, better than any of the DC books you mentioned, and yeah, she is basically a superhero. Two other ones to try would be the two longest-running female-led superhero titles, Witchblade and Fred Perry’s Gold Digger. Also, iZombie isn’t really a traditional superhero book, but it’s female-led and very “genre-y,” and I think it would have enough appeal to superhero fans to fit into the discussion.

I love all the great suggestions. Please keep them coming, ’cause I’m making a list.

I’ll probably focus more on current series than former runs or mini-series like Black Widow, but I’m not ruling those out either.

Trey:

“Serial killers that live in the woods hate women, not professionals that have jobs and families”

This is a pretty spot on parody, congrats.

Good luck with the experiment Michael. I’ll be interested in the results.

If you’re limiting yourself to current series, I would second the recommendation of Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 9 and add Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising as well as Dark Horse’s new Angel & Faith series – she co-stars/co-headlines – does that count?

That’s a good question, Kelly. I’d prefer to see her in top billing, like Faith & Angel, but I won’t rule it out. Of course, then I’d have to consider Hawk & Dove which I wasn’t planning on. Maybe once we get through the solo female titles (if that’s possible) and folks are still interested?

I’m definitely adding Buffy to the list, but it’ll have to be later to give me time to catch up on the TV series. That’s a gaping hole in my pop culture experience. :(

“That’s a gaping hole in my pop culture experience.”

More like a Grand Canyon. But it was such a good series. Def worth sitting through all the hours to watch.

Now I am a DC fan, though I like my Marvel movies, but i would like to see a Kitty Pryde comic like Sandwich Eater implied about. It would be good.

I think you’re overlooking something here — team books, especially ones without clearly defined “leads.” Legion of Super-Heroes has had some amazing women characters, especially from the late 70’s onward. Saturn Girl, Sensor Girl, Shadow Lass, the Lightning Lass/Shrinking Violet relationship, Dream Girl… especially when written by Paul Levitz. GREAT stuff.

J.

Jay, I seriously considered that (it kills me that I’m not going to be able to write about Rogue, for instance), but the title of the series is important to me. It says something about the focus of the comic and the importance the publisher and creators place on the character. I agree that there are a lot of great female superheroes who’ll get left out of this experiment because they don’t have their own solo titles, but I think the solution is to convince publishers to give them those titles. Not so they can be featured in an article here, obviously, but just because the character deserves that kind of treatment.

And I agree about LSH, by the way. I’m a huge Shadow Lass fan in particular.

“I’m on the fence about trying T&A stuff like Lady Death and Tarot, but for the sake of completeness, I’m leaning towards satisfying my curiosity.”

I would suggest avoiding those two books like the plague, given what I know about them. If you’re going to try reading a supposed T&A book, I wholeheartedly recommend you trying Adam Warren’s “Empowered” – a series that starts out as a joke premise but becomes a heartbreaking, well-written romantic series with a lead character that you end up rooting for. The sexual content is in service of the story rather than just idiotic fanservice. I’ve also heard good things about “Hack/Slash”, a title with a female protagonist that’s often ridiculed for being mere T&A, but I’ve never read the series myself, so I can’t offer a more thorough recommendation.

There are also some good, atypical indie superheroine stories worth a read, like Terry Moore’s “Echo” or “Ultra” by The Luna Bros (or better yet, “The Sword” by The Luna Bros., which is more of a horror/fantasy tale). I’ll also add to the chorus of people recommending Bryan Q. Miller’s “Batgirl” and Greg Rucka’s run on “Wonder Woman”.

Takio is sort of a team, but it’s only a duo, and the book *is* named after the characters…

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