After a bit of a delay, here’s our last batch of new posts for round two of Women Write About Comics: Favourite Stories Starring Women. Read! Comment! Enjoy all of these free recommendations!
There’s one line that sums up my feelings about Agent 355 and it’s one she says while giving Yorik the scarf she’s knitted throughout the series, “I f%&%ed up a lot and had to start over a bunch of times.” 355 is a highly trained and skilled agent; she kicks all kinds of ass. Heck, she even stabs a pirate with her knitting needles, but she still makes mistakes, she lets her emotions get in the way, and she doesn’t realize what she wants out of life until it is tragically, painfully too late.
Through it all, Agent 355 knits that scarf. She makes progress slowly, over the five years covered by the main plot of Y: The Last Man. The scarf is supposed “to keep [her] hands busy,” but, for 355 it’s more than that. The scarf is a connection to a family she lost long before the men were wiped out. Her grandmother taught her to knit and her father made clothes for a living. They were all makers, they all created things. If you ask me, that’s the central message of Y: creativity is the most important thing.
My favorite comic stories that star women? That’s easy. Of course I love Bryan Q. Miller’s run on Batgirl , but long before Stephanie Brown took up the pointy-eared mantle, there was Sailor Moon.
At the time I didn’t realize just how good I had it with Sailor Moon. By the third arc, the cast featured no less than ten female leads – each with her own personality, her own strengths and flaws. And that’s not even counting the often excellent supporting female characters and female villains.
I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist back then. I hadn’t considered how many, or how few, women appeared in popular entertainment. I’d never heard of the Bechdel test. I was still young enough to be embarrassed by the fact that I liked “a kid’s show”. Yet Sailor Moon drew me in despite myself.
I liked Sailor Moon because it was filled with interesting characters and compelling storylines. The comic was even better than the show in many ways, since it condensed the stories down to their essence, filtering out the fluffy monster-of-the-day episodes and leaving behind the meaty, interesting stories of heroism and self-sacrifice.
Favorite Stories Starring Women: Suicide Squad, by Jess Plummer.
John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad ran for 66 issues from 1987 to 1992, with a couple of Ostrander-penned reunions cropping up in more recent years. Made up of supervillains doing time, the rules of the Squad were simple: Go on black ops missions for the US government to work off your sentence. If you obey your superiors – and if you survive, a big “if” where this team is concerned – you eventually walk free. If you step out of line, you get your head blown off, thanks to the chip implanted in it. The whole thing was masterminded and orchestrated by one Amanda Waller, the scariest person in the whole damn DCU.
Amanda Waller was like no one else in comics. She was short, fat, black, middle aged, and female, the mother of five adult kids. She dressed in ugly purple power suits, hair sensibly pulled back. She wasn’t eye candy and she had no superpowers whatsoever.
But she famously made Batman back down the first time they met. She fought mobsters and zombies and gods hand-to-hand, but her real skill was in political skullduggery and plotting brilliant black ops maneuvers: assassinations, extractions, military coups, smoke-and-mirrors cons, the lot.
Favorite Stories Starring Women: Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane, by Jess Plummer.
Some of that notoriety is deserved, because Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane is nothing if not sexist. The 1960s-style anxiety over a working woman plays out in a couple of ways: First, the book takes pains to reassure us that Lois is only working out of necessity and that her true goal is comforting domesticity; her raison d’être is to marry Superman, by hook or by crook. Then, since the target audience is little boys who don’t want their hero encumbered by an icky girl, Lois is permanently cast in the role of a nuisance and a pest by a determinedly single Superman, thereby punishing her for doing exactly what contemporary society demanded she do. It’s the kind of catch-22 – you must marry Superman/you can’t marry Superman – that is still used in cultural narratives to keep alarmingly independent women in their places. Locked in a struggle against herself, Lois can’t ever threaten the patriarchy.
I’m not going to argue that the book handles this situation subversively. Pesky, marriage-hungry Lois is the reality that we’re dealing with here, along with a slew of other stereotypes against women – she’s jealous, she’s fickle, she’s vain, she’s nosy – and the issues run the gamut from mildly annoying to infuriatingly sexist.
Lois Lane is also endearingly silly. If you like goofy Silver Age nonsense – and I do – you can’t do better than Lois’s various encounters with robots and lookalikes and Superbabies and harmless gangsters with needlessly convoluted schemes. They’re beautifully drawn (Lois’s clothes, oh my God) with memorable stories that are no less engaging for being insane. They have hilarious contemporary cameos (Pat Boone!) and bizarre applications of “science” and Lois taking on ever more ridiculous roles (Lois Lane, gangster’s moll! Lois Lane, sharpshooting cowgirl! Lois Lane, amnesiac jungle princess!). And did I mention the clothes?
Favorite Stories Starring Women: Betty and Veronica, by Jess Plummer.
There’s something powerful about giving little girls books about young women with unfettered freedom and endless talents. Like Nancy Drew, Betty and Veronica had the money (well, Veronica did) and parental approval to go anywhere they wanted any time they wanted and the ability to handle themselves with aplomb when they got there. A ski trip in the mountains? Daddy will fly us out and we’ll win the slalom! A quick trip to Paris? Mai oui, bien sur! The Riverdale Museum’s been robbed? Those dastardly thieves won’t get away from Betty and Veronica! No, it’s not the slightest bit realistic, but little girls already live in a world where their age, their gender, and societal expectations restrict their choices at every turn. It’s good for them to read something that tells them, “you can.”
As ridiculous as the world of Archie can be, there’s something joyful and valuable in it. Each time I bump another DC comic off my pull list for being too dark or depressingly or sexist or byzantine, I pick up a Betty and Veronica Double Digest, which never fails to make me smile. And thanks to Archie Comics’ graceful move into the 21st century, I look forward to doing so for a good long while.
Favorite Stories Starring Women: Batgirl, by Jess Plummer.
Stephanie Brown has been one of my favorite characters for years, so it was a given that I’d pick up her series, but I was unprepared for just how wonderful it would be. If you look back at that ingredient list, you’ll see a lot of them have to do with tone. Getting a positive comic out of DC is like getting blood from a stone these days, but for two years, Batgirl was there, poking fun at dour Gotham. Not only was the book itself funny, with silly one-off issues where Steph teamed up with Supergirl to fight dozens of old-movie Draculas or went on goofy Valentine’s Day adventures with Klarion the Witch Boy, Steph herself was generally cheerful. She’s been through a lot – criminal father, drug addict mother, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, giving up a child for adoption, being tortured for days, practically dying – but she keeps her sense of humor and her hope for a better tomorrow.
It’s hard to even articulate why I love her so much, especially since, to be honest, her characterization is not the most consistent in comics. You have bright, uncomplicated Silver Age Kara; elegant and aloof Bronze Age Kara; 2004’s “bad girl” Kara and the serious-minded Kara who replaced her; the Legion’s spacey, forthright Kara; funny, rebellious toon Karas; and the brave, smart Kara of the DCnU. And I’m probably forgetting a few. But I love them all. I love the unshakeable heroism at her core; I love her resilience and determination; I love her friendliness; I love her spirit. At the same time, I love what she represents: the ur-teen heroine, changing her costume and her personality to reflect what each writer and artist sees in her. Only Barbara Gordon as Batgirl carries quite so many expectations of what a teen heroine should be, and with Barbara it has a lot more to do with each reader’s personal relationship with her than a sweeping statement about what it means to be a girl. A girl who is super, no less.
Most of the entries I have seen for this month’s women in comics carnival have centred on USian comics. This is not surprising, given how UScentric the comics industry is in general. I want to highlight some of the female characters that have been central to my comics upbringing here in the UK. This list is by no means exhaustive, it’s just a random gathering of some of my favourite girls.