There’s been quite a dust up over the inter webs this past week in the wake of Marvel Comics announcing that Thor is about to become a woman.
One of the better responses has been from the writer Chuck Wendig who points out the insecurity that lies behind some of the angst: “Our pop culture has been speaking very directly to heteronormative middle-class white-guy culture for a long time. Comics, television, novels, whatever. It’s time to share the storytelling.” I agree. Personally, I could care less whether they turn Thor into a woman or a Japanese guy or a three hundred pound aardvark. But I really do wish people knew just how many interesting, wonderful, kick ass female characters already exist in comics and how much great writing has been going into making them even better in the last decade and a half.
Of course, female superheroes haven’t always been particularly interesting characters. In the silver age of comics, when a lot of female superheroes were created or re-invented, their basic purpose was to be eye candy and to be… um… helpful:
Many of these characters were developed just to keep the guys busy saving them. A fair number of them, like Supergirl, Batgirl, and She-Hulk, were originally just lesser versions of their male counterparts, invented to try to squeeze a few pennies out of female readers who were always saying to themselves, “I would read the Incredible Hulk if only he looked more flattering in heels.”
But despite the way so many of these heroines got their start, today they are among the most compelling characters in comics. Here are five reasons why…
They are being written by women
Not exclusively, of course, but one of the reasons why female characters in comics have become so much more interesting to read than they used to be is that there are now women who are writing these characters and influencing the arcs of their stories. There are far fewer women writing comics than there should be. Like, way fewer. But that makes it all the more interesting how influential women writers have become. Kelly Sue DeConnick has been doing incredible work on Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble. G. Willow Wilson has recently been writing a highly acclaimed new version of Ms. Marvel. And no one can deny the huge impact that Gail Simone has had on a variety of female characters in her amazing runs on Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Batgirl, and Red Sonja.
Not only are these writers making female heroes more interesting, but they are also making them more commercially viable. In June, the still relatively new Harley Quinn comic written by Amanda Conner and her husband Jimmy Palmiotti outsold Superman, Justice League, and X-men. That a comic featuring a female lead character, written by a woman, is doing so well shows not only how the industry is changing but also how fans have changed in their expectations.
They are tough
These are not your grandaddy’s super heroines. They don’t sit around, filing their nails and rearranging their makeup, waiting for a man to come and rescue them. These women can fight. They are hardcore. Their books are packed with action. And in large measure, it’s action that’s beautifully drawn. These women are serious butt kickers. Anyone who thinks otherwise… well… I dare you to say that to Wonder Woman’s face.
They are fun
Remember when comic books used to be fun? Remember when it wasn’t always just dark, brooding characters doing dark, brooding things? Pepperidge Farm remembers. And so does the comic industry when it comes to how they use their female heroes today. As I said, these women are tough and no nonsense. Nobody’s going to mistake them for push-overs. But there’s also room for joy and a sense of playfulness in their stories. One of the things that I have always enjoyed about comic book heroes is the way that they banter. Their wit is always as sharp as their weapons. A lot of that has been missing in many of the books featuring men today, perhaps because they are trying to model their stories after the movies where dark superheroes have become the sin qua non. But for whatever reason, publishers, writers, and artists seem to be a little bit more comfortable with allowing the women to have some fun, crack some jokes, and generally seem like people you might enjoy having a beer with when they’re not busy saving the world.
They are complex
These characters may have started out simply as female versions of male heroes, but they have come to have interesting, independent story lines that tackle completely different themes and ideas than their male counterparts. Supergirl struggles with the trauma of losing her home and the difficulty of mixing incredible power with post adolescent development. Barbara Gordon, as both Batgirl and Oracle, has had to find humility and courage in struggling through the transition from able-bodied crime fighter to wheelchair bound vigilante tech support and back again. Starfire, who was once little more than a love interest for former Robin Dick Grayson, is now a former slave turned exiled princess of a distant world that doesn’t want her, and she is learning, through friendship (in Pinnochio Syndrome fashion), what it means to be human from the outside looking in. These women are bold. They’re complicated. They’re interesting even when there is no man in sight. And hey, every once in a while, they even pass the Bechdel Test.
They are sexy
Ok, I admit it. A lot of these crime fighting women are super hot. But what makes them sexy today is very different from what may have been thought to make them sexy a generation ago. It is not just about skimpy costumes and pinup poses (though there is still more of that going on than there probably should be). What makes these characters sexy today is that they are actually allowed to have a sexuality that is their own, independent of what anybody else thinks. Take, for instance, a character like Black Canary, featured as the Justice League serving wench in the unfortunate silver age picture at the top of the page. For years, her storyline was wrapped up with Green Arrow in a way that was flat and often patronizing, as if she was just doing all this crime fighting to fill time while she waited for him to marry her and give her ten million babies. That began to change slowly in the late nineties when Black Canary became one of the founding members of the Birds of Prey. She ditched the stockings and wig, dyed her hair blonde, and began squashing lowlife drug dealers and kidnappers. Over time, as writers like Simone and Duane Swierczynski have continued to develop the character, she has become less two dimensional and more confident and capable. This has meant not only that her adventures have become more interesting, but that her sex appeal has grown. She is not simply a pretty girl who can kick. She is a sophisticated, strong, funny, knock-out of a woman who owns every room she walks into. As more female characters have been developed along these lines, they have become sexy in a whole new way, not by being objects of male fantasy, but by being unapologetic about who they are as women.
So go ahead, buy the new female Thor, and the new female Shield, and any other experiment in comic gender bending, if that’s what floats your boat. Believe me, I’m all for anything that gets people buying comics. But while you’re at the comic store anyway, don’t forget to check in on what’s happening with some of the superheroes who have always been women. You might just be pleasantly surprised by what you find.