Why Women Superheroes Kick Ass

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:

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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.

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Mixing Genres

Cookie_mixing_(2135259345)When I was in middle school, one of the ways that kids sorted each other out was by identifying with a particular kind of music. There were the metalheads who listened to heavy metal and wore Metallica t-shirts and ripped blue jeans, the yos who listened to hip hop and were decked out in Cross Colours, and the hicks (yes, that’s what they called themselves – would I make this up?) who listened to country and wore John Deere hats. The important thing about all of this self classification was that you STAY WITH YOUR GROUP. When somebody would switch from one of these groups to another one, there was a real sense of betrayal. How can we trust someone who used to listen to one kind of music but now prefers another? In the end, it really wasn’t about the music, or the style of clothing, but about how we viewed the world. Life is scary when there aren’t boxes to easily fit ourselves into. As much as we all thought we were rebelling and sticking it to the man, we were really just craving the comfort of imposed structure and limits. Structure isn’t always a bad thing, but when it comes to creativity, the wrong kind of structure can choke the life out of you.

All the conventional wisdom amongst writers today seems to suggest that we ought to pick a genre and stick to it. Doing that helps you identify your fan base and allows you to really learn how to identify with them. I totally get why that’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s not what I do, for the same reason that by the time I was in high school I had shed my clutching adherence to a single kind of music. There is more going on inside of me than can easily fit into one subcategory. And I have a feeling, there’s more going on inside of you that way too.

This is not to criticize those authors who decide to work within the confines of a single genre. There are good reasons, both pragmatic and artistic, why an author might choose to go that route. What concerns me is not the choice to stick within one genre but the plain insistence that your genre is what determines your identity, either as a writer or as a reader. If I am a science fiction writer, then I write for science fiction audiences. If I am a literary writer, then I write for a literary audience. But if I live in a world that has elements of both, why wouldn’t my audience be both? How reflexively dull we become when our palette is reduced to a single color.

The thing is, there is consistency in what I like to read and what I write, but it’s not at the level of genre. It’s much smaller details that bring these things to life for me, like the quality of the dialogue, the beauty of the language, and the kind of characters that populate the fictional landscape. Combine those things in the right quantity and I’ll be hooked, whether the backdrop is nineteenth century America, or some other planet, or something else that hasn’t even been dreamed of yet. Make me care about your characters, and I’m all in. Make me laugh and think, and I will be yours forever. What matters to me is the ingredients and how you cook them, not the label on the cookbook that gave you the recipe.