I love superhero comics.
For those of you who know me, this isn't anything new. However, there are times when people get confused because they don't quite get how my feminist leanings line up with the portrayal of women in superhero books. Yes, there are certainly books that portray their female characters as pin-up girls with broken backs, traced straight out of a porn magazine (looking at you, Greg Land!). But for every lousy artist and writer, there are creators who do amazing work that respects the characters (both male and female) and those are the books worth reading.
I love superheroines.
The ladies of superhero comics (DC, Marvel, and the creator owned books) have always been my role models. I want to be strong like Wonder Woman. Smart like Oracle. Confident like Vixen. Driven like Ms. Marvel. Badass like Jessica Jones. I want to be everything that Black Canary is.
For me, superhero comics are about being better than you are, about doing the right thing even when it's hard, or scary, or impossible. The most often quoted line that illustrates this comes from Spider-Man's Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility." I've got another favorite though. It comes from Justice League Year One by Mark Waid:
Don't get me wrong. We're not freaks. We weren't born different. But we became different the moment we stepped into the hero role. Now we have to live up to it... or die trying. -Black Canary
That's what good superhero comics are all about, Charlie Brown. So, why am I telling you all this? Well, because I want you to love superhero books too (and not all of you will, and that's okay!), so I'm going to recommend you 5 comic books that are all about kick-ass super-ladies.
1. X-23 (words by Marjorie Liu, art by Will Conrad, Phil Noto, and Sana Takeda)
X-23, for those who don't know, is the teenage, female clone of Wolverine (thus named because she was the successful product of the 23rd cloning attempt). She was originally created for the X-Men: Evolution cartoon and was so well received that she was adapted into the comic books. X-23 was created by the Weapon X project, the same program that made Wolverine what he is. She is carried to term by geneticist Sarah Kinney, who, despite being part of the program that is making this young girl into a killing machine, thinks of x-23 as her daughter and loves her.
Kinney grows to resent what is being done to her daughter, and when she finds out that the people in charge of the program are planning on making another twenty-five clones, she has X-23 destroy the program and the two run. Just as they are getting away though, the doctor in charge triggers a murderous frenzy in X-23 through a particular smell and X-23 kills her mother. As she's dying, Sarah manages to give her daughter three things she's never known: information about the X-Men, her real name (Laura Kinney), and the words "I love you."
But, none of that happens in this book. The story above is all from the book Innocence Lost by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, which is amazing but also super out-of-print and can be tricky to find. What I'd like to talk about is the amazing run that Marjorie Liu had on the book.
Marjorie Liu's run takes place several years after the events of Innocence Lost. Laura has been with the X-Men for a while. She's taken great strides in leaving her past behind, but there is so much of it that still haunts her. She believes that at the end of the day she is a killing machine, and nothing can ever change that. Even more so than her mentor (and surrogate father) Wolverine, Laura spent the first part of her life as an animal, as a weapon. So, confused about who she is (and following some events that deepen that confusion), Laura decides to step away from the X-Men and go off on her own.
I love Marjorie Liu. Her real strength as a writer is absolutely in how the characters interact with each other. While X-23 has lots of great action moments, my favorite parts of the book is watching Laura learn to interact and open herself up to people, which is so against the nature that was engrained in her as a child. Another major theme of the book is: who is your family? How do you make a family? How do you keep said family? Laura's relationship with Gambit as a brother figure is just as important as the father-daughter relationship between her and Logan.
The book is also graced by a really fantastic art team. Will Conrad and Phil Noto are both extremely talented pencillers, and I'm always happy to see Ms. Sana Takeda get work! Phil Noto, in particular, is amazing at drawing expressions and conveying worlds about a character through their body language. Laura's awkwardness as a teenager juxtaposed with her competence as a fighter really comes through.
Sadly, this fantastic series only ran for twenty-one issues, cancelled due to low sales despite being well received by critics, fans, and tumblr. This is why if you love a comic, buy it instead of torrenting it, folks! The series is collected into three volumes: The Killing Dream, Chaos Theory, and Don't Look Back.
2) Batwoman: Elegy (words by Greg Rucka, art by J.H. Williams III)
Batwoman is one of those characters that I used to find really frustrating. Some of you might be familiar with her because she was one of the first LGBT characters that DC Comics had introduced in a while (and certainly the first Bat-character, unless you count Detective Renee Montoya). So, what frustrated me about the character? They didn't do anything with her. She was used in the 52 storyline (where she was introduced) in 2006 and then a couple of YEARS passed before she was anything more than a background character.
This annoyed me because the whole time DC was pushing Batwoman as a symbol of diversity in their comics. "Look! We have an LGBT character! Yay us!". This attitude drives me crazy. I don't want to see characters who are PoC/LGBT/female be introduced just so a quota can be filled. That's not diversity, that's tokenism. What I want is a character who has a story behind them, who I can really care about, and who others can care about too. That's how we got Miles Morales. That's real diversity.
Cue Greg Rucka, who created Batwoman, and J.H. Williams III. In 2009, the two took over Detective Comics as part of the Batman: Reborn project (Batman is 'dead', what happens in Gotham, blah blah blah) and wrote an incredible story that defined who Batwoman is, why she is what she is, and gave her an origin rich in detail. This one book sold me on Kate Kane better than any executive hollering about how diverse their books are ever could. Their entire run on the book is collected in the trade Batwoman: Elegy.
Elegy starts off with Batwoman on a routine mission to investigate the new leader of a group called The Religion of Crime, an enigmatic woman who seems to believe that she is Alice Lidell. Alice appears to be obsessed with Batwoman, as many other leaders of The Religion of Crime have been in the past, and Batwoman begins working on a way to bring Alice down. She is aided by her father, Colonel Jacob Kane, who she considers a military leader as much as a parent.
Along the way, we discover more of who Batwoman is, what her childhood was like, and how she came to be the kind of person who dons a cape and cowl. Everything about the writing is stellar, from the dialogue to the internal monologues. I also applaud Rucka for being unafraid to talk about issues that matter to the LGBT community in a mainstream comic. One of the best moments is a flashback where we see Kate being kicked out of the United States Military Academy for refusing to deny that she is a lesbian. Kate is true to herself, even when it robs her of the military career she wants so badly.
And, as for the art? Well, do you see that beautiful cover I posted above? The internal art is just like that. I'm not even joking. J.H. Williams III is incredible. He is a master with watercolor, and his layouts are some of the most inventive I've ever seen in superhero comics. The only time the art looks different is in the flashbacks, when Williams does an uncanny job of aping David Mazzucchelli's style from Batman: Year One.
3) Birds of Prey (written and drawn by various creators. Notable writers: Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone, notable artists: Butch Guice, Amanda Conner, Ed Benes, Nicola Scott)
Ah, Birds of Prey. If you know comics, then I doubt you're surprised to see this one on the list.
Birds of Prey, created by Chuck Dixon, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a team of superheroines kicking ass. It originally started off as one-shot in 1995 by Dixon called Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey in which Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl and information broker to the superhero community, partners with Black Canary to take down an international criminal. The book was so well received that several other one-shots/minis followed it and it was eventually turned into an ongoing series in 1999. The early Birds of Prey involved a lot of jetting around the world and breaking up international, non-super villain crime. It's really great stuff (you can never go wrong with Chuck Dixon), but unfortunately the two volumes of the Dixon run are currently out of print, as is most of Birds of Prey until Gail Simone took over in 2003.
Gail Simone's run on Birds of Prey (2003-2011) is the material that most people are familiar with/consider the best Birds of Prey, and rightfully so. Up until Simone's first arc, the book had focused on the partnership between Black Canary and Oracle, but Simone chose to expand the team to include Huntress and later, Lady Blackhawk. In fact, throughout the book, the Birds of Prey team got bigger and bigger till it was sort of a Justice League of its own, with a revolving cast of members. It became the book that highlighted just how amazing the DC women could be.
This book is exactly what I always want out of a superhero book. It's full of action. It's full of adventure. It's full of characters that act and interact like real people. Simone focuses heavily on the relationships that women form with each other, particularly the one between Oracle and Black Canary, whose friendship makes up the heart of the series. She's also got a wicked sense of humor, including tongue-in-cheek remarks about superhero costumes that always make me giggle.
Birds of Prey has had some really fantastic artists working on it. Amanda Conner did a few issues that were out of this world. Nicola Scott, who I think is one of the best artists in superhero comics, also did some fantastic work on the volume Blood and Circuits. I have mixed feelings about the art done Ed Benes, which I love sometimes and other times find way, way, way over-sexualized.
If Birds of Prey seems like your cup of tea, then I recommend starting with the first Gail Simone volume Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds. The books are not numbered, but thankfully Wikipedia has a list of the proper order. There has also been a Birds of Prey title in the New 52 (DC Comics' reboot). While I did like the book, I couldn't get over the N52 changes and stopped reading it. But if you like it/read it/want to read it, then go for it! I just can't give my opinion properly because I haven't read all of it.
4) Alias (words by Brian Michael Bendis, art by Michael Gaydos)
I debated over whether to talk about Alias or not, not because it's anything less than an almost-perfect book, but because Marvel is terrible about keeping things in print. Alias is not currently available through distributors, so most comic book stores won't have it. Even Amazon doesn't have it! Now, this doesn't mean you can't find it. Your local shop might have a copy, you might be able to find it through an online seller, or you might find it at a con. I have faith that all you savvy, clever people can find a way. It's collected as four volumes (or two 'ultimate collections' that contain two volumes apiece).
And you should find away, because this is one of my favorite comic books of all time, superhero or other. Alias is about Jessica Jones: once a superhero called Jewel, now a private investigator. Due to her past, she typically attracts cases that involve super-powered individuals. The series covers several of her cases, including finding a missing mutant girl, unraveling a plot to ruin Captain America's reputation, and bringing down a drug ring that sells 'Mutant Growth Hormone'.
While it's fun to follow Jessica's cases, the real meat of this book is Jessica herself, her life, and her relationships. Jessica, when we meet her, is a bit of a mess. She's got financial worries, she drinks a little too much, and she has serious problems connecting with people. Her only real connection to others is the occasional hook-up with her friend Luke Cage, another superhero. Her old friendships from her hero days seem to be in shambles. So, what got Jessica this way? Well, that's part of the mystery and as the book goes on we find out why Jessica gave up hero-ing and what put her in such a bad state. The other thing we get to see,as the book continues, is Jessica putting her life back together. She repairs friendships, she starts dating, she becomes confident. At the end of the series, when you learn what events put all of this in motion, you can see how far the character has come and just how strong she really is.
Bendis is king of the witty dialogue, and Alias is no exception. Jessica has a very dry sense of humor, a passion for the things she cares about, and a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Since a lot of the book revolves around people talking with each other, the dialogue has to be tight. It feels in a lot of ways like you're watching a noir movie more than reading a comic. The noir feel is greatly helped by Michael Gaydos's art. He uses heavy lines, lots of shadows, and a muted color palette to really give the book the P.I. feel. When there are superheroes around, or it's a flashback, he uses a much brighter color palette, which beautifully juxtaposes Jessica's past and present.
Jessica is an interesting character because she's also an original character who was inserted into the Marvel mythos. Author Brian Michael Bendis originally wanted to use established character Jessica Drew a.k.a. Spider-Woman, but was told he couldn't by editorial. Bendis instead created Jessica Jones and asked if he could use her instead. She got the green light and the book went ahead as part of the MAX line (Marvel's R rated comics). The really cool thing about this is that Jessica's role in the Marvel Universe has not stopped with Alias! She has been an important part of the Avengers books, starting after Alias ended, and is one of the most kick-ass Marvel women. Jessica is proof that more female characters can be introduced in a natural way that doesn't feel like tokenism, and that they can find a place right next to classic heroes like Captain America, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Man.
5) Catwoman (words by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke, art by Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart)
Catwoman is one of those comic book characters that everyone knows, even if you're not into comics. She's part of pop culture from the Adam West TV show to cartoons to merchandise to both Batman movie franchises (let's not talk about her own "movie"). So, I'm ending this list with some of my favorite Catwoman stuff ever: the Ed Brubaker/Darwyn Cooke/Cameron Stewart run.
If you've always loved the thief/vigilante parts of the Catwoman character, then you're going to love this book. Brubaker and Cooke chose to really focus on Selina Kyle as a character separate from Batman, giving her a role as community figure. The book starts with an amazingly fun heist story called "Selina's Big Score" in which Selina returns to Gotham after being away and immediately decides to rob a mob boss. It's Ocean's Eleven with Catwoman, and boy is it good. Darwyn Cooke's noir/pulp/pin-up style works perfectly. Plus, we see the introduction of the current Catwoman costume (pictured above without the cat-hood/red googles combo), which is my personal favorite.
Brubaker picks up writing duties after Big Score is finished and the book just flies from there. Catwoman stays in Gotham and becomes the protector of the East End, the neighborhood she grew up in as a street kid. It's one of the seedier neighborhoods of Gotham, but it's Selina's home and she's determined to make it better with Robin Hood heroism, as well as regularly patrolling the area. She gathers a group of misfits around her, including Holly (a runaway girl Selina took in before her Catwoman days) and Slam Bradley (a seasoned private investigator). The really great thing about this story is how dedicated Selina is to her community. Catwoman has been portrayed as sort of selfish and vain in the past, but this is the book where it really shows that she's as passionate as Batman when it comes to protecting her neighborhood. The book really focuses on what "home" means and the desire to improve and defend the community you live in, even when other people have given up on it.
People often feel that Catwoman is just a backup character for Batman. Not to worry, this book is about Catwoman, through and through. While Batman occasionally pops up, he is always the background character and never the lead. This is Selina's book to shine, and shine she does. It's Selina at her best (as opposed to the current state of things). DC Comics has thankfully been doing new super-beautiful printings of this material. The first volume is called Catwoman: Trail of the Catwoman followed by Catwoman: No Easy Way Down.
I would like to say that these are just five of the many excellent books about superheroines that are out there. I didn't get to talk about some of my favorite Wonder Woman stuff, or Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel, or Black Widow or the awesome ladies in creator owned books like Atom Eve or Ultra. Not to mention all of the incredible women who are part of team books like Storm, Vixen, Hawkgirl, and Raven. There are so many great superhero books staring women that are out there, and I don't know about you guys, but I want to see more!
So, how do we see more? One word, my friends: sales. Buy the books that have kick-ass ladies. Vote with your dollar. Companies like this respond best to what people are buying, and if you don't like what the big two (DC and Marvel) are doing then turn to the creator owned stuff, and spend your money there. I know a lot of the time it doesn't seem like your opinions and sales counts, but it matters more than you think. Sales add up, and high sale numbers are what keeps books in print as well as making editors think "Huh. Maybe we should have more of this." It's easy to ignore a bunch of people yelling on the internet, but it's hard to argue with sales numbers that are in front of your face.
So, that's my piece. What comic book ladies do you guys like? Which creators? Are there superhero books that you'd recommend? Do you want to write/draw superhero comics (I do!)? What kind of characters would you like to see created?
See you next Comic Book Wednesday!