It’s tough being a girl in comic books. You don’t have a lot of options. The big divide is between being a superhero or a mundane, but that’s just physics. In reality your choices aren’t based in whether or not you have any powers but what kind of woman you are.
You can be the Romantic Love Interest—with the option of becoming the Wife if you can convince the hero to stick around or, if he dumps you, the Femme Fatale/Villain. If you are a Career Woman, you usually only do that while biding your time until the hero proposes or dumps the Sexy Girl. The Sexy Girl exudes sexuality and seduces other characters left and right. She functions under what should be sex positive behavior but is generally treated by the creators as a chance to get a woman as close to naked on the page as they can. She wears nothing but bikinis, revealing costumes so tight they look painted on, or outfits perpetually coming undone. Sometimes you can be the Lesbian, but most of the time that’s just an excuse for the writers to have you talk about all the sex you’re having and for the artist to draw you in a variety of titillating poses. In other words, you’re the Sexy Girl with slightly different window dressing.
Word of warning: the Sexy Girl never gets to keep the hero. He will dump her for the Wife which will force you to become the Femme Fatale/Villain, or the writers will force you to abandon your slutty ways and become the squeaky clean Wife…who will eventually get her heart broken when the hero dumps her anyway. Because the hero always dumps the girl. If, by some miracle, the hero doesn’t dump you (or just hasn’t gotten around to it yet), then you get to choose between betraying him or getting fridged all to give the hero motivation to keep doing his fucking job. If you’re a woman of color or LGBTQIA+ not only do you have to be one of the female tropes, but probably a racist/homophobic one as well. And don’t even get me started on QWoC.
Things aren’t all bad, though. There are a few gems in the dung heap of sexist stereotypes and misogynistic plots, and comics are definitely improving, albeit incrementally. The problem is, for every woman on this list there are a dozen Scott Lobdell Starfires and Rob Liefeld Glorys, and no amount of Hawkeye Initiative submissions can rectify that. Even if a new creative team tries to shed all the nastiness from the past, a variant cover will turn up and set the clock back again (case in point: those Spider Woman and Batgirl covers completely at odds with the issue’s target demo and thematic tone).
But I don’t want to focus on the negative. Let’s talk about some awesome chicks. This is a roundup of 10 groups of women who have made my comics life worth living. Like last month’s Black History Month post, I’m sure there are a ton of women that you think I should’ve included but didn’t, and I want to hear from you in the comments. There are few superheroes on this list for two reasons: point the first, I’m saving some for roundups on Asia-Pacific Heritage and Pride Months; point the second, because too many female superheroes come with all the aforementioned misogynistic baggage—I means, just look at what the Finches have done to Wonder Woman, for Hera’s sake. If you’re the kind of person who, as the great Leslie Knope once said, objects to powerful depictions of awesome ladies, then this post ain’t for you. For the rest of us, let’s talk about some fantastic comic book women who have overcome the challenges of their tricky medium.
April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley
Creators: Brooke A. Allen, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters
Origin: Lumberjanes #1, 2014, Boom! Box
If you’re looking for a comic book full of great, diverse girls, you can’t go wrong with Lumberjanes. I could tell you that I love this series so hard it makes my heart hurt, that I look forward to each issue like a kid at Kwanzaa, and that I am way more emotionally invested in Mal and Molly’s relationship than is probably healthy for a 31 year old. I could tell you all that, but I already have in a much longer and much more effusive post than what you’re getting in these two short paragraphs. Point is, the Lumberjanes are awesome. I wish I’d gotten to go to a camp as cool as Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. I would’ve been much happier there than in the über-fundie scout camp I was stuck in as a kid, if for no other reason than I’d get tattooed Rosie as my scout master.
There are so, so, so many reasons the Lumberjanes make wonderful role models for young girls. The girls use influential women as interjections (“Holy bell hooks!”). They are never sexualized, degraded, or fridged just because the writers need a plot device to inspire a man. The scout camp is crazy diverse, and no one is ever othered for their appearance, orientation, ethnicity, or anything else. Even the not-so-nice goddess who keeps tangling the girls up in her family’s shenanigans is never treated poorly or hated on by the rest of the camp. Best of all, the whole camp is infused with undying optimism, dedicated feminism, and earnest determination. Not since Leslie Knope have I seen such a belief that even when things get dire, you can overcome anything with friendship and politeness.
Betty, Dee, Hannah, and Violet
Alias: Rat Queens
Creators: Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch
Origin: Rat Queens #1, 2013, Image
The best way I can think to describe the Rat Queens is like if someone dropped a gang of roller derby girls into Dragon Age and added a hefty dose of drugs and sex. They are the Millennial version of a less crass, more hipster Tank Girl. Betty is the drugs ‘n’ candy obsessed Smidgen thief, Dee is the atheist cleric sorcerer with a god hot on her tail, Hannah is a rockabilly witch with a short fuse, and Violet is a beardless dwarf with more guts than most soldiers. Together, the women wander the countryside knocking heads and boots.
I never thought I’d compare Lumberjanes and Rat Queens because their tones are just so different, but the two things they do have in common (besides a supernatural plot) are the diversity of characters and the supportive affection the girls have for each other. They may not always agree, and sunny positivism ain’t exactly their jam, but they’ll never leave one another behind. They are besties in the best sense. Rat Queens is pretty much the greatest thing to happen to women in the Sword and Sorcery subgenre since, well, ever.
Creators: Gerry Conway, Rafael Kayanan
Origin: The Fury of Firestorm #23, 1984, DC
There is a comic book version of Felicity Smoak, but I have less than zero interest in her. This is about Felicity from Arrow. Any episode in which she doesn’t appear is vastly less interesting. Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity is sharp and quick, but never clichéd. She zooms past every trope they throw at her with a flirty smile and a trail of mind-boggling hacker whatsits in her wake. Felicity and Oliver—and Rickards and Stephen Amell—have the kind of chemistry rarely seen. Their genuine affection and compassion makes every Olicity scene sparkle and spark. She understands him better than he does, and her refusal to let him lie to her is why they aren’t together at the moment. She won’t accept anything less than his true self because she knows they both deserve honesty. Ollie never exploits her skills, and she always calls him on his bad behavior.
Felicity get by just fine without Oliver, but he falls completely apart without her. Oliver can’t seem to remember how to be human instead of a killing machine if he doesn’t have Felicity to keep him straight, but Felicity is her own complete person with or without him. And to top it all off, she gets to be kick ass without actually kicking ass. She can fight when she has to, but she’s better at strategizing her way out of a pickle. She’s very girly, but she dresses the way she wants because it makes her happy, not because she wants Oliver—or Ray—to think she’s hot. She is a nerdy, obsessive, straight-talking, confident woman who doesn’t sacrifice her femininity or catfight with the other women around her. TBH, Arrow’s Felicity is a better hero than the star.
Katherine “Kate” Corrigan
Creators: Mike Mignola
Origin: Hellboy: The Wolves of St. August, 1994, Dark Horse
Kate is a former history professor turned Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense Special Liaison to Enhanced Talent Agents. In 1984 she joined the BPRD after getting to know Hellboy during a consultancy gig. Using her encyclopedic knowledge of folklore and the paranormal, she assists the agency with solving challenging cases. Kate has written 16 books—not counting her unpublished monograph about Hellboy himself—and is a distinguished and highly respected academic in her field. She’s been captured and nearly killed many times over the years, but she never lets that stop her from doing her job and saving the world. In “The Universal Machine,” Kate rescues herself using her smarts and willpower, rather than waiting around for the dudes to show up. Plus, her character design was based on Mignola’s wife. So romantic!
Prof. Corrigan wasn’t on the main roster until the BPRD series “Plague of Frogs” in 2004. Before that she popped up every now and then to relay some crucial bit of info and disappeared again. But over the years she’s become more and more integral to the agency and the series. The movie casts pyrokinetic Liz Sherman as Hellboy’s closest friend and confidante, but anyone who’s read the comics knows the woman who really holds that role is Kate. After Hellboy learns of his hell-bound fate, it’s Kate he reveals his secrets to, and it’s Kate who convinces him to face his fears rather than hide from them like he always does. While he went on a walkabout to find his place in the universe, Kate got promoted and now acts as an advisor to pretty much everyone at BPRD. Not only is she brilliant, but she’s thoughtful, honest, and compassionate. And she’s a middle-aged woman who isn’t stick thin and always romancing one of the male leads. That practically makes her a unicorn in the comic book world.
Creators: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster
Origin: Action Comics #1, 1938, DC
I don’t want to talk about the comic book version of Lois (especially not 52’d Lois…*angry grumbling*), but about her TV counterpart, specifically from The Adventures of Lois and Clark. Say what you want about the show, but I adore it immensely in large part because of Lois. She gets top billing, and the show makes it clear from the get-go that while Superman is the star Lois is most assuredly the lead. Teri Hatcher played her with the sort of sarcastic edge powerful women tend to develop in order to make it to the top of a male-dominated field. No one ever accuses Lois of sleeping her way to the top. No one would dare.
I was in middle school when Adventures was on the air, and as much as I loved the simmering romance between Lois and Clark, I idolized Lois. She was everything I wanted to be: tough, brilliant, fantastic at her job, respected and admired, unwilling to settle, and with an unquenchable desire to fight for the truth. And she had a great, worthy guy at her side, one who loved her just as she was, one who didn’t force her to acquiesce to him or play second fiddle, one who could rescue her from certain death and not make her feel like a damsel in distress. They were partners, a team, and I loved that. It was the first time I’d ever seen that in pop culture, and I’ve spent the entirety of my dating life trying to replicate that. And if I could have that while also being Ultra Woman, all the better.
Monica Rambeau and Carol Danvers
Aliases: Captain Marvel, Photon, Pulsar, Spectrum; Ms. Marvel, Binary, Captain Marvel
Creators: Roger Stern, John Romita, Jr.; Roy Thomas, Gene Colan
Origin: The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, 1982; Marvel Super-Heroes #13, 1968, Marvel
You didn’t really think you’d get through a whole women-centric post from me without talking about the Captains Marvel, did you? Wonder Woman, I can take or leave, but Monica and Carol are required reading in the Brown household. Carol, of course, ya’ll should know about by now. Back before she was Captain Whizz Bang, she was saddled with one of the worst comic book stories ever written for a woman, yes, even worse than “The Killing Joke.” In the 1980s she was brainwashed, raped, and impregnated, then basically abandoned by the Avengers when they let her be taken off to an alternate dimension by her rapist. Kelly Sue DeConnick rectified a lot of that terribleness by promoting Carol to Captain Marvel and adding in a bit of wibbly wobbly timey wimey mucking about to give her agency and self-determination in her own fate. And that’s Carol down to a T. Carol is kind, Tina Fey bossy, and a total badass. She doesn’t want to be tied down to someone else’s vision of how she should live her life. She wants to fly.
And then there’s Monica Rambeau. Marvel is supposedly going to give Carol her own movie one of these days (unless they push it back for yet another movie about a white dude), but frankly I’d rather have Monica on the silver screen. Or, even better, both of them kicking butt all over space. Like Carol, Monica is crazy powerful, but where the current Captain Marvel relies on dry humor, the previous Captain Marvel relishes in biting sarcasm. Call her a sassy Black friend or angry Black woman at your own risk. Iron Man once made the mistake of calling her “babe,” and had that line been written today I’m pretty sure she’d have knocked that tin suit right off him. She often combines her powers to convert her body to any form of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum with that of her superpowered teammates, but Monica never comes off as a sidekick. She’s far too confident in her abilities and self to ever let anyone reduce her to “the help.”
Creators: Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky
Origin: Sex Criminals #1, 2013, Image
Suzie and Jon are the sex-having, bank-robbing, pornshop-rearranging stars of Fraction and Zdarsky’s a-frakking-mazing comic book Sex Criminals. She is one of those characters who transcends ink and paper. Every woman has been Suzie at some point in her life. We’ve all been frustrated with our bodies and reveled in discovering all the exciting things they’re capable of. We’ve relied on the wrong people for sex ed because the right people won’t help (my church school’s sex ed came down to “You’ll die of AIDS if you kiss a boy” and passing around a piece of chocolate as a slut-shaming tool). We’ve fallen too hard and too fast, said “yes” to people who deserved a “no,” and had knock down drag out fights with our BFF triggered by a guy but really over something that’s been building for years.
As a librarian myself, I am automatically partial to librarians in my pop culture, especially when they are as cool as Suze. And by cool I mean complex and realistic. For a fictional character, she’s surprisingly realistic. Like, I’ve met people IRL that are faker than her. The great thing about her being so lifelike in her personality is that she’s flawed. She is about as perfect as your average real-world human, in other words, she’s got straight up issues. She makes mistakes and does stupid stuff. Sometimes she admits her faults, sometimes she doesn’t, sometimes she doesn’t care, and sometimes she doesn’t realize she’s in the wrong. But no matter what happens, she doesn’t sacrifice or compromise her sense of self. It took me until I was almost 30 to finally get comfortable with who I am as a person and my body. Suze got there a bit earlier than me, but it is so nice to stop fretting about what Cosmo thinks.
Alias: Rebecca Buck
Creators: Jamie Hewlett, Alan Martin
Origin: Deadline Magazine #1, 1988, Dark Horse
Tank Girl lives in post-apocalyptic Australia, like a bizarro absurdist Mad Max as hallucinated by a protest-enthusiast high on molly on the last night of Burning Man. Tank Girl, so named because she’s a girl who drives a tank, is friends with Sub Girl, Boat Girl, and Jet Girl. She’s in a committed relationship with a mutant kangaroo who used to design toys but now settles for doing everything his girlfriend tells him to do. She hangs out with talking stuffed animals named Camp Koala, Mr. Precocious, and Squeaky Toy Rat. She’s sexually frank, brutally honest, and oh so raunchy. I haven’t read nearly enough of Hewlett and Martin’s comic—I should really get on that—but the bits and pieces I have are just the best. Since her debut she’s been a feminist icon, counterculture inspiration, and all-around zeitgeist. Like Vampirella and genderbent couples outfits, there’s guaranteed to be at least one Tank Girl at every SFF con.
The Tank Girl movie came out way back in 1995, but it wasn’t until college in the early aughts that I was introduced to her during a drunken movie night in a friend’s dorm room. Mind totally blown. It’s a weird, weird movie so, of course, it and its soundtrack became the undercurrent of our college life, which was pretty perfect considering I went to an all-women’s college in the liberal bastion of sin that is the San Francisco Bay Area. Though I would never want to actually be her, I wish I had even a quarter of her bravado. Every woman could do with adding a splash of Tank Girl’s post-feminist anarchist streak to our personality.
Creators: Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Glenn Fabry
Origin: Preacher #1, 1995, Vertigo
When I first got back into comics after more than a decade long hiatus, Preacher was one of the first few comics I bought. (Why Preacher? Because Yorick from Y: The Last Man had a lighter that said “Fuck Communism” on it, hence Jesse Custer.) Preacher was a steep hill to climb as a relative newbie, but totally worth it. Everything about that series was incredible and terrible and awe-inspiring and gag-inducing, but Tulip stole the show. She’s tough as nails, loyal as a dog, and sexy as hell. She’s the kind of woman who, when she needs to pay off a debt but can’t find legit work, decides that she’d rather be a hitwoman instead of a prostitute. Preacher is chockablock with grotesque violence and body parts being shot off in horrific ways, and a helluva lot of that is thanks to Tulip and her gunslinging skills.
Her father initially wanted a son, but after she was born he decided it wasn’t fair that women never got to do all the stuff men did so he set about teaching her right. She’s a master marksman, whip smart, devilishly liberal, and a staunch feminist by the time she meets Jesse, and those qualities keep him. It saves her best friend Amy, too, when she rescues her by nearly shooting her attempted rapists. Tulip is treated horrendously by both Jesse, the love of her life, and Cassidy, an asshole vampire, because it’s a graphic novel from the nineties and SJWs and social media weren’t invented yet, so there’s only so much you can do. She deserves better than getting turned into an alcoholic and drug addict because some dude she had the feels for ditched her repeatedly, but she nevertheless rises above it.
Creators: Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting
Origin: Velvet #1, 2013, Image
Everyone underestimates Velvet. To the male spies at ARC, she’s a sexpot who’s slept with just about every man on the force. To the ladies in the secretarial pool, she’s a diligent assistant who does her job better than anyone else and never makes waves. But she’s so much more than a Girl Friday or a Bond Girl. She was trained by one of the best women spies in WWII, and cut her teeth in the early days of the Cold War. Before she killed her husband for being a double agent over a decade before, she was one of the best spies in the agency, and even in her mid-forties she still kicks more ass than all of the men combined. Most of the young bucks in ARC don’t know about her past, and that makes her the most dangerous woman—person—on the planet when a mole frames her for the murder of one of her former lovers.
If you liked Agent Carter, you’ll love Velvet. She’s basically Peggy Carter turned up to eleven. Velvet is Peggy two decades down the line after she and Steve got married and he betrayed her by siding with the Nazis and tried to kill her. Where Peggy is forced to constantly deal with the misogynists in the SSR, Velvet is high ranking enough to get a modicum of respect. She hates her position, but can compartmentalize it in such a way that it doesn’t eat her alive. She’s tougher than Peggy, too, with a knack for brutal fighting. And like Peggy, when she needs help, she almost always turns to women who are just as overlooked as she is. The series is set in 1973, and her world is run by the axiom that behind every great man is an even greater woman with an axe to grind and a lot of pent up frustration. The female arms-dealer, the tortured cheating wife, and the kinky lesbian agent are quickly discarded or outright ignored by men, making them the perfect people to help Velvet figure out who set her up. A lesser graphic novel would have her look to her male superiors for help and leave her crying and distraught over her dead husband. Not Velvet. She’ll save herself, thank you very much, and take out every testosterone-addled jerk who gets in her way.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.