Geek Girl Power Comic Book Holiday Shopping Guide (Part One)
By Valerie Estelle Frankel
This year has brought several superheroine-friendly television shows: Agent Carter, Vixen (online only), Supergirl, Heroes Reborn, Powers: Season One (online only). Jessica Jones (online only). Agents of SHIELD stars superheroine Daisy Johnson and Arrow stars Black Canary. Avengers: Age of Ultron had Scarlet Witch as well as Black Widow. Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman have movies scheduled. With the interest up in superheroes (and at last, racial and gender diversity at never-seen levels) what are the best girl power gifts? Following comes a long list of comics, all released 2010–2015, all starring superheroines specifically. With short descriptions/reviews, followed by a bibliography, there’s definitely something for everyone.
Amazing new series include Thor, Goddess of Thunder, Spider-Gwen, Squirrel Girl (yes, really), and Ms. Marvel. There are novels from The She-Hulk Diaries to Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow: Forever Red. Webseries bring back Wonder Woman’s Sensation Comics, and also offer Girl Genius and Seanan McGuire’s “Velveteen vs.” series. From Marvel to DC to Image, superheroines are taking over the bookshop. It’s just a question of what to buy…
Paul Pope, J. T. Petty, and David Rubín return to their children’s adventure of Battling Boy with a stand-alone prequel about their heroine. In The Rise of Aurora West, Aurora grows up battling monsters beside her hero father, but begins to question their world. As she has strange flashbacks about a demonic childhood playmate, she decides to solve her mother’s murder, and task that raises terrible questions. Through her quest, she learns that her father is not the perfect hero she once thought even as she discovers how to be her own kind of hero.
The Adventures of Superhero Girl (2013) by Faith Erin Hicks features the humorous hijinks of a superheroine. Her difficulties include shrinking her cape in the wash then shopping for another at a secondhand shop, getting sunburned everywhere but her mask, and searching the comic book store for an irritating arch-nemesis. It’s a humorous, everyday look at a superheroine’s life, delightful for kids and teens. Her real problem is her older, more popular brother the superhero who gives her an inferiority complex. The heroine indeed has superpowers and can lift objects that are ten times her own size. As she searches for an archnemesis, she discovers the many perils of superheroing. As she deals with everything, she shows off the real problems of being a teen superhero, though she deals with them cleverly and generously.
It’s fun that Rocket Girl has arrived from the future (where fifteen-year-olds are taken seriously and she’s a member of the New York Teen Police Department) to save the world…though many find her a bit of a Mary Sue. Her name, Dayoung, emphasizes her youth. Nonetheless, everyone who disagrees with her ends up being always wrong and she’s always right. She can fix and build many things. And with the help of her friends, she teaches the police a big lesson. It’s a teen comic, albeit with a lot of wish fulfillment.
Girl power didn’t start this decade by a long shot. In the 1940’s, there were surprisingly strong superheroines. Certainly, there was Wonder Woman, and her collections have been reprinted for modern readers. But there was also Miss Fury, who wore an enchanted panther suit to fight crime. Trina Robbins, admirer of this heroine, collected all her comics in the massive hardcover Miss Fury: Sensational Sundays 1944–1949. Dressed in luxurious fashions, luxuriously drawn, one of the earliest female cartoonists set her heroine free to save the world with espionage and charm. A delightful treasure from the past, now available once more.
Another reprint was funded by a massive fan kickstarter. Canadian superheroine Nelvana of Northern Lights was just as tough as Wonder Woman, and half-Inuit besides. Her powers include flight, energy, shapechanging, and rainbow light, while her brother’s the invisible one — not her. To her people, she is a figure of myth who will “cause the caribou to roam again and the seal to once more feed and clothe us.” Even as the local chief promises this, “The earth is lighted by a blazing aura and the awe-stricken people look up to see a beautiful vision appearing.” She stops oil spills, protects the environment, descends into icy fantasy kingdoms, and battles Nazi submarines with confidence and flair. It’s a bit of a slow read, but wonderful to know what the first era of girl power produced.
Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics by scholars Mike Madrid and Maria Elena Buszek collects many vanished comics from the forties. This was a ComicsAlliance and ComicsBlend Best Comic Book of the Year. Within, it’s surprising how strong and innovative some of the early heroines were — some came out of fairytales, some could do magic, some were gender-benders. Heroines within include Lady Satan, a woman in service to the forces of death, Black Venus, an exotic dancer, and the elderly but heroic Mother Hubbard. Spider Widow transforms into an old woman to fight crime and Marga the Panther Woman evokes her savage side. Each section describes the comics and then includes a full-length sample. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics is its companion book.
Greg Rucka’s Lazarus One stars the young woman Forever brought up as an unkillable bodyguard for her entitled “siblings” in a dystopian future. Though she begins the series completely loyal to her “father” Malcolm and pledged to defend her family, she gradually realizes her family doesn’t share this sense of obligation. as her “father” reveals behind her back, “One cannot love an object as one loved a person…One does not love a pet the way one loves a child.” As she does their dirty work, she begins to question the premise of her life and decide where her true loyalties lie. This one’s violent and gritty, but quite compelling.
The Magdalena of Image Comics, Patience, grew up “at a nunnery with those creepy old maids watching over me like I was some kind of prize.” S reoccurring guest star in the Witchblade series, the Magdalena got her own series in 2010. With powers from her bloodline as well as Christ’s Spear of Destiny, the Magdalena can see into the human heart and reveal people’s buried sins so they can change. A magical soldier for the church who battles demons, Patience observes, “Magdalenas have been disposable commodities for centuries. That’s not how I’m gonna end up.” She’s determined to find a new path. This series is on the violent/adult side but quite energetic and engrossing.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics continue from Dark Horse. Buffy season ten has been coming out, along with its sister series Angel and Faith. While it’s a lot of references to the old television show, the series has settled into a clear format as Buffy and her friends deal with a new type of vampires and a responsibility to rewrite the laws of magic from the beginning and start them out right. Angel is in charge of Magic Town, a place of startling mutations, even as Faith battles to make amends for her past. Delightful and fun…if you’ve kept up to date on show and the comics that follow.
Grace Randolph’s Supurbia mixes superheroes with something like Desperate Housewives, showing them in their off-duty hours. Sovereign, the Superman parallel, is terribly cruel when off camera, convinced of his total superiority. He lives with his girlfriend Helen Heart, “Hella,” a reformed villainess with skull and snake tattoo who’s still under the sway of her dark handler. Night Fox, the Batman character, is having an affair with his sidekick, though his wife and CEO Alexis knows nothing of this. Batu, amazon Daughter of Bright Moon, married an anthropologist and tried settling in suburban life…while also training her uninterested daughter to hunt and kill and ignoring her son, who cannot be an Amazon by her tradition. “He is male and will not be gifted with the powers of my tribe,” she decides. When he reveals himself, she calls him an abomination. The first generation mentors the newbies while the children grow up surrounded by dysfunction. As an older superhero lies dying, the blame and hidden secrets fly through the community. This book, like several others, already knows how the superhero stories must go and subverts and satirizes them, playing with what these characters must deal with in home life and retirement. It’s funny because it’s all too plausible.
He raised Her a Reaper of Vengeance, A hunter of men who have sinned If you done been wronged, Say Her name Sing this song Sound the bell’s knell That calls Her from hell… Ginny rides for you on the wind, my child… Death rides on the Wind! — The Ballad of Deathface Ginny
Pretty Deadly, set in the Weird West, begins with this ballad, and more than a touch of magical realism. DeConnick notes that she channeled Leone, who insists the Western is an elseworld space: “The important thing is to make a different world, to make a world that is not now. A real world, a genuine world, but one that allows myth to live. The myth is everything” (Parreno).
The story follows the blind man, Fox, and Sissy, a mysterious little girl in a vulture cloak, who spend their days telling the Ballad of Deathface Ginny, daughter of death. It offers the mythic grandness of Sandman, with a deepness all its own. This is a magical epic of revenge, terror, and power, though for an older audience.
Terry Moore’s Echo, an independent graphic novel that’s a whopping six collections totaling 590 pages, features scientist Annie Trotter, who invents a new alloy using a deep understanding of the Phi formula found in nature. With it, she creates a magical skin that can defend, attack, convert energy and do much more. However, when her own corporation shoots her down to steal it, the droplets of metal find a new host in photographer Julie Martin. With Annie’s boyfriend Dillon, Julie goes on the run from the corporation (the Heitzer Nuclear Research Institute or HeNRI). As they travel, the metal spreads over Julie and she discovers it will defend her from harm, while healing those she loves and embraces. The head of HeNRI puts the alloy in a supercollider to create a black hole, not realizing in his arrogance that this will destroy the world.
Julie invades his base, channeling Annie, whose mind is still part of the alloy. In a shining silver suit, she stops the plan. Turing apocryphal, the text explains how man, looking at light, saw a way to make weapons. “The woman looked at the light with new eyes and found perfection.” The man once again made a weapon from this discovery. “When dark matter touched the world, it cracked the sky and the earth groaned as one dying. So the woman smote the darkness with the light that was perfect and the darkness receded. Until the last day, man will chase the light, knowing a woman once caught it. Her mystery endures, her answers long forgotten.” This comic celebrates the power of a scientist and an ordinary woman to redeem humanity and make a difference. A delightful example of pure, womanly power. The author comments:
I love conspiracies. I wish one of them was true. But actually, what I think about in a story is a survivor taking the power back. … when I think of Echo, I think of a normal woman unfairly saddled with this incredible problem that can change the world. And how fate shows that power ending up in her hands is so much better than it ending up in the hands of a government . . . that just one woman going by her heart makes the right decisions. So it was a woman fighting for her own survival, for herself, her identity but also in a much bigger way, things on a much bigger level. (Moore, Toucan Interview 2)
Marisa Acocella Marchetto wrote Ann Tenna, A Novel. In fact, it’s a novel in comic form, as Ann falls into a coma and confronts SuperAnn, who insists she’s Ann’s “Superconscious… superconnected to the universal mind.” Though Ann is skeptical, her split off superself guides her to understand how everyone is interconnected, or could be if Ann sent them the message of how they must work together. Ann returns from her journey with new understanding and power in the world.
Girl Genius written and drawn by Phil and Kaja Foglio and published by their company Studio Foglio LLC is Steampunk themed, but definitely features a superheroine. Agatha is a gadgeteer and mechanical genius, heir to the legendary Heterodynes. As she teases, invents, and always somehow ends up in her Victorian underwear, she’s a delight. This series, going for years as a web comic, now has been collected in bulging trade editions. This is an extensive epic in which characters grow and change (and die!) so reading in order is recommended. There is also an associated novel series by the creators. As the website summarizes it: “Adventure, Romance, Mad Science! Meet Agatha Clay, Transylvania Polygnostic University student with the drive to create and the worst luck in the world.” Wonderful fun and a new kind of girl power!
Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro’s Foiled and (of course) Curses! Foiled Again! are younger comics, with a delightful fantasy adventure. A girl studying rapier finds a magic sword and discovers herself embroiled in a fairy war that only she can end. Aliera Carstairs is a believable, empathetic heroine who’s just trying to fit in, despite a crush on the new hot kid at school and some serious trouble with trolls. By the end, she’s become Defender of the Faerie, emphasizing how one’s fantasy world can be the truest one of all. Clever and sweet, it comes from the head of the author of entire shelves of girl power fantasy novels. The ordinary world is in black and white, hile the fairy world comes alive with color, for extra magic.
In Hinges Book One: Clockwork City by Meredith McClaren (Author, Illustrator), the doll Orio finds herself alone and disoriented in Cobble, where many liaisons find her a home. Her assigned familiar, the cat-creature Bauble, gets her kicked out from every job, however. Still, the creature defends her from monsters and proves a hero. She finally becomes a mender of dolls, her chosen calling.
Cobble is something of a totalitarian dystopia, where jobs are assigned by “time and order of a citizen’s birth” and the fact that the heroin is skilled at mending means little. “In a place that runs like clockwork, it only takes a little disruption to upend a city” the back cover explains. The book is almost all pictures with few words, a pale, washed-out comic with lots of open space and stark coloring. The comic is pretty and original in a slightly Manga style, though it lacks a great deal of plot, dialogue, or world development.
Cat Burglar Black by Richard Sala is a gothic mystery graphic novel as young cat burglar Katherine Westree (nicknamed K) is sent to a school in a far-off creepy castle. Her father was one of The Obtainers, thieves who could acquire the most valuable of items. Now the headmistress Mrs. Turtledove needs her to steal three paintings and line up the clues to find her lost family fortune. K explores the creepy castle, full of disembodied voices and secret passages, determined to unravel the mystery. A younger adventure of a spunky heroine busy puzzle-solving and seeking to leave the criminal life behind, it’s a delightful romp in the spooky spirit of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Fans were delighted by 2014’s new Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adriean Alphona. Sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan of Jersey City is Pakistani-American, caught between her family’s traditional ways and being a modern American teen. Maya K. comments on this moment of racial change in comics, noting:
[As an adolescent] I rarely saw my experiences reflected in mass media. This was somewhat isolating because at that age you don’t understand that no matter the skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or heritage there is a common human experience called adolescence. Having diverse characters not only speaks to the minority child but to the majority child too. A white teen reading Ms. Marvel learns that the so called diverse character isn’t really that different from themselves and, in fact, they are more similar than one would think. The straight teen reading about the LGBT teen sees themselves in the fears and alienation and then understands they are them. This narrows the divide between the “us” and the “them.”
Though Kamala thinks, “My chances of becoming an intergalactic super hero are even slimmer than my chances of becoming blond and popular,” she’s caught in Terrigen Mist and gains superpowers. She resolves to be her own kind of Ms. Marvel — modestly dressed, yet devoted to protecting the teens of her neighborhood. “Maybe the name belongs to whoever has the courage to fight,” she decides. Using her smarts and video game training as well as superpowered shapechanging, she saves her friends over and over. As she announces: “This guy thinks he can threaten us where we live? Ms. Marvel has a message for him. This is Jersey City. We talk loud, we walk fast, and we don’t take any disrespect. Don’t mess.”
With school homework, and responsibilities, Kamala is a real, authentic teen as well as the voice of her generation. As the corrupt adult called the Inventor uses “worthless” teens as human batteries, Kamala protests, “We’re not the ones who messed up the economy or the planet. Maybe [adults] do think of us as parasites, but they’re not the ones who are gonna have to live with this mess –” (Wilson, “Ms. Marvel: Generation Why”). She tells the teens not to give up on their generation but to find a way to save the planet.
Angela: Asgard’s Assassin
Angela: Asgard’s Assassin (2014) features Thor’s lost sister, raised by the Angels of the Tenth Realm rather than the Asgardians. She is an angel and a bounty hunter, working under the auspices of Heaven to oppose Spawn. In revenge for their taking his child, Odin cut the angels off from the other realms. When a new daughter is born to Odin and Frigga, Angela kidnaps the child and takes her to the angels. As she finally reveals, the girl was born with darkness inside her and Angela was willing to sacrifice herself to see the child healed. Angela is off putting in her true coldness and devotion to pure justice, even to the point of killing those she loves. She is certainly strong, if completely humorless.
Spider-Gwen was introduced in Edge of the Spider-Verse #2 by writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez. She was one of the many alt-universe Spidermen created for the Spider-Verse event, the possible outcome of Gwen getting bitten instead of Peter. When her father, NYPD Police Chief George Stacy, tells her “The things we love are always worth fighting for” and adds, “But everyone has something they want, what is it the world around you needs? What is it that only you can give?” Gwen realizes her destiny. She dons a stunning white hooded costume and takes off into the night. Later when the chief tries to arrest the mysterious Spider-Woman, vilified for killing Peter Parker, Gwen must tell him the truth: She removes her mask and hood and tells him, “You’re a good cop, Dad. You put on that badge and carry that gun because you know if you don’t, someone who shouldn’t will. When I put on this mask, I only did it because it freed me from responsibility. I thought I was special. And Peter Parker died because he tried to follow my example. I have to take responsibility for that. To make his death mean something. But I can’t do it in a jail cell.” She gets through to him by showing he’s understood his lessons and wants to do good in the world (Latour and Rodriguez, Edge of Spiderverse). As it turned out, fans loved her so much that she got her own series soon after. Spider-Gwen (2015) follows the young heroine tangling with her father the cop and struggling for a semblance of the things that matter to her — mostly her band, the Mary Janes. She’s a young woman up against the baddest baddies, proving all the while that a girl can definitely do a Spider-Man’s job.
After the 2008–2009 “Dark Reign” storyline, it’s revealed that Norman Osborn manipulated several young super-powered people for his own purposes. Six of these teens are now placed in a special Avengers Academy, with Henry Pym, Tigra, Justice, Speedball, and Quicksilver as their teachers. However, the students soon discover that they were chosen not to become heroes but to be taught how not to be villains — as their profiles suggest is likely. Several times the team do immoral acts –breaking supervillains out of prison, revenging themselves on a brute who hurt their teacher — suggesting that their dark sides are all too close to the surface.
Their lineup includes Veil followed by Striker, Reptil, Mettle (under the name Fortress), Finesse and Hazmat. Hank Pym, Giant Man, acts as a mentor to Veil especially, whom he’s trying to cure. However, he’s obsessed with reviving his wife.
The superheroes take them to the infamous prison The Raft as a Scared Straight program, and Speedball takes them all to Stamford, Connecticut to visit the origin of the Civil War arc. After several battles with supervillains and mentors to show them the choices awaiting them, they have a fun night of prom with members of the Young Allies and past members of the Initiative. The story starts very dark, as the teens are brutally scarred, and have little support in their home lives. Nonetheless, they persevere through others’ expectations and censure to find themselves some peace.
These endearing superheroes include spell-casting Wiccan, Speed, Prodigy (with the knowledge of countless heroes), an alt-universe Chicana teen Captain America, Kate Bishop (the new Hawkeye), Eli Bradley — the supersoldier Patriot, an intergalactic ladies’ man and sex object, Theodore “Teddy” Altman as Hulkling, the size-changing daughter of former Ant-Man, and Kid Loki, just to mix things up. Their founder is the heroic Iron Lad, who will one day become the despot Kang the Conqueror. Like the New Avengers, they share a dark side that makes life especially rough for these teens…especially the two who are the lost twins of Scarlet Witch!
In the first two Young Avengers collections, they face an entity that appears as everyone’s mother. It disguise’s itself as Teddy’s mother and convinces Billy’s parents to lock him up. Over and over the teens flee the evil mother, though they need young Loki to help them. The teens are endearing but confused as they struggle to define themselves in a world that already has heroes and doesn’t seem to need them. Uncertainty on several levels follows them, as Teddy wonders if Billy is wishing their love into existence and Billy wonders where his loyalty lies, with two sets of parents. Kate is charmed by the new Marvel Boy and adventures far from earth. And everyone wonders about Loki’s agenda.
Marvel Her-oes from 2010 features the young superheroes in school. There, Wasp is planning to be a fashion designer while She-Hulk bemoans the need to repress her powerful side. Namora joins them at Cresskill High School together. Miss America arrives to recruit them all for the US Meta Corps, while the alluring Moonstone tries to convince them to join a group of undercover heroes. The girls are torn between these paths, until the Wasp suggests they all create their own team. Light and fun for kids, if they’re already familiar with these heroes.
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of many books on pop culture, including Doctor Who — The What, Where, and How, Sherlock: Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1–3, History, Homages and the Highlands: An Outlander Guide, Empowered: The Symbolism, Feminism, and Superheroism of Wonder Woman. and How Game of Thrones Will End. Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from her heroine’s journey guides From Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Women in Game of Thrones and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she’s a frequent speaker at conferences. Come explore her research at her site.
Part two of her expert buying guide will be up on Friday so tune back in for even more woman-positive titles!