4 Best of…Female-Centric Graphic Novels

I  grew up reading comics. Some of my earliest memories are of going to the neighborhood comic store with my dad and sister for the latest Sonic the Hedgehog comic. This may be why I still never order comic books online, and I prefer to get them in person. There’s a thrill about getting that new issue/volume in your hands and reading it on the way home, devouring it story-first, and then reviewing each panel when you get home.

We had binders full of comic trading cards. Hundreds of them, probably worth a ton of money now if I still had them. We were raised to be loyal to Marvel, and really, with Spider-Man and the X-Men, it was a no-brainer, but we had reams of Superman cards,a and I studied those to. I read the description of every scene depicted on those cards, whether it was the death of Superman or Wolverine grilling hot dogs (on his claws) at the beach. I read every comic book that came into our house, whether or not I understood it. And as much as I loved them, and as much as the whole Maestro Hulk storyline probably impacted my love for dark future stories, as a girl they were tough to identify with.

I have always said Spider-Man is my favorite superhero because he’s a broke kid from New York, and I get that. But even in Spider-Man, the female characters’ relevance was based on how much Peter Parker was in love with them (Betty Brant, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, even Felicia Hardy). In the X-Men, women got central roles and the Phoenix storyline is not all about Jean Grey’s place in a love triangle with Wolverine and Cyclops, but it kind of had a depressing ending. And even while X-Men sometimes got it right, you still had Marvel writing stories like that whole Maestro Hulk thing–with somehow a hideously bearded Hulk having a foursome (or fivesome) with hot half-naked harem girls. The history of women in comics is a fascinating one, which is explored more in Mike Madrid’s excellent The Supergirls. Unfortunately, even with empowering female characters in the 80s and 90s, female characters were still often defined by how much a male character (or male readers) might want to have sex with them. Compare She-Hulk’s presentation to that of the Hulk himself–if She-Hulk was proportioned like the Hulk, in face and in body, she would not be so much of a sex icon.

Despite all that, I have never given up on comic books, and even as people try to rebrand comics as graphic novels, and try to avoid the history of paneled storytelling, I want to be as thrilled about those stories as I was before I became more aware of underlying issues. Thankfully, in the 21st century, there is a plethora of female-oriented graphic novels, where the women are not mere sex objects or pretty things waiting to be saved. Here are a few I’ve loved.

Runaways – created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, written and illustrated by various contributors

img_0082-4I first read this comic series as a teenager, when I was told I looked like Gertrude Yorkes, one of the main characters in the earlier story arcs. Gert is short, chubby, and wears glasses (me basically, especially back then), but is also a badass and one of the best characters in the series, so I was fine with the comparison. Runaways was classic early 2000s–angsty teens, rebellion against authority, cynicism combined with naïveté. (I’m realizing I have a lot of Vaughan here, but I honestly picked up all of these books without even thinking about Vaughan being behind them. He’s just really freakin’ good.)

Runaways kicks off with six teens who dislike each other and the annual charity event their parents drag them to. One year, the kids get nosy, realize their parents are a gang of criminals called the Pride when they see them sacrificing a girl to appease a bunch of ancient gods/aliens. This leads them to stealing their parents’ weapons, technology, and transportation. On the run, each of the kids realizes their own potential: Molly is a mutant with super-strength, Alex is a genius, Nico is a witch, Chase can use his parents’ advanced technology and weaponry, Gert is telepathically linked to an intelligent velociraptor, and Karolina is a powerful alien. Cheesy and over-the-top–yes. But the story has a Misfits-esque flavor as the kids don’t intend to be superheroes or do anything but survive, but keep getting pulled into dangerous situations.

Being that it’s Marvel, so pretty mainstream, and the creative team behind Runaways changed up a lot, it’s not consistently strong as a series. But when it was good, in the early issues, this series knocked it out of the park. The characters themselves are unique, featuring diversity in race, body types, and sexuality, without making it seem like an effort to be diverse. It’s just who the characters are. The female characters led the story everytime. Alex and Chase are interesting, and so is later addition Victor Mancha the cyborg, but the females are the characters that are the most memorable, and oddly, the most rational. They don’t need the guys of the group to protect them, and even when in relationships with the guys, they are never defined by those romances. At some points, the girls outnumber the guys four to one, and the group still is just as strong.

The series was cancelled after about 66 issues, and is collected into four volumes. They’ve just started production on a Runaways series for Hulu, so check them out now and prep for the (hopefully) imminent release.

Paper Girls (Vol. 1) – written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang 

I picked this one up (along with Low, see below) by chance in Strand recently, while perusing their selection of must-read graphic novels and wishing Saga Volume 7 was out. The cover and title caught my attention immediately, and while a part of me was like, “Ehhh it’s kids…” I started reading it right there.

Paper Girls is kind of like Stranger Things with a girls-only cast and no whiny teen sisters, but it’s also very much its own thing. Volume 1 centers around four pre-teen girls on a paper route in 1980s suburban America during Halloween. The night begins with bullying from sexist neighborhood jerks, which the girls handle like bosses, and the escalates into what is either alien invasion or time travel. Chased around by deformed cloaked creatures and people in spacesuits, the girls are looking for help while all the adults and most other kids have disappeared. The first volume is very much a mystery, but even as if you don’t know what’s going on, the story is compelling and terrifying enough to keep you going and trying to figure out what’s going on.

The girls are culturally diverse, but the story doesn’t make that a point, and each girl has her own personality and response to their situation. Mac is brash and from a broken family, but very shaken by a world that doesn’t make sense; Tiffany is maternal and quick-thinking, though very careful to do what’s right; KJ is quiet but determined, and will take unexpected risks; Erin is the new girl, afraid and uncertain, but unrelentingly compassionate and hopeful. Paper Girls passes the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests with flying colors, but there’s so much intense action packed into every panel, you won’t be thinking about that.

Volume 1 (Issues 1-5) came out March 2016 and Voume 2 (Issues 6-10) came out November 2016 so get with it now.

Low (Vol. 1) – written by Rick Remender, illustrated by Greg Tocchini

A dystopian tale about a dying earth and a sun on the verge of swallowing up the whole planet sounds depressing, but Low is a story about hope. Remender’s own experience with depression definitely gives him an understanding of how to find meaning in the darkest of moments, and as a person who suffers from depression and loves dystopias, I wish I’d read this when I was younger.

The main protagonist is Stel Caine, an aristocrat on one of the last surviving underwater cities of Earth, is one of the only people who believes that there is some inhabitable planet out there and a way to save humanity. Studying all probes that have been sent out centuries ago, she is certain one must have found a place for humans to go. Her warrior husband and children are patient but disbelieving. When an enemy horde kills her husband and kidnaps her young daughters, Stel doesn’t give up hope and keeps on searching for a chance to save her family and the world.

I love Stel. She is a tough female character who fights fearlessly, but is never cynical–something that seems to be a given trait for most tough characters. She is an optimist, and her firm belief that there is meaning and purpose in everything keeps her going, even when the cynical characters give up. She is also a wife and mother, and her love for her family doesn’t weaken her; it makes her stronger. She is one of those rare characters who are actually great noble people and yet are enjoyable to read about and are not boring.

Tocchini’s illustrations add to a painful and beautiful read by being painterly and dreamlike, while depicting horrific creatures and violence. I wasn’t sold on his art, and was mostly attracted to Remender’s story and characters, but I don’t think any other artist would have suited the story as well. The undersea scenes are lush and strange, reminding me of Charles Santore’s The Little Mermaid illustrations. I finished Low in one sitting today, and while I write this I keep glancing back at some panels that stuck in my head. Definitely an incredible and powerful read.

Volume 1 (Issues 1-6) was released March 2015, Volume 2 (Issues 7-10) was released in November 2015, and Volume 3 (Issues 11-15) was released in October 2016, so there’s a lot to catch up on before the next collection comes out!

Saga – written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

IMG_0083I can’t say enough good about my all-time favorite graphic novel series. This series features gorgeous artwork, gripping storytelling, complex characters, and a woman holding a gun and breastfeeding at the same time on the cover of Vol. 1. The latter is probably what got me to pick it up a few years ago.

An epic fantasy/sci-fi story, Saga is the story of Hazel, a half-breed whose parents fought on opposing sides of a never-ending intergalactic war. Drawn together by a shared interest in a novel about love overcoming differences, soldiers Alana and Marko desert and elope, causing  their home governments, bounty hunters, ex-lovers, and parents to come chasing after them. Neither Alana or Marko start out as exceptional, but their choices and their determination to protect their child make them stronger. It’s very much a love story–but not just romance. It’s about family and acceptance. Hazel herself narrates her origins, telling with care the stories of her pursuers, who all struggle with their own loves and hurts.

Staples’ art is probably the best thing about Saga, as good as the story itself is, because the art is just that amazing. It’s daring and intense, and a little embarrassing to read IMG_0084on the train (especially the issue with the anatomically-detailed and well-equipped monster), but the creativity behind it all is mind-blowing. You know how Star Wars aliens look like bad Muppets sometimes and you just know someone didn’t know what to do anymore with alien designs? That doesn’t happen here. You get cute characters like Ghus, as well as creepy monsters that I can’t put here, like the Stalk (google her on your own).

But the series’ core is Alana, Hazel’s mother, who is deeply flawed and uncertain of her future. Alana makes mistakes, screws things up, but she loves her little family, and will do anything for her daughter when put to the test. She is not as skilled a warrive as Marko, but she is bolder and more willing to take a chance, even when things go badly. Her love for Marko, which she never planned for, is deep, but she and he still have fights and struggle to compromise in their marriage, even amid all the danger. In a fantastical story, Alana is a very real woman (despite her having wings) and her character rings true.

Volume 1 (Issues  1-6), Volume 2 (Issues 7-12), Volume 3 (Issues 13-18), Volume 4 (15-24), Volume 5 (Issues 25-30), and Volume 6 (Issues 31-36) have all been released, and Volume 7 (Issues 37-42) comes out NEXT WEEK, so you have about a week to catch up on this goodness.

*On a final note, these are comic books, sure, but they sure as anything ain’t for kids. Runaways and Paper Girls might be okay for a pre-teen, but they do contain language and violence, and the former has sexual themes. Low and Saga are for adults, or teens who are allowed to watch Game of Thrones uncensored. I shouldn’t have to say this–but pictures are for adults too.*

So these are female-oriented comics that I love, featuring very current characters, and I purposefully left out popular DC or Marvel ladies I love because their origins are typically older and storylines are more complicated by multiple versions. But what are some favorite female characters in comics in general, whether in DC or Marvel, or Image Comics (literally most of my list!) or Vertigo or whatever?

Brittany Ann Zayas


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