Women & Graphic Novels: A Guide

Hello everyone, it’s Ashley here to talk all things feminist and queer in graphic novels. On Tuesday, if you were on twitter, you might have noticed my thread on the GWL account that was a little guide of where to start with graphic novels if you’re unfamiliar to the medium or would just like to try something new. This is a blog that’s just really going to expand on that, as well as telling you where my love of women in graphic novels started and how it developed throughout my adult life. So, buckle up, because this is pretty much the one place I get to share all this information since my friends just look at me and say ‘yes Ashely, I’m sure the New 52 did ruin Wonder Woman’s origin story. You don’t have to explain it again’. 

First off, I should probably mention that I was actually a late bloomer when it came to my love of comics and graphic novels. I found the stores largely intimidating and I had no idea where to start. In fact, the first comic I ever read that wasn’t a Garfield or Snoopy was an Aliens collection that I found at my hometowns local library when I was age: probably too young. 

Anyway, my love of comics actually came after my 26th (probably) re-watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realised that the story continued for multiple extra seasons through the comic book medium and I was committed to obtaining a full set. Which I now have and it’s one of the only series I physically own in entirety. I was in my second year at university when I started to collect the Dark Horse run of Buffy which was only six years ago. So, over the last six years I’ve became familiar with the way comic books are issued and have gotten into the “big two” that is Marvel and DC and through my previous job as a Waterstones bookseller I discovered many amazing indie graphic novels. This brings me to my first recommendation for anyone interested in getting into comics: read what you love! Buffy was the ideal starting place for me because it’s my favourite TV show. I was familiar with the characters and learned how to read, understand and appreciate how panels tell us a story in comic books. 

I then started to read more of what I knew; Batman, Daredevil and the Avengers and while – 

for the most part –  they were great I realised I had a serious lack of women on my graphic novel shelf. Then became my critical analysis into the medium. I actively looked for issues that focused on women or had powerful women within their teams and realised that many of the characters were overtly sexualised, depowered and were typically written as being damsels in distress… Sigh. Disappointed but not shocked I came to learn that this was already well known and long-time comics writer Gail Simone had actually coined the term ‘women in refrigerators’ or ‘fridging’ for women who were killed, maimed, sexually assaulted or depowered in superhero comics. As you can imagine the list is extensive and can be read here for anyone interested. 

When I researched the history of ‘fridging’ and the typical artistic tropes women characters fell into –  such as the horrible broke back– I knew I wanted to undertake a project that looked at the positive and negative aspects of women in comics. Luckily, I got to do this for my final thesis while undertaking my Masters and so ‘What happens when I’m finally set free?’: Analysing Women’s Empowerment and Feminist Ideology in Superhero Comic Books’was born. 

But don’t worry! I’m not here to regurgitate all 15,000 words of this although I do find it necessary to relay one argument I made whilst undertaking this project. Comics are a massive part of our culture and in order to be a truly inclusive and diverse medium people need to see themselves written and illustrated with respect throughout the panels. That doesn’t mean that every woman or LGBTQIA+ character has to be the ‘do-gooding superhero’ but rather their character should be three dimensional and well developed. I don’t want to pick up a team issue and have a token queer character that dies after a couple of runs or one woman character who is only there to appeal to the male gaze within the panels. It’s boring, overdone and lazy writing. 

Fortunately, this largely encompasses the superhero medium. There are many indie comics out there that are simply beautiful from start to finish, so let’s talk about them! 

Before I start, I have to give an honourable mention to Alison Bechdel. I first came across Dykes to Watch Out For whilst searching the Glasgow University library looking for theory texts on comic books. One of the better known queer comic creators, Alison Bechdel is of course famous for the well renowned Bechdel Test that is used to analyse the active presence of women throughout media and to call attention to gender inequalities in fiction.

My Recommendations

First Up!

Image shows cover of My Life in Transition. Illustration of Julia Kaye sitting on a bench writing and watching a butterfly. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

If you are interested in reading memoir then I suggest: My Life in Transition: A Super Late Bloomer Collection by Julia Kaye. Taking her readers on a beautiful adventure through six months of her life, Julia illustrates what it’s like navigating her everyday life as a trans woman. An award-winning artist with an incredible talent this is a joyful yet heart-breaking story that deals with topics such as dating, friendships, family, transition, grief and transphobia. In today’s political and social climate, it has never been so important to invest in and support trans creators. 

Secondly, keeping in with the theme of non-fiction we have this historical gem. Have you ever heard of revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, a courageous leader of the political left? Well you can read all about her story in Kate Evans graphic biography, Red Rosa. Rosa was one brave, strong-willed, courageous woman. Raised by her Jewish family in Poland Rosa battled her disability and the patriarchy to become an economist, philosopher and leader of the German Revolution 1919. Evan’s does a brilliant job illustrating this rich history.

Image shows cover of Red Rosa graphic novel. Illustration of Rosa’s profile side in with soldiers marching up her neck and fighting on top of her head. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.
Image shows cover of Through the Woods and depicts a black and white forest with a red background that has ‘Through the Woods’ and a house within it. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

Graphic novel number three is for all my horror lovers out there! Through the Woodsby Emily Carroll is absolutely enchanting! Another award-winning creator brings us five chilling stories through the woods. It’s so creepily eerie and atmospheric. A Lady’s Cold Hands is my personal favourite. Specifically, Carroll’s use of colour within her illustrations is incredibly effective within the tales. If you love gothic tales by Shirley Jackson or Daphne du Maurier and are interested in picking up a comic then this one’s for you!

Now, as I’ve stated: when it comes to Marvel and DC the world of comics can be intimidating. There is a lot of gatekeeping in the medium and it was argued in the past that “girls don’t read comics” and this saw women characters being poorly written. Thankfully, there are many amazing talented women and queer folks who are changing the face of modern comics, especially within the art and depictions of women. 

Image shows cover of Catwoman sitting on a dresser holding a Batman comic. She wears an evening gown and her costume hangs over a mirror in the back. She is surrounded by cats. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

But this doesn’t mean that women can’t be sexy AND empowered. For my fourth recommendation, I bring you Joelle Jones run on CatwomanCopycats. This comic is nothing short of stunning. Selena Kyle has left Batman and Gotham but still finds herself in the corrupt city of Villa Hermosa. Action packed, amazingly written and beautifully illustrated. It’s also an easy series to get into if you are interested in the character of Catwoman but have never read any of her original issues before. I know this because that’s exactly what I did! In fact, I loved this series so much that now if I see anything Joelle Jones is involved in, I ‘add to cart’ immediately. Recently, I picked up her issues of the new Wonder Woman: Future State because I found her art to be absolutely captivating. 

Image shows cover of Nubia sitting looking at the reader. She is wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt and bracelets of submission. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

And while we’re on the topic of Wonder Woman I bring you my fifth recommendation. The character of Diana is undoubtedly one of DC’s better known characters and rightly so. She’s an Amazonian Warrior who always fights for justice with integrity but she isn’t the only one. Nubia: Real Onewritten by L. L. McKinney & illustrated by Robyn Smith gives us the story of Diana’s sister. This is a beautiful coming of age story that illustrates themes of equality, identity and empowerment. Being DC’s first Black woman hero that was first presented to readers in the 70s her solo run is long overdue. A huge thanks to McKinney and Smith for this spectacular comic. 

Image shows Bombshells cover with Poison Ivy sat on a swing covered in vines, wearing a green bodice. Harley Quinn hangs above her wearing a harlequin outfit. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

And for my sixth and last DC recommendation I bring you the wonderful Bombshells. Interestingly the premise for this comic actually came from pin up inspired superhero figurines. This series written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by multiple people throughout its run is a fantastic tale of women’s empowerment, solidarity and teamwork. We are given interesting stories for Wonder Woman, Mera, Supergirl, Stargirl and Zatanna to name a few. My favourite part of the series however, is the relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. If nothing is perfect, then this relationship is the next best thing. We get to see Harley thrive with a supportive Ivy always beside her. AND… drumroll… it’s the first time we see the women as an official queer couple. I cannot recommend this series enough. If you want to learn more about your favourite DC women then this is the series for you.

Image shows cover of Captain Marvel standing in a power pose wearing her uniform. Background lights show past depictions of Captain Marvel shining through. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

Now, if you’re into the MCU you may have already noticed that most critiques of Captain Marvel tend to be largely sexist. Her character has had to handle an unfair amount of criticism that her male counterparts have not. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon within the medium but here’s the thing: Carol Danvers is actually one of my favourite women in superhero comics. So, here is your seventh recommendation starting off Marvel comics with one of their most powerful women, Captain Marvel: Re-Entry. Carol Danvers is fearless and confident, has a cat called Chewie and is best friends with Spider-Woman. Need I say more?

DeConnick’s original run got me into Carol’s comics and I stay for Kelly Thompson & Carmen Carnero. If you liked the movie or her character dipping into the start of either of these series is a great place to start. 

Image shows four Fearless issues. Issue most visible to viewer has Captain Marvel illustration. Lightning comes from her fists and she is in combat mode.

For my eight recommendation, I feel compelled to mention Marvel’s limited series: Fearless. This series is written and illustrated by multiple women and tells a beautiful story of Marvel’s strongest, smartest and bravest women. Captain Marvel, X-Men’s Storm and Mrs Fantastic herself, the Invisible Woman (or Dr Sue ‘Storm’ as I prefer to call her) are all invited as guests to a leadership camp for young girls but of course not everything goes to plan. Furthermore, Ms Marvel is herself attending the camp and knows something is amiss. 

This isn’t the only story within the pages however, readers also get a short story of Hellcat. What’s amazing about this is the fact that the character was last ‘fridged’ when she lost control of her powers. It’s lovely to see these characters being illustrated and written so well. 

Image shows cover of Bitch Planet. A silhouette of a woman’s body is visible and she is giving two fingers. To the right hand side of the silhouette a woman is sitting on a chair with bodyguard type people behind her. To the right hand side women are standing and sitting next to a railing. Picture is taken against the backdrop of a bookcase.

We’re almost there comic fans! For my ninth recommendation, I bring you Bitch Planet. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by Valentine De Landro this is a dystopian inspired feminist comic. Women of varying races, shapes and sizes (not commonly see within comics) are sent to live out life in a prison on another planet. Bitch Planet. DeConnick does a lot to build characterisation within the panels that makes this comic so captivating. I can’t give away too much without spoiling but if you loved reading The Handmaid’s Tale and like your comics with a lot of brilliant, well-developed women (who doesn’t?) then check this one out!

Image shows cover of Buffy the Vampire slayer issue 2. Buffy is sat at a desk with books looking at the reader and Drusilla stands behind her in a pink circle.

And finally, I simply can’t round off this list without mentioning my first love: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In particular, the new BOOM! run of Buffy is * chef’s kiss *. It takes the original series and its characters and keeps their integrity but starts fresh. You wouldn’t have even had to watch the TV show to fall in love with this series. Jordie Bellaire’s writing is amazing. She keeps the characteristics that make us love these longstanding characters but readers see certain changes that I was sceptical about but absolutely work! Cordelia remains Sunnydale’s popular girl but she’s actually really nice. Willow is a lesbian from the beginning and has a girlfriend while in high school and Buffy is still a young girl coming to grips with the power she possesses. While I normally wait for the collected volumes of my favourite graphic novels BOOM!’s Buffy series is the one exception I make for buying monthly issues because the artwork is so beautiful! 

And if you’re still with me beautiful readers and you’re interested in expanding your comic knowledge why don’t you come to our events this weekend! On Friday at 6:30pm we’re ‘In Conversation’ with Kate Charlesworth and Shazleen Khan. Link below to book:

And on Saturday at 2pm we’re ‘In Conversation’ with Sabba Khan and Nyla Ahmad. Link below to book:

Thank you for reading.


One Comment

  • Posted 22nd May, 2021 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    thank you for recommend these wonderful books to readers. these books show women power and did inspiring for girls to build their own confidence which was suppressed by the forces of “male superiority, and female inferiority”.

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