The Superheroines Are Finally Here to Save Us
It took generations before Captain Marvel got her own feature film. But in today's comics and YA books, superheroes who are women have been roaming free.
Illustration by Hunter French.
After a preponderance of films that sidelined or misunderstood its own superheroines, the recently released blockbuster Avengers: Endgame finally gave viewers a glimpse at a team of all women. During the final battle against Thanos, the most powerful women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe assembled on the battlefield to come to Spider-Man's rescue: Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, Gamora, Nebula, Shuri, Okoye, Mantis, even Pepper Potts in her Ironman suit. Women in my theater cheered. The fine hairs on my arms stood on end.
But the assembled fighting unit lasted all of 15 seconds, an almost painfully obvious metaphor for how superheroines have tended to be treated on screen.
As has been pointed out many, many times over the past few years, for decades, superhero films didn't have any headlining women. Though that's recently been remedied, with films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, the vast majority of superheroes are just that—heroes, meaning, men. In 2016, only 12 percent of superheroes in Marvel and DC comics—the “Big Two,” the companies that created the majority of superheroes we consider a part of the mainstream—were women. Girls haven’t been able to see themselves represented, despite the desire for and impact of such positive representation; seeing your life projected back at you on the page is a form of belonging and validation, and anyone who has felt alienated immediately understands just how intuitive this is, and how the need never really goes away. If you were one of the many women who cried through the fight scenes in Wonder Woman, you felt this firsthand.
The superheroes who were women always felt like they were playing second fiddle. They tended to be hypersexualized and victimized, catering to men as the primary consumers of the medium. This is true even of the obvious, legacy names like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Catwoman—imagine these women in their most iconic outfits and the mind’s eye is populated with black stilettos and tight bodysuits. Superhero powers assigned to women also tended to be coded as feminine, related to empathy and intellect, rather than strength or physical abilities. “They are all lesser characters, minor characters, characters who are on teams only, historically,” Dr. Christopher Bell, Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Colorado, said—think of Jubilee, Rogue, and Shadowcat of the X-Men or Invisible Girl (now known as Invisible Woman) in Fantastic Four.
Bell specializes in media studies and is a subject expert in superheroes—his 2016 Ted Talk about the lack of children's toys for superheroes who are women was a major part of the audience push for Gamora of Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise. “And they are also almost always diminutized versions of male superheroes," Bell added. “So you have Batman you get Batgirl; you have Superman you get Supergirl.”
The full evolution and trajectory of superheroines is far too vast to cover in this space—storylines have become immeasurable with the passing of time, authors shifting constantly. And while there are very specific cultural dynamics to unpack in the history of comics, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, these character tenants have remained broadly accurate, young girls and teens remaining underserved by what's offered to them.
But the past five years have ushered in the beginnings of a boom period in superheroes who are women actually helming their own stories. “It’s relatively recent that a female superhero can carry her own world or her own film—specifically, are allowed to carry her own film,” Bell said. These stories are aimed at the exact demographics that the industry previously failed to capture, and they sharply contrast early renderings of women in comics: They’re more diverse, more empowered, and less sexualized. DC and Marvel are refreshing legacy heroes to suit middle grade readers and young adults, creating new superheroines, assembling teams comprised entirely of women, and giving classic heroes their own stories through new imprints. The fervor has caught on in the YA market, where the legacy of "strong female leads" is already incredibly robust. And beyond superhero stories specifically, comics as a format have begun to cater towards girls, with narratives that treat them with respect and develop their characters as deeply as their male counterparts.
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the origins of the movement, a few cultural inflection points seem obvious: We’re in the middle of an inescapable wave of superhero films—Marvel alone has 22—which has shoved superheroes into every facet of the cultural consciousness. More broadly, there’s been a push for women in more positions of power—louder advocacy for equal pay and a workplace free of sexual harassment. The increase of superheroine comics reflects a growing number of women writing them; most of these women grew up reading and loving superhero stories, but never got to see themselves represented—until now.
Marvel and DC will continue to serve up films about superheroes—after Endgame, Marvel is even launching into its next phase of development which purports to be more inclusive. The most interesting generation of superheroines, however, has already been surfacing not on screen, but in print. What icons do we have in our future?
It's almost hackneyed at this point to say that role models are important to young kids, but that doesn't make that fact less critical. Research shows that the company children keep and the media they’re exposed to play a critical part in setting up self-esteem and confidence. In this arena, young girls—and especially girls of color—have always been left behind. They've had to suffer through media that portrays them as less capable, or as expendable, messaging born out of having to shop in the “pink” toy aisles—many of them never saw their favorite superheroines as action figures, even as these characters existed in print and on screen. Until 2016, Hasbro repeatedly omitted the aforementioned Gamora—as well as Black Widow and Rey, the first jedi who is a woman to star in her own Star Wars film—from their line up of children’s toys, thanks to the ideology that boys would turn down a box set if there were any figurines that were women. (Let’s also not forget the clothing lines aimed at girls, which implied they could only be girlfriend or spouse to a superhero.)
“These are the stories I wish I had when I was growing up."
But in the past five years, The Big Two has finally begun to fix this. They’ve created new stories and merchandise to appeal to girls who’d never been able to envision themselves as superheroes. One of the most popular is DC Super Hero Girls, an animated show, line of toys, and series of graphic novels and chapter books that follow teenaged DC heroines and villains at Super Hero High. The books were especially popular—in 2016, DC Super Hero Girls: Finals Crisis was Penguin Random House’s #2 most sold comic, in book units sold to bookstores, outselling Watchmen and Suicide Squad, despite the latter’s film adaptation coming out that very year.
“When DC was looking for a novelist with a track record, who also understood superheroes, I got the call,” Lisa Yee, writer of Scholastic children’s book Millicent Min, Girl Genius, and author of a number of the DC Super Hero Girls chapter books, wrote over email. “These are the stories I wish I had when I was growing up. To be able to write how Wonder Woman, or Katana, or Bumblebee became who they are today—to write about them when they were in high school, making mistakes, figuring out who they were, and who they wanted to be, is an author’s dream come true.”
DC Zoom, another forthcoming line directed at middle graders, reimagines a variety of superheroes as teenagers. The teen-angled imprint DC Inks set for 2019 will include Teen Titans: Raven, giving a character who is a woman the center role, and Shadow of the Batgirl starring Cassandra Cain, the first Asian Batgirl. Marvel’s response was A-Force, a superhero squad of all women, and Marvel Rising, a 2018 franchise that included a comic series and an animated show, with a similarly diverse team of heroes. Squirrel Girl, created in 1991, is a fan favorite of Marvel Rising who has her own very popular comic series The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (co authored by Dean and Shannon Hale, the latter of whom is a best-selling author of Bayern books.) Shuri and Spider Gwen are also both in Marvel Rising, and have been featured in Marvel films. The CW has also been running its own show about Supergirl, and a Batwoman show is in the works.
These new releases functionally update legacy heroes in ways that remediate the bodily violence of the past. DC Inks’ Batman: Gotham High is slated to celebrate Selina Kyle’s Latinx identity rather than whitewashing her. Marvel’s Spider Gwen series seems to acknowledge how disappointing it is for Gwen Stacy to die, finally honoring her by putting her at the center of a narrative driven by numerous women. Carol Danvers’ story is updated though Kamala Khan, the newest Ms. Marvel and the publisher’s first Muslim character to headline a series. Khan’s storyline also treats one of Marvel’s most powerful superheroines with far more respect than the original series gave her. “Carol Danvers, up until like 1986 or so, was actually Ms. Marvel,” Bell said. “She’s got these superpowers, but Ms. Marvel in the 1970s is an alcoholic, and she moves from team to team quite a bit. There’s a very famous storyline where she is literally raped and taken to another dimension.”
These updates to legacy characters are key: Marvel and DC continue to be the largest and highest impact source of superhero narratives. They're the ones that get made into films and Halloween costumes, the ones that kids dress up as for Halloween. “I never thought there would be an Asian Batgirl, and I never thought that I would get to write her,” said Sarah Kuhn, author of the Heroine Complex trilogy. “There’s something powerful about being able to see a person of color in that extremely beloved legacy character’s role.”
Not all kids and young adults want to read about superheroes in comic form, especially given the history of comic book shops as unwelcome spaces for girls and women. Mass media like the sitcom The Big Bang Theory have only telegraphed this idea further—that comic book shops are predominantly spaces for men, and that the idea of women frequenting them is laughable.
And so The Big Two is engaging superhero fans in different ways. DC Icons and Marvel YA serve as YA novelizations of historic superheroes and superheroines. In these launches, the gender balance is equal (granted, with six books total across both franchises, the sample size is small). These titles include Leigh Bardugo’s wildly popular Wonder Woman: Warbringer which tells a completely new version of the legacy superhero’s story. DC’s roster also includes Catwoman: Soulstealer, while Marvel YA tackles Black Widow’s origin story. Just like the authors of new comic books tend to be writers with existing, successful work, Bardugo is already well established as the author of the best-selling Six of Crows, while Black Widow: Forever Red is being penned by Margaret Stohl, author of the Beautiful Creatures series.
YA’s built-in legacy of protagonists who are women makes it the perfect home for these stories—if you step away from the conventional definition of “superhero,” as an inflexible, costumed category, it becomes clear that YA’s most beloved leading women have superheroic qualities, powers that can be considered outside of the ordinary. This is especially true of magical, supernatural, or gothic genres. “I tend to use the term superhero pretty widely, because for a young adult, what counts as superheroic is not necessarily just the ability to fly or just the ability to walk through walls,” Bell explained.
Think of Hermione Granger—even beyond her actual magical powers as a witch, she possesses the superpower of incredible intellect and capacity for learning. She’s famous for her bookishness, as much as her witchcraft. Violet Baudelaire is cut from the same cloth, though she uses her powers for creating inventions in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Katniss Everdeen’s world in The Hunger Games may be a fantastical work of dystopian science fiction—split into impoverished districts that are ruled by a tyrannical President Snow—but she’s never called a “super.” Regardless, she is hyper-talented with a bow and arrow, can shoot under pressure, and has intense survivalist skills that would put Bear Grylls to shame.
"The Hunger Games helped establish the kick-ass female heroine in a terrible, dystopic world," Jean Feiwel, senior vice president and publisher at a number of Macmillan’s children’s imprints, said. “And then that led to other books like Divergent, Throne of Glass, Graceling and then I think you started to see the superhero story weave its way throughout teen fiction, like The Renegades series by Marissa Meyer.” For Meyer, The Renegades novels are also a form of wish fulfillment for a younger self. “I always had a sense that the comics were for boys like my brother, not so much for girls like me,” Meyer wrote via email. “I wanted to write something that wasn’t just for boys or just for girls, but that had fully realized, courageous, and complicated characters of both genders.”
But middle grade chapter books played, perhaps, the most pivotal role in today’s surge of superheroine novelizations. “I think strong female characters were established much earlier for middle grade readers,” Feiwel explained. “Whether it was The Baby-Sitters Club series, A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, Island of the Blue Dolphins, middle grade has a much stronger tradition of books featuring strong female characters.” These middle grade readers not only created a generation of impactful role models, but also inspired teen aimed titles—like “Sweet Valley High and Wildfire,” according to Feiwel.
Middle grade series’ also inspired fandom culture among women, which has become the lifeblood of so many projects that were disregarded by reviewers. This includes The Baby-Sitters Club books; the beloved series was initially Feiwel's own idea. “When the series was first published, most gatekeepers and reviewers didn’t think they had to pay attention,” Feiwel said. “This was the beginning of authors making a connection directly with fans and with readers. These stories were very much connected to girls’ lives. They were about things like losing a dog, or going to a first dance, or being bullied, and until Baby-Sitters Club hit the USA Today bestseller list, I don’t think anyone was paying attention to what kids were reading. When the books started to hit the bestseller list, publishers and authors suddenly were asking themselves what is this, who is Ann Martin and why is this working so well.”
The series had finally tapped into the ravenous readership of adolescent and teenage girls.
Superheroines making appearances across comics and novels has had an even wider impact for girl readers. They've influenced the comic book and graphic novel industry as a whole—outside of the superhero genre—to recognize readers who are women. What makes a "comic book story" has become far more inclusive as a result. And the movement is being led by publishers outside of The Big Two.
“There definitely has been a de-stigmatization of the superhero comic in the book world as well as the notion that superhero stories really are for everyone and that they are for girls as much as they are for boys,” Calista Brill, Editorial Director of graphic novel publisher First Second, wrote over email. “I have been seeing a very underserved population, which is to say young women and girls, finally getting a lot of really good comics served to them outside of the superhero realm.”
These smaller graphic novel and comics publishers—along with dedicated divisions of more mainstream publishing houses—have begun to produce works that focus on girls. Many have already emerged in just the past few years: Zita The Spacegirl, Star Scouts, Amulet, Hereville, El Deafo, Hildafolk, the list goes on. A particular favorite of mine is BOOM! Studios’ hugely popular Lumberjanes series, aimed at middle grade readers, which follows a group of five young women and nonbinary scouts who work together to unravel a supernatural mystery in the woods. The scouts have an array of personality types that extend beyond basic girly, sporty or tomboyish tropes. And they aren’t strong because they’re tomboyish—they’re strong because they stick to their guns and foster friendships that they never give up on. In short, they exhibit the kinds of qualities that every child should aspire to grow up to embody.
While these new comics and graphic novels have benefitted from the mainstreaming of superheroine narratives, they mostly have independent publishers to thank, who have long been the harbinger of the most progressive work, acting as platforms for projects outside the mainstream to flourish. Many of them have also published bound volumes of webcomics that initially gained robust fandoms over the internet. “I think it says a lot that when I first started reading comics, webcomics specifically, they were almost entirely comics with queer, female creators and content,” Kat Leyh, illustrator of Lumberjanes wrote via email. “It took a while for publishers to catch up to that market.”
C. Spike Trotman—founder of Iron Circus Comics, the largest independent graphic novel publisher in Chicago—is one of these gamechangers. Iron Circus specializes in publishing the types of works that mainstream publishing houses often turn away from, including their erotic series Smut Peddler. They also stock a number of physical versions of popular webcomics, including Shadoweyes, which stars a teen black girl who can transform into “a superhuman creature.” Trotman was able to fund much of this work through the Kickstarter comic-funding model that has become an absolute mainstay of the alternative comics industry. Her company is one of the pioneers of this model.
“Comics were considered a single genre for a long time, 'superhero' and 'comic book' were synonymous for decades,” Trotman said over the phone. “Publishers have to stay afloat and keep publishing, and if they published things that weren’t necessarily about what people came to the comic shop to see, it wouldn’t get bought.” Stories that didn’t fit this mold needed to find alternative models of production and distribution—and subsequently a different model for funding. “Comics are uniquely well suited to Kickstarter,” Trotman added. “Alternative and independent comics have been flourishing in the shadows of this industry that felt they couldn’t produce anything else. When Kickstarter showed up it was perfect, it was like a godsend. It’s become almost the widest passage for independent comics.”
In 2018, $15.3 million was pledged successfully across 1,457 projects—which was 14 percent more than 2017 and almost triple the amount pledged in 2012. Comics in 2018 also had a 70 percent funding success rate. Kickstarters support all types of comics projects, spanning from well known comics publishers like Action Lab Comics (creator of the Eisner Award nominated Princeless series), to individual artists with popular ideas. You also might notice the kinds of comics being made by mainstream publishers in 2018 and 2019 are the kinds of stories that found legs on Kickstarter five to ten years earlier—stories about supernatural black girls, teenaged antiheroes, nonbinary scouts, and heroes with disabilities.
And so the work is being done, first from the fringes, and now in mainstream publishing, as new characters and stories find their captive audience. If Marvel's phase four does follow through with its promised calls for diverse casting and narrative—maybe even giving fans an A-Team, or a full-length film around a team of superhero women—it will have these written works, and these writers and illustrators, to thank. More than that, these works pave the way for dispelling the notion that whiteness and maleness is a default—the default for superheroes, yes, but the default for all modes of storytelling. As publishers and filmmakers continue to recognize the richness of varied experience, this myth of who the default viewer is could peel away.
“I know what it’s like to hope for that representation, to want it so badly,” Kuhn said. “I’ll feel like we’re in a golden age when there’s not so much pressure on every single property that stars a superhero who’s not a white, straight cis man—and also when there’s so many to choose from that everyone can have their hero. Their person.”
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