This season brought a surge of posts focusing on the depiction of women’s bodies in comics. Many take offense at the overblown sexualization of super-heroines, their outrageously proportioned physiques, their provocative poses and revealing costumes. Perhaps readers really are voicing legitimate concerns, or perhaps they like to jump on the bandwagon of controversy. Either way, I have no argument with these authors.
In fact, I agree. I agree that most leading females in the top-selling mainstream superhero books look and pose like Penthouse Pets. Having purchased more than one copy of Penthouse in my life, I never thought to take offense. But, I also agree that redundant, hyper-sexualized depictions of females in comics present a ludicrously small spectrum of possibilities and a tragically limited conception of the wondrous female form.
With that in mind, I offer you some alternatives, a sample of my favorite heroines who bring far more depth to the page than simple “girlie magazine” appeal. All you need to do is take a few steps away from mainstream super-heroes to discover a world of awesomely ass-kicking heroines.
And look, I’m male – so what do I know? Therefore, before I get to my list, I respectfully share my favorite female-focused comic blogs. They address the perspectives of female fans, and the role of women in comics as both characters and creators:
Mazikeen originated in a Sandman story about the day Lucifer shut down hell. Mazikeen went on to become a major player in Vertigo’s Lucifer. In her early days, half her face appeared hideously destroyed. You do not want to mess with Mazikeen. A daughter of Lilith, Adam’s wife before Eve, she is smart, fast, and deadly. Despite her strong feelings for Lucifer, her femininity is anything but a weakness. Cross her and you’ll wish you’d never been born. Plus, she dresses sensibly and doesn’t pose!
2. Jenny Sparks
Being a woman on a super-hero team doesn’t mean you have to show a lot of tits and ass. Jenny Sparks spent her time in Wildstorm’s Authority dressed in white pants, a white jacket, and a Union Jack t-shirt. She smokes, drinks, curses, and packs enough electrical power to char this planet to a bloody cinder. Slender, small-chested, and tough as nails, Jenny never took an ounce of crap from the men on her team. Instead, she led them. Jenny Sparks and her rough-and-tumble lifestyle may not be the role model for your daughter, but she sure as hell isn’t strutting and posing for the lads. Besides, being a hundred years old, she tends to prefer the company of older men. Much older. Like, Great-Grampa old.
3. Gertrude Yorkes
Gertrude from Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways spent zero time strutting through sexy poses. Actually, she was teased for being chunky and having bad skin. Gertrude had a surly attitude about grownups, stemming from the fact that her parents were caught ritually murdering young girls every year to bring about the end of the world. That tends to breed a mistrust of adult authority! But, if you’ve ever been a teenager and felt awkward about your body and mistrustful of adults – which is every teenager I’ve ever known – it’s easy to relate to Gertrude. She stepped up to provide leadership in numerous horrible situations and could be a real bad-ass when the chips were down. Like most teenagers, Gertrude struggled to find herself and her own moral compass in a terrifying and confusing time of life.
Tamara wound up on a penal tour-of-duty in Alien Legion because she liked to fight and wouldn’t take shit from anybody. Under the military armor, Tamara may most physically resemble the overly curvaceous super-heroines. But, her physicality never takes the form of eye candy. She is usually too busy taking out a squadron of Xenon bastards with a hel-gun to strike a Penthouse pose! Her heart is reserved for her fellow legionnaires, for whom she will gladly face death. Anyone making the moves on Tamara gets shut down or beat down. She may be a pretty face, but if I had to descend into the hellish landscape of a Harkilon-infested planetoid, there’s no one else I’d rather follow!
Zee begins as a guide for journalist Matty Roth in Brian Wood’s recently concluded DMZ at Vertigo. Zee’s deep involvement with her neighborhood makes a dramatic foil for Matty’s clumsy, ill-fated choices. Zee lives in the demilitarized zone of a 21st-century American civil war. Zee is a nurse. Her caring nature takes her into the line of fire many times. Her strong self-sufficiency and street smarts bring her out alive. With her dreds, facial piercings, hard-ass attitude, and a wardrobe that looks like a bomb went off at a Salvation Army, Zee is everything that mainstream super-heroines are not.
6. Agent 355
Agent 355 plays guardian angel to Yorick on his global road trip in Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man. Dressing most often in dark pants, dark shirt, and no-nonsense jacket, Agent 355 (three fifty to her friends) kicks more ass than any woman should have to kick in one lifetime – especially since Yorick is just as good at getting into scrapes as he is at playing Harry Houdini. Agent 355 has a lot of heart. Part of her beauty is how she deals with her emotional life in a world where she has to be hard all the time. Her attempts to find moments of love never end well, and her tragedy remains one of the most poignant in a series where tragedy awaits at every turn.
Neil Gaiman’s Death appears in Sandman and Lucifer. She may be pretty, but you’ll never see her posing in spandex cheesecake shots. She’s too busy meeting everyone at the end of their lives to take them to the other side, usually with poetically philosophic insights. Death prefers a simple 1980s punk/goth look with a black tank top, her trademark ankh, and combat boots. Death is one of the Endless, a group that includes her brother, Dream, who has similar wardrobe tastes. Cute, wise, and one of the most powerful forces in the universe, Death tends to steal the spotlight in all of her scenes.
I remember Storm’s anti-pin-up days of leather jackets and a mohawk in the mid-1980s. But even in the super-tights, Storm has rarely, if ever, graced the page solely for a T&A display. She is, instead, one of the more fully realized and developed super-heroines, largely due to Chris Claremont’s efforts. While she kicks ass in league with the toughest tough girls on this list, Storm has always been an emotional creature. A nature goddess who loved animals, plants, and humans alike, she acted like a mother to the young Kitty Pryde and always showed genuine concern for the emotional well-being of her teammates. When I see Storm, I see depth and majesty.
9. Jakita Wagner
Some arguments on the depiction of women’s bodies revolve around whether or not they are being portrayed with athletic bodies or hyper-sexualized bodies. Jakita Wagner, as drawn by John Cassaday in Wildstorm’s Planetary, fits my idea of an athletic depiction. Some will argue that she does not look like a body-builder, but there’s more to athleticism than building mass. Jakita’s body type more resembles a runner’s or a gymnast’s. She certainly is the most physically formidable of the Planetary team. Elijah Snow might freeze the blood in your veins, but you could probably take him in arm-wrestling. Jakita, on the other hand… Well, she is the daughter of Tarzan, after all!
If you’re sick of leading ladies with impossible bodies and want more realism, Maggie – Maggot to her friends – is probably what you are looking for. Maggie is perpetually self-conscious about the amount of weight she puts on as Love and Rockets progresses over the years. Maggie does not bulge through the universe in spandex to strike poses while saving the galaxy. She’s just a regular girl dealing with her friends’ drama, boys, music, and trying to fit into last year’s jeans. I must admit I find Maggie quite sexy, even with a few extra pounds, but that just proves you don’t need to be a Playboy centerfold to be attractive.
Honorable Mention: Aunt May
If you don’t think raising a teenage boy after her husband died qualifies May Parker for super-hero status, then you’ve never been a mom! She may not turn heads like Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy these days, but Uncle Ben thought she was the bee’s knees. Come to think of it, so did Ned Lubensky in the late 1980s and, more recently, J. Jonah Jameson’s dad – who married Aunt May in Amazing Spider-man #600. It just goes to show you don’t need to squeeze yourself into wonder-tights to find love in this world!