There were too many worthy female characters in 2015 to try to round up neatly in this essay, but here are 15 that stood out this year. Some are fluffy and some are serious. Every example shines some kind of light on feminism. The bar is low in comics—they aren’t the place to go looking for feminism as a rule. But feminism also has a low bar, since it’s only about women being equal to men. Some books accidentally strike a feminist note just by portraying a woman as fully human. Some books wade into the fray like, “Hey! Hey! Over here! Strong Female Character!” When their efforts are insincere or poorly executed, you can knock over their attempts at feminism with a tap. Any book will get some moments wrong and some right. In this storytelling medium, images can stomp all over the writing sometimes. The art can torpedo a writer’s efforts or it can shore up a crap script. Sometimes a strong image can catch our eye and let us see ourselves more accurately, even when it’s couched inside a flawed, mediocre, or “problematic” story. Comic books can’t all read like they were handed down by the gods, but they can all have human moments that are charming, intriguing, or illuminating. Those are the words I would also use for the women characters in this list.
Publisher: Archie Comics
Writer: Mark Waid
Art: Fiona Staples, Annie Wu
Colors: Andre Szymanowicz, Jen Vaughn
Letters: Jack Morelli
Status: #5 expected in January 2016
In the first three issues of the new Archie series, Mark Waid and Fiona Staples breathed new life into Betty Cooper. Staples’s skill with faces and Waid’s sense of pacing and dialogue give this Betty her due without lessening her girl next door quality. We can see her emotions; her face has microexpressions now. It’s always been easier to make Veronica spicier, since she’s flashy and a little mean. Betty could fix cars and play baseball, but her sweetness robs her of any visible edge. She mostly doesn’t give a damn about that which makes her the coolest after all. One of the surest signs of Betty’s intrinsic coolness is the understated way she’s always been in league with Jughead. The new Archie highlights this bond and runs their sincere male-female friendship alongside Betty’s love story with Archie. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the new Jughead series by Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson takes Betty in the other direction in its first couple of issues. Betty is barely around and when she is, her personality is neutered.
The fourth issue of Archie is out with Annie Wu on art instead of Fiona Staples. It’s not the same Betty. But Wu’s Betty shines on one page where she and Archie fight because he says she isn’t herself anymore in a dress and lipstick. She slashes lipstick across his mouth, and says “See? You’re still you.” (Colorists) Raw anger suits Wu’s lines which are more kinetic and emotional in general, finding another way to convey emotion than finely detailed faces. Don’t get attached to Wu’s Betty though. Veronica Fish is up next for art in issues #5 and #6, and this will be yet another Betty.
Writer: John Allison
Art: Lissa Treiman
Colors: Whitney Cogar
Letters: Jim Campbell
Status: 12-issue mini-series, #10 is expected out January 2016
Esther, Daisy & Susan are three slovenly, somewhat out-of-control British college girls. It’s good to see college girls looking mawkish and disorderly. Cute outfits are fun, but that’s not real life. Lissa Treiman’s cartooning and Whitney Cogar’s bright colors come at you like an attack hug. Giant Days just never stops making fun of the girls and itself. It’s so confidently feminist that it feels all in the family—it can make fun of zealous young feminism and we’ll just laugh with recognition.
On one level, the book has the earnestness of an after school special, but John Allison’s lightly snarky writing keeps creeping up on you until you stop and think “Oh wait, this book is smarter and funnier than I realized.” The book plays with the girls’ identities in a youthful way, choosing where to dwell and where to present without comment. Daisy is sweetly worried that she has a crush on a girl. Esther has a “drama field” that she describes as neither good nor evil but like a Victorian bustle that knocks things off shelves by accident. Susan puts a pretty decent guy on the cover of her feminist zine out of spite. When a picture of a drunk Esther gets pasted onto a sexist campus website, the book has a heyday with the aftermath. Unlike other comic books in the last couple years that have incorporated this sort of cyber-sexism into a superhero battle of good versus evil, Giant Days keeps things low brow and off the wall. It feels like the appropriate artistic response.
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher
Art: Karl Kerschl & Msassyk
Colors: Serge LaPointe & Msassyk
Letters: Steve Wands
Status: #13 expected in January 2016
The friendship of Olive Silverlock and Maps Mizoguchi is realistic and tender, capturing the chemistry of these two girls at a time in their lives when a few years’ age difference puts the yawning chasm of puberty between them. The charismatic Maps may be a tween among teens but she steals every scene she’s in. She is the perfect blend of an earnest little sister and a hard-boiled detective. The teens aren’t sexualized and the story emphasizes friendships, teamwork, and the dark night of the soul. Even though the characters—especially Olive—deal with dark things, the book doesn’t flounder in gloom. This is partly because Olive has Maps by her side.
She’s savvy and indispensable, but also thrilled just to be included by the older kids. Maps looks up to Olive but gallantly assigns herself as Olive’s protector. She nonchalantly trades her plaid school skirt for a suit when she goes to a dance with a girl, but the dance is just a cover for a secret mission. She daydreams that she is a prince and a grappling gun is her bride, but she wears little bows in her hair. Her interest in boys seems to be rooted in her attempt to assemble the best team possible, but she carries herself with a certain winsomeness. The creators blend the facets of her personality together in a way that just lets a kid be a kid without assigning her an orientation. Maps is wholly herself, and it makes you wonder why it’s easier to let a kid be a kid, but we still have trouble letting a person be a person.
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Art: Sana Takeda
Letters: Rus Wooton
Status: #3 expected out in January 2016
Maika is a girl who has returned herself to slavery as part of a long-shot revenge plan. The first couple issues of Monstress just scratch the surface of the fictional world’s history of war, the baggage of its atrocities, and allusions to magic. The book is beautiful to look at with filigreed detailing, painstaking interiors, much swirling of hair, and is dominated by women characters. It also has pockets of unabashed cuteness like the sweet little fox girl who hugs her own tail for comfort. But this book is brutal and ugly. It’s as if everything fine and beautiful was set up to strengthen the shock of its brutality.
We are only getting to know Maika slowly because she’s full of anger and secrets; we shouldn’t be getting to know her any faster. The two sides at war seem to be two different humanoid species, each with a range of ethnic qualities. The protagonist isn’t white, and neither are her enemies—whiteness is not touchstone, anchor, or default. This saturation of femaleness and dearth of whiteness jogs the book out of familiar lines across which people are oppressed in the U.S. Monstress gives us the basics of dehumanization and what that does to people .
Monstress shows how every single person carries the brutality of slavery with them—including Maika. We see the immediate sadistic brutality of hired guards. We see the more refined, casual cruelty of the genteel women who are responsible for the brutality. The book uses two women’s relationship with each other to let us see them as human and not wholly evil—but they participate in an evil system and won’t be spared in the final reckoning. Then there’s the brutality of the oppressed, the enslaved, the violated—Maika with her cold fury. She wants to burn the world, but she the monsters she keeps inside could destroy her too.
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Art: Adrian Alphona/Takeshi Miyazawa
Colors: Ian Herring
Letters: Joe Caramagna
Status: Recently rebooted, #2 expected out in January 2016
Mike (short for Mikaela) met Bruno by pulling him out of the way of an oncoming bus. She’s strong and fast, and also perhaps the realest girl in comics this year. Years of rom-com conditioning suggests that no one will come between Kamala and Bruno for very long. But Kamala has been taking Bruno for granted for a long time, and it’s good to see him with a girl who isn’t a superhero and can focus on how great he is. It feels like Mike was modeled after a particular person- like artist Adrian Alphona might have a niece who is exactly Mike. At the same time, it feels like there are also armies of Mikes at large in city buses and bookstores—sporting her same blue hair, her fashionable-without-regard-to-body-type clothes, her stocky legs, and her round face. Bodily she’s the opposite of Kamala, who is like a floppy string bean even before her elastic superpowers come into play. Short and stumpy is a body type that doesn’t find its way into comics (or any media anywhere) very often as a love interest. It isn’t often shown as something adorable. The wholesale worship of the lithe and lissome continues apace. In fact, a lot of us must consciously remind ourselves and each other that it is possible to be loved, even if you are not thin. Our collective cultural insanity on this point makes a plump love interest in a mainstream comic book something to crow about. Mike is shaped like a sugar plum, solidly rooted on the ground, and firmly nestled into Bruno’s bony rib cage.
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Brian K. Vaughn
Art: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Status: #4 expected out in January 2016
Erin’s adventure of being one of the first paper girls in her city turns into something larger and more terrifying than she can handle with a bicycle and a walkie talkie. Erin is the least brave girl in a quartet of tough girls, on a morning when the world seems to be ending. On the first page of the series, Christa McAuliffe comes to Erin in a dream just before her alarm goes off. Artist Cliff Chiang makes the sight of McAuliffe in an astronaut suit and helmet with angel wings poignant and iconic—especially for anyone who watched the Challenger explode live on television in their grade school classroom. Although the book starts with a dream, the landscape of the book is the real 1980s, not the stylized 1980s. And the American suburbia represented seems like it can only be fully realized in that decade. Matt Wilson’s colors capture that pre-dawn hour that is quiet and creepy and to a kid feels a lot like being up too late.
Writer Brian K. Vaughn could have easily told this story with four boys instead of girls, but he didn’t. These girls are twelve years old and Vaughn and Chiang just treat them like kids the same as they would treat boy characters that age. It shouldn’t be noteworthy when middle-school girls are treated as people and not as budding sexual playthings, but there it is. It’s still early in the series—Vaughn and Chiang have shown the versatility of combining bizarre end-of-world-type calamity with more earth-bound fears like drunk parents acting scary. It will be interesting to see what ways the decision to feature girls instead of boys subtly changes the story as we get deeper in.
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Mark Russell
Art: Ben Caldwell, Mark Morales
Colors: Jeremy Lawson
Letters: Travis Lanham
Status: 6-issue arc just completed; future uncertain
Prez is about a teenage girl elected president in the 2030s after becoming famous in a viral video of her accidentally deep-frying her hair. This was the year for this book, which takes on all of American culture in a dizzyingly smart and goofy send-up. None of it seems too crazy or too sinister, with Donald Trump (climate debate during France). At the center of it, President Beth Ross is both a creature of her time and a voice of reason. She selects the right advisors and proceeds to wiggle blithely through the gnarled political system to try to right the ship of state. In the middle of the whirligig storyline, there is feminism by throwaway lines. When a Senator says, “Why, what a lovely young woman!” Beth responds cheerfully, “Thanks! You’re an acceptable-looking older man.”
As enjoyable as Beth is as the presidential every-girl, the real stand-out woman of this story is Tina the gleaming metallic killing machine. Tina is next-level artificial intelligence for the time, formerly known as War Beast and considered male by her creators. She was made and taught to kill. Then her military handlers caught her downloading Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in her free time and knew something was up. She eventually departed the program, grappled with her war crimes, came out as a woman, and became a Christian (“I am interested in your apology-based religion”). She wears a yellow wig, which is silly with her broad metallic shoulders and killer knife hands. She still occasionally blows things up as needed, but now as Beth’s bodyguard. The two don’t pair up until the last issue of this arc. There is talk of another six-issue arc and also talk of the series being over. It would be a crime to not see what Beth and Tina get up to now that their storylines have finally come together.
Publisher: Image Comics
Co-Creators: John Arcudi & John Harren
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Status: #10 expected out at the end of December 2015
Rumble is one of the very best books of 2015, and it is under-utilizing its most central woman character. Timah can read ancient languages, she is an object of affection for the protagonist, she works at a hospital and she is compassionate. She has disobedient hair that seems to be curly and wavy in different ways on different parts of her head, plus has staticky fly-aways. This is a book full of wild drama between monster warriors from another age. It’s all bright colors and fast movement and excitement. Nine issues in, Timah is the only person in the story who still doesn’t know that the entire plot of the book is happening. Besides being motion-smeary and full of fighting, this is a comic book of strongly written characters and tiny humorous moments—it has the chops to do more with Timah. She floats above the role of being the love interest—both in the world of the book and as a character in a story.
She pops up as a sort of emotional helpmeet to Bobby while skating away from becoming involved with him. The book uses her as a seasoning, but she’s a character with potential. I’m hoping she will tie into the main storyline in unexpected ways. The creators should be able to do more with her than just sending her down strange streets alone in the dark, spooking and wondering. I’m counting on the book being around next year and Timah coming into her own.
Lucy in Saints
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Sean Lewis
Art: Benjamin Mackey
Status: #4 expected in January 2016
In Saints, the saints of old are alive now in the U.S. and are being assembled for a holy mission. Mostly they are confused young people who are grappling with their full identities. The only female saint so far is Lucy. She is blonde and does wear her hair braided back and studded with candles, but other than that she is just a devout American suburbanite who works at a grocery store and refuses to use swear words. Lucy shows up halfway through the first issue, after a few pages of gross-out imagery, lame sex jokes, and a teenaged metal groupie giving one of the saints a blow job in a club. It’s as if Saints is so religious and the art so untraditional for comics, that the creators went overboard to convince a certain element to keep reading. Or they are just immature. Things pick up when two of the saints approach Lucy in the alley behind her grocery store at night, as she’s taking out some garbage. She’s noticed them watching her earlier, and goes swinging at them, shouting “Men! They want it and they think it’s their right to take it!” At this point, we are primed to think the book is poking fun at her—but the art is so righteous and Lucy’s point is so salient that it doesn’t matter.
The book pokes fun at all of its characters, and Lucy is drawn as naked-faced and non-sexually as the men are. The art is muscular, minimalist, and committed to a style reminiscent of Russian orthodox icons. This style honors and elevates Lucy’s profile, her braids, the shape of her skull, and her heavy frame. She’s stolid—broad-shouldered, thick-waisted, and literal. She wears a polo shirt and knee-length skirt, sits with her legs apart and hunches over her food the table. She’s a big lug with a penumbra of sweetness, and she’s one of the more pragmatic people in the group. Three issues in, Saints is still getting its legs under it—but it has created a female character who feels very real and very human.
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: Dennis Hopeless
Art: Javier Rodriguez & Alvaro Lopez
Letters: Travis Lanham
Status: Recently rebooted, #2 expected in December 2015
PREGNANT SPIDER WOMAN. The rebooted Spider Woman jumps forward several months in her life from the last issue. Basically, Jessica Drew came back from summer vacation heavily pregnant and she’s catching us up with what her life is like now. She never wanted children, she tell us, “not even a little.” She’s always been kind of a big kid herself, and her inner monolog feels very real. Anyone who has been the recipient of candid pregnant-lady venting knows that even people who do want kids can sometimes feel like the captive host to an alien parasite that will destroy everything.
Jessica introduces us to her new world where she deals with her more limited risk-tolerance and physical ability, her changed responsibilities and the weird social realities of being pregnant (Clint aka Hawkeye asks her if she’s SURE she’s not having twins). Writer Dennis Hopeless captures all that while also letting Jessica’s maternal and protective feelings shine through her stream of gripes. The art team (Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez) give us a nice friendship moment when Jessica puts her motorcycle in storage, with Carol (Captain Marvel) along for moral support but also laughing at her. Jessica has had to relinquish actual fighting while coaching her friend Roger to stand in for her. She stands like a general on top of a parked car, watching Porcupine fight Shriek from a safe distance. Jessica thinks, “Much as I’d love to stomp a boot print in Shriek’s weird face right now—it’s hard to ignore the cantaloupe-size meat monkey dancing on my bladder.” She’s never looked so authoritative as she does with her legs planted in a power stance, a little sway-backed, one arm supporting her belly as it imposes itself on her life, her silhouette, and the world around it.
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Art: Sophie Campbell
Colors: M. Victoria Robado
Letters: Shawn Lee
Status: #10 expected in December 2015
In Issue #5 of Jem, Aja wakes up in a hospital and registers that her bandmates are sleeping in a jumble across her legs and feet at the base of her bed. She remarks that they look like kittens. There’s a wrong way and a right way for a cast of girls to seem like a pile of kittens. Sophie Campbell, Kelly Thompson, and Victoria Robado do it in a way that makes us fall in love with this kaleidoscope of girls without making them fresh meat for the male gaze. Not every comic book aimed at teen girls manages (or even tries?) to sidestep the male gaze. Which is not to say that these girls aren’t sexy because they are also that. It just feels like they have agency and also that this army of young women has locked elbows in a protective crystal lattice of girlhood.
From mousey Jerrica’s transformation into Jem, to the way Kimber hurls her joyful girl-craziness at Stormer, to the shenanigans of the “bad” girls in the rival band, this book is unapologetic in its attention to feelings. Campbell and Robado take the colors and costumes to crazy heights while still being able to lock in little moments for Thompson’s smart dialogue. Jem proves that conversation and hair styles are at least as legitimate a source of entertainment as fistfights and explosions. Jem is a middle finger to anyone who tries to ghetto-ize typically girly media. A lot of warrior bravery is woven through this rocker girl book. The girls can giggle and crush, and still be fighting like hell for what they believe in.
Writer: Tom King
Art: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Status: #3 expected in January 2016
Virginia Vision is a wife and mother in a recently created synthetic family that is trying to fit into present-day American suburbia. Her husband is an Avenger and goes to work at the White House. She spends much of her free time “sitting on the living room couch exploring the corners of her pre-loaded memory. She was fascinated by how often she found something that made her cry.” Tom King’s dry narration looks on quietly as the book holds up a mirror to us.
Virginia is learning how to be a person, a wife, and a mother all at the same time and she tries hard. Her husband knows he must love Virginia because she is his wife, but he sees her as the other and is frustrated by her questions. Every familiar concept to us is a building block for Virginia to hold up and look at from different angles. Because she is much more intelligent than we are, what she often sees is meaninglessness. The understatement of the writing allows this book to be far more poetic than comic books can usually get away with being. An empty floating vase made of water is featured in the beginning when new neighbors take a tour of the house. We see it floating near Virginia in the scene when she is sitting on the couch alone, exploring her own mind. Amid sudden violence at the end of the first issue, the narration coolly informs us that the floating water vases are empty because the chemicals that allow them to levitate are poisonous to plant life. In the last panel, we a see a text box next to Virginia’s face, saying: “The mystery is then not why they are empty, but why anyone would ever make such a vase.” The word balloon floating just above it reads, “Don’t tell your father.”
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art: Valentine De Landro
Colors: Cris Peter
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Status: #6 expected in January 2016
At this time last year, when Bitch Planet first hit the stands, it was unclear how well Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro could walk the line between subverting exploitation and actually being exploitative. The answer is, a lot better than anyone thought possible. Bitch Planet has more woman power and feminist cultural criticism than all the other books that came out this year combined. There isn’t a scene in the book that can’t be used to say “up yours” to patriarchy. The whole book is about weaponizing subjugated roles when it’s the only thing you have left and the only thing they won’t see coming. This leveraging of power is illustrated beautifully by Kamau Kogo’s six-page shower scene at the end of Bitch Planet #4. Kam is a natural leader, and captain of the prisoners’ megaton team.
At first, she is disgusted by women making out in the back shower room with a guard peeping through a hole in exchange for not telling. But then the other women make her see that it’s just another way to outsmart the guards. Kam’s a big, athletic woman who can still fit into an object-of-male-desire gestalt, just barely. In a moment of inspiration, she starts to perform in the shower for the guard. Then we watch her muscular naked body kick and flip around the room, wrenching free a pipe, smashing it through the wall, dragging the guard into the shower room, putting him in a chokehold, and telling him what she will require in exchange for not killing him. By turning her body from one kind of weapon into another, she smashes the safety of the watcher’s protected position.
Writer: Matt Fraction
Art: Christian Ward with Dee Cunniffe
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Status: #6 expected in January 2016
A woman who tries to run away becomes a powerful symbol in Ody-C #8. She is nameless and only exists on two pages, but she represents all the men, women, and children brutalized by a rape culture gone mad. Matt Fraction spins a tale of a pair of brother kings who rape and kill a new subject every night. One night a woman tries to run and is destroyed by “drunk and dreaming” men who chase her down like dogs in the street. Christian Ward draws her face in profile in cold blues, her eyes wide in terror and tears streaming back toward her ear. On the same page, we see a man watching the scene from above as she’s cornered in an alley.
Then we see her looking up as she’s dying, and the windows on the buildings are lit up, each one framing someone who is just watching. The men are haunted by what they’ve done and dig up the site of her grave. It’s not guilt that makes them do that—they are too far gone for that. They wouldn’t have thought twice about another girl killed. It’s that she happened to be descended from a god and her death had a ripple effect. When they dug up her grave, her bones have multiplied in the earth and the men are faced with a giant pit of bones. They are compelled to spend the rest of their lives piling up her bones in great towers, in a hell of their own making. Sometimes this book has been just a colorful romp across the universe, but other times it employs Ward’s stunning art to just rip our collective wound open.
Publisher: Dark Horse
Writer: Jamie S. Rich & Joelle Jones
Art: Joelle Jones
Colors: Laura Allred
Status: 5-issue mini-series, completed
Josie Schuller is a 1950s American housewife and a contract killer and there is never a moment in Lady Killer when she is free to be herself. She’s a woman spinning between two Hells, forever in costume. She’s beholden to the strictures of suburban society and to her underworld employers. Joelle Jones’s art is viciously beautiful and efficient as she marches this lethal pin-up girl through her paces. The aesthetics of line and color are relentless—the lipstick on Josie’s masklike face, the precise clothing of both of her worlds, the perfectly sweet interiors of her home. Colorist Laura Allred’s blocks of flat primaries and pastels bend to the service of her pops of red. Josie’s little blonde daughters are identical, creepy, and doll-like. Her mother-in-law is a heavy-handed crone. Her husband is a bland-faced cheer-monger who doesn’t see her or know her. He’s just a walking advertisement who expects dinner on the table at a reasonable time. She must conceal from all of them that she is being coerced into a sexy, cunning, murderous existence in which she forever acts as both bait and trap. It’s hard to read this book and see any compassion in the characters or the creators; it’s not written on the level of believable human feelings. Lady Killer is made up of calendar pages and magazine ads that stutter-step into the smooth choreography of Josie in kill mode.