With the release of Captain Marvel this week, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a topic that has been a hot button issue for many fans over the years, female inclusion in comics. Both Marvel and DC have some great female characters that have become mainstays in their franchises; Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Captain Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Jessica Cruz Green Lantern and Thor (yes, Thor is a woman now) are all amazing female characters that have not really received their time in the spotlight. Wonder Woman received a phenomenal film directed by Patty Jenkins starring Gal Gadot; Harley Quinn was in the Suicide Squad portrayed by the amazing Margot Robbie; and now Captain Marvel is making her big screen debut starring Brie Larson. The only problem is that all of these films are very recent, as in within the past 6 years, which is a huge issue. There have been female led comic book movies in the past but they were few and far between and most were not well received. Women have been present in comics for decades and they’re only now being recognized as equal members of their respective universes? Why? I can’t answer for the past, but their modern inclusion has a lot to do with the movement of society to recognize women as equals. Which goes in part with the second (and probably the the bigger deciding factor, for studios at least) female heroes are becoming more and more popular, which in turn… means more money. And everyone loves money…
This week I’m going to dive into the evident lack of female characters and how that’s changing in big ways.
THE OLD DAYS
It’s not a secret as to what exactly female characters were used for in comics before the modern push of equality. With the exception of a few, like Wonder Woman or Susan Storm, they were mostly relegated into one of either two camps: 1. Eye candy for the male readers or 2. Love interests for the male superheroes. Let’s take a look at the DC Superheroine Power Girl as an example of the first camp.
Power Girl is a Kryptonian from an alternate reality. She is the cousin to Superman and goes by the name of Kara Zor-L. She is for all intents and purposes the alternate version of the main Earth Supergirl. She is known for having a busty figure along with a very skin tight, long sleeved unitard with a gaping hole on her chest. She first appeared in 1976 and was drawn by artist Wally Wood. When he first began work on her title, Wood was not happy with being relegated from a position he really wanted to work on Power Girl. He noticed that most of the editors weren’t even paying attention to the things he submitted, so he began to draw Power Girl with increasing cleavage size each issue to see how long it would take to get noticed. Power Girl grew in popularity and it took about 8 issues before someone finally commented on the size of her chest, at which point Wood stopped expanding her assets. She remained as her busty well known version for many years and became a sort of hallmark for female figures in comics. Eventually, in 1992 in an issue of Justice League Europe, Power Girl explains why she chose her revealing costume (the skin tight unitard with the “boob window”); she actually responded with a very body positive and progressive response “[It] shows what I am: female, healthy. If men want to degrade themselves by staring, that’s their problem, I’m not going to apologize for it. ” Despite some artists changing her costume and trying to draw her in more realistic proportions, the changes never seem to pan out. These changes are always met with criticism by fans and she’s always restored to her large chested unitard wearing self.
Any good story has a love interest, it’s a fact. The Godfather, Inception, Departed, Star Wars, Big Lebowski, even The Lion King all have love stories as apart of their overall narratives. Romance can help to serve as a resonant point for fans and allow them to connect to the material through either personal experiences or personal desires. The only issue with including romances in the likes of comics is that for a LONG time, most of the main characters were males. This didn’t automatically mean that all female characters have to be relegated to love interests, but looking at the demographic of the readers, they were. There are a lot of female comic fans, but the male readers far outweigh them and as such, the Publishers cater to the largest fan base. This meant having women with unrealistic body proportions relegated to love interests and damsels in distress. There is no one company that did this, Image, DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse are all guilty of the same thing. Sue Storm, Mary Jane Watson, Janet Van Dyne, Star Fire, Carol Ferris, even Lois Lane were all secondary characters that were meant to be love interests for their male hero counterparts despite being some of the smartest and strongest women in comics. Hell, Carol Ferris literally became a supervillain because of her love interest, Hal Jordan Green Lantern, and their on again off again romance. I’m all for a good love story if it’s done properly, but I’m not a fan of taking either established female heroes/characters or making new ones specifically to be a love interest. It’s 2019, come on.
LACK OF FEMALE CHARACTERS
This goes hand in hand with the previous point of love interests. There was/is a disturbing lack of female characters in mainstream comics. For years, the only female member of the Justice League was Wonder Woman until they added Black Canary in 1969. Janet Van Dyne/Wasp was included in the initial roster of the Avengers but she was relegated to secondary fiddle to her husband, Hank Pym/Ant-Man. Now I will say that the Avengers did always include at least one if not two female members, but again, they VERY RARELY ever took center stage and were normally always tied up in some sort of love plot. One of the most popular female characters in modern comics, Harley Quinn, started as a sidekick/love interest to the Joker in the Batman Animated Series. Since her introduction in the show, she has grown massively in popularity and has her own comic line. As a former psychologist, her comics lean heavy into her battle with her own mental issues, her acknowledgement of these issues and her working to make herself healthy.
One of the major pushes in the last few years to bring gender equality into comics actually came from Marvel with their introduction of a female Thor. Thor Odinson, as an Asgardian, is veritably ageless, so the only way to have him stop being The God of Thunder was to kill him or have him lose his power. Marvel didn’t want to kill off one of their more powerful and popular characters, so they did what I think was the best thing, and had him lose his power. The inscription on his hammer reads “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor”, and in support of the modern feminist movement had Jane Foster, Thor’s former lover and terminal cancer patient, pick the hammer up and assume the title of Thor God of Thunder. Thor has gone on to have some great adventures, was asked to join the Avengers, and even made the ultimate sacrifice to protect Midgard. She was since brought back by Unworthy Thor and Odin because they felt she deserved another chance.
As I said, there has been a large influx of prominent female characters in comics but they’re not all being given their own titles. Sure we have the staples like Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Spider-Gwen; but most are still just background characters. In the MarvelNOW! publications, they had an amnesiac named Tamara Devoux assume the title of Captain Universe when the unipower made it’s way to her and chose her as its avatar. She had been in a coma for 10 years and had no memory of how she came to be in that state before becoming the embodiment of the universe itself. She became one of the most powerful forces in Marvel Comics and she wasn’t given her own title? Really? Come on…
In recent years, major and independent comic companies alike have made a huge push for gender equality in their published works. While the top individual comic sales are predominantly male centered titles like: Batman, Action Comics, Amazing Spider-Man, Venom, and Return of Wolverine; the top 10 most purchased graphic novels and collections of 2018 feature a large amount of female led titles. Of the top 10 graphic novels in 2018, 5 of them featured women in lead roles. Saga, which earned itself 3 spots in the list is an epic space fantasy series published by Image Comics. In fact, all of the top graphic novels of 2018 are published from the same company, Image comics. Saga is the story of two characters on opposite sides of a galactic war that find love and risk all odds to raise a child that could end the conflict. It has received amazing reviews with Comixology giving it a 5/5 as well as Comicbook Roundup giving it a 9/10. It won a total of 13 awards from 2013 to 2018 with several others going to Fiona Staples for her artwork and to Brian K. Vaughan for his writing.
Not only are we seeing more female led comic titles, but there are more and more female creators being added to existing titles as well. Creators like Kelly Thompson, Gail Simone, Seanan McGuire & Joëlle Jones are all making huge strides in the industry and delivering some great content that fans love. Margaret Stohl has been working on Captain Marvel since 2016 and her work has been regarded as some of the best the character has seen since G. Willow Wilson created her. Wilson is actually currently heading up the run of Wonder Woman for DC Comics and has been killing it with her stories in their Rebirth initiative.
For those who might not be interested in the print form, we are also seeing a large influx of female led movies and female created movies. Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins was one of the best comic book movies in the past 10 years and her highly anticipated sequel should garner just as much praise. We are finally getting a Captain Marvel movie which releases tonight across North America starring Brie Larson who made news recently by calling for more equality in the interviewer selections by the press for their exclusive film interviews. We are also getting another addition to the DC Comics movie universe with Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) which just finished principal photography and is going into full production mode very shortly.
Despite the strides studios have made recently, we are still a far way away from true equality in comics and comic media. We need to purchase more female led/created content so that the studios realize that that type of material is not only wanted, but highly sought after. Hopefully soon, we can get the studios to update their some of their archaic thinking and move towards the elimination of gender disparity in comics.
That’s all for this week! See you next week!