MANILA, Philippines – I was never one of those girls who grew up reading her older brother’s comics collection, probably because I didn’t have an older brother (or any older cousins, or nerdy uncles) from whom to absorb geek culture. And yet, comics inevitably found me — in high school, beginning with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, then other classic Vertigo titles. I eventually found my way to traditional superheroes via the more acclaimed Batman story arcs. These days, I keep a pull list at Comic Odyssey that is fast becoming the cause of my financial ruin. (Thanks, guys. By the way, do you still have Descender?)
I suppose it makes sense. Comics have always been a big part of outsider culture, and that’s what I have always been: an outsider. Most of us who latch onto comics (and alternative music, as it was referred to back in the day — the word “alternative” itself is pretty telling) do so because we’re looking for something to identify with. The very nature of superheroes is otherness, and if you need a glaring example, look no further than the X-Men, in comics then and now.
We look for reflections of ourselves wherever we can in popular culture, and for those of us who are especially different, oddly enough it’s superheroes that come closest. Isolated by how singular they are, how unlike everyone else they are — we can relate to that. Making a difference in spite of that difference.
But as a younger girl (who grew up more on DC than Marvel because of Batman: The Animated Series), I found it so difficult to identify with female superheroes. Batman was my favorite, because even though I have never been and will never be a caped crusader, he was the closest thing to real that you could find in the Justice League, a symbol of what a human is capable of, I guess, given the will and the wealth.
Wonder Woman, despite her being female, never resonated with me. She still felt like a male superhero archetype, except dressed in a leotard and with much nicer hair. And boobs. She was too mythical, she was too magical; she was, in some ways, too distant. She wasn’t realistic enough to be real to me. (Though it was this mythic quality that drew me to Brian Azzarello’s take on the character with the New 52 relaunch — it was like a retelling of Greek myth, and I love that stuff. His 35-issue run humanized Diana as a character and that made her more real to me.)
I tried to look for myself in fictional females wherever I could, but even in outsider culture like comics, that was very difficult to do. Barbara Gordon — especially when she became Oracle — came pretty close, but so many of the prominent superheroines still conformed to a stereotype. I’d never be that physically fit. I’d never be that white, or that blonde. While I can certainly appreciate the “girl power” aspect of being an ass-kicking heroine, I’ve always just been a girl. My conflicts are more internal; I have nemeses that can’t be fought with lassos of truth or canary cries — where were the heroines? Well, they showed up a little late, in places unexpected.
It’s impossible to bring up the new breed of heroine without mentioning Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. When I first heard mention of the new Ms Marvel, and that she would be a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager, I thought to myself, I need to buy this. It’s probably not going to last, but I need it. It seemed a risky step in a new direction, and I wanted to see where it would go. Women are underrepresented enough as it is, but to go that niche, that specific, that minority? I needed to read it to know if it would turn out to be what I hoped it would be, or if it was just a marketing ploy to pander to all of us who have been whining for more relatable female characters.
It was the former. Yes, Kamala Khan develops superpowers over the course of the first issue, and yes, her adventures are enjoyable — there’s an arc with Wolverine that’s charming and hilarious — but what keeps Ms. Marvel on my pull list is the stuff that happens in between. Kamala Khan is essentially the average teenage girl, albeit one with stricter parents and more rules to follow than I ever did (though this in itself was so relatable, for someone who grew up very sheltered herself). She’s a girl with the same issues as any other girl. She’s not depicted as being particularly traditionally good-looking. She’s got all that teenage angst going on. She has boy trouble. She’s navigating a social structure that isn’t exactly built to accommodate her. And the best thing about her is that, despite her being (SPOILER ALERT) an Inhuman, she’s so thoroughly, refreshingly, relatably human.
We have heroines like Young Avengers’ and Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop, Bruce Wayne-esque in that she’s rich and that she uses her father’s resources to improve herself as a fighter, but plucky, snarky, and smart. We have comics like Gotham Academy (set in a boarding school in Gotham City), with its heroine Olive Silverlock and her friends and frenemies, its teen drama, its mystery, and its ever-thickening plot. We have the new take on Batgirl (with elements of Veronica Mars, Girls and Sherlock, according to one of its writers), but more importantly, on Batgirl’s costume, which is refreshingly realistic for once. Did anyone think it was actually possible to do major martial arts in the heels they’ve been putting on our heroines for all these years? Batgirl’s redesign is everything — a leather jacket and yellow Docs, a cape that snaps off (because Edna Mode demonstrated the impracticality of such in The Incredibles) — none of the skintight, one-piece spandex; what a grad student moonlighting as a sleuthing vigilante would actually wear. And that’s just the Big Two, Marvel and DC. There are even more relatable women in Vertigo and Image Comics’ titles.
Women may not make up the greater majority of regular comics readers, not yet. I texted my favorite comics pusher to ask about statistics, and he said that female customers make up only 15 to 20 percent of the total on their weekly pull list — meaning, only this percentage are females who make weekly reservations, but that the shop is getting more and more female walk-ins these days, indicating a growing interest in comics among our demographic. But has the weak female showing over the years been our fault? It’s only now that they’re finally telling our stories, too. It seems publishers have finally come to realize that we’re out there, and that we want these stories, and as someone who has spent half her life in this world, I’m excited to see where it’s going next.