There are many ways we can envision women’s liberation if we try. Since we total more than half of the world’s population, our experiences as women intersect with almost every other struggle against systemic oppression. The lessons learned are personal and political. Tapping into this well can sometimes seem like an infinite journey: where does one start? Well, with comics, of course! Here are 19 female comic book characters that you need to know about, whether you prefer your heroines fist-swinging, biographical, or of whimsical fantasy. All have earned our respect and adoration!
Contributions by Kate Barton, Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, and Nicole Marie Burton
Somewhere in rural India, a young girl named Priya turns to the goddess Parvati for help after her life is torn apart by gender-based discrimination and violence. Hiding in the jungle after being rejected by her family, Priya is approached by Parvati, who tells her that she has the power to follow in the footsteps of India’s history of revolutionary women, showing her images of the Gulabi Gang and women who protested for India’s independence. The people in Priya’s village aren’t so quick to mock her when she returns, riding on an enormous tiger and preaching the virtues of gender equality. With the guidance of Parvati and other prominent figures in the Hindu pantheon, Priya sets out on a journey to spread her message to all of humanity.
Priya’s Shakti is currently fundraising to reach a broader audience. You can check out their crowdfunding page for more information!
2. Ma Hunkel, from The Red Tornado
Although her place as the world’s first female superhero is in dispute, The Red Tornado (or Ma Hunkel, as she is also known) broke other barriers in 1939, and would aptly be hailed as a progressive comic book character to this day. Like many women of her time in the 1930s, she was a working mother: her first costume consisted of some altered long-johns, a mask, and a frying pan. But like many women who devote their lives to their families and communities, she carried selflessness and a disdain for injustice in her core. And WHAT a core! Drawn as a muscular, fuller-figured woman, she disrupted gender norms by celebrating her size as a weapon of strength against evil-doers, and by dressing up as men for disguises. So if she doesn’t quite hit the mark for first super heroine, the award for first cross-dressing superhero still sits on her mantel. Hats off to Ma Hunkel: she’s earned it.
3. Scout Montana, from Shadoweyes
Shadoweyes, AKA Scout Montana, is a gothed-out, perpetually grumpy queer black teenager with bad asthma and a pressing social conscience. A shelter worker by day and shape-shifting superhero by night, Scout roams the dystopian streets of a fictional city called Dranac with her best friend Kyisha. Scout may be a powerful, ass-kicking supernatural being, but she’s also very human- she doesn’t have the rippling muscles or Barbie-doll build of traditional superheroines, and the first time she actually tries to fight injustice she gets smoked in the forehead with a brick. Like Campbell’s other works, Shadoweyes is centred around the lives of young queer women and features a beautifully rendered array of different body types, hues, and abilities.
4. Kamala Khan, from ‘Ms. Marvel‘
Ms. Marvel’s latest incarnation is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager from Jersey City, and thanks to a strong readership that has once again proven that the mainstream comics industry has a lot of catching up to do in terms of diversification, the entire universe is now aware of her awesomeness. Kamala engages in conflicts with super-villains as well as more personal struggles. In many ways, Kamala is a realistic teen: she enjoys superhero culture and writes Avenger fan fiction; she is conflicted by what her parents expect from her, and feels the impact of coming from a Muslim family in a majority non-Muslim community. When given polymorphic powers, she grapples with whether she truly wants them, offering dialogue on rejecting the prospect of losing one’s true ‘self’. The narrative also echoes of a common theme for children from immigrant families, where one struggles in accepting the privileges that weren’t available to generations before them. Marvel’s first headlining Muslim character relays religion as a positive, helpful guide, creating space for religion within the superhero comic genre, as well as representing Islam in a manner that challenges oppressive media depictions found elsewhere. The power of this kind of imagery in popular culture was exemplified masterfully in a recent guerrilla posting of Kahn over top of anti-Islam bus ads in San Fransisco, much to the delight of the internet.
5. Alysia Yeoh, from Batgirl
Although Alysia is only a supporting character in Batgirl, her mere existence as a transgender person is an anomaly in the world of mainstream comics, and that in and of itself deserves a mention. The artsy young bartender and self-described activist is Barbara Gordon’s roommate after the heroine moves out of her dad’s house, and ends up dating her brother, James Gordon Jr. Unlike other trans characters who have appeared in mainstream comics in the past, Alysia’s persona isn’t laden with stereotypes. With her choppy black hair and downplayed style, she doesn’t conform to the image of hyper-femininity which is often expected of trans women. The fact that she’s trans isn’t tied to a superpower or other supernatural intervention, which has been the case with past comic characters who have switched genders, such as Sir Tristan from Camelot 3000 or Shvaughn Erin from Legion of Superheroes. Other characters are not constantly questioning her gender, as is the case with Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, and unlike Wanda she also does not need to die a tragic death to serve the plot. In a world where the media is crowded with stereotypical and dehumanizing portrayals of trans women, the fact that Alysia is just a cool, likeable young woman who likes painting in her free time and dreams of becoming a chef is pretty groundbreaking.
6. Stephie, from Assigned Male
Stephie, the cute-as-a-button protagonist of the independent webcomic Assigned Male is a grade school-age girl who speaks with the vocabulary of a womens’ studies major, and vehemently refuses to take any flack from parents, peers, or society at large about the fact that she’s transgender. Caught between a well-meaning yet sometimes misguided mother and a clueless, insecure father, Stephie’s everyday woes highlight the diverse issues faced by trans people in general, and trans women and girls in particular. The fact that Stephie speaks with an adult voice yet still has the desires, interests, and naivety of a child highlights how aggressive and unnecessary enforced gender expectations are. Her perspective challenges the reader to see a world which is not yet coloured by mainstream social mores; when we strip away the assumptions and cynicism of our conditioning, cis-normativity seems just as sad and illogical as many of the other things which adults take for granted without stopping to question why.
7. Qahera, from ‘Qahera‘
“I can hear it–the sound of misogynistic TRASH!” That first statement in the first installment of Qahera pretty much sums up what Qahera is all about. On one end of the comic book industry, there is a struggle for the female characters who already exist within largely male-constructed narrative universes to be more complex and less a mere portrayal of sexy body parts. And yet, on another side of this is the push for more content–whatever it may be–from female comics creators, whatever their stories or experiences. One thing I love so much about Quahera is that she actually is a pretty one-dimensional character, but that dimension of kicking patriarchy’s ass is pretty, well, ass-kicking! Qahera also challenges Western/white notions of what it means to be a feminist, by showing that the hijab, like other clothing, is a cultural and religious choice and should not flag an individual for scrutiny any more than any other article of clothing. Quahera dons her hijab and dark robes, and proceeds to prowl the streets of Egypt, hunting down male privilege, wherever and however is may arise. Qahera reminds us that diversifying comics is about diversifying creators as much as characters. We can learn a lot from her short adventures!
8. Tefé Holland, from Swamp Thing
Tefé Holland came into being when her father, the earth Elemental known as Swamp Thing, possessed the body of the occultist John Constantine, so that he and his human wife Abby could conceive a child. Tefé is a supernatural being like her father, but being born into a partially human body gives her the ability to control both plant life and flesh. After a long estrangement, Abby reunites with Tefé to find that she has been using her powers to punish humans for their destruction of the natural world. While Abby herself often has to depend of Swamp Thing for protection, Tefé is more powerful than her father. Among other things, she uses her powers to create gory punishments for those who harm the Earth and at one point comes back from the dead to kill her abusive ex boyfriend, who she later replaces with a female lover.
9. Julie Winters, from The Maxx
A tough yet compassionate do-gooder by nature, Julie Winters is a freelance social worker who sticks up for the vagrant population of the dystopian city which she calls home. Her companion, The Maxx, is a quasi-human street person with a lampshade for a head who she often has to rescue from trouble. Julie has a curvaceous yet realistic physique, and often expresses anxiety over her body image. Usually drawn in a tiny crop-top and some ripped up bluejeans, the fact that she has some stomach chub but still dresses revealingly is seldom seen in comics, or mainstream media in general. Julie is also a rape survivor, and one of the main villains in the series is a serial rapist named Mr. Gone, who is capable of telepathically invading the alternate reality which Julie escapes into to deal with her trauma. Julie’s character is groundbreaking in the sense that it humanizes survivors of gender violence, and offers a portrayal which goes beyond the stereotype of victimhood.
10. Equinox, from Justice League United
When DC Comics artist Jeff Lemire learned about the untimely death of Shannen Koostachin, a teenage Cree activist from the Attawapiskat First Nation of Northern Ontario, he felt inspired to create a superhero based on her legacy. Equinox, whose real name is Miiyahbin Marten, is drawn in a blue, black, and white outfit reminiscent of the regalia which Koostachin is wearing in a popular picture of her. Equinox’s powers are based on the seasons, and she has the ability to defeat powerful evil beings by shouting “Keewahtin”, which can be loosely translated as meaning “Northern blizzard”, and creating a blast of blue energy. While Equinox seeks the help of the Justice League in order to learn about and control her powers, she also depends on the traditional knowledge and guidance of her beloved grandparents. Justice League is attempting to avoid the “cookbook” style of creating diversity in comics (“Diversity: Just add people of colour!”) and is actually working to make Equinox’s character the sum of her experience and cultural heritage. We just hope that her character doesn’t fall down the well-worn rabbit hole of indigenous comic book characters designed by settlers.
11. Erika Moen of Oh Joy! Sex Toy!
Okay, so, Erika Moen is both a character in comics and IRL! But let’s not forget that her illustrated identity, appearing every Tuesday at Oh Joy Sex Toy! does so much to teach us about feminist approaches to relationships and sexual health. Something that makes this web series so important for the genre is that the comic industry has traditionally suffered from sporadic yet pervasive plagues of overt sexualization of female characters. With sex underpinning so much of the female form, how is it that these comics rarely (if ever) touch on any meaningful conversations about healthy sexuality? This problem has created something of a stereotype in feminism that women, and feminists in particular, don’t like sex (WTF, right?) when in fact, we may love sex but question its depiction as simply a mechanical or male-driven act. As feminists, we want our sexual identities to be on our terms, as something that empowers us. With her work in this field, Erika Moen takes on a subject that resists rudimentary generalizations (we’re all different when it comes to our preferences and discomforts), Moen has carefully balanced education with inclusiveness, which means there’s plenty of room for humor and fun! Understanding our bodies and our emotional needs is essential for having healthy sexuality, and healthy sexuality is a big step toward having healthy, fulfilling lives.
12. Alison Bechdel, from ‘Fun Home’, and ‘Are You My Mother?’
Alison Bechdel is a lesbian American cartoonist, with her primary work being the syndicated feminist comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For that ran from 1987 to 2008. Her graphic memoirs Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012) represent the intersections of her personal and familial narratives — the first focusing on her father, and the second, her mother. While dissecting the tangles of her relationships with her parents, the memoirs reveal Bechdel as a deeply reflexive, intellectual character. Bechdel’s self-representation depicts a woman who has a rich inner life, remaining a relatable character thanks to her humble wit peppering serious subject matter. In an increasingly anti-intellectual climate, Bechdel offers a refreshingly expansive analysis of how families affect our identities and how we engage with the world.
13. She Hulk
It can be frustrating as all Hell to revisit some classic comic book characters that you considered revolutionary, only to be… slightly disapointed. I recently looked into the background of Big Barda (who I love for her size and strength) only to discover that she was modeled after a photograph in Playboy magazine. A lot of female comic book characters have similarly disappointing origins, filling X-chromosome quotas in a universe’s character board. But of all of them, I wanted to take a moment to talk about She-Hulk. The name would have you easily dismiss this character as yet another “girl version” of an already established Marvel or DC character. As the cousin of Bruce Banner, Jennifer Walters certainly was an echo of another character when her story began. But unlike most superheroes who hide their true identities during their meh day jobs, She-Hulk embraces both identities. In addition to her super-strength, She-Hulk battles crime with her ideas in New York City’s district attorney office. Her cases form the backdrop of many issues, as she takes on criminal activity in the city.
Like most mainstream comic superheroines, She-Hulk was the creation of male industry writers. Big Barda, Storm, and so many others fall in to this category. But their legacy is not so much their sensational back stories or one-dimensional dialogue as the memories we have of them from our childhoods: these strong, intelligent and assertive women were nonetheless an improvement against the backdrop of other characters we learned about as children: damsels in distress and princesses who waited for a prince to marry them.
14. Marjane Satrapi, from ‘Persepolis‘ (Books 1 and 2)
As you’ve probably noticed by now, we feel like some of the strongest female characters in comics are as strong and multidimensional as they are because they’re largely autobiographical in nature! In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (referred to as Marji in the comic) articulates a complex identity beautifully–of growing up as a girl who speaks her mind in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and later seeking asylum in Europe where she not only has to confront patriarchal norms, but also people’s xenophobia and Orientalist views towards her. Marji’s family raised her to be critical of the state, but nonetheless fear for her safety as she resists the Guardians of the Revolution’s policing of decadence and modesty. The comic’s high-contrast ink style lends itself to the rigidity of public atmosphere under regime, but also Marji’s perceptive clarity as a narrator. Though she often does not have all the answers to what is occurring around her, her convictions to be herself and resist assimilation persevere in nearly every event that unfolds.
15. Naima Pepper, from ‘(H)Afrocentric’
Naima Pepper is one of the main characters of (H)Afrocentric, a comic that follows a group of undergrads of colour through their time at Ronald Reagan University. The comic describes its characters as each representing political archetypes, navigating issues of identity and gentrification. Naima Pepper self-identifies as a radical black feminist, and works through the various contradictions in her own life while actively ranting to her friends about racism, apathy, and gentrification. Naima is a strong representation of the critical, politicized undergrad that seeks to resist and overcome the oppressions brought about by white supremacist power structures, not frequently seen elsewhere in the comics medium
16. Kimberly “Skim” Keiko Cameron, from ‘Skim’
Cousins Mariko and Jilian Tamaki’s ‘Skim‘ follows Japanese Canadian, Wiccan teen Kim, as she lets the reader in on her struggle of being different, unrequited love, and depression. The nickname “Skim” is thrusted upon her by schoolmates, a play on her name and also a reference to her, comparatively, not being as slim as the others. Kim shows strength in her introversion, by quietly maintaining independence in her opinions and desires, as well as perseverance through feelings of isolation. This is relevant to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by their emotional situation, Kim’s commentary on high school life adds another clear voice to the “coming-of-age tale” genre.
17. Suzie, from Sex Criminals
Suzie is a cute, nerdy, indie-rock-looking librarian who has the strange ability to freeze time whenever she has an orgasm. When she hooks up with a guy named John who has the same mysterious ability, they naturally conspire to use their powers to wreak havoc upon the world, starting with a bank heist to save her under-funded library. Although her superpower is sexual in nature, Suzie doesn’t come off as a hyper-sexualized character, and her appearance and behaviour don’t cater to mainstream standards of feminine attractiveness. She rocks her nerd-girl style with pride, and has no problem telling John to fuck off if he’s being annoying. Combined with her brash sense of humour and general lack of inhibitions, Suzie is a female figure who’s capable of being brazenly sexual on her own terms, without it detracting from the other facets of her complex and well-rendered character.
18. Michelle, from Rent Girl
‘Rent Girl’ is an autobiographical graphic novel by Michelle Tea about her experiences as a young, counter-cultural lesbian woman working as an escort in San Francisco. Beautifully illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin, ‘Rent Girl’ challenges stereotypes of sex workers on a number of levels. Michelle neither loves nor hates her job; she doesn’t consider it to be an empowering or necessarily feminist act, but she also isn’t a victim. Sex work serves as the colourful backdrop to her day-to-day trials and tribulations, including ex-girlfriend drama, social alienation, and searching for meaning as a young queer woman in an urban environment. Because sex work is neither her burden nor her embodiment, Michelle helps folks outside of the field break through the stigmas and even the more positive stereotypes to see that sex workers, like all workers, are so much more than their services or labour.
19. Death, from the Sandman Chronicles
Finally, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the personification of Death is drawn as a moon-faced, eyeliner-laden goth chick with voluminously teased black hair, a classic 80’s death-rock style reminiscent of Siouxie Sioux, and a nearly constant cheerful disposition. The second child in a family of immortal beings who personify various archetypes, Death is often portrayed as being more powerful than her siblings, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Her character departs from the classic Western image of death as a fearsome, skeletal male figure with a dark robe and a scythe. Death is always genial and funny, and shows compassion for the souls who she guides from this world into the next. She is present when people pass away, but also when they are born. Her almost maternal-seeming nature can be interpreted as a nod to age-old archetypes, from Kali to Mab, of female deities who personify not only the destructive force of death, but also its regenerative power and necessity in the balance of the universe.