Women in Comics Today: Ms. Marvel, Atomic Blonde, Monstress and Bitch Planet

Originally published on Bookwitty.com (now closed)

The box-office success of the Wonder Woman movie has created a massive wave of enthusiasm for film goers and comic book readers across the world, showing that placing a woman at the heart of a story – in an action movie nonetheless – is not only possible, but it's also about time this happened! Popular culture is still overwhelmingly male-oriented, and far too white, but with an array of talented writers and artists creating new characters and reinventing known ones, the focus on putting men first is shifting. Major characters no longer fit the white male model, but embrace the diversity of voices that exist within societies, away from stereotypical depictions; giving readers the opportunity to recognize their own experiences in all these characters’ stories.

Let’s look at four comic books from four different genres that all have women as their main protagonists: A Muslim Pakistani teenage superhero from New Jersey, a Cold War British spy working in Berlin right before the fall of the wall, a group of women sent to prison on another planet, and a fantasy epic set in a matriarchal war-thorn universe. These are fantastic characters and stories that will surely inspire readers across the globe.

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1
By G. Willow Wilson

Written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona, Ms Marvel is my favorite heroine. For the first time in my life, a major story was telling me, from page one: see, this could be your story too. That moment occurred when 16-year old Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American living in New Jersey, is standing in front of a sandwich shelf and starts smelling the greasy BLT she looks at longingly. No matter the level of piousness you grow up with, many Muslim families that I know and have befriended over the decades I spent growing up and living in Europe – including mine – forbid their children to eat pork. It is not the end of the world, and smelling bacon is allowed. It is typical for any teenager to long for something they cannot have, and this is one of the many character features we see in Kamala Khan. She is a high school student with shapeshifting abilities, and her parents don’t allow her to go out at night when most of the villains usually decide to strike, so while she has to battle the many petty restrictions most teenagers are facing regardless of the cultures they come from, Kamala is always caught between those and her need – and capacity – to save the world. She is not unlike Peter Parker in that sense, except that she is a young woman, she is Muslim, and she needs to have her own movie soon. 

The Coldest City
By Antony Johnston

Lorraine Broughton is one of the best agents of the British secret service. Strong, fast, and razor sharp, she is one of those people who were born to do the job they do. She is sent to Berlin just a few days before the fall of the Wall in order to get an important file. The graphic novel was first published under the title The Coldest City in 2012. Written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, it is now a feature film starring Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, aka Atomic Blonde. In an interview at the International Premiere of the film in Berlin, Johnston said that to him, writing a female action hero came naturally since he grew up watching Alien and being inspired by protagonists such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The idea of a female superhero never seemed strange to him and, as he says rightly, “it shouldn’t be strange and unusual”. The Coldest City/Atomic Blonde offers a fresh and unapologetic look at espionage fiction, a genre that has far too often been dominated by male characters. Looks like this is going to change.

Bitch Planet Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine
By Kelly Sue DeConnick

Created by Kelly Sue DeConnick, 2014 Best Writer Eisner Award nominee, and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet is set on an isolated planet that serves as a prison for “non-compliant” (NC) women. The prisoners tattooed with “NC” are sent to this planet run from Earth by – you have guessed it – men, to live their lives “in penitence and service”. In this dystopian world, Earth is under the authoritarian rule of the Council of Fathers, a group of men pretending to be priests, leading the world in a kind manner, while in reality they have created a dictatorship. Public attention is captivated by a sports game called “Megaton” and the Fathers decide to field an all-women team of convicts to compete, “to increase engagement” of the viewers. The expectation is that these women will be beaten, and possibly killed, by the professional, gladiatorial athletes of the sport. The women have different ideas, and while they build their Megaton team, we learn their stories. This comic book series deals with issues many readers across the globe will be familiar with: political oppression, women’s rights being taken away, violence against women, patriarchies deciding how the world should be and making anyone who decides differently – mostly women – pay the price.

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening
By Marjorie Liu

Written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, Monstress is an epic fantasy comics series that started in 2015. In this interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Liu explains that she “wanted to write about girls and monsters, which has been a theme of mine from almost the start of my career — girls and giant monsters, and the supernatural. I wanted to tell a story about war, and surviving war — and I wanted to set it all in an alternate Asia.” The main protagonist Maika is an escaped slave, and part of her journey is to try to find out who she is. The story is set in a war-torn matriarchal universe and the book very successfully explores themes such as racism, slavery, exploitation, and memory. It is a world full of strange creatures, which are gorgeously drawn in a manga-inspired style by Takeda. Monstress is another compelling read that makes you wonder why on earth did we wait so long to put women at the centre of our stories.