It may not surprise you to learn that essentially all of the original superheroines dreamt up during the '40s and '50s—including characters that would later become icons like Wonder Woman and Supergirl—were created by male writers and artists for a primarily male audience. And as with all art, since comics are a reflection of the time in which they are made, this occasionally led to some not-so-flattering portrayals of these first female superheroes.
In the '60s and '70s, though, thanks to second-wave feminism, we began to see some improvements to women's representation on the page. There was Marvel Girl's transformation into Phoenix (from the weakest to the strongest member of the X-Men) and founding Avengers member Wasp's sudden intellectual prowess. And despite the overwhelming lack of female creators and a perceived disinterest in comics from female readers, over time we've seen all kinds of inspiring female superheroes grace our comics, from disco queen Dazzler to former Wakandan queen Storm.
"Despite the overwhelming lack of female creators, over time we've seen all kinds of inspiring female superheroes grace our comics."
But just because we've come a long way since the days of "every woman is naturally the weakest member of her super-team," doesn't mean that the comic book industry (like, you know, most industries) has overcome its bent for sexism. For example, despite Marvel's mostly-successful push toward diversity and inclusivity, they once hired an erotica artist to draw a variant cover for the first issue of the new Spider-Woman. Not to mention when the current creative team on DC's New 52 Wonder Woman turned her into an infantilized, pouty bobblehead who was depicted carrying a teddy bear into battle. Not exactly the best way to bring lady readers on board.
For all their missteps in representation, though, major comic publishers are making big strides forward. Marvel in particular has a huge range of female-led titles at the moment: Thor! Spider-Gwen! Elektra! Black Widow! Gamora! Silk and Storm feature women of color; Angela: Asgard's Assassin has a trans woman in a major role. Also hugely important is the fact that many of these female-led comics have women on their creative teams, since diversity only *truly matters* if changes are occurring both in front and behind the page. That's to say nothing of the fact that all those comics are being spearheaded by IRL superhero Sana Amanat, Marvel's new Director of Content and Character Development.
So how are you to know which comics out there tick the lady-boxes you're looking for? And if you've never picked up a comic book in your life, where do you even begin? Below, a helpful ranking of the most feminist superheroes on the market, complete with easy-to-find starting points. You can pick up these trades (that's the term for a "book" of comics, usually comprised of about six single issues) at any major bookstore or online retailer these days—but I would recommend you do a quick search online and find your local comic book store.
#10: Carol Danvers
From: Captain Marvel. Where To Start: Captain Marvel Vol. 1 "Higher, Further, Faster, More," by Kelly Sue DeConnick and David Lopez (Marvel Comics)
Now, I might be a bit biased here because Captain Marvel is my favorite superhero, but Captain Marvel is the best superhero. Yeah, I said it. Even before she received her flight and energy-beam superpowers in an alien explosion, Carol Danvers was an Air Force pilot who could and probably would kick your butt. She lives in an apartment at the top of the Statue of Liberty, is best friends with Spider-Woman, and is one of the Avengers. In her most recent run, penned by sass-master Kelly Sue DeConnick, Carol jets off into space with her cat, Chewie (she's a big Star Wars fan, clearly) to keep an eye on the Avengers' cosmic affairs… and also on the Guardians of the Galaxy, who tend to get themselves into some trouble. She's one of the toughest women on Earth (and off it), and she's got a her own movie coming out in 2018—so if you start reading now, you can totally join the Carol Corps and be one of those hipsters who tells everyone that the movie just didn't live up to the comics.
One other amazing thing: Captain Marvel used to be a dude character, before Carol took over his powers. Now, she wears his exact same costume, no high heels or deep-V's added. She would roll her eyes at the very suggestion.
*Feminism Ranking: 3 Leslie Knope inspirational speeches*
From: Red Sonja. Where To Start: Red Sonja Vol. 1, "Queen of Plagues," by Gail Simone and Walter Geovanni (Dynamite Comics)
Red Sonja is the Viking warrior queen of your dreams, able to booze, bang, or brandish her sword at any moment with ease. Sonja's been around in various forms since 1934, almost a full decade before Wonder Woman lasso'd her way onto the scene, first in the pages of Conan and now in her own solo series. Current writer Gail Simone (one of the most talented and prominent female voices in comics) has described Sonja as "mayhem, blood, sex, and red hair," and "lusty, a bit of a drunkard [who] does what she wants, says what she wants, and if you give her any shit, it's entirely possible she'll slay you and your best friend and your best friend's cat." So, you know. She's pretty rad.
You can jump right into the current run of Sonja without any background knowledge, though, so don't worry—the story stands on its own. Plus, Walter Geovanni handles Sonja's classic metal beach-wear with aplomb; you won't be seeing any unnecessary cheeks or weird boob-and-butt twists in this run of Red Sonja. She rocks that bikini because it makes her feel hella fierce in battle, not because some dude happens to think she looks hot in it, and she won't let you forget it.
*Feminism Ranking: 4 Rosie the Riveter bandanas*
#8: Kate Kane
There's nothing worse than a female superhero who's all male gaze'd up with gratuitous crotch-shots and poses that are physically impossible if you have internal organs. Lucky for all of us, there's army brat Kate Kane, who would actually jump off the page and kick your face in with her very sturdy flat boots if you even tried to draw her like that. Forced to abandon her military career after she refuses to hide her sexuality, Kane uses her privilege as a moneyed socialite to take on a side gig as Batwoman, vigilante crime-fighter with the best hair in the Bat-family. We don't deserve a queer, ginger, Jewish superheroine, but we definitely need her. If all that Batman stuff has a little too much machismo for your liking, pick up Batwoman; it might be the most serious, adult cape comic on this list, but it keeps things interesting!
As an added bonus, Elegy writer Greg Rucka has eloquently taken down misogynists in the geek community with rants decrying the myth of the "Fake Geek Girl"—you know, when gatekeeping neckbeards act like women only like comics in order to impress men. Plus, the New 52 team of Williams and Blackman departed the book after twenty-four issues when DC decided they didn't want to see Kate marry her fiancée.
*Feminism Ranking: 4 Ellen Page tweets*
From: Saga. Where To Start: Saga Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
Alana might not think of herself as a superhero—she has no "powers" in the traditional sense—but I certainly do. Caught up on one side of an endless intergalactic war, Alana falls in love with Marko, and together they have a child (who narrates the book). But in the Romeo & Juliet-esque twist you may have seen coming, Marko is on the other side of the war, and together the three of them must go to great lengths in order to avoid the massive chaos their union has caused. Saga won Hugo, Eisner, and Harvey awards in 2013 for being so damn awesome, and it includes some of the best portrayals of women in comics of all time. None of them take anyone's crap—Alana least of all.
Saga is a true high-sci-fi graphic novel (people with TVs for heads having sex with each other and armless topless half-human half-spider hybrid ladies abound), but don't let that put you off; with beautiful art from Fiona Staples and an excellent story from one of the masters of comic writing, Brian K. Vaughan, the book is a true character study. At its heart, Saga is really just about two literal star-crossed lovers, fighting to save their little family from a war. And Alana will chop the hell out of you with her sword if you so much as glance wrong at Hazel, I swear.
*Feminism Ranking: 5 Princess Leia hair buns*
#6: Hannah, Violet, Dee, and Betty
From: Rat Queens. Where To Start: Rat Queens Vol. 1 "Sass and Sorcery," by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch (Image Comics)
Creator and writer Kurtis Wiebe has described Rat Queens as Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids, and that couldn't be more accurate. Basically, imagine if you and your three best friends found yourselves trapped in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, and you've got this 2014 Eisner Award winner for best new comic series.
The four foul-mouthed adventuresses are all unique in their own special ways: Hannah is a rockabilly necromancer with half-sleeves and a tendency to swing a little more Evil than Good; Violet is the dwarven warrior who shaved her beard before it was cool; Dee is the shy human cleric who's still trying to deal with her escape from that awkward Cthulhu-worshipping cult; and Betty is a hippie halfling thief/bartender who really, really loves getting high. Rat Queens passes the Bechdel Test on almost every page without pandering or proselytizing, and it's one of the few comics that will make you laugh out loud constantly. The Rat Queens might not give a damn what you think of them, but I know you're going to love them.
Feminism Ranking: 5 Dragon Age: Inquisition playthroughs
#5: Doreen Green
From: Squirrel Girl. Where To Start: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl issue 1, by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (Marvel Comics)
Squirrel Girl is ridiculous. She's just ridiculous! There's no getting around it. She's a girl with the equivalent physical powers of a squirrel, (yes, you read that correctly) and she can also talk to squirrels. The great thing about the current run of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is that writer Ryan North knows all this, and embraces Doreen's ridiculousness with all the love she deserves. Easily the funniest comic superhero comic out there right now (so many puns, it's nuts!), Squirrel Girl follows Doreen's adventures as she starts college with her pet squirrel Tippy Toe, like meeting her new knitting-obsessed roomie, signing up for clubs, crushing on cute boys, defeating Galactus—you know, the usual. Also, Doreen hides her conspicuous squirrel tail in the back of her pants, which Erica Henderson uses to her advantage by drawing Squirrel Girl in the most body-positive, bootylicious way possible. "I like to draw heartier super ladies, if their powers are mostly physical, because I feel like I shouldn't be able to take down a super hero by sitting on her," Henderson said. Preach.
Comic history bonus time: Back in 2005, Squirrel Girl single-handedly defeated Thanos—you know, big scary purple Josh Brolin from Guardians of the Galaxy—with squirrels. Never underestimate Squirrel Girl, friends.
*Feminism Ranking: 6 Single Ladies hand-dances*
#4: Barbara Gordon
From: Batgirl. Where To Start: Batgirl Vol. 1 "The Batgirl of Burnside," by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr (DC Comics, out May 27, 2015)
After recovering from a spinal injury that left her paralyzed for three years, Barbara Gordon has just graduated from college with a degree in forensic psychology and is living the typical early-twenties life in Burnside, Gotham's very own version of Brooklyn. Sorry, did I say typical? I meant that she's trying to navigate the waters of having a normal life while also attempting to bring down a psychopath with a revenge porn ring so twisted it will make you want to set up two-step verification on every account you have, immediately. Babs rocks the most functional crime-fighting outfit ever seen in comics (Doc Martens! A leather jacket! A snap-off cape!), and she's not scared to snap a selfie post-smackdown. She's you, if you just also happened to have an eidetic memory and a black belt.
As a bonus, the book's current creative team is outspoken in their love for feminism and diversity in comics, and they responded incredibly well to some recent controversy over their representation of trans characters (which, while imperfect, shows they're trying and listening to communities traditionally under-represented in comics). Plus, Babs Tarr's art makes the Burnside crew look like they belong in the next episode of Broad City. If you're looking to pick up your first DC cape book, I recommend waiting a few months for the first Burnside trade—and then you'll be hooked for life. (Mwahaha.)
*Feminism Ranking: 7 Mallory Ortberg articles*
#3: Buffy Summers
From: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Where To Start: Buffy Season Eight Vol. 1 "The Long Way Home," by Joss Whedon and Georges Jeanty (Dark Horse Comics)
"Wait," I can hear you say through your screen, "didn't Buffy end after seven seasons way back in 2003?" So you might think—if you limit yourself to the medium of television—but you would in fact be mistaken. Buffy paved the way for badass women on-screen in the late '90s (the era of timeless fashion), and she continues to be just as pioneering and perky in comic books today. The first volume of Buffy Season Eight picks up not long after the series finale and continues to tell the story of all your Buffy faves, including Xander, Willow, Giles, and Faith (…and even Dawn, ugh).
Whedon has admitted that, without the restraints of a small-screen VFX budget, they may have gone a bit off the deep end, creatively (at one point, Dawn becomes a centaur? It's weird), but doesn't everyone want to see what Buffy Summers would have done with her life after leaving the remains of Sunnydale? And have Buffy go on and on and never end? Thanks to the miracle of comics, we get just that: they're currently in the midst of Buffy season ten. Yes, our favorite '90s feminist icon can live forever.
*Feminism Ranking: 9 lesbian witches*
From: Sex Criminals. Where To Start: Sex Criminals Vol. 1, "One Weird Trick," by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (Image Comics)
For some people, it might feel like time metaphorically stops when you have sex; but for Suze, it literally does. Whenever she achieves the big O, everything freezes, and Suze can wander freely around what she calls "The Quiet." When she meets Jon and discovers he can do the exact same thing (though trust me when I tell you his name for "the Quiet" is a lot more on-the-nose), they decide to sexploit their newfound powers as a couple to do what you'd normally do with time-stopping powers: drop a stinky gift in your awful boss's potted plant, take epically long baths, and rob banks. (Wait…) But Suze and Jon aren't the only people who can find their way to The Quiet—the Sex Police, led by one Kegel Face, are after them, and our intrepid couple have to find their way out of some pretty unsexy trouble.
Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky are comedic masters, and Suze's narration is completely natural and relatable. Sure, the book is vulgar, but not in the ways you might think. Plus, the end of every volume of Sex Criminals comes with a series of sex tips, including helpful hints like "Nipple clamps are excellent for keeping nipples in place," "Butt stuff," and "Have sex with me please." Nailed it.
*Feminism Ranking: 10 Laci Green videos*
#1: Kamala Khan
From: Ms. Marvel. Where To Start: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 "No Normal," by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (Marvel Comics)
Kamala Khan has changed the face of superhero comics forever. A fifteen-year-old Muslim Pakistani American girl in Jersey City, Kamala obsesses over the Avengers (her fanfic is doing really well online, guys), finds her strict parents tough to deal with, and struggles to fit in like any other teen. After sneaking out to a party one night, Kamala finds herself engulfed in a mysterious fog that bestows upon her epic powers of shape-shifting and healing. She grows into her powers (heh) as she grows into her own self, learning what it means to be "super" in more ways than one. And she still has to go to high school. Ugh.
Ms. Marvel is written by G. Willow Wilson (an actual Muslim woman, hooray), and is full of hilarious, you-spend-half-your-life-on-the-internet references that will have you falling in love with Kamala before you can say, "Wow, such superhero, very inhuman." Watch her fangirl over Wolverine in-person, start on her journey of self-discovery, and fight for the reputation of an entire generation, all while trying to heed advice from her parents and religious leaders.
*Feminism Ranking: 10 Emma Watson speeches at the UN*
Sam Maggs is an Associate Editor for The Mary Sue and was named "Awesome Geek Feminist of the Year" by Women Write About Comics. Her first book, The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy, will be published by Quirk Books this May. Talk to her on Twitter @SamMaggs.