The Evolution of Women in Comics

When I was younger, I would frequent bookstores. I lived in a small town, so the only bookstore we had was a small Bookworld. Even with the limited selection of books available, I enjoyed frequenting the shop to pick up bi-weekly or monthly comics. Even so, I found my enthusiasm dampened by the few selections available for a young girl growing up who wanted to read about characters she could relate to. If I wanted to read about female superheroes, I found myself picking up team-based issues, such as Justice League or Teen Titans. I knew that female heroes existed, but where were their titular series?

Women in Refrigerators

Before I get into what’s going on in today’s comics, I’d like to start by examining where we came from. In 1994, Green  Lantern #54 was published. It was this issue that inspired writer Gail Simone to create the now-famous trope “Women in Refrigerators.” It comes a plot where the Green Lantern comes home to find his girlfriend murdered, her body left in the refrigerator for him to find, for no other purpose than to further the his storyline.

Before becoming a comics writer herself, Simone created a website on which she listed all of the female heroes she could think of that had met with similar fates: superheroines who had been “depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” Out of 50 well-known heroines, she could identify 40 of them as having succumbed to one or more of the above. Though she started making the list for her own curiosity, she soon found that it was hard to find any woman involved in comics who hadn’t encountered a terrible fate of some kind. It was clear she was onto something.

She posted her findings on a personal website, titled ‘Women in Refrigerators,’ clarifying that the article wasn’t meant as a criticism of the industry; it was simply an observation-oriented piece through which she sought to find an answer as to “why it was OK, even encouraged somewhat, to kill women, more than men, statistically.” She met with mixed responses from creators, with some supporting her observations and others becoming defensive of their work. From the fans, she also found mixed responses, with varied levels of support as well as hate.

Simone could only speculate as to the motives behind the trend she noticed. She noted that when male characters died, they often did in more noble, heroic ways than females—but why? Was it because fans usually didn’t object to a woman’s death? Or was it because the male-dominated fanbase related less to female characters? Or perhaps a combination of these, and a plethora of other reasons?

At the end of her website, she added that more women and people of varied nationalities and backgrounds were beginning to break in to the comics industry, and that creators seemed to be starting to pay more attention to the treatment of women characters. These were all positive signs that comics would begin welcoming a wider audience, and improve the characterization of women in these stories.

The Case of Barbara Gordon

Barbara Gordon, alternatively known as the first Batgirl, was first introduced in 1967. She was the daughter of Gotham’s Police Chief James Gordon, and held a doctorate in library science. Smart and capable, she was a strong female analog to Batman. The character quickly took off in popularity, and according to her creator, Carmine Infantino, “almost got her own TV show.

Her appearances in comics wavered throughout the next twenty years, with her appearing alongside Batman and Robin, as well as Superman and Supergirl. She served as an example of a strong female character, as well as a draw for girls interested in reading comics. As a child, I couldn’t wait for her appearances on the Adam West-era Batman TV show.

However great her origins, even Batgirl gets thrown in the metaphorical refrigerator in 1988. In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, she is shot through the spine and thusly paralyzed by the Joker in her civilian identity as Barbara Gordon with no chance to fight back. When he shoots her, the Joker doesn’t even know she is Batgirl. She is just a plot device in a scheme to drive her father insane, thus proving to Batman that “all it takes is one bad day” to create someone as twisted as the Joker himself.

The Killing Joke was a good, dark, gritty story about the relationship between Batman and the Joker, and a potential Joker origin story…that hinged on the gross mistreatment of a popular woman character as a plot device. I would have thoroughly enjoyed it if it weren’t for the callous dispensing of Barbara Gordon, exactly in line with the trend Gail Simone would observe a decade later. Though he later regretted the decision, Alan Moore has revealed in interviews since the publication of The Killing Joke that when he asked his editor, Len Wein, if he could cripple Barbara Gordon, the response he received was “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” If this is any indication of the editorial staff at DC at the time’s views toward popular women characters, it’s no wonder we ended up with so many superheroines left in the refrigerator.

Barbara is left paraplegic, but why? In the Knightfall storyline, Batman has his back broken by Bane and becomes paralyzed. The key difference here is that he becomes injured in a dramatic fight, and recovers within a year’s time to train again. In the same storyline, Catwoman is seeking a neural enabler to allow her paraplegic friend to recover and walk again. With these devices existing some universes and Batman’s recovery, why is Batgirl left confined to her fate?

Writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander gave Barbara’s character a revival the very next year. Not allowing her to become another comics casualty, they bring her back to the mainstream as “Oracle,” a computer hacker and genius who provides backup and information to Batman himself, as well as the Suicide Squad and her very own team, the newly-formed “Birds of Prey.” This rebound further strengthens her character in the face of an editorial staff that would have otherwise let her fade into obscurity.

Batgirl had been given a revival by Gail Simone herself, in the rebooted DC universe continuity, the New 52. Respectful of the events in The Killing Joke and her experiences as Oracle, they have not been erased in the new continuity. Rather, she receives an experimental treatment in South Africa, recovers the ability to walk, and trains to don her own cape again. The newer series focused on Barbara’s PTSD and overcoming a traumatic event, eventually leading her to come face-to-face with the Joker again, but this time she comes from a place of power on her own terms.

The New 52

Batgirl isn’t the only heroine in the new 52 to have an empowering role. Wonder Woman, a demigoddess following her new origins in the new 52 continuity, has almost always been an equal to her male counterparts. With her abilities as a demigoddess and Amazonian princess, she is fully capable of taking up a role in the Justice League alongside Batman and Superman and, on multiple occasions in previous continuities, has saved them. In the latest series (post-new 52), she dons her least revealing outfit yet.

Below, see her new 52 representation (left) and most recent incarnation (right):

Even Starfire, a character commonly criticized for having sexy and skimpy outfits, has been given comparably modest attire in her Rebirth manifestation.

The industry itself could use an increase in female representation in the creators’ circle. Tim Hanley, a comic book historian who has written multiple books on the subject of women in comics, keeps companies honest by posting a list of credits given to women creators involved in comics bi-weekly when publications come out. During the first month of the new 52, thesewere the percentages of women creators involved in DC (courtesy of Tim Hanley):

The opening week showed 11.4% total of women creators, which was higher than the year’s average of 9.4%. However, it is still staggeringly low overall.

However, the upward trend has continued, with June 2016 showing the following numbers:

Hopefully, this increase in representation will continue as the years go on, encouraging more women to engage with the comics industry.

The Rise of Graphic Novels

Another factor in the growing female readership of comics and leading the way in terms of representation are graphic novels and manga. Covering a much wider spectrum of genres than the typical superhero stories seen previously in Western comics, these forms began attracting a larger and more mixed fan base. Manga, upon coming to America, introduced the West to comics that covered a set of genres as dense as what we’re accustomed to seeing in fiction novels. Graphic novels began to quickly follow suit, with all manner of people creating their own stories, widely varying in genre and topics.

Graphic novels like Brian Vaughan’s Saga and Marjorie Liu’s Monstress began gaining popularity, both sporting nontraditional comics storylines. Saga has been likened to a space opera, while Monstress has a strong female protagonist and touches on sensitive topics, such as war and racism. Saga has won multiple Eisner Awards through its current run, including Best Continuing Series, Best Writer, and Best Interior Artist. If these sorts of groundbreaking series continue to win recognition and awards, it will be a good sign for the future of the medium.

Giant Days is another recent addition to the graphic novels market. A slice-of-life series, it follows three young women who become close friends in their first week of college. It accurately portrays realistic experiences that any girl might have upon entering university. From clubbing and music festivals to studying and getting sick, it covers the entirety of the college experience. It is written by John Allison, also known for his webcomic Scary-Go-Round. I contacted Mr. Allison and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for me in an interview.

First, I inquired about the origins of the three main characters, Esther, Susan, and Daisy. Each has different, distinctive personality traits, are relatable, and quirky in their own ways. Allison explained that Esther had first appeared in his old comic, Scary Go Round, and was portrayed as a typical goth. Over time, she developed into her own confident character. Susan and Daisy started as initial traits, “irritable, hard boiled” and “kind and naïve,” respectively, and grew from there.

Most of the situations the Giant Days characters encounter are realistic, and some are empowering to female readers. In one of the earlier issues, Susan works to take down the bros behind a website dubbed ‘Bantserve’ that ranks hot first year girls, and targets Esther. In our discussion about different scenarios he presents in the novels, Allison told me that he’s always looking out for details to put in his stories. Due to the lighthearted nature of Giant Days, he wants the characters to be empowered and end issues on a high note, regardless of the difficulties they might experience. But he also hopes that young readers will take away lessons from the tribulations the characters face. He specifically mentions an incident in issue 19, “…when they go to a festival, Susan’s drink is spiked by an old enemy and she ends up high as a kite with her leg stuck down a toilet. Now obviously, there are a hundred ways that can and does work out a lot worse for a young woman. But if one 14-year-old girl reads that now and a year or two from now, watches her drink like a hawk, then I am willing to risk having made light of a serious issue.”

When writing these stories, Allison told me that it is important to allow the characters room to fail while not betraying the readers’ expectations. However, trying too hard to please readers can hurt the story and can leave creators second-guessing their work.

Allison had some enlightening ideas when it came to the effect of webcomics and manga on the representation of women, saying, “It was the popularity of manga that most improved representation in comics, because it brought so many female readers in.” He also brought up the rise of animation since the nineties, Disney in particular. These sources began to expose a female audience to these types of media, and were instrumental in creating the industry we see today.

Like John Allison mentions, I ended up turning to manga and graphic novels because of their better presence of female cast members, reading titles such as Amulet and Naruto. The casts of these mediums tend to be more inclusive, and the female characters seem to be less marginalized. Of course representation varies widely by genre, but manga has an entire category, shoujo, dedicated to a teenage female readership.

I am very happy to see Batgirl titles on the shelves of my local comic book store, as that is what I wanted as a child. I’m thrilled that a generation of children will be growing up reading Batgirl, and the titles of other female heroes. And while there is still work to be done for female representation in Western comics, I think we should celebrate and appreciate the successes we’ve had and the amazing difference that has been made in a few short years.

Johanna Oberto
Johanna Oberto is a computer science major who dreams of a career in which she can merge her love of writing with her degree in Computer Science. In her free time she enjoys writing fantasy short stories, exploring the city of Philadelphia and training Pokemon.

One thought on “The Evolution of Women in Comics

  1. Wow! I really enjoyed this post. I am a fan of The Killing Joke and I found it very interesting to look at that comic in this view. I also feel like this observation might point to why people view men and women differently. If literature and comics only used women as small plot devices, then it might show why many men ,who read the stories, now view women differently than males.

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