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Roundtable: Tough cookies we love

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Eva Volin, Esther Keller, Snow Wildsmith, Robin Brenner and I compiled a list of comic book heroines we admired, from Kitty Pride (Uncanny X-Men) to Comrade Sorceress Maya Antares (The Red Star). As we were discussing our favorite characters, I fully expected someone to name Wonder Woman, the character I most remember from my childhood encounters with comic books (not to mention the campy Lynda Carter TV show, which aired on ABC when I was a kid). But when I started to compose my answer to the question, "Who are the characters you most admire and why?", I realized that I didn’t know Wonder Woman at all; she was more important to me as a symbol of female strength than as a character, and seemed much less vivid and real than the heroines in my favorite manga and comics. No one else named the Amazon either, leading me to wonder: what would make this character interesting to me (and other women readers) again? I don’t have a great answer for the question, though I think artist Tintin Pantoja is onto something with her teen-friendly take on Wonder Woman, one that reimagines Diana as a shojo manga heroine, complete with vulnerabilities and recognizable human emotions. In other words, a Wonder Woman who kicks butt AND suffers the occasional pang of anxiety, conscience, or self-doubt… just like the other heroines on our list.

: It’ll be hard for me to get past Anne of Green Gables. I wanted to BE Anne when I was in sixth grade, and the fact that she’s never been done as a GN (that I know of, and please don’t disabuse me of this notion, as I don’t think I could stand reading someone’s hatchet job of one of my favorite books ever) may not be enough to get me past her being possibly my favoite female heroine.

KATHERINE DACEY: I don’t know of an Anne of Green Gables comic, but she is a touchstone for a number of manga and manhwa artists. Red-Haired Anne, for example, features a spunky tweenage protagonist with auburn braids, a straw hat, and a penchant for mischief. From what I gather, the series makes frequent reference to L.M. Montgomery’s original books, but isn’t an adaptation of them. Bottom line: I think you’re safe for now, Eva!

As for comic book heroines, my favorite is Comrade Sorceress Maya Antares, the heroine of The Red Star (Archangel Studios). She’s tough, intelligent, and resourceful yet still very womanly, the kind of character who’s equally capable of commanding a combat unit and being a devoted wife. (No word on whether she makes a good piroshki.) Another favorite is Sumire Iwaya of Tramps Like Us (Tokyopop). Sumire is a twenty-something career woman who’s rapidly approaching the glass ceiling at her organization despite her impressive educational credentials and solid work record. She’s also feeling anxious about her love life; though she’s not in a hurry to get married, she’s painfully aware of how other people perceive a single woman of her age. She manages to resist the social pressure to get hitched and walk away from a relationship that looks good on paper but isn’t right for her — a truly brave act in such a marriage-minded culture. Finally, I have a special place in my heart for Sango, InuYasha‘s (Viz) long-suffering demon slayer. Sango’s mixture of toughness and vulnerability makes her one of the series’ most credible, appealing characters. My only gripe: someone needs to buy her a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You before Miroku sweet-talks his way out of another compromising position.

I’m one of those people who’s favorite book and favorite character easily changes with the last book I read. So today, for me, the most memorable heroine in a comic/manga is Max in Maximum Ride (Yen Press). She actually has it all: the mothering. The sensitive side that cares for her friend and finally, she’s tough and stands up for herself.

SNOW WILDSMITH: Lieutenant Alice Malvin from Pumpkin Scissors (Del Rey) by Ryotaro Iwanaga. She’s the heir of a wealthy and powerful noble family, but instead of spending her time at parties, balls, and dinners, she serves her country. The Imperial Army State Section III, nicknamed Pumpkin Scissors, is charged with reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery from the long war that decimated the countryside. Lt. Malvin leads her people with an eye firmly fixed on justice and responsibility, despite the fact that her unit was originally just supposed to be a propaganda tool. She is also an amazing fighter, who is able to take care of herself and those around her, which is important considering the amount of corruption and crime she and her men face.

EVA: Having had a chance to review my mental Rolodex of comic book heroines, I’m ready to make my choice. This will be a familiar story for many women my age who started reading comics in the early 1980s.  Back then, if you wanted stories that featured lots of character development, you were most likely reading Uncanny X-Men (Marvel). And if you were a teenage girl reading Uncanny X-Men, you were most likely rooting for Kitty Pryde. Kitty was the most "real" character in the books. She was smart, nerdy, had a crummy fashion sense and a crush on a guy she figured was way out of her league. She was funny, vulnerable, and afraid she’d never measure up to the amazing adults around her.  he was also confident in her abilities, proud of her heritage (she was the first Jewish character I can remember reading about in comics), and loved and trusted her family and friends. And when push came to shove, Kitty had the strength, ability, and common sense necessary to take care of herself AND save the world. When I wasn’t busy wanting to be Anne Shirley, I wanted to be Kitty Pryde — not so much wanting to be able to phase through walls, but wanting to have the same knowledge that my peers respected me and my friends loved me for my strengths and despite my weaknesses, just like they did for Kitty.

ROBIN BRENNER: Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl, aka Oracle). Barbara Gordon is one of my favorite female superheroes. Ever. She’s smart, she’s kick-butt, and she holds her own against Batman, Robin (and later Nightwing), and the whole gallery of supervillains. It’s no secret that Batman is the more, shall we say, difficult of the major heroes. He’s stubborn, hypercritical, and a definite loner, so impressing him is incredibly difficult, and Babs manages to do that in spades, even as a teenager. My favorite stand alone incarnation of Batgirl is Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty’s Batgirl: Year One (DC Comics). The art alone is fantastic, and the attitude and clever dialogue show off why Batgirl is one of the best recurring DC female heroes. Later on down the line, when the Joker’s attack leaves Barbara Gordon confined to a wheelchair, she doesn’t even hestitate: she relearns her fighting skills and dives into becoming an invaluable virtual resource for her comrades as Oracle (who I actually think of as the super-secret, on-call librarian to the stars of the DC universe.) As Oracle, she is part of the Birds of Prey team, which is still one of the best female-superhero-centric tales.

Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman). And by Catwoman, I mean the character in general, but I also specifically adore the Catwoman reboot brought to us by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke, starting with Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street (DC Comics). (Time to get rid of those stiletto heels and bring out the combat boots, makes so much more sense!) Catwoman has always divided her time between being a thief and getting tangled up in the world of superheroes and supervillians. She’s the one character that isn’t clearly on one side or another.  Her complex relationship with Batman has always been crackling with sensuality, though her need to take the world on on her own terms keeps her from ever fully caving to love. She’s sexy, brilliant, and more of a good guy than bad. It’s the bad streak, though, that mesmerizes her allies and foes alike, and keeps them on their toes.

The women of the Fables universe. Fables (DC/Vertigo) by Bill Willingham, is a series generally aimed at adults and enjoyed by a lot of older teens, taking familiar fairy tale characters and plopping them into the middle of New York City. When the series began, Snow White was immediately a strong favorite, bristling with political savvy, intelligence, curiosity, and a practicality that lets you know she definitely learned from her past. Her plotline is not as central or as riveting as it once was, in my opinion, but alongside her sister, Rose Red, and her colleagues from Red Riding Hood to Sleeping Beauty, none of these women are wise to ignore.  In the middle of Willingham’s world is the legendary Frau Totenkinder, the evil witch of almost every famous tale, who now works for the good guys…or does she?

Fray, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Dark Horse). Joss Whedon created Fray, his future slayer, to be many things: another iconic warrior heroine, an answer to the question of what slayers might become, and on a much more surface level, an action heroine who was, shall we say, not overly well endowed. He clarified right away there was to be no cheesecake factor. And lo, he succeeded, and an amazing character was born. Whedon, and I may be taken to task for saying this, can be variying successful in writing comics — some are brilliant, some are awkwardly paced. Fray, however, is the book where everything came together: great writing, excellent art by Karl Moline, and a solid one-off story that satisfied while still leaving you wishing there was more. 

Tara Chace. Queen and Country (Oni Press) remains one of my favorite spy dramas in any format. Tara Chace, as an agent in the middle of a network of secret wars, is extraordinary: vicious, clever, unflappable, and in the end, a little bit broken. Working in intelligence must be punishing on anyone, and in Queen and Country Rucka discards all the glamor of the James Bonds and Aliases and instead concentrates on the grim determination, murky politics, and even murkier morals that send Chace out into the field. She is a wonderfully complex lead, and while the series is firmly for adults, it has definite appeal to older teens who embrace shows like 24 or Battlestar Galactica.

Also, Kate, in wild agreement about Red Star. I adore that series, for everything it brings to the table: complicated politics wrapped up in mythology, the gorgeous art, and the unflinching, hard-nosed characters of the fleet. You might try Queen and Country for another similar heroine.

And I’m going to stop now.  I think I’ve already listed most of my manga/indie heroines, so I’ll leave well enough alone. 🙂

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.


  1. For me, it’s always been Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, ever since I was a kid – I’m old enough that I WAS a kid when the Batman television show was first broadcast. She was the one female character I ever really wanted to be, ever. But the one character I ever cosplayed was Menolly from Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey; I still have my Beauty that I designed and handstitched (based on Michael Whelan’s art).

  2. The females of Elfquest. Katchoo and Francine from Strangers in Paradise. Death of the Endless and her other sisters too. I would add the Fates, but I can’t forgive them. I have also fallen for the Grimm Fairy Tale girls Sela and Belinda.

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