Of Batwomen And Squirrel Girls: Why Comics Are Becoming Increasingly Female

The Rogue Lady Killer Created: 2016, Joelle Jones (artist, writer)

Since the Eisenhower administration, the go-to satire of domestic bliss has been a zombified housewife, repressed to the point of mania. On the other end: Betty Draper on "Mad Men," the suburban hells of Richard Yates, unsatisfied, seething women.

Jones, a steadily rising star in comics, rejects both images. Josie Schuller, the anti-heroine/housewife of her "Lady Killer" comics, resembles a model in a Sears catalog circa 1962, cheerful, effortlessly glamorous, quick to take the kids to ballet and serve dinner. She's also a hired assassin, who prefers large butcher knives to guns.

Since starting in comics, Jones has worked on Spider-Woman, Superman and Black Widow, "but when I was growing up I loved the Punisher", Marvel's charmless gunslinger of questionable morals. "And initially I was hired for a lot of YA/romance stuff, and I got bored. My first work was for an anthology titled 'Sexy Chicks.' But I liked gore! I liked violence with a sense of humor. And I wanted to play around in that world." The Saturday Evening Post-like glow of "Lady Killer," her signature work, is more than homage: "I grew up learning to do what was expected, and keep up appearances, so I like characters who can embody contradictions. I was drawn to the plastic smiles of mid-century advertising, and I think a lot about the dark impulses of complicated women."

The Comic Relief Squirrel Girl Created: 1992, Steve Ditko (artist), Will Murray (writer) New creators: "The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl," Erica Henderson (artist), Ryan North (writer)

Doreen Green, teenager, student, Iron-Man fan, belittled for having a brown bushy tail, retreated to the woods one day, only to discover, yup, she could talk to squirrels, she could command squirrels. Conceived as a riff on useless super powers, Squirrel Girl has since joined the Great Lakes Avengers, been named protector of Central Park and, despite decades as a cult figure, become durable. Marvel recently announced Squirrel Girl would star in a new live-action TV series, and since 2015, Henderson and North's "Unbeatable Squirrel Girl" has been the smart missing link between children's and indie comics, playing like an ongoing commentary on the power to not being taken seriously.

"When I was a kid in the '90s, I wasn't really into superheroes," Henderson said. "You would pick up an X-Men comic and have no idea what was going on. I hated that. The good thing is, a lot of indie comics were appearing and they didn't see comics as one (superhero) thing." She studied film at Rhode Island School of Design, made trailers for video games, and also began attending comic cons and meeting comic book editors and building a freelance career. "Marvel emailed about Squirrel Girl out of the blue," she said. "I was two years into freelancing, so it was exciting to get anything from a major company. And because it was not a character who would get a lot of scrutiny, there was real freedom to just go for it, to establish it as ours and try something light, fun." She and North took advantage of low expectations, and at last, the character clicked. "But it's important that Ms. Marvel was popular, comics for new audiences were less scary."

The Changeling Thor Created: 1962, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber (writers), Jack Kirby (artist) New creators: "The Mighty Thor," Jason Aaron (writer), Russell Dauterman (artist)

Marvel's early stabs at Norse mythology were like Disney's take on the Brothers Grimm: The outline remained, and the heaviness was jettisoned. Thor lived in the body of a medical student with a bad leg (who we learn later was created by the gods, to host Thor). So two years ago, when Marvel announced Thor's sex was about to change, the inspiration seemed to have shifted to Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," whose title character begins life as a man and gradually, over centuries, transforms into a woman. Thor, alongside Spider-Man and Captain America, took up the mantle of diversity in comics.

Two years later, the new female Thor has been one of the more compelling storylines at Marvel. But Aaron, whose work includes Marvel's popular "Star Wars" comics and an acclaimed Vietnam comic told partly from the vantage point of a Vietnamese soldier, remembers "an online fervor when Marvel announced the change. It was announced on 'The View,' which was a strange choice. It hadn't actually been part of any larger push for diversity. Marvel was doing this big creative summit and a bunch of titles that had the same writers for years were up for grabs. It was never 'Let's make Thor a woman.' I'm a white guy in Kansas City, so I wouldn't claim to be the face of diversity in comics. As a kid, Thor was not even a favorite. I wanted to tell the story of Thor becoming unworthy, of not being able to pick up his hammer. Along comes Jane Foster, who had been his girlfriend in the earliest days (of the comic). She was back in the comic and dealing with breast cancer, so I seized on the idea of her picking up the hammer, stepping into the role of hero. But every time she picks up the hammer, she neutralizes the effects of the chemotherapy a little more. We have to do this right, I don't want her cancer magically cured. It is not that kind of story, and I do not feel I am anywhere close to being done."

The Steadfast Batwoman Created: 1956, Sheldon Moldoff (artist), Edmond Hamilton (writer) New creators: "Batwoman," Marguerite Bennett (writer), Steve Epting (artist)

There's a wonderful subversive touch to the return of Batwoman. She was introduced by DC in the 1950s as Batman's girlfriend, as a way to beat back the charges from comic book critics that Batman and Robin were created to promote homosexuality. She was Kathy Kane then. And when she returned to DC in 2006, she was Kate Kane, red hair flowing out of an even creepier Bat-cowl.

She was also Jewish, and a lesbian with U.S. military training. Batwoman has anchored several comics since then, and judging from the number of cosplaying Batwomen at comic book conventions, she's become a fan favorite. Bennett, who is writing her latest iteration, explains why: "Batwoman is an adult, she makes her own choices. Batman was always going to be Batman, he's a force of nature. But Kate, she was kicked out of West Point, but also was inspired (by Batman), and so she decided for herself that she would be Batwoman."

If there's a subtext to Bennett's "Batwoman," it's a struggle with legacy. "I want her to wrestle with finding a place where she contrasts with Batman," she said. "He's hard-lined about certain things, she's morally practical, but operating within the Bat legacy." Bennett, a Virginia native who wanted to be a writer from an early age, said she gravitated to Batman after becoming addicted to the 1990s animated Batman series. "Cartoons for kids, and little girls, are clean, aspirational. This wasn't those things. Its heroines got to be themselves. They had agency, and ever since, I've been hooked."

The Survivor Hellcat Created: 1944, Otto Binder (writer), Ruth Atkinson (artist). New creators: "Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat!" Brittney Williams (artist), Kate Leth (writer).

Patsy Walker is the smartest of oddities. She debuted at a moment when young girls could be as reliably counted on to read comics as young boys. She was the star of "Miss America Magazine," published by Timely Comics (which later became Marvel). It told the story of an ordinary teenage girl's daily travails. After the character returned in 1976, she was Hellcat, dressed in a yellow catsuit, occasionally joining Avengers and Defenders on adventures and rarely straying far from her supporting role. (When the Avengers created a 50-state defense initiative, Hellcat was assigned to patrol Alaska.)

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