Comic books don’t have a great reputation when it comes to depicting women and girls, though the same could probably be said for any medium born in the 1930s. Luckily, with the rise of underground comics and the dogged determination of women creating comics, there’s a healthy (and growing!) number of comics and graphic novels that do a great job of depicting strong, well-rounded women and girls. These eight titles in particular—including realistic stories, fantasies, adventures, and one truly great superhero comic—feature heroines perfectly capable of rescuing themselves.
Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol
Brosgol’s spooky, polished debut offers something that’s still too rare in comics: a realistic, contemporary teenage girl’s story. Growing up with her single Russian mother and younger brother, Anya works hard to fit in, and she distances herself from nerdy, heavily accented Dima, another Russian immigrant at her school. On a shortcut to school, Anya tumbles into a well, where a pile of bones swirls into the visible ghost of a young girl, Emily. Working in a clean-lined cartoon style with an appropriately moody, bruiselike palette of purples and blacks, Brosgol uses clever panel arrangements and shifting close-up and aerial perspectives to amplify the action and emotion, from Anya’s initial elation to her primal terror.
Batwoman: Elegy, by Greg Rucka and illustrated by J. H. Williams III
There are a number of reasons why this story arc is a departure from more traditional caped-crusader fare. For starters, Batwoman (aka Kate Kane) is the most prominent gay character in DC’s universe, and she kicks ass with combat boots, not stilettos (though her suit is still painted on). In flashbacks, Kane gets drummed out of the military for standing tall at the conflicting crossroads of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the code that says, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” In the present thread, she locks horns with the gothy villain Alice, who speaks entirely in quotations from Lewis Carroll. Rucka and Williams have crafted a superhero comic that is ambitious and unique in its approach, and it deserves to be read and then read again to appreciate the fullness of its smart storytelling and even more impressive artistry.
Bone, by Jeff Smith
It would be a serious oversight not to include Bone in this list. As many comics fans know, the series chronicles the adventures of the Bone cousins—plucky Fone Bone, scheming Phony Bone, and easygoing Smiley Bone—who leave their home of Boneville and are swept up in a Tolkienesque epic of royalty, dragons, and unspeakable evil forces out to conquer humankind. And while she’s not the initial focus of Smith’s sweeping fantasy, young, courageous Thorn becomes its true hero, rescuing the Bone cousins and coming into her own as the heir to powerful magical talents, not to mention a throne. But she’s not the only strong woman—her fearless grandma, Rose, races cows for fun, fiercely defends her loved ones, and has arm muscles to rival a certain spinach-swigging sailor.
The Cute Girl Network, by Greg Means and M. K. Reed, and illustrated by Joe Flood
In an offbeat meet-cute for the ages, independent, strong-willed Jane is skateboarding on her way to work when she falls on her coccyx in front of dopey soup-seller Jack. Are they a match made in slacker heaven? Not if the cute-girl network has anything to say about it. The network, a coalition of twentysomething women in Jane’s new city, have taken it upon themselves to protect unsuspecting cute girls from falling victim to dating disasters. But Jane is no stranger to making mistakes herself, and she’s confident in her ability to stand by her own choices. This refreshing look at modern dating manages to be romantic without a shred of sentimentality.
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, by Tony Cliff
Selim is used to being an overlooked and underpaid member of the Turkish Janissary Corps, but when the Agha’s men capture a prisoner—the scandalous woman who calls herself Delilah Dirk—Selim finds out the hard way that maybe he needs a little excitement in his life. Delilah is a swashbuckling, horse-riding, treasure-reclaiming heroine who will have readers constantly wondering what will happen next. Selim is more reserved—he longs mostly for tea and quiet—but once he gets sucked into Delilah’s orbit, he’s unable to resist the taste of adrenaline. This terrific action story, anchored by Cliff’s lush full-color artwork, is all the more compelling thanks to its irrepressible, sometimes hot-headed heroine.
Friends with Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks
Maggie, the youngest girl in an otherwise all-male household, is attending public high school for the first time after being home-schooled. In addition to facing changes at home (her mother abandoned the family), she has to get over the same hurdles as any freshman—finding her classes, navigating the make-out hallway, and figuring out the school’s social hierarchy. Oh, and she is haunted by a nineteenth-century ghost. As Maggie makes her own way among her new friends at her new school, the ghost appears more frequently, standing in as a literal, haunting reminder of what she is leaving behind and the memory of her absent mother. A charming, quiet story of growing up and letting go of the past while still acknowledging the inevitable pain that comes with it.
Mercury, by Hope Larson
Mercury tells two tales: one of Josey, who lives in a small Canadian town in 1859; and the other of her descendant, Tara, who has returned to the same town in 2009, a year after her house burned to the ground. Tenth-grader Tara’s burgeoning relationships and her difficulty reacclimating to her old school will be more identifiable than Josey’s forbidden courtship with itinerant prospector Asa, but the use of two time lines delineates the different eras’ outlooks on family and romance, bringingsome immutable human truths into high relief. Larson continues to perfect her own unique style and offers something the graphic format is sadly short on: a coming-of-age story for girls.
Spera, by Josh Tierney and illustrated by Kyla Vanderklugt
The first volume of Tierney’s series would be a fairly typical “princess-in-distress” fantasy if not for the fact that the hero who rescues Princess Lono is a princess rather than a prince. Watching delicate, spoiled Lono and her bold, cocky friend Pira—accompanied by the fire spirit Yonder—trade their court life for one of adventure, danger, and even death is nothing short of joyous.