This week’s first guest is Memory from In the Forest of Stories! She covers a variety of fiction genres on her blog with a lot of focus on speculative fiction books. In the Forest of Stories is one of my favorite book-related sites both because of Memory’s entertaining, insightful book reviews and her taste in books. If you read this site because we share similar tastes in fiction, you should definitely check out Memory’s blog (she also loved Karin Lowachee’s Warchild)!
SFF comics is a broad field encompassing everything from superheroes to hard science fiction to magical time travel to secondary world fantasy. Whatever brand of speculative fiction you enjoy, you’re bound to find a comic or six that fits the bill.
Chances are, though, the vast majority of the books you’ll uncover during a casual search will be written and drawn by men.
Mainstream comics, for all its virtues, is still very much a boys’ club. Women do create comics of all sorts, and some of them enjoy such widespread acclaim that they’ve become household names among comics readers, but it can be difficult to find work by women if you simply browse at random. I recently delved into Marvel Unlimited’s archive in search of more new-to-me women to read, and I had my work cut out for me finding even a handful of female writers and pencillers. The men outnumbered them to an absurd degree.
It can be tough for the dedicated comics reader to maintain gender parity without extra effort. Branching out into non-SFF comics can help matters–be sure to check out such creators as Zeina Abirached, Lucy Knisley, Marjane Satrapi, Jillian Tamaki, and Mariko Tamaki–but the average non-directed comics binge will almost certainly contain far more dudes than ladies.
It ain’t an ideal situation, but there’s some hope for the future. Of the Big Two, Marvel has publicly stated their intention to add more female creators to their bullpen (see Sana Amanat’s answer immediately below the Women of Marvel Instagram widget in this interview), and one hopes DC will soon follow suit. Smaller comics publishers and general publishers with graphic novel divisions have also begun featuring more women creators over the last few years. And of course, women have always produced indie comics, either online or in self-published zines.
Even with these changes on the horizon, the challenge remains. You can’t read these women unless you can find them in the churning sea of dudes.
Today I want to offer up twelve women whose comics work I love, complete with the easiest ways I know of to read their books. Some of these women are gloriously well known; others may have flown under your radar. A few prominent names are curiously absent, not because I dislike them but because I haven’t read them yet. These omissions aside, I hope this list serves as a jumping-in point for those of you who’re eager to explore more comics written and/or drawn by women.
Many comics writers are also comics artists, particularly where indie comics and manga are concerned. My favourites include:
Medley creates Castle Waiting, a feminist fairy tale about the stories that happen in and around the versions everyone knows. It’s very much focused on the characters’ everyday lives, with unexpected grace notes galore and plenty of intrigue surrounding everyone’s backstories. You won’t find many epic quests here; instead, bearded nuns fight for workers’ rights, mysterious young women raise their demonic babies within peaceful communities, and wicked witches turn out to have soft spots after all (even though they’ll still curse you, thanks very much).
The series is available in two gorgeous hardcover volumes from Fantagraphics. Make sure you get the Definitive Edition of Volume Two; the original release starts strong but ends abruptly due to a conflict between Medley and the publisher.
Clamp is an all-female manga studio with a ton of series under their belts. (They’re also the only mangaka I’ll be spotlighting here, but I encourage you to explore the wide world of manga for a wealth of female-created stories both SFnal and non.) I’m still working my way through their extensive backlist, but so far I’ve fallen utterly in love with Chobits and Tokyo Babylon.
Chobits takes place in a near future where personal computers look like anatomically correct pretty girls. It’s a squicky premise, but fear not–Clamp interrogates the hell out of the squick and produces a wonderful story about what it means to be, and to care about, a person. You can find the English translation in eight individual volumes or two omnibi from Dark Horse.
Tokyo Babylon centres on a teenage magician who communicates with the dead in concert with his twin sister and a sexy young veterinarian who claims to have fallen in love with him. It starts out all cute and monster-of-the-week, then becomes something else entirely. You’ll find the English translation in seven individual volumes or two omnibi from Dark Horse.
I tend to think of Wendy Pini’s Elfquest (co-created with her husband, Richard; she writes and draws, he writes and edits) as the fantasy comic. It completely took over my life in the summer of 2006 and has held up well over subsequent readings. When the Wolfriders (a tribe of tiny, pointy-eared people who’ve bonded with wolves) discover they’re not the only group of elves, they undertake a quest to discover where their race came from and what else might be possible for them. It gets wicked intense as it rolls along, with plenty of SF mingled with the outwardly fantastical trappings.
Dark Horse currently holds the Elfquest license and has released two massive omnibi that collect the original quest. You can also read every pre-2014 Elfquest story for free on the official website.
Stevenson has had quite the year. Lumberjanes, her contemporary fantasy comic about female friendship (co-written with Grace Ellis and drawn by Brooke Allen) gets all the good press, and she was recently announced as the writer for Marvel’s Runaways revival (to be drawn by Sanford Greene). My personal favourite of her works is Nimona, a comic about a young shapeshifter who decides she has a bright future as a villain’s sidekick. It’s hilarious and painful by turns, and it’s deeply concerned with how society defines good and evil. Plus, there are sharks and cats and a frickin’ dragon.
Nimona will be published by HarperCollins on May 19th. Alas, the original webcomic has been removed in preparation for the print release, but you can still sample the first three chapters on Stevenson’s website. The first collected edition of Lumberjanes is now out from Boom Studios, with twelve individual issues also available. The first ten of these are on Scribd (free for the first two months; $8.99 per month thereafter for unlimited comics, audiobooks, and ebooks from a ton of different publishers). The first issue of Runaways drops in May.
Y’all know Rachel Hartman as the author of Seraphina and Shadow Scale, her phenomenally popular YA novels, but you may be unaware she used to create children’s minicomics in the same setting. Amy Unbounded follows the feminist adventures of nine-year-old Amy, who hobnobs with an assortment of farmers, merchants, and dragons as she navigates life as a girl in a society that is often actively hostile to women. It’s cute as you please and levity abounds, but it can also be extraordinarily painful as Amy and her friends run up against difficult social realities.
It ranks among my favourite comics ever. I love it a bit more every time I revisit it.
One trade collection (Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming) was released and is now sadly out of print, though there seem to be a fair few copies floating around out there. I live in hope the entire series will someday get a digital release so I can buy the hell out of it and encourage everyone I know to do the same.
Tove Jansson’s Moomins are children’s lit icons with a host of books, an assortment of animated adventures, and a theme park to their credit. (Yes! A theme park!) I first met them through Jansson’s comic strip, though, and it’s the comics I always trot out when it’s time to recommend the Moomins to all and sundry.
So, every second week.
Jansson’s newspaper strip ran for almost twenty years, and it’s gold. The Moomins are a family of hippo-like people who negotiate the world from a position of enthusiasm and inclusiveness. Jansson uses them to say lots of socialist things, as well as a great deal about kindness and the importance of forging connections, but please believe me when I say it’s not saccharine. It’s adorable and touching and really rather disruptive in the values it espouses.
From an artistic standpoint, I’m totally in love with Jansson’s panel divisions. She often uses tall, thin items relevant to each storyline to divide each snippet of story into its component parts. A forest tale might feature birch saplings between each panel, while a domestic scene could use Moominmama’s mop to divvy things up. It’s a lovely, creative touch.
Drawn & Quarterly has released five volumes of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip as oversize hardcovers. They look great on a shelf, assuming you’ve got the space for them.
Professor Kaja Foglio writes and draws Girl Genius, a long running webcomic, in concert with her husband, Professor Phil Foglio. The series purports to be a collection of textbooks for their Transylvania Polytechnic University course on Agatha Heterodyne, a mechanical genius who is also the secret heir to the most notorious noble house in Europe. As Agatha’s adventures unfold, she learns to harness her brilliance to produce mechanical marvels the likes of which Europe has never seen–but certain factions are determined to stop her before she can disrupt the status quo.
The series starts off strong and soon becomes painfully awesome. Agatha is a fabulous heroine, and the secondary characters all have depth and strong motivations. Even the bad guys are complex, fully realized people with understandable goals.
You can read Girl Genius for free online, with new pages added every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Complete volumes are also available for purchase in print or PDF through the Foglios’ online store.
Of course, not all comics creators are artists. The following women write awesome material:
Kelly Sue DeConnick
I know you’ve heard of Kelly Sue DeConnick. She’s one of the hottest writers out there right now, with a well-regarded run on Captain Marvel and two creator-owned titles: Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet.
Captain Marvel (drawn by several different artists, including Emma Rios) is the obvious place to start. DeConnick imbues Carol Danvers and her tight-knit group of friends and accomplices with as much personality as one could wish. It’s immediately obvious that these people truly care about one another and are willing to go to great lengths in each other’s service. They’re what really makes the book shine, though of course there’s also lots of time travel and superheroic peril. Marvel has released the series in four collected editions to date. The entire 2012 run and the first seven issues of the 2014 run are also available on Marvel Unlimited ($9.99 per month for as many six-months-or-older Marvel comics as you can cram into your eyeballs). Make sure you’re reading the stuff by DeConnick; the older Captain Marvel series are by different writers and feature different characters who used the name before Carol took it over.
Pretty Deadly (a weird Western with artist Emma Rios) and Bitch Planet (a riff on the women in prison sci-fi exploitation genre with artist Valentine DeLandro) have also garnered rave reviews. I’ve read and enjoyed the first issue of Bitch Planet, but I haven’t yet got my hands on Pretty Deadly. The first collected edition of Pretty Deadly is now available from Image Comics, as are the first four issues of Bitch Planet.
I first encountered Marjorie Liu in her guise as an urban fantasy author. More recently, I’ve come to know her as a comics writer of no small talent.
Liu has mostly worked for Marvel so far. Nyx: No Way Home, a comic about a ragtag group of runaway mutants who become a family, served as my entry point into her work, but X-23 is the book I rave about. It’s the story of Laura Kinney, a young, female clone of Wolverine who was raised to be the ultimate, unthinking weapon and must now discover how to live in a world where she can just be a person. At its best, X-23 is a deeply affecting look at found families and personal discovery through the eyes of someone without the social tools to navigate these perils in the expected fashion.
Both Nyx and X-23 are available as collected editions or through Marvel Unlimited. The first arc of X-23 is also on Scribd. Make sure you’ve got Liu’s titles in hand; both books started with miniseries by other creators.
Liu also penned the last four arcs of Astonishing X-Men–she was behind Northstar’s highly publicized wedding–but I haven’t quite made my way to her run yet. A lot of dude-authored stuff precedes it, and I’m always reluctant to leap into the middle of a series. If you’re up for that sort of thing and want to go straight to Liu’s work, you can find it starting with Volume 10: Northstar, or #48 if you’re reading through Marvel Unlimited.
Moving away from Marvel, Liu and artist Sana Takeda (with whom she worked on the latter half of X-23) are set to release their first creator-owned title, Monstress, through Image starting this summer. I can’t wait.
G. Willow Wilson
As was the case with Marjorie Liu, I first heard of G. Willow Wilson in conjunction with her debut novel, Alif the Unseen. In the year or so since she came on my radar, she’s risen to prominence as the writer behind Ms Marvel, the first mainstream superhero title with a Muslim lead.
Ms Marvel–aka, Kamala Khan–is a Muslim girl of Pakistani descent raised in New Jersey. She wants to do right by her family and their traditions, but she’s also desperate to fit in at her clique-ridden high school. It becomes a hell of a lot harder to succeed at either goal when she’s exposed to Terrigen mists and becomes a superhero capable of reshaping her body on a molecular level. With a secret identity to protect and slew of wrongs to right, Kamala finds herself in unintentional conflict with just about everything. Two collected editions are available now, with the first eight issues also up on Marvel Unlimited. Make sure you’re reading Wilson’s run; the earlier Ms Marvel series are by different writers and feature Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel) under her former code name.
Wilson also wrote Mystic, an excellent secondary world fantasy miniseries about two orphan girls who embrace separate magical destinies that put them at odds. Few people I mention it to have ever heard of it, so I talk it up at every opportunity. It, too, is available on Marvel Unlimited.
By the same extension, not all comics creators are writers. Here are two of my favourite female comics artists:
Fiona Staples is the co-creator (with writer Brian K. Vaughan) of Saga, my current favouritest comic EVAR, in which two former soldiers from opposite sides of a galaxy-spanning war shack up and struggle to keep their daughter safe from the assortment of freelancers and governmental officials determined to hunt them down. Staples handles every visual element: initial character and world designs, pencils and inks (or the digital equivalent, rather), colours, and lettering. Her work is accessible, attractive, and often brutal, with a strong sense of humour woven throughout. I’ll never be over King Robot’s head. Never.
You can find the series in four collected editions from Image Comics, with more to come.
Staples is also the artist behind Mystery Society (with writer Steve Niles). This short-lived series centres on a young couple who acquires a fortune and decides to pour it all into their lifelong dream: paranormal investigations. It’s a lot of fun and works well as a miniseries, but there’s enough unexplored setup that I do wish there’d been more of it. Niles has released at least one more piece of the puzzle, but Staples is no longer attached to the project (presumably because she’s busy Sagaing it up). A trade collection is available from IDW Publishing, and the whole thing is on Scribd.
Last but no means least, we have Annie Wu, who came to my attention through her work on Hawkeye (written by Matt Fraction). Wu drew the bulk of Volume 3: L.A. Woman, which is my favourite volume in a strong series. Hotshot archer Kate Bishop (light of my heart, breath in my lungs) heads out to L.A. for a summer away from superheroic drama but instead finds herself targeted by a supervillain who steals all her money and leaves Kate no choice but to become a plucky private detective. Awesomeness ensues. Ignore it if you hate awesome women doing awesome things; otherwise, read it ASAP (but maybe consider reading the first two volumes ahead of it). It’s available in a collected edition, or all the relevant issues (the Annual, plus #s 14, 16, 18, and 20) are on Marvel Unlimited.
Wu has also been announced as the artist for DC’s forthcoming Black Canary (written by Brenden Fletcher). You’ve probably noticed I don’t know from DC, but you can bet I’ll quit procrastinating and delve into their catalogue once this title hits stands this June.
These are the twelve women I talk up all the time, but they’re far from the only exceptional female comics creators out there. Please feel free to recommend your own favourites in the comments!