In a year of rampant misogyny and cringe-inducing comment threads, comic books have surprisingly been one of the most welcoming places to find respite from the deluge of daily sexual assault revelations. From writer Gail Simone’s feminist reboot of Red Sonja to Charles Soule’s fresh reimagining of She-Hulk, second-tier heroines once thought to belong to the dustbins of bronze era embarrassments have steadily outshined their first-tier superhero peers in both depth of character development and scope of subject matter.
At a time when the medium is thought to be in the midst of a new golden age, it is heartening—especially for a returning reader like myself—to see the industry wrestle with its own less than ideal, often contradictory, gender legacy. Below are eight of my personal favorite Feminist-adjacent titles in 2014. They’re in no particular order.
1. Sisters (Sept 2014, Graphix, Scholastic) – Raina Telgemeier & Braden Lamb
If you’ve never tried one of cartoonist Raina Telgemeier’s true-to-life graphic novels, her newest coming of age title Sisters is an ideal introduction. Released in September and widely available in bookstores, Telgemeier’s illustrated autobiography has already become a kind of touchstone for many of my students in primary school. For them, Sisters is without a doubt the #1 title of 2014. Not least because what Telgemeier is particularly good at capturing is the guilt that older siblings often feel for not living up to their younger sibling’s expectations. “Sigh . . . The cousin I wished was my sister barely knows me at all. / And the sister I actually have hates me. / Although I guess it’s nothing personal . . . / She hate everyone.”
2. She-Hulk (No. 1 – No. 10, Apr 2014 – Jan 2015, Marvel) – Charles Soule, Javier Pulido & Muntsa Vicente
By far and away one of the most consistent and thoughtful reads of Marvel’s 2014 catalog, She-Hulk continues to be one of those rare Big Two titles that reads, more often than not, like a creator-owned title. When the relaunched She-Hulk first hit the racks fan expectations, even with the brilliant Charles Soule on board, were quite minimal. Soule however quickly proved that the Jade Giantess had more to offer than first suspected by her lowly 80s Stan Lee origins. In fact, if you’ve never really gotten the general appeal of the Marvel comic universe, this is the title that will get you smiling and finally understanding what all the hubbub is about. From her progressing friendship with Patsy Kline (aka Hellcat) to her evolving professional camaraderie with fellow superhero lawyer Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil), Charles Soule’s She-Hulk will make you re-evaluate what you think you know about Marvel and start you on that enlightened path of the sweaty, hyperventilating comic geek.
3. Ms. Marvel (No. 1 – No. 9, Feb 2014 – Dec 2014, Marvel) – G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona & Ian Herring
G. Willow Wilson’s labor of love concerning a teenage Pakistani American fangirl coming to terms with her identity couldn’t be more timely. Since its debut earlier last year what has particularly won over readers, especially younger non-white fangirls, is Wilson’s nuanced depiction of Kamala Khan’s Asian American family. For instance, in the very first introduction to the family at the dinner table we learn that Brother Aamir would rather pray all day to Allah as Abu would much rather have him work full-time at the local bank. According to the idealistic Aamir, “Money earned from a profession that offends Allah has no merit. I refuse to profit from usury . . . unlike some people.” To which his father retorts, “My job at the bank allows you to sit here at home contemplating eternity, beta.” Subtle familial details such as these juxtapositioned with Kamala’s growing realization that being an iconic superheroine isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be makes this an ideal read for any young person struggling to define who they are and who they want to become.
4. Hawkeye, Volume 3: L.A. Woman (Annual 1, No. 14, No. 16, No. 18 & No. 20, Oct 2014, Marvel) – Matt Fraction, Annie Wu & Javier Pulido
Annie Wu belongs in that rare category of illustrators who could quite successfully work as a commercial artist. There is just a level of personality and poignancy that she brings to the character of Kate Bishop that is simply unmatched. Though single issues of Hawkeye last year had been few and far between, the issues that did come out have been universally adored. Issue #16 in particular is quite easily the best single issue of 2014. Available now in most bookstores as a collected trade, millennials who are struggling to survive in Los Angeles will get a particular kick out of following Lady Hawkeye attempting the life of an Avengers-esque crime fighter while simultaneously trying to make ends meet as a Southern California-based private detective / general do-gooder.
5. Sex Criminals (No. 1 – No. 9, Sept 2013 – Dec 2014, Image) – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Winner of Eisner’s Best New Series at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Sex Criminals is quite arguably the most readable series of 2014. From the non-capitalized lettering to the meticulous panel designs—down to even the hilarious letters column—virtually every aspect of Sex Criminals is thought out and fine tuned. Almost nothing is taken for granted. The premise: Our heroine Suzie just wants to stop the bank from foreclosing her library only to discover that her new partner Jon just happens to share her power of temporarily freezing space-time every instance she has an orgasm. If it sounds too immature or irreverent, don’t worry. Fraction and Zdarsky go out of their way to authentically ground the subject matter and take the emotional & intellectual subtext deadly serious when appropriate.
6. Saga, Deluxe Edition, Volume 1 (No. 1 – No. 18, Nov 2014, Image) – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Not unlike Annie Wu, Fiona Staples belongs to a class all her own. Recognized at last year’s Eisner Awards as Best Painter / Multimedia Artist, Staples is without peer when it comes to depicting the humanity of even the most ruthless, fucked-up alien assassin. What has particularly tugged at heart strings for long-time readers is the way that Fiona Staples can suggest internal life and reveal a plethora of familial subtext with a single look by either Alana or Barr—or even Hazel. Sublime in its conceptual depth and breathtakingly beautiful in its artistic execution, Saga is one space adventure series that will quite likely make you reconsider, maybe even retire, your compulsory allegiance to more familiar IPs like Star Wars or Cowboy Bebop. Yes, it’s that good.
7. Red Sonja, Volume 2: The Art of Blood and Fire (No. 7 – No. 12, Nov 2014, Dynamite) – Gail Simone & Walter Geovani
The biggest dark horse surprise this year had to be Gail Simone’s Red Sonja. What is particularly admirable in the newest iteration of the scantily clad, scarlet-haired, she-devil warrior is the degree to which writer Gail Simone has subverted and upended the original misogynist mythos. Prior to Simone’s arrival Red Sonja’s origin tale was clearly just the byproduct of adolescent male rape-revenge fantasies: Neither able to defend her family nor herself, a 17-year-old Red Sonja is raped by a gang of mercenaries. Naturally desiring revenge, she is visited by a red goddess who bestows upon her extraordinary fighting skills on the condition that she accepts the vow of chastity. With one exception: If she is beaten on the battlefield she may yield to her victor. In Simone’s version no goddess appears. No rape. No vow of conditional chastity. Thank you Gail Simone. If you know anything about the writer’s history you will know that what makes this reboot particularly poetic is the fact that it was only a decade or more ago that Gail herself participated in a website that catalogued sexist comic book plots that had rape as one of the central plot components. The fact that she is working today as a writer subverting and enhancing the very thing she was critiquing only 15 short years ago simply goes to show how far she has come—and how the only lasting revenge is success.
8. Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery (No. 1 – No. 5, Apr 2014, Image) – Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
The news of artist Roc Upchurch’s sudden departure from the series in the wake of his domestic violence arrest has left many fans asking why? Not so much, why did he do it? But, why is he leaving Rat Queens? Here is a particularly insensitive fan comment that was left on writer Kurtis J. Wiebe’s personal site: “[W]hatever’s transpired in Roc’s personal life is not only none of our business, but doesn’t affect his ability to draw a comic book beautifully. I understand wanting to distance and protect Rat Queens from this event, but so much of Rat Queens is the art. I just don’t know if I’ll be able to get behind another artist! I keep hoping that fans will respond, wanting Roc back, and everything can go back to normal.” Isn’t this the same kind of logic that certain NFL fans have used to justify Raven’s running back Ray Rice’s initial two game suspension? We just want things to go back to normal. In my mind there are certain acts that are so contradictory to an institution’s character that you can not simply “go back to normal” – no matter how talented that talent may be. I’d ask the diehard fans this: Given the fact that Rat Queens is thoroughly about female empowerment, what would you have Image Comics and Kurtis J. Wiebe do? Attempt to cover up or hide the abuse? Simply keep him on indefinitely as if nothing had happened? Had they the internal contradictions would’ve been too much to bear. I’m a dialectician through and through, but certain categories of behaviors simply can’t be synthesized. It’d be impossible for domestic violence and feminism to cohabitate. For that reason I applaud Image and Kurtis J. Wiebe for swiftly bringing on a new artist. The message they’ve sent is absolute and incontrovertible: No art is so valuable as to tolerate domestic violence.