It should come as no surprise that the Special Edition NYC panel on the state of the modern female hero was packed right from the get-go, as the long line of comic book fans filed their way into the con’s largest panel room. The five women selected to speak on the Reimagining the Female Hero panel all come from different backgrounds and work on a diverse assortment of comics. The panel, moderated by University of Oregon professor Ben Saunders, started with artists Jenny Frison (“Red Sonja,” “Revival”) and Emanuela Lupacchino (“Supergirl”), writers Marguerite Bennett (“Superman: Lois Lane”) and Gail Simone (“Red Sonja,” “Batgirl”). “Rocket Girl” creator Amy Reeder took to the stage — rocking some bat-winged sunglasses — arrived a little later, as she was coming from another panel.
Saunders kicked things off with an introductory question about the characters that inspired and fascinated the panelists as kids. Frison answered first, stating that her obsession with heroes began when her parents gave her a Wonder Woman children’s book that came with a cape. “I think it was called ‘Cheetah On the Prowl,'” she said. “I loved it, I was obsessed with it, and I always thought Wonder Woman was really cool, even when I wasn’t reading comics. When I was in high school, I saw Adam Hughes’ first ‘Wonder Woman’ cover. I was just so excited that that was a thing people could do, that you could really create an image like that and they’d put it on a comic book. I got really into comics after that.”
“My favorite superheroes are from the ’80s. I’ve known them since I was a little girl and I couldn’t even read comic books,” answered Lupacchino. “They are She-Ra and the Incredible Hulk.” Writer Marguerite Bennett had a similarly TV-based answer: “My introduction to Batman was actually through the animated series. My major introduction wasn’t to female superheroes so much as it was to female super villains. Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn — that was my holy trinity. It was so wonderful to see these women that did not abide by your rules and were not going to take your consequences.”
“I was becoming very frustrated at the material that was out there at the time when I first learned to read,” explained Simone. “Most of the female heroes and protagonists, if they had any kind of adventure at all, it was thrust upon them, or it accidentally happened. It was never something that they chose to go out and have their own adventure. They either fell down a rabbit hole, got taken up to Oz, something like that. I was actually at a garage sale and I saw the cover of a Justice League comic. Wonder Woman was on the cover, and I was like, ‘Oh, what is this? Is this some kind of princess that looks really strong?’ I got the comic and I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t understand how comic stories went, I didn’t understand numbering, I understood nothing. But I did understand that this was a really strong female character that made her own decisions, that chose to leave her homeland and go out and have adventures, and that was it for me. It was a done deal.”
“I was a big She-Ra fan for sure,” Reeder said, echoing Lupacchino’s affection for the cartoon character. “And also Jem. I was very into those things. I was mostly into things that had girl characters when I was younger. It was a great time — being a kid in the ’80s was a great time, because there were a lot of empowered female characters back then.”
The moderator then asked the panel if they’d ever experienced anyone telling them that they couldn’t like comics solely because of their gender. “I would say it’s a very easy thing: we are women, not aliens,” said Lupacchino to a round of applause. “We like rock music, heavy metal, we have feelings, we like flowers — but we like adventures as well.”
Gail Simone then spoke to her experience breaking into the male-dominated comic book industry in the early ’00s. “When I first started, because my name could be male or female, most people assumed that I was a male, just didn’t even ask — just assumed it. So that’s kinda what the state was at that point. It was only when pictures were taken and I talked on the phone and I met some people that they would even admit that I in fact was a girl and I was writing superhero stories. That was only like, ten or twelve years ago; it wasn’t all that long ago. I was telling them at the time, we are going to have a fifty percent male female audience, we are going to have more female creators, I’m going to prove to you that these female characters have more value to your company than just being someone that can be depowered, raped, chopped up and put in a refrigerator. It’s come a long way.”
The panel then addressed the myth that women only read comics if there’s romance involved, to which moderator Saunders noted that the X-Men are pretty much chock full of romance. “Every X-Men comic is a romance between me and Mystique,” clarified Marguerite Bennett. She then went on to discuss her experience as a prose writer getting her start in an industry that urged her to change her name.
“When I broke in, I was encouraged not to go by my name, which is an old woman’s name. There’s no disguising ‘Marguerite.’ Maybe if I went by my initials, ‘M.K. Bennet’… I’d been shopping [my prose novels] to agents, and that’s actually something I’d heard several times in response, was, ‘Well, you know female writers have a much harder time, especially with the kind of work you wanna do — would you consider having a pen name?’ For thirty seconds, in a moment of weakness, I considered it. And then I decided, the hell with that. You’re going to learn that I’m a girl, and you’re going to like that I’m a girl.”
The sexualization of female characters in comics remains a pressing matter today, and the panelists — especially those working on the chainmail bikini-sporting Red Sonja — had thoughts to share.
“[As a cover artist], I’m usually assigned a character who already has a costume,” said Frison. “That being said, with Red Sonja wearing her chainmail bikini, which is ridiculous, it does not bother me. To me, the thing that makes her sexualized by other people, is the way she presents herself, not the costume she’s wearing. It’s not the clothes you’re wearing, it’s how you hold your body, how you feel about yourself. She’s strong. I gotta be honest, I didn’t even notice how much I loved her until I started drawing her. She’s so strong and mad and vulnerable, sometimes, sad or angry. She’s always strong, in all of those things.”
Simone, writer of “Red Sonja,” then chimed in with a story specifically about the warrior’s chainmail outfit. “Jenny does the main cover, and any variant and all the covers are done by female artists. We were sitting at a convention, just talking, myself and a few of the other female artists, and it was the best conversation ever. It was all about how to draw the boobs inside the chainmail bikini. Listening to these female artists talking about it was completely different from how some male artists talk about it. They’re talking about the weight of the under boob, the shape and how, if she’s flipping up in the air, where would those really be. I was just sitting there thinking, ‘This has to be the best conversation that has ever existed.'”
A fan asked the panel whether or not they ever apply the Bechdel test to their work, and Simone replied that having multiple female leads interacting with each other was her main goal with “Birds of Prey,” even if the test itself wasn’t at the forefront of her mind. “It was my goal to show that we could have a book that had three female superheroines in it, who have their own missions, their own identities; they were friends, but they did missions together and didn’t agree always on the best way to go about it. It was kinda like a buddy cop comic that didn’t exist with women that much.”
Another question asked about the trend of having powerful female characters — like She-Hulk, the new Captain Marvel, Spider-Woman, etc. — spun off of popular male characters, and whether or not this relegated them to perpetual side-character status. Bennett fielded this question, answering, “I think [Carol Danvers] Captain Marvel has superseded any original, but that’s just me.” Listening to following thunderous applause, it was apparent Bennett’s not the only one who thinks that.
Reeder spoke up about another potentially derivative character, Batwoman, and praised the heroine for moving past her regrettable ’50s origins. “I think it’s great. I mean, the fact that, in a way, she was sort of a new character just because they brought her back and changed her so much. I think that’s a good feather in DC’s cap, that they were able to get a new female character to be that popular across genders.”
Simone ended the panel on a positive note, noting just how many barriers have been broken down by women using the power of the Internet to make their voices heard. “We have a lot of female commentators, podcasters, reviewers, people who put up their art that are female, females who will state their opinion loudly and publicly — not just females, males too. But I think that also rings true for any type of representation, because people start talking about it. Why haven’t we had a Canadian superhero, or a trans? It gets the discussion going. In the beginning, when the Internet was starting, I think that even just the companies realizing that there was a female audience out there helped bring it forward. It definitely has made a huge difference, I think, throughout the entire industry, to have these voices heard, that were not heard before.”