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The Feminist Starter Pack: 10 Comics To Read

The comics medium, particularly superhero comics, have long been criticized for being too male-centric. They tend to cater to male power fantasies, objectify women, espouse toxic masculinity, and lack diversity as well as nuance. That is, until recently.

That is why we have terms like "fridging" and the "Bechdel Test" in common parlance now. Because comics are for everyone. Feminist comics are important because they not only address vital and contemporary issues, but they also critique and question the patriarchal traditions that have shaped the industry and the world we live in.

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Feminist comics talk back to the medium, and in doing so, bring up issues of equality, representation, diversity, privilege, and political correctness. They educate, inform, and entertain by providing characters or talking about issues that everyone can relate to, and give agency to the voiceless and the marginalized.

Some of these comics are focused purely on women's issues and gender inequality, while others are more inter-sectional. But they've all been lauded for being deeply relevant and thought-provoking.

Which ones have you read so far?

 

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10 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Like Art Spiegelman's Maus which put the genre of graphic novels on the map, Satrapi's Persepolis was a milestone in the history of the medium. Written originally in French, the comics offer an autobiographical account of the writer's life in Iran, during and after the Islamic Revolution.

Told mostly in black and white sequences, Persepolis offers a brutal, heart-breaking, and candid account of the life of a Muslim woman, during an extremely turbulent political climate. The books are important because not only do they provide an insider's account of history as it is being made, but also question normative narratives that are circulated by the state or those in authority, that often distort or minimize the harsh reality.

The comics thus not only provides a glimpse to a war-ravaged world that most of us otherwise would not even care about but also makes us question how history can never ever be one-dimensional.

9 Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro

One of the most distinctive features about Bitch Planet is the art, that is reminiscent of vintage film posters. The comics offer a feminist twist to the exploitation film genre. Set in a dystopian world,  the comics follow the adventures of women who have been arrested for being "non-compliant" and imprisoned in a prison in space.

The comics are graphic, bold, and most importantly assertive they do not shy away from violence or female nudity, but rather give the women (including women of color) their autonomy and their agency back which wasn't there in the old prison or exploitation films.

With only 10 issues, it is rather short but there's also an anthology-series Bitch Feature: Triple Feature! that you can read after, which has been made with the involvement of more writers and artists.

8 Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, & Noelle Stevenson

Lumberjanes is one of the most wholesome, positive and at the same time, deeply-nuanced comics that kids (and even adults) should read.

Created by women and featuring a more-or-less all-women cast, the comics follow the adventures of five scouts who are also best friends, as they explore the various seemingly supernatural incidents that happen in the camp.

The stories are action-packed, hilarious, and so...positive. It has one of the best depictions of female friendships and solidarity. It not only critiques toxicity in relationships - which is often normalized by mainstream media - but also provides an alternative template to it. Lumberjanes shows that friends can indeed bring out the best in each other, as value like trust and loyalty are so important for human interaction and existence.

7 Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Noelle Stevenson's name is already familiar in the comics industry because of her work on Lumberjanes; however, before that became a hit, she worked on a little webcomic called Nimona. She started the comic when she was still in college, posting brief pages on Tumblr and the project eventually became her senior thesis. Later when Harper Collins published it as a graphic novel, Nimona was even nominated for an Eisner Award.

The comic is a beautiful and clever critique of several science-fiction and fantasy tropes. Nimona is a badass and spunky shape-shifter as well as a sidekick to the supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart, and the story details their many entertaining adventures.

It's pretty short, so you can finish it in a single sitting.

6 Death: The High Cost of Living & Death: The Time of Your Life by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sandman is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces in the genre of comics and graphic novels. It's also the series that introduced a different take on the figure of Death. Instead of the grisly skeletal figure of the Grim Reaper that has haunted people's minds for centuries, Death is portrayed as a punk-goth teenager wearing an ankh necklace, who is also one of the most cheerful, sensitive, and rational characters in the series.

In The Sandman, she has an affectionate relationship with her brother Dream. Death offers him support, knows exactly how to placate him, and isn't afraid to call him out when he does something wrong.

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In a way, Gaiman's Death also popularized the "goth gal" aesthetic in the '90s, and the character was so beloved she also had two miniseries Death: The High Cost of Living (1993) and Death: The Time of Your Life (1996), apart from also appearing in several other DC comics.

All of them explore the different layers to her personality and portray a woman who's in power, confident, down-to-earth, and very, very nice.

5 Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Another webcomic that took the world by storm, Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal is a delightful portrayal of a world without men, so women have to rally together to rebuild civilization. Although set in a rather bleak and dystopian world (climate change is still a thing), the comics aren't dark but rather funny, insightful, and hugely relevant to our times.

Updated biweekly, Woman World has so far garnered over 150,000 readers and best of all, can be read online for free on the author's Instagram page. It presents various feminist concerns and debates in short slice-of-life narratives.

4 Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch

An ongoing series, Rat Queens writes women back into the male-dominated genre of fantasy novels and role-playing games.

Imagine a game of Dungeons & Dragons starring sassy loud-mouthed adventurers, including elven mage Hannah, atheist cleric Dee, the dwarven warrior Violet, Betty the halfling thief, and a transgender Orc called Braga. The stories are reminiscent of sword-and-sorcery narratives, just with women at the forefront.

If you're looking for swash-buckling feminist action, this is a series to dive into. The comics are so popular, there were talks of a TV show and there's even a tabletop RPG series that is being streamed on Twitch based on the same series.

3 Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Another noted webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant revisits historical events and characters from a feminist light. Artist Kate Beaton began this project while drawing comics for a student newspaper in college, where she was studying History and Anthropology.

The comics are populated with both literary and historical figures, including the likes of Sherlock Holmes and the Bronte Sisters. Her caricatures are humorous, witty, and cerebral, with the drawings all fitting within the space of three to six panels. It also brings attention to several women who are often ignored in mainstream historical accounts.

The comic strips were later collected and released to critical acclaim in a print collection in 2011, going on to win several awards.

2 Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

It's not a coincidence that so many comics written by women tend to be autobiographical. History has always been a man's project, and the voices and experiences of women have hardly been adequately represented. Women need to write their own stories and carve out their own place in a world that has privileged males.

Which is why Bechdel's graphic memoir is so important. It explores a girl's complex relationship with her father and addresses issues relating to abuse, gender roles, sexual orientation, and suicide. Ultimately, Fun HOme examines the role of literature as a tool for understanding oneself and society.

The author's name is also related to the "Bechdel Test" (or the "Bechdel-Wallace Test"), which is designed to measure the representation of women in any work. The test was first discussed in the writer's 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For.

1 Princeless by Jeremy Whitley

We've all grown up reading tales about the damsel in distress trapped in a tower, patiently waiting for her knight in shining armor to come and save her. We're all so tired of it.

This is where Whitley's comic comes in. As the name suggests, the story follows Adrienne, a princess who is tired of waiting for some Prince Charming to rescue her, and instead decides to save herself. Moreover, over the course of the series, she not only saves herself but also goes ahead to save her six other sisters.

It's kid-friendly, extremely empowering, and sends a very powerful message to all the girls out there: They are complete and strong by themselves and do not need a man to save or define them. It teaches that women are capable and have always been capable of creating their own Happily-Ever-Afters.

And that's something we really need to hear more of.

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