It’s no surprise that here at Her Story Arc we love a good female protagonist, and with the influx of Marvel and DC movies, comic books are more popular than ever. Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, the comic book world can be an intimidating place. With some characters’ origins dating back to the first half of the nineteenth century, how the heck is one supposed to get into the fandom, let alone find a compelling female lead? Don’t worry, little internet-lings. That’s where I come in like a bad case of the stomach flu. There’s an awful taste in your mouth the entire time, but it can’t be avoided, so you buckle in and wait for the bright light.
As with everything I write, this list is loaded with personal bias. I’ve tried to keep the list to comics that are new (ish) so anyone who wants to jump into the world can do so without having to go back in time and read a million books. If you think I’ve left out an important comic or the order is absolute garbage, please feel free to shout at me in the comments. I’ll shout back and it’ll be like Christmas with the family all over again. I had a difficult time narrowing down my choices to only ten entries (and I even cheated), which I’m pretty stoked about because that means women in comics are growing! Huzzah!
10. Girls with Slingshots (Internet)
First comic on the list and already I’ve cheated. See, Girls with Slingshots isn’t a comic book in the traditional sense. It’s a comic that originated on the web, but its birthplace does not take away from its beauty. The premise isn’t all that exciting when you read that it follows several friends through their daily lives as they are forced to deal with things like unemployment, sexuality, and whose turn it is to take out the garbage. However, before you write it off as something silly, keep in mind that sometimes (especially with comics), it isn’t the story you read for, but the characters, and Danielle Corsetto has written some very good characters.
Read this comic comic if: you’re a fan of funny. cute artwork, and LGBT stories.
Starting point: Anywhere. I like to randomly select a comic and then go forward from there. But if you’re not the adventurous type, the beginning is always nice.
9. Red Sonja (Dynamite)
Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a sword, first appeared alongside Conan the Barbarian and is most known for her “metal bikini.” While the feminist in me wants to shout things about practical armor and “my god, woman, how can you sword fight with so little support,” I also recognize how iconic the armor has become. Conan, too, fought with very little covering his body and I’m not screaming about how his nipple might get sliced to bits. In the most recent reboot of Red Sonja (2012), Gail Simone has Sonja wearing so little because she believes she can beat anyone on the battlefield. Only when she feels truly threatened does she don a full set of armor. This change is just one of many that Simone has to change such a recognizable caricature, making Red Sonja less about a metal bikini and more about the woman. (In fact, Simone writes several strong female characters throughout the series.) Red Sonja is a bit like Xena: Warrior Princess, hard to kill, distant emotionally, and the best fighter in the land. She don’t take nobody’s shit.
Read this comic if: you enjoy an ass-kicking protagonist, campy humor, and swords. Basically, if you like Xena.
Starting point: Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone & Walter Geovani
8. Trinity of Sin: Pandora (DC)
Trinity of Sin: Pandora is probably one of the more complicated comics on this list, if only because of how many ties it has to current arcs within the DC Universe. As the precursor to the events unfolding in the Trinity War, Trinity of Sin: Pandora follows Pandora, the poor soul who unknowingly unleashed the evils of the world onto mankind. After watching the evils brutally murder everyone she loved, Pandora vows to rid the world of the demons. The comics take place in the modern day and Pandora, immortal and cursed for opening the box, has yet to find how to end the seven deadly sins. These sins (which hauntingly call her “mother”) have even warped the minds of DC’s greatest superheroes, so it’s up to Pandora to find the purest or darkest of heart to open the box again to bring the world into a newer, more peaceful age. I read once that Marvel crafts fascinating characters and DC crafts vivid stories. That adage is especially true in the case of Pandora. Maybe she isn’t as “entertaining” as some of the other protagonists on this list, but her world, her history, and her conscience are some of the best I’ve read.
Read this comic if: you like epic, dark, and emotional stories full of twists and intrigue.
Starting point: Trinity of Sin: Pandora, The Curse by Ray Fawkes, Daniel Sampere, & Vicente Cifuentes. You could also read the Justice League comics that ran parallel to Trinity of Sin: Pandora, and then Trinity War, but I want to just give you all a launch pad.
7. Umbral (Image)
Umbral follows Rascal, an adept thief in a fantasy world where magic is thought to be dead. After watching the massacre of the royal family and then “accidentally” coming into possession of the powerful Oculus, fabled creatures and magic begin to appear, bringing to life dangerous and powerful legends. Rascal soon learns she is good at more than just pickpocketing, but most importantly, she is very good at running away, because these creatures desperately want the Oculus, and they’ll kill her to get it. Umbral was a comic recommended by the owner of the comic book shop I frequent and my goodness, I’m glad he did. The artwork may be a bit of a turn off for some, as it’s not your usual comic style, but I find it fits the hazy, confusing world in which Rascal must now survive.
Read this comic if: you enjoy fantasy novels or just anything by Brandon Sanderson.
Starting point: Umbral, Book One: Out of the Shadows by Antony Johnston & Christopher Mitten
6. Tomb Raider (Dark Horse)
Five entries in and already I’m on to my second Gail Simone title. (You could say I’m a bit of a fan.) Lara Croft has been an icon in my life since she first appeared on the busted old PC in my parents’ dining room. When I heard about the reboot, I’ll admit, I was a wee bit excited. I love a good origin story and what’s not to love about a young, adventurous Lara Croft who is stranded on an island full of men who want her dead? The comic follows up immediately after Lara’s return home from the island of Yamatai, and then her subsequent return trip that turns deadly.
Read this comic if: you’ve played Tomb Raider and need more story to tide you over until the next installment.
Starting point: Tomb Raider: Survivor’s Guilt (Issue #1) by Gail Simone & Nicolas Daniel Selma. Having knowledge of the latest Tomb Raider game is a must with this one. I can’t imagine understanding and enjoying the comic otherwise.
5. Lumberjanes (Boom! Box)
Lumberjanes follows a plucky group of five girls while they are at summer camp, except it’s not quite like your normal stay in the woods. Sure, they are supposed to earn badges (one of which is given for puns!), but really, it’s more about their adventures, like fighting a pack of three-eyed foxes and surviving an attack from a river monster. It’s all in good fun with a warm sense of humor and characters that just make you smile. The art style fits perfectly with the story, too, so if you’re looking to start a collection, Lumberjanes is a great beginner’s comic.
Read this comic if: you like weird, maniacal, girl power and adorable artwork.
Starting point: Lumberjanes #1 by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis
4. Thor (Marvel)
Okay, so this is new series. VERY new. As in, only three issues in, new. And maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit by putting the comic so high on my list, but it made so many people mad that I just have to promote it even more. Call me a troll but I love a book that ruffles feathers. This new incarnation of Thor follows the demise of the Thor we know and love after he can no longer wield his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir. He picked a poor time to lose his worthiness, too, as Frost Giants have just invaded Midgard. Dun dun DUN! Along comes a new Thor, wielding Mjolnir like a pro to fumble through saving the day. And that new Thor happens to be a woman. Also, her armor looks awesome.
Read this comic if: you’re a fan of Thor, the Avengers, or really, anything Marvel.
Starting point: Female Thor begins in Thor: If He Be Worthy (Issue #1), and you can jump in with that relatively easy without any other comics. However, if you want to understand the back story (which I recommend), start with Thor: God of Thunder (2012).
3. Rat Queens (Image)
Rat Queens is a smartass, vulgar, and comical story that follows four female friends in a fantasy setting as they do their best to stay out of trouble while still making gold and getting drunk on a regular basis. The story plays out kind of like a D&D questline; the heroines are sent out for one simple job, only to realize things in the world are worse than they seem, and if they want to get back to their daily lives of debauchery, they have to do something about it. Rat Queens is beautiful in that all four women have their flaws, some more honest about them than others, and it causes rifts among the group, on top of the ongoing quest to be heroic and stuff.
Read this comic if: you’re a fan of vulgarity, dead goblins, and drug-addicted dwarves.
Starting point: Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
2. Saga (Image)
I can’t fully express my love for Saga. Every time I try to explain to others why it’s so wonderful I end up word vomiting all over the place and then they shout at me that they don’t know who I am and the police will be there in two minutes. Yes, there are some strange creatures in this very sci-fi comic, one of whom is a teenage ghost girl who was killed by a landmine, so she floats about at nighttime with only half her body in tact and intestines dangling. BUT SHE’S SWEET I PROMISE. The real stars of the comic are the two main characters, Marko and Alana, star-crossed lovers who are being pursued by their respective home planets because their child is an abomination halfling. Their relationship is the beating heart of the comic, each fully fleshed out and incredibly real in their own right. I’ve never read a story that focused so heavily on marriage and parenting while still being exciting. (Because come on, neither of those things are that interesting.)
Read this comic if: you are a human being. No exceptions.
Starting point: Saga: Volume One by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Okay, so I’m technically cheating with my number one here, so much so that I almost bumped Saga (deservedly so) to number one to keep from seeming too biased, but I’ve decided I really don’t care that much because these two are important to one another and I’m the one in charge here. Captain Marvel, the Kelly Sue DeConnick rendition, is the epitome of a strong female comic book hero, in my opinion. Her origin story is on par with other members of the Avengers and she’s fierce, witty, and unbelievably stubborn. Early on in Pursuit of Flight, Danvers struggles with using the name “Captain Marvel” instead of “Ms. Marvel” and Captain America tells her that Mar-vell would want her to take his mantle, so she decides to “take the damn name.” As a huge fan of Captain Marvel, it was nice to see her strength come out while fighting alongside Captain America, as well as his support of her. You know, since her history with the Avengers isn’t the greatest.
Ms. Marvel also has a new superhero under the mask in Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager from New Jersey who (like many superheroes outside of Tony Stark) hopelessly doesn’t fit in. Kamala Khan is a shift from other heroes, aligning more with current young adult novels than her comic book predecessors. She’s even a huge fan of comic books in her own right, one of the many facets that makes her story so fascinating. (At one point she fawns over meeting Wolverine and then saves his life.) What I really enjoy about Ms. Marvel is that Kamala’s Pakistani family and religion are depicted in a loving, if sometimes overbearing, light; something I think we need more of in mainstream media. Kamala is a tough cookie, almost as stubborn as Carol Danvers; she falls down, hilariously so, but gets back up to learn about both her shape-shifting powers and herself as a young adult. Anyone interested in jumping into comics should look for Ms. Marvel. I cannot recommend its humor, action, and heart enough.
Read these comics if: you want to make me happy. They’re number one on my list; obviously, I think you all should read them.
Starting point: Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight by Kelly Sue Deconnick, Dexter Soy, & Emma Rios / Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson & Sara Pichelli
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