Just as there's no one type of comic book, there's no one type of female comic book character. Well-written female leads aren't confined to certain genres or designed to reach specific age groups. They can be assassins leading double lives or sci-fi adventurers or girls growing up in incredibly strange worlds. Even female superheroes and supervillains have come a long way in complexity from the early days of the medium. (For comparison, look for collections of old Wonder Woman stories. It's really fascinating to note the differences in how the character has been handled over the years.)
If you're hitting your local shop for Free Comic Book Day on Saturday, make sure to take some time to explore the racks and pick up some reading material beyond the freebies. Below is a starter list of titles that feature women and/or girls in prominent roles.
1. Lady Killer
Josie Schuller isn't your typical Avon lady. In fact, when Josie announces, “Avon calling,” it's time to bolt the door and hide. A Jackie Kennedy–styled 1960s beauty, Josie is also a fierce assassin trying to balance the job she can't quit with her suburban life. Lady Killer is witty, suspenseful, visually stylish and, yes, gory. If your interests include binging on '60s thrillers and rewatching Serial Mom, this is the comic for you.
2. Paper Girls
Paper Girls is essential reading for the woman who spent her childhood ticked that the boys got all the Goonies and Stand by Me cinematic adventures. It's 1988 and a group of middle schoolers roam dark streets with the news. Their paths are marked by bullies still on a Halloween high, but that's not all these young paper girls must handle in this thrilling sci-fi mystery from Saga's Brian K. Vaughan.
Saga has what is quite possibly the most action-packed opening you could find in comics. The story starts with childbirth in a scene that may make you laugh and cringe at the same time. But moments of family tenderness won't last long in the aftermath. Alana and Marko are forbidden lovers on the lam and their daughter, Hazel, is now ready to join them. Saga lives up to its name and the immensely popular, multiple award–winning series is a crowning achievement for writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples.
4. Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl
Phonogram is a three-arc comic series that fuses together music and magic. In the third arc, “Immaterial Girl,” a British woman becomes fascinated with music videos during her childhood. (For the American reader of the MTV generation, it's interesting to learn that the U.K. didn't have the same access to videos that we did.) As an adult, that old obsession comes back to haunt her when she makes a devil's deal, trading power for half of her personality. Unfortunately, it's the awful part of her that remains in IRL. The less evil portion is trapped inside an MTV void and must try to free herself “Take on Me” style. The Immaterial Girl is a fantastic romp between time and space with loads of references to the '80s.
5. Bitch Planet
Kelly Sue DeConnick is a comic book star; with Bitch Planet, she and artist Valentine De Landio co-create a bold, feminist sci-fi tale. Bitch Planet is a story about rebels, women imprisoned for failing to fit into expected gender roles. Visually, the story takes its cues from vintage comics, complete with parody ad pages at the close of the chapters.
6. Jem and the Holograms
Kelly Thompson has done a stellar job of reimagining '80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms for today's comic book reader. When we're introduced to the band, Jerrica is a timid singer who gains a new stage persona when she finds a gift from her late father. Jem is born, the band hits big and The Misfits get pissed. Adding to the tension is that Hologram Kimber and Misfit Stormer are falling for each other. Will they cross enemy band lines to develop a relationship? Volume one features art from Sophie Campbell, who did a beautiful job of updating the look of the characters while still keeping them recognizable. Props, too, for drawing the girls in various sizes.
7. Kim and Kim
Nominated for an Eisner Award this year, Kim and Kim follows the intergalactic adventures of Kimiko Quatro, aka Kim Q., and Kimber Dantzler, or Kim D. The two Kims are bounty hunters in a story that modernizes the space Western genre with touches of punk rebellion and queer themes. The story is funny but also heartfelt. In the first issue, Kim Q. talks about the struggles she had while coming to realize that she is trans. The moment, however, is not portrayed as a plot point. Instead, it emphasizes the close bond between Kim and Kim.
If there's a comic that illustrates the need for intersectional feminism, it's Monstress. Written by author Majorie Liu, the fantasy story is set in a war-ravaged world where (much like in the real world) oppression is more than simply an issue of gender. The protagonist is a 17-year-old slave, who has seen the horrors of war and is, early on in the story, subjected to humiliation at the poking-prodding hands of other women. In this world, some female characters have power, yet they are still divided by race and far from leading lives without violence. The story comes to life with the art of Sana Takeda, who beautifully balances the opulence and decay of this world.
9. The Legend of Wonder Woman
Renae de Liz, who launched the successful Womanthology comics collection a few years back, handled the story and pencils for what is essentially a Wonder Woman origin story. The story begins with the events leading to Diana's birth, where de Liz and collaborator Ray Dillon (ink, colors, letters) do a standout job of establishing this world infused with Greek mythology. They also excel at handling a Diana visibly burdened by the weight of her role in the world at an age where a rebellious streak is about to take hold. She has her own ideas about the world and the kind of leader she wants to be, and those aren't what is expected from her. Unfortunately, The Legend of Wonder Woman was canceled in the midst of its run, but it's still available to read.
Ever wanted to read a comic where a character exclaims, “Holy Bell Hooks!”? If so, Lumberjanes is for you. In this popular series, feminism and fun intertwine at a camp full of scouts who aren't always totally prepared for the strange adventures they will face. It has the comedy and pacing of a good TV cartoon, which may make this an ideal comic for younger readers. The humor is also packed with enough summer camp and scouts nostalgia to interest the older crowd.