I set out to write a piece about two comics that I’ve recently encountered: Lumberjanes and Subatomic Party Girls. Reading them, I immediately noticed similarities. They’re deeply imbued with a type of ridiculous humor that tends to catch the reader off guard. They both segue seamlessly from the real world—our real world—to impossible (or highly improbable) settings with very little explanation, and this is taken in stride. They’re all-ages comics with fun, colorful art and creative characters. And they both feature a cast of women, or girls, who are deeply developed people with agency.
In Subatomic Party Girls, the band—this is a space adventure, with aliens, about an all-female pop-punk trio—is everything I’ve always wanted in a story about punk rock chicks. These women care for each other, joke with each other, antagonize each other. Then they get shot into space, possibly forever. The “bad guy” in this is also a woman, their agent, who arranges their so-called tragic accident to capitalize on a memorial album. The alien that they first encounter, a sword wielding space pirate, is a woman cat-type species. Plus they have the ludicrousness that is Bob Seger as a deity and a Pegasus named Gregasus, which is not related to women and agency but is pretty awesome.
The girls in Lumberjanes don’t swear, but they do use the names of famous feminists and female icons (“what the Joan Jett???”) as exclamatories. They’re not in a “camp for girls,” but one for “hardcore lady types.” In just a few short issues, the characters are all developed distinctly from one another. They’re unique and realistic, badass and flawed. They nonchalantly fight three-eyed supernatural foxes that they encounter after following a bear-woman, and then bicker afterward about fighting formation. Their camp counselor, Jen, is a believable and relatable character despite her apparent love for rules and order, but the really outstanding thing—in the very first issue, this cabin of completely distinct diverse and unique characters fit together perfectly (because “friendship to the max”), and they have a camp director who completely legitimizes their actions. When they are caught sneaking out (or rather, caught trying to sneak back in) and taken to the director to be punished, she listens to them. She believes them. She is concerned by the things that concern them. And this is what excited me. These girls were being taken seriously by an adult.
I started this piece intending to write about how great these two series are—and really, they are. If you have kids, and in particular (but not limited to) little girls, I highly recommend picking these books up. They’re smart, they’re funny, and they’re visually appealing—isn’t that everything we want in a comic?
But as I was thinking about their similarities, and what I really liked about them, I realized: I like these books because of what they are, but I love them because of what they’re not. This is an all-girl band, but they’re not all spandex and boob windows. This is an all-girl camp, but it’s not the all-girl camp narrative we’ve been reading since forever, about fitting in and about growing up and about boys and crushes. This is not Disney-style girl power, with female protagonists that get to be assertive to a point but are thin and beautiful and end up living happily ever after with the man of their dreams. These are the comics I wanted, as a kid. These are the narratives I sought out throughout my entire elementary school existence—and occasionally succeeded, with authors like Patricia C. Wrede and Jane Yolen and Tamora Pierce. These are the narratives I so carefully curated for myself, but funnier, and with pictures. These are the comic books my little brother could always find himself in, but now I can find myself.
I tried to write about two really great comics, but I think what I want to write about now is the work those comics are doing. When we, the women in comics, the women in this community, ask for narratives that we can see ourselves in, for stories that empower us, this is what we’re looking for. When we talk about how not needing a man or fighting well isn’t enough anymore, this is what we’re looking for. Because we’re being told that we’re given the characters we’re asking for, but they’re dressed in spandex and we can’t relate. Some real women carry guns and know karate, and some real women are damsels in distress, but the majority of us don’t align with either extreme. We’re unique, well rounded human beings with a multitude of personality types and characteristics and preferences and abilities. I’m not saying this realistic characterization is not present in other stories. There are a lot of creators doing a lot of really great things with female characters. But I want to point out these two pieces, in particular, for the work they’re doing. These books are what we’re asking for when we say we want a complex story that represents us, characters who are not defined by their girl-ness but who are certainly informed by it.
I hesitate to write another article about female representation in comics. I hesitate to let myself be pigeonholed as the comics girl, the one who’s always ranting about political correctness, the crazy feminist, not because I’m not a woman in comics or because I’m not a feminist but because this isn’t about me, isn’t about that, isn’t about political correctness. And I know this has been said a dozen times, I don’t mean to be redundant, but representation is important. We’re seeing it with the #wheresgamora hashtag on Twitter, we’re seeing it with backlash- and then backlash on the backlash- over the Manara Spider-Woman cover. And we see huge portions of our community being unrepresented, and we see the portions who do get represented feeling befuddled and even defensive when this is pointed out. These things have been discussed throughout the whole internet, and don’t need to be rehashed again. I don’t want these comics to be a symbol for everything that’s right or wrong or missing about representation in comics. I do think, however, that when we have asked (for decades) for representation, this is what we were asking for. This is what we wanted.
Katy Rex is the founder and chief contributor at endoftheuniversecomics.com.