Exploring female comic characters and how they've changed over the decades

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Heroes are everywhere. But in comics, they're usually buff guys that race faster than a speeding something. So what about female heroes? We talk about female comic characters with our monthly guide Joel Christian Gill, the inaugural chair of the Boston University MFA program in Visual Narrative, and Hillary Chute, Distinguished Professor of English and Art + Design at Northeastern University.

Interview Highlights

On women as comic creators and women as comic characters:

Gill: "I think that it's, you know, a little bit reductive to talk about women in comics as to talk about them as like this emerging thing or something that's happening, like all of a sudden, because women have been in comics since the inception, right?"

One of the pages of a comic book by Zelda Jackie Ormes, the first Black woman comic artist, on display in downtown Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
One of the pages of a comic book by Jackie Ormes, the first Black woman comic artist, on display in downtown Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

"You had to Tarpe Mills, Who created Miss Fury, who was the first woman superhero created by a woman. You've got Jackie Ormes, who was a Black woman creating comics in the golden age. So we've always had these women who are creating comics and, you know, and I think now we're just we're paying attention to it. It's kind of like Black people in comics, too. Like, people have always been there, but now we're paying attention to it and it's like, 'Oh, there are people who are doing this.'"

Miss Fury comic strip by Tarpe Mills. (Courtesy of
Miss Fury comic strip by Tarpe Mills. (Courtesy of

On the balance of retelling stories about women in old ways versus telling new stories that introduce new possibilities and new thoughts:

Wash Day Diaries, by writer Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith.
Wash Day Diaries, by writer Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith.

Chute: "That question and thinking about traditions of storytelling and modes of storytelling gets at something that I think we see in contemporary comics by women in such a powerful way, which is different approaches to the idea of what's important to articulate in stories about girlhood and womanhood. So I think for some, the heroic mode is the most significant way to express certain kinds of narratives of development. You know, especially for girls overcoming barriers, for example.

"I think for others, what has been so interesting — and I think we see this a little bit with the Wash Day Diaries and the sort of earlier version of the Wash Day Diaries, which was a mini comic just called Wash Day — is more just a sense of capturing the text. Matter of everyday life. So I think you do have a heroic mode and one that taps into older stories and new versions of older stories. And then I think you have this really interesting thing happening in comics that has to do with the intimacy of drawing and the ability of the comics frame to provide detail, which is a slice of life, the texture of everyday life, the power of capturing time passing, the power of what it feels like to be a woman in a daily context."

On the power of comics as an artform to tell women's stories: 

Gill: "You know, it's almost like Black people making stories that are devoid of white supremacy. It's really difficult. And so now we've got creators who are like, 'You know what? I'm not going to do that anymore.' And I think women cartoonists are doing the exact same thing. They're no longer thinking about their stories in terms of the male gaze. They're talking about it in terms of like, you know, these are for women by women.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

"And some of those stories transcend that — like Wash Day Diaries or Fun Home or Persepolis. So there are lots of these stories. And I think that that connection that disaffected people in America in our society feel gets is a way in comics for them to actually expand on their ideas and their expression. And I think comics is the perfect mode of that because, you know, it's been looked down as like the lesser-than art form. And so when when the lesser-than art form is considered, whether it's movies, whether it's novel writing or anything, right? When there's this lesser known form that people who are disaffected move into that space and then they make it their own, and then people go, 'Oh, wait a minute.'"

On the change of story topics women write and create in comics now:

Chute: "[Gill] mentioned trailblazing female cartoonists like Jackie Ormes, who was publishing comic strips in the Chicago Defender in the 30s and the 40s. But I think what has really changed, I think in the 21st century, is the field is so diverse and so fascinating. And there's more room now for stories about women's own lives. And that I think is a real difference from earlier comics, you know, pioneered by women in the 20th century. You know, so we get works like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, we get works like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home about growing up as a queer child in rural Pennsylvania with a closeted queer father. That work was adapted to be a Broadway musical that won the best Musical Tony Award in 2015. So we see a real path forward for stories about women's own lives to be very mainstream in a way that they weren't in earlier decades.

So I think if someone like the cartoonist Raina Telgemeier — she's one of the bestselling, not just cartoonists, but bestselling authors, period, working in book publishing out there today. Her book, Guts, which did a lot to shine a light on on mental health — which is a memoir about her growing up — had a had a print run, an initial print run of 1 million copies. So it's very interesting to me and very moving to me that there's such an appetite today for stories about the texture of women's own lives."

This segment aired on March 30, 2023.


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Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.


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Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



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