Getting Out Of The Margins


Sarah Brosenstern discusses women in comic books, graphic novels, and gaming.

When feminists think of women in comic books, graphic novels, and gaming, we often cringe. Images of scantily-clad women with no other purpose than titillating (pun intended) the psyche of young men are often the first in a series of negative images that come to mind. For empowered women everywhere, these women can represent the worst of the patriarchy; their bodies are idealized to the point of almost being caricatures, they are overtly objectified and sexualized (to the point where any functional aspects of their wardrobe have been discarded), and their characters are often trapped in the binaries of the damsel in distress/seductress archetypes.

Yet all is not lost. The world of comic books, graphic novels, and gaming has been undergoing an interesting (albeit gradual) cultural transformation that has brought more complex, female characters to the scene. This transformation has brought new, complicated, female characters to light, and recent works on vintage comic book characters have also exposed intriguing backstories to classic characters; histories that may change the way we think about comic book heroines. This summer, I would highly encourage any of my fellow comic book/graphic novel/gaming nerds to explore the following:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi.

Persepolis follows the experiences of the author, Marjane Satrapi, growing up during the Iranian Revolution. A poignant graphic novel, it provides insight into the thought process of a young girl from a cosmopolitan Iranian family – who is attempting to understand the rapidly-changing world around her.

Saga and Y The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

Brian K. Vaughan’s work has brought fascinating, complicated female characters to the word of comic books/graphic novels. Saga follows the journey of two star-crossed lovers from warring planets who are on the run with their infant – borne out of an illicit affair between a female soldier and a male prisoner of war. The comic addresses themes of racism, war, masculinity/femininity, human trafficking, and many other issues that transcend the vibrant universe that Brian K. Vaughan has built. Y The Last Man is no less powerful, and explores a world in which almost all of the men have been killed by a mysterious ailment. Darkly funny and complex, both series bring profoundly flawed but compelling female characters to life.

'Saga and Y The Last Man' by Brian K. Vaughan.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore and the accompanying National Public Radio Interview

This exploration of the classic comic book icon, Wonder Woman, delves into the creation of her character and the fascinating personal life of her creator, William Moulton Marston. Marston, a psychologist who lived a secret life with his wife and his mistress (the niece of women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger) was heavily influenced by women’s suffrage movements, erotic art, and presumed lesbianism in classical Hellenic mythology/literature. Jill Lepore’s book (and the associated National Public Radio interview featuring her) is a fascinating look at the development of a classic comic book character who, along with her creator, defied the social norms of the time.

Chell from Portal

Another classic, Chell is the often under-rated protagonist of the Portal video/computer game series – which features a set of puzzles in which the player (Chell) has to open various “portals” within rooms in order to manoeuvre through the game. Sure, Chell doesn’t say much of anything – but she is an important character to the gaming world in that she isn’t particularly sexualized, and she relies on her wits to move her through the game. Chell is a far cry from the loincloth-clad enchantresses of fantasy games; nor does she fit in with the prostitutes who are so often part of the background noise for games set in urban, gritty, environments. Chell is not only an important character, she is the character for the Portal games, and she spends her time reasoning her way out of her immediate predicament.

So this summer, relax a bit and indulge your comic book/gaming-nerd side. There are some fascinating characters out there.

[Sarah Brosenstern]

Sarah Brosenstern is an American writer on social issues in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland area. For more of Sarah’s work, visit her website.

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