Women’s History Month: 31 Days of Power Volume 7
The heroes in our comics should reflect the world around us—and that means they should be diverse in their backgrounds, ethnicities, preferences, and genders.
In that spirit, we’ll be celebrating Women’s History Month by honoring female characters in comics history for the month of March.
First appearance: Young Avengers #1 (Marvel, 2005)
Created by: Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung
Alter ego: Hawkeye
Agency—one’s ability to act within an environment—is one of the single most important things a character can have. It’s also something that is so tragically lacking in many female comic book characters to the point where there’s something called The Lamp Test. The Lamp Test states the following: “If you can remove a female character from your plot, replace her with a sexy lamp, and your story still works—you’re a hack.”
Few characters pass The Lamp Test with more consistency throughout their entire history than Kate Bishop—also known as Hawkeye. The daughter of wealthy NYC socialite parents, Kate began heavily training in martial arts and archery while simultaneously undergoing therapy after she was attacked one night in Central Park.
While the idea of a trauma spurring a character to begin training in ways to defend themselves and protect others has been done again and again, it’s Kate’s decision to undergo therapy that truly sets her origins apart. When something terrible happened to Kate, she didn’t just react to it out of anger—she made a decision to deal with it and learn how to work past it. It’s a choice Kate makes that speaks to an emotional maturity that you don’t see in many male characters, the most prominent example of which might be Batman.
We look to our heroes to comfort us and make us feel safe. At their best, they’re our idealized reflections, inspiring us to be something greater than we are. Too often stigmatized as implying one is broken or weak, therapy is an incredibly difficult thing to go through. It’s not often associated with heroism, but the absolute truth is that there is nothing more heroic than staring directly at your fears or insecurities, baring them to someone else, and declaring that they don’t get to define you. Kate’s therapy opened up her ability to put her trauma behind her, move on, and become a hero to others when Captain America gave her a bow and some arrows that belonged to Clint Barton—who was believed dead at the time—along with a note addressing her as “Hawkeye.”
Eventually, it’s discovered that Clint is actually alive (because, comics). Kate’s not about to give up the Hawkeye identity, and Clint’s not about to fight her for it, so they both operate under the moniker, starring in the ongoing Marvel series Hawkeye. In the series, Kate is the voice of reason and responsibility to Clint, a man who is decades older than she. It’s one of the few examples of an alternate gender of a traditionally male character who is treated as more capable than her counterpart—she’s not ‘the girl one,’ she’s not “Lady Hawkeye.” She’s simply Hawkeye. Kate owns every single page she appears on because she’s just that incredible. I’d be willing to bet that if you took her out of the book, it would tank.
But the truth is, Kate’s amazing because she is the model of the responsible, mature superhero. Where comics have ingrained in us that the only good hero is one defined by their tragic past, she’s eschewed those limitations to become her own, self-empowered character.
After all, according to Kate, “Being a superhero is great. Everyone should try it.”
First Appeared: Deadline #1 (Deadline Publications Ltd, 1988)
Created By: Jamie Hewlett, Alan Martin
Alter Ego: Rebecca Buck, Julie
Comics, like music, are reflective of their culture and when the two draw from each other the results can be electrifying. When punk aesthetic and a very British sense of anarchy copulated onto the comic page in 1988 the result could only have been, Tank Girl.
Otherwise known as Rebecca Buck (though rarely), Tank Girl went on to become the poster child for feminism, sexual expression, alternative comics, and just having a plain, buck wild good time. An opinionated, hard drinking, middle finger raising, sometimes obnoxious, always entertaining woman who happens to live in a tank, Tank Girl was a revelation to the comic book industry and made Wonder Woman look like Grandma Moses by comparison.
Spewed from the fevered minds of Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (who later went on to be the visual designer/co-creator of Gorillaz with Damon Albarn) Tank Girl reflected the world and the women around them. Tank Girl was relatable in her attitudes, making no apologies for who or what she was and the style Hewlett drew her in reflected that. Her clothes drew from elements of punk, steampunk, surrealism, and history and established her as a fashion icon. The world she inhabited too was as wild as the woman itself, set in a post-apocalyptic Australia which had very little bearing to the real thing. Hubert Selby Jr., when describing the America he brought to life in his masterpiece, Last Exit To Brooklyn stated that it was a ‘Brooklyn of the mind’ as opposed to the real thing. This too could apply to Martin and Hewlett’s Australia, with its mutant kangaroos, endless British sensibilities and references, and its nonstop parade of fantastical atrocities.
Of course, the wheels nearly came off when the much maligned and bitterly hated 1995 movie adaptation was released. Rarely has a movie adaptation misinterpreted the tone of a comic and the resultant lack of enthusiasm for the character was all encompassing, especially to Hewlett himself who found the whole experience humiliating.
But, you can’t keep a good Tank Girl down and she has continued on her own unique, drunken, nose picking, mutant kangaroo shagging path ever since. A vast list of comic book luminaries, from Peter Milligan to Ashley Wood, Phillip Bond to Jim Mahfood have kept the Tank Girl flag flying since, and original co-creator, Alan Martin, has never strayed too far from the character, writing a number of issues over the years.
With news that Hewlett will be reuniting with Martin and returning to Tank Girl (as well as comics in general after a long absence) as part of the upcoming 21st Century Tank Girl Anthology (published by Titan), it looks as if a full-blown Tank Girl revival might be in the offing.
For those who have read and loved the character in the past, you know this can only be a good thing. For those of you, especially female readers who feel their inner punk has never been fully recognized, your whole world is about to freakin’ change for the better.
First Appearance: Tales to Astonish #44 (Marvel, 1963)
Created By: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Alter ego: Janet van Dyne, The Winsome Wasp
From little things, big things grow.
From her humble beginnings, Janet van Dyne, maybe more than any other Marvel heroine, has come to reflect the times that she lives in. From spoiled, dilettante girlfriend/sidekick to ass kicking leader of the Avengers herself, The Wasp has carved a unique and singular path through the Marvel universe.
Embodying a very cool and hip 60’s chic upon creation, Ms. van Dyne had more in common with the good time, party loving archetype shared with Mary Jane Watson than with her stalwart male counterparts. These archetypes were born of male creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby primarily, basing the outgoing, fun-loving personalities movie stars of the time such as Ann-Margaret, whose on-screen persona’s were, of course, fabrications devised by male writers also. Still, the result was a character that appeared vital and full of life. Let’s face it, that original line-up of the Avengers wouldn’t have been half as much fun without the Wasp’s presence, and she provided a much needed grounding to the team, which allowed readers more ease in connecting with them. Despite the clichés of her times being attributed to her, Janet still felt far more realistic; funny, caring, ribbing the gods around her at every opportunity, Janet was the character you would have most liked to have hung out with, you know, if such a thing were possible.
Born to and raised in wealth, this was the main element of Janet’s conflicts and personality for her formative years. Yet over time, this ‘fun-loving’ persona would be challenged by real world issues when Jan’s relationship with Hank Pym began to turn sour. Never the most stable of characters, Hank’s mental state plummeted and stabilized over the years, resulting in a relationship which, in hindsight, had all the hallmarks of a mentally abusive one for Janet. This culminated in Hank striking Jan whilst in his Yellowjacket ‘persona,’ prompting Janet to finally divorce her troubled husband.
Although at the time, the story was played out in brilliantly melodramatic circumstances (as is the Marvel style), the harsh reality of the real world bleeding into Janet’s would forever change the character. The story, written by Jim Shooter, would also polarize readers as modern sensibilities, and increased awareness of issues like spousal abuse brought new, harsh perspective to the story. Many felt that both characters and been tarnished forever and that the whole incident should be retconned from Marvel’s history. Other suggestions were that Hank should sacrifice himself in some grand and heroic manner, thereby absolving himself of his actions, as if such a thing were possible.
Yet in truth, whatever your feelings toward the issue, this was Wasp’s story and it marked the end of a long arc for her character; from spoiled, damsel in distress foil for Hank Pym to a more nuanced and layered character who could be assertive, strong and independent without artifice. Did it take such extreme circumstance to get her to that point? Probably not, but such an action did reflect real life and heralded a far more realistic approach to comics which would become the standard in years to come.
Resultant creators would take Janet’s strengths and fly with them (pun intended) eventually resulting in Wasp becoming, not only a mainstay of the Avengers (she is second only to Captain America in her tenure as the team’s Chair-Person) but as a formidable leader of the group herself.
The Wasp has yet to truly make her mark in the new aesthetics of the Marvel Now universe, but with more public exposure than ever through the recent Ant-Man movie and its upcoming sequel, it is only a matter of time before Janet reasserts herself within the Avengers and the Marvel Universe.
First appearance: Savage She-Hulk #1 (Marvel, 1980)
Created by: Stan Lee, John Buscema
Alter ego: Jennifer Walters
I can’t pretend to be an expert on any comic characters like Matt or RW here, but I think I can bring something else to the table: the ladies point of view. I don’t know the history of She-Hulk very well nor do I understand her backstory beyond what Wikipedia tells me, but if I walked into a comic store and was greeted with a female version of the Hulk, you can be sure as hell that I would pick that up off the shelf. Based purely on some of the art I have seen, She-Hulk wears her skin as a layer of pride, not as an embarrassment to be hidden.
Jennifer Walters gained her superpowers from a blood transfusion donated by her cousin (Dr. Bruce Banner), so she does not ever show the full effects as he does—she retains more of her human personality, but still gets all big and green and awesome. Early on in her existence, this was something that could come and go, but in her recent history, her transformation is permanent and something that she must live with day in and day out.
She-Hulk visually embodies her career, showing power and prowess in both her biological and superlogical forms. Walters is a seasoned lawyer who stands up for other superheroes, and holds her head high in the face of looking a little bit different. She is yet another example of a women who can kick ass even without the extra abilities she’s been given. I’m a big fan of characters that children can look up to. Not every superhero has to be an allegory for real life—some of them can have true, everyday careers that make a difference in a very explicit way. While She-Hulk isn’t breaking too many boundaries in the beauty department (no one would group her with the non-conformist beauties of Squirrel Girl or Faith), she also doesn’t lead a double life. All of her identities are one in the same and proves that you can be different, in any respect, but there’s no reason to be ashamed of it.
Bios for Tank Girl and the Wasp were contributed by RW Adams. She-Hulk’s bio was contributed by Marissa Bea.