Friday, April 13, 2012

Great Graphic Novels for Girls

As the "about me" blurb suggests, I'm a fan of comic books. When I was a kid, we spent many summers driving down to Georgia to visit my family in Valdosta. As it turns out, Valdosta is hot in late July/August. Really hot. Really really hot. Going outside to play during the day just wasn't that much fun, but, lucky for me, one of my uncles had been an avid comic-book reader when he was younger, and had amassed a pretty large collection of X-Men books. I spent most of that summer lying on the cool floor of my grandmother's house drinking sweet tea and escaping into the world of "Marvel's Mighty Mutants." I was introduced to Wolverine and Colossus and Storm and Nightcrawler (my favorite) et al. I watched as they saved a senator's life, even though he was rabidly anti-mutant. I saw Jean Grey die and be reborn as the Phoenix. I saw old members leave and new members show up. I saw them hanging out dealing with a world that didn't understand them, and I saw them fight with each other and with the people who wanted to harm them and with the people they were trying to save. It was my first exposure to the world of comic books, and while it's hard to say what impact it had on my life, it fostered a life-long love of the form. I don't think it's any coincidence that the X-Men continue to be my favorite super heroes, even though I haven't read a current X-Men book in a long time. Those stories (written by Chris Claremont) were my first foray into the world of comics, and I think that it was a fortunate introduction.

My first exposure to comic books was with a book that, while filled with typical super-heroics (heroes with strange powers! In colorful costumes! Fighting evil! Saving people! Action and adventure!), recognized we live in a difficult world where being seen as "different" can make life hard. Claremont took the idea of mutants and turned it into a metaphor, and made the book, at least in part, about discrimination. The X-Men aren't just born as heroes, they're born into a world that "fears and hates" them. They're pesecuted not for anything they've done, but for who they are. It's not a perfect metaphor, by any means, and the writing was, at times, really problematic, but for young me, it was a good introduction to a topic that I didn't have a lot of exposure to. They were heroes, but the world around them treated them like villains. Even more than Spider-Man, who was often the target of public ire, the X-Men were outcasts. A lot of those stories are as much about the fight for equality as they are typical super-heroics. The villains of some of the stories--I'm looking at you, Magneto--can't even rightly be called evil (despite the unfortunately named "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants"). Magneto is (correctly, it turns out) concerned about the oppression of his fellow mutants, and worried that non-mutants will try to exterminate mutant-kind. Since that's exactly what happens, it's hard to fault Magneto, even if some of his actions go too far. The world of the X-Men isn't black and white, it's a morally grey world.

But I digress.

Another area that the X-Men were interesting was in their treatment of women. Again, not perfect by any means, but there were a number of women on the team, and they were given lead roles, instead of playing back-up. In fact, it wasn't long before Storm was leading the X-Men. It wasn't infrequent for one of the X-Women to end up in situations where it they were the ones taking the spotlight and saving the asses of their fellow teammates.

Which isn't to say that Claremont deserves cookies for writing women who were capable of being heroes in their own right. That Claremont's X-Men books are so unusual for their time is a larger criticism of the industry than it is kudos to Claremont. It shouldn't be unusual to find books where women share the spotlight evenly with their male colleagues, or to find books where women's experiences are centered. Instead, the industry tends to write books by, about, and for men. I can't say what the current state in most of the X-Men books are, anymore--I know that Cyclops is leading one team while Wolverine leads another, and apparently they don't like each other right now? Again. But you don't have to look hard to see that women in comics aren't always written with a lot of respect to character. Look at some of the controversy around DC's reboots--Starfire, Catwoman, Amanda Waller--to see some of it. Marvel doesn't fair any better, either.

All of which is to say that it can be hard to find books that take the time to portray women with respect and let them be the center of the story without turning them into eye-candy.

Luckily, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the bloggers at Great Graphic Novels For Girls. So, if you're looking for something good to read, you could do a lot worse than starting here. They've helpfully broken the books out into various genres, so you can jump right to whatever your interests are. If you're interested in graphic novels and comics, this is a great resource.

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