About a year ago, I walked into Gotham Comics in Westminster with the intention of restarting my comic book collection after letting it lie dormant since the comic book boom of the early 1990s. Upon entering the store I was immediately confused.
A blond woman was on the cover of Thor holding his hammer (which left me puzzled), a black man with wings was on the cover of Captain America (more confusion), and a black teenage boy was on the cover of Ultimate Spider-Man (at that point I realized I had no idea what was going on in the medium anymore). I bought a few smatterings of random titles (avoiding any of the ones mentioned above) and left the store believing I would never be back.
However, being once-again bitten by the comics bug, it was only a few days before I was back. Against my conservative instincts, I bought the female Thor title. I figured that eventually my daughter might get a kick out of it. Of course, I needed to read it first.
I read it. I really liked it. It wasn't my all time favorite, but the story was creative and the art was excellent, though different from the 1990s art I was used to. In the '90s, super heroines were highly sexualized. Their costumes consisted of skin-tight, low-cut, leotards that left little to the imagination. It was a pre-teenage boy's fantasy.
But the new Thor's costume was a mixture of a silver armor breastplate, leather looking skirt and black pants. Even her face was partially hidden by her helmet. As the story unfolded across the next few issues, she smashed evildoers with her magical hammer, saved the day and struggled with her newfound heroine responsibilities. It was a great story, and I appreciated the fact that she represented a brand new day for comic book super-heroines.
And the new female Thor is just the tip of the emerging super-heroine iceberg. For example, Gwen Stacy, who dies as a tragic victim in Amazing Spider-Man #122, now breathes new life as Spider-Gwen, a heroine who is traumatized by the death of her boyfriend Peter Parker. Ms. Marvel is no longer the blonde white Carol Danvers (who originally fought evil in bikini bottoms), but is now Kamala Khan, a Pakistani Muslim American high school student. Other super-heroines, like Spider-Woman and Batgirl, have gone through costume revisions that accentuate practicality and modern fashion as opposed to the hyper-sexy outfits of the '90s.
Of course, this is not to say that the comic book industry has entirely progressed from the sexualizing and stereotyping of their female characters. Last week DC comics decided to pull a planned limited edition cover of Batgirl that recalled a classic Batman story in which Barbara Gordon is shot, paralyzed and sexually assaulted by the Joker; the artist asked that the image not be published after seeing the reaction from readers. It was, to a fan like me, an interesting choice. Women and men are both victims of terrible crimes. To deny such a reality exists in favor of the narrative we wish existed seems to neglect reality. Of course, many others have argued that the point to the modern super-heroine is to embrace the strength of women and not to portray them as victims.
Some critics have said that this re-imagining of super-heroines is a business ploy to lure in female readers and to placate feminists. I am sure that there were a number of business executives who weighed in on the choices made by the artists, writers and creators, but, to be frank, I don't care. I love the new super-heroine books. For the first time since I started reading comic books, the girls are just as courageous, heroic, strong and smart as the boys.
D. Ryan Schurtz is an assistant professor of psychology at Stevenson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.