10 Fantastic Comic Books That Tell Women’s Stories

It’s practically an epidemic that women in comic books are relegated to minor (sexist) roles, often introduced only to be killed off — which is the focus on the website Women in Refrigerators.

The disproportionate number of leading women in graphic novels on a mainstream level is troubling, but there are stories that speak to women in complex and beautiful ways, and feature female protagonists. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which hit theaters this weekend and started life as a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, is one of those books. Here are ten others.

Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel

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From the New York Times on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, which is a companion work to her earlier Eisner Award-winning book Fun Home:

Bechdel’s previous book, “Fun Home,” told the story of her father’s secret homosexuality, thwarted artistic expression and ultimate suicide, and of her own coming out in college. “Are You My Mother?” delves into her troubled relationship with her distant, unhappy mother, and into her own difficulties connecting with a series of long-term girlfriends. As she confides her tale, she also addresses her mother’s bluntly conflicted reaction to her art, and folds their struggle into the writing of the memoir itself. “I would love to see your name on a book,” her mother says. “But not on a book of lesbian cartoons.” Bechdel weaves emotional honesty with highbrow deliberation in a way that is never burdensome, and mostly light.

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The Property
by Rutu Modan

An autobiographical account of a young Israeli woman, Mica, who accompanies her grandmother Regina on a trip to Warsaw to claim the family property lost during the Second World War. But the trip takes a difficult detour into the past as family secrets are revealed. The Guardian writes:

Her drawings are fantastically expressive, with the result that her characters are as many-layered as those you’ll find among the pages of a traditional novel. She is witty and wise, cool-headed in a world of feverish opinions. Most impressive of all, though, is her technique when it comes to matters of pace and deep emotion. Early on, for instance, Regina prepares herself for an important encounter. Modan does not tell us who she is about to meet, but we register its looming weight thanks to a series of wordless panels. We watch the old woman slowly apply her lipstick, pat her collar, put on her earrings. She looks proud, even tough. But then there comes a final frame in which her mirror face briefly dissolves, and we suddenly grasp the reality. Behind all that pressed powder, she is still a girl, really: vulnerable and trembling inside.

Persepolis

Persepolis
by Marjane Satrapi

An autobiographical graphic novel depicting Marjane Satrapi’s coming of age, set against the Islamic revolution. The author collaborated with comic artist Vincent Paronnaud to adapt the books into an animated film, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007. Simon Hattenstone for The Guardian writes:

Persepolis, the Greek name for Persia, is desperately moving and extremely funny — a little girl’s sarcastic love letter to her family. Young Marjane is a stroppy, piss-taking, veil-wearing Marxist-anarchist who embraces her many contradictions with self-absorbed relish. When she’s not preaching communism, she’s predicting her future as a religious prophet; when she’s not pogoing down the streets as a young punk, she’s listening to the turgid prog rock of Camel or the bubblegum pop of Kim Wilde.

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Stumptown
by Greg Rucka

Based in Portland, Stumptown features a female detective whose investigation crosses paths with her own gambling addiction. From The Lesbrary:

Stumptown is drawn in blues and yellows, with realistic figures and pacing. Those familiar with Rucka’s writing know he is no stranger to the competent-yet-full-fleshed-and-flawed female lead. Parios is no exception. She also happens to be bisexual. There is no underestimating the importance, for me, to be placed on lesbian and bisexual characters in mainstream media. These are stories not necessarily marketed only to us, but giving our stories (as humans who lead full lives, a portion of which involve sexual and emotional attraction to those of our same gender and sex) to an audience that may have them before.

Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy

Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy
by Fumi Yoshinaga

Manga artist Fumi Yoshinaga takes readers on a tour through the Tokyo restaurant and dating scene — and one young woman’s (foodie’s) life. From Girl-Wonder:

Not Love is a series of 15 vignettes that take place at 15 real restaurants in Tokyo. It’s heavier on plot than typical foodie manga, and follows a year or so in the lives of manga artist Y-Naga and her friends as they enjoy phenomenal meals and stumble through careers and relationships. It is very loosely based on Yoshinaga’s life (see the similarity in names and careers between Y-Naga and the author), and features a great cast of rotating characters. I was particularly impressed with a chapter in which Y-Naga takes her friend A-Dou out for sushi. Y-Naga has written comics about gay characters, but never realized that A-Dou was gay. Throughout the dinner, the two bond over an incredibly illustrated meal, and Y-Naga explores her own prejudices and assumptions about gay culture. It’s a little heavy-handed at times, but nice to see such a subject addressed with some nuance.

The Tale of One Bad Rat

The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Bryan Talbot

Featuring a protagonist named after English author Beatrix Potter, and titled after a fictional lost Potter book, The Tale of One Bad Rat follows runaway teenager Helen Potter on her journey through recovery from abuse. Website London Vandal writes:

While the book isn’t light hearted, Helen’s struggle for a healthier, more secure life is both charming and empowering. As Stephen Gallagher writes in the introduction:

“You feel as if you can share a little bit of the glow of satisfaction while knowing full well that you didn’t do a single stroke of the hard word that was required.”

Although he’s talking about Bryan Talbot writing and illustrating the book, the same is true of Helen’s story. Coming to terms with child abuse is hard work. You feel the pain of Helen’s betrayal-littered past. You care about her, and as she discovers her sense of self-worth you feel proud of her. The story ends with happiness.

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Lumberjanes
by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Faith Erin Hicks

Last we checked, Lumberjanes had an all-female team behind the scenes — writing, illustration, etc. The story follows a group of teenage girls at a summer camp whose attendees are known as Lumberjane Scouts. They solve spooky mysteries. The writers make clever references to pioneering women: “Oh my Bessie Coleman!” Co-writer Stevenson told the A.V. Club:

There aren’t a lot of books out there if you want to read adventure stories. . . . We’re writing for and drawing for our younger selves in a lot of ways, the stories that we wished we had at that age. And it’s obviously a passion project and I hope that resonates with readers. I want it to just bring a sense of adventure, and just feeling like the hero in the adventure—the Indiana Jones in your own story, and there’s been so few of those. I think that helps.

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Love and Rockets
by Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Mario Hernandez

Salon on why Love and Rockets features “among the most fleshed-out female characters in American literature”:

The Hernandez brothers are unique for having mastered the visual and the narrative techniques common to all graphic novelists and fused them with serial fiction — a genre that reaches back to Homer and Dickens and soap operas and telenovelas — that unfolds in more or less real time. Their characters have aged along with their readers, leaving or losing lovers and children and parents and friends, adding pounds and wrinkles and more lovers and children and friends, changing hairstyles and cities and apartments and houses, all the while keeping an essence that, throughout all these additions and subtractions, remains the same, or at least, in the right light, on the right day, familiar.

The NAO of Brown

The Nao of Brown
by Glyn Dillon

Praise from Publisher’s Weekly for Glyn Dillon’s celebrated return to the comic book world (for a dissenting opinion about how the story might be reinforcing sexism and the stigmatization of mental illness, read Emily Thomas’ take on the book):

A richly nuanced look at the daily life of Nao Brown, a 20-something hafu (half English, half Japanese) woman who works as a designer at a specialty toy store in contemporary London. Nao finds herself stuck in the nebulous area of biracial biculturalism and weathers the trials of the dating arena while also contending with common misperceptions about her Asian side. Further complicating her existence is a case of debilitating OCD, coupled with the frequent desire to inflict violent harm on people she encounters, twin demons that at times necessitate her retreat from the world. This is a dense work that gets into the often-disturbing realms found in Nao’s mind and the more we get to know of her, the more wrenching her situation becomes. Dillon turns in a narrative tour de force, featuring a script that works in perfect concert with almost cinematic art reminiscent of Milo Manara, but with far more expressive characters A triumph of comics for grownups, this is a must-read.

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Naughty Bits
by Roberta Gregory

All hail Bitchy Bitch, created by underground comix legend Robert Gregory. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Bitchy Bitch is “the person I would least like to have to be around,” according to her creator, Roberta Gregory. She is also the hilarious protagonist of most of the stories in Gregory’s comic-book series “Naughty Bits,” published by Fantagraphics. No. 16 came out in May, but comic-book stores that cater to adults might have several back issues, plus perhaps the collection of early stories called “A Bitch is Born.” Bitchy Bitch has a terrible temper, and tends to have tantrums that involve outrageous behavior (dumping broken glass in a guy’s lap, for example) — but they’re often precisely the kinds of overreactions many of us have fantasized about.