A New Kind of Comic Book, a New Kind of Superhero

Image from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

The other day I took a friend's 14 year-old daughter, who I was looking after for the day, to a book shop. She was an exceptionally smart kid from DC, adopted from India at a young age. She was looking for origami paper for her newest obsession, while I was looking for new graphic novels. I managed to drag her over to the section and ask, "So, do you like comics?" She scoffed, rolled her eyes with an expression of theatrical disgust only a teenager can pull off. "No," she said.

"But they're great," I said, suddenly feeling the urgency of reeling her back in. "I don't mean, like, superhero stuff...have you seen this?" I reached for Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. "They made this one into a movie. It's about a girl about your age living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution." I flipped through the stark black and white illustrations, all lined up in their artfully codified panels. "The girl wants to be a punk rocker, but around that time, you could be thrown in prison for acting too Western--like buying a Michael Jackson album." She was intrigued, but not enough. She beelined it to the arts and crafts section. I had failed.

Comic books, or, their more mature, highfalutin label, "graphic novels," or, their more alt/indie title, "comix," seem to have become more rich; more emotionally complex and fascinating over the years, giving rise to a number of stories grounded in drama and gritty realism. Yet somehow, the world of Marvel and DC Comics still eclipses their very existence, with major blockbuster films reaffirming the notion that comic books are a medium for larger than life superheros and action sequences jammed with omonomopoeias. Still meant for teenaged boys who stay up late with a flashlight in bed to devour them at night, or slip them into their English lit books at school during study hall.

But a markedly different type of comic book began to surge in popularity as far back as 1991, with Art Spiegleman's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus, a gripping re-imagining of the Holocaust with Jews drawn as mice and Germans drawn as cats. And somewhere along the way, female-driven narratives began to open the genre up to an emotionally complex world that no words could describe.

While in college, I was introduced to Phoebe Gloeckner's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures," and it really showed me the power of the graphic novel. Published in 2002, Gloeckner's coming of age story takes place in 1970s San Francisco, where she faces an emotionally turbulent relationship with her mother that leads to a dark world of angst and rebellion.

Around that same time in college, I became friends with a girl named Tessa who worked at the local comic book shop in downtown Santa Cruz, CA. Her love of comics led her to start drawing them herself; and, more recently, she had her first book published, entitled Passage. Tessa has successfully used drawing as tool to process a turbulent childhood and work through present day health issues. Her stories are charmingly executed, and, for both illustrator and reader, cathartic.

If I had another chance to convince my friend's daughter that comic books were something she would love, I would introduce her to the brilliant female artists I'd discovered over the years. I'd show her Lynda Barry's What It Is, a giant surrealist dream book of nature collages, coming of age diaries and sketches, and questions she posits to the reader to inspire them to write or draw. Barry's other work, One Hundred Demons, is a collection of autobiographical, graphic stories that, according to my friend Tessa, remains beloved by many female comic book artists that make a habit of re-visiting the book for inspiration.

I would also show that skeptical teenager Vanessa Davis's Make Me a Woman, a hilarious collection of free form sketches (and some beautiful watercolor comic strips) portraying awkward adolescent tales as well as painful stories about dating in New York City.

Image from Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?
Or I would suggest she pick up Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, one of Time magazine's top 10 books when it came out in 2006--a major achievement for a graphic artist, and a queer female no less. Bechdel's noir-style coming of age drama portrays two parallel lives as she comes to terms with her father's hidden homosexuality as well as her own. Her images flow gently from one sequence to another, with an almost mixed media feel as she draws family portraits as well as passages from her father's favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald novels.

I may not have been able to convince one dubious teenager to love female-driven comic books, but I'll continue to hope for a future filled with a greater awareness of their power. A future where crime fighters with amorphous animal powers running and jumping around and catching the bad guy with a good one-two punch and a BAM! POP! KAPLOOEY! will be replaced with real women, with real legitimate strength and prowess, who really do fight real life battles and inspire others to do the same.

Alison Bechdel's recent book, Are You My Mother? was released this spring. Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, was recently adapted into a screenplay for a possible film through the Sundance Institute.