Captain Marvel seeks new heights for women in comics

The new Captain Marvel is definitely not the first female superhero. In fact she’s not even the first female Captain Marvel. But she might end up being the first truly feminist icon in mainstream superhero comics — if her series manages not to get cancelled. The upcoming series, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Dexter Soy, features longtime Marvel character Carol Danvers as the new Captain, promoted from Ms. Marvel, and DeConnick has made it clear in a recent CBR interview that she will be a different sort of female lead:

“C’mon now, people: prove me wrong. Show me that a female-led book about the power of the human spirit, about the many guises of heroism, a book wherein no one gets raped or puts her cervix on display, can break six issues, won’t you?”

I’ll confess I only read a Captain Marvel title briefly, and I don’t know much about the Kree or the Skrulls or even Carol Danvers, aside from the fact that she's had several superhero personas. But judging from social media and press coverage over the past few days, it strikes me as a bold move and atypical of what you usually see in female superhero characters.

The creative team seems to be going for a strong, intentional statement about women in comics, but from an honest and natural place. DeConnick seems to be saying, we're not going to pull the puppet strings of a female character that serves as an over-sexualized backdrop for male characters. Because that sucks, but also it's just lousy storytelling. Instead, here's a female character with dimension, motives, a past, present and future. And she wears pants.

Yes pants, (sadly) a bold costume choice for a female superhero. There are many, many discussions of gender and sex, and the male gaze in mainstream comics. It’s not pretty. In fact, the state of female influence and readership in superhero comics is fairly damning and justified reason the medium (not just Marvel but all comics) have a pretty lousy reputation. Female characters are almost always striking pornographic poses for no reason. There are almost no female writers working for DC, to the point that the Co-Publisher Dan DiDio was confronted at a recent con, which he handled very poorly.

The criticism doesn't come from a place of anger. It comes from a place of disappointment. Women (along with men, teens, young boys, girls, college professors, presidents and Pulitzer Prize winners) love imaginative genre fiction. Stieg Larsson, The Hunger Games, Joss Whedon productions, even godforsaken Twilight are undeniable examples that there’s an enormous female audience for compelling horror, fantasy and science fiction literature. And surprise, surprise, they want to see heroes and villains they can associate with, and not feel like their entire presence serves as sexual titillation or rape fantasy.

That’s not to say there are no examples of strong female characters in comics. Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman has been held up as a strong female lead. You could argue that Catwoman has long been a powerful character, although she’s often eye candy for Batman comics. And Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker have been writing feminist (even gay!) characters in their book Gotham Central, and Rucka later in Batwoman. So maybe there’s a trend as a struggling industry seeks more readers.

But there’s something bold and symbolic about Carol as Captain Marvel, with DeConnick at the helm. The costume alone (designed by Jamie McKelvie) makes a statement, not for the sake of making a statement, but because it makes sense for the character. She’s an Air Force pilot, so why would she wear a string bikini, thong, or aerobics leotard? No, this is a flight suit. Her hair pinned back while in costume is slightly punk rock, aerodynamic and fits in a helmet. Ok, ok, so it’s skintight. Nobody said she has to be in a burka. But frankly, she looks badass. She looks like a hero. And male or female, isn’t that all we ever wanted in our superhero comics?