Super Girls: Finding your Girl Squad in Comic Books
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Recent years have seen the rise of the girl squad. Most famously used in reference to Taylor Swift and her entourage of glamorous and successful friends, it’s a phrase to describe friendship amongst a group of women, often focussing on empowerment and solidarity. These buzzwords flit in and out of cultural consciousness, but are often also part of wider cultural trends. In this case, the term emerged around the same time as a surge in movies and television that are led by female ensembles.
Stories that focus on the bonds of friendship between women have always existed, from Little Women to Charlie’s Angels. However, recently they are coming back into the spotlight with successful hits such as Bridesmaids and Orange is the New Black. These girl squads are a reminder that stories of the friendships and the experiences shared between women make for compelling stories. One of the best places to find these stories at the moment is comic books. Sadly, long associated with limited portrayals of women, there are now a wealth of comics representing women from all walks of life, and these girl squads are right at the heart of this. These groups of friends have all the diversity and complexity found in real life squads, but with slightly more super-powers and monster-fighting skills. So if you’re looking for inspiration in the form of fantastic female friendships, it’s time to take a look a comic books.
Of course for many people when they think of comics, Marvel is their first point of reference. This is rather unsurprising, as along with their immense comic book legacy, the Marvel Universe has produced some of the most popular movies and TV shows of recent years.
Unfortunately we’re stilling waiting for an all-star team of female superheroes to come to the screen, luckily the Marvel comics have us covered until then.
A-Force is Marvel’s first all-female team of Avengers, led by She-Hulk and supported by a cast of characters including Dazzler, Medusa, and the newly created Singularity. The story is set in the matriarchal nation of Arcadia, so these women don’t need any excuse to lead, they simply get on with the job in hand, defeating evil and kicking ass.
Written by the same creative mind behind the new and acclaimed Ms. Marvel comic, it’s unsurprising that the women in these comics are strong, opinionated and capable. A-Force keeps all the style and tone of what makes Marvel comics so beloved, but it puts a group of women at the centre. So if you love the superhero genre but would also love to see what a stellar girl squad could bring to it, A-Force is a brilliant place to start. It’s exactly what you would expect from the coming together of comic books and girl squads.
But if the superhero team of A-Force doesn’t break the mould enough for you, you might want to consider plan B...
in the form of Bitch Planet.
Far from the matriarchal paradise of A-Force, Bitch Planet is set in a dystopian future run by men, in which women who deviate from society’s expectations in any way are sent to a prison planet. Where A-Force’s characters are leading the way, the women of Bitch Planet couldn’t be further down the food chain. It’s a complex and often brutal look at society and its expectations for women. Known as ‘Non-Compliants’, Bitch Planet’s prisoners are incarcerated for vastly disparate reasons, including murder, being overweight and disobeying their spouse. This is not a group of women ever expected to cross paths and theirs is not an elective sisterhood, so don’t expect group hugs and idyllic friendships. But do expect to find a group of women who have come together in a harsh environment. Their shared experiences of humiliation and hardship give them a sense of unity, as does their common enemy of the ever- present and watchful guards. This couldn’t be further from an airbrushed view of women. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has spoken about taking her inspiration from exploitation movies of the 70s. This influence can be seen on the comic’s cover with it’s retro fonts and movie poster-style illustrations. But where those movies were filled with titillation and doe-eyed models DeConnick subverts the genre. There’s no shying away from showing us the women’s bodies, but this done without idealization or fetishization. Instead we see real women, being constantly observed by both the guards and indeed the reader. Bitch Planet can be an uncomfortable read at times. But that doesn’t make these women any less compelling, but rather more so.
The name Bitch Planet sums up the comic’s tone and message. Combining the boldness of ‘Bitch’ with an almost nostalgic tradition of sticking the word ‘Planet’ in a comic’s title is a sure move to catch people’s eyes. It’s deliberately blunt and cheekily mixes something potentially offensive with something familiar. But ultimately it’s owning something that might be expected to be an insult. In the same way the characters of Bitch Planet are unapologetic and in-your-face. They refuse to fit to ascribe to expectations, whether that’s the expectations of story’s
society, or the expectations of the comic’s readers. Despite being prisoners in a dystopian world, the message of Bitch Planet’s motley crew of women is both empowering and
inspiring. This is made all the more evident by the number of fans of the comic getting ‘Non Compliant’ tattoos. So if these comics resonate with you, you may end up with a real-life girl squad as well as comic book one.
Be warned however, dwelling too much on Bitch Planet’s dystopian society can leave one fatigued and potentially nauseous. You may need to escape into fantasy adventure to rectify this, in which case Rat Queens is the perfect antidote. It’s rip-roaring fun filled with battling monsters and out-smarting assassins. Classic fantasy is often accused of having limited and sanitized roles for women. But while the world of Rat Queens may look Tolkienian, the characters certainly aren’t. The story is fronted by four booze-guzzling, foul-mouthed female mercenaries: Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric, and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief.
A refreshingly diverse cast, both in race and sexuality, these women are united by their friendship and their ability to get into trouble. It’s a lot of fun, filled with sarcastic dialogue and fast paced fights. Most enjoyable perhaps, is the Rat Queens' freedom to be just as good and as bad as their male counterparts. They get drunk and start brawls and make lots of bad decisions, and at the same time they’re loyal, hard-working, and accepting. With not a pedestal in sight, the girl squad of Rat Queens gets to show all the complexities, joys and failings in female friendships. And they get to do it all while killing monsters, a combination which is hard to beat.
While it’s obvious that the Rat Queens, in all their drunken, swearing glory, are fantastic role models to have in anyone’s life, the M-rating leaves them for adults only. One of the best thing about girl squads is the example of friendship and support they give, and no one is too young to looking for that. Luckily there are plenty of great comic book girl squads for the young and the young at heart.
First, there’s the utterly charming Lumberjanes. Like Rat Queens, Lumberjanes features a diverse group of ragtag friends, who go looking for magical creatures. But in this case, the heart of the comic is a coming-of-age story. It’s the usual summer experience: five girls, Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley, who meet as cabin-mates at summer camp, become friends. They take part in camp activities and at night they sneak out to go...on supernatural adventures. Okay, so maybe not quite the usual summer experience.
It’s a comic with a lot of heart and charm and each character has their own distinct personality and quirks. It can be hard to pull off such an endearing group of friends without becoming saccharine but luckily Lumberjanes graciously avoids this. It mixes its whimsy with a tongue- in-cheek sense of humour best displayed in the camp’s name: Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.
The sense of joy in adventure and the outdoors is embodied in the artwork. The colour palette is warm and the drawing style characterised with strong lines of youthful energy. Nostalgic and whimsical, Lumberjanes is perfect for anyone who dreams of going on adventures, and the friendships to be made along the way. It’s filled with great role models and lessons but keeps its sense of fun and mischief. After all this is a camp for ‘Hardcore Lady Types.’
But the Lumberjanes are not the only pre-teen girl squad to be found in comic books. Paper Girls is the stunning creation of Brian K. Vaughan, the acclaimed writer of Saga. Set in 1988, Paper Girls follows the story of four girls on their paper delivery routes. Yet all is not what it seems as their world begins to devolve into supernatural horror reminiscent of The War of the Worlds. The story is full of mystery and excitement, and Vaughan’s gang of girls bristle with energy. These girls have a lot less whimsy and playfulness than the girls in Lumberjanes. They are certainly likeable, but they are not sweet. They swear and occasionally smoke, and they come armed with weapons. But just as they're never too nice, they’re also never too capable, these are no Rat Queens. After all, they’re barely adolescents. There’s a real sense of that youthful idea of invincibility juxtaposed against the reality of their vulnerability, as they cycle around the neighbourhood in the morning light. It’s a very eighties scene with serious echoes of The Goonies and Stand By Me, but here the plucky band of friends are all girls. The comic’s artwork reflects the era. The retro neon covers and familiar drawing style harken to the eighties, while the cool pre-dawn palette carries that sense of mystery. But while it is nostalgic, the tone remains refreshingly unsentimental. It’s just as much a comic for modern kids as it is an elegy for a past time. Rather than swaddling them in rose-tinted idealism Vaughan's protagonists emulate the real dynamics and interplay of teenage friendships, so even in the midst of chaos and mystery the girls themselves are never beyond belief.
However much we would like to think that our days will be filled with slaying monsters and battling dystopian forces, for most of us life will be a lot more mundane. Luckily comics can be just as much for the ordinary as the extraordinary. If you’re looking for a girl squad to take you through those quiet days, you may in fact be looking for Giant Days. This charming, slice-of-life comic follows three friends who meet at the start of university. As we have seen throughout this list of recommendations, comic books girl squads place a large emphasis on portraying a diverse range of personalities, backgrounds and sexualities. Giant Days is no exception with a trio of distinctive characters: Daisy is naive and homeschooled, Esther is gothy and dramatic, and Susan is sarcastic and practical. Together they encounter all the trials and tribulations of young adults finding their place in the world. From finding love, to being broke, to study stress, Giant Days joyously embraces the many twists and turns of navigating everyday life. The adventures may be small but the emotions are big. Lissa Treiman’s art does a fantastic job of capturing the nuances of emotion that make a character believable and funny. That, coupled with the sharp and relatable dialogue, means that reading Giant Days can feel a lot like eavesdropping on your friends lives. The effect is to create a world that is endearing and familiar. If you want to read about a group of girls that might easily slot into your own life, Giant Days is spot on.
The emergence of such a range of girl squads in comic books is fantastic news for all of us who want to see more women-led stories. They are excellent representations of women in a form not always associated with telling those stories. But now, with comics as diverse as Bitch Planet and Lumberjanes, there’s something every reader. We've tried to give a broad sweep in terms of genre and style. Hopefully the above recommendations will resonate and help you find the comics that best embody your own squad goals.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on October 5th, 2016.