“Hi-ya!” I screamed, kicking my 12-year-old feet as hard as I could in Shana’s family inground pool. Sparks of glitter and fireworks and water shot out from my mermaid fins, spraying over top of my arch nemesis, a fellow maiden of the sea. She fired back with sparks and glitter of her own, but obviously evil ones. It occurs to me now that “hi-ya” is more of a karate thing than a deadly mermaid thing, but oh well.
It was the summer of Killer Mermaids, the comic book series Shana and I had created. Armed with plot ideas straight from our uncluttered kid brains, we spent hours in her basement listening to The Bangles and drawing each character with markers, Sharpies, glitter glue, and puffy paint. Each mermaid had a distinct personality, super power, subsequent Achilles’ heel, and a glittering shell bra. They ultimately fought for friendship, but also ocean turf because we had been going through a West Side Story phase. I remember feeling really powerful as a girl in that basement, armed with my own weapons, my imagination, and my best friend.
Those killer finned mavens weren’t the beginning of my obsession with two-dimensional badass babes, but it did set the stage for a lifetime of looking for role models within comic books. Bad breakup? What would Betty and Veronica do? Feeling stuck in a toxic friendship? Tank Girl wouldn’t stand for that; boy did she have more pressing matters at hand. The popularity of Saga reminded me that female characters are not always drawn for the male gaze; you just have to look in the proper places.
The problem with objectification actually was surprising to me as I grew up and became more aware of the way women were drawn in Disney films, video games, and graphic novels. You know, the whole “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn this way,” thing. I looked down at my own, very average-sized boobs and wondered if I was unable to fight crime in a B cup. Then I laughed because I can think of a bunch of kickass females and what they’ve taught me about how awesome it is to be a girl…which is a very special thing to be.
Betty and Veronica: Fight for what you want
Beach days on Cape Cod meant a few things to me growing up. Daydreaming about meeting that boy that every special edition of The Babysitter’s Club promised me (any summer fling only reminded me that sand gets everywhere), seawater so cold I never wanted to leave, and the daily trip to Day’s Grocery Store for comic books. I owned every single issue of Archie that came out, along with every single spin-off. Although amusing, I couldn’t care less what the titular character was up to: I was obsessed with Betty and Veronica.
Sweet, wholesome, blonde Betty and rich, entitled, brunette Veronica both held characteristics I strived for. Stereotyped for sure, but they were nothing if not determined and strong. Although they both completely ignored the biggest friend rule ever (do NOT fight over the same guy), their love for each other almost hinged on it to the point where it didn’t seem to be about Archie at all. They argued and schemed, planned picnics and bought new bathing suits, all supposedly to force Archie into finally choosing one of them. But he never really does, and they don’t seem to really care. They were having too much fun fighting for what they wanted. He almost seemed like an afterthought.
Even when redheaded Cheryl Blossom came into the picture, Betty and Veronica teamed up together to tell the siren what’s what. Their girl power might have ultimately been rooted in battling over a boy, but I always had a hunch that they enjoyed the competition more than the freckled goof himself.
Rogue from X Men: Embrace passion
Before Anna Paquin gave Rogue her sexy, gap-tooth pout and windblown hair, she was just a lovesick teenager struggling with her hormones. Literally called a mutant, she was unable to touch anyone without removing their physical strength and at times their life. How did she discover this? Losing her virginity to her high school boyfriend who immediately slipped into a coma -- talk about teen angst.
After joining the X Men, she falls for Gambit, a smoldering bad boy with a heart of gold, obviously. Despite her raging hormones, their love is not physical for years. It’s not until years later when she gains control over her powers that she’s able to enjoy touch.
Perhaps a thinly veiled argument for abstinence, I chose to take Rogue as a powerful lady who never gave up on love despite the fact that her body literally repelled it. Our stupid hook-up culture -- and instant gratification Tinder lifestyles -- nowadays has its place, absolutely. But it is pretty rare that something comes along that rips your heart out and makes you truly feel something intense. I believe in throwing yourself in fully when it comes to love, in taking risks with my feelings, and fighting bare knuckled for someone if they’re worth it.
Tank Girl: Own your weird
Like many a babe before me, Tank Girl the movie blew my mind. It was weird in the best way; Ice T as a dreamy kangaroo and Lori Petty in an outfit I am constantly wishing was work appropriate. The coolest girl in my art class painted a mural of it, but it wasn’t until about four years ago that I realized it was based on a series of chaotic, punk rock comic books.
I devoured them, feeling a resurgence of power and a desperate wish that I could shave my head and buy an army helmet. The story itself is all over the place, and you kind of feel like you’re reading Sex Pistols sounds in a basement. The vibe overall is exactly what I had been searching for, and Tank Girl never apologized for who she was… and she was pretty odd. Granted I’m sure the apocalypse doesn’t exactly groom you for housewifery, but I only have to look to her to be reminded that I can say what I want, believe in who I am even when I feel like I don’t fit in, and I should always stand up for myself.
Alana from Saga: No apologies
I had kind of lost interest in graphic novels for a few years, pausing every once in a while to read The Last Unicorn, Blankets, or Preacher in the bathtub, but hadn’t fallen for any animated heroines in a while. I was listening to podcasts like Guys We Fucked, watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, reading The Ordinary Princess.
Enter Alana. With her shock of bright green hair and her gauzy side boobalicious floor-length slip, it was style crush at first sight. Then add the seemingly dichotomous aspects of her being a new mom, wanting to kick ass, not wanting to settle down, but being head over heels for a sweet pacifist from a warring planet, and I was done. The series Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughn, tells the story of a married couple fleeing and fighting for their planets while keeping their newborn daughter out of harm’s way. Their love for each other and baby Hazel is swoon-worthy. What I loved most was how their parental roles were seemingly switched from what we would ordinarily expect.
Alana never apologizes for bringing a child into a world of political unrest. She never apologizes for insisting on fighting for her beliefs while all her beloved wants to do is settle down and build a white picket fence. She is a warrior, and a mom, and won’t hesitate to cut a bitch who threatens her family. It is a touching story full of action and heroism, all the while empowering women, telling them that they can fight and love at the same time. It has been a true pleasure rediscovering my love for comic books through Alana.
These complicated, realistic ladies of the drawn page have shown me that it’s normal and even magical to be gentle and hard, strong and sensitive, and vicious in wit yet sincere in intention. You don’t need a cape to fly. You don’t need a bangin’ bod with distracting breasts to kill zombies or fight crime. At the end of the day, or even your life, you don’t need to listen to anyone but yourself when it comes to what empowers you.