Chaotic Good: When Comics Get Girlhood Right
I have always been a voracious reader, and growing up I read almost anything I could get my hands on. My most read genres were young adult novels, sci-fi, fantasy, and any cross-section of those. I also read a ton of comics. However, if you had asked me what most spoke to my experience as a girl, I have to admit I don't think I would have even bothered to look to comics for examples. There just wasn't anything that fit the bill, at least that I knew of.
I'm happy to see that as we slowly see more diverse voices in the comic book industry, this is starting to change. Without being cordoned off into its own genre of “girl comics”, the stories and experiences of young women are making themselves known in more mainstream comics, either written by people who have had those experiences themselves or people who have clearly done their due diligence to tell those stories with empathy.
I love that some of my very favorite comics right now are just so girl-centered! The comics I discuss here contain a fair amount of diversity along the lines of race, sexuality, and gender expression, but I would love to hear more suggestions for diverse comics from readers! And because I know tons of y'all are thinking it: Faith is definitely on my list to pick up next time I'm able!
I will keep the discussion of each comic purposely vague so as to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Themes will be discussed and so some mild spoilers will be unavoidable, but I will be sure not to include major plot spoilers or anything you wouldn't pick up on reading the first trade of any of these comics.
First up on my personal favorites list is the absolutely charming, funny, butt-kicking series Lumberjanes. One of the things I remember most growing up were my friendships: they were often practically instantaneous, they were intense, and they were full of palpable affection. All of that is reflected so beautifully in Lumberjanes: the camaraderie between Jo, April, Molly, Mal, Ripley, and often Jen just rings true. That doesn't mean they are constantly full of girl-power and agreement, because that's not how friendships work at that age: they have conflict, they have misunderstandings, and they aren't always great friends to each other. But they care about each other and support each other in the end every time, they're in sync with each other when they need to be, and they stand up for each other.
Also notable is the shy, budding romance between Mal and Molly: when a girl is first becoming connected to her sexuality and is navigating those crushes, the tenderness is both unbearable and sweet, and that's shown in the ways Mal and Molly are drawn and characterized.
Another great example of the complexities of friendships for young women is Ms. Marvel's Kamala Khan. Much of Ms. Marvel's run focuses on the tension of juggling multiple identities, and for Kamala that juggling act includes her friendships as she increasingly tries to find time for them, time for herself, and time to figure out her own wants and needs within them.
Her attempt to navigate the waters of her changing friendship with her best friend Bruno is especially well done; I think most people have gone through a time where they worried they were growing apart from a very close friend, even felt it happening, but didn't know how to fix it or stop it. Kamala also just straight up lives a life that's familiar to a lot of smart young women: trying her hardest to juggle family, school, what she wants for her future, what she wants for her present - hell, what she wants AT ALL - all while she herself changes both physically and emotionally.
Speaking of changing emotionally, can we talk about how great Lunella in Moon Girl is? She's the youngest of the bunch I'm discussing here, but due to her extreme intelligence, she is still, in many ways, the most complex. Lunella knows that being a verifiable genius sets her aside from her classmates, and it's sometimes heartbreaking to see her desire to still find ways to be a normal kid and her resignation to her outcast status play out in the pages of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.
I can't pretend I was ever even half as smart as she is, but I was definitely as awkward and regretful of the fact that despite the smarts I did have, I couldn't seem to figure out the basics of fitting in. There's also an obvious parallel to be made here about the fear of changing bodies, changing abilities, and so on, so I won't go into theory here, but much like in Ms. Marvel, the parallel is never so overtly stated that it becomes eyeroll worthy, and it serves as a nice reminder that we've all been there in some way or another.
One more thing I love about Lunella is that just like the Lumberjanes and Kamala, she isn't perfect: she's a brat sometimes. And aren't we all? We are, but I especially had to laugh at moments of pure stubbornness on her part that rang very true to my experience as a girl who threw the occasional tantrum. (Including lashing out at my friends, though to be fair none of my friends were giant red dinosaurs.)
There is, of course, a darker side to growing up as a girl - at least there was for me - and that was anger. I discovered feminism in my early teens and was just so, so angry at the injustice I suddenly saw everywhere. I love the characters all discovering that in their own ways in the series Giant Days: their disbelief, their desire to hold on to the belief that the world has to be better than that, their initial resignation, and their decision to do something about it in whatever ways they can figure out. I was a women's studies minor in college (shocking, I know) and some of the conversations in the first trade could have been taken verbatim from conversations I had at those times.
And what is an article that mentions girlhood and the college experience without mentioning The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl? If you haven't read it yet, you're nuts. Sorry, but I'm obligated by Ryan North's new secret law to make some sort of nut pun any time I mention Squirrel Girl. There are too many things about it I love to even start to list, though I will mention that I haven't read a single page yet that didn't make me giggle. But when I talk about this comic and girlhood, the thing I think works best is Doreen's excitement for things.
I adore that Doreen is a fangirl, and I love that her prickly but loyal roommate Nancy is too. You don't just like things as a young woman: you LOVE them, you obsess about them, you make sure you know everything you can about them. From Doreen's enemies cards to Nancy's Cat Thor, that passion is apparent in Squirrel Girl. In fact, all of the comics I've mentioned have characters who will unabashedly geek out over the things they love, and that's fantastic.
This is by no means an extensive list of comics that get girlhood right, and obviously these are ones that work for my own personal experiences and perceptions of girlhood. So I'm counting on y'all to share others you love for covering this subject well! Please let me know in the comments.