Strong Women of the New DC Universe

There’s been a lot of chatter about the women appearing in this week’s batch of DC Comics’ New 52 books. Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outsiders have sent up quite a few red flags in the portrayals of their female characters. I think the criticism of the books is quite valid and I’m glad to see how vocal people have been about these issues.

But we also saw some really positive portrayals of female superheros in this week’s books. While it is important to call out and constructively criticize sexism, I believe it’s also important to bring attention to well done portrayals of women in comics. Call me Pollyanna, but I’d rather put my energy into comics that are good, then spend time on comics that make me angry. So amid all the hullabaloo, I’d like to highlight a few DC Comics that had some really great heriones this week.

Birds of Prey #1

Birds of Prey could have been one of the most pleasant surprises for me this week. I had picked up a few issues of the Gail Simone run that launched out of Brightest Day. It never really clicked for me, but I decided to give the book another shot with the reboot. After reading this first issue, I’m very glad I did.

These Birds are kick-ass and capable superheros, and there is no doubt that Starling is going to be a fun and sexy character. But instead of prowling for sex, we see Ev cursing like a sailor, out-drinking a group of guys, and saving a bumbling reporter’s skin. She is a self-confident force of nature, and that is leaps and bounds sexier than flipping your hair and bending over in a bikini.

While not particularly ground breaking, the artwork in this issue is very solid. Jesus Saiz has a great sense of pacing and action. He’s drawing some beautiful, shapely women, but he’s not just focusing on their shape.

Supergirl is a character I’d really like to like – and have liked depending on the creative team. I wasn’t originally planning on picking this up, but once again, I am very glad I did. Like Katniss in The Hunger Games, I think this iteration of Supergirl has the potential to be a strong role model for female young adult readers. The issue catches Kara in a very vulnerable situation. She’s just woken up from stasis after her escape pod has crash landed on Earth. Alone, confused, and under attack, Supergirl doesn’t give in or surrender. Instead we see a strong, capable young woman fight her way out of a pretty ugly scuffle. Pardon the spoiler – when Superman appears at the end of the issue, it’s not to rescue Kara, but to help her.

Mahmud Asrar created some beautiful art for Supergirl. He’s brilliant with both big action sequences and the facial expressions in quieter character moments. His work was integral to my connecting emotionally with Kara in this issue. Most importantly, Asrar draws Supergirl with the modesty necessary for teenage superhero.

Wonder Woman #1

It should come as no surprise that I have eagerly been awaiting the new-new Wonder Woman book. Diana is a character I will always love and admire. And I’m not too proud to admit that I have a bit of fangirl baggage when it comes to the Amazon princess. What I loved most about this issue is that Brian Azzarello doesn’t try to reinvent the character. He’s not trying to tear her down and rebuild her. Instead he recognizes her as the icon she truly is and tells a very different kind of story to showcase why she’s the alpha-female of the DCU.

Diana doesn’t appear in the comic for 10 pages, and in her first panel she’s sleeping nude. But it’s made immediately clear that Wonder Woman is not someone to be trifled with. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Diana this bad-ass. She is every once an Amazon warrior in this book.

Despite spending the entire issue being hunted and in her underwear, Zola is anything but a damsel in distress. Even Hera’s brief appearance with her peacock robes and sickle is a formidable force. Azzarello and Chiang do a great job letting you know that these are women you do not fuck with.

Cliff Chiang has gotten a flood of praise for his work on this issue. And every once of it is well deserved. Chaing’s art is absolutely stunning. In a bit of a departure from his usual style, the rougher edges work magic in this issue. You not only see but you can feel what a grand presence Diana is.

Even though it come out the week prior, I can’t not mention Batwoman. Kate Kane is a fully realized character with very real relationships. Greg Rucka, like he’s done so many times before, created a remarkable heroine. And J.H. Williams III continues to build off that brilliant character work to bring us a truly amazing comic book.

These are great comics that everyone should read – regardless of gender. And that’s what we should be striving for, not just for the new DC Universe but for all comics. These are fanstastic stories with compelling heroes in them.  They’re comics I like reading because they’re good comics. And they deserve your attention.


  1. Typical Ali, always being the voice of reason 🙂

    Seriously great article Ali. Catwoman and Starfire aside, DC has done a good job with portraying the female characters. While Birds of Prey didn’t live up to me in terms of the plot, it’s nice to see a mix of tough, determined, and no-nonsense women on a team. Wonder Woman was fantastic for all the things you said and so was Batwoman.

    So just ignore the obvious cheesecake titles and only focus on the good female centric title.

  2. Nice article. I actually thanked Cliff Chiang for his positive portrayal of Diana in person at a signing event/WW launch party, and I sent Duane Swierczynski a thanks on Twitter for the way the women were presented in Birds of Prey, but you’re right: I’ve spent way too much time and effort focusing on the negative and griping and complaining about Catwoman and Starfire and spent too little time praising the good.

    Though I have a feeling with Voodoo’s impending release I’m going to get all pissed off again when I see they’ve gone forward with giving a mixed race woman her own book for the first time and have her portrayed almost naked crawling on her hands and knees for dollar bills.

  3. Am I the only one who was not offended by Catwoman? Red Hood I understand the criticism–not so much that she is such a cold sex-bot, but more because of the insanely ridiculous proportions.

    But Catwoman, what’s so offensive? Just because a woman has sex means she’s a bad role model or a poor portrayal of women? No one gets offended when Batman has sex with Talia, that doesn’t make him a bad portrayal. People do it, it’s a fact of life, and if the thrill-seeking Catwoman wants it, why shouldn’t she be able to have it? And, as the guys pointed out in the POW podcast, this has happened so many times before (Hush and Inc. both imply it pretty damn heavily). I’m often one to jump at poor portrayals of women in media, but I just can’t find anything wrong with it. I’d be happy to hear why I might be wrong, though!

    • For me, it’s not about the sex – it’s about the fact that Catwoman’s whole personality in the issue was ignored in favor of showing her tits and ass in various poses, then when the issue finally got around to showing her face she was really only there to be used as something for Batman to screw.

      It’s not the sex or the sexuality – Selina Kyle’s personality is very sexual in nature – but there’s a lot more to her than *just* that (which Winick chose to ignore).

    • Shiveringking, read this article – it may help you see Catwoman and Starfire from a female point of view:

    • @Fishyboy I would like to read that script to see how much is Winick and how much is March. How much different would this have been if someone else drew it.

    • Fishy Boy: I would say that it actually used Batman just as a character for her to screw, not the other way around. And yes, they use sexualized poses, but don’t they do the same thing for the male figures with their insane muscles and *ahem* large bulges and the uber-manly poses they make?

      ghostmann: I read the article, and it makes some very good points, particularly about Red Hood. I was borderline on that one, and hearing that perspective pushed me to “fairly offended”. However, I still don’t really see Catwoman as being offensive. Yeah they don’t show her face for the first page, but hell they do that to all heroes all the time, particularly when they are debuting a new costume/reiteration/story arc. It’s for dramatic effect, not to say she’s only t’n’a.

      I think overall there are some obvious issues (as pointed out in the article by the contrast of GL to SS’s costumes) with the body image/costume portrayals of women in comics, but I didn’t feel that Catwoman added anything negative to that problem.

      I apologize for starting a negative comment thread on what was supposed to be a positive reinforcement of women in comics: I totally agree with this posting, Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, and Supergirl all were fantastic books with awe-inspiring women (I don’t mean sexy awe, more like “wow those women are awesome!”).

    • I was not offended by Catwoman or Red Hood–I may be the exception to a lot of rules, but I found the sex scene in Catwoman very hot and completely relatable. And Starfire is not meant to be a normal woman; she’s being portrayed as alien in personality as well as form, and it’s a reasonable choice from my perspective to make one aspect of that her looking at humans as interchangeable objects. She’s not meant to be a female role model clearly, but she is a really clever form of commentary in a way–she treats men with a degree of objectification that dwarfs the average man’s bad behavior, and while the guys seem to be enjoying it, it’s clear they’re also troubled and confused and a little hurt by it (Jason’s comment that jealousy is “unfortunately” not an issue, for example). I think that’s got potential to go interesting places, storywise.

      And the argument that female characters act or dress in these ways “because men want to see it” rather than because it’s real is kind of strange to me, because it’s very real–women do dress and act in these ways, and some may be doing it just to impress men, but it’s not always the case, and either way, it’s still a realistic portrayal.

      I can see wanting your female heroes to be idealistic role models, but in these books, Starfire and Catwoman are hardly heroic figures. What does it matter that the bad girls act and look like bad girls? Is it only offensive because they don’t (yet) seem to be suffering for their wanton ways?

    • @ghostmann: After listening to this weeks POW podcast, and hearing the guys’ response to the outcries over Catwoman and Red Hood, I wish they had read the article you’ve linked. Maybe it would have helped them understand what those outcries were about.

  4. Wonder Woman and Batwoman were both excellent. I think I’m going to pick up Supergirl.

  5. Thumbs up.

  6. Hear hear, Ali!

    I thought the same things as I read last week’s stack. The women in BoP, Wonder Woman, and Batwoman are characters, people who have stories to tell and emotions to convey. That’s what interests me. However, reading Catwoman and Starfire told me only that they have tits and like to fuck. Not a strong presentation for a continuing story. Okay, there are your boobs… where’s your character?

  7. @ Woomer and what is wrong with women having tits and liking to fuck, those are my favorite kind of women

  8. I think that Demon Knights has the potential to have some strong female characters but there wasn’t enough character development in that first issue. Time will tell.

  9. I’ll be honest, I didn’t read Catwoman or Red Hood, and I didn’t care for Batgirl or Batwoman and thought Wonder Woman was just average. I guess, regardless of how they portray those two characters, what’s the big deal. If you don’t like it, don’t but it.

    I don’t buy the argument that this is some message about women in comics, or that they are just being portrayed to be male fantasies, blah blah blah. On some other website they said this is the equivalent of two straight girls making out at a bar, not because they like it but because that’s what they think the men want to see. Well guess what? There are people like that in real life, and there are also people who enjoy reading trashy romance novels, or about slutty super-heroines. If you like it, great, buy it, read it, enjoy it. If not, don’t buy it, it’s not for you (but don’t blame the entire market).

    That being said, this was still a great example of why iFanboy is the best comic website; instead of focusing on all the negatives, here’s an article spotlighting positive images and talking about what the author liked. Well done.

  10. Excellent article, Ali! I definitely agree with you that these are strong books (and I enjoyed your comments on the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast as well.)

    I will suggest that one of the reasons the negative is getting a lot of attention is that there have *always* been examples of strong, well-written women in superhero comics, DC & Marvel alike. In that sense, the characters and books you are talking about continue what is good about the status quo. The negative examples, though, seem to be awfully prevalent in the relaunch and taken together with the female characters (such as Power Girl and Steph-Batgirl) who have gone away in the reboot, it’s hard to see positive progress overall.

    Still, there is every reason to celebrate the books that are doing a good job and you’ve covered that very well here!

  11. Great article Ali. 😉

    For the haters of Red Hood and Catwoman please consider this.
    Next month we are going to get a mini-series called “Penguin: Pain and Prejudice”

    How many complaints will we see that DC portrays men as fat, creepy ………………… (fill in your own ending)

    I don’t think we will see any. Focus on the good, focus on what you like, if you don’t enjoy a book for whatever reason, you are well within your rights to criticize it but please don’t go off the deep end and make this an issue about how DC or the creators of a book are portraying women. Sometimes a book is just a book.

  12. Very nice article.

  13. Great article! I’m glad you are focusing on the positive because there are some great female characters in the new DCU. I do feel all the hoopla about Red Hood and Catwoman is unjustified though. Could you argue that Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey are sexist because they do not specifically address the sexuality of their characters? Are these repressed women who are unable to sexualize themselves because then they won’t be taken seriously? Or is it just one issue that cannot explore every aspect of a characters personality in 21 pages? If every female character is “A strong female rolemodel” it takes away from the diversity of the DCU and makes the female characters bland and predictable. I, for one, am very pleased that the heroines of the DCU are allowed to be sexual and it isn’t just the villians who have a sexual identity.

  14. Well said, Ali. I loved Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batwoman, and I’m probably going to go back and check out Birds of Prey as well.

  15. This article pretty much sums up why I’ll keep picking up Wonder Woman and Supergirl and try pit Birds of Prey while I’m dropping Red Hood and the Outlaws and Catwoman. I have no problem with female comic characters being given a sexual side (ie Wonder Woman) as long as it is realistic and strengthens their character and not just there for exploitative reasons.

  16. awesome

  17. Fantastic perspective Ali. The horrible takes on Catwoman and Starfire aside, DC has done well with several strong female characters.

  18. Interesting piece, and I largely agree with you. However, the strong female characters you reference seem to me a step backwards from Brian Q Miller’s Batgirl or any of the various creators (including Winick’s!) Power Girl. I agree strongly with the article posted above on Comics Alliance. This is not limited to DC, but throughout most mainstream visual media (tv, movies, ads, etc), there is an implicit assumption that the person viewing the work is male. Even among the works you mention (and I apologize that I ont have the books with me at this moment, so this is largely from memory), why is the reader introduced to Wonder Woman as she lays naked in bed? How much of her body do we see before we’re shown a full view of her face? This suggests to me that even as Azzarello and Chang(sp?) write a strong female lead, they still assume a male readership. I’m in no way saying that they are sexist! Rather that the assumption of male viewership is so pervasive that it’s the default. A good comparison is the article a few weeks ago about the new Ultimate Spider-Man. In the same way that a white superhero was just the unquestioned assumption back when Spider-Man was first created, to this day a straight male readership is the unquestioned assumption in the creation of most comic books.

  19. Here’s another way to consider the “male gaze” in comics: why did they decide to get rid of Wonder Woman’s pants (which she had in th early teasers)?

    • I find the typical “male gaze” of many of the artists (regardless of the gender of the artists, sometimes even) is always interesting juxtaposed with the supposedly liberated actions of the protagonists (again, many times regardless of the gender of the writer).

      Because, as pointed out above, the “male gaze” is often taken to be the default view in much, if not most, visual media (and non-visual media, as well).

    • I believe that was Azzarello’s choice; in an interview I read he stated that he just personally prefered the costume without pants he then went on to say “I’m much more concerned with what goes on behind her eyes than what goes on, what goes on her thighs”. I doubt this choice has anything to do with sexuality or appealing to a male audience but more likely that Azzarello is partial to the pantsless original design.

    • I rescind my original point about Wonder Woman. Now that I have the comic in front of me, I notice that her face is shown on the same page. But I would like to complicate things a bit.

      It’s interesting to see that Azzarello says that he’s more interested in “what goes on behind her eyes than what goes on her thighs” (something like that). If that’s true, why not keep the pants? Sure, the pantless/bikini bottom Wonder Woman is the “classic look,” but this “classic look” originated in comics where she was constantly portrayed in bondage themes (good article on that can be found here: The “classic look” was very much created for a male readership / “male gaze.” If Azzarello is more interested in what goes on behind her eyes, then why revert back to the bikini-bottom look? Why not let her continue to wear the pants she was originally represented wearing in the early teasers? (The counterpointing of Star Sapphire and Green Lantern in Laura Hudson’s article on Comics Alliance really knocks you over the head with this point).

      To me, the comic book medium represents a fusing of two different narrative techniques – prose and art. A good comic book uses the images/art to advance the plot line and develop the characters *just as much* as it uses the prose. This is why (I’m assuming, please correct me if I’m wrong!) there are occasional complaints about books being too “wordy.” Those books aren’t using the medium to its fullest capacity. How many times have we seen a text-less page that expresses more in a single image than could be expressed in an entire novel? How many times have text and image been so beautifully counterpointed as to create layers of meaning that wouldn’t be possible without the fusion of the two?

      In that light, I ask, what is achieved by certain images? Namely, *why* do we have to be introduced to Wonder Woman as she’s lying naked in bed? What purpose for plot or character does it serve for us see her bed sheets on the floor, surrounding her naked legs? Who is the assumed reader for the side-boob shot in the next panel?

      Of course, there are numerous ways to interpret this. On one level, the bedsheets on the floor by her naked legs creates a situation in which the underwear-clad Zola is viewing the naked body of Diana. Zola gazes upon the bare form of Wonder Woman, while the reader gazes through Zola’s eyes. How does this advance the plot or character development?

      I’m not condemning Azzarello or Chiang in any way. There are some quite brilliant moments. For example, when Zola finally recognizes Wonder Woman (after she watches her “dress,” i.e. put on the weapons and armor stashed in her closet”), Wonder Woman responds by saying “Diana.” That is a nice moment, where Diana refuses to take the role assigned to her by the greater “mythology” and “narrative” that originally created her.

      But I still have to ask, why is she naked? Why is Zola in her underwear? Who is the assumed viewership for those images?

  20. I for one have no problem with how Catwoman came across. I do think that the Red Hood was over the line in playing up the sex that it got to the point were it the parts of the book that were suppose to be sexy came off as a over sexed male vision of what women should be. Catwoman on the other hand was show as what she is. A woman very in touch with sexually and had not problem displaying it. The best portrayal of women to me this week was Wonder Woman. This was exactly the kind of Wonder Woman that I have in my mind when I think of her. A beautiful woman who, is graceful and intelligent. She is strong and soft at the same time. It are these qualties and not the size of her breasts that make Wonder Woman sexy. So to sum it all up, in my world Catwoman is the perfect girl for a one night stand. Wonder Woman is the girl you want to take home to meet the parents. Awesome article Ali, very well thought out and has some great points.

  21. I loved the story in Supergirl, but I’m wary of the costume. Any shorter and I think we’d be in genital territory. It was almost at that point in a few panels this week.

  22. Okay… I’m confused by the Wonder Woman “Pants” controversy…

    Sure, those aren’t full-length trousers, but they aren’t “Bikini-briefs” either…

    They are shorts.

    I mean, we’re not in Bomb Queen territory here…

    And who knows, maybe she feels more comfortable on Paradise Island in shorts, but wears long trousers when she’s off the island?

    • Perhaps there not as big an issue. But take a look at this image:

      What’s the difference between Diana (the one female character, who’s unnaturally large breasts are falling out of her low-cut top – I can’t imagine that’s comfortable!) and all of the male characters (who, if anything, are more covered than they used to be with the new “collar” thing).

      Again Laura Hudson’s article on Comics Alliance article makes the point clear in what comics (pointing particularly to the DCnU) tell audiences what male superheroes should/do look like versus female superheroes.

    • But that’s the JLA cover… NOT Wonder Woman…

      Besides, if you ignore all the male characters, just for a second, and focus on Diana’s pose: That is actually a pretty natural effect of stretching your body out and sticking your arms over your head… Sorry, but it’s true… If she were standing with her arms by her side, she wouldn’t appear to be “falling out of her low-cut top”…

  23. Here’s a 7 year old girls view of the new Starfire: (scroll down to “Dear DC)

  24. Why would Wonder Woman wear pajamas? She’s an invulnerable badass.

    The reason why she drops her sheet was commented on in the last Fuzzy Typewriter, she’s a warrior and totally confident and comfortable with herself, the scene isn’t really salacious or drawn that way, it shows the power dynamic between Zola who is caught off guard the entire book and Wonder Woman who is totally capable and unflustered. Plus she has to take off the sheet before putting on the armor?

    • Good point, hadn’t thought of the juxtaposition of Diana and Zola. That counterpointing does add to Diana’s strength as a character.

      But are the options “underwear and shirt wuss” and “naked bad-ass”? Or more to the point, why is Diana’s bedroom *important* / *necessary* for the story? Why do we need to see that?

      Look, I’m not anti-Wonder Woman (or Diana as she prefers). There’s a lot of great stuff in that book. But I think it’s important to read with a critical eye, so I can’t help but ask “why do we need this *particular* scene” whenever I find something off.

      I’m really harping about a point that I don’t really think is nearly as big a deal as the Catwoman/Starfire issue. Overall, Azzarello and Chiang did a pretty solid job with Diana. Much better than the cover of JLA 1.

    • So should we see inside the phone booth when Superman changes into his costume?