Top Ten DC Trade Paperbacks with Female Protagonists

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Presenting my top ten list of DC Comics graphic novels that star or distinctly feature women as the leads.

I recognize completely that the gender of a book's main character ought not entirely be its selling point as opposed to quality of writing or the book's importance, but that at the same time it doesn't hurt to recognize where women shine or are otherwise treated with equanimity in (DC) comics. This is simply a list topic suggested to me by a Collected Editions reader that I thought might be of some interest; your results may vary, and I'm eager to hear what you might put on this list instead.

[Might be some spoilers here and there]

* Supergirl

Sterling Gates has of late ushered in a new era for Kara Zor-El in the Supergirl following a bunch of false starts for the character since her resurrection in Superman/Batman. If I had to pick a favorite Supergirl trade paperback, however, it remains hands down the collection of Peter David's initial run on the previous Supergirl series. Everyone knows PAD is a fan of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and this collection has a definite Buffy vibe -- teenager Linda Danvers recovers from near-death with help of the protoplasmic Supergirl matrix and discovers weird doings in her town, including some related to her demon boyfriend. With art by Gary Frank, I consider this a must read.

* Wonder Woman: Land of the Dead

Likely you've already heard me rave about Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman. Picking just one of these books that I like the best is near impossible, but among numerous notable events in this series is when Wonder Woman lost her sight, which is addressed to a great extent in Land of the Dead. I enjoyed Diana's give and take with Athena at the end of this collection, and also how the collection brings to focus what I think was one of the subtle, driving forces of Rucka's run, how this was a Diana in depression over the death of her mother and sister, though the clues to this are much more in Diana's actions than in what she says.

Picking Land of the Dead, however, is in no way to take away from a number of other great Wonder Woman collections out there, including Phil Jimenez's Paradise Found and Gail Simone's Rise of the Olympian.

* The Question: Five Books of Blood

I'm going to stay with the works of Greg Rucka for a moment and include his first Question miniseries. I was soft on Rucka's work with Renee Montoya in Gotham Central -- Half a Life is good and ground-breaking, to be sure, but I much prefer Gotham Central when the cops have to navigate Batman to catch the bad guys than I do a character piece where Two-Face targets one specific officer -- but I think he achieved the right balance with Question. Renee hunts the Religion of Crime, and in doing so becomes caught up in it herself; Rucka displays great subtlety also in Renee's increasing corruption in each chapter, and this is a book I've read over and over without tiring of it.

* Birds of Prey

This might be sacrilege to some, but I will always have a warm spot in my heart for Chuck Dixon's original Birds of Prey specials. Way back, the formula was that Black Canary received missions, usually in exotic locations, from the mysterious Oracle she'd never met, and this caused trouble and friction between the two. Now, I like Black Canary and Oracle's current friendship, and if Dixon set the tone then I think Simone's is the more definitive run, but there's something about a down-on-her-luck Black Canary struggling to prevent a flood from washing away innocent villagers that's stuck with me as Birds of Prey's golden era.

* Manhunter: Street Justice

Marc Andreyko's creation Manhunter is immediately gripping in its violence and twisted morality -- an incredibly dark story perhaps most notable for for the underlying heart and love between the characters that grows throughout the series. The first volume, Street Justice, best typifies all the great things about Manhunter Kate Spencer -- her humor, her thirst for vengeance against the DC Universe's villains, and both her love for her son and her truly terrible parenting; one of the most dramatic moments of the entire series is here, when her son is caught in an accidential explosion caused by Kate's weapons.

* Batwoman: Elegy

I finished reading the deluxe edition of Elegy not too long ago, and aside from J. H. Williams's art, which is amazing, and Greg Rucka's story, which is equally twisty and turny, Rucka's origin of Batwoman is nothing short of spectacular. Rucka offers perhaps the first convincing superhero origin of the twenty-first century -- Batwoman Kate Kane neither decides arbitrarily to put on a costume, nor is she trying to keep her family safe or hide spider-powers from a prying public; rather she first tries to make a difference through the army, and only joins the Bat-family when she's denied the ability to serve. Rucka deconstructs secret identities and crimefighting so well in this -- Batwoman's origin should be a model for any new DC Comics characters still to come.

* Checkmate: Fall of the Wall

I have a lot of trouble picking my favorite volume of Greg Rucka's Checkmate, too, but Fall of the Wall inches just slightly to the top. There's no lack of powerful women in Checkmate, and this volume especially not only spotlights fan-favorites Fire and Ice, has a great closing tale by Eric Trautmann about DC war hero Mademoiselle Marie, and includes of course the irrepressible Black Queen Sasha Bordeaux in a face-off with Oracle. (As an aside, my favorite Sasha Bordeaux story isn't in Checkmate, but rather Rucka's story collected in Bruce Wayne: Fugitive Vol. 3 where Bruce has to deal with letting Sasha rot in jail while he solved the murder of Vesper Fairchild, a story which has all the romance and suspicion of a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie.) Rich characters, dangerous foreign politics, and cameos by an amazing assortment of DC Comics characters, Checkmate is one of my favorite recent series, and I'm just disappointed it didn't continue longer than it did.

More's the pity that Sasha Bordeaux is in a coma now folliowing Final Crisis, but wouldn't she be a great fit for Gail Simone's new Birds of Prey run?

* Catwoman: Relentless

Relentless is one of my favorite and least favorite Catwoman collections. Writer Ed Brubaker single-handedly redeemed Catwoman from an era of somewhat silly, often gratuitously-drawn stories, instead placing the character firmly in the crime fiction genre where it seems she always belonged. Dark End of the Street and Crooked Little Town are great adventures of anti-hero Selina Kyle, but Brubaker ramps up the violence and person consequences for Selina in Relentless. Even thinking about some scenes in Relentless turns my stomach, but I also know it's where Brubaker wrote with the most power. I'd still like to see many uncollected issues of this series collected, including Selina's important encounters with Black Mask and Zatanna.

* Batgirl: Silent Running

The collections of Kelley Puckett first few Batgirl storylines, following the adventures of Cassandra Cain after No Man's Land, are I think an example of master comics storytelling. Silent stories are rare, and Puckett takes a near-mute protagonist and tells done-in-one story after story with barely any dialogue. It wouldn't last, and in later trades Batgirl gains much of her voice back, but the silence of these early stories is what made the character stand out and what I think endeared her to most readers -- through numerous changes, there's still readers who consider Cain "their" Batgirl.

* Huntress: Darknight Daughter

There's some debate as to whether this collection is called "Darknight Daughter" or "Dark Knight Daughter." Either way, pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths collections aren't usually my cup of tea, but after appearances by the Earth-2 Huntress in Superman/Batman and other stories, I had enough of an interest in the character to follow up with her 1970s appearances by Paul Levitz -- glad I did. Though there's a treacly romance element to these stories that dates the stories as more "then" than "now," male lead Harry Sims's concern about whether he can still "be a man" and date a super-heroine interestingly demonstrate some of the uncertainties of the time. The story of Huntress Helena Wayne making her way as a hero in the shadow of two famous parents is captivating enough, but Levitz gives Huntress a well-realized supporting cast, too, especially for what are mostly back-up stories.

Also good is Greg Rucka's (noticing a trend?) Huntress: Cry for Blood, including an early look at Rucka writing Question Vic Sage; and -- if it were collected -- the Robin III miniseries where Huntress demonstrates to Tim Drake that she's cooler to hang out with than Batman.

And two more for the road ...

* Power Girl

If I recall correctly, the last time we saw Power Girl before Geoff Johns wisely reintroduced her in JSA was in a lamented Justice League of America storyline that revealed Power Girl's secret origin to be, totally and completely, existence only to give virgin birth to a child of the Lords of Order. She has no head, indeed. If your only exposure to Power Girl was this or the constantly-angry iteration in Justice League Europe, Geoff Johns's Power Girl miniseries ought be something of an eye-opener. I liked that Johns, with artist Amanda Connor, played with the various potential Power Girl origins we've seen over the years before Infinite Crisis returned the character to her original Earth-2 glory. Even more revealing are the 1970s Power Girl stories by Paul Kupperberg, in the same era as the Huntress stories above, which firmly place the character into Justice Society continuity.

* JSA Presents: Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. Vol. 2

I'll finish off the list with Geoff Johns's other JSA character find, Stargirl (formerly the Star-Spangled Kid). The two JSA Presents volumes collect Star's short-lived series when both the character and Johns were new names at DC Comics. Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. skews a little younger in terms of tone, but I like the second volume because it includes a heavy does of Seven Soldiers of Victory history; also, even as Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. is synonymous with the artwork of Lee Moder, we also see some Scott Kolins here ahead of his work on Flash. Add to all this some JSA cameos, and you've got a book worth a second look.

That's my list -- what would you put on yours? Who's your favorite femme fatale (or the heroic equivalent) in the DC Universe?
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14 comments:

  1. Good article. Now I gotta try a couple books you mentioned. I've only read a couple you listed: The Question and Simone's BoP. I enjoy Rucka's work a lot and just picked up Elegy and Checkmate v1-3; looking forward to them. I've also been eyeing his Huntress book.

    A few books I liked with good female roles are Ultra:Seven Days by the Luna Brothers, Midnight Nation by JMS, Batgirl:YO, and JLA: League of One.

    Midnight Nation is not a girl-centered trade but the female character in it plays a prominent role throughout the story. This trade is a terrific read; aside from the fantastic art by Gary Frank, JMS writes a strong female character.

    Ultra was just a fun read about the lives and business of superheroing; highlighting 3 female heroines and getting a peek into their lives and all the turmoil.

    JLA: League of One is a nice WW story. I find that these WW one-shot-type trades are great WW stories. That's not to say that here monthly series isn't good. I have Rucka's run and have read Simone's and like them a lot. JLA: Golden Perfect is another example of a good WW. So is Rucka's Hiketia GN.

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  2. Following on from what abu george wrote, a lot of my associates would recommend The Hiketia as the best trade with which to introduce a new reader to Wonder Woman. What would your thoughts be on that?

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  3. Nothing wrong with Wonder Woman: Hiketia, Matthew, which is a cogent and interesting Wonder Woman story. If you want to give someone a continuity-light introduction to Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman series, Hiketia has Wonder Woman at her embassy and doing basic diplomat-type things, so it's a start.

    But, Hiketia has never grabbed me the way Down to Earth did. Down to Earth is a feat of comics storytelling (again, if someone likes West Wing, they ought like Down to Earth), but it's mildly more continuity-heavy -- including Dr. Psycho, Silver Swan, and the mythical gods -- which might be a turn-off for some.

    JLA: Golden Perfect, by Joe Kelly, is indeed a good Wonder Woman story. And Gail Simone's The Circle is more superhero-y than Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman run, and that might also be a good place for someone to start (Rise of the Olympian is dynamite).

    Thanks abu george for mentioning some other suggestions (and also for touting Collected Editions on message boards far and wide!), including the Luna Brothers. I have understood that their comic Girls is a good horror book and also uses issues of sex and gender well, like Y: The Last Man. Would you recommend Ultra over Girls? Other suggestions, anyone?

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  4. About the titling of that Huntress trade, the one on my shelf is pretty clearly labeled "Darknight Daughter" - so hopefully that clears that up.

    Though honestly, I don't know if they ever released it titled differently! That happens sometimes.

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  5. Excellent list! Quite a few I've not read, and two i've read in the past week!

    Others I've enjoyed a lot and not yet mentioned were Gaimans Black Orchid, although I've not read it for years, and the first trade of the new Madame Xanadu.

    I always though it quite odd that the xanadu book was on vertigo being so DCU....

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  6. Power Girl: A New Beginning is a tour de force by Amanda Connor, Palmiotti and Grey. I also picked up the Terra volume because I enjoyed her co-star appearances in the PG stories.

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  7. The Vertigo mentions remind me, there's a collection of a great Vertigo miniseries called Witchcraft, by none other than James Robinson, that's a mature take on the lives of the three witches. That one calls for a re-read, now that I think about it ...

    Heard good things about Black Orchid, also. How does Madame Xanadu tie into the DCU, JED?

    I've been glad to see Terra on the covers of the new Power Girl series, Hix; gives me an excuse to read one when I read the other.

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  8. Madame Xanadu is all about her origin and life in different time periods in a story that jumps about time going back like 1000 or so years.... The phantom stranger appears through out, along with a host of other DCU characters I won't mention.

    I'm well up for volume 2, which I don't have yet...

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  9. I agree about Dixon's BC/Oracle team up. They were magic and the james bond feel died for awhile during Simone's run though. But it came back during the Sensei and Student arc. I would like the series collected into an absolute edition since only the minis and BOP 1-6 were collected from Dixon's run.

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  10. I never actually got around to reading Bru's Catwoman. Not because the ideas didn't interest me. More for visual reasons; I ****ing HATE that costume she wears that was introduced here. Something about those goggles just bugs the hell out of me and even in the best stories Selina's been in since it's been rough to get over. Something about the costume that was introduced in the Bru run just does not work for me.

    I don't have a lot of comics with female leads. I just find quite a few of the ones I've read boring or not believable. Checkmate was the one I liked the best; I grew to like Sasha Bordeux a great deal over the course of that series. I've always liked Black Canary (hell, part of me thinks she's more deserving of being the female part of the Trinity than Wonder Woman). But I don't have a lot of others.

    Interestingly, however, that's changing somewhat. I'm interested in Supergirl and Batgirl in trade (the recent stuff, I mean; pre-Sterling Supergirl sounded like a horribly bad snoozefest). When Batwoman hits softcover I'm likely to pick it up. Power Girl sounded fun. The new Birds of Prey title has my attention. So I guess something's changing in that regard to get my interest. I'm just not sure WHAT has changed.

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  11. Most of my trade collection features female protagonists, and an incredibly high percentage of it was penned by Greg Rucka. So a blanket recommendation could be "If it features a woman on the cover and the words 'Witten by Greg Rucka' then buy it." However, that said...

    I can see how some might be put off by taking the "Half a Life" trade by itself because read in isolation it does seem a somewhat remedial (as remedial as being outed by a homicidal villain can be) coming out story in some respects. But if you look at HaL as the first chapter of a much longer story (one encompassed by all 40 issues of "Gotham Central") about Renee Montoya I think it stands up much better.

    I second just about all your recommendations, although I do rank "The Hiketeia" in my top ten. It's a self-contained story but it could have just as easily been a part of Rucka's regular WW run. What I like best about the way Rucka writes Diana is that so much of her strength is in her stillness, if that makes any sense. So when she does demonstrate her power-- smacking Batman into next week and then gently telling him to "stay down" while her boot is on his head, you finally get a real sense of just how incredibly powerful Diana is.

    Of the books not recommended here, I'd add Rucka's "Sacrifice" and "Final Crisis: Revelations" (a total mess if you haven't been paying attention to all of Rucka's work in GC, 52, and Crime Bible-- but it's Renee and Huntress which makes it a must have for me). I also really liked Gail Simone's "Secret Six" trade "Depths." Technically its an ensemble book but the longest arc-- where the Six inadvertently end up helping free Artemis and the Amazons from a gulag-- is essentially female driven. It demonstrates the powerful friendship between Jeanette and Scandal, the ultimate respect (albeit one dripping in hatred) Jeanette has for the Amazons, as well as that great scene between Diana and Scandal where WW lets Scandal know that she's giving the Six a pass this time but the next time they won't be so lucky. Plus Scandal gets a new girlfriend! And Deadshot gets cougared by Jeanette!

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  12. Agreed it was hard not to make this just a Greg Rucka list; the DC Universe loses something with his absence. I'll be curious to read Question: Pipeline that guest-stars Huntress since Rucka first teamed them in Final Crisis: Revelations; probably I'm overdue to read Rucka's Huntress: Cry for Blood since it includes both Huntress and the Question Vic Sage. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this; Secret Six is a strong suggestion, too.

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  13. Sasha is out of her coma as of Jsa vs kobra

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  14. Good call on the
    SUPERGIRL (Peter David)
    BATMAN/HUNTRESS: CRY FOR BLOOD
    BATGIRL (Scott Peterson/Kelley Puckett)

    These get usually overlooked in favor of the larger universe spanning work Rucka is doing. I'd also recommend 52,if only for the Montoya part but that'd be stretching it a bit.

    I'd also prefer SUPERGIRL: MANY HAPPY RETURNS to the first collection, and it'd also be easier to obtain,it being still in print. The BATGIRL is pure gold and just cannot compare to the Beechen/Gabrych stuff. The Puckett/Peterson Batgirl series contains a few more, A KNIGHT ALONE, FISTS OF FURY & DEATH WISH.

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