Comics have a reputation for being a little - how shall we put this? - a little bit testosterone heavy. Many non-readers imagine comics to be little more than big men in spandex punching each other, and if we're honest that stereotype isn't entirely without foundation.
But we also know that there's much more to comics than that, so this week we'll take a look at comics created by women, or that put their female characters in the lead roles, or both. Because I think we can all agree that any discussion about women in comics can only be enhanced by the opinions of another middle aged man.*
But since I am a middle aged man, I'll kick off with the work of another middle aged bloke. Terry Moore has been a force in comics since the early nineties, when his first hit Strangers in Paradise took the scene by storm.
Part complex love story, part crime thriller SiP centred on the relationships between apparently twee suburban housewife Francine, wild artist Katerina Choovanski, aka Katchoo, and their friend David. David loved Katchoo, Katchoo loved Francine, Francine
loved Katchoo but wasn't entirely comfortable with that at the beginning.
Throw in Francine's boorish, boring ex husband Freddie, David's terrifying sister Darcy Parker, Darcy's terrifying mob enforcer Tambi, Darcy's crime empire and Katchoo's shady past as a part of that empire and you had a rollercoaster of a ride that ran for nearly a decade and a half - and it was beyond glorious.
I dislike the term "strong female characters", because as a rule it is used as a synonym for "female characters who behave exactly like men". Terry Moore's characters don't - at least most of them don't. I'd have to acknowledge that Tambi is essentially an enforcer direct from central casting, all muscle and obedience. But the strength we find in both Katchoo and especially Francine - and even Darcy Parker, the villain of the piece, has nothing to do with masculinity.
I mean, yes, Katchoo will literally rip the nose off your face if you threaten her or the people she loves, and she knows hundreds of creative ways to kill you with both maximum efficiency and, if preferred, maximum pain. But she's more likely to cut you dead with a sarcastic comment.
And Francine's strength has nothing at all to do with violence or physical ability. It becomes clear that you wouldn't want to cross her, but she's not into brute force. Over the course of the narrative a lot of things happen to Francine - she endures a lot. But in many ways, that's the point. She endures.
From the very beginning Francine has her hopes and dreams dashed, her plans for the future constantly threatened - even as those plans, hopes and dreams grow and evolve. She's no passive stoic, though - there's not a hint of victim about her. No, Francine stands to face every challenge and tackles each one in her own inimitable way - any obstacle that blocks her path falls before her eventually. She's a quiet force of nature, but so is a tree root, and they can break mountains eventually. She's magnificent - I promise, you'll love her**.
Strangers in Paradise
ended in 2007 after 107 issues - all of which have been collected and are available at Destination Venus*** - as is the new ongoing series Strangers in Paradise XXV, which checks on on what Katchoo and Francine are up to now.
A very different kind of femininity is to be found in the pages of Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky's dark supernatural thriller Coyotes.
On the border between the United States and Mexico women are disappearing without trace, hunted down by creatures that are not exactly coyotes and not exactly men. The women who survive band together to fight back - and in the middle of all this, a jaded detective is trying to make sense of the bloodbath when he meets Red - a young girl with a sword and a secret to tell...
If you imagine Sicario but written by Angela Carter you come some way to understanding what this smart, violent not-exactly-werewolf story is all about. And yes, I'm recommending another book about women written by a man, but it is drawn by a woman, and Caitlin Yarsky's art is one of the reasons the book makes such an impact.
Yarsky delivers art of fine line and delicacy which does not glory or revel in the violence it depicts, but rather emphasises its consequences.
She also makes glorious use of colour to illustrate mood and her faces are wonderfully expressive, allowing the characters to say more with a look than could be accomplished in a dozen word balloons.
Ultimately this book is an action packed morality tale - a story not of revenge, but of consequences and atonement.
The first story arc has been collected, and the story is ongoing. If you like a little darkness in your narrative, we highly recommend it.
But finally in this whirlwind round up of female led comics we have a comic which is 100% written and illustrated by woman - Pamela Ribbon and Veronica Fish's brilliant SLAM!
Now, I'll be honest - although SLAM! passes the "pink cover test"**** with flying (and rather vivid) colours, I might never have picked this book up because it's about Roller Derby - a sport I knew next to nothing about and didn't think I'd like.
Fortunately for me, I own a comic store and make a point of reading new issue #1s so that I can recommend them to customers. I was hooked by the second page, because although this is a book about Roller Derby, like any good tale, it's not really about the sport.
No, this is a book about friendship. Love. Self discovery. Loyalty and courage. All that good stuff.
Jennifer Chu and Maise Huff meet when they join the East Side Roller Girls as "new Meat". Their friendship is forged as they learn to skate and battle it out on the track, adopting the names Knockout and Ithinka Can as their self esteem grows.
But they can't stay as "New Meat" forever, and when they're drafted onto different teams they have to see if their friendship can survive rivalry and will to win.
SLAM! earns its place on any list of "comics about women" in many ways. For a start, it's brilliantly written - these are characters you'll recognise, if you know any women at all I guarantee there'll be women with the East Side Roller Girls that'll remind you of a friend of yours.
Equally, you might never have participated in Roller Derby - or even learned to skate (although you can do both right here in Harrogate with the Spa Town Roller Derby...) but you'll be able to relate to the issues that Knockout and Ithinka Can have face - and just as everyone falls in love with Katchoo and Francine, everyone falls in love with these two as well.
Then there's the art. Fish doesn't bring Moore's clean fluidity, or Yarsky's spidery delicacy to the page. No, Fish offers a more brutal line, emphasising the movement and action on the track.
These are also the least "male gazy" women you'll ever see in a comic. Not to get all "gender studies" on you, but this is a comic featuring almost exclusively female characters who spend most of their time in tight fitting sportswear, or getting changed into tight fitting sportswear.
In different hands that kind of material could easily have slipped into cheesecake - lots of pictures of lithe, athletic young women hanging around in their underwear. There's no such soft erotica here though.
The women of East Side Roller Girls are real. Different shapes, different sizes. There's no attempt to make them sexy, indeed there's no interest in doing that - they are who they are and they're here to skate not pick up a new love interest. In a world where fans can get upset because Captain Marvel doesn't have big enough boobs, it's a genuinely refreshing change.
As ever, we've only just scratched the surface of our subject. There's a wealth of comics by and about women out there. I could've mentioned Lumberjanes or Ms Marvel, Gail Simone, or G. Willow Wilson, and more, and more, and more.
Come in and see us, we'd be happy to make some recommendations!
*And yes. Of course I'm joking.
**You'll love Katchoo and David too - everybody does...
***Other comic stores are available. But we'd rather you came to ours.
****Basically, if a comic has a lot of pink on the cover of #1 it will probably be great unless it is aimed at pre-teen girls in which case it is not a reliable indicator.