Female Characters in Comics

Story of My Life

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I hated it when my dad’s job moved our family to Memphis in the mid 1980s. Living beyond the city’s eastern suburbs and enrolled in private school, I rebelled every way possible. After getting my driver’s license, I’d head into town, prowling the streets in search of a new hangout, eventually finding Memphis Comics and Records, a ’60s head-shop holdover—unquestionably the coolest place in town. Never mind I was a punk who hated hippies on principle—I browsed the store’s used vinyl and handed over cash for Mis?ts and Minor Threat albums but never ventured over to the comic-book side of the operation.

In time I was offered a job, and after the thrill wore off, I realized comic books meant big business. Every Thursday—New Comics Day—dozens of guys filed in to pick up titles from Marvel and DC, peruse the independent offerings from Dark Horse, and talk shop with my co-worker, Danny. Most of these geeks sat around endlessly arguing, “Who’s stronger: Hulk or Thor?,” pondering Spiderman’s secrets and bickering about Frank Miller and Alan Moore. At closing time, they’d bring their comics up to the girl running the cash register—me. “So, d’ya read Elfquest?” they’d ask. Occasionally, a brave soul plunked down Cherry Poptart and leered like a ravening wolf. I’d roll my eyes and deliver a snappy putdown, convinced comics weren’t my speed.

Then I began noticing other characters: R. Crumb’s big-hipped, fat-calved women. Dori Seda’s scratchy self-portraits. Jaime Hernandez’s punk-rock prototypes, Hopey Glass and Maggie Chascarrillo. Daniel Clowes’ teenage outcasts Enid and Rebecca. These feminine icons (interestingly, nearly all created by men) practically jumped off the cheap paper they were printed on. I don’t recall which comic I picked up first: Crumb’s Weirdo, Seda’s Lonely Nights, Hernandez’s Love & Rockets or Clowes’ Eightball. All I know is that I identified with these lustful, lively women. When Enid dyed her hair green, when Maggie busted the zipper on her favorite jeans, it was like staring into a mirror and I frantically turned the page eager for more.

Comics took over my life for a while. I devoured back issues of my favorite titles and revisited Charles M. Shultz’s Peanuts cartoons. Originally discovered in the daily newspaper, Peppermint Patty, Sally Brown and fussbudget Lucy Van Pelt were archetypes of my youth. I even tried on for size modern superheroines like Storm, Catwoman and Elektra. Before Lynda Barry’s utterly hilarious Marlys stories, I consumed Julie Doucet’s autobiographical Dirty Plotte.

No one shared my enthusiasm for these comics, all relegated to the underground X-rated department, regardless of sexual content. But I began understanding the collector dweebs who lived for Thursdays. I too waited for the truck to pull up to the backdoor and danced around impatiently as Danny unloaded our boxes. Spotting a new copy of Love & Rockets, I’d grab it and disappear into a corner for hours. I commiserated with Enid about her car, a bonafide “dorkmobile,” and cried over Dori’s drinking binges. I analyzed Hopey’s latest haircut and did my best with scissors. Sometimes I spent entire weekends boring human acquaintances with the crazy exploits of my comic-book character friends.

When I turned 21, though, and decided a “real” job was required, my days at Memphis Comics ended. I moved to another neighborhood, got a new boyfriend and slowly forgot about Thursday afternoons. I sold off my own comic collection, betraying Marlys and Doucet for a new outfit, a weekend trip or a good bottle of wine.

Since I first started reading comics nearly two decades ago, dozens more women have begun drawing—including remarkable talents like Shary Boyle, Sophie McMillan and Phoebe Gloeckner, whose Diary of a Teenage Girl rocked the publishing industry. Collections like Soft Skull’s Scheherazade and publisher Drawn & Quarterly compile newer artists’ work. Memphis Comics and Records shuttered its doors a few years ago, but one recent rainy afternoon, I found myself scanning a comics rack for familiar faces. I scored: Fantagraphics is publishing Schultz’s epic Peanuts strips, and the Love & Rockets saga is back in print. Today I’m 36 years old and back on a comic-book kick. Enid and Rebecca will remain forever young, but happily, Hopey and Maggie have aged right alongside me, avatars of coolness once again.