March is Women’s History Month in the US – a time that various government institutions “commemorate and encourage the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” Here at the Ladies we encourage you to study, observe and celebrate women’s contributions every day – particularly their contributions to comics and pop culture. One of the things I like about doing your periodic webcomics round ups is that not only is it a chance to share the sheer talent of so many lady artists and writers (of whom there are still fewer than I would prefer getting work in mainstream comics publishing), but it’s also an opportunity to embrace a much wider scope of what storytelling in comics can be. Even though your average shop is offering far more than just superhero tales these days (and there’s nothing wrong with superhero tales), it still feels like the web has some weirder, wilder offerings. Here are three I’m digging right now.
Monsterkind by Taylor C.
Updates: T, Fr
Monsterkind is one of the first comics about social work I’ve ever seen. (Feel free to tell me if there are more in the comments!) It’s the story of Wallace Foster, a young social worker who’s recently been relocated to District C – a place where the inhabitants are mostly monsters. Wallace is human, and some of the residents of District C clearly don’t trust him and his intentions. Somehow he’s got to figure out a way to win over his clients – and figure out some of the deeper mysteries surrounding him, District C, and his new neighbors. What I really like about Monsterkind is that, even though it deals with some pretty deep and potentially sensitive topics – racism, segregation, and identity – it does so in a lighthearted and upbeat way that counterbalances the darkness of its subject matter while still taking it very seriously. It’s also got some pretty great and innovative character designs for the monster residents of District C – some look human but have powers and abilities that seem supernatural, while others sport everything from tentacles to detachable eyes. The underlying mysteries unfold slowly, but steadily, and promise a worthwhile payoff. Content-wise, this is appropriate for all-ages, but many of the interactions will go over the heads of young kids – I think early teens up would be the most interested.
Bonus: Another comic! Taylor C.’s significant other, one Zack Morrison, also does a weird comic I love called Paranatural. Maybe one day I’ll give it a whole review, because it’s awesome, but as Zack’s not a lady, it didn’t fit here. It’s fine as a bonus, right?
Not Drunk Enough by Tessa Stone
Updates: T, Th
Logan Ibarra is a young repairman with a pretty normal life – until he’s called out to do a nighttime service call at the local laboratory. When he gets there, it quickly becomes clear that the problem here is a lot worse than a faulty AC system. Reality itself has become warped, along with most of the lab’s employees. Now Logan’s got to figure out how to escaped before he’s transformed, eaten, or his flask runs dry.
I’ve been a fan of Tessa Stone’s work since her one of her earliest efforts, the dearly departed Hanna is Not a Boy’s Name. That was a comedy about a paranormal investigator, full of whimsy, jokes, and sweet-hearted humor. Not Drunk Enough has a sense of humor, but it’s a much more macabre one – the jokes of terrified people who know they’re unlikely to survive the night. The art, in turn is dark and jagged, befitting the paranoia permeating the doomed lab. Like Monsterkind, there are deeper mysteries to be solved that Stone teases out slowly, and real human heartbreak driving the choices the characters make. The creature designs are killer, literally and figuratively – this is a great read for older teens, but a bit too mature for the younger crowd.
Bonus: Stone also collaborates with Ananth Hirsh of Johnny Wander and Sarah Stone (yes, related) of Monster Boys and Robots on Is This What You Wanted, a comic that is just starting about romance and illness and demons. So if you dig her character design here, check that out too.
Ava’s Demon by Michelle Czajkowski
Plot: Ava Ire is a total outcast at school – all of the other kids and even the teachers think she’s totally crazy. Of course, since she’s often talking to herself and prone to emotional outbursts, it’s hard to blame them. What they don’t know is that Ava is plagued by a very real demon – Wrathia Bellarmina, the ghost of a former warrior queen who wants to bond with Ava in order to get revenge on the person responsible for her demise. That person happens to be the ruler of the entire universe, Titan; part corporate overlord, part god. When a series of strange events cause Ava to flee her home, a deal is struck – but will either Ava or Wrathia really get what they want?
Ava’s Demon combines fantasy and sci-fi elements into a powerful combination unlike anything I’ve quite seen before. The world-building is thorough but unforced – you learn about what’s going on as the characters do. The art is complete gorgeous, with fully saturated color and light effects that give everything a dreamy quality. Czajkowski takes advantage of her storytelling medium completely as well – each weekly installment consists of several pages that the reader flips through, introducing an almost animated quality to the story. At the close of each chapter is an actually animated sequence, complete with music. It’s frankly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to see where the story is headed. This is another one I’d pitch more towards teens – there’s nothing too crazy but some of the violence might be a little much for a sensitive younger reader.
Bonus: If you follow the Ava’s Demon Tumblr, Czajkowski shares the beautiful fanart folks do for the comic.
Are there any other comics by ladies I should check out? Let me know in the comments!
Heartless is an action/adventure comic set in early Victorian London. It’s about vampires, self-discovery, more vampires, the struggle against oppression, and very pretty dresses. The entire main cast is LGBTQIA+, with an explicitly asexual protagonist.
Our conversation below is lightly edited for clarity.
LadiesCon 2016 may be over, but we’re still thinking about what made it such a great time. One of the things that I was really excited about was the opportunity to speak directly to so many creators and artists about their original works. One of the creators I was most excited about was Mildred Louis, who writes and draws a comic called Agents of the Realm. I hadn’t heard of her work before the con, but when she contacted us about having a table, I looked at her work and knew I’d be paying her a visit. I had the supreme good fortune (thanks to a huge assist from Smalerie) of snagging the last copy of her book, which collects the first volume of an ambitious work which, luckily for me, continues online.
The premise is a twist on the classic magical girl genre of manga (see Crystal Cadets for a more standard version): five young women discover that they are the protectors of our world, which is being threatened by strange beasts entering our realm from a sister dimension. In the classic magical girl style, Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Jordan have special brooches that transform them into uniform-wearing warriors, each with her own weapon, powers, and attendant element. Through the magic of the brooches, they find each other and begin to learn about their powers, the other realm, and why and how they were chosen to protect the world.
The twist comes in from the fact that in standard magical girl stories, there is an emphasis on girl – the protagonists are typically tweens or young teenagers, and part of the transformation is that they become an adult version of themselves. They’re all Mary Marvel, if her posse were other girls instead of two boys and talking tiger. The Agents are all adults already – young adults, to be fair, but in college and of legal age. This immediately has different implications about how they make the choice to accept their roles and for how Louis is able to explore the relationships between the characters and the problems that they face. When you’re watching or reading Sailor Moon, you know that while Sailor Moon is presented as an adult, Usagi Tsukino is really still a kid, and her concerns when she isn’t saving the planet are appropriately childish. The Agents, on the other hand, are young adults, and they have concerns that an adult can relate to, in addition to fighting off giant spirit birds.
Another thing that makes the series great is the level of representation of both people of color and of LBGTQ folks. Most of the characters, including 4 of the 5 Agents, are not white. They also have a wide range of body types – and they keep them after they transform. They do not become “idealized” versions of themselves. This is a powerful message delivered with subtlety – that they are already good enough, already powerful just as they are. They are also beautiful, and feminine, without needing to all fit into the white, western ideal shape.
The orientations of the various characters are handled with that same grace – we’re shown characters who have loving relationships of all types, completely integrated into the story. It doesn’t feel like anything that’s being called attention to, a lesson we’re meant to learn – these are just people, and people have many different approaches to sex and love and romance.
Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige, and Jordan feel like real people – they have strengths, but also flaws – and not just “oh, she’s such a klutz.” It’s apparent even in the first issue that Norah struggles with social anxiety. Paige is driven and ambitious to the point of being rude at times. Kendall is a peacemaker. It’s refreshing to see the trope of the “chosen ones” applied to characters who feel like more than a cardboard cutout.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the art. As you can see from the pictures here, it’s gorgeous and dynamic. There’s a clear progression as Louis’ style evolves – I think that she continually improves her panel layout and visual storytelling – but the technical excellence is on display from the beginning.
Do you read Agents of the Realm? Tell me what you think in the comments!
Recommended age: Teen to adult. The content is far from racy, but the website does have a trigger warning that suggests that not all of it might be suitable for younger readers.
You might like it if: You like realistic ladies kicking fantastical butt.
Bonus features: If you’re local, Mildred Louis will be at MICE! So if you missed getting a physical book at LadiesCon, you might have another shot.
This post took a couple of twists in my mind – I need to get back to my Flash recaps, and I really have an all-ages round-up review that I need to get to you all, but inspiration wasn’t coming on those fronts. Then I realized I hadn’t written my now-annual webcomics recommendations, and I have three more that are drawn and written by women. So boom! More suggestions of fun comics I think you should check out and which are freely available to you on the internet-enabled device of your choosing.
Lackadaisy by Tracy J. Butler
Update schedule: Erratic, I guess? But there’s a pretty big archive built up, and they are always worth the wait.
Plot: In 1920’s Saint Louis, a gang of misfits and ne’er-do-wells attempt to help young widow Mitzi May maintain her once prosperous speakeasy, the Lackadaisy, after the untimely death of her husband. Her competition includes gangsters, voodoo-practicing twins, and former employees, and her allies are lunatics, drug addicts, and young men with an unhealthy zeal for firearms. Oh, and did I mention that all of the characters happen to be cats?
That conceit could be annoying, but Butler pulls it off beautifully – her artwork is gorgeous, and she takes advantage of the cartooniness of anthropomorphic animals to allow her characters to express a full range of emotions. Slapstick zanieness? Yeah, we got that, but we’ve also got some real poignant moments, too. The writing is also top-notch, and has me really caring about what happens to the Lackadaisy and its denizens.
Bonus: The Gallery This little round up of extras has a ton of amazing content, from silly mini-comics to some drop-dead knockout illustrations of the cast as humans. Plenty to keep you occupied while you wait for the next post.
The Meek by Der-shing Helmer
Plot: A young girl with green hair and mysterious powers makes a promise to her dying mentor to travel to the heart of the empire she lives in to find “the center.” Meanwhile, the emperor himself is plagued by border disputes with the neighboring country – and by visions of a tiger only he can see.
I’m not gonna lie – this one is hard to explain. Think epic fantasy quest with a bit of an environmentalist theme, although I feel like that doesn’t do the story justice – it sounds like I’m talking about Ferngully. The truth here is far more complicated and subtle – Helmer has put a lot of thought into the rituals, religions, and political structures of her fictional lands, but manages to weave them into the narrative in a way that feels natural. (Although the comic does have its own wiki if you want to do further reading.) The art is masterfully colored, and shows an understanding of movement and flow that I really appreciate.
Bonus: For a while, The Meek was on hiatus – so she started another whole comic called Mare Internum. It’s about life on Mars and it is getting seriously creepy and beautiful right now. She is also responsible for this. I don’t know how to tell you to feel about that.
Sakana by Madeline Rupert
Updates: T, F
Plot: Jiro and Taro Sakana work in their uncle’s fish stall – Jiro is a salesman, while Taro is a rather too good butcher. The comic follows their adventures trying to figure out women, excessively cranky co-workers, and navigate adult life.
While all three of these recommendations have occasional jokes and levity, Sakana easily has the lightest heart. The title is a big clue of what you’re in for – “sakana” means fish in Japanese. Full of silly puns and cartoony art that favors Chuck Jones-style overreaction over subtlety, at its core Sakana is still about a family and its problems, and the emotions are real and gripping.
Bonus: Rupert writes and draws for Boom! Studio’s KaBOOM licensed kid’s comics, including Adventure Time, Regular Show, Bravest Warriors, Bee and Puppycat and Steven Universe. If you like those properties I can almost guarantee you’ll like Sakana.
So what else should I be reading? Have any of you followed up on my other recommendations and what did you think? To the comments, friends!
Since the last time I wrote about this subject, about a year ago, I’ve found even more fabulous webcomics that you really ought to be reading, all of them written and drawn by ladies! All three of these are a little over a year old, which is a great time to get into a series – there’s enough in the archive to sink your teeth into and get a feel for where a story is going, but not quite the overwhelming sprawl that a comic that’s been going on for five or ten years can have.
Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu
Update schedule: When they’re ready. But there’s plenty for you to read through.
Plot: Check, Please! is the story of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, vlogger, Southerner, and pie baker extraordinaire. When the comic opens, Bitty is a freshman at Samwell University and a member of the men’s hockey team. He’s pretty good, other than one slight problem – his high school club was co-ed and no contact, so Bitty is scared to death of being checked – not so great in the world of college hockey. Can he get over his fear, stay on the team, and maybe even capture the heart of his crush?
Why Read It: Okay. I don’t care about hockey, I’m fifteen years out of college, and I don’t even care that much about romance. And yet, this comic? It’s incredibly compelling. Partly this is due to Ukazu’s art, which is incredibly adorable and expressive. The personality of the characters comes through in their design and facial expressions. Even more so, however, the writing is great – it sucked me right in from the beginning and made me care about all of that stuff – hockey and feelings, to borrow a phrase coined about a book that we read in Comicazi Book Club (and which you should go read right now.)
Bonus: The social media. Ukazu’s world building reaches far outside of the confines of her comic – she has a character who already graduated in the world of comic who “runs” the Facebook page, and Bitty has his own very entertaining Twitter feed. This makes the time between updates fly by – even when there’s no comic update, there’s plenty of content to explore.
While paper comics are my first love, since I was a wee Menace in the early ages of the internet I’ve also enjoyed the storytelling bounty that it provides. It’s hard not to when there’s such a wide variety of great tales and art out there, much of it provided for free. Certainly, that very benefit has its downside – often the best artists get jobs that allow them to create AND pay the bills, and that can mean that a story you’ve been invested in doesn’t get finished. But the risk is minimal, the rewards can be great, and you can find some really great tales that you might not see in the comic shop.
So without further ado:
Monster Pulse by Magnolia Porter
Update schedule: M/W/F
Plot: Okay, this is going to sound a little crazy. Monster Pulse is about a group of kids who get exposed to a top-secret chemical that’s been developed by a shadowy government agency. When the chemical comes into contact with a human body, it changes one of that person’s body parts into a monster that can act independently of that person (though they seem to be connected to and protective of them.) The kids team up to fight the shadowy agency and try to prevent any more folks from losing vital organs. I told you it was weird.