It’s hard for me to remember a time when my life wasn’t filled with one aspect of my illness or another. But just as mental illness has always been there, so too has a love for the impossible; for fantasy and superheroes and stories set in universes identical to or vastly different from our own. Stories like these have always given me comfort. I can step into other lives, other worlds, and find characters who inspire me to live a life outside books; depression, anxiety, and all. Despite my adoration for these types of stories, it took decades before I began regularly reading graphic novels. Covers featuring women as objects, plotlines featuring sexual assault or death simply for motivation, and a general “boys’ club” attitude kept me away.
There were a few things that made me decide to give the genre another try. My son was getting interested in superhero shows – ones that were absolutely hilarious and featured fierce female heroes. I was going through a depressive episode and found myself re-watching some of these cartoons to improve my plummeting mood. Around the same time I finished reading Malinda Lo’s novel Ash, and was hungry for a compassionate and powerful character like Kaisa. I wanted to read about someone complicated, smart, and inspiring. An evening with Google helped me stumble upon the deluxe edition of Elegy a graphic novel featuring Batwoman – a Jewish, lesbian superhero who became a vigilante after being kicked out of the military in the midst of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for refusing to lie. Kate Kane, as she is known in her civilian identity, was lost and looking for a way to serve the greater good without compromising her morals. As Batwoman she battles supernatural demons but as Kate she struggles with complex family issues and trying to figure out who she is. These issues are universal, and her determination to do what’s right without compromising herself can inspire us all.
Batwoman was my gateway hero. From there I read everything I could get my hands on. A number of these stories stand out for having very relatable situations, even in universes where a ridiculously high number of people can literally fly.
Renee Montoya, a police officer, is one such character. One of the best stories featuring Renee is Gotham Central: Half a Life. In addition to dealing with sexism and racism, from both inside and outside the force, a villain outs her and Renee must endure the emotional, personal, and professional fallout from that revelation while trying to track down said villain.
Ms. Marvel is another example of a character who faces extraordinary challenges but also has to deal with some very down-to-Earth issues. Kamala Khan is a Muslim teenager who struggles with her faith, with her strict parents, and with trying to figure out what she wants for herself. The first three volumes of her series, No Normal, Generation Why, and Crushed have been released and are currently available.
Rocket, Raquel Ervin, was born in a poor neighbourhood, fell in with a bad crowd, and pushed her dreams of being a writer aside. A chance meeting with an alien resulted in her convincing him to become a superhero, and getting her to join him. Raquel became the first single teenaged mother in comics, returning to heroics only after her mentor’s life was at risk. Rocket’s powers are external, but the passion, drive, and ambition behind them are all from within her. Her superhero start is detailed in the graphic novel Icon: A Hero’s Welcome.
You may have heard of the “Carol Corps”, a group of comic fans devoted to the character of Carol Danvers, particularly as Captain Marvel written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Carol has a long history in comics; not all of it inspirational. The graphic novel Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight depicts Carol’s journey as she redefines herself as Captain Marvel. 2014’s Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More sees Carol take on a mission in space, but also sees her face loneliness, loss, and self-discovery.
If superheroes just aren’t your thing, there are still so many graphic novels featuring inspirational women to choose from. Trillium’s Nika Temsmith faces loss and loneliness while researching a strange plant and trying to save her people. Ellen Forney wrote a humorous yet honest memoir depicting her struggle with bipolar disorder in Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me. Lumberjanes Volume 1 is an entertaining story about a group of very different girls and their adventures at camp. Each of these women shows her courage in unique yet inspiring ways.
Graphic novels are a visually appealing break from standard novels, and can be just as fun, hilarious, or touching as traditional prose. These works are often quick reads, so you can get lost in a superhero tale one night and go back in time to a fictional paradise the next. I strongly encourage those searching for unread stories starring fierce women to give graphic novels a chance.
Ashley Perna is an administrative professional by day and a writer/consumer of geek culture by night. She’s an archer and an avid reader. Ashley credits comic books for helping her find inspiration, and wants to be Wonder Woman when she grows up. You can read more about her love for all things geek and her struggles with mental illness at her blog, The Idle Archer.