Romance novels are frequently accused of being formulaic but can’t the same be said of every genre? Ali Williams talks about finding a formula to build the perfect female superhero.
How do you build the perfect female superhero?
Can you build the perfect female superhero?
I came to comics quite late, courtesy of a superheroes and super-villains Halloween costume party about five years ago. My mission, I decided, was to find a female comic book superhero who didn’t wear tights.
Little did I know that I was about to embark upon a journey of epic proportions that would introduce me to multiple non-leotard-wearing women whom I’d admire and adore. One that would have serious repercussions for my bank account, and take up a sizable portion of my bookcase. And one that would make me regret making the kind of assumption that always infuriates me when it’s made about romance!
So let us start with the character whom I ended dressing up as for that fateful party: Ms America Chavez.
She’s a queer, latinx woman who can kick through time and space, punch people so hard that they disintegrate into stars, and she can fly. And so we meet our first characteristic: kick-arse. A female superhero has to be kick-arse.
America Chavez illustrates this in its physical manifestation; she literally kicks arse. On Earth, in space, across multiple dimensions… She even punches Hitler in the face when she travels back in time. But it’s more than just her physical strength: she stands up for other people; she’s loyal; and she won’t let anyone walk all over her.
And being kick-arse isn’t just a physical trait. Take She-Hulk, for example. Yes, she turns green—having an emergency blood transfusion from Bruce Banner will do that to you—but she retains control over her emotions, and has a day job as a pretty amazing lawyer.
Because who doesn’t love a big green lawyer for justice?
She’s funny and engaging and her kick-arse-ry isn’t limited to her physical strength, but is enhanced by her ability in the courtroom.
Smarts are also pretty handy for a female superhero. Whether that’s being able to defend superheroes who’ve taken down an entire city whilst superheroing, or leading the technological developments of the most advanced nation in the world: Wakanda.
Not a moment too soon Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, has been given her own comic book series, written by the incredible Nnedi Okorafor. It focuses on what happens when T’Challa disappears and Shuri has to step out of her lab, where she’s happiest and most comfortable, and try to find her brother.
It’s an engaging narrative that highlights our next superhero trait: willingness to make personal sacrifice for the greater good.
Misty Knight’s right arm was amputated after she was injured whilst preventing a bomb attack—see, personal sacrifice—and her current bionic arm was a gift from Tony Stark.
She’s yet to have an eponymous series named after her (boo hiss!) but her role as joint team leader in Fearless Defenders (see picture below) placed her in the centre of a fascinating storyline which involved Asgardians, mutants, and the mysterious Doom Maidens…
But it highlights an important feature of all superheroes—female or otherwise—the origin story.
Just like in a romance novel, we need to understand where our hero has come from, as that has such a huge impact on their motivations and their actions. One such character is the latest incarnation of the hugely popular Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan.
The first Marvel Muslim superhero to headline a comic book, Ms Marvel follows a teenage Pakistani-American as she develops shape-shifting abilities when her “Inhuman” genes are revealed. Kamala Khan is a fan of superheroes—there’s a particularly brilliant scene when she meets Wolverine for the first time and tells him all about the fanfiction she’s written about him—but she’s a teenager first and foremost. Her loyalty to her family, her friends and her community is what drives her most.
And then there’s what happens after the origins story. Where do you go next?
In a romance novel, the action gets driven forward by inner conflict, and superhero narratives combine inner conflict with character development to drive the action. Take Kate Kane, aka Batwoman. She’s usually torn between doing what she considers to be her duty, and being true to herself. At one point she leaves a military academy because she refuses to lie about the fact that she’s a lesbian.
Ironically, life ended up mimicking fiction on this one, where artist J. H. Williams III and writer W. Haden Blackman ended up leaving the series after DC refused to let them have Kate marry her girlfriend. But it doesn’t take away from her determination and honour.
So what makes a good female superhero?
I’d argue that yes there are some key traits, but what makes a good superhero is exactly that which makes them different. Their origin story, their experiences…These are what make superheroes stand out. Now all we need to do is to build on the good work that’s been done and tell more and more diverse stories. More superheroes of colour; more LGBTQIA superheroes; more superheroes with disabilities or who are neuro-diverse.
Because that which makes us super is invariably that which makes us individual and different.
Ali Williams is a romance editor, academic and writer, and one of the hosts of Into the Stacks: The Bookcast, a podcast about speculative fiction. For more information about Ali and her projects, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Are you up for the challenge? Build your perfect superhero and tell us about it in the comments or on social media! #perfectsuperhero