Writing a top five list can be difficult. Already an incredibly subjective question, the biggest difficulty is what judgment to use for ranking: will it be power level–I’m not the kind of nerd who’s interested in saying “Superman can lift 200 quintillion tons, while Supergirl can only lift 100,000 tons;” it ruins good storytelling–or popularity (but then, how can you really judge that? I know a lot of people out there who are crazy about some pretty obscure characters), or some other factor all together?
For me, superheroes are about storytelling. From epic to mundane, the point of these characters, from creation, is to tell interesting, compelling, and unique stories.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to compile my Top five (and runners-up) Superheroines in terms of story, character development, and cultural significance; not included on the list would be Wonder Woman, DC’s first successful super-powered woman, a revolutionary figure written by the polygamous man who invented the polygraph machine, an inspiration to feminists for over 50 years, who was featured on the cover of the first Ms. Magazine. Diana is a given for any top superheroine list.[divider]
5.) Black Canary
Black Canary is almost as enduring as Wonder Woman. Introduced six years after Diana, Dinah Drake played against the trope of male, street-level heroes like Batman. She was a competent hand-to-hand fighter who joined a detective (and her eventual husband), Larry Lance in taking down criminal organizations. Pre-New 52, the original Black Canary had a daughter, also named Dinah (Dinah Laurel, to be specific). Although she had a sonic scream power and was trained by the JSA, her mother didn’t want her fighting crime. Young Dinah Laurel didn’t listen, and took on both her mother’s mantle and costume; initially an act of youthful rebellion, it actually became a way to honor the original Black Canary and continue the legacy (one of the only female legacy names in DC).
Black Canary’s true heyday came when she joined Oracle in the Birds of Prey. Black Canary was one of the most kidnapping-prone and frequently de-powered heroines, from Green Arrow’s Longbow Hunters to early issues of Birds, it wasn’t until Gail Simone took over the BoP title that Black Canary was finally empowered. Kidnapped by Savant and Creote, Black Canary still managed to defeat the two men alone, despite being de-powered and having both her legs broken. Since the reboot, the legacy status of Black Canary has been removed, and the character reverted to the original Dinah Drake, albeit set in modern times.[divider]
4.) Jean Grey
The first lady of the X-Men, Jean Grey debuted in 1963 as “Marvel Girl,” and played the Smurfette role to the X-Men for some time. Much like the Invisible Girl, Jean was initially the most passive member of the group, possessing powers that could be described as “only defensive.” After a long, somewhat dreary period of constant kidnapping, diminution, and relegation to romance, Jean underwent a transformation. With Chris Claremont–whose name is on nearly every list of top comic book women–writing the X-Men in the 70s, Jean quickly became the strongest member of the X-Men. In her first (of many)deaths, Jean Grey managed to summon the power of the Phoenix force and was reborn with a wide array of psychic, telepathic, and telekinetic powers (and a new codename and costume). However, Jean didn’t escape all the clichés female characters have thrust upon them. Eventually, as Phoenix, she was corrupted, became the Dark Phoenix, and died once again (purportedly because she had become “too powerful” a character, and that she drew too much focus in Uncanny X-Men).
There’s a lot of interesting mythos surrounding the Dark Phoenix Saga–the alternate ending where Jean gets de-powered and chooses to remain so to protect the world (another cliché many female characters face); her potential to become the “first cosmic female hero”– but the biggest issue editors had with Jean Grey was that, per the Dark Phoenix Saga, she was a mass murderer, and that was unacceptable. Jean was revived 6 years after her death (or, according to some, a copy of her pre-Dark Phoenix was) and eventually returned to the X-Men via X-Force. Now going by her full name instead of a codename, Jean Grey ultimately proposed to and married Scott Summers and was a mainstay in the X-Universe until her death at the hands of a Magneto imposter. From there, not much has been seen of Jean; it’s a story Marvel doesn’t want to “rush into,” though Battle of the Atom introduced both a Dark Phoenix-inspired Jean in the guise of Xorn and the original young Jean Grey, who has been promoted to leader of the original X-Men.[divider]
3.) Captain Marvel(/Ms. Marvel/Binary/Warbird/you get the idea)
There are so many things to say about Captain Marvel right now. Aside from being a name shared (officially) by two amazing women—Monica Rambeau being the first—Carol Danver’s original moniker, Ms. Marvel, is also now a legacy name, to be used by Kamala Khan in the upcoming 2014 title. Carol was initially saved by the original Captain Marvel in the 60’s, only to resurface in the late 70’s as a mysterious superpowered female, Ms. Marvel. She became a mainstay of the Avengers, as well as a frequent guest on the Defenders, and other books, until Avengers #200, where she was kidnapped by Marcus, the son of Immortus. In Marcus’ alternate dimension, Carol was brainwashed, seduced, and ultimately impregnated–with what was ultimately Marcus himself. To make matters worse, when Carol returned to Earth and gave birth to a rapidly growing Marcus, she decided she was deeply in love with her boyfriend/baby and returned to his world with him. The issue cause a stir among feminists of the time, leading to the famous essay “The Rape of Ms. Marvel,” by Carol A. Strickland. Chris Claremont also detested the issue, and essentially retconned it when he wrote Avengers Annual #10.
Upon returning to Earth, now penned by Claremont, Carol Danvers was attacked by Rogue, who permanently absorbed both her powers and memories. Claremont used Carol as a featured character in Uncanny X-Men, transforming her into Binary, as well as a facet of Rogue’s personality that sometimes took over. In the ’90s, Carol made sporadic appearances, dealing with alcoholism, and was eventually suspended from the Avengers (after making scathing comments regarding their acceptance of Tony’s alcoholism). In more recent years, Carol had her own solo title as Ms. Marvel, was featured in Alias, and worked as both a New and Mighty Avenger. Finally, in 2012, Carol assumed the mantle of Captain Marvel in the critically acclaimed titular title written by Kelly Sue Deconnick. Though it had a rough start, the series now focuses on Carol and the people she surrounds herself with, with an emphasis on female friendships.[divider]
Echoing the role of Jean Grey, Ororo Munroe was created to prevent the 1975 Giant Sized X-Men team from being all male. Storm was actually an amalgamation of two Cockrum-created characters, Black Cat and Typhoon, but she has ultimately become one of the most significant women in Marvel comics. The first black superheroine, Storm was introduced by writer Len Wein, but it was Chris Claremont who established her backstory as the descendant of African weather-witches, a trained thief, and a serene, maternal, and unbelievably powerful woman.
Like many female characters, Storm was de-powered, but write Chris Claremont used this as an opportunity to define Storm’s strength of character even more: Storm and Scott Summers engaged in a duel to see who would lead the X-Men, and the de-powered Storm handily defeated Cyclops. Much like Black Canary defeating her kidnappers independently, Storm was empowered in a time when people regarded her as powerless. In 2006, Black Panther and Storm wed, only to separate after the events of Avengers vs X-Men. Storm has seen a number of miniseries (and a rumored upcoming solo title), as well as being a prominent member of both the X-Men and the Avengers; Storm now acts as headmistress of the Jean Grey School, as well as being a key member of both X-Men and the recently released Amazing X-Men.[divider]
I really think Oracle is the obvious choice for number one on this list. There’s been a subtle theme throughout about characters being empowered in times of weakness and overcoming great odds, and no one is a better example of this than Barbara Gordon. Initially introduced as Batgirl in the 1960s, Barbara was a talented woman: a ballet dancer, librarian, a congress woman, and a PhD. A far cry from the first Batwoman who was constantly being saved by Batman, Barbara could fend for herself. That is, until 1988, when Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke was released. In the comic, Babs was implied to have been sexual assaulted and, ultimately, crippled (with one editor purportedly saying “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch”) by the Joker and his lackeys. Disgusted by the treatment of the character (which ultimately inspired Women in Refrigerators), comic writer and editor Kim Yale and her husband, fellow writer, John Ostrander worked to revive her as a character living with a disability.
Babs transformed into Oracle, a seemingly omnipotent, longstanding feature of the DC Universe from 1989-2011. As Oracle, Babs was indispensable to the Justice League and the heroes of the DCU, providing information and intel. She also formed her own team, Birds of Prey, initially with Black Canary, but it expanded into a huge, primarily female, operation. As Oracle, Babara showed that her disability did not define her, and that she was neither powerless nor to be pitied. The loss of Oracle, when the New 52 rebooted the DC Universe, is still a resounding one. Oracle was one of the few superheroes with a physical disability, and while Gail Simone is making a concerted efforts towards inclusion, the fact of the matter is, DC got rid of a disabled character of two decades by magically healing her in Africa.
Runners up include:
- Catwoman, introduced in 1940, she was Batman’s first female villain. She disappeared for over a decade in the mid-50s, due to the Comics Code Authority, and when she returned, she developed into one of Batman’s most enduring love interests–and antagonists. Though she is rarely written consistently, she is a character that many writers and artists love to reinvent. She is a fan favorite, along with the other two women of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, and is frequently shown teaming up with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, if unwillingly.
- Kitty Pryde, the kid sister of the X-Men, created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in 1980. Kitty is one of the only comic characters who ages with some frequency. When she was introduced, she was just over 13 years old, and just learning about her mutation. Kitty initially changed costumes in almost every arc of Uncanny X-Men, but as she grew up, her costumes remain more consistent. She is a major player in the X-Universe today, and widely considered the heart of the X-Men.
- She-Hulk was introduced as a Savage in 1980. It wasn’t until John Byrne wrote and drew her second series, the Sensational She-Hulk, that she truly found a unique and strong voice. The embodiment of second wave feminism, She-Hulk because a powerful and sexy lawyer. She was also one of the first comic characters to break the fourth wall (take that, Deadpool!), going as far as walking through ads, ripping up pages, and directly addressing both John Byrne and Renee Witterstaetter, the editor of her book.
My top five favorites? Kitty Pryde, Power Girl, Squirrel Girl, Misfit, and She-Hulk. But honestly, it’s so hard to decide when there are so many amazing superheroines.