Jazmin Truesdale grew up reading comics. But, as she got older, she lost interest in the catchy crime-fighting plots and the mostly male casts of characters.
“When you get older you start to notice more things like sexism and racism in the entertainment you consume, and I was becoming more put off by comics,” Truesdale told The Huffington Post. Rather than turning away from her interest, however, she dove into it head-on, dreaming up a squad of heroines that better reflects the lives of real women reading comics today.
“In the superhero industry, there are many physically powerful women and people of color but none of them are truly empowered,” Truesdale said. “They'll show up for a comic issue or two and then disappear into the superhero void.”
She’s referring specifically to Nubia -- a black woman who features in the "Wonder Woman" series as a powerful equal to Wonder Women, yet is scarcely seen after a three-issue stint in the late 1970s. Her fate is common among superwomen, who tend to crop up as strong-willed love interests -- ahem, Catwoman -- more than stars in their own right.
“Female superheroes were never meant for women,” Truesdale said. “They were created by men, for men. The characters are either created based on female stereotypes or they are literally regurgitated female versions of popular male characters."
This may not be a fair wholesale dismissal, especially in light of Marvel’s recent attempts to create and promote superheroes of color, and women superheroes. Last year, for example, the comic book publisher rebooted the Thor series, revealing partway through that Thor has been replaced by a woman -- a former love interest of his alter ego, to be exact.
It’s a step in the right direction, certainly, but does infusing white male-centric plots with new and reimagined characters really avert the male gaze? Truesdale doesn’t think so.
“When a male superhero defeats a villain, he gets the girl. But what does a female superhero win? Nothing. She defeats her villain and goes home alone,” she said. “She doesn’t even have girlfriends she can call up and go out with to celebrate her victory. If she does have a boyfriend, it’s usually a male superhero who is stronger than her, which subconsciously tells girls that in order to win the guy, you can’t be stronger or as strong as him.”
To spur more meaningful change, Truesdale thought it best to start from scratch, writing women characters who are fully realized individuals, and who are defined by their relationships with each other, rather than romantic pursuits. And so she created the Aza universe, consisting of Ixchel, a crime fighter who values brain over brawn; Adanna, a super-strong woman who owns an auto shop; Kala, an impassioned activist; and more. The team, known as "The Keepers," was illustrated by Remero Colston and written into a digital, self-published novel.
Truesdale hopes the book will work against the usual stereotypes about women upheld by comic books -- that their purpose is their sex appeal -- but also the misguided notion that women don’t get along. In comic books, it’s rare to see two women in a scene unless they’re at battle, but, Truesdale points out, “Women don't fight any more or less than men. The only difference is that people only seem to care when we do it. Two men fighting gets no one's attention.”
Will major comic book publishers adopt the same approach -- crafting women and minority characters who are well-rounded rather than tailored to appeal to male readers? In a universe where men can fly faster than light, stranger things have happened.
For more on the re-imagination of superheroes, check out Markus Prime's B.R.U.H. (Black Renditions of Universal Heroes).