When the novelist Jodi Picoult was approached in 2006 to write a few installments of the "Wonder Woman" comic-book series, her impulse was to dress the character in something besides that clearly unsupportive red and gold bustier. "As any woman writer would know," she opines in the introduction to a collection of the comics, "it's impossible to fight crime without straps." The editors at DC Comics vetoed her request, but Picoult sneaked in her point anyway. In a scene set in a bar frequented by comic-book fans, a tipsy customer muses about how Wonder Woman manages to "fight crime in a freaking bikini." Such is the irony of the planet's premier female superhero. Though she was featured on the first issue of Ms. Magazine under the headline WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT, she's been written, for most of her 66 years, by a man.
But now women are finally breaking into the boys' comics club. With the release of this month's "Wonder Woman" No. 14, the superhero gets her first permanent, ongoing female scribe, Gail Simone, just as alternative and foreign comics by women are gaining visibility. The movie "Persepolis," based on Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir about the Iranian revolution, opened Christmas Day, and Megan Kelso's multipart strip "Watergate Sue," about a Nixon-era family, was recently featured in The New York Times Magazine. Kelso's graphic story collection "The Squirrel Mother" was well reviewed, as was Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic-novel memoir "Fun Home." Manga, a Japanese style of comic featuring huge-eyed characters and often including elements of fantasy, has spawned a female-oriented subset, shoujo manga, some of which outsells regular manga. The ladies aren't exactly kicking the guys off the planet yet—"Spider-Man 3" was the top-grossing movie last year—but they're no longer the comics equivalent of kryptonite, either.
Traditionally, comics have been by, for and about men. DC Comics won't release reader demographics, but industry insiders agree the readership remains overwhelmingly male. (The Web site comicsworthreading.com claims that DC's readership was 92 percent male in 1995.) Dan DiDio, DC's executive editor, describes its audience as "college-aged men who are looking for high adventure, a level of risk, fantasy." "Wonder Woman" fits that mold, with its fantasy-based storyline and action-heavy, cleavage-filled plots. But it remains to be seen whether the increasing number of female voices such as Simone's will win superhero comics more female readers.
There's no question more women are reading comics in general, especially alternative strips and manga. For proof, just go to a convention. "When I used to go to the San Diego comics convention, the only women were children or wives of fanboys who looked oppressed being there," says Eric Reynolds, an editor at the graphic-novel publisher Fantagraphics. "Now it's just as common to have a woman come up to our booth, and for her husband to be the tag-along." The diverse subject matter of alternative comics such as manga and graphic novels, which are the comic world's equivalent of independent film, may partially account for their appeal. Kelso, the author of "The Squirrel Mother," says that the availability of alternative comics in bookstores, as opposed to obscure specialty comics stores, may be another reason. Kelso writes gently wry, family-themed tales—"The Squirrel Mother" depicts a human mother making a dress interspersed with scenes of a squirrel mother tending to her young. Hardly the "Pow! Oof! Bang!" sequences of superhero stories.
But other writers embrace the constraints of traditional comics—or are working to enact change within the genre. Simone, "Wonder Woman's" new scribe, got her start when she published a blog titled Women in Refrigerators that argued that most female comics superheroes end up "depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator." The blog led to a writing job for the all-female comic "Birds of Prey" for DC—which became a short-lived, live-action TV series—and in turn won her the "Wonder Woman" job. Simone says she sees a change since she wrote her "refrigerator" rant 10 years ago. "At that time, the trend was towards grim stories where female characters were killed," she says. "We only had a handful of female characters to look up to. Today we're not seeing those stories so much." Her plans for future issues include presenting the Amazons, the tribe Wonder Woman came from, as "less a bunch of women in beehives and togas," she says. Simone believes that despite being written by a man for most of her life, Wonder Woman has always been a strong female character, and the writer doesn't plan to insert a feminist agenda to the strip or tone down the superhero's overt sexiness. "Part of her appeal is that she makes your eyes pop out of your head," Simone says. In other words, that bustier is here to stay.