Review of Monstrous Women in Comics

Review of Monstrous Women in Comics

Brianna Anderson

Samantha Langsdale and Elizabeth Rae Coody, eds. Monstrous Women in Comics. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. Horror and Monstrosity Studies Series. Paperback. 296 pg. $20.99. ISBN 9781496827630.

Monsters have played a pivotal role in comics across genres and throughout time, with strange, boundary-crossing creatures and people populating the panels of pulp, superhero, and even romance comics. Creators frequently code these monsters as female, provoking important questions about the intersections of ability, femininity, maternity, race, and sexuality with representations of monstrosity and the Other in comics. In Monstrous Women in Comics, editors Samantha Langsdale and Elizabeth Rae Coody assemble fifteen essays that take up these pressing topics, focusing particularly on the ways that depictions of female monsters in comics contribute to the dehumanization, marginalization, or empowerment of women. As Langsdale and Coody note in their introduction, the chapters “explore not only the ways monstrous women evoke damaging cultural norms in patriarchal contexts, but also how constructions of woman as monster contain within them the potential to destroy the systems of thought that are productive of such norms” (5). The collection covers an impressive array of transnational comics, with analyses of popular Western characters like Batgirl and Harley Quinnappearing alongside readings of Bolivian, Chinese, and Japanese graphic narratives. Despite this expansive scope, each chapter follows a similar structure, beginning with a rigorous text-critical analysis of a comic or a selection of comics “in order to ask how the monster makes meaning within the text(s) and what it means for the monster to be coded as a woman” (5). Building on these close readings, the chapters interrogate how monstrous women connect to broader social and cultural anxieties and discourses surrounding gender and sexuality. Prominent feminist and monster studies scholars like Barbara Creed, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Julia Kristeva, and Margrit Shildrick serve as common touchstones for many of the analyses, and the richly interdisciplinary collection also draws on critical race studies, disability studies, queer studies, and other disciplines. Langsdale and Coody organize the essays thematically into five sections that explore different facets of female monstrosity: power, embodiment, childbearing, childhood, and performance.

Part One, “The Origins, Agency, and Paradoxes of Monstrous Women,” posits that female monsters evoke fear and unease in (often male) comics audiences due to their paradoxical nature. Langsdale and Coody note the characters examined in this section “actively choose monstrosity and exhibit agency that rejects normative femininity” and “are neither wholly empowered nor entirely disenfranchised” (6). Coody’s contribution, “Rewriting to Control: How the Origins of Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, and Mary Magdalene Matter to Women’s Perceived Power,” contends that the “multivocal”—or repeatedly rewritten—origin stories of Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman reveal shifting cultural and patriarchal discomforts surrounding empowered, boundary-crossing women. Coody extends her analysis to the biblical figure Mary Magdalene, demonstrating the trans-disciplinary possibilities of her approach.  In “Exploring the Monstrous Feminist Frame: Marvel’s She-Hulk as Male-Centric Postfeminist Discourse,” J. Richard Stevens similarly addresses monstrous women in superhero comics, surveying representations of female empowerment and feminist discourses in over 800 appearances of She-Hulk in comics published between the 1980s and 2015. While comics fans and scholars have frequently lauded She-Hulk as a “feminist ideal,” Stevens reveals that the character engages only superficially with other female characters and second-wave and third-wave feminism, a fact that the author attributes to her mostly male creators and readers (31). As a result, Stevens concludes that She-Hulk “articulates the paradoxes and challenges of female agency in a hypermasculine public sphere,” namely the superhero comics industry (31). Finally, in “‘There is More to Me Than Just Hunger: Female Monsters and Liminal Spaces in Monstress and Pretty Deadly,” Ayanni C. H. Cooper analyzes the connections between abjection, beauty, and violence in the two titular comics. She argues that the monstrous heroines challenge conventional ideas of “acceptable femininity” through their liminal positionality and paradoxically gain empowerment through abjection. Together, these chapters highlight the complexities of monstrous femininity and demonstrate how audience expectations, artwork, and larger cultural movements shape representations of monstrous women.  

The chapters included in Part Two, “The Body as Monstrous,” focus on the intersections of disability, embodiment, and sexuality with female monstrosity. Stefanie Snider’s chapter “The (Un)Remarkable Fatness of Valiant’s Faith” examines the radical potential and limitations of heroine Faith Herbert/Zephyr’s fatness. Media outlets promoted Faith as the first fat superhero, yet her fatness largely goes uncommented on in the first sixteen issues of the 2016 series. Snider contends that Faith’s fatness somewhat challenges stereotypical representations of superheroines as able-bodied, conventionally attractive, and feminine, but the comic’s failure to explicitly address her visible fatness “can induce a normalization that makes invisible the power of representation and resistance that comes from her body size and shape” (80). The chapter encourages readers to envision the transformative potential of comics that would celebrate fat bodies instead of normalizing or stigmatizing them. Next, in one of the book’s most compelling chapters, “New and Improved? Disability and Monstrosity in Gail Simone’s Batgirl,” Charlotte Johanna Fabricius explores representations of able-bodiedness and disability in the first six issues of Gail Simone’s controversial New 52 Batgirl run, which cured Barbara Gordon/Oracle’s paralysis. Fabricius contends that the comic perpetuates harmful narratives about disability by portraying the villains as disabled monsters who Barbara must defeat. Moreover, Barbara’s victories over these villains parallel her own road to recovery as she transforms from a paralyzed woman to the able-bodied Batgirl. As a result, Fabricius argues that the comic’s “promise of monstrosity as disruptive remains unfulfilled, and the coding of disability as monstrous and other remains uncontested” (95). Finally, in “Horrible Victorians: Interrogating Power, Sex, and Gender in InSEXts,” Keri Crist-Wagner draws on queer theory, quantitative frequency, and visual rhetoric to analyze the relationship between gender, power, queerness, and violence in Marguerite Bennett’s horror comic InSEXts. The series centers on two queer Victorian women who transform into monstrous insects and enact violent vengeance on men who harm women. Crist-Wagner creates two tools, a “Diamond of Violence” and a “Scale of Escalating Romance,” to evaluate how the women’s “twofold monstrousness”—their physical insect transformations and their queerness—“allows them to cause material impact and damage to the patriarchy and to change their world and circumstances, almost completely without punishment” (110-111). By closely analyzing monstrous female bodies through several disciplinary lenses, these chapters highlight how monstrosity can unsettle power structures, while also demonstrating how these narratives can reinforce harmful stereotypes about aberrant bodies.

Part Three, “Childbearing as Monstrous,” explores the abject horrors of maternity and pregnancy. In “Kicking Ass in Flip-Flops: Inappropriate/d Generations and Monstrous Pregnancy in Comics Narratives,” Jeannie Ludlow explores how comics about abortion, childbearing, and motherhood can challenge or reinscribe binary notions of birth and pregnancy. For instance, she criticizes Leah Hayes’s Not Funny Ha-Ha: A Handbook for Something Hard for depicting abortion as always traumatic and shameful, perpetuating the stigmatization of abortion and ignoring the positive experiences of many real women. By contrast, A. K. Summers’ graphic novel Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag disrupts notions of normalcy and appropriateness by depicting pregnant queer bodies. By analyzing several texts from different genres, Ludlow demonstrates how comics can use grotesque and monstrous representations to promote more nuanced views of reproductive choices. Next, Marcela Murillo’s chapter “The Monstrous Portrayal of the Maternal Bolivian Chola in Contemporary Comics” analyzes representations of chola mothers in three Bolivian comics: Corven Icenail and Rafaela Rada’s La Estrella y el Zorro, Álvaro Ruilova’s Noche de mercado, and Rafaela Rada’s Nina cholita Andina. Murillo provides a detailed historical overview of political and structural discrimination suffered by cholas, indigenous Aymara or Quechua women who have historically occupied a marginalized position in Bolivia. Though Bolivia has recently adopted pro-indigenous policy changes, the three analyzed comics negatively portray chola mothers as monstrous and subaltern. Moreover, Murillo reveals how the comics use similar visual and narrative strategies to juxtapose the monstrosity of the cholas with the European femininity of their offspring, revealing larger anxieties surrounding gender and indigeneity in Bolivia. In the section’s final chapter, “The Monstrous ‘Mother’ in Moto Hagio’s Marginal: The Posthuman, the Human, and the Bioengineered Uterus,” Tomoko Kuribayashi discusses representations of posthuman femininity in Moto Hagio’s science fiction manga Marginal. The manga’s biologically engineered heroine, Kira, and her relationships with her male lovers invite readers to consider “whether the posthuman future will bring with it a radical reorganization or even total erasure of sexual differences and of gender roles and dynamics” (155). Despite this radical proposition, Kuribayashi concludes that the manga ends on a less empowering note by depicting Kira as reliant on her male partners, suggesting that men will continue to control and exploit posthuman women and their fertility. This section effectively illustrates both the transformative potential and limits of monstrous maternity, which can expand or trouble binary notions of childbirth and pregnancy.

Part Four, “Monsters of Childhood,” centers on comics that feature female monsters who reject conventional associations of women as devoted caretakers of children. In the fascinating chapter “SeDUCKtress! Magica De Spell, Scrooge McDuck, and the Avuncular Anthropomorphism of Carl Barks’s Midcentury Disney Comics,” Daniel F. Yezbick contends that the shapeshifting, villainous duck Magica De Spell threatens both the privileged protagonist Scrooge and, by extension, the larger patriarchal structures of Barks’s comic universe. Examining Magica’s abject monstrosity, hyper sexualization, possible queerness, and transgressive behavior, Yezbick argues that the character demonstrates Barks’s ambiguous attitudes toward women and, by extension, the larger Disney empire that owns his creations. In “On the Edge of 1990s Japan: Kyoko Okazaki and the Horror of Adolescence,” Novia Shih-Shan Chen and Sho Ogawa analyze representations of adolescent anxieties, female sexuality, and monstrosity in three of Kyoko Okazaki’s manga: Pink, River’s Edge, and Helter Skelter. Though Okazaki’s representations of monstrous women potentially “reinforce the nexus between monstrosity and women’s sexuality,” her characters also productively “allow us to interrogate the capitalist construction of femininity and reproduction in 1990s Japan” (205). Lastly, in “Chinese Snake Resurfaces in Comics: Considering the Case Study of Calabash Brothers,” Jing Zhang traces the historical development of the transgressive figure of the snake woman in Chinese culture and then provides a close reading of Snake Woman, the monstrous antagonist who terrorizes the child protagonists of Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s animation and comic series Calabash Brothers. Zhang links Snake Woman to larger traditions in Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism and insists that the character “is not a simple force of monstrous evil; she is a complex character with roots in traditional Chinese folklore and medicine, and a more sympathetic interpretation is possible” (218).

Finally, Part Five, “Taking on the Role of the Monster,” explores how women can embrace their monstrosity to resist patriarchal social norms. In “Monochromatic Teats, Teeth, and Tentacles: Monstrous Visual Rhetoric in Stephen L. Stern and Christopher Steininger’s Beowulf: The Graphic Novel,” Justin Wigard draws on adaptation, monster theory, and visual rhetoric to examine shifting visual representations of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf retellings. Closely analyzing Stern and Steininger’s phallic depiction of the woman’s body, Wigard argues that the comic reveals enduring heteronormative anxieties about empowered women, concluding, “Ultimately, the text suggests that even with one thousand years of progress, insidious patriarchal fears about female sexuality, power, and agency still pervade the human consciousness as modern adaptors perpetuate a cycle of monstrous (visual) rhetoric” (224). In “Beauty and Her B(r)east(s): Monstrosity and College Women in The Jaguar,” Pauline J. Reynolds and Sara Durazo-Demoss contend that The Jaguar’s animal-like monstrosity reinforces the marginalization that the Latina superheroine experiences as an international college student in troubling ways. Finally, in “UFO (Unusual Female Other) Sightings in Saucer Country/State: Metaphors of Identity and Presidential Politics,” Christina M. Knopf reveals how Mexican American heroine Arcadia Alvarado resists the monstrous othering that occurs in both American politics and the science fiction genre. This concluding section provides nuanced readings of the complexities of female monstrosity, which can serve as both a source of resistance and oppression.

Together, the fifteen chapters provide an expansive exploration of representations of monstrous women in graphic narratives from a diverse range of cultures and genres. Comics, feminist, and monster studies scholars alike will find valuable insights in the volume, and the collection serves as a strong model of effective interdisciplinary, transnational scholarship.

Brianna Anderson is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She is currently writing a dissertation that examines representations of environmental issues and youth environmental activism in children’s and young adult comics and zines. Her research has appeared in Studies in Comics and The Lion and the Unicorn and is forthcoming in The Comics Grid.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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