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How Gail Simone changed the way we think about female superheroes

Gail simone
Gail simone
flickr user: onceandfuturelaura
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.


(DC Comics)

In the world of comics, men die noble deaths sacrificing themselves for the good of mankind. In the world of comics, those men are rarely in danger of being killed and stuffed in refrigerators. No, in the world of comics, it's wives and girlfriends who are killed, contorted, snapped, and smashed into the fridge alongside the milk and eggs.

Back in the 1990s, comics creator Gail Simone made this now-famous observation and detailed the numerous female characters in comics history who were de-powered, maimed, raped, and left altered on what's become a list that lives in legend.

"For so long, we had a few female archetypes and that was it. It was like only three types of women existed in the universe, and that's just completely insane," Simone told me during one of New York Comic Con's rare quiet moments.

Her face sharpened into a grin.

"None of us are alike in real life, so why should they all be alike in fiction?"

What male comic book writers did with women and refrigerators, Simone has been doing to shopworn female stereotypes since she started her comic book writing career at the turn of the millennium. From her stint at Wonder Woman and her gritty, career-defining era on Birds of Prey to her brilliant run on the anti-hero group known as the Secret Six and her chewier, very popular Batgirl and upcoming return on Secret Six, Simone has changed the way we think of female characters in comics.

There's progress in imperfection

Simone's fearlessness is woven into her writing. When talking about female characters, the general conversation often meanders into a debate of what sorts of representation are good and bad for women. Simone doesn't seem to care about this argument, so much as she cares about writing characters who are flawed, who fail, who aren't afraid of being dark, and who don't live on a pedestal.

Equality, in Simone's eyes, is letting women in comic book stories being as wicked, marred, and sexual as the men in comic books are allowed to be. Equality is giving female characters as much of their own agency as men get.

"It does a disservice to that character, their themes, and their representation to make them so perfect that they're no longer believable and relatable," Simone said. "I like to see  [my characters] flawed, make mistakes, have to work for what they get. Or if they haven't worked for it, they need to have it taken away for a while and to work for it again."

One of the more moving stories Simone has told was that of Batgirl (in one of the more controversial events in the comics business, Simone was abruptly and briefly removed and then reinstated 10 days later in 2012) . Like Batman, Batgirl had her back broken. But unlike Batman, she had to live through it.

"Less than a year later, Batman was fine. Batgirl — now named Oracle — was in a wheelchair and remained so for many years," Simone told Bitch magazine in 2008.

Simone used Batgirl's story to craft a thoughtful story about the PTSD she suffered after her attack, the trauma of her recovery, and the ugliness that we often forget about when we talk about resilience. That attack lived with her for years, making a home in her subconscious. We got to see the consequences of what are usually inconsequential superhero fights, a glimpse into a damaged character that resonated with people in real life.

(DC Comics)

Simone has since wrapped up her run on Batgirl and is now focusing on the December relaunch of Secret Six, a comic that follows a group of antiheroes, villains really, with plenty of emotional and physical scar tissue. Catman, a villain and anti-hero in the DCU will be one of the characters Simone will be writing.

"With Catman, he's been in a situation for a year that has changed him. So we're going to see that almost immediately in the book. And you'll see what he is like now," she told me, careful to not give too much away.

She might be talking about Catman's sexuality. Simone has insisted that she wanted to but was unable to write about Catman's bisexuality during her previous run on Secret Six, and would be exploring this theme when she brought him back. Seeing what Simone could do with that story and what kind of treatment she would give villains like his fellow team members, Black Alice, Strix, and Ventriloquist (only four of the Secret Six have been announced), has plenty of her fans excited.


(DC Comics)

And it has Simone amped too. One of her core beliefs is that if she feels like she's writing or creating stories she's heard before, she'll throw them away. The Secret Six, with their quirks and faults, are a dream job of sorts.

"There's that unpredictability," she told me, explaining what she gets out of writing about a rag-tag team of villains. "And then there's their own behaviors — they make sense when you know the characters, but to the reader they're not always going to be predictable because they don't always act heroic or villainous necessarily."

Why Gail Simone matters

It's been over 15 years since Simone made that observation about women in refrigerators. There are still moments where comics readers are quickly reminded of how far there is left to go. Earlier this month, DC licensed t-shirts that portrayed Wonder Woman as one of Superman's sexual conquests and a t-shirt sold to girls and young women that said "training to be Batman's wife."

Simone wasn't shy in criticizing the company that employs her:

A lot has changed since Simone made her mordant and important observation. Warner Bros. announced on Wednesday that Wonder Woman would finally be getting her own movie. Characters like Mera, Black Canary, and Simone's Batgirl have become more prominent figures in the DC Universe. And there are more female editors, creators, and artists that she can call colleagues, Simone tells me.

Many of those women frequently cite Simone's work on Birds of Prey, an all-female super hero team, and consider her an inspiration. It's something that never gets old for her.

"I was always told I would never make a living writing," she tells me toward the end of our conversation, explaining what makes it so satisfying to hear that women are slowly making their mark in the industry, even at more  traditionally conservative companies such as DC. Wonder Woman is getting a female writer named Meredith Finch, and DC hosted its first Women of DC panel at New York Comic Con this year.

"The voices are out there. And they're really strong voices. And they're voices I think that people want to hear," she adds.

And thanks to her groundbreaking work, Simone's voice will always be one of them.

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