Disappointing Girl-Power Graphic Novels

I’ve recently decided that it is my duty to introduce all my friends’ kids to comic books, so I’ve been on the lookout for good quality introductory graphic novels for children, especially for young girls, which can be a bit tricky. These two were strong possibilities but were ultimately disappointing, to varying degrees.

Princeless: Save Yourself

By Jeremy Whitley

Book CoverI’ve had my eye on  Princeless for a while. The first collected publication is selling for upwards of $200, which seemed very promising in terms of popularity, so I was pleased when a reissue trade paperback was released. I was feeling confident enough in it to just buy it outright, but my extended library system had a copy, so I held off. And now I don’t know.

Princeless has a lot going for it. It starts with the common trope of a princess locked in a tower guarded by a dragon, waiting for a prince to come rescue her. After several failed rescue attempts by clueless princes, Princess Adrienne gets bored of waiting and convinces the dragon to fly her away from the tower and rescue her sisters, also locked away in towers. In addition to being admirably spunky and willful, Adrienne is also a princess of color, which is even rarer.

It is a lot of fun, definitely turning a lot of the fairy tale tropes on their heads, and the lead character gets some great lines. It just seemed a little ham-handed with all the girl power, in a winky, self-congratulatory way. The book was so focused on emphasizing girl power that it lacked more nuanced characters, motivations, and plot developments. In the end I wanted it to show, not tell: if you have a strong female protagonist doing heroic deeds, all the side jokes seem to junk it up. If you believe in what you are doing, just do it well, and don’t hedge your bets with irony.

However, when I was browsing online for the cover photo, I found the comic’s official tumblr page, and it is so dedicated to addressing sexism and racism that I started to feel bad. This is a comic for young readers, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I find the plot and characters a little simplistic, and even somewhat clunky girl power is way better than none. I think I’ll keep this in consideration as a future gift.

Spera

By Josh Tierney

Book CoverAfter having browsed multiple female-centric comics, Amazon recommended Spera to me, among others. It looked similarly interesting, so I checked it out from the library, and once again, it started out strong. The probably too-brief summary: an orphaned princess escapes her besieged kingdom with the help of one of her advisors who can shape-change into large fire dog and the daughter of the queen leading the siege. The three of them go on a series of adventures with a rotating roster of illustrators.

The Pros:

  • The first issue had my favorite illustrations, a very fun, retro style that reminded me of children’s books from the 60s and 70s.
  • Both princesses are immediately likable and admirable, and clearly distinctive from each other, as well.
  • The fire dog is just as precious as you imagine him to be, and pretty much all the illustrators did an excellent job with him (everyone loves a fire dog). Many of the illustrators, too, included some lovely gestural work that was especially apparent in the dog’s movements.
  • The minor characters met along the adventures are reliably interesting in their own right, even those that only get a couple squares (e.g. the young boy standing guard outside one of the towns is completely daunted by the task in general and the princesses in particular in just a few expressive illustrations).

The Cons:

  • My primary complaint is a bit difficult to put into words. I love the subversion of tropes, but there are some good versus evil characteristics that it does no benefit to transpose, in my opinion. Good characters do not own swords that absorb the souls of their opponents, for instance. At least, not without some serious soul searching of their own.
  • The issues collected in this volume follow a storyline of sorts, but are not always cohesive. Part of this was due to the different artwork, but that makes it even more important for the writing to tie everything together, and it didn’t always pick up the slack.
  • Some of the artwork was really stunningly ugly, and that is one of my particular biases when it comes to comic books. I primarily read them for the art, and bad art ruins the entire thing for me.

So, my search for good comics for young readers continues, and I’m sure I will enjoy it! I have several more on my roster that I will review as I get a chance to read them.

—Anna

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