These Graphic Novels Are Shattering Gender Stereotypes With Their Complex Female Characters

These Graphic Novels Are Shattering Gender Stereotypes With Their Complex Female Characters

As Indians who frequently deal with the torture of Bollywood films, the fact that there is a serious dearth of inspiring female characters across the entertainment board is as unfortunate as it is unsurprising. In perfect contradiction however, we were pleased to find that there’s a small segment in our pop culture world that hasn’t shied away from putting women on more powerful (and deserved) pedestals. 

Recently, Homegrown chanced upon a new Karachi-based graphic novel character, Bloody Nasreen, who especially intrigued us. A story about a gun-wielding, badass woman who breaks all the shackles of the stereotypes that define her society, all while pairing her salwar kameez with a pair of sneakers. While we do agree that it’s a bit one-dimensional to propagate that all strong women need to be comfortable with brutality and violence to be accepted into the men’s club, we’re happy to see any other side of womanhood portrayed in lands where anything but the norm is deeply suppressed. Besides, Nasreen doesn’t cut corners around cultural traditions--she just chooses to express them a little bit differently.

Being major graphic novel enthusiasts ourselves, we realized there have actually been a fair number of sketched heroines (both from India and other societies that mirror our unequal outlook towards women) whose complexities force the world to think, if not change the current gender status quo. In this particular series, we focussed largely on characters arising out of regions known strongly for its gender conflicts. 
Perhaps women have just been looking to the wrong medium for character inspiration because these colourful pages have plenty to offer.

I. Bloody Nasreen

Created by: Shahan Zaidi

Naturally, we thought we’d start off with the one who was responsible for nudging us in this direction in the first place. A ruthless crime-fighter with a twist, Nasreen is Pakistan’s first unveiled heroine. All of 27 years old, the salwar-kameez clad dissident breaks the girl-next-door stereotype as she battles her way through Karachi’s underworld, slaying criminals on the go. She smokes, she swears and most importantly, she’s a merciless killer of the very ones who uphold the patriarchy of the system, though not in the most obvious ways.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect about Nasreen is that she does not possess any superpowers – she has simply picked up skills along the way. The gun-wielding and sword brandishing rebel is the main character of Zaidi’s graphic novel, which is quickly gaining fame both via social media and by word of mouth. In fact, The Crew Films Company in Karachi has landed a deal with Zaidi to transform Bloody Nasreen into a full-fledged movie. Perhaps the translation of powerful female characters onscreen isn’t as far away as we thought, then?

II. Persepolis

Created by: Marjane Satrapi

One of our all-time favourites, Persepolis comes highly recommended by us. Every once in a while you come across books that prompt you to reflect upon your life and Persepolis falls firmly into this category, even though it’s set in a time many of us were not around to witness.

In a historically accurate autobiography, Satrapi paints the picture of her turbulent childhood in powerful black-and-white strips wherein she describes her life between the ages of six and fourteen, during which the Shah’s regime was overthrown and the Islamic Revolution in Iran became successful. A story of a young girl questioning the rules and impositions levied on her by society, while at the same time discovering herself in the face of war will make you laugh, cry and inspire you in more ways than one. And even while the story has several hall marks that will force you to rethink your position in society, it’s Satrapi’s utterly humanizing portrayal of a young girl as someone who feels, thinks and screws up in all the same ways as any man would. Not to mention one who ultimately is just struggling to make sense of a screwed up world just like the rest of us. Persepolis ranked #5 on Newsweek’s best 10 fiction books of the decade list and has also been made into an animated film, which was released in 2007.

III. Kari

Created by: Amruta Patil

A common misconception about graphic novels is that they are directed at younger teenaged audiences. However, India’s first woman graphic novelist, Amruta Patil, busts that myth with full force.

Kari is a dark, gritty, lonely lesbian who toils in an ad agency and battles the complexities of her estranged love life during the day only to transform into Danger Chorri--a vigilante--at night. The complex character is dark, disjointed and breaks every boundary that wraps itself around the mentality of an average Indian; all the while capturing the essence of loneliness and the fight for survival in a rather poetic manner. What we love best about Kari is that both sides of her personality (often in stark contradiction to one another) get equal attention thereby painting one of the more multi-dimensional characters on this list.

IV. Angry Maushi

Created by: Abhijeet Kini

With a gun, her fists and a choice list of Marathi expletives in her arsenal, Angry Maushi is a middle-class woman who fights against a rotten system, consistenyl delivering justice in style. Kini managed to deliver a fantastic female character without once drowning her in too much rhetoric, choosing instead to pain her in many humorous shades that drive points home subtley. But even while subtlety may be his forte it’s certainly not hers! Mausi’s method is often filled with hilarious one-liners that make you fall instantly in love with the broom brandishing, sari-clad, rotund vigilante. ‘Chyamaila, Wonder woman who?

V. Miss Moti

Created by: Kripa Joshi

Born out of the creator’s own issues with body weight, Miss Moti is the story of an overweight girl trying to fit into a world where outward appearance is given massive importance. On the outset, there is nothing exceptional about her – she’s fat and her life seems rather ordinary. However, she remains unperturbed by that and lives life with an imagination that conjoins fantasy and reality. Only then do you realise that she’s actually Miss Moti, which is to say, a pearl-like gem of a person. Have we mentioned how much we love good metaphors?

VI. Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

Created by: Mark Alan Stamaty

The thing about heroes is that they pop up in the places you least expect them to – which are also most often, the places that need them the most. In this case, it happens to be a library. Alia Muhammed Baker is the chief librarian of the Central Library in Basra, Iraq. The year is 2003 and there is great tension in the country as an inevitable war with the Western world looms large. Alia grows increasingly worried about the future of the 30,000 books in her library, which are cultural records of the history of her land, something that is irreplaceable. 

So, she takes it upon herself to sneak out the books, a few at a time, to a safe place. The book celebrates the importance and the freedom to read, while at the same time scrutinises the impact of war on a country and its innocent people. And Alia’s character represents the many thousands of way women can be brave and strong, often far more than the men fighting soulless battles.

VII. No Girls Allowed

Created by: Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson

No Girls Allowed is a collection of seven tales about seven women who lived in times where women had no freedom. However, these seven rebels had other plans. Based on myths, legends and historical letters, the stories are about women who would disguise themselves as a man for the freedom to follow their dreams. Hatshepsut was an Egyptian princess determined to become pharaoh. Mu Lan was a daughter ready to take up arms to save her father, Margaret Buckley wanted to become a surgeon at a time when women could not attend medical school and many, many more. The awe-inspiring tales leave you with one important question: Fiction or fact?

VIII. Sita’s Ramayana

Created by: Samhita Arni and Monya Chitrakar

This graphic novel version of The Ramayana is told from the perspective of Sita, the queen. It speaks about the ordeals and troubles she faces after returning to Ayodhya, as Rama doesn’t trust her and asks her to walk through fire to prove that she is true and pure. Shocked, hurt and torn, she’s eventually forced to go live in the jungles where she gives birth to the twins, Luv and Kush. Much like the wonderful animation Sita Sings The Blues, this novel retells one of our country’s most famous works of literature, only to point out just how deep-rooted sexism really is in India.

IX. Ms. Marvel

Created by: Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

It’s one thing for independent graphic novelists and artists to put out stereotype-shattering characters but when a comic giant like Marvel does so, the impact is bound to snowball. Kamala Khan is Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book.

A teenage Pakistani American from New Jersey with shape-shifting abilities, Khan fights super-villians while also exploring conflicts within Khan’s home and religious duties. The character also struggles with the labels imposed on her because of her religion, and how that forms her own sense of self. Essentially, Kamala’s battles with demons both as a Muslim girl living in America and also as Ms. Marvel make her as extraordinary a character as there is.

[Note to readers - specifically the comic book nerds and feminists - if you feel there are any vital characters we may have missed out on, feel free to comment below.]

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