Cartoonist Ted Naifeh spent years working on charming comics for young readers like Courtney Crumrin and Princess Ugg, but he’s moved in a more mature direction for his most recent projects. His Oni Press series Night’s Dominion blends medieval fantasy with grim and gritty superheroics, and Heroines (Space Goat Productions) offers a more contemporary take on the superhero genre with a story about under-appreciated female heroes starting their own team. The first six issues of Heroines are available on ComiXology, and Space Goat currently has a Kickstarter raising funds for a printed collection of the first eight.
Heroines has a cheeky tone reminiscent of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner’s blockbuster Harley Quinn run at DC Comics, and Naifeh is satirizing how superhero comics treat female characters while showing an alternative approach. His story starts with recent college graduate Marcy Madison taking some initiative to start her own team of superheroines after a patronizing rejection from the male-dominated New Sentrymen. A Craigslist ad quickly brings in new recruits from different parts of the superhero landscape—an urban vigilante, a ninja, a reformed villain—and Naifeh introduces an expansive new universe full of creative possibilities. Naifeh’s artwork is sleek and expressive with an intense contrast of light and dark elements, and he gives the book a visual style that blends the best aspects of Amanda Conner and Mike Mignola’s aesthetics.
Unabashed, gleeful sexuality was one of the most progressive things about Palmiotti and Conner’s Harley Quinn (as well as their previous work on Power Girl with Justin Gray), and Heroines taps into that element for the team’s first undercover mission, which has Marcy posing as a stripper hiding in a supervillain’s birthday cake. Naifeh highlights how important body language is when sexualizing a character, and while those first shots of Marcy in action are all about exposing her body as much as possible, her physicality completely changes once her mission is complete. She covers herself as much as possible, and the erotic gaze shifts over to the male supervillain. This is the most comedic story in these issues, and that supervillain looks a lot like Alan Moore but with a professional swimmer’s body, wearing an American flag speedo, and brandishing a large gun in front of his crotch.
Naifeh successfully toes a thin line between commenting on stereotypes and propagating them, particularly with the supporting characters on the team. Raven is a black woman who comes from the streets, and the reality of life in low-income urban centers influences her vigilante actions. She recognizes that drugs and prostitution are major sources of income in disadvantaged communities, and instead of shutting down this system, she’s made herself an authority within it, like a one-woman Better Business Bureau. Jones is a butch bald lesbian who wears men’s suits over her hulking body, but as Naifeh reveals more about the character, she becomes a complex exploration of queer desire, gender presentation, and the lasting trauma of sexual abuse. Shatter, an Asian woman, initially comes across as a straightforward riff on the sexy ninja characters of David Mack’s Kabuki—the costume she wears at the start is almost exactly that same as Mack’s Snapdragon—but she also has hidden depths that are hinted at in these early issues. Hopefully Naifeh will have the opportunity to keep building on this foundation, because Heroines delivers a compelling new team of female heroes with a lot of potential.