Comic Book Girls: Super Hero Squad and Nomad

Posted by Jennifer

While we here at Fantastic Fangirls never shy away from criticism of the comics we love and the ways in which they falter, we also believe it’s important to highlight the things that comics get right — especially in terms of the treatment of women and other minorities. Today, I want to talk about two things Marvel has done well lately on the gender equality front — one of which is a welcome change, and the other a pleasant surprise.

You may remember my impassioned article several months ago about the Marvel Super Hero Squad comic strip on the Marvel website. In that article, I railed against the comic’s complete lack of female characters beyond The Enchantress, who was only featured in a handful of sexist strips. For awhile, I thought that pattern would never change — but since October 13th, when the art style changed and the list of featured characters grew exponentially, I’ve noticed a marked difference.

In recent comics, we’ve seen Black Cat swinging through the streets with other heroes, Kitty Pryde using her powers to beat Luke Cage and Hawkeye in a race, Mystique using the Abomination’s toothbrush to wash her car and tricking him into cooking dinner, Wasp getting lost with Ant-Man in some tall grass, Enchantress commanding a bear to protect her cake, Misty Knight going to the theater with the Hulk, and Storm and Ms. Marvel appearing as part of conversations that set up other characters’ punchlines. The male characters still predominate, but the presence of such a wide variety of women involved in jokes that have little or nothing to do with their gender is a huge step up. The Super Hero Squad cartoon, while not entirely my cup of tea (it includes a lot of toilet humor that plays much better for the child audience the show is aimed at), has also included a few female characters, though largely in guest starring or background roles (with the exception of team mother/boss Ms. Marvel). It’s not perfect, but I’m a lot happier, and a lot more hopeful for the future of young female comics readers, than I was in March. Thanks for listening, Marvel!

While that change was something I’ve been craving for quite awhile, the second item on my list is something I didn’t even realize I wanted until Marvel gave it to me: the new Nomad. Way back in the 1990s, when most of Marvel’s characters were sent over to the new Heroes Reborn universe, Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld created a new Captain America and his new sidekick — a spunky female Bucky named Rikki Barnes. It’s not exactly a revolutionary statement to say that this was not a good series. But recently, Marvel plucked Rikki out of obscurity (and her home dimension) and brought her into the 616 Marvel universe in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America #600. From that appearance, Sean McKeever launched a still-ongoing miniseries titled Nomad: Girl Without a World, in which Rikki, trying to find her place in this new world, takes up the mantle of Nomad.

Why is this significant? First of all, it’s another series (albeit a short one) with a female lead character, and there can never be too many of those. It’s also incredibly well-written. McKeever has taken Rikki from the cheap Carrie Kelly knockoff she was and made her into a fully-realized, completely believable teenager dealing with the literal upending of her entire universe, and the plot of her story manages to mix superhero action with teenage/high school drama, something at which McKeever excels. Though just a miniseries, this book is the closest thing Marvel has to DC’s current (and wonderful) Batgirl title.

But what’s perhaps most important is the fact that Rikki is one of the few female legacy heroes in the Marvel universe. Marvel is not quite as interested in legacy as the Distinguished Competition, but the Captain America mythos has always been one of identities changing hands out of honor or necessity. The original Bucky, James Barnes, is currently Captain America in Steve Rogers’ honor, while the Young Avengers’ Patriot (who Rikki met in her Cap #600 appearance) turned to heroing to honor his own grandfather, Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America. The name (and costume) of Nomad is particularly significant within this corner of the Marvel U — it’s the name Cap himself took when he briefly gave up his costume in the 1970s, and the name taken by Jack Monroe, another former Bucky (this one from the 1950s) who was displaced from his own time. So for Rikki to take this role — and be accepted in it by Cap’s supporting cast — is both absolutely appropriate and a huge step forward. Rikki, in her series, is no less a competent and fully-qualified member of the Captain America family than any other, a girl inspired by (and trained by) Steve Rogers in no less a capacity than any of the boys. In the publishing history of Cap-related comics, only the MC2 universe’s American Dream has matched this feat, and it’s a feat indeed.

I don’t know how Rikki’s miniseries will end, but I have high hopes for her future, especially since her story is scheduled to continue as a McKeever-written backup feature in the Captain America book starting with issue #602. As a female comic book reader and a huge Captain America fan, I’m very, very excited about this turn of events, and I hope it’s a hint of fantastic things to come.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on other things comics are doing well these days. Share the love in the comments!

By Jennifer Smith
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • Love it!

    I’m particularly impressed that ‘Nomad’ manages to be simultaneously a good high school drama (and you know I’m very leery of high school dramas) and squarely in the tradition of Captain America political stories. I also appreciate that Rikki’s big emotional connection in the story is to her brother, not to a love interest. (Not that I’m *against* love interests in HS stories, I’m not actually that much of a scrooge; this just feels more original).

  • Monica

    I’ve only read the first issue, but Nomad certainly caught my interest. It feels like a blend of the good aspects of Cap comics and the good aspects of Buffy. Plus, *love* her costume.

  • I have to say, I loved the Bucky costume from the first issue MORE, but Nomad makes sense for her. I am hoping Rikki ends up in the next incarnation of ‘Young Avengers,’ it would be very appropriate.

  • Monica

    @Caroline – Yeah, that’s the costume I love. I haven’t seen her in her new costume yet. I feel pretty strongly about character costumes, so I’m hoping it feels right for Rikki. I’ll probably pick up the second issue today.

  • Sam

    I was wondering about what was going on with her. You sold me on this title, though, I’m going to pick up the back issues today. I love Bucky, but I agree that marvel is lacking in great female (esp. young female) characters like Steph Brown over at DC. Plus anyone with steampunkish goggles is on my list to read. :)

  • kurumais

    i am a huge rikki barnes fan i too like everyone else did not enjoy heroes reborn but then fabian nicieza started using her in thunderbolts and i was hooked. im not crazy about sean mckeevers writing but he is ok and rikki is a smart ,hard working tough girl who really wants to help. and ive grown to really like her i love her scenes with steve i think marvel is missing the boat with her. keeping her at arms length from that cap family was a bad move. unfortunately i think bad things are coming her way and she wont be around much longer with the new onslaught mini. i hope im wrong

  • Season 2 of Super Hero Squad is growing on me, although it is still not as cool as the fan based JL8 based on the Distnguished Competition. The stories still aren’t quite 90s X-Men or X-Men Evolution quality. I like that diversity and inclusive nature of this cartoon. That is still praise worthy even after the show has wrapped up.

    The original Superhero Squaddie toys weren’t my cup of tea but it is notable that they too had a ton of female character–more than the 3 3/4″ line.

    The newer Playskool Adventure Heroes style characters, more in line with ImagiNExt figures, suit me better with enough articulation to pose slightly but still easy to stand. Sadly, those toys are missing the diversity in favor of repainting Spidey, Hulk, and Iron Man over and over again rather than including Falcon, Scarlett Witch, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, and the other constant females from the now defunct show. The Distinguished Company characters at ImagiNext feature Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn now, so hopefully Playskool and Marvel will follow suit.

    On the Nomad front, I still prefer the 90s Lone Wolf and Cub take on Nomad as he wandered around with the slightly abducted “daughter” Bucky.