In the ever-growing world of sequential art, the intrepid heroine is quickly becoming a staple in several genres and mediums. And as more and more women of all ages become interested in comics and graphic novels, stories where female protagonists take center stage are also receiving greater attention.
Of course, a lady-led comic is no new thing. The iconic Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman), made her first appearance in All Star Comics #8 in 1941. From her first incarnation to the New52 reboot, Wonder Woman has inspired thousands of other hard-hitting superwomen – as well as some not-so-hard-hitting-but-still just as awesome ones. But with great inspiration comes great expectation. Where a good deal of these heroines meet or exceed what audiences are looking for, all too often there are some that miss the mark entirely.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec by Jacques Tardi takes you to pre-WWI Paris, where a series of strange happenings have occurred. First published in the mid-’70s, Tardi recreates the Edwardian atmosphere with simple, yet dutiful, attention to detail to the backdrops and scenery. However, when juggling several male characters with black hair and mustaches that can only be told apart by the size of their noses, the constant barrage of new faces can be a bit daunting.
But probably not as daunting as the plot. With a pterodactyl attacking at night, a demonic cult infecting people with the bubonic plague, a well-versed Neanderthal escaping after getting thawed out and ancient mummies waking up for their once-an-eon family reunion, it would seem that Mademoiselle Adele Blanc-Sec has her hands full. That would of course be the case if she actually ever did something besides just being present at the events.
In the first two (and as of 2015, the only two) volumes released by Fantagraphics, Adele’s adventures seem more disappointing than extraordinary. But The Extraordinarily Wasted Potential of What Could Have Been a Feisty French Woman Riding a Pterodactyl Over the Streets of Paris, But Was Instead a Somewhat Feisty Lady Not Knowing What the Hell was Going On isn’t a terribly catchy title.
Each of these tomes contain two chapters that blend together incredibly well. It’s like watching a four-episode miniseries of a murder mystery, and the continuity is spot-on, if not a bit tedious; previous events are constantly being mentioned over and over and over again. (There are even asterisks on every single page of the second volume that say, “See: Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 1.”) Even though each of the four stories are inherently different, they all had some supernatural weirdness going on. Despite reviving two dinosaurs, a humanoid missing link and a gaggle of mummies, the story spent far too much time on a demonic cult that wouldn’t feel out of place on Scooby-Doo.
In the first chapter alone, we learn a couple of things about our heroine: 1.) Adele bumbles around not really doing anything productive, and 2.) she thinks everyone around her are morons, even though they’re the ones doing anything productive. Adele Blanc-Sec is a pompous busybody who has neither the wits nor the brawn to make her interesting. Far too often, she’s left holding the bag and not possessing a damn clue as to what the bag even is. Adele is like a fixed point in time and space. Despite awareness that things are happening (though it can be argued that she’s not entirely sure what she’s aware of), those things are not directly happening to her. She watches everything occur, feeling that she has to get involved in some way… only to not really do anything significant, either for harm or for good. You could actually take Adele out of the story and the only thing that would change would be that the other characters wouldn’t be knocking her out and kidnapping her every other page.
Let’s not forget that she hires two manservants who almost immediately betray her in the first chapter. Her immediate surprise suggests that they’ve either been working for her for years, or she’s trusting to a startling level of naiveté. But since we aren’t told exactly when she hired them, we will never know. Every single character zips from zero to crazy in under half a panel. And they’re all either in love with Adele or passionately hate her and wish her dead, for no other reason than she just happened to be in the previous panel. There’s no in between. Unless you count
Mr. Magoo Inspector Caponi. He just wants to arrest her. He’s also probably the only person more clueless than Adele.
Considering the setting and the era in which she was created, Adele Blanc-Sec falls into the category of female characters that were a good idea at the time. The style of writing does suggest that many of the incidents were supposed to be humorous, but all too often, the jokes fell flat. Although many things can get lost in translation, so I do grant a little leeway in that department. But for the most part, it wasn’t as thrilling a story as I had hoped.
Adele didn’t even get to ride the pterodactyl, which is a huge letdown for all prehistoric creature-riding enthusiasts.
But where Adele failed to deliver, The Legend of Bold Riley by Leia Weathington succeeds.
Bold Riley follows the adventures of a princess, Rilavashana SanParite (the eponymous “Bold Riley”), who bursts with wanderlust and sets forth on a fantastic journey blending Hindu and classic European stories and aesthetics. Each chapter showcases a different artist, giving us a wide variety of visual sensibilities, all gorgeous in their own right. Though each fairy tale stands alone, Weathington’s writing flows throughout, never losing its footing regardless of which artist takes the helm. From Weathington’s own emotive style to Konstantin Pogorelov’s watercolors over rough lines to Kelly McCellan’s illustrative storytelling, we get to know Riley more and more, revealing her wit, her courage and, not least of all, her charm.
In the prologue, written and illustrated by Weathington herself, we meet Bold Riley and learn firsthand that her lust for travel and adventure flows in her blood. Forced by her father to give up her claim to the throne in order to pursue her truest desires, Riley saddles her horse and sets off into the wilderness. It doesn’t take long for her to find herself in some perilous scrapes, such as beheading a heard of vicious goat-eating trolls called Morishaka, slaying a demon snake who had fancied himself a king and falling in love with a tree goddess. Oh, and there was that entire succubus harem inside that one temple.
Though there’s very little dialogue, or narration for that matter, the art and direction crafts every story with the elements of a good fairy tale. Similar to the stylings of 1001 Arabian Nights, our heroine outwits her opponents with her cunning and bravery.
But there’s something inherently different about Bold Riley that makes her unique.
Nothing turns me off of a book faster than how poorly an LGBTQIA character is portrayed. Way too often, lesbian characters in particular are used as nothing more than eye candy for the straight male gaze, their entire beings stripped down to nothing more than oversexualized objects with little to no personality outside of the bedroom. It’s seldom that I come across a book that not only takes an LGBTQIA character, but an LGBTQIA character of color, and gives them a personality and story that takes them into a wild blue yonder of possibility. Bold Riley owns her sexuality and respects the agency of her partners.
Our heroine is certainly no stranger to extravagant flirtations and sleeping with copious amounts of other women, but never once does it feel as if the story forces itself to fulfill a wanton need for real-world horniness. What nudity there is isn’t awkwardly foisted into the narrative or hypersexualized. The women (and that one naked ghost) are drawn in a manner showcasing a variety of body types. Tall, short, skinny, fat… all women in all their glory are represented in such a beautiful way that enlivens the entire work rather than distracting from it.
Riley herself epitomizes the adventurer archetype. Strong, courageous and possessing a wonderful sense of humor, all she needs to raid the lost ark is a wide-brimmed fedora and a whip. She achieves what few female characters – both in prose and comic literature – have. Not only does she meet the moniker of “strong female character,” she redefines it. She is strong, she is female, and yes, of course, she is a character, but she stands as much more than that. The word “strong” doesn’t mean just physical strength, but emotional as well. She stands stalwart in body and mind, powerful in spirit and light of heart. She adventures for the sake of adventuring, following her own unique dreams. Her wanderlust is her greatest weakness as well as her greatest asset. It carries her through the untold dangers of an uncharted realm, but empowers her to plunge forward toward learning and growth.
Say we were to take Riley and replace her with a male counterpart. See how perfectly Boy Riley fits into place? Why do you think that is? It’s because Weathington has taken what we’ve come to expect out of “strong female characters” and thrown it out the window. She has successfully created a female character that stands on equal ground as her masculine equivalents. Bold Riley is no different than the adventurous boys and men we’re all familiar with, except that she just happens to be female. She holds her own, not only in her world of magic and mythology, but in our own where imaginations run rampant as well.
At the end of the day, we’re left with two very different characters from two very different eras and cultures. Adele Blanc-Sec is a reminder of what we used to think “strong female characters” were supposed to be: spunky, yet ultimately useless until a man could come along and fix the mess she made. At one point in time, she was the ideal in female-led literature. But with more awareness of the female readership in prose and comics, Bold Riley should get foisted up as the new paragon. Unafraid despite her flaws, Riley journeys alone into new lands against gods and demons… a feat that Adele is too short-sighted to even begin attempting.