7 Superheroes You Might Not Know, But Should

I’ve been trying to avoid writing listicles on this blog of the overtly listicle type (“10 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books to Read Before You Die” sort of thing). Nothing against the thing itself – just an attempt at keeping myself honest and this blog a place for my longer form, more analytic writing.

That said, every so often a girl has to indulge herself. In this case, that means writing a list to plug for a few underappreciated female superheroes of Marvel (I could have done DC too, but then this list would probably end up getting out of hand).

1. Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel/Pulsar/Spectrum)

Before there was Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, there was Monica Rambeau. Born to ordinary parents in New Orleans, she gained her powers – the ability to transform into any form of light on the spectrum – in an accident. She joined the Avengers somewhat unexpectedly, and actually led them for a time – before she almost died in a confrontation with the villain ___. However, she returned to the Avengers in Kurt Busiek’s run on the Avengers in the early 2000s. She also moonlighted alongside a team of D-listers penned by Warren Ellis, Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Most recently, she made a cameo in Captain Marvel to confront Carol Danvers for taking her former name, and then joined Luke Cage’s team in Mighty Avengers. Now she can be found taking on cosmic level threats in Ultimates.

Monica has always been a no-nonsense, forthright character, strong-willed and independent. She deserves more recognition than she’s gotten – the first female Captain Marvel, the second woman to lead the Avengers – and the first black leader.

Read Her In: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. by Warren Ellis, Mighty Avengers  by Al Ewing

2. Jessica Drew (Spiderwoman)

All right, Jessica Drew’s profile has risen recently, with her own solo series and a role in a spider crossover coming up. All the same, she’s still not a character your average person on the street would recognize by name.

Jessica Drew gained her spider powers when she contracted a deadly illness as a child. In an attempt to save her, her father injects her with an irradiated serum made with spider blood (comics!) in an attempt to save her life (comics!!!). She survives, but develops super powers, including the ability to manipulate pheromones, shoot venom blasts from her hands, and climb walls. Captured by the evil organization HYDRA, she is recruited into their ranks and brainwashed into being their spy. However, when she is assigned to assassinate Nick Fury and instead realizes the true nature of HYDRA, she defects.

In the years since, she’s been on various Avengers teams, was replaced by the Skrull queen during Secret Invasion, and traveled in astral form back in time to defeat Morgan Le Fay (comics!!!!). In her current incarnation, Jessica is frequently cynical and has difficulty trusting others due to her past, but nonetheless has managed to form a few close friendships – such as with Carol Danvers, Jessica Jones, and (recently) Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow). Jessica Drew is an example of a superheroine who is frequently written as struggling with self-loathing, a hard-bitten woman who has suffered a great deal and nonetheless persists.

Her current series has her trying to balance the life of a superhero with the life of a single parent – a decision that has raised some controversy due to Jessica’s previous adamant insistence that she didn’t want children. Speaking personally, while I was uncomfortable with the first arc of the comic, the most recent issue (#7) gave me some hope.

Read Her In: Spiderwoman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. by Brian Michael Bendis, Spider-woman by Dennis Hopeless

3. Phyla-Vell (Captain Marvel/Quasar)

Now moving away from Earth, the first alien on this list: Phyla-Vell is the artificially created offspring of the original Captain Marvel, the alien Mar-Vell. She first appeared alongside her brother Genis-Vell in 2003, and had her first major role in the Annihilation event (write a short character biography)

Phyla-Vell is one of Marvel’s few canonically lesbian characters, and was in a relationship with Moondragon for several years prior to her death in 2010 (from which she has still not been resurrected). Her relationship with Moondragon is close and affectionate – and only improved by the fact that Moondragon can shapeshift into her namesake, thus allowing her girlfriend to ride her into battle.

Seriously.

Read Her In: Annihilation: Conquest Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett

4. Brunnhilde (Valkyrie)

Valkyrie is an older character than any other on this list, first appearing in Avengers #83 – though that was really just Enchantress disguised as Valkyrie, and Brunnhilde’s real first appearance is in Defenders #4. A fierce, independent warrior woman, one of Valkyrie’s defining traits has always been her refusal to be defined by the approval of men. Riding a winged horse, as an Asgardian Valkyrie can go toe to toe with the Marvel Universe’s strongest enemies and hold her ground.

While after the Defenders (an excellent series for those who like their superhero teams composed of a bunch of misfits who can barely work together) there was a long period of silence, Valkyrie returned to the comics scene as part of the first Secret Avengers team. She left after the dramatic events of Fear Itself to fulfill a quest of her own, and appeared leading an all female team in Fearless Defenders. While not appearing regularly in any current series, she has made a few guest appearances in Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat, assisting her former Defenders teammate – and hope springs eternal for more!

Read Her In: Fear Itself: The Fearless by Cullen Bunn, Fearless Defenders by Cullen Bunn

5. Clea

Best known as Doctor Strange’s girlfriend, Clea is in fact a powerful sorceress in her own right. While she appears human, she in fact hails from the mystical Dark Dimension and is the daughter of the evil sorceress Umar, niece to Doctor Strange’s greatest enemy, Dormammu. In the Dark Dimension she is the Sorceress Supreme, just as Doctor Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth.

She makes her best and strongest appearance in the arc written by Roger Stern which features her return to her home, where she leads a rebellion against her evil mother (aided by Doctor Strange). Revealing to the people of the Dark Dimension that Umar doesn’t care about their welfare, she is appointed Queen by them. She defeats and banishes both her mother and father in mystic battle, and takes the throne.

Since her most recent appearance in Fearless Defenders, Clea’s whereabouts in the current Marvel universe are unknown. I am still holding out for a team up between her and Scarlet Witch, or at least a guest appearance in Doctor Strange. 

Read Her In: Doctor Strange: Into the Dark Dimension by Roger Stern

6. America Chavez (Miss America)

America Chavez is probably the newest character on this list, making her debut in 2011. A teenage Afro-Latina woman with the ability to create interdimensional portals, America is a fierce and determined young woman who left her own dimension – a peaceful paradise – in order to save others. America’s two mothers sacrificed themselves when she was a child to keep their utopia safe, and she was inspired by their sacrifice to be a hero herself.

She first appeared in an uneven miniseries called Vengeance, in which she led a team of superheroes as they battled the Young Masters of Evil. From there, she joined the Young Avengers, helping them to defeat the interdimensional parasite calling itself Mother. Most recently, she’s working with the Ultimates team to thwart cosmic threats before they reach Earth. She also appeared in A-Force during the Secret Wars event.

America has shown herself to not only be a powerful, ass-kicking young woman but one with a heart of gold and intense devotion to her ideals. Her origin story is basically that she wanted to help people so much that she left her home dimension – which didn’t need a hero – and crossed dimensions until she found one where she could save lives.

Also, she’s one of the few out lesbians currently appearing in comics, as of Kieron Gillen’s Young Avengers run.

Read Her In: Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen, Ultimates by Al Ewing

7. Shuri (Black Panther)

During a brief period in the 2000s, T’Challa (the character most know as Black Panther) was left in a comatose state and was replaced by his younger sister, Shuri. Formerly princess of Wakanda, Shuri attempts to challenge her uncle for the Black Panther mantle at a young age. Driven and ambitious, she finally got her chance to take up the legacy in 2009. Initially the panther spirit rejects her because of her ambition and arrogance, but she gains the powers after proving herself by defending Wakanda from long time Black Panther villain Morlun’s attempt to destroy it.

Shuri can be headstrong, rash, and impulsive, but she is a capable fighter and helped to defeat Doom during Doomwar and Klaw in Klaws of the Panther. Since her early appearances, she’s matured into a warrior queen of great confidence and power. She’s intelligent, a prodigy in almost every subject from math to literature to nuclear physics.

While she seemingly died in the fight against Thanos during the Infinity event last year, the first issue of the new Black Panther comic by Ta-Nahesi Coates showed T’Challa attempting to resurrect Shuri.

Read Her In: Black Panther: The Deadliest of the Species by Reginald Hudlin

There are any number of other characters who might have made this list: Jessica Jones, Mockingbird, She-Hulk, and Sif all narrowly missed inclusion, but are all well worth checking out – Mockingbird has a series currently being released, and She-Hulk has a recent series out in trade paperbacks. Readers looking for Sif should go straight to Journey Into Mystery Featuring Sif: Stronger Than Monsters by Kathryn Immonen, and Alias is required reading for anyone looking into Jessica Jones.

There are others, too – scratch the surface of the comics world and while they may not be as well known or popular, you will find any number of female characters who shine.

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Six Fantasy Series That Shaped Me

With the advent of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, The Martian film, and the Magicians series, we are told that fantasy (and its always more respectable cousin, sci-fi) have gone mainstream – not just for kids or nerds anymore. However, it seems to me – a long term, die-hard genre fiction fan currently feeling somewhat vindicated by this resurgence – that the attention remains decidedly limited; most people, asked to name a fantasy series for adults, would still go to The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire and then struggle to name others.

I’ve been reading fantasy for about ten or eleven years now, and I sometimes wish the wealth of attention would get spread around a little. Consider this post a bit of a blast from the past: Fantasy I Have Loved that might be worth checking out. Some of them I might not endorse with the same enthusiasm I did as an impressionable thirteen year old, but for better or worse these were the books that were a part of my literary education – and my induction into the world of genre fiction.

1. Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy. This series gets maligned sometimes for the emotional vicissitudes of its clearly flawed main character, FitzChivalry Farseer. For me, that is one of the highlights. Brought to court after his father dies in a suspicious accident, the bastard Fitz is trained as a spy and assassin. He quickly finds himself entangled in something much larger and deeper than simple court intrigue, however. Both of these trilogies – linked, loosely, by the Liveship Traders trilogy – showcase Robin Hobb’s deft hand with both character and plot – and certainly her ability to wrench your emotions.

2. David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon. David Eddings’ two series comprise ten books in all – twelve, when you add the parallel novels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. Eddings’ fantasy is enjoyable because it doesn’t take itself too seriously – frequently funny, even silly, he guides his characters on epic quests without ever falling into sententiousness. His characters can sometimes seem like tropes, but they are delightful nonetheless – particularly in the Malloreon, which has a more complex morality.

3. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. This series gets a lot of flack – for how long it is, and the varying quality of later books (some of which drag, I will admit). However, it was my first love, the first fantasy series since Lord of the Rings to truly suck me in and absorb me, to make me care about its characters. My earliest forays into fanfiction were attempts to write more of a backstory for Min Farshaw, a character who becomes important late in the series. Featuring a vast cast of characters and a 13 book series, Wheel of Time may not be for the faint of heart, but it is very close to my heart. (Incidentally, 2017 is the tenth anniversary of Jordan’s death, and I am planning on doing a reread. Any thoughts I have while I do so will likely find their home on this blog.)

4. Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths. A series with a mentally ill queer protagonist? I actually did not know that when I picked up the first book in this series, Melusine, on a whim because I liked the cover – only to stay up until three in the morning finishing it. The dysfunctional, co-dependent bond between Felix Harrowgate and his (formerly unknown) twin Mildmay is the heart of this series, which also features a number of sinister magical conspiracies. Doctrine of Labyrinths puts its main characters through the wringer, and yet somehow never feels excessively dark.

5. Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. A series set in a world where Queens rule and men serve – though it is not so simple, the relationships between the sexes and between individuals a complex web of obligations and protocols. Dark and beautiful, Anne Bishop’s series can best be described as “sensuous”, and several of its characters have stuck with me even though I haven’t reread the series itself in years.

6. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy. What a cross between A Song of Ice and Fire and Fifty Shades of Gray might look like, if the former involved less rape and the latter was actually good and not full of bad BDSM etiquette. So actually not that much like either at all. The series is written in the form of memoirs of Phedre, a courtesan and spy, looking back on her life and her adventures in the service of her home, the France-Expy Terre d’Ange. As full of political intrigue and sexy interludes as anyone could want – though you might feel a little embarrassed carrying around the books with these covers.

A postscript: the funny thing I notice about this list, in retrospect, is that it’s dominated by female authors (four out of six). When I think about other fantasy series I loved – Carol Berg’s Rai-Kirah series, for instance, or Tanya Huff’s urban fantasy, or C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy – I am a little proud of my teenage self. There’s been a lot made of the recent surge of female authors in sci-fi/fantasy, and it’s true that there are a lot of very exciting women writing in genre today – N.K. Jemisin, Catherynne M. Valente, and Jo Walton, to name a few. However, looking back at my own reading habits, as a teen who was not paying a whole lot of attention to the gender of the authors she was reading, makes me think that it might not be so new as all that.

Women in fantasy have always been there. Maybe one consequence of fantasy going “mainstream” is just that now people are starting to notice.

A Short List of Spooky Stories

Tis the season…for Cracked.com’s true urban legends lists, Halloween costume idea lists, and horror recommendations lists. I was thinking recently about how a lot of horror writing leaves me fairly cold, despite my love for the genre in concept. A good scary book thrills me like few other things, but sometimes a good scary book can be hard to find – particularly when the horror section in many bookstores is colonized by paranormal romance (nothing against paranormal romance! Although I’m still waiting on my lesbian werewolves story.).

In honor of Halloween, then, one more blogger’s list of a few stand out horror books (mostly novels, with an odd graphic novel/short story collection thrown in there).

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. A classic ghost story that reads like it was written in the 19th century, this book appears on almost every horror “best of” list, and with good reason. Short, sweet, and spooky, The Woman In Black hits all the right notes. The kind of story that should be read by a crackling fire with a mug of hot chocolate.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I love Caitlin R. Kiernan’s writing in general, but this one might be both my favorite and the scariest to me because so little is explained and so much of it relies on the unreliability of perception. Much of Kiernan’s horror deals with mental illness – which is not to say the horror of mentally ill people (the crazy person in the dark) but rather the horror of being mentally ill; of being uncertain of your own mind and not quite able to trust yourself. This book, told in the form of a manuscript written by a woman who moved to a rural house to get away from a difficult life and attempt to recover, is deeply creepy.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. This one feels like cheating, since it’s a true story, but it’s also one of the few books that kept me up at night after I finished it because it was creepy as fuck. It is about infamous serial killer Ted Bundy and his nationwide killing career, told by Ann Rule, who was friends with him when he lived in Seattle, Washington, and worked on a suicide hotline. Genuinely terrifying, the more so because it’s real. One of the first true crime books I read, and it’s yet to be surpassed in terms of sheer horror.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. I recommended Beukes’ other book, The Shining Girls, in my Best of September Reading post, and I’m going to recommend this one here. Set in Detroit, it is about the pursuit of a killer who leaves surreal, horrifying “works of art” behind. Beukes’ writing is eerie and her use of the grotesque is effective without being gratuitous. Including this book feels a little like cheating as it is probably, strictly speaking, more of a mystery or thriller than straightforward horror, but the weird and creepy touches were truly what sold this for me.

The Terror by Dan Simmons. Honestly, the thing that scared me most about this book was probably the detailed descriptions of death by scurvy. Inspired by the doomed Franklin expedition, Simmons writes a masterful piece of claustrophobic, suspenseful horror in the Arctic, where one monster remains largely unseen and unknown and the other is nature itself.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. John Ajvide Lindqvist is probably my consistent favorite horror writer writing today, and it was difficult for me to choose between this book and Handling the Undead – two books that take on subjects that could be tired and cliche (vampires and zombies, respectively) and manage to make them both fresh. Ultimately I chose Let the Right One In, about an isolated boy Oskar who makes friends with his odd neighbor Eli. The horror is interwoven with the story of these two children, and Lindqvist excels at dropping moments of beauty in the midst of blood and destruction.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez. It’s a graphic novel series, now collected in six trade paperbacks – and you should read it even if you’re not usually a comics fan. Hill – a strong horror writer in general – does in my opinion some of his best work here, and Gabriel Rodriguez’s art pops off the page, vivid and powerful. This story, about a family drawn back to an old house in Lovecraft, Massachusetts after their father is murdered, is full of twists and turns – and of course, plenty of creepy weirdness. Despite the above synopsis, this isn’t “just” a haunted house story by any stretch of the imagination.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King. The book Stephen King infamously found almost too creepy – and, incidentally, my first Stephen King. If you’re sensitive to things like child death, this is definitely a rough one. Much of King’s gift for horror comes from blending the mundane with the supernatural, and he does so extremely effectively here – even before anything goes obviously wrong, the family is coming apart at the seams, struggling to deal with death. Also, I am never going to think about Oz the same way again. “The gweat and tewwible Oz” indeed.

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft. Despite all of his (many) shortcomings, H.P. Lovecraft remains one of my favorite horror writers, and one of the best writers of cosmic horror out there – the kind of horror that terrifies by suggestion rather than outright description. This collection is a solid starting place for any Lovecraft newcomer, including all of the classics and many of the stories I find scariest, like “Dreams In the Witch House” (which I still haven’t reread). It’s only missing “The Hound” of my personal favorites – which you can read online, and should.

There are of course others, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few which could have made this list. For the nonce, however – go forth and read. Be scared. This is Halloween.