We Got The Beat: All-Women Bands in Comics
Hey there, Cats and Kittens! Have you heard the new sensations sweeping the nation with their spectacular sounds, rockin’ riffs, and show-stopping, toe-tapping, sell-your-worldly-possessions-for-a-chance-to-touch-glory performances that will make you question your purpose in life? Yes? No? Well then, sisters and brothers, have I got some bands for you!
If you’re diggin’ the New York scene, check out The Mary Janes. This group of women are bringing the five boroughs to their knees with a solid post-punk rock sound that would make the Runaways head for the hills. In the mood for something a bit more hard core? Keep tabs on Black Canary and singer Dinah “D.D.” Drake’s powerhouse vocals that are sure to stick with you long after the show. Also, maybe see a doctor if that persists. Can’t get out of the house? Stuck at work? Clubs are for losers? Then maybe internet sensation Jem and the Holograms is more your speed. These ladies bring the pop and pizazz (sorry Missfits!) that’s truly outrageous! Or are your tastes a little more old school? Everybody loves the classics, so get your long tails and ear hats ready and be on the lookout for Riverdale’s own Josie and the Pussycats coming to a town near you!
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but comics and music are collaborating in a mostly non-sinister way. From the music video styled “Fat Bottomed Girls” sequence in Sex Criminals to the literal rock gods of The Wicked and the Divine, comic book creative teams have given music a resurgence in sequential art. Emerging from this development are the all-women bands of IDW’s Jem and the Hologram, Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, and DC’s Black Canary; three very different companies with three very different approaches to the subject, yet all of them feeding into the not-so-new idea that groups of women have their own dynamics and stories worth exploring. Being in a band facilitates a greater discussion about how women relate to each other as friends, enemies, teammates, lovers, etc. The point is they’re free of the constrained storytelling of being the sole woman among a group of men. Instead, they get to be characters. They get to be people; and they get to play some kickass music.
Comic books don’t exactly have a long tradition of all-women bands to fall back on. If there’s one predecessor to the current trend, then it would have to be Josie and the Pussycats. The band within the Archie brand universe of comics didn’t get its start until Hanna-Barbera looked to the company for a second animated program to adapt. Mostly it was a ploy to profit from the success of The Archie Show, but having a hit song like “Sugar, Sugar” didn’t hurt either. The comic set up the premise and as of Josie and the Pussycats #45 (December, 1969), the band as we know it was in place in print and on television. The comic formula basically followed Josie, Melody, and Valerie as they toured around the country, but also spent time developing them as they dealt with life as teenagers. Having three leads, plus rival Alexandra Cabot, moved Josie and the Pussycats beyond the Betty and Veronica dichotomy of the main Archie book. As bandmates, friends, and young women with distinct personalities, the group could explore multiple facets of teenage life without dropping all character traits for a blank slate or stuffing all of the character traits into one person.
The all-women band trend we’re seeing in comics currently, however, may not be as beholden to Josie and the Pussycats as they are to the shift in attitude towards comic books and changing readership demographics. These days women are 49% of comic book readers, but until recently there had been a dearth of books reflecting those numbers. Without female leads or, at the very least, team books featuring more than one woman on the roster it was difficult if not impossible to say that comics were all that inclusive. But a few costume redesigns and a friendlier attitude towards all-ages books later and suddenly Jem, Spider-Gwen, and Black Canary were on the shelves within months of each other. Granted, there were definitely other reasons for these books coming out around the same time—adaptation to generate buzz around a movie, tie-in to a company-wide event, Batgirl’s best friend—but the fact that all three of them featured the main characters in all-women bands is fascinating … and yet makes total sense.
A band lives or dies by its group dynamic. It requires teamwork to function, as well as time and devotion from its members, which makes it the perfect metaphorical stand-in for young superheroes trying to balance life in and out of costume. Spider-Gwen, in this instance, provides the most obvious example. Like all Spider-oriented books, the drive of the character is always “responsibility,” which is equally laden with heaps of guilt. The running mantra of Spider-Gwen is the phrase “Who’s Responsible?” and writer Jason Latour frames it beautifully around her dueling identities. Gwen Stacy is a talented drummer, but her obligations to the Mary Janes and to being Spider-Woman often conflict. And while Gwen clearly loves being in the band, she’s just as afraid of what committing herself to that means when her internal scorecard for protecting the people she loves is at an all-time low.
It’s worth noting, however, that Gwen’s instrument of choice and her position within the band speaks a lot to her character. The drummer is the heart of a band in the very literal sense that she keeps the beat and guides the other members through the song. There’s a modicum of leadership involved, but also a tremendous amount of trust between bandmates, which adds to Gwen’s growing disappointment in herself that she can’t be there for the band when they need her. The Mary Janes represent her life outside of being Spider-Woman and yet the same problems persist. If she can’t accept the responsibility of being the drummer, if her bandmates can’t trust her, then how can she take on the responsibility of fighting the supervillains of New York? How can the people of the city trust her?
In contrast, Dinah Drake willingly takes on the leadership role within and outside the band Black Canary. Though the gig started as a way for Dinah to get out of town and clear her head, the conflict comes to her when bassist Ditto is sought out by otherworldly creatures and the black-ops team Dinah used to work for. To keep Ditto safe, Dinah teaches the rest of the band how to shoot and a few basic martial arts moves, taking some of the burden off herself but adding to it all the same as the new power dynamic, and Dinah’s personal brand of secrecy, puts her at odds with the rest of band.
Like Gwen’s place as drummer, Dinah’s position as the lead singer comes with prescribed character traits that reflect back on her as a hero and a person. It’s in the title really, lead singer. As the front woman for the band, Dinah is the face and the voice of Black Canary. She’s the trendsetter, the role model, but she’s also an outsider who took over as the lead of a band with unresolved baggage. This puts Dinah somewhere between inclusion and isolation within Black Canary. She keeps her distance, but she’s also fiercely protective of those in her care. It’s the burden of a leader to be part of and separate from the group simultaneously, but Dinah’s a tough cookie and she takes to the role of leader well. She asserts herself, encourages her bandmates, and she knows when to fight and when to fall back, which is important because ninjas.
It’s interesting how and where Spider-Gwen and Black Canary utilize the band within their respective books. The Mary Janes pop up as either a secondary or tertiary plot thread, a point of emphasis for Gwen’s internal struggle as a superhero vigilante. In Black Canary, the eponymous band is part of the main story and serve as a secondary source of conflict with Dinah and each other. Overall, the books feature the band element as part of the story whereas in Jem and the Holograms the band is the story. Everything in this colorful, vibrant book surrounds the band and the family as a unit. They are not mutually exclusive, they are one and same. Jerrica, Kimber, Aja, and Shana work together to create their band, sharing the load and picking up the slack when someone needs an extra pair of hands.
While we see it in Black Canary and Spider-Gwen, Jem and the Holograms embodies the best of all-female group dynamics. If we include the Misfits (because of course we do), then there are a plethora of female characters, which gives us a chance to get to know them without the constant pressure of any one of them charged with representing all women. We see it so often in groups where there are a bunch of guys and one, maybe two, girls. As a reader and a media consumer, you look for people like yourself, and when your only options are the blonde in pink fawning over the lead guy or the one with the goth aesthetic who’s clearly evil, you tend to put your attachments on the wider variety of male characters or settle for the two options presented.
Equally problematic are the ways women are viewed in relation to each other. If there’s only one woman among four guys, then her identity and the decisions she makes will always be framed in relation to men. Books and cartoons spin this as a special sort of inclusion. You’re the only girl on a team of guys, therefore you’re super extra awesome. Enter another girl and suddenly you’re not so special and you’re immediately encouraged to be openly hostile and judgmental towards someone who, for all intents and purposes, could be your new best friend. The smartest decision made by the creative teams was making the primary musical antagonists women. It eliminates the “battle of the sexes” trope that crops up whenever men and women go up against each other (which is just lazy storytelling anyway, and no one ends up winning on or off the page). But more importantly, it makes the playing field equal on all fronts, so the characters can shine uninhibited by their gender.
Rivalry certainly plays a big role in Jem, Black Canary, and Spider-Gwen, but again it’s not women competing against other women for the attention of a male character; it’s women competing against other women for their own personal gain. Black Canary even devoted an entire issue to Bo Maeve, the singer Dinah replaced, and instead of just labeling her as a villain we were privy to a story about a young woman working towards her ultimate dream only to watch it crumble to the ground. Jem and the Holograms devotes a fair amount of time to showing us how the Misfits work as a dictatorship team and Mary Jane Watson pushes her bandmates to be the best in order to stay afloat—and stick it to Felicia Hardy as much as possible. Rivalry is just another facet of exploring character, which gives us new insight into the ambitious and competitive nature of women—for better or worse.
The band also functions as a brand within these books, which puts the characters in a position of power over who they are and how they present themselves and their music. It’s a business as much as a hobby or passion and showing women in charge of themselves adds a layer of realism that grounds the more fantastic elements, like superpowers and hologram-producing computers, in something young girls and women can relate or aspire to. It also gives the writers different avenues of storytelling through the band: marketing, image, selling out, artistic expression, petty grudges, making money, etc.
All of this happens between a group of women invested in the band’s success or failure. It hangs the conversations between bandmates on internal issues that apply to all of them. Jerrica and her sisters as well as the Misfits make decisions regarding their bands in every issue—for good or evil. Spider-Gwen and Black Canary each feature at least one conversation about merchandise, the venue, or how terrible the sound check went within the story. It shows that none of this is being handed to them. These women are working for their dreams. Reality and fantasy may be crashing together, but they’ve still got to pay the bills and eat dinner just like the rest of us.