The Misadventures of a Newbie Superhero Girl

Faith Erin Hicks is a webcomics veteran, the creator behind Demonology 101 and Ice. She’s also written and drawn two graphic novels, Zombies Calling and The War of Ellsmere (both published by Slave Labor Graphics), and you may recognize her work from her short comic “Wolverine Goes Grocery Shopping.” Last year, she launched The Adventures of Superhero Girl (published in print as Just the Usual Superpowers for trademark reasons), an online comic about a fledgling, 20-something superhero who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of the whole crime-fighting gig.

Superhero Girl defends the city of Halifax, battling ninjas, criminals, and creatures from space (with varying degrees of success). But she struggles to step out from the shadow of her famous superhero brother, keeps forgetting to take off her mask, and realizes that crime-fighting doesn’t pay (at least not financially). She’s a person who has found her life’s passion, but hasn’t quite found her place in the world. Hicks sat down with us to explain the inspiration behind Superhero Girl, why superheroes shouldn’t wear high heels, and why more female characters won’t save Marvel and DC.

What was the inspiration behind Superhero Girl?

I don’t really know. I think maybe it started being some kind of comment on girls and superheroes. I actually made the very first comic strip – which you can still read on the website – for a bunch of kids. Sometimes I get asked by schools or libraries to do comic workshops. So I just drew this Superhero Girl comic strip where she chases down this very stereotypical thief and just trips him and saves the day and stops his thieving ways. So I just drew this comic strip for a bunch of kids in a classroom and they picked out a name for her and they called her “The Tripper.” You know, she trips up evil.

It kind of grew from there. I got interested in her as a character. I don’t really read enough superhero comics to really comment on them except in broad strokes. I guess I wanted to do a comic strip about the early twenties stage of your life where you’ve graduated from school and are struggling to find out what the hell you’re going to be when you’re an adult. And I thought it would be funny if that was done in a superhero context.

I definitely see a parallel between Superhero Girl and being a young artist.

Oh, yeah, definitely. Right now, I’m sort of struggling with the idea of art being personal and I’m sort of defiant on a lot of levels. I’m like, “No! This is not about my life! No, not at all!” And then I showed the strip to my mom, and she’s like, “Oh, this is so you. This is so your life.” And I was like, “No, it’s not. It’s really not.” But it is.

Unlike traditional superheroes, who all seem to have advanced degrees in sewing, Superhero Girl wears a very simple outfit. Was that your attempt to inject some realism into the comic?

It probably was, but it probably was an unconscious attempt. I do read the occasional superhero comic. I don’t tend to pick them up as much because I don’t like the continuity and the floppies. But being online and being a girl, you get exposed to, “Oh, hey! Look at this lovely costume that some 35-year-old guy drew. He drew a character from the Teen Titans and she’s supposed to be 16 and she’s dressed like a hooker and her boobs are falling out!” And it’s just like, “Oh, god! Come on!” And then you have people running around in high heels. For me, the high heels thing bugs me more than the really skimpy costumes, because nobody can run in those things. You’re crazy if you think this is appropriate footwear. I never wear high heels. I don’t, because the day I wear them is the day the zombie invasion is going to happen and I’m not going to be able to run away from them in high heels. So I wanted a young, female superhero who’s just, okay: a t-shirt, pants, or something.

She does wear a cape. You know the whole riff in The Incredibles on capes, right? That’s completely apt. It’s probably inappropriate for her to wear a cape, but I do feel like capes are kind of classic. If she was going to be a superhero and look like a superhero, she was going to need a cape. And I don’t know how old Superhero Girl is, but she’s a recent graduate from school and she doesn’t have a job and she doesn’t have a lot of money and I assume that what she wears comes from Wal-Mart or something like that.

You said that you invented Superhero Girl as a goof for kids. Do you see her as a role model?

No, definitely not. If anything, I think she’s sort of a terrible role model. Just recently, I had this crisis on Twitter. I was like, she’s kind of a terrible superhero. She’s young and she’s really inexperienced, and she’s really not a very good role model, especially for young, female superheroes. She’s not awesome. She’s not kickass. She’s just a little terrible. So I was asking Twitter, if this comic strip was written and drawn by a man, would you consider it sexist? And people were responding, no; the strip is written in a way that’s sympathetic to the character. And the lady who runs Comics Worth Reading pointed out that she’s not a bad superhero because she’s a girl. She’s a bad superhero because she’s young and inexperienced.

I just feel like I do want the strip to be funny and it’s funnier when she sucks. I am sympathetic to the character, but failure is funny. And it’s funny when she defeats the space monster and successfully throws it back into space, but at the same time, she’s absolutely exhausted and falling asleep at the coffee shop and the barista is completely ungrateful.

If she’s a role model for anything, I guess it’s for not giving up. I do think she has a lot of dedication to the job. That’s certainly something that’s admirable.

You’ve worked on a number of webcomics. What have you learned about webcomics and what advice would you give aspiring webcomickers?

I definitely think the strip format works better [than long form comics do], when you present a strip that is completely contained, a single story. It’s easier for people to pass around and you generate more interest that way. But I do think with the Internet, you can make of it what you will. If you really want to do a long form story then damn it, just do it!

In terms of practical advice, try and do regular updates. That’s the most important thing about doing a webcomic. Do something that you enjoy as well. I do see sometimes someone do a webcomic that’s very calculated and very Penny Arcade – because that’s the gold standard for successful webcomics – and I think most webcomic readers can see right through that, and they’re not going to respond to something that’s just a half-hearted attempt to make money. So do something that you’re passionate about.

Would you like to see more young female superheroes in comics?

I don’t really know how to approach the problems that Marvel and DC are having right now because I’m an outsider to that world and I’m not really in what they’re producing. Just looking from an outside perspective, it seems like their problems are kind of unsolvable. It feels like they’re so entrenched in seeking out this certain reader demographic that they don’t know how to approach any other reader demographic. And throwing female superheroes at this demographic that they want – which is women – it doesn’t seem to solve anything. Then there are distribution problems, and they don’t know how to get into schools and they don’t know how to get into libraries. They don’t really know how to reach this population that has started reading comics in the past 10-15 years – the manga kids, basically, who have basically made it safe for young women to read comics.

I feel bad for them. I really do, because from my perspective, it feels like that industry is dying. It seems like there is a huge diversity of comics being published these days. I read 10-15 graphic novels a month and I’m amazed by the quality that is being published. But I would say of my reading, probably one percent is Marvel and DC. I would be very surprised if, the way they exist now, in the next 10-15 years they’re still around. It’s depressing. I don’t want to see them go, and I don’t want to see them become these IP farms where you buy Superman bed sheets or something like that. They have these incredibly iconic characters, but they can’t seem to make books that people want to read. Everyone in North America knows who Batman is, but nobody reads Batman comics except for that hardcore 50,000 people who buy Batman comics every Wednesday. How can you consider this an industry? It is completely and utterly depressing. Then there are millions of people – millions of kids, especially – out there reading comics and desperate for comics and really interested in comics. You’re not reaching those kids. I don’t know how to turn it around.

Do people tell you they identify with Superhero Girl?

I don’t think people have come out and said it explicitly, but enough people have said that they enjoy her misadventures – I really should call it The Misadventures of Superhero Girl. I think her experiences are pretty universal. She just happens to be a superhero instead of a struggling art student. She’s just searching for that one thing that she’s good at, her own niche in life. And I think that’s a universal experience – well, some people are perfect and instantly slide into wherever they’re supposed to be, but I think those people are pretty few and far between. The rest of us, we have to really fight for what we want and struggle to get it.

You mentioned in a recent installment that Superhero Girl isn’t really the main character’s name. Does she have a name?

No, and I don’t think she has a name. People have asked if she’ll ever have just a normal, human name, and I’m like, “Nope! She will never be named!” She’s just a superhero girl. I think it’s sort of a vague attempt at maybe creating some sort of universal girl superhero who’s sort of every girl superhero. Giving her a name would make her more specific instead of this broad stroke of a character.

Do you anticipate her becoming more competent down the line? Or is it too much fun watching her screw up?

Yeah. You grow up over the course of your life, and I’m certainly expecting that she’ll grow up a little bit. I don’t know if she’ll ever become completely successful, mostly because I don’t really think that far ahead with the comic.

[The Adventures of Superhero Girl]

This July, First Second will start syndicating Hicks’s new book, Friends with Boys, online. Friends with Boys is about a girl who has been homeschooled in her first year of public high school. Hicks promises awkward socialization, problematic friends, and a ghost. The print volume of Friends with Boys will be released February 2012.