Confronting Uncertain Worlds: Comics with Young Female Protagonists

By Jens LloydOctober 27, 2017

Confronting Uncertain Worlds: Comics with Young Female Protagonists

Afar by Leila del Duca and Kit Seaton
Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland

ONCE REBUKED FOR seducing innocent young minds, mainstream comic books are now comfortably established as a medium for the middle-aged. According to a recent survey of retailers, you’re more likely to be standing next to a 30-year-old than a 13-year-old while perusing the shelves of your local comic book store. The medium has matured along with its fans and, surely, despite some commentators bemoaning the puerile superhero antics that saturate pop culture, this has led to more widespread respect for comics.

Though absent from stores, young adults do punctuate some of today’s most popular comic book stories. Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls (2015–present) is highly regarded for its rollicking, unpredictable plot that centers on four Ohio teenagers who unwittingly become time travelers. G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel (2014–present), depicting the origin story of a young American Muslim superhero, has gained substantial media attention and a loyal fan following. But are comics about young adults necessarily for young adults? Is anything gained by labeling them as YA comics?

Earlier this century, Marvel and DC Comics made overt attempts to do just that. Marvel’s Tsunami imprint from the early 2000s and the DC’s Minx line from the late 2000s were relatively short-lived, however. Although Tsunami launched Vaughan and Alphona’s now-classic Runaways (2003–2015), these failed initiatives would seem to indicate that, in a market dominated by older readers, it’s best to avoid pigeonholing a new series or a new character as YA.

Two comics released within the last year challenge this prevailing wisdom. Afar and Spill Zone reflect the changing landscape of the field, from how comics are produced and disseminated to who creates them and, most significantly, who reads them. Both Afar and Spill Zone feature young female protagonists. This fact doesn’t make them stand out; rather, it puts them at the leading edge of mainstream comics. Graphic Policy, a website offering monthly reports about comic book readership based on data culled from Facebook, documents that more women in general and more young adult women in particular are engaging with the medium. So, if you do find yourself standing next to a 13-year-old in a comic book store, there is a strong chance that that young adult will be a female fan.

By willingly embracing the YA label, the creators and publishers behind Afar and Spill Zone insist that making comics for young adults need not run contrary to the medium’s continued maturation. To embrace the YA label is not to revert to some juvenile past but, as one recent panel at Comic-Con put it, to discover the future of comics.

The product of an all-female creative team, Afar — by artist-turned-writer Leila del Duca and web-comic artist Kit Seaton — is a slow-building but ultimately absorbing tale of a young woman, Boetema, gifted with the ability of astral projection. Published by Image Comics, Afar was intended to be a limited series, but, as del Duca describes in an interview, she became convinced early on that it would work better as an original graphic novel where readers could dive in all at once rather than take in the story bit by bit via individual issues. The book is divided into three chapters, the first marked by a distinctly methodical pace. It is not necessarily sluggish, as within the first few pages, Boetema — Bo for short — is already experiencing her newfound powers. It’s just that del Duca and Seaton have created a world that takes some getting used to.

Readers will quickly notice and appreciate the distinctive desert setting that, although inspired by North Africa and the Middle East, is deliberately not located on our planet. This frees up the creators to tell Bo’s story without any earthly encumbrances. Also of note are the multiethnic cast and the meticulously varied character designs. The opening chapter establishes Bo as the smart, capable older sister of Inotu, who is introduced as the kind of overly earnest kid that easily falls into trouble. Bo and Inotu’s father is a scam artist and, as his most recent scheme begins to draw the ire of local villagers, the family must relocate. Bo’s parents soon find work that separates them from their children.

As in most good YA fiction, the parental figures in Afar are quickly done away with so that the young protagonists can get on with their adventure. Bo tells her brother about her ability to, as she puts it, “travel to other planets when I sleep.” Inotu responds by revealing that he has run afoul of a local politician’s bodyguard. Fearing for her brother’s safety, Bo decides that they should travel to Yopan, a bustling and crowded city where they can take refuge.

Kit Seaton, artist.

The young female protagonist in Spill Zone finds herself thrust into a similar position, caring for a younger sibling and, in the absence of parental figures, assuming the role of decision maker. Created by veteran YA author Scott Westerfeld and artist Alex Puvilland, the comic opens at a pace that is anything but methodical. Addison lives with her sister, Lexa, on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie (a.k.a. Po’Town), New York, a city ravaged by a mysterious event. The abandoned city and its odd assemblage of haunting phenomena are off-limits to visitors. Our protagonist, of course, routinely violates this restriction to take photos that fetch substantial sums in the underground art market.

The opening sequence finds Addison on a motorbike racing through the streets of Po’Town, where she encounters and then outruns a lanky wolf-like creature. Puvilland, an animator for DreamWorks, has a rough, kinetic style that brings to life the rough, kinetic world of Spill Zone. Colorist Hilary Sycamore also deserves ample praise (at times, the look of Spill Zone reminded me of the work of Paul Pope and, sure enough, Sycamore has worked on some of Pope’s recent comics). Westerfeld does not overburden the story with unnecessary dialogue or narration. He deftly joins the ranks of other established YA authors like M. T. Anderson and Marissa Meyer who, as of late, have taken a break from prose to produce comics.

Alex Puvilland, artist; Hilary Sycamore, colorist.

Spill Zone, initially serialized online beginning in 2016, was recently collected and published by First Second, a publisher with a solid record of producing graphic novels for children. Make no mistake, though, about the intended audience for Westerfeld and Puvilland’s action-filled horror comic. Dotted with colorful language and intense imagery, it is decidedly YA.

Addison and Lexa’s parents succumbed to the mysterious event that devastated their city. Lexa, too, was caught up in it. Though she somehow escaped with a busload of other children, Lexa is traumatized and rarely speaks. She does communicate frequently with her curiously possessed doll, Vespertine. These telepathic exchanges, rendered in thought bubbles on the page, hint at the paranormal atmosphere surrounding Po’Town. Addison speculates about a “nanotech accident colliding with the local nuclear power plant” or maybe something even more far-fetched like an “alien visitation,” but the cause of the titular spill is never fully revealed. And that’s probably for the best because it shifts all the attention to the weird effects themselves.

While Spill Zone draws from horror to generate its story elements, Afar follows the astral projections of Bo into the realm of fantasy. The most captivating scenes in the book are those that involve Bo’s otherworldly trips. Her first journey takes her to an undersea world where she inhabits the consciousness of an ugly amphibious creature that longs to be a majestic whale. Other trips are just as fleetingly enchanting: an octopus-like creature caught in an existential stare-down with its own reflection, gangly catacomb dwellers discussing a new discovery, an earthly looking Inuit family traveling through the snow. These interludes take up three panels, two panels, and one panel respectively, but they capture the imagination and linger long after one turns the page. They also make one start to wonder where this tale is headed. One astral trip — this time to Maltura, a planet inhabited by a technologically advanced civilization that is trying to establish a more environmentally friendly way of life — brings deadly consequences, and Bo pledges to return to Maltura to rectify the situation.

Kit Seaton, artist.

The second and third chapters of Afar interweave Bo’s return trips to Maltura with the rest of Bo and Inotu’s adventure in Yopan. The methodical opening chapter gives way to a more stimulating pace. Seaton’s knack for composing dramatic perspectives is on full display as the siblings arrive in their new city. They take up jobs under the protection of a benefactress, the enigmatic and powerful Abrinet (whose vast Yopan-based business empire is probably worthy of a series of its own). While Bo is committed to her work as a scribe, she is preoccupied with Maltura. Inotu is still nominally under threat from the bodyguard, but the stakes don’t feel all that intense. I found Bo’s trips to Maltura to be more suspenseful than the lives she and her brother lead in Yopan. Perhaps this is the trap that del Duca and Seaton have set for themselves with the premise. If there are future volumes of Afar, I’ll be interested to see how del Duca and Seaton manage the challenge of making Bo’s world feel as consequential as the worlds she visits when she sleeps.

Spill Zone, too, promises additional volumes. And Westerfeld and Puvilland have certainly given themselves plenty of plot lines to untangle. Addison’s photography puts in her contact with an art buyer who offers Addison a lucrative assignment to retrieve an artifact from the zone. This task is tied up in geopolitical intrigue, as readers discover that a rural area in North Korea suffered an event analogous to the Po’Town disaster. Though certainly provocative, the intrigue only adds another layer to a story that is chock-full of mystery. The connection between Lexa and her doll is clearly significant to unraveling the secrets of Po’Town, and the final panels of this first volume make it clear that whatever is possessing Vespertine is linked to the origins of the spill. Still, what exactly is possessing Lexa’s doll remains in doubt. Like other YA fiction focused more on building the foundation for a series rather than telling a complete story in one volume, Spill Zone might make readers impatient by not offering enough resolution.

Westerfeld has explained that he was inspired by images of the abandoned areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility. So, perhaps, like urban explorers touring a forbidden locale, readers need to dive into Spill Zone with the mentality that the adventure is the destination. By taking the leap of residing with Addison and her sister on the edge of Po’Town, readers can appreciate how Spill Zone resonates with our increasingly catastrophe-prone world. If you subtract the fantastical elements, the devastated setting that Addison inhabits is reminiscent of the towns and cities recently ravaged by hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes. Addison’s efforts to make a life for her and her sister suggest that, in the wake of catastrophe, there is no getting back to normal. There is only the long, uneven process of adjustment, of finding a way to live within whatever new world the catastrophe has wrought.

Taking leaps into new worlds is a fair description of Bo’s powers in Afar. Her powers mirror the effects of a good story: a fleeting opportunity to inhabit the lives and worlds of others. Ideally, these glimpses of other worlds result in readers looking anew at their own. “We all read for entertainment, no matter how old we are,” Cory Doctorow claims in a blog post outlining his rationale for writing YA, “but kids also read to find out how the world works.” The danger buried in that assumption is that, by trying too hard, a work of YA fiction can become didactic, trite, and all too certain of what it’s trying to say. Thankfully, neither Afar nor Spill Zone ever feel like they are trying too hard to be YA. Instead, they provide readers with richly imagined worlds, worlds to contemplate and question. Answers might not come as readily as some would like. But these are uncertain domains populated by young adult protagonists who are driven by the ever-shifting circumstances of their lives to take responsibility for themselves and for others. What, if anything, young adult readers choose to learn by confronting the worlds offered by these comics is, ultimately, their decision to make.


Jens Lloyd is a PhD candidate in the English Department at UC Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Jens Lloyd is a PhD candidate in the English department at UC Irvine. His research focuses on the geographies and ecologies of rhetoric, writing, and literacy.


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