Nicole Franklin speaks to an illustrator in the comic book genre who believes the true hero’s journey does not discriminate.
As the classic storytelling device goes, a hero is called to save the world. And he—or she—must (sometimes reluctantly) answer the call by traversing new worlds with dragons and ogres, encountering goddesses and mentors, setbacks and a final battle in order to return victorious with an elixir to save the day. Thanks to mythologist Joseph Campbell, the storyline he famously outlined in the 1940s has proven successful for many a blockbuster hit.
My personal preference is the unlikely hero. The “kid” Peter Parker, a knowledgeable but sometimes in-over-his-head Indiana Jones, and some citing Campbell’s influence would say Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
“It would be wonderful for it to feel realistic for a woman to go on a hero’s journey,” says popular illustrator Alice Meichi Li. “Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in Oz as heroes only return to the status quo. When they win, they get to go home. Great you’re home! (laughs) Nothing’s changed. It’s not really a huge deal, you know?”
At a recent Comic Con event in New York, Li appeared on a Women of Color in Comics panel in front of a packed audience. She made an observation that the heroine’s journey has become a prominent storyline. Her definition of its structure made fans of fantasy and mythology take notice.
According to Li the female hero is too often conceived in a misogynistic format. Thus any female protagonist destined for the hero’s journey is ultimately regulated to the heroine’s journey instead—time and time again.
“The main difference between the hero and the heroine’s journey,” she says, “is when a hero is striving to become a master, a heroine is striving for equality and normality.” Li says a brief summation of Campbell’s hero’s journey would be “A boy’s coming of age where the student becomes the master. That would be the most basic.” What she says appears with female leading roles instead: “A heroine is thrust into a world gone mad. Everything has flipped and turned upside down and heroines are struggling to find their way home. They feel that they are the only sane ones.”
Li theorizes that the normalcy of insanity and lunacy on the heroine’s journey is a reflection of how patriarchal society drives these heroes insane. She finds that she attempts to redefine characters in her own work as well: “I like to examine that kind of madness and those surreal landscapes–what it means to be a woman, the duality of male and female—and best define it by contrasting with other things. So I explore the feminine and masculine qualities in women.” A quick review of her online gallery will show strong females in mystical worlds, representational of born leaders. One of her latest cover illustrations is that of Sherbet Lock, which she describes as a lesbian Middle Eastern Sherlock Holmes from the future paranormal. “Think of her as Sherlock Holmes meets Fox Mulder, but as an ethnically-ambiguous lesbian. If you’re into paranormal mysteries with a clever dark (and vaguely British) humor, you might like Sherbet!” she says.
Honing her illustration skills initially as a cartooning major attending New York’s School of Visual Arts, Li graduated with a degree in illustration instead and has contributed to multiple anthologies. Her work has appeared in more than 10 gallery shows this year. Venues include Bottleneck Gallery Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Hero Complex Gallery in Los Angeles, and Guzu Gallery in Austin, TX. Li hails from Detroit, MI. As an artist she works in mixed mediums of acrylic paints, putting on the finishing touches in Adobe Photoshop. “My philosophy has to do with duality, unpredictability of traditional and the control of digital. I love having both worlds in many more ways than one.” But in taking the practice of comparison to commercial work that exists, Li often discovers for characters in her industry that a woman traversing a patriarchal “new world” can be disorienting. “With all these people buying into patriarchy, you feel like you’re unequal and the entire journey is trying to obtain equality.”
Take a look at the pros and cons of hero vs. heroine:
* Heroes find people who want to help them. Heroines find people who are manipulators and either trick them or use them. “Luke is taught the Jedi mind trick. But the Chesire Cat…and in Oz, Glenda the Good Witch,” says Li, “She isn’t telling Dorothy the full truth and ultimately wants to use Dorothy to defeat evil.” She also notes the different turn a hero takes in the Myth of Persephone: “The endings kind of change. Persephone is deceived by Hades into becoming his queen. It ends there and she is trapped against her will with no resolution for her.”
* A hero is coming from an ordinary world and already knows how to play by the rules and has mentors and goddesses to help conquer any obstacles. A heroine starts a journey with disadvantages. And in many cases she runs into what Li calls “the anti-goddess. If you look at Maleficent or the Red Queen these are all women who have massive power and they have been twisted into dark goddesses. The heroine is pushed to defeat the evil queen in Snow White…it’s very similar to how the patriarchy kind of turns women against each other in a way. It’s very rare that they tend to help their fellow women out. Instead they see them as a source of competition. It’s a very toxic situation.”
* A hero’s journey is the journey of someone who has privilege. Regardless if the protagonist is male or female, a heroine does not start out with privilege. For example, a male protagonist on a heroine’s journey would be an underprivileged man who is also oppressed by inequality. This is the world he will return to in the end without a solution. “They’re not really bringing back an elixir,” says Li. “They’re navigating our patriarchal society with unequal pay and inequalities. In the final chapter they may end up on equal footing. But when you have oppressed groups, all you can hope for is to get half as far by working twice as hard.”
There is also the obvious recurring theme of the heroine ultimately needing a man to save her. Boys and girls everywhere have grown up on stories where a prince swoops in at the end of a heroine’s journey and kisses her awake.
The privileged hero has more than his fair share of equality and the ability to be the master over his or her own existence—and the existence of others as well. But for the underprivileged heroine’s journey, the antagonist, Li concludes, is the patriarchal landscape and all of its dominating contexts from which the heroine is trying to escape.
But as with every family-friendly adventure there is hope.
“Part of me thinks that as society evolves,” says Li, “maybe eventually it will be normal for heroines to go on a hero’s journey. She’ll acquire the ideal mastery that a hero can find.” Li sees great examples of fictional women on the hero’s journey are coming to the big screen and a number on the small screen as seen in some of her favorite Nickelodeon programs. Anime also seems to easily design their female leads as heroes. Avatar: The Latest Airbender and the Legend of Korra are some of the standouts. Overall, in the film and television medium, the comic book industry may actually be leading the way in diversifying the profiles of their lead characters and storylines.
Li says, “There’s hope in my lifetime for the Hero’s journey for a woman.” That would mean we possibly would also have a world that reaches a level of equality that is yet to be seen.
Image provided by illustrator: Alice Meichi Li