by Madeleine Nesbitt
This post was originally published August 8, 2014
Umbral is a comic that very much depicts the hero’s adventure story– that of King Arthur, or perhaps Frodo Baggins. There’s magic, thievery, a kingdom at risk, and secrets galore. Any typical male adventure hero would fit into this environment, but, thanks to creators Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, this comic isn’t a boy’s fantasy game. No, it belongs to Rascal, a somewhat paranoid teenage girl who specializes in thievery and stars in this series.
Rascal is special, and not just because she has suddenly come into possession of an object (called ‘the Umbral’) with enormous power. She’s an adventure heroine, on her own quest (even if she doesn’t know it’s hers yet), and frankly, that’s not something you see very often. In reading, you can see how her story mirrors countless legends following male protagonists; that of Arthur and Merlin strikes a particular chord. Rascal’s companion, Dalone, is an old wizard– though perhaps more unsavoury than Merlin ever was, it’s the same set-up. As a female adventurer, Rascal is not forced into the role of say, Morgana or Niniane, the vengeful women of the Arthurian legends. She does not have to seek revenge because she is granted the role of protagonist from the start.
Of course Rascal isn’t all good, and this, too, is part of her appeal. She doesn’t just snark at her elders (as every spunky, questing teenage girl must), she is also fleet-footed, clever, and one of the best criminals in the Thieves’ Guild. She’s a well rounded character who the reader can identify with: she might be street smart, but this weird (and highly illegal) magic stuff has got her a little confused.
There’s a lot you can ask for from comic-makers, but a well-rounded female protagonist is a pretty special thing in a world of hyper-sexualized superheroines. Superheroines of Marvel and DC ilk can be complicated and interesting characters, and I don’t mean to write them off, but because of the popularity of those comic publishers, the typical female superhero often caters to the male gaze.
Rascal isn’t like that. Umbral is not a particularly well-known comic, so the author and illustrator don’t have to cater to what is seen as the “typical” audience for comics: men. Rascal isn’t sexualized for the enjoyment of the stereotypical horny male comic reader. She instead kicks some serious butt in her long skirts, and happily shuts down creepy men with one of her suitably snarky comments (e.g. “[Y]ou’re not just barking up the wrong tree, you’re in the wrong bloody forest.”).
My favorite part of Rascal’s character, though, is that she really is designed for her readers, and especially for female readers. In the third issue of the comic, Antony Johnston asked for more female input to the letters box, and in following issues, female readers pulled through (turns out most of them are just as in love with Rascal as I am). It was wonderful for the author to ask for female input for a comic following a female protagonist, not that there’s much to criticize about Rascal’s character.
Rascal is a fantastic comics character– one who is there for the reader, sure, but is liked not because she is sexualized, but because she is interesting and smart and makes you want to jump up and have an adventure involving weird glowing shadow monsters. I hope that she, along with other cool women in comics, will inspire more badass and multifaceted female characters and protagonists.