Faith Herbert is a telekinetic superhero in Valiant’s comic universe. She flies through the air donning a bright white and blue jumpsuit, saving puppies, and uncovering corruption around every corner. She's also fat—and not “fat” in the way that popular culture describes plus-size models like Ashley Graham. Faith has a double chin, and that skintight jumpsuit doesn't hide her curves. And the best part for many comic readers is that no one says a thing about it.
Faith may fit in with an increasingly body-positive culture, though she first emerged in 1992 in a Valiant series called Harbinger, which followed the adventures of a group of misfit teenagers. But in that series, Faith and her endlessly cheery outlook on life were constantly plagued by a barrage of fat jokes. And when the series was revived in 2012, little had changed—not her relentless optimism, not the unnecessary digs about her weight, like when a passerby notes, “That fat girl sure is light on her feet.”
But in 2016, things are different: Faith has stepped outside of the Harbinger umbrella and returned in a bestselling miniseries that came out in January. She’s also set to star in her first full series, which will debut in July and feature her first real nemesis, whom she’ll face off against as her story unfolds in monthly installments. This year marks the first time Faith has been written by a woman, the Orphan Black comic writer Jody Houser—and, not so coincidentally, there isn’t a fat joke in sight.
With her 2016 comeback, Faith finally seems to exist in the right time, and readers seem to agree: The miniseries has received the fastest third, fourth, and fifth printing in comic history. Instead of hearing more fat jokes, readers see Faith lounging around her apartment in her underwear or going to her job as a writer at a celebrity-gossip site. And she’s not as ditzy as she was in 1992 and 2012; here, she comes off as whip-smart, effortlessly kind, and supremely confident as she navigates the transition to adulthood. It also doesn’t hurt that she appears to be the consummate Millennial, a woke member of the Tumblr generation working at a BuzzFeed knock-off. Faith’s return to the comic-book landscape represents twin achievements for the medium: an increasing willingness to tell stories featuring heroic women, and a tendency to celebrate the ways in which those women to deviate from (or challenge) gender norms.
Female characters, of course, have always been in comics, but there’s been a notable shift in the way they’re represented. More women and people of color are working behind the scenes on comics as writers and illustrators, which has led to the development of more dynamic and diverse characters: There’s Ms. Marvel, or Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American girl written by the Muslim comic writer G. Willow Wilson. And indie hits like Bitch Planet, a feminist comic introduced in 2014 that features women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and gender identities. And on television, formidable female superheroes star in their own shows: Supergirl, Jessica Jones, and Agent Carter.
And then there’s Faith, who has been covered extensively by media outlets for defying the aesthetic of the typical comic-book heroines audiences usually see (like the slender, raven-haired Wonder Woman). And yet the most compelling thing about her weight is that it’s a non-issue—one that has no bearing on her plotline or her abilities. Faith doesn’t talk about dieting or make self-deprecating jabs about her body. In the miniseries, the artists Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage have made her unabashedly large on the page and wholly unselfconscious in the way she carries herself. She doesn’t even destroy enemies with her strength like the vintage Marvel character Big Bertha, whose power is changing from a supermodel into an obese woman before literally crushing her opposition. Instead Faith’s powers defy gravity entirely—she flies gracefully through the air, stopping only to rest on a telephone wire and write a quick blog post.
For Houser, the fact that Faith’s size is seen rather than discussed is completely intentional. “That [Faith] represents a group of people not featured in comics very often is important, but it’s not the most interesting thing about her,” Houser says. “People want to see themselves in comics, but they don’t want to see a character who is just one aspect of themselves—they want to see a fully fledged person.”
Kiva Bay, an artist and social activist who lives in Oregon, often writes and tweets about feminist issues and the way fat bodies are perceived in popular culture. A longtime fan of comics and media, Bay says she was apprehensive at first when she heard about Faith—after all, mass media hasn’t historically done a great job of portraying marginalized groups the first time around. (Consider Hollywood’s long tradition of casting white actors to play characters of color.) “I see a lot of people co-opting body positivity and not really understanding how best to fight the stigma fat people face,” Bay says. “They end up reinforcing fat phobia.” But when Bay read the first issue her immediate response was: “Oh my god, this is everything I ever wanted in a fat character.”
Though Faith has always been a skilled hero, Houser’s Faith now more acutely embodies the idea that fat people can be just as good at what they do as their thin counterparts. Perhaps that seems obvious, but a 2015 experiment published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes shows that many people subconsciously think otherwise. For their study, the Wharton Business School professor Maurice Schweitzer and the doctoral student Emma Levine asked employers to evaluate resumes that included photos of both thin and obese people. The result? “What we found across our studies is that obesity serves as a proxy for low competence,” Schweitzer says in a press release. In other words: “People judge obese people to be less competent even when it’s not the case.”
And it’s clearly not the case with Faith. In the two previous Harbinger series, however, her accomplishments were greeted with surprise. Houser’s Faith, though, gives her the platform to be seen apart from the group in which she appears as the token fat girl (her inclusion in the first place came off as insincere when her size was so often used to insult her.) It’s here where the art of Faith’s story really speaks louder than the writing: It’s so striking when readers see her posed like Superman, or working at a media outlet like basically every male superhero. By playing on these classic tropes, Faith further reinforces the idea that her weight has no bearing on either her “regular” life and career or her superpowers.
For now, Houser says she has no plans to give Faith a storyline based on body-image insecurities or appearance-related bullying. Those narratives can be powerful, like in the episode of the show Louie, where Louis C.K.’s character goes on a date with a waitress named Vanessa who challenges his biases against fat women. Directly approaching these issues can be incredibly valuable in a world where, as Vanessa says, fat women are not supposed to talk about being fat. Faith’s world—one where her weight is a side note at most—may be an idealized one, but it offers a welcome reprieve for fat female comic-book lovers.
The same can’t be said for many other superhero books, movies, and TV shows, even those with the best of intentions. Bay mentions Jessica Jones for instance, a show that by all rights is a step forward for women in pop culture—after all, it features a strong, smart sexual-assault survivor taking on a serial rapist. Yet despite all the progress Jones represents, she’s not immune to mindlessly buying into other forms of casual prejudice. In the first 10 minutes of the show’s pilot, when she’s spying on Luke Cage, her binoculars wander up to a woman on a treadmill who stops to take a bite of a hamburger. “Two minutes on a treadmill, 20 minutes on a quarter pounder,” Jones says bitingly. This is a completely unnecessary scene—it doesn’t serve the plot or the character, since viewers already know she’s bitter and cynical. “One of the things that was so hurtful about that comment was that Jessica Jones created this really powerful umbrella for abuse survivors to gather under,” says Bay, who also wrote a Medium post on the topic. “That line signaled to me that I was excluded from that umbrella as a survivor of abuse and rape. I should be allowed to be part of this community without being the butt of a joke.”
This scene doesn’t erase the good things Jessica Jones does, but fair or not, the books, movies, and shows that are doing the most work promoting diversity are going to undergo more scrutiny than the white-male-led blockbuster. And if these shows are truly as progressive as the want to appear, it’s better for viewers when flaws are exposed. Even Faith isn’t perfect—the fact that she doesn’t mention size could be easily be seen as a disowning of part of her identity.
But in the end, diverse characters like Faith do the most overall good just by being at the center of their own stories. “I think about how excited I was when I was 7 and read a book that had a protagonist who was exactly like me: brown hair, glasses, small for her age, loved writing,” Houser says. “To think that there are women of all ages who never have that experience, that’s hard for me to wrap my head around.” But Faith, and the other diverse characters forging their way in media, is helping to make sure that readers do get those experiences—the ones that show people there is no separating the fat woman you see from the courageous, quick-thinking, telekinetic superhero inside of her.