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Drawn This Way: Sexiness and Sexism in Female Superhero Characters

For those of you who know me or have read this column for a while, you know that I like my superhero comics.

I’ve been reading of superheroic exploits for the past 23-plus years. In that time, I have seen my world of outlandishly clad characters and copious sound effects move from object of nerdly ridicule to multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbusters.

But there’s one thing that never seems to change when I discuss my enjoyment of supers, and that’s the reactions I get regarding the female characters in my funny books.

The parade of hyperdeveloped, pneumatic beauties gracing covers in skin-tight and skin-revealing outfits peddled to an adolescent male gaze has drawn everything from feminist indignation to snickering derision, with a sprinkling of ain’t-that-cool rather than that-ain’t-cool.

I don’t fault any of those reactions.

Not in a sexist society that places too much focus and value on looks for women, and catering to the fantasies of men. In a society that fuels the cosmetic surgery industry attempting to filter the looks of all women into the two percent who look like Nordic swimsuit models.

It doesn’t matter that the superpowered men in modern comics all have physiques attainable for a lucky few, too. Very few men are 6-foot-4, 225 pounds with a 50-inch chest like Superman. For the most part, men’s looks are not held up as the primary method of estimating their value. That is the difference.

So it’s been a bit ironic that the super-men have ruled the Hollywood blockbusters. (I heard many a fangirl squee with delight at a screening of The Avengers.) Yet there are barely any super-women in the club.

We can’t even get a proper Wonder Woman live-action project off the ground. The sexy women, however, have stayed on the page, fueling fanboys and cosplay women.

But the fact is that I like my superhero comics when done well, and they’re gonna have women in them. I end up half-apologist, half-angry. I at least try to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to how female characters are represented in mainstream superhero comics.

(A lot of indie comics, by the way, have TONS of diversity and real-life depictions of women. But they’re not what people – especially non-readers – are commenting on when they talk about female characters in comics. So let’s get stick with supers.)

Here’s what I like, and what I don’t.


What I like: Proper costuming

My big thing about female superhero visuals in general is that they reflect our skewed, sexist social expectations too often. Most of the super-women should be covered up a lot more, on par with most male superheroes. Most male supers are covered head to toe, and most female supers have the opposite.

I’m tired of the zip-up jumpsuit that isn’t zipped up all the way. Even though we’re knee-deep in fantasy world, some good amount of real-world details wouldn’t hurt. Such as the fact that a buxom woman performing high physical activity wouldn’t be impervious to a nip slip. Come on.

I only like the unzipped look when Darwyn Cooke does it with Catwoman.

He doesn’t have half her boobs out, unlike many other artists’ renderings. And he drew her unzipped only when she was relaxing between capers, not when doing somersaults.

I don’t mind so much if lack of head-to-toe clothes makes operational sense for the character. For example, Wonder Woman is a god-being, near invulnerable, probably doesn’t feel cold, comes from a Greek-styled warrior culture. It makes sense that she’d be dressed similar to an indoor volleyball player.

But I hated, hated, hated the redesign of Huntress’ costume by Jim Lee in 2002. After the ’90s changed her costume from cleavage and legs a-plenty to head-to-toe body armor, he put her in bike shorts and kneepads with a midriff-baring top. Yeah, for a non-powered person facing criminals who have guns. That kind of mess gives comics a bad name.

(As does everything Jim Balent touches. Good grief, you used to be great when inked by Dick Giordano, but that was 20 years ago.)

Huntress’ costume now is similar to that monstrosity, but at least they got rid of the bare midriff. And no one ever really explained why Psylocke would wear what she does. And is Emma Frost trying to be a sexpot? I guess you get to fly around in lingerie with a cape when you lead something called the Hellfire Club.

What I dislike: Poor anatomy and posing

Beyond the visuals, the posing and bad anatomy are so crucial.

The typical female superhero physique is on par with swimsuit models: slim, a bit muscular, and buxom as all get-out. In fact, the heavy focus on giant breasts for these super-ladies is what usually gains so much bad attention.

Especially when those ginormous juggs don’t come anywhere close to reality – no sense of gravity or weight, moony-round cantaloupes stacked onto slender frames, and liquid latex-style clothing that somehow delineates each breast in perfect relief.

Either these guys don’t know how to draw breasts, or superhero women have bad boob jobs. If you’re gonna draw big boobs, do it right.

It’s not that I am against large-breasted super-ladies. Just not for ALL of the super-women. Some variety is important. At least with Power Girl – she of the keyhole costume – there’s a silly joke involved. Power Girl, in most versions, is a Kryptonian, so at least you get the mindfuckery of giant, squishy cleavage that can stop bullets.

But there’s something worse than bad breasts, and that’s bad posing. If you’re drawing female characters in your regular, non-pin-up panel action as if they’re all in Playboy pictorials, you’re doing it very, very wrong. If you’re posing female characters in a way you wouldn’t pose the men, you’re likely doing it very wrong.

The height (or depths) of this results in what has been called the “brokeback pose,” in which an artist contorts a woman’s body for maximum T&A in a pose that, in real life, would result in death. Guillem March is among the recent chief offenders of sexist, bad anatomy and posing.

And then there’s Greg Land. He’s really just lifting poses from porn and putting them in comics. He has a large Internet hate campaign against him, for good reason. He combines porn-y looks (tracing porn stuff into action scenes!) with bad posing and anatomy (he especially hates hips) in a failure pile of sexism.

What I like: Well-drawn, well-posed fantasy
Let’s clear the palate with some well-drawn female supers, by male and female artists.

Nicola Scott draws strong-looking women with correct anatomy who look very comfortable in their own skin. It’s refreshing. In her Wonder Woman work, Diana looks so radiant and amazing.

And, for good measure, she’s the one who drew the male butt shot of Nightwing that shook the world.

J.H. Williams III draws great everything.

And if you are looking for female superheroes that aren’t drawn in ridiculous poses and look three-dimensional, few are better. He co-created the title Promethea with Alan Moore, featuring a wide range of female body types.

And his recent run on Batwoman, which he also wrote, is amazing. Williams makes her look spectral, bad-ass and undeniably fierce. She has an athletic body and anatomy in her body-armored costume that looks more normal. For the young nerd girl who sees a leggy, curvaceous super-woman and feels turned off or threatened by an image they don’t care to be, Batwoman’s look is a welcome respite and one that needs to be far more frequent.

Emanuela Lupacchino is interesting. I don’t know what to make of her yet. She definitely likes to draw sexy women in her pin-up work, but her panel work has really dynamic, non-cheesecake posing, too. She’s from Italy, so her own expectations may be worse than ours!

Amanda Conner is pretty much the best female comic book artist out there. She did a great run on Power Girl, making her costume seem less exploitative than it ought to.

She even did the same with the awful, stripperfied New 52 redesign of Harley Quinn.

Darwyn Cooke is a retro guy, so even his sexiest women are more ’50s Playboy, which feels quaint in our time.

Frank Cho has a foot in both camps.

He draws glamazons – very muscular, breasty and hippy – and his work definitely is cheesecake-y. He also puts female supers in the same action poses as men.

Cho follows the Adam Hughes school of sexy women drawing: tons of glamor, equal parts muscle and T&A, but his anatomy is well-done and his women tend to fall more on the Elle McPherson/Tyra Banks scale.

If you’re going to do this kind of stuff, at least do it well (like the aforementioned Mr. Hughes.

Cosplay models love his work; many base themselves on his looks.

But these days, I can’t get over Ivan Reis’ art. He’s one of the few artists who draws male and female characters with the same levels of sexy super-pow. He has a very dynamic, motion-filled style. I think it’s because he’s from Brazil; have you seen what pretty men and women can look like there?

Go see a beach in Rio sometime. His sexy Aquaman and Mera are a real body party.

Ah, a bit of balance.

Let’s have some more of this, please. Make them all sexy, and put the men and women in the same, good poses when doing panel work.

And more balance in pin-up work, too. Are you telling me that Stanley Lau can’t draw up an male equivalent to these gorgeous Justice Magazine covers?

 

Yes we can, people. Yes we can.

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