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Comic Book Art

In Art, Life in Society on August 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

By Heila Rogers

Wonder Woman was my favorite comic book hero growing up. She was my superhero of choice. I’d buy the newest Wonder Woman comic every week, when with our weekly allowance my sister and I would ride our bikes to the 7/11 store. She’d choose from a selection of more expensive candy on the top row, whereas I’d get a few single pieces from the bottom, because after 35¢ for the reading material, there wasn’t much money for candy left over. We were both happy. Sometimes on our way home, we’d settle in a circle of bushes on the adjacent college campus and spend a few minutes enjoying our purchases.

It was an easy spending choice for me, I looked forward to reading the new stories. Years later, I now wonder if it was a true choice. Wonder Woman was the only female superhero with her own adventures. Batwoman and Supergirl were around, but they didn’t appear very often and were very secondary characters.

I still enjoy and seek out different kinds of art and reading. At first glance, comic books seem to be an art-plus- reading match made in heaven. From what I understand, graphic novels are now popular at least partly for that same reason, which is the combination of art and story.

But then I researched modern comic books, after recently visiting a workshop given by a well-known comic book artist. Beforehand when checking out his work, I’d felt slapped in the face. My impression was certain drawings were sexist, women were undressed, artificially and pornographically drawn, and firmly objectified. His talent and technique were good, but I found a lot of the subject-matter appalling. When I investigated further into the current comic book world, I found even worse distortion and perversion. Wonder Woman back in 1976  definitely had elements of sexism, but the old costumes were almost like Little House on the Prairie outfits compared to now.

Woman on street of old town Quito

Photo by Roger Brown
Everyday Heroism
Quito, Ecuador

Please beware that the following examination of this subject will contain tacky and offensive content, because that’s the nature of the beast.

During subsequent online research I found this hilarious-but-important article by Luke McKinney in about the “Power Girl” character and her lack of a decent costume. I thought his perspective was especially provocative because a) he’s male and b) he’s not “a conservative:”

Charged with making a female Superman, Power Girl’s costume designer’s only thoughts were “breasts” and “done.” They’d already given Supergirl a miniskirt (and, as a consequence, the entire population of Metropolis got a panty shot). With Power Girl, they upped the ante and opened a tit-window. Most spandex heroes have a symbol on their chest summarizing their character, and so does Power Girl: an empty hole full of cleavage.

There is no counterargument. Fans and writers have tried to explain Power Girl’s breast-viewing port several times, and each theory is more ridiculously unsupported than the breasts they’re attempting to justify.

The most common (and ridiculous) explanation is, “I am strong and empowered and therefore love being naked and stared at.” You know, the same reason Superman flies around in a thong. One writer claims it’s to show that she’s healthy…

A cursory look at today’s comic books reveals females looking like they’ve all had boob jobs and males looking inflated on steroids. Yes superheroes are supposed to be supernaturally strong, but this is different, unnatural and over-the-top. Plus, they’re often dressed like on-duty strippers. This is heroism?

People don’t want reality though, one might say. That’s what fiction is for, escapism.

Except for the truth that the best ‘creative unreality’, the best fiction, the most enduring literature has a universal, real element to it.

The human factor is paramount.

Back to Wonder Woman’s 1970’s costume. She had the American flag-inspired swimsuit and the red boots. Also the golden wrist cuffs which were impervious to bullets and a defensive weapon, and the golden lasso. She had her invisible plane which she could summon from afar. Her tiara could be thrown like a combination boomerang / ninja star. The unbreakable lasso was also a kind of polygraph device. A handy tool to use with recalcitrant villains. And a great literary tool.

Notice that all the male superheroes have full bodysuits. Their skin is covered from neck to toe. In fact, their costumes are often imbued with special powers (or they have the ubiquitous cape – Wonder Woman did occasionally wear a cape, too – but mostly for “dress-up”). I imagine the extra fabric covering their arms and legs at least offers some protection from burns, weathe,r and other dangers they encounter while saving the world.

A bit of humor from the film: The Incredibles:No Capes!

Let’s look at something else. Not just how female superheroes are dressed, what their costumes look like, nor even their bodies — but how they are “arranged.” How they are drawn, in relation to other characters. In the case below, we’ll compare and contrast “posing” in new and old comic books.

Posing is a term this blog author discusses:

In contrast female superheroes are generally not posed like athletes or superheroes, but as pliant submissive porn stars and preening supermodels. With alarming regularity they don’t look like athletes, heroes, conquerors, or badasses, but as nothing more than soulless beautiful objects and sexual temptresses, and so that is the assumption readers can make as well. Women as objects. Women as sexual. Women certainly not as heroes.

A 1970’s copy of Wonder Woman that I came across since beginning this article (above) shows a green-suited villain crouched on a rooftop, clutching a small blond girl wearing a bright pink dress. The child dangles wide-eyed over the street below. At the bad-guy’s feet is an open briefcase, full of obviously stolen, glowing jewelry. The dastardliness of it!! Wonder Women has apparently just arrived. She leaps onto the roof brandishing her shining golden lasso in a loop above her head, cowgirl-style, her other arm raised, fist-clenched.

“STAY BACK, WONDER WOMAN… OR THE KID DIES!” says the bubble above “The Bouncer’s” head.

Contrast this type of art, with the consistent and … boring … sexualization of female comic book characters I came across in 2012.

 On the left: Wonder Woman’s obviously flown up there for a rescue reason and is doing something brave and strong. Tension is heavy in the time-is-running-out scene. She’s a woman in a swimsuit, but she’s got a job to do and she’s doing it. Versus on the right: Uh … there’s a plane far below in this picture, so we know she’s … posing … in the sky now. The body looks unnatural, a floating object.

On the left, “It’s my job to Bring You In!” versus on the right, Nothing? Could the caption be, “My mammary glands are what’s most important about me,” and, “I’m frowning?” No story implied on the right at all.

Linda Carter from the Wonder Woman TV show (1974 – 1979) on the left. This shot seems to say, “I stand for truth and justice. I am strong and capable, don’t mess with me.” Also design-wise, her costume has value – the eagle on the bodice, the star-patterned fabric. The second picture seems to say, “I am … breasts?” Or maybe, “I am … about to start a high-kick routine?” Not even that. I can’t even see her moving at all, or doing anything but … posing.

Might I suggest that artists and others in the industry help themselves break out of a single, repetitive mold of falsely drawn and conceptualized female characters? There are no two women (or men!) the same and they are ALL beautiful. Base some interesting and exciting characters on that. Who would argue that people you meet who are chock-full of love for others and enjoyment of life are not brimming with beauty, and powerful in a good way? We’ve all experienced this, and are attracted to it. I’d like to suggest that reinforcement of false ways of looking at people limits the good experiences that can be had in life. It also makes for a warped society and dull, offensive comic book art.

How did we get this way? How did it get to this point?

Let’s have some real heroes and more exciting stories and drawings.

Irena Sendler

Click here to read about Irena Sendler (above at age 95 in Warsaw) and a group of young Polish women who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children during World War II.


Photo Sources:


Wonder Woman

  1. Some great superhero (lots of traditional Wonder Woman) products at the A Mighty Girl website: ~ HR

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