Body Types, Body Image, And Comic Books: An Indictment Of Our Current Conversations

I’m back, and I gotta tell you: there’s nothing like pretending other people don’t exist for four days. It’s rejuvenating in the extreme; you guys should try it sometime.

Anyway, I’m back, working on mapping out new chapters, a new novel and my review of Troy: Fall of A City. And one thing that’s been bugging me throughout all of this is body types and shapes.

And man do I have some thoughts on the subject.

Under the cut!

The Strawman Civil War

Anybody who’s been a part of comics fandom for the last ten years or so has seen a version of this argument:

Woman On The Net: Goddamn, but women’s bodies are over-sexualized and hideously unrealistic in comics! We Need A Change!

Man On The Net: What About Men? Men are over-sexualized too! It’s just apart of the medium! Anyway you feminists are just angry man-haters who hate sex!

Woman: False Equivalency!

There’s a few variations on the theme, and a few stock phrases that always crop up (‘you just hate sex/want to get rid of fanservice!’ ‘False equivalency!’ ‘We don’t hate/want to get rid of…) and of course somebody always links to this: http://www.shortpacked.com/2011/comic/book-13/05-the-death-of-snkrs/falseequivalence/

The problem? It’s all bullshit, every single last part of the argument.

Body Dysmorphia: Because Everything On This Planet Wants To Kill You, Even Your Own Brain. But Only After They Suck Out All Your Money In The Case Of The Advertising Industry

I’m gonna be straight with you:

I cannot fucking stand most modern comic book art. With a few exceptions (Darwyn Cooke and his fellow imitators of Golden Age Art, Alex Ross, end list), I find modern comics to be unbearably ugly. Men and women alike are exaggerated beyond all sense and look more like parodies of body builders than, you know, real human beings. It’s better than it was (hi Rob Liefeld!), but the fact that so-called ‘erotic artists’ like Milo Manara (who’s art runs from ‘lifeless’ to ‘unimaginative’ and is about as erotic as cardboard) are still getting paid for their crap indicates there’s a huge problem.

But besides the fact that Jack Kirby, Wayne Boring and Curt Swan on their worst day could draw figures more imaginative, believable and grounded than virtually the entire crop of modern artists, there’s a much bigger problem:

All those super exaggerated figures? They’re killing us.

Body dysmorphic disorder is a real problem, and it’s only going to get worse. The fact that it’s co-morbid with a whole bunch other nasty problems like eating disorders only serve to highlight the problem.

Oh, and it manifests roughly equally across sexes.

Now, the rise in body dysmorphia cannot be blamed solely on the media and pop culture. But a big chunk of it can be, and the effects overwhelmingly negative.

But wait, you say! Didn’t David Willis say something about ‘male power fantasy’ and aren’t those always bad?

I love Willis as much as the next guy, but he’s wrong here. Sort of. Sigh.

The Genre’s Called Fantasy! It’s Supposed To Be Unrealistic, You Myopic Manatee!

Mongol Leader: Conan! What is best in life?

Conan: To shit on George R.R. Martin, ’cause fuck that guy.

All right, all pettiness aside there are some important concepts I want to take about here. Namely power fantasies and realism.

The Problem With Power Fantasy

The Enemy has a good article on why demonizing games as power fantasy is less than kosher, and everybody’s favourite all consuming media wiki likewise has some good pages on the subject and related concepts.

The problem lies in execution and context. Rob Liefeld is a bad artist because he draws everybody in figures that impossible within his own style, never mind real life. But he was popular, and so everybody drew like him. And we still do.

And that’s where the ‘power fantasy’ becomes a trap, as explained in the previous section. We have gone from the well-built but believable figures of Curt Swan and Wayne Boring to a world where everybody’s a bodybuilder.

Now, if that were just comics, it wouldn’t be too bad. Wrong, but survivable The problem is the bodybuilder image is the only one we’re selling to boys. You ever see a men’s fitness magazine where the guy’s veins are popping and you can identify every individual muscle group by sight alone?

Yeah, he got that way by starving and dehydrating himself. He looks really muscly, but he’s actually weak and, you know, dying right there in the shoot. A lot of T.V. shows are the same way. Some power fantasy.

Every Time Somebody Cites Realism In Fiction, God Gives A Little Kid Cancer

So, if power fantasies and wish fulfillment run the gamut from ‘harmless’ to ‘we’re killing our kids,’ the answer must be realism, right?

NO!

Realism, in a lot of ways, is one of the worst things to ever have happened to fiction. Partially because reality doesn’t work the way we think it does, but mostly because it’s become the default excuse for every scrap of bullshit a writer can think of that fits with his audience’s preconceived notions.

Take Brienne of Tarth. Brienne is (allegedly, I’ve only read the one book) an ugly woman who’s only able to compete with men because she’s some kind of freak with disproportionate muscle mass and height. And it’s complete bullshit.

Swords, spears, and armour aren’t that heavy. You don’t need to be a powerlifter to lift them or use them. Nor, quite frankly, do the (disgustingly small) advantages conferred by the male gender matter when somebody has three feet of steel in their hands and is using you as a pincushion. Skill and dexterity are more important. If you don’t believe me, I direct you to the excellent Matt Easton of Scholagladitoria. There are also several female HEMA practitioners on Tumblr who would be more than happy to set you straight.

My point is, Martin cheated to give Brienne an unrealistic body she didn’t need, no different than comic book artists and just as dangerous. All in the name of ‘realism.’

Variety Is The Spice Of Life

Look, nobody in superhero comics (or most other comics, for that matter) can exist in real life. Batman has mastered over a hundred martial arts and fights gods with his bare hands, gadgets, and authorial favouritism. Diana is literally made out of clay. Superman can fly, and if you got hit by a gamma bomb, trust me, you wouldn’t turn into a giant green rage monster.

Trying to tie these larger-than-life figures to real world limitations is doomed from the start. It violates the basic rules of the genre.

On the other side of that, we have seen that these fantastic figures do have real world consequences that damage men, women, and those who don’t fit into the binary equally. We can’t leave the comic industry as is, and we can’t make it more ‘realistic.’ So what’s the answer?

Simple: we band together and demand greater variety in our comic book characters. Obvious, right?

And that’s my real problem with the whole argument. To use the David Willis version above, both sides have a point: our annoying straw fan correctly points out that male figures are hyper-sexualized and exaggerated, but Amber is quite correct in pointing out that comic book males are sexualized for the wrong audience. There’s a lot wrong with counter-argument, too, as we have seen. The exaggerated figures of men damage boys at a rate equal to how damaging the exaggerated figures of women are, power fantasy or now. And her prime counter is just the problem in reverse: designing a character to be attractive instead of starting from what their role in the story is or what their characters are is still wrong, regardless of who’s doing the designing.

Fortunately, at least in comic book terms, the solution is simple. Like I said, band together and demand comics that reflect the wide variety inherent to the genre.

  • Keep Amanda “The Wall” Waller fat.
  • Hell, make Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics) fat! Marvel’s made enough fat jokes about her over the years, let’s make them commit.
  • Scott Summer’s needs to slim down. A lot.
  • Bats should slim down too. He’s a fucking ninja; 6’2 and 210 lbs makes him a linebacker.

So on and so forth. Designing characters, male or female, so that their physical appearance matches their characterization and not what some random ass artist thinks is attractive is the way to go.


If you enjoyed this post, you can buy me a coffee (http://ko-fi.com/falconlord) or buy my original fiction on Amazon.

Robots and Vampires (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NDLMDT4): Two hundred years in the future, a young cyborg stops the richest boy in town from killing a gynoid. Now he must flee from the only home he’s ever known to Fort City, base of the mysterious Standard Technologies, Inc. Can he trust them?

The Standard Tech Case Files-The Black Coats (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VTWMR7W): When there’s a corpse on the street, somebody has to answer for that. When the body in question is the squire of a prominent vampire, the call for blood only gets louder. Follow Joey Bianco and his squire Jen Ryan as they hunt down a killer and try to keep the peace between vampires and humans.

The Standard Tech Case Files-The Dead and The Damned (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MRSBC7I): Tensions between humanity and vampires are heating up. A vampire store has been ransacked. Protestors are being arrested without trial. Can Joey Bianco and Jen Ryan find a peaceful solution? Or will the streets of Fort City run red with blood?

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