One Year After Captain Marvel: A Comics Retrospective

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel. A lot has changed in a year. When we first started the blog, Marvel had one woman with her own title: blog-favorite Alejandra of the ill-fated Ghost Rider, who wasn’t even really the lead after the first few issues. Now, there are so, so many books with female creators and/or characters that are making me remember what’s so great about comics:

Ming Doyle and Brian Wood’s Mara; Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly; Gail Simone’s Red Sonja, and the upcoming anthology that features genre greats like Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Marjorie Liu, Rhianna Pratchett, and Kelly Sue DeConnick; a Matt Fraction-penned genderswapped Odyssey adaptation (file that away under Ideas I Wish I’d Thought of First); the all-female group of D&D-like adventures of Rat Queens; X-Men; Fearless Defenders; Captain Marvel; titles like Uncanny X-Force that feature a mostly female team; the best decision DC has made in a long time: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn ongoing; Greg Rucka’s Lazarus.

And these are just the books I can think of off the top of my head. There are even more than that.

All of this change is obviously good, and I’m hoping these positive alterations to the comics landscape continue. Yet, some things haven’t changed much at all. Most of the women in that list up there are white.

The closest the Big Two are getting to Thinking About Race are Gail Simone’s The Movement and the upcoming relaunched Mighty Avengers featuring Luke Cage, Falcon, White Tiger, She-Hulk, Spider-Man, Blue Marvel, Monica Rambeau, Ronin, and Power Man. Both of these books are trying intentionally to be racially inclusive. Executive Editor of Mighty Avengers Tom Brevoort, “who acknowledged that the idea for the new title was first discussed during Black History Month, cited [Dwayne] McDuffie as an inspiration for the series. The editor said he wanted to help create a team book that McDuffie would have made himself, with a cast comprised of at least 50% non-white and/or non-male characters.” [x]

While the subject of gender has been broached with varying levels of success, no one wants to talk about race. As Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance wrote in his excellent, important piece “Outrage Deferred: On The Lack of Black Writers in the Comic Book Industry,” “So where is our collective outrage about our current situation? Why isn’t any of this being discussed more? There are certainly many reasons behind that, some of which go well beyond the comic industry and reflect America’s current climate and the changing (and perhaps diminishing) discourse on race, but the biggest factor may simply be a lack of voices… In short, the women at the forefront of this discussion, by making their voices heard, have improved the industry.” During the past year, the comics industry has been made just a little safer for white women. While there is still great resistance among some readers and executives against anything they deem “PC,” many others have responded positively to the acknowledgement that women are a part of comics, too.

So how do we make comics a little safer for everyone else? By talking about it. By pre-ordering the titles that are trying. By demanding more that try. We need to normalize the idea that people of color also read comics and also deserve to see themselves reflected not just on the pages of their comics, but in the list of credits. Women have been at the forefront of the conversation changing gender in comics, but we shouldn’t have to wait for the voices of people of color to be heard before white people try talking, too. If you think the inclusion of white women in mainstream comics is important, then you have to feel the same way about the inclusion of people of color. And you have to talk about it, not for people of color, but with them.

As Joseph Hughes is right to point out, the lack of discussion about race in comics is indicative of the country’s disinterest in racial discourse more generally. But wouldn’t it be great if the comics industry could be more progressive than the rest of the country, instead of perpetually right of center? And wouldn’t it be great if in the future, comics movies lead the way in fighting both racism and sexism by making the Black Panther, Carol Danvers, Wonder Woman, Storm movies the world would love? Wouldn’t those SDCC announcements be less disappointing than this year’s? Change starts somewhere, and it doesn’t start with colorblindness or silence.

-Joanna

Mara and Our Toxic Future

In the criminally under-discussed miniseries Mara, writer Brian Wood and artist Ming Doyle tell a superhero origin story that explores the consequences of celebrity culture, militarization, and the effects of a world that runs on both.

There is so much I love, that is perfect about this book. I’m an unashamed Ming Doyle fangirl, and am beginning to love Brian Wood as well. The fifth issue (of six) came out this week, and it did not disappoint. Every month I’ve wondered where this brilliant story was going, with its understated tone and thoughtful pacing. How would Mara choose to use her newly-discovered superpowers?

Unlike the superheroes of the Big Two, Mara Prince exists in a stark, realistic version of Earth’s future. When the story begins, Mara is a superstar volleyball player, in a future where athletes armed with billion-dollar endorsements play each other for the glory of their countries.

The first game we see Mara playing is sponsored by Uninational Oil and Gas, the Army, “and with platinum sponsorship by the Grand Colonial Heritage fund, and the Pax Organization for Excellence in Physical Fitness.” These sponsors are an interesting collection of organizations, and their involvement speaks volumes about Mara’s world. The book makes a telling connection between sports culture and the military, one that reflects the realities of our world.

The narration in the first issue sets up the link between corporations, the military, sports, and celebrity culture: “When Mara Prince was a toddler the world was consumed with endless wars, crumbling economies, and destructive racial divides. The nation compensated with an almost hyper-exaggeration on sports and physical prowess… Corporations flourished as advertising and merchandising took off. Enlistment in the armed forces similarly benefitted…”

The world of Mara is one I can easily picture as a future version of our own. There is a lot of dystopian fiction in film and literature right now, and not all of it explores the unpleasant realities of our present through the suggestion of our future (which is kind of the point of dystopias, but I digress). Mara is unafraid to force us to think about how our world might be creating that of Mara Prince, how we ourselves might be implicated in this future. Furthermore, this future seems thoroughly possible, given the way that athletes, militarism, corporations, and the actions of all three seem almost sacred in our world.

Perhaps the most unthinkable aspect of this sports culture is that it includes women. Mara is not simply a superstar in her marginalized women’s league. Mara is the most famous, the most beloved, the most sought-after athlete in the world. Despite how terrifying this sports culture is, I love that Brian Wood envisioned a future where women’s athleticism is valued. And I love that, despite this, this world and its sports and celebrity cultures are still toxic. Worshiping female athletes isn’t necessarily better than worshiping male athletes.

In many ways, the amount of control that corporations and governments (and their militaries) have over their celebrities is best criticized and explored through the usage of a female protagonist. While male celebrities also are forced into a constant spotlight, female celebrities are scrutinized at a more exacting level. This scrutiny is exaggerated in Mara’s world; Mara is trained from the age of 2, and, once she begins showing signs of her superpowers, is coerced into being studied as a weapon for the military.

Eventually, rejecting the commodification and weaponization of her self and image, Mara goes rogue (I’ll leave out the details for anyone who hasn’t read the most recent issue). In a brilliant, chilling monologue, Mara condemns this world for treating her like a “threat,” and for trying to take from her “my body, my soul, and my freedom.” Having a woman assert her physical and psychological autonomy in such a powerful and, frankly, quietly angry way is exciting and refreshing.

In conclusion, pick up this book! It’s a fresh, interesting, beautifully rendered meditation on our world and what it may become.

-Joanna

Costumes, Costumes, Costumes

Regular readers will probably have noticed it’s been a bit of a ghost town recently around here. My excuse is, holy shit my thesis. But I’m back (today, anyway) for the one-year anniversary post about (what else) comics!

Now, after giving up on AvsX, I haven’t been paying too much attention to what Marvel’s been doing lately. (Again, holy fucking thesis). I do know that Marvel is relaunching Uncanny X-Force, and the updated costumes rock. Storm’s mohawk is back, and Psylocke gave up the bathing suit!

Comics Alliance interviewed the writer and artist about the new costumes, and guess what? They thought about practicality and character personalities when designing the new costumes! I thought the day would never come. Artist Kris Anka had this to say: “I felt that every costume should not only highlight the personality of the character it is wrapped around, but also of the function that the costumes will serve towards.” For this reason, Psylocke was given an outfit she wouldn’t be “falling out” in, and they took away her heels. While I’m extremely supportive of this change, I wish it hadn’t just been made with Psylocke. The other female team members also, despite not being ninjas, need “mobility,” so those wedge shoes need to go. It’s disappointing that in a design so heavily focused on functionality, wedge heels still make the cut.

They look great on Storm’s new costume (which I love! someone cosplay it! immediately!), and emphasize her regal posture, but since realism was a factor in the design, it falls a little short. It’s also one of those moments where I wish someone asked a woman what she thought of the design. Aesthetically it’s wonderful, but, again, these costumes were supposed to be more than just pretty.

Interestingly, the female version of Fantomex has smaller wedge heels than Storm:

This means that they considered that two female characters might choose different heel heights, but still decided that they would both choose heels.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the new costumes and the new team, including the 4:2 female-to-male ratio. Kudos to Anka and Humphries for making my week better after it was ruined by seeing this gross chained-up Storm cover of Wolverine and the X-Men. Also, kudos to commenters on the Comics Alliance article for suggesting Storm’s hair be left natural, and even posting this cool picture of a natural mohawk.

And, in case reading about these costume changes is getting you in the mood for making your own costumes, there’s a great site called Take Back Halloween that catalogs really cool costume ideas and how-tos for women who aren’t interested in the generic Sexy Version of Whatever Men are Wearing style of Halloween costumes.

Til next time!

-Joanna

‘Gambit’ and the Female Gaze

So, I banned myself from writing about comics this week, but here we are anyway.

Before I read the first issue of Gambit, I was curious what I would find between its covers. In an interview with Comics Alliance, writer James Asmus said, “Gambit really is one of the few explicitly sexy male characters in mainstream comics, and that’s a major part of how I envision this book. Luckily, our artist on the book is Clay Mann. And he completely taps into the easy cool and good looks that help make Gambit such man-candy to his fans.” (Also, Asmus said he has actually lived in Louisiana and known actual Cajuns, and therefore won’t have to rely on “other fictional portrayals of the culture,” which is amazing for a whole ‘nother set of reasons, fit for a whole ‘nother post.)

The idea of putting Gambit’s sex appeal at the forefront of the book was extremely interesting to me, for a probably fairly obvious reason: superheroines are primarily sexy all the time, regardless of how much sex appeal their characters actually have, but superheroes are rarely sexy first and foremost, even when their characters have a lot of sex appeal. Also, James Asmus thinks that Gambit’s “fans” think he’s man-candy. This means Asmus understands that not every single comics reader is a straight man. Which blows my mind in the most unreasonable way.

And then there were hints of a shower scene! Be still, my beating heart!

Fast forward to the release of issue 1. What do we open with? Naked Gambit in a naked shower! Hurray, world! Four thousand points to feminism, right?

Sort of. What I find most interesting about the way Gambit is drawn is that his sexiness manages to be both overt and subtle at the same time. His character also manages to be sexy without being objectified.

Let’s go back to that shower scene.  In the first panel, we get all of naked Gambit that’s fit to print. (Meaning, he’s positioned so he isn’t facing us, so sorry, but no genitals.) Then we see various body parts of Gambit as he gets out of the shower, all leading up to the panel where he’s toweling off his hair in the buff, with a picture frame covering (just) his crotch. This panel is extremely erotic, I think, and in part because it balances subtlety and overt sexiness so well. The placement of that picture frame at the same time conceals and emphasizes what we all know is there anyway. And then the final panel gives us a gleaming shot of Gambit’s muscley manly-man back.

First page of Gambit #1

This is all pretty hot-and-bother-inducing, yet, does it differ from superheroine shower scenes? Do I find this portrayal sexy, but not creepy, simply because I’m not a man and am unused to seeing naked men in comics?

I don’t think so. One of the major reasons why objectification of women’s bodies is so harmful, is that it teaches us that women are interchangeable. The eroticism associated with a woman’s body is unrelated to her as a person; she is sexy because she has a cis woman’s body, not because she is a sexy person. And yet, in this first page, this snapshot of Gambit is very intimate, in every sense of the word. It’s not just that we’re seeing him naked, it’s that we’re being introduced to him as naked, and, while he is naked, we are putting together pieces of his life. In the panel with the picture frames, we’re looking at Gambit’s not-penis while also looking at the picture in the foreground of Gambit and Rogue. These things are associated directly. We’re not just looking at a naked attractive man; we’re looking a specific naked attractive man, one who we are trying to get to know. His naked shower scene is actually advancing story and character. This is inherently different to the idea of objectification, which, in addition to being gratuitous, teaches us that women (or men, but usually women) are sexual objects, not sexual people.

Throughout the first two issues, most of the time Gambit keeps his clothes on, and leaves his sex appeal to be channeled through his words and actions. However, even when clothed, Gambit’s posture and placement are much sexier than that of most male comics characters. He’ll lounge topless, looking devil-may-care, while having a conversation about that thing that got stuck in his chest (long story). Which brings me to another distinction between the sexiness of Gambit and the traditional sexiness of women in media, particularly when catering to the male gaze. Women’s sex appeal usually slows down the plot, allows for a pause in the story, and is never used for the advancement of anything, really. But Gambit’s sex appeal functions as part of the story. It keeps pace with the story, rather than slowing it down. Consequently, it seems natural and necessary. I can hardly imagine this book being the same without these poses and angles.

The one reservation, sex appeal-wise, I have about this series is actually his female antagonist/partner. In the first issue, I actually liked how she looked. She had a cute, rockabilly sort of style, and she wasn’t drawn in gratuitously sexy poses or angles.

But, I’m not sure that’s going to stay that way. Issue 2 had a cover which, though hardly the creepiest cover I’ve ever seen, was still somewhat problematic, with the shot of Gambit surrounded by the cut-out silhouette of a sexy woman, presumably his new acquaintance.

Cover of Gambit #2

When we met this woman, she had personality and style, but now that’s she’s on the cover, she’s just a hot body. Next week’s #3 isn’t looking too much better, considering that apparently she decides to wear short-shorts and a belly shirt when they go do secret-adventurey things in Guatemala.

While the objectification of the female character in the series is tremendously less bad than in most mainstream comics, it’s still objectification to some degree. The series manages to make their male character a sexy person, yet fails to emphasize that the sexy woman is a sexy person. It leaves me to feel disappointed and strangely apologetic at the same time. I’m forced to say, “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it’s not that bad, but it’s still noticeable!” Which is an annoying thing to have to say.

My theory is that they excel at keeping Gambit’s sex appeal without objectifying him precisely because he is male. When female objectification is the norm, it’s difficult to make a specifically sexy character without falling back to the same old tropes. And when you’re a man, I imagine it might be more difficult to spot the difference between mild objectification and sex appeal.

I’m not opposed to sex appeal in comics, especially when that seems to be at the heart of the series. And I really am enjoying the “man-candy.” But objectification, male or female, is something comics needs to learn to avoid. My suggestion? Do what you’re doing with Gambit, but do it with the female character, too. Include her sex appeal in ways that are interesting and advance the story or character. Cater equally to the male and female gazes, so that sexiness seems natural.

Or, at least, put Gambit in booty shorts and we can call it even.

-Joanna

Follow-Up Time!

This week’s lazy post is brought to you by A Couple Things I’ve Posted About in the Past Have Updates I’d Like to Share.

First off, remember when I told every single one of you to see the documentary The Invisible War? Well, now no one has any excuse not to, unless they don’t have internet access or $4.99.  The filmmakers are doing a special online screening of the film, with a live chat with director Kirby Dick to follow. Unfortunately I think you have to sign up to watch it by using their Facebook app (so that might be another obstacle), but it’s worth creating a Facebook account just to see this movie. I’m not entirely sure how they’re streaming it, but in any case, head on over to the film’s Facebook page for more info.

I also reposted an article about superhero body diversity. The artists who, in the article, were ranking and discussing the bodies of all the superheroes were male. Andrew Wheeler did a second one, this time with female artists.  It’s interesting to see the differences and similarities in the perception of superhero bodies between male and female artists. I would also say that, overall, the female artists were more unified in their understanding of the superheroine bodies, and more willing to actually think about things like bust/butt sizes based on the characters’ athletic training. I’m really glad that both of these articles happened.

Also by Andrew Wheeler (can you tell he’s my favorite Comics Alliance writer?), is this great look at diversity in comics and why it matters. That’s not really a follow-up, but it’s still great and you should read it.

That’s all, folks! Hopefully next week I’ll have a real post. Til then!

-Joanna

An Unsurprisingly Insensitive Superhero Fight, Domestic Violence-Style

Apologies to the world for my spotty posting as of late. My non-internet life has been pretty busy recently with various things, not least of which is my sister’s conversion to Islam, decision to wear hijab, and the inevitable fragmentation of my family as a result. (Other events include: a planned vacation, an attempt to rid myself of internet addiction, an upcoming concert, the first week of classes, video games, and being really poor all the time.)

My return post is, surprise surprise, about Storm and Black Panther. Specifically, Why It Makes Me Feel Skeevy That Storm and Black Panther Are Going to Fisticuffs.

For those of you who aren’t following the Avengers vs. X-Men, Marvel’s giant summer money-making scheme tie-in event, Black Panther and Storm broke up. By that I mean, BP acted like a jerk and annulled the marriage behind Storm’s back. So now, in the tie-in to the tie-in, Vs., a limited series that showcases plotless superhero fights, BP and Storm are hashing it out.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the underlying reason why this makes me uncomfortable: they’re a recently-divorced couple who are physically fighting each other to deal with their marital issues.

Seriously, Marvel?

I’m not going to say that there’s no way that a comic could use what is essentially domestic violence in a way that is meaningful, insightful, and interesting. But this is AvsX: VS, and that was just never going to happen.

The first thing that could have made this less skeevy-feeling is not allowing Black Panther to prevent Storm from using her weather powers. Without those powers, they’re forced to go to actual fisticuffs, rather than allowing the melee/ranged difference between the character’s fighting styles as a buffer to prevent it from devolving into a husband/wife fistfight disguised as emotional depth.

Another mistake: making it about their marriage rather than about the big superhero war that enabled the divorce.


When Storm says, “this is about you and me,” this issue abandons any hope of not making me feel skeevy.  At that point, we really are watching a husband and wife beat each other up over their relationship. What’s worse, that last panel just looks like Marvel isn’t taking this very seriously. Maybe it’s the art, but to me that punch looks a lot like a punchline, or at the very least an invitation to snicker, or to enthusiastically take a side. I don’t want to cheer on either of these fighters. The whole fight just makes me sad.

Later we get a thought from Storm: “If we’d only had children, maybe things would’ve been different.” Really? Really? This is how the writers are exploring the emotional depths of a woman who just got her marriage annulled behind her back and is now fighting her ex-husband?

And then there’s this page:

I hate how Wakandans show up, just so they can make Storm feel guilty for leaving. As if Storm didn’t look enough like a bully in this issue.

At the very least, there is no winner in this fight. (Vs. normally declares a winner after every fight.) Still, Marvel screwed up an opportunity with a lot of potential to show that it prints writing that actually has emotional depth and sensitivity.

The only way to make this worse is to bring them back together at the end of AvsX. I don’t want two people to get together after they felt the need to go to physical violence to properly end their marriage. That is an unhealthy relationship. So unhealthy that if Marvel glosses over this, should they choose to bring them back together, I will be very upset. If we’re supposed to celebrate their getting back together, expect an angry rant to appear on the blog.

Also, I think it needs to be said that Marvel needs to be careful what stereotypes about black people it reinforces with things like this. Again, not something you need to be a genius to understand. Or, at least, you only need to have a modicum of emotional sensibility to understand.

So, this final death knell for Storm and Black Panther’s relationship hammered the last nail in the coffin for my interest in this series. Fuck this noise, Marvel. Seriously.

-Joanna

 

Repost: Superhero Bodies and What Real Athletes Look Like

Here’s a re-post courtesy of Andrew Wheeler at Comics Alliance. It makes good points. Read it.

There are certain phrases that have a special resonance for a Marvel kid like me. “Pocket dimension.” “Lift (press).” “Marital status: unrevealed.” This is the language of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and I used to pore over the pages of those little encyclopedias like I thought there was an exam coming. (I would have aced the Alien Races paper.) One phrase that came up a lot was “Olympic class athlete,” used to describe characters with peak human abilities. For example, Nightcrawler is an Olympic-class acrobat, even though that’s not a real thing unless you count opening ceremonies.

Thanks to the current games in London we’re all getting a refresher on what Olympic athletes actually look like – and they look like a lot of very different people. They look like wrestlers, sprinters, fencers, weightlifters, boxers, shot-putters, rowers, marathon runners, judokas, pentathletes, swimmers, beach volleyball players, cyclists and a lot more besides. In fact, they seem a lot more varied than the characters in the pages of most super-books. So are superhero comics getting it wrong?

A couple of years ago Bongo Comics artist Nina Matsumoto posted scans to her blog from a book called The Athlete, by Beverly Ornstein and Howard Schatz. The scans show photos of athletes standing side-by-side in black underwear; some tall, some short, some wide, some narrow, some ripped, some skinny. Matsumoto headlined the post “athletic body diversity reference for artists.” As with the current Olympics, the book shows that physically fit people come in a range of shapes and sizes – and by showing the athletes side-by-side and dressed alike, it communicates the idea concisely.

For a lot of comic artists these photos were eye-opening. Body diversity is a rarity in comics. There are exceptions – guys like Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Beast stand out because uniqueness is part of the X-Men’s core concept – but most members of the Justice League or the Avengers would be hard to tell apart in silhouette without their costumes. That’s not necessarily an accident. Even when character design is meant to be distinctive, an artist’s style will often take precedence. Uniformity can be an artist’s hallmark.

But it would be generous to assume that uniformity is always a stylistic choice. Over-reliance on the same basic models seems to be a crutch for a lot of superhero artists.

I asked four comic artists who don’t have this problem to help me with a simple exercise. Kalman Andrasofszky, cover artist for X-Treme X-Men; Ramón Pérez, recent Eisner winner for Tale of Sand; Jamie McKelvie, artist on Defenders; and Marcus To, artist on Batwing, all have a track record of making their characters look distinctive. I gave them a list of eight superheroes and asked them to rank them by size and match them to athletic body types to see if there was a consensus about what these superheroes should look like.

The heroes were Batman, Captain America, Flash, Namor, Nightwing, Spider-Man, Superman and Thor. All eight could conceivably be drawn on the same frame. So where did these artists place them on a scale from largest to smallest?

(The images shown here are illustrative for this article. The artists were not provided with any reference.)

Strikingly, Ramón Pérez and Jamie McKelvie gave exactly the same answers, while Marcus To flipped the order of only two characters, Flash and Nightwing. Kalman Andrasofszky looks like an outlier, but he only placed Namor and Spider-Man two places higher than everyone else. All four artists agree that Thor is bigger than Superman, Superman is bigger than Captain America, and Captain America is bigger than Batman. Nightwing, Flash and Spider-Man are all at the smaller end of the scale.

When it came to applying an athletic body type, the consensus among the artists was that Thor is a bodybuilder type. Pérez and To put Superman down as having an American football player’s build, and McKelvie noted, “Logically, of course, Superman’s power has nothing to do with his muscles, but I think an imposing frame on someone who doesn’t use his power to oppress is part of his point.”

Captain America is a boxer or a rugby player, though Andrasofszky suggested a marine’s physique. All three types could be described as compactly muscular. Because Batman is an all-rounder, he was tagged as either a triathlete or a mixed martial artist. Namor, unsurprisingly, was labelled a swimmer-type by three artists, though Andrasofszky’s ranking suggests a bulkier build. The character is more of a brawler than a speedster, so a water polo physique might fit.

Also unsurprisingly, three of four artists labelled Flash a sprinter, though Andrasofszky again dissented, suggesting he would be a speed skater; “little bitty guy up top with these massive, rippling thighs and calves.” Nightwing is typically thought of as a gymnast, but real gymnasts are often shorter and broader than Dick Grayson, so Pérez tagged him as another swimmer and McKelvie classed him as a martial artist. As for Spider-Man; Andrasofszky said swimmer, McKelvie said gymnast – “but on the wiry side,” To said “marathon runner,” and Pérez said “nerd,” which we’re sorry to report is not a recognized Olympic discipline.

The four artists seemed close enough in their assessments to suggest that there’s a clear understanding of how these characters should look, and they can’t all be filed under a single superhero type.

So what about the women? The challenge to distinguish between silhouettes is arguably tougher for female superheroes, because their bodies are subject to a different kind of interest from the typical superhero reader. The female athletes competing at the London Olympics are a diverse bunch, but the women in a Victoria’s Secret catalog are more likely to conform to type, and superwomen have traditionally been modelled more on the latter group than the former.

I asked the four artists to repeat the ranking exercise with eight female heroes; Catwoman, Invisible Woman, Power Girl, Psylocke, Shadowcat, She-Hulk, Supergirl and Wonder Woman. Here are the results:

With the women there’s less clarity and less agreement. Everyone put She-Hulk first, but that seems like the gimme. Everyone put Wonder Woman and Power Girl in second and third, with only Kalman Andrasofszky reversing their order. After that it gets more scattered. Catwoman is either fourth or fifth. Psylocke is fourth, fifth or seventh. Supergirl is fifth, sixth or seventh. Sue Storm is sixth, seventh or last, though three of the artists agreed that Shadowcat is the smallest of the women.

So what athletic types would the artists match these women to? Just like Thor, everyone saw She-Hulk as a bodybuilder. Andrasofszky put Power Girl and Wonder Woman in the same category but in a different weight class, and Jamie McKelvie said that Wonder Woman could do with “a bit more muscle” than she’s usually shown with. Marcus To classed Wonder Woman as a mixed martial artist, while Ramón Pérez said she’s an aerobic gymnast. Power Girl is a swimmer according to Pérez and a weightlifter according to McKelvie.

Psylocke is probably a martial artist, but Pérez suggested figure skater. Catwoman is probably a gymnast, but To offered cyclist. Andrasofszky thought that Supergirl would have bigger muscles than either Psylocke or Catwoman, but that her youth would make her smaller than either of them. Pérez thought she was a swimmer and To thought she was a basketball player. (I can’t help but think of her as a tennis player, but that may just be because of the skirt.) Given that Power Girl and Supergirl are two versions of the same character, it’s notable that only To placed them close together.

Invisible Woman and Shadowcat each come near the end of the list three times out of four, probably because they have non-contact powers. Marcus To had Sue Storm as a soccer player; McKelvie said she’s “just generally in shape”; Andrasofszky categorized her as “MILF,” which, again, is not a recognized sporting discipline. Shadowcat is a rhythmic gymnast by Pérez’s reckoning; To described her as a roller derby jammer.

That there’s less agreement on the women both in terms of ranking their size and determining their type suggests that the comic industry does not do a good job of distinguishing female body types. That’s probably not news worth holding the front page for. Male heroes aren’t always drawn distinctively, but the distinctions are widely understood. For female heroes there’s less of a clear idea of what they’re meant to be, because very few female characters look like She-Hulk or Shadowcat.

The Olympics show us an extraordinary range of female bodies, but even within the Olympics there has been controversy about what women “should” look like. Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was criticized by the media for her weight; American hurdler Lolo Jones was accused of looking too good; and weightlifter Zoe Smith was trolled for not looking good enough. Smith brilliantly hit back by writing “what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?”

Clockwise from top left: Beach volleyball player, wrestler, sprinter, weightlifter, gymnast, shot-putter, all at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Body criticism of Olympic athletes seems especially inane given that these athletes get the bodies they need for the sport they dedicate their lives to. They exercise to be good, not to look good, which makes them very different to actors and models who focus on what Details calls “vanity muscles” rather than work muscles.

Superheroes have the ultimate vanity muscles, because they never use their bodies at all. They exist only to be seen, and their physiques are conjured from an inkwell. That may be why we’ve arrived at a uniform look that’s based more on the men and women we see in ads, on TV and in movies than on the men and women we see on the track, on the court and in the water.

Fantasy and glamour is important to superhero fiction. As McKelvie noted, Superman’s power has nothing to do with his physique. A lot of heroes are artificially enhanced by science, magic or mutation, including four of the women and six of the men on my lists. Superhero comics are not meant to be real. So does it matter that superheroes have diverse bodies?

All four of the artists I spoke to agree that it does, and they all gave the same reason; design speaks to character. As Pérez put it, “The body of a character, from musculature, to lack thereof, to posture, to gait … tell us a lot about the individual. When defining characters I try to make them as unique as possible from head to toe.”

Andrasofszky adds; “A character’s physique tells as much about them as their face or their outfit.” He acknowledges that “some fans prefer generic gorgeousness, and there’s the concept Scott McCloud popularized, that the simpler and more iconic a character, the easier it is for anyone to identify with them,” but for his own art he prefers to vary physiques.

“Superheroes are idealised, but there’s not any one specific ideal, and I think they should reflect that,” says McKelvie. Adds To, “If everyone looked the same I don’t think it would be as visually appealing to the eye.

Superhero characters are products of design. If design matters, there should be some consistency in a character’s look from one artist to the next – and some inconsistency between characters from a single artist. It should matter that She-Hlk is big and Shadowcat is slender. It should matter that Superman is bigger than Batman. It should matter that Power Girl doesn’t look like Supergirl, and it should matter that Spider-Man won’t be confused for Captain America in the dark. If design matters, if character matters, then diversity matters. Superheroes shouldn’t have to look like Olympians, but they should look as diverse as Olympians do.