One Fan's Opinion: Issue #40

Fri, June 2nd, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

More nonsense.

A couple letters gave me cause to pause. This is an unusual event! Usually those taking exception to something I've written here opt to post on their blogs or snipe amongst each other rather than directly let me know that they think I've said something out of line. Some points that I made earlier may need further clarification, it seems.

Indulge me, won't you?

In regards to things being blown out of proportion and being misquoted or misinterpreted, you should know that I generally talk and write in a certain relaxed, conversational manner. I tend to be pretty informal and often somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes folks take an offhanded comment or joke or isolated sentence and take it literally (as well as out of context) and it gets fired back and forth all over the Internet.

What fun!

Naturally, nobody's forced to take in an entire message at once and consider it all in its entirety. You're free to do as you please, but if you do take things out of context, be prepared to have others call you on it.

The whole costume conversation got a few folks worked up.

Last time out I had opted to defend superhero costume designs -- a dubious option, I'll grant you, but kind of fun given the ridiculous costumes foisted on all too many characters both male and female.

The opposing view (at least as articulated in the letter I received) is that while most male costumes are the result of either tradition (Superman, Robin or even J'onn Jones) or have costumes designed for the sake of effect or intimidation (Batman, Spider-Man), female characters are -- almost exclusively -- costumes designed to arouse males.

There is something to that, to be sure, but really, if you're going to excuse costumes as being "traditional," then you're doing your argument a tremendous disservice. Wonder Woman would be part of that "tradition" after all, as would the Phantom Lady and J'onn Jones wears less than many females (the Phantom Girl included). Many characters from the '40s, both male and female showed a lot of skin. Namor wears swimming trunks -- and briefs at that -- and Hawkman wears less clothing than Hawkwoman.

True, a lot of women's costumes are designed to be sexy. Few female costumes are intimidating. But few male costumes are truly intimidating as well. The much-cited examples of Wolverine and Batman both have underwear on the outside of their pants! Who's intimidated by that? And let's not forget Robin with his naked legs and Subby in his Speedos. I think a lot of people conveniently forget about or intentionally ignore characters that don't support their argument, both male and female. Catwoman has, at times, been clothed from head to toe and had fairly restrained proportions. The Invisible Woman wears the same costume as the rest of the team -- she wears more clothes than the Thing. The Silver Surfer is buck naked!

My point -- and I do have one -- is that the vast bulk of superhero costumes are ridiculous -- period.

Yes, few males wear high heels in comics, but look around -- few males wear high heels in reality as well. True, female characters are often posed in ways that are supposed to be provocative, regardless of what else is going on in the story, but often not as well. Some artists do pander and some readers do respond to that pandering with open wallets. Is it necessarily bad to give readers what they want even if it means some ridiculously awkward fight scenes?

I dunno.

I mean, there have been a number of gruesome torture scenes involving ripe young females squirming and arching their bodies in poses designed to titillate. That's caused a few women to get bent out of shape and pissed off at the comic book industry as a whole, as if every person involved in the creative process, on every book from every publisher was guilty of perpetrating the very deed that was depicted.

And that's not entirely fair.

Which isn't to say that it's "right" to depict such things either, but people do get tortured on occasion so it's not entirely unrealistic (although they seldom look "sexy" in the process, I'll grant you). And I don't think anybody would argue that it's better to actually perpetrate such things than to read about such things. If your creepy cousin Chester can get his rocks off to a Matt Baker drawing of a supple female in bondage as opposed to snatching somebody's daughter and hauling her into a darkened alley, then it could be argued that maybe ol' Matt was performing a public service.

But is this all about "realism?" People clip their toenails in reality and go to the bathroom in reality and masturbate to porn in reality and those events are seldom depicted in superhero comic books. "Realists" object to women wearing high heels in comics, but there are hundreds of "unrealistic" things in comics and women do wear high heels in the real world from time to time.

I'm not saying that we can't do better. I'm not saying we shouldn't try to do better. I'm not excusing anybody. But I also don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to make candy bars for people that would like to buy candy bars.

I also get a kick out of some of the more traditional-yet-ridiculous aspects of comics, fighting girls in high heels and miniskirts among them (Rita Farr, being the queen of the ridiculous -- as Elasti-Girl she wore high heels and a miniskirt and became giant-sized giving everybody on the street ample opportunity to see how recently she last changed her delicate feminine undergarments).

It makes me laugh.

I love all the odd, quirky, unrealistic and bizarre comic book trappings. The domino masks that couldn't possibly fool anybody, the bright red and blue costumes worn under street clothes (you try to wear a wife-beater with a bright red Superman "S" under a white button-up shirt at some point and check out the results), talking in space, seeing events with telescoping vision light years across the galaxy as they happen, hidden laboratories that couldn't possibly have been built undetected by the populace and all the rest. I lovingly embrace the goofy aspects of superhero comics! I believe it is possible to deliver a well thought out soliloquy in mid-jump between one point and the next. I like a world where there's only one time zone and everybody from every dimension can speak perfect English.

Face it, folks, superhero comic books aren't realistic.

Get used to it.

And while you're bitching about the abundance of well-endowed women, bitch about the model-handsome men with well-defined six packs while you're at it.

The truth of the matter is that there's a huge shortage of heroic ugly people in comics.

There's also a huge shortage of ugly people in Hollywood.

And do you really think that people would embrace comics or movies filled with ugly people just because it reflects the world we live in? Most readers want to read comics about attractive people. Most people go to movies starring attractive people. Most people aspire to have attractive mates. Women wear makeup and tight dresses and high heels to be more attractive.

Are we all that shallow? Maybe so. But I don't think it's necessarily "wrong" that a man will give a second glance to an attractive woman, but not an unattractive one. The reason they're called "attractive" is because people are attracted to them.

If somebody dresses in a way to provoke, is it wrong to be provoked? If you wear a dress with the neckline plunging down to your navel, somebody's going to give you a once over. If you walk down the street in your birthday suit, people will look. Is the person looking at fault? I've heard women get incensed about men checking them out when they're clearly dressing to get the attention that they've gotten.

And somebody's going to get on my case about that statement.

Sigh.

My call was for "more diversity." I bemoaned creators drawing all characters as though they were Barbie regardless of their ethnicity. My point was, essentially, to suggest creators balance things. If you have a busty woman in a book, consider not having other characters be busty as well. The Phantom Lady should not have the same build as Wonder Woman or Kitty Pryde or Little Lulu.

And the same goes for the guys.

Captain America and Savage Dragon shouldn't look like the same guy in different clothes. Cap should be built human in proportion -- Dragon should not. Dragon is built like an upside down flood lamp. His shoulders and arms should be impossibly large and his fists should be the size of his head. Dragon should look top-heavy and inhuman. Dragon and Cap's legs should be similar (but keep in mind Captain America is an athlete, not a body builder -- he has to be able to fight, not just flex) but otherwise, they shouldn't look too much like each other. Cap should be a good four inches taller than Dragon. Cap is 6'2", Dragon is 5'10".

Wolverine is supposed to be short.

There was a Neal Adams cover that depicted a number of characters and the editors at DC thought was terrific -- and it was a nice drawing -- but it exposed a certain flaw in DC's character design at that time -- all of the characters depicted had virtually identical builds.

And that really illustrates my initial point. My complaint was that far too many characters in comics are essentially, identical, with only slight variations in the way they dress.

Over the years we've expanded the repertoire. Marvel Comics and Jack Kirby in particular blazed the path with the massive forms of the Hulk and the Thing and the Blob and others who didn't conform to the cookie-cutter norm of the interchangeable DC heroes. I encouraged DC artists to stick to their guns and let the Phantom Lady and Power Girl look like themselves and I applauded Larry Stroman for taking a huge stride when he designed characters for his book "Tribe."

We can do better. In animation, one of the things designers get drummed into their skulls is giving characters distinctive silhouettes and that should be true in comic books as well. Characters should have big butts and little butts and broad shoulders and narrow shoulders and flat stomachs and fat stomachs.

Yes, the example of the Phantom Lady (and Lady Death and Power Girl) tend to make certain individuals get their panties in a bunch, but praising creators for daring to let Kitty Pryde look like something other than your quintessential buxom bathing beauty or turning back the clock to let Spider-Man look rail thin or allowing the Hulk to look hulking would have worked just as well.

But then, if I didn't get people all worked up, I wouldn't get much mail or people bellyaching and where's the fun in that?

In any case, my point was -- and is -- that I think it would be a good thing if comic book characters could be distinguished by something other than simply their colorful leotards. It would be nice if people looked different from their features to their forms -- just like here in the real world.

But that's just one fan's opinion and I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

Can this be the last column I write about this?

Please?

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