What's So Sexy About a Broken Spine?

The problem with comic art isn't the fact that women don’t look like that in real life. The problem is that artists' idea of a stylized fantasy woman is "put all the naughty bits on the front so we can see them at the same time."

Nov 4, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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As a person who has boobs and loves comic books (although not usually superhero comics), I am endlessly amused/enraged by the perennial discussion over how women are portrayed in comic art.

Most recently, the Internet led me to this oldish post at Jezebel (warning: includes sexy Spider Jerusalem, which you cannot unsee), and it paid off: The comments linked to this post about the 40 worst Rob Liefeld drawings, a piece of towering literary genius that I will read any time I see it even though it’s 30,000 pages long because it’s so all-fired entertaining, and also linked to Escher Girls. So that’s been my free time this week.

Escher Girls is a Tumblr that collects the most egregious examples of the anatomical disasters comic artists perpetrate on their female creations. Many of them are the classic “boob and butt simultaneously” pose that you may recognize from Kate Beaton, Carly Monardo and Meredith Gran’s Strong Female Characters. If you can’t tell how skeleton-bending the pose is right away, maybe by attempting to replicate it in a mirror, check out Gran struggling to picture what it might look like from the other side.

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Escher Girls author Ami, who unfortunately for me is hilarious (I could have stopped reading the archives if it was all just pictures of boobs) has said on the site that people frequently defend these miscarriages of anatomy on artistic grounds. “What’s the big deal, it’s just an artistic style” would be an acceptable, if a little anti-intellectual, rebuttal to someone criticizing Modigliani’s necks or Botero’s butts or Picasso’s... whole thing just because they’re not lifelike.
 
So why not comic book characters? I mean, it’s not like it’s a realistic art form -- men don’t look like Wolverine in real life either. It’s fantasy, and cartoon fantasy at that.

This is a good way of shutting down the discussion, anyway. But if you’re a little more thoughtful, that line of defense raises the question: WHY is this the artistic style employed to draw sexy ladies? Why does this broken-spine pose say “sexy”? It’s probably not because most red-blooded men prefer a woman who’s suffering from lordosis and scoliosis simultaneously.

This is not a rhetorical question, but it’s not hard either: The boobs-and-butt pose signifies sexiness because BOOBS AND BUTT. You can see both at the same time, like you’re some kind of secondary sex characteristics Panopticon!
 
That’s really the problem  -- it’s not the fact that women don’t look like that in real life, it’s that when these artists draw a stylized fantasy woman, they stylize her by foregrounding all her naughty bits. Even when they’re drawing a woman of superhuman strength, agility and toughness, the artists choose to signify that with... exaggerated T&A. Yeah, that really screams "hero" to me. 
 
Not that you can’t have enormous knockers and still kick ass, because of course you can, but it’s not like these are actual women who can’t help what size bra they wear. These characters are designed this way on purpose. The artist chose what he or she or let’s be honest he wanted to emphasize in order to best denote his creation’s abilities and personality, and the answer was a resounding “booooobs.”

(Also, you probably CAN’T have enormous knockers and a 16-inch waist that’s prone to swinging around 180 degrees to keep your buttocks in frame and still kick ass. You can’t. I’m sorry. You can’t kick ass bent in half. The ONLY reason you would be bent in half is so people can look at all your bits without moving their heads, and also maybe if your superpower was being in Cirque du Soleil.)

Men in comic art are exaggerated too, but super-strong characters have exaggerated muscles and exaggerated physical size, which makes sense. And they don’t have to be contorted in order for their physiques to convey that they’re strong -- you show strength best by having people stand straight. Supposedly super-strong, super-competent female characters don’t get those strength signifiers, though; they get giant boobs, pointed toes, and uncomfortable spine twists.
 
That makes sense for America’s Next Top Model, but not really for Captain America. Or, by extension, for Captain Lady Mrs. America.

The real male equivalent of these sexy poses isn’t a big muscular Superman (or Spider Jerusalem) standing with a cocked hip and a weirdly canted torso, although those are always hilarious to look at. (Here’s some more! Also, that blog post is awesome by the way.) It’s Superman with no muscles and a GIANT PACKAGE, posed so that he can somehow have the upper half of his torso in the classic horizontal flying position yet still be aiming his junk at the viewer.
 
Oh, and can you work out a way for us to see bulge AND both ass cheeks? Not possible outside of some kind of Lovecraftian nightmare anatomy? Well, make it happen anyway, mama knows what she likes.
 
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Anyway, it's possible I’m boring everyone silly -- there's been so much discussion of comics ladies and their comics boobs. But if you haven't read much about the sexualizing of women in comics and you want to read more, this blog post is one of the best things I’ve ever read about comics, ever, and it will blow your brains out your ears.
 
And if you’re interested in comics generally, here are some superhero-ish ones that still manage to feature women who look like women:

Planetary. Jakita Wagner is immensely, supernaturally kickass, but she is in fact put together like a human woman. Just, you know, a super-strong one with a great bod.

Top Ten. All the women in this series are superheroes, because it’s about the police precinct in a city where everyone has superpowers. Lots of people are hot, but none are primarily drawn to be sexalicious (even the naked one). And a couple are even not conventionally attractive.

Y, the Last Man. Okay, technically Agent 355, the main female character in this woman-dominated (hence the name) story, isn’t a superhero. But she might as well be. And I have NEVER seen her boobs and her butt on the same side of her body.

Love and Rockets. Okay, Love and Rockets only has one superhero story, and it’s kind of a riff. I’m using that to cheat it into this list, because I’m a giant fan of Gilbert Hernandez’ Palomar stories, which are extremely lush magical realism featuring women who, despite the occasional MASSIVE JUGS, still manage to look totally human.