What’s Anatomy Got to Do With It: Drawing Women in Comics

There’s been a lot of debate in the comics community lately about where admiration for the meta-human form transitions from appreciative to creepy. It’s essentially become a competitive sport: if you can do this, we can do that. If you can name Dick Grayson’s butt cheeks, we can show Captain Marvel’s nipples through her body armor. If you can, “oh, hai,” Aquaman’s abs, we can pose Poison Ivy’s corpse with its ass in the air and her breasts spilling out of what was never a particular modest décolletage to begin with. Commensurate revelation. Tit for tat, as it were.

Here’s the problem: what artists show, how they show it, the way costumes are designed, whether or not an actor takes his shirt off, isn’t as important as the intent behind the aforementioned.

Yes, people who admire the male form certainly do enjoy a well drawn male character (Batman, Nightwing, Cap, etc) but there is one huge difference between the design of male and female characters in comics that’s been there from the beginning: the stereotypical male form in comics isn’t designed for the enjoyment of male form aficionados; it’s intended to be aspirational for teenage boys who wanted to grow up to be those heroes. Does that come with its own set of problems? Absolutely, #1 being it’s highly unlikely, even with an unsustainable and likely dangerous diet and workout regime, that a body like the one sported by Green Arrow or even the teenagers on My Hero Academia is achievable. But that’s a separate issue for another post.

We’re here, today, to talk about the ladies.

Female-presenting characters, back in the day, weren’t created to inspire girls to become heroes. Even now, though there are some exceptions (Jane Foster Thor, Kamala Khan, Faith), the majority of female presenting characters are intended to fulfill the needs of the male gaze.

As I said above: it isn’t the body suits and booty shorts so much as the intention of the designers and artists in pouring Harley, Starfire, Medusa, and Power Girl into them.

The very worst of design flaws usually involve the housing, or lack thereof, of a given character’s breasts. Perhaps the navel visible through leather and armor wouldn’t be so offensive, the persistent camel toe so awkward, the thongs on the outside so maddening if the men with the pens (or styluses, these days) would just look at an actual, human woman when deciding how to draw upper halves.

Some examples?

Of course.

#1: They Don’t Just Stay in There

She spins. She jumps. She flies. She crosses No Man’s Land with nary a jiggle. Listen: she’s our hero too. We love Diana. But there is no way in hell her boobs stay inside that corset without some serious assistance. At least the movie version restrained the dreaded side-boob, but physiology and geometry dictate that would have displaced volume inward and upward, over the top of the cups. Not to mention in most of the comic incarnations the cups end as short of Diana’s armpits as modesty will allow and only barely cover her nipples, meaning her armor provides neither support nor protection. She needs straps, or at least the halter Justice League: War Wonder Woman adopted before we’re even brushing potential reality with outstretched fingers.

#2: They Can’t Be That Big, That Round, and Stand Up By Themselves

Physiology lesson. Breasts are made of adipose tissue, ligaments, and connective tissue, all backed by muscle. Their ultimate design purpose, even if one chooses never to use them in such a manner, is to create the food necessary to perpetuate the species. To fulfill that purpose, for those who do choose to use them that way, they need to be able to change size and shape, sometimes significantly and sometimes more than once.

Even if one chooses never to have children, however, or has firmer breasts, they’re still made out of the same sorts of tissues and, even if they are of the firmer variety, they’re still going to have a certain flexibility. Which means they’re still going to obey the laws of physics.  Once they get to a certain size, therefore, they won’t be able to maintain a round shape without the assistance of a bra. Most likely a padded one, evidence of which would certainly be evident through a halter-thongotard. Carol doesn’t even have air pressure to help her out here. This also goes for when characters are lying on their backs or sides. The adipose tissue and ligaments will loosen and spread. There is nothing you can do to prevent it, no matter how many weighted flies your character purports to do.

Who does this violation of natural law benefit, I wonder…

#3: They Aren’t Bullet Proof

What is the point of this even? Sure, when they started out, the Batfam was all about the spandex, but for the last several decades, each member has had at least some kind of armor in vital areas. Not the dude who redesigned Batgirl though. Apparently, Clay Mann hasn’t taken account of breasts being made out of tissue and skin or done any research on what’s behind them: lungs, large blood vessels, diaphragm, and heart. Sort of important stuff. But why protect those when he can show us her rectus abdominis and xyphoid process.

Boobs aren’t  bulletproof, guys. Please armor them up, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the important, functional squishy bits behind them.

#4: They Are Not the Window to Our Souls

Even if they are, in rare cases, bullet proof, eyes are up here. What does the window add to Power Girl’s costume? To her abilities? If you google her, you’ll see she’s known for “leadership abilities.”

Uh-huh.

Yeah, when guys are trying to remember her name that’s always how they describe her to me.

That is a glory hole, plain and simple, folks. A gratuitous gap wherein the male gaze may bury and motorboat itself.

#5: They’re Not Gas Station Snack Cakes

While there are certainly situations in which an individual may have only one breast, it is unusual to see someone with two individually wrapped boobs, and yet, many artists persist in drawing them this way. I’m not saying everyone should wear a sports bra all the time—they’re not really all that comfortable—but if your jacket/leotard/whatever is giving lefty and right that much definition, you’re clearly not wearing a bra, which, in most cases, takes us right back to #2. Dr. Mirage is a smart woman and I can’t believe she’d choose something that uncomfortable and impractical for her journeys to the underworld, let alone those heroines who stride into battle in similar getups. Also, normal breast anatomy doesn’t really let jackets, even the stretchy ones, fit like that; so again, I’m going to have to go with the male gaze being excited by the prospect of not only boobs or cleavage but super-cleavage and two very distinct boobs here.

#6: HE Doesn’t Own them

A lot of people really love this outfit, especially the t-shirt, including women. I don’t know why it drives me nuts but it does. It’s partly the anatomical stuff as discussed above but I always felt like this was an ownership stamp of sorts across Mary Jane’s body, her breasts specifically. Of course, no one made her put the shirt on, so…It may be because I’ve seen a lot of dude artists displaying at cons that took this look a little further than the comic/cosplayers do, with Peter in frame, which makes it seem a little more possessive and creepy than it does when it’s just MJ out for a night of fun wearing a fan-shirt.

There’s so much more I could say on this and on so many other aspects of the female form male artists have coopted for their own benefit and the benefit of their fans. I may just have to make a series out of it…

S.W. Sondheimer: When not prying Legos and gaming dice out of her feet, S.W. Sondheimer is a registered nurse at the Department of Therapeutic Misadventures, a herder of genetic descendants, cosplayer, and a fiction and (someday) comics writer. She is a Yinzer by way of New England and Oregon and lives in the glorious 'Burgh with her husband, 2 smaller people, 2 cats, a fish, and a snail. She occasionally tries to grow plants, drinks double-caffeine coffee, and has a habit of rooting for the underdog. It is possible she has a book/comic book problem but has no intention of doing anything about either. Twitter: @SWSondheimer