In the past week we’ve seen a cross-blog debate explode about the nature of a scene with Tigra in New Avengers #35 and some discussion about a spread of three female Justice Leaguers in Justice League of America #14. I was unwilling to comment directly on either because I’ve only seen online scans, but I just can’t ignore these things. I was reading a debate on an email list where one my co-bloggers (it was Tom) pointed out there is a trend of heroes getting in trouble recently and brought up that Kyle Rayner was recently stripped completely nude in the current Green Lantern storyline as an example. Well, a Green Lantern mention can usually get me to speak up, and a quick look at the Sinestro Corps confirmed that a very important factor was in play (two, actually, but I only have time for the one today), a factor that influences the reaction no matter where the story was going or what the artist and the writer intended. A factor that the artists, editors, and writers in superhero comics should keep in mind when crafting their stories, because it interferes severely with the communication between the creator and the reader.
Take a look at this scene with Kyle in Sinestro Corps (Click on any of the images to enlarge):
Notice that despite drawing him in the nude, the artist wasn’t doing his best to show off all of the “good parts” when Kyle lost his clothes. Its in the way it was angled. There was a panel that showed he was vulnerable and beaten, but there was a distant shot that just had him looking very vague. There was no heavy emphasis on “soft taboo” body parts such as the butt, and the forbidden crotch is obscured without drawing attention to the unseen area. If that had been a female character in the same situation, would the artist drawing her have been nearly so subdued?
They aren’t even that subdued when the characters are fully clothed. Benes seems to have gone out of his way to make WW’s top as small as possible and her breasts as large as possible. Luthor’s motivations aside, this was unnecessary.
One of the commenters (on one of the many, many posts about this) asked if everyone would be up in arms about Tigra if it had been a male character. Well, no, because most artists aren’t going to show a male character’s clothing slip suggestively off when he gets brutalized, even if he does get stripped completely naked. Bendis wrote a whole scene where Daredevil was tied to a chair and beat up. I don’t remember seeing any shots where his pants slipped down to show his buttcrack. Its rare to see a male character in peril with particular detail paid to the rounding of his posterior. But almost every single time you see a female character in any level of peril you can count on a few well-shaded and detailed shots of her bust.
This is the artist’s fault, but not in the way most people are thinking. Artists (that’s pencillers, inkers, and colorists) are trained (not only directly, but by what they’ve read before, what the editors encourage and what many fans encourage) to maximize the sexuality of all female characters in all situations. As a general rule in superhero art female = sexy, no matter WHAT the scene calls for. Even instructed not to be exploitive, the artist still automatically showed cleavage shots (part of this is the writer’s fault, because there there is no reason that blouse couldn’t remain closed if a male character’s pants can remain up; but the artist can minimize this sort of thing even with an open blouse if he thinks of it) while she’s getting the shit beat out of her. He probably even thought he was being restrained, but they are just so used to drawing everything as sexualized as possible with a female character that they can’t seem to break the habit. Neither the writer nor the artist necessarily takes into account that habit of paying attention to busts, butts, cleavage, curves, open mouths, sultry eyes, and other highly sexualized traits when rendering a female superhero. This is something that just gets added without a thought to it (its how they always draw her), even in a scene of grim-gritty street crime. This is a problem with storytelling on its own, but its worse at the moment because of the writers. Currently, writers are trying to amp up the violence as much as possible in a misguided quest for maturity. So the artists draw what’s requested, drawing men as they usually draw them and women as they usually draw them. The result is a stomach-turning combination when there’s a violent scene with a woman as the victim.
I am not trying to excuse the artist and writer here. I’m not trying to condemn them either. I’m just saying that creators need to pay better attention to this, because the audience is getting some severely muddled messages. You can have sexualized characters, and you can have realistic violence, but when you mix the two together you are asking for trouble. The combination is really, really creepy. Right now, because the going trend is to exaggerate both sex and violence and go for that realistic feeling, a lot of people are pinging about it.
This is something creators have to keep in mind. Its not just a matter of social messages. This is the story itself, the message between the writer and the audience getting screwed up by sexist conventions.
At least, I hope the message is getting screwed up. If the intent really is to mix sex and violence in that manner we have another entirely different set of communication problems.