I've spoken about exaggerated figures, but there's a blonde elephant in the room in a white costume – Power Girl. The epitome of exaggeration, with her blonde hair, voluptuous curves, back-breaking chest and cleavage-window. However, I believe Power Girl should be one of a kind rather than “a bit bigger than everyone else”. Her large assets have often been used as a plot point in both serious and humorous ways, and I feel they define her as a character, but the opposite is also true. As a character, she transcends her figure and is strong, capable and perhaps even empowering. Her costume is also quite flattering, but depending on the artist it leaves her exposed to a varying degree, sometimes exposing quite a lot of her bust. Her bosom is arguably one of her trademarks, though, and to change that could easily change how she's viewed. She would become just another exaggerated figure, not one that stands apart for a reason.
Supergirl also deserves a mention, and for similar reasons. Her figure is the opposite of Power Girl, her stomach flat, her hips fairly narrow and her chest being amongst the smallest of any I've seen in mainstream comics – I actually find it odd if she's depicted with a large chest. Her 'traditional' costume bares her midriff, and she has a short pleated skirt to go with it, giving her a cheerleader vibe. This could easily be exploited, and I'm sure it has been, but in my limited experience I've found her to be drawn with some level of restraint and decency, and it makes me wonder why she is one of the few characters that seems subject to it.
There aren't many serious characters, male or female, superhero or not, who are in the fuller-figured section of the population. Marvel have Kingpin and The Blob, and Big Bertha's power is to enlarge herself to Blob-esque proportions, but DC had a very powerful character by the name of Amanda Waller. She was a large lady, and very formidable. In the reboot (Suicide Squad, I think), she's a slim and large breasted woman. That, to me, is precisely what has been wrong with certain aspects of the reboot. Characters have been changed in various ways for no reason except for the sake of it. There is no way that such a physical change can be justified by the artists or writers, because it was part of her character.
"Mommy, why is Black Widow facing the wrong way?"
With the upcoming The Avengers film from Marvel Studios, a large (and squishy) problem has become prominent again – how artists pose the women on their covers. In the marketing images for The Avengers, Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) has been depicted in a rather worrying pose. Her rear is facing the camera, and she is looking over her shoulder – this is true both for the artwork poster and the photograph banner – whereas all of the male characters are facing the camera with their chests, the only exception being Loki who is side-on. This is prevalent on cover art too, an example being the Frank Cho cover art work for the recent X-Men: Schism arc. A number of women, more so on issues #4 and #5, are in poses with their backs to the camera or are showing off in some form, not to mention Rogue's rather exposed cleavage,. The male characters are doing little, if anything, beyond standing around or sitting down although they do all seem to be rather muscular and sporting prominent six/eight-packs.
Whilst talking of Marvel, I think I'll bring up their Women of Marvel event again. It was an event, as far as I'm aware, to promote the female characters they have. There were numerous one-shots under the event, from new characters like Lady Deadpool through to more established characters such as Dazzler and X-23 (which went on to be a now-cancelled ongoing), as well as a few smaller series like Marvel Her-oes, which I think existed more for teen girls, and the questionably-titled Girl Comics. Overall it was a noble act which put their varied cast into the spotlight, but they went and got it a little wrong, especially when you look at the trade paperback they put out which collected the issues together...
Could they fit more breasts into this cover?
This is the absolutely brilliant (snort) image that was chosen to adorn the cover of a trade celebrating strong women, drawn by Greg Land (apologies to the site I stole it from). Let's look - more breasts than a stripper bar, all four women have the exact same porn star face, the lady on the right makes Power Girl look flat-chested, and there's basically nothing redeeming about it. That's not a celebration of women, that's a straight-out hypersexualised... Well, I've no more words for it. It goes against everything the event seemed to stand for.
Whilst the proportions and figures of female characters are an issue, the above image brings me to a new point - I've found that the other half of the issue is how they're posed and how they carry themselves. It's the exaggerated hip movements, the arched backs, the pushed-out breasts – they all carry an air of flirtation or sexualisation, whether the character is sixteen or thirty-six. There have also been many instances of the 'camera' in the panel being used to get shots of the character's rears or to look below their legs, even to show a little bit of underwear if the character wears a skirt. It's the context and the art itself that causes the sexualisation, and with both major publishers I find it a big issue. There was an issue of B.P.R.D. (Dark Horse Comics) that read to me as a tongue-in-cheek take on such portrayals, and it even had shots between his legs and of his backside. I thought it was absolutely hilarious, and it showed just how ridiculous comics can be. Something similar was also done in one of the Deadpool arcs (X Marks The Spot) in which Wolverine and Domino are climbing through a duct. Domino becomes paralysed with fear due to an errant chicken (placed there by our favourite mercenary), causing Wolverine to go head-first into Domino's bulbous seat.
Looking back to costumes as a whole, I think it's important to explain why some things are good and why others are bad, but also problems related to them. The traditional form-fitting costume makes a lot of sense, as there's nothing for your assailant to get purchase on. A lot of costumes go against this, though, even by simply letting the character have their hair out, especially if they've got long hair and engage in physical combat. Capes, sashes – they all go against it, too. Form-fitting is not inherently sexual, though. It's how the artists draw the characters and decide how they wear what they do. The cover for Pixie Strikes Back has five of the X-Men (Blindfold, X-23, Pixie, Armor & Mercury) walking towards the character, with a hint of hip-wiggle from some of them, but it's not sexual despite the tight costumes.
It's also a case of practicality or just common sense missing, too. With the large chest being common in comics, one has to look at it practically. Large chests mean bras become almost necessary, if not necessary, especially if you're going to engage in a lot of physical activities. By all rights, Emma Frost should be popping out of her bustier with anything faster than a walk, let alone doing any sort of combat. A number of the costumes seem to incorporate or at least allow for the possibility of sports bras, a necessity for many of the women in comics, but it's clear that a lot of artists don't understand that or choose to ignore it for no obvious reason.
The authors and artists should not just stick to positive representations, though. I feel it's just as important to show weakness and negative characters. There's nothing wrong with having an evil, or morally corrupt, female character. Marvel have done really well with Mystique in that role, and DC often cast the Gotham City Sirens (Catwoman, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy) in such positions. To reference one of the most famous and important titles in comic history, Batman: The Killing Joke, the temporary humiliation and exploitative representation of Barbara, even for just those few moments, set the scene for one of the most empowering characters to have ever existed - Oracle. Shocking events can be used to rocket characters into new strengths, and that's good as it adds suspense and drama, drawing the reader in, pushing them to read on. It's when those weaknesses are never fought-against or dealt with that it's poor.
So, there we have another load of thoughts on the portrayal of women in comics. I may do more later.