web stats

CSBG Archive

Committed: Confusing Bodybuilders with Superheroes

Yesterday I posted a link on my Twitter to this, joking that if they drew busty female superheroes in the same way that they draw male ones, that they’d look like this new version of Jodie Marsh. Surprisingly, a few people suggested that women ought to be drawn this way because it would be more realistic, which I thought might be useful to talk about.

Jodie Marsh is a British “glamor” model who had large breast implants and has now completed an extreme training regime to recreate her body as competitive in the bodybuilding world. Therefore she has the kind of overly buxom, glamor-model body that is women are depicted with a lot of the trashier superhero comic books, now combined with the kind of overly muscular body that male superheroes are usually given. Neither of these options are actually realistic or appropriate.

I have a few friends who’re professional athletes, people who are at the olympic level or train other people professionally. I also have a few friends who’re avid bodybuilders, desiring simply to create their bodies to conform to a certain look. These are two very different disciplines, involving entirely different exercises, diets and effects. Building a body with the kind of visible muscles that Jodie Marsh displays is not usually about building strength, but about combining a very strict weight building regime with a very high protein diet, excluding nearly everything else. This isn’t a recipe for strength, neither is it a very realistic long term plan.

There’s a friend who is 5′ 9″, weighs around 200lbs and can easily lift his own weight over his head. He is a trainer, he looks slim and unassuming, but is actually ridiculously strong. He works out and trains people for hours each day. I know someone else who teaches yoga, she is about 5′ 7″ and practices and teaches yoga full time. Both of these people have healthy, high protein diets, and they both are impressively strong and average looking. Similarly I’ve met people who run ultra marathons, lift weights, run competitively, and generally, these people all look perfectly normal on a day to day basis. None of them do drugs, or drink very often, or eat much processed food. As far as I can see they are the closest things to a actual superheroes and none of them have bulging, massive muscles. If you saw them in the street you would never know that they’re incredibly strong.

The only people I know who actually have massive, bulging muscles actually have to follow very specific routines in order to build them with that kind of visible bulk. They often complain that the muscles, while large and puffy, aren’t necessarily indicative of strength. Despite my own rather mediocre condition, I’ve personally out-walked my bodybuilder friends on hikes and seen them slump, out of breath when carrying moving boxes while their “normal” friends are able to carry more. The competitive bodybuilder physique is one created for aesthetic affect, not for strength.

Male superheroes are routinely drawn with outrageously defined muscles as if they are bodybuilders, but if these men existed, they would probably look pretty average. Certainly there would be no beer guts, and if you hugged them they would feel very solid, but there also wouldn’t be many giant, noticeable muscles either. Instead they would have strength and tone, maybe looking generally better than other people, but not having the kind of outrageous definition that bodybuilders have.

Now, while I can see that it is well-intentioned, people crying for women to be drawn in the same misguided way that male superheroes are is very sad. While most women superheroes would be more muscular than the way they’re currently drawn, and their breasts would be smaller or at least shaped very differently (as Terry Moore wrote in his little comicbook How to Draw Women, “this is not what your circle template is for”) they wouldn’t be covered in bulging, defined muscles and veins either. After all, these women are strong, they’re in top physical condition, but they’re not bodybuilders.

For a while now I have been trying to draw attention to the fact that physical prejudice in comic books is not exclusively a problem for women. When people are trying to encourage artists to draw the kind of mutated, overly-muscular bodies that they use to model male superheroes, then we have a problem because they’re encouraging artists to apply the kind of sexist, unrealistic art style that men are being subjected to. Neither is okay. Male superheroes in early comic books of the ’40′s seemed to be modeled on wrestlers and other athletes, people who were genuinely strong. At some point it became normal to model the superhero look on professional body builders. This is unrealistic and misleading, so I ask again; Why would we want this crappy, unrealistic ideal to be imposed on female superheroes as well? In the future, superheroes should be drawn to depict the healthiest and strongest humans in life, to be the human physical ideal rather than some unhealthy mutation.

Back in the ’80′s Frank Miller modeled his Elektra on the female body builder Lady Lisa Lyon and I loved it. She wasn’t pretty, but she looked damn good. She was strong and believable as an athletic force, just as Lisa Lyon was. A pioneer in her field, Lyon looked strong and beautiful, but fashions change, and female bodybuilders today are expected to take things further with definition and sculpting. They’re also often expected to have large, impractical implants in their breasts. This is not a look which would work on any female superhero. I’m not saying that the current trend for drawing them looking like a pre-workout-crazy Jodie Marsh is realistic, but I’m saying that drawing them looking like the post-workout version of Jodi Marsh won’t work either.

People cry sexism, but the solution to trashy, overly sexualized female superheroes is definitely NOT to make the same mistakes we’re making with male superheroes. Let me make this as clear as I can; Male superheroes are not  being drawn realistically, it is just a different kind of mistake to the ones that are being made drawing female superheroes. Most importantly, the solution to poorly depicted female superheroes is NOT to copy the mistakes that we’re making with male superheroes. Repeating mistakes just compounds them. We’re creating visually unattainable male superheroic bodies which are ridiculously impractical, why the hell would we want to impose this on women’s bodies as well?

Growing up, I was interested in art, and since we couldn’t afford life models in my school, my art teacher used to send me to the British Museum. There, for free entry I could sit on a stool and draw the marble sculptures from the parthenon. These Athenian sculptured depicted the physical ideals of their era, beautiful and perfectly proportioned athletes, I remember them well. Drawing from them was a pleasure and for guidance I would encourage artists to look to todays truly strong athletes, people who use their body for their work, and not to the strangely contorted and impractical bodybuilders who work exclusively on a look.

30 Comments

Nicely put. I’ve seen the “Butbutbut male heroes are depicted unrealistically too!” argument trotted out far too often as a tool for trivializing complaints of sexism in comics, and it’s refreshing to see someone explore the valid complaints against superhero physiques rather than simply use them as a tool to dismiss equally valid complaints about depictions of women.

Ultimately, in some form or another, comics is always going to be about exaggeration — but I’ve always preferred the Jack Kirby style of exaggeration to the Jim Lee style.

(And for God’s sake, if Terry Moore gives advice on how to draw pretty girls, people should LISTEN.)

This is a great piece. People don’t understand the difference between bodybuilding physiques and actual athletic physiques, and I find it really annoying. A bodybuilding physique is the opposite of a functional, athletic physique, and in fact bodybuilding actually makes you less athletic and is incredibly inefficient as far as building strength goes. The amount of mass they accrue in relation to the gains of strength they accrue are his horribly out of whack. It’s also why you never see athletes, powerlifters and strongman competitors with the same types of physiques as bodybuilders and why you never see bodybuilders compete in athletics. Bodybuilders look remarkably goofy and clumsy when trying to run and fight.

One of the worst modern offenders is Ed McGuiness, and when I see him draw gymnast characters like Batman and Captain America I immediately get sucked out of the story due to his outrageous steroid physiques.

In reference to women, you’re right. Look at really athletic women, and even when they have low body fat or great muscle tone, they rarely look like female bodybuilders.

Who the hell cares who they’re drawn? Who reads comics for realism anyways? As soon as a guy puts on tights and flies around town, realism goes right out the window.

Excellent article. Over my thirty-five years of comicbook reading I’ve watched the physical appearances of both men and women change. Super-heroes were always idealised, but at least it was just about possible to look like one. Certainly Olympic athletes did. Not now. Men do look like body-builders. I remember when Ron Lim started the art chores on Captain America and I thought exactly that – he’s gone from being a gymnast to a steroid-fueled gym bunny. Women in particular are now just completely unrealistic Barbie-dolls with enormous breasts who stand in back-breaking poses to accentuate their butts, a trend that really started back in the ’90s. It’s no exaggeration to say that I would be embarrassed to buy some of the comics out now, Catwoman #2 with it’s not-so-subtle cover being a recent example.

Interestingly, just today espn has posted on their website a new photographic series of naked professional (and Olympic) athletes, the closest thing to real superhero bodies we have. Worth a look if you are interested in this topic.

Superb article, I couldn’t agree more.

Nik: Evidently some people do care, hence the fact the article exists and other people like it. Just because you don’t personally care about something, that doesn’t mean that no one else does. As to your actual arguement, you are slightly missing the point, firstly superhero comics are not entirely abstract – the basic principle of the genre is “extraordinary people in the ordinary world” and therefore some degree of realism tends to be a good thing. Secondly, I’d far rather be looking at a comic where people look like actual humans than the abstract end results of that particular artists personal fetishes – I want to be reading about interesting characters, not sitting there feeling faintly embarrassed that I’m looking at what is not infrequently equivical to a lusty teenagers mental charicature of an ideal sex object.

Excellent article, and as an artist who draws comics I do struggle to find a good center ground between realism and the fantastical when it comes to muscular physiques, both with men and women. You have to suspend belief when reading a comic book, but a good amount of reality needs to be included. I’d much rather see a superhero physique drawn by John Buscema (Who had a strong grip on figure drawing and took life drawing classes well into his 70′s) than a superhero physique with impossible muscles drawn by an Image artist.

It also bugs me how as time goes on, the characters are drawn with their spandex costumes showing every little muscle in their body through the fabric (Also, notice how any new character introduced who has superpowers has muscles? I’d imagine a superhero like, say, Cyclops or Bishop who rely on energy-based powers instead of physical might to be more of an average physique).

Here’s a question I’d like to pose – Poor body image is usually a problem found in females, due to the influence of the media and fashion magazines implying that women should look a certain way. But have any of the guys here had body image issues growing up because of the physiques they would constantly come across in comics or action movies?

Here’s the article that I believe Scott Harris was referring to. Perfect reference Scott, thank you. Worth a look for anyone interested in what real life superheroic bodies could look like: http://espn.go.com/espn/photos/gallery/_/id/7030506/bodies-want-2011#6

I think that poor body image issues are probably present in a large number of teenage boys, but it manifests a bit differently to in girls. I certainly knew guys at the end of school who were really obsessed with “bulking up” having percieved themselves as too scrawny. Even then though, I think body image problems in men (at least of the ones I’ve met) tend to be to a greater degree individually self inflicted rather than to the expectations of the “norm” that are present in women.

Sonia, I think this is a great piece, and I agree with pretty much all the points you make. I’ve heard the “make women look like bodybuilders too” argument a few times and I’m just as mystified. How about we just draw our comics with attainable, healthy, athletic body types for the physical heroes, and a range of bodies for those who use other non-physical powers? I look at Gilbert Hernandez as an excellent example of this. Maria and her three daughters are drawn with very large breasts, which might be an idealized figure to some – like me – but “too much” or even grotesque to others. And it’s not like Maria, Luba, Fritz and Petra just happen to have huge racks and nobody comments or notices them – their unusual figures are treated like they would be in real life, with background characters staring as they walk by, and both men and women having a range of reactions from extreme attraction to curiosity to disgust. His male characters also have a wide range of body types, from Sergio’s realistic slim athletic build to Enrique’s muscular gym bunny look to Scott’s overweight “thyroid problem” physique.

Alex, I’ll agree with you that male body image problems are often self-inflicted, but I think women’s are too. There are countless men out there (me included) who not only don’t prefer the waifish model look, but actually find it unattractive. Everyone seems to THINK that’s what men prefer, but that’s only because the media says so. The media presents unrealistic ideals for both men AND women, and neither ideal always represents what the opposite sex actually wants.

I recall hearing a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when Arnold Schwarzenegger started filming Conan The Barbarian, his ridiculously bulky muscles didn’t allow him to hold a sword properly. That nicely (if true) illustrates the difference between looking strong and being useful.

Really, the problem is that far too many superhero artists learned to draw from reading superhero comics. For the last twenty years or so, anatomy’s just been spiralling out of control. It’s one thing to exaggerate, but it’s another when artists are drawing ridiculous figures that have increasingly little connection to actual human bodies.

Sonia – while a lot of your points are good, it’s worth noting that impressive-looking muscles can actually be produced rather naturally.

I spend a good bit of time bouldering (a sort of rock-climbing), and people who spend a good bit of time doing it tend to have very well-defined back, chest and arm muscles. I find it hard to imagine anyone who climbs as much as, say, Spider-Man, not having a physique along the lines of the following:

http://blog.cheaptents.com/Pictures/Athletes/bouldering.jpg
http://www.osucareerservices.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Bouldering.jpg
http://www.tourismswanseabay.co.uk/resources/Microsites/Dynamic%20Rock%20Ltd/images/dynamic_rock_bouldering.jpg

[Images found through random google image search for bouldering.]

Impressive-looking muscles can actually be realistic!

I find the bodybuilder look to be a real turn-off. Takes me out of the story. Superheroes (both male and female) should generally be drawn like healthy athletes.

Terrific article.

I find it frustrating that so few artists in comics seem interested in doing character design based upon body type. That is true for characters of both gender. The males all have the same bodybuilder physique. The women seem modeled on strippers with bad implants. Both have their costumes painted on, but the women have the odd habit of carrying on long conversations over their shoulder.

It is dull and limits the most unique method of characterization available to comics. If Aquaman has a swimmer’s physique while the Flash looks like a runner, then it helps the reader understand their powers.

Sonia – while a lot of your points are good, it’s worth noting that impressive-looking muscles can actually be produced rather naturally.

I spend a good bit of time bouldering (a sort of rock-climbing), and people who spend a good bit of time doing it tend to have very well-defined back, chest and arm muscles. I find it hard to imagine anyone who climbs as much as, say, Spider-Man, not having a physique along the lines of the following:

http://blog.cheaptents.com/Pictures/Athletes/bouldering.jpg
http://www.osucareerservices.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Bouldering.jpg
http://www.tourismswanseabay.co.uk/resources/Microsites/Dynamic%20Rock%20Ltd/images/dynamic_rock_bouldering.jpg

[Images found through random google image search for bouldering.]

Impressive-looking muscles can actually be realistic!

Yes, those are impressive looking muscles, but it’s still an athletic physique rather than a bodybuilder’s freakish physique. I don’t think Sonia has a problem with exceptional, muscular physiques like those you posted, but rather with the impractical ones of bodybuilders. After all, she did give a link in the comments to a slideshow of real-life athletes whose physiques she admires.

As a long-time martial artist who has met people such as Bill Wallace, I have a pretty good idea of what a practical superhero physique is like.

Keep in mind, though, that even most body builders only have that kind of definition when they’re actually posing in competition trim. They are usually at least a bit dehydrated and fasting on stage. Not a recipe for top athletic performance.

This contrast about muscle bulk vs. fitness is not a new thing. Several of the Doc Savage stories (and the early illustrations; not the covers of the later paperback reprints) show him as muscular and athletic, and sometimes contrast him with “muscle-bound” characters.

“Really, the problem is that far too many superhero artists learned to draw from reading superhero comics.”

That’s interesting it’s like if you make a photocopy of a document and you keep making copies of the copies they will eventually look like crap after a few generations of copies.

[...] the larger they are the more likely it is they became that manner with some level of chemic aid. Healthy & High-Protein Frozen Chocolate Bananas (Diet-Friendly Dessert!)View all recipes here: leanb… Music by Kevin MacLeod – incompetech.com Arcane, Kevin MacLeod (www.incompetech.com) Licensed under [...]

[...] Now it would’ve been fine if Harris had stopped here because very few people do look like Jodie Marsh, with her tight body and huge implants. But she continued with a discussion about how people with average-looking builds can be incredibly strong, while bodybuilders aren’t necessarily built for strength. You can check out the entire article here. [...]

Of course working out and eating healthier will make you lose weight. But a good fat burner is a really good supplement. I made an in depth review about the best one out there, OxyElite Pro: http://noobworkouts.com/oxyelite-pro-weight-loss-at-warp-speed/

This idea is broken for me because I absolutely love the well to over muscled look. Superheroines should look more like hardcore crossfit athletes than anything.

However, the main problem is a lack of variety in the shapes. The Invisible Woman shouldn’t look like Black Widow. We have a fit soccer mom and a russian super spy. I think Frank Cho did BW perfectly in Mighty Avengers.

Likewise, She-Hulk should never be drawn to look like an average woman who might workout. She should be jacked. Buffed, lean, thicker and not like a green supermodel. Similar thing for Wonder Woman who needs to look like she can whip some ass

Vixen on the other hand works perfectly as a supermodel because she’s a supermodel. However, anyone with powers similar to or derived from a male hero should have a matching body type, lean muscle mass included. The whole Bat Family should be ripped. Not kinda buff. If you wanna run around smacking up people several times stronger than you, you should look like you can handle it.

[...] Committed: Confusing Bodybuilders with Superheroes | Comics … A pioneer in her field, Lyon looked strong and beautiful, but fashions change, and female bodybuilders today are expected to take things further with definition and sculpting. They're also often expected to have large, …http://goodcomics.comicbookres .. [...]

Your use of the term ‘overly muscular’ betrays your biases. You just don’t like buff people. Go suck on it, comic book artists do. You’re a damn idiot.

[...] Committed: Confusing Bodybuilders with Superheroes | Comics … Instead they would have strength and tone, maybe looking generally better than other people, but not having the kind of outrageous definition that bodybuilders have. Now, while I can see that it is well-intentioned, people crying for women to be drawn in the ….. Both have their costumes painted on, but the women have the odd habit of carrying on long conversations over their shoulder. It is dull and limits the most unique method of characterization available to comics. …http://goodcomics.comicbookres .. [...]

Good job not understanding that superheroes are mythological. Why do the Greek Gods have big tits and muscles? Because that’s how people wish they were. Dumbass.

This is why superhero comics are fucked up…we have all these art school losers trying to make a modern novel out of the Illiad.

It is a myth that bodybuilders are not strong. This myth has it’s roots in trash talking from strongmen, olympic weightlifters and powerlifters saying that exclusive bodybuilders are not strong for their size, or as strong as they look. This is true. Pound for pound, exclusive bodybuilders tend not to be as strong as true strength athletes. But this criticism has been wildly misinterpreted into the belief that bodybuilders aren’t very strong compared to ordinary humans which is absolutely false. For example, a 250 lb bodybuilder may squat 600 lbs. This is nothing by powerlifting standards as such poundages are routinely achieved my much lighter powerlifters. However, a 600 pound squat indicates strength that is 3-6 times that of an ordinary man depending on your estimation of average strength.
Furthermore, training for muscular size is a great asset in the pursuit of strength so long as one also does strength training. For proof of this, Stan Effording, holder of the all time world record Raw powerlifting total is also a professional bodybuilder, and sports a massive physique. (http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-jgx-4sXtxX0/UQjlBJVDZ4I/AAAAAAAAStw/ldZcFJOFXDI/s1600/Stan+Efferding_1179290890_n.jpg) Other successful raw powerlifters like Daniel Green, Sam Byrd and Eric Lilibridge also sport exceedingly muscular physiques. A number of Worlds Strongest Man competitors such as John Paul Sigmarson, Mariusz Pudzianowski, and Derrick Poundstone are known for their huge, lean, muscular physiques.

The same trend holds with women. Many of the most successful female strength athltes such as Becca Swanson, Laura Phelps, and Bev Francis have either been bodybuilders or sported bodybuilder like physiques. (http://www.criticalbench.com/images/lauraphelps.jpg)

Contrary to the claims of this article, the extant humans who have pushed furthest in the direction of super strength have tended to look massively muscular (although not always lean). Thus it makes sense to portray fictional humanoids with super strength with extraordinarily large muscles. Breast implants are optional.

Disclaimer. I am a powerlifter, not a bodybuilder. I have no interest in posing on stage in a thong, but the strength of those who do is undeniable.

I think that there’s a degree of different viewpoints on here that is fascinating, but I don’t think that comic books should be worried about having “attainable” or “realistic” physiques. Are eye-beams and healing factors both realistic and or attainable?

I think the real issue should be the quality of the fiction, now the effects it might possibly have on it’s audience. Someone mentioned characters like Bishop or Cyclops not having super-jacked bodies, and I agree. Sometimes I’ve seen Magneto, a character with no need for massive amounts of muscle or tone drawn like a Greek god. Why?
There should be a diverse range of bodies in superhero comics. I do have to disagree with the author of the article when it comes to characters like The Hulk for example. He should look like a bodybuilder and then some, considering he is a freak.

I think the characters that should be most based off of real athletes are characters like Daredevil, Batman and the other Gotham crime fighters, and any other trained, human vigilante. And that characters whom, within the fiction, don’t have a reliance on their body being a weapon shouldn’t have insane amounts of muscle.
It makes it so that there’s a wider range of body types to look at. I don’t think the bodybuilder look should be totally done away with, just lessened and applied to when it makes sense within the fiction.

Leave a Comment

 

Categories

Review Copies

Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.

Browse the Archives