I feel pretty

Benes' Dinah

Editor’s note: This post uses many illustrative images. In most cases, a larger version is linked to the thumbnailed image.
FrancineOne of my favorite comic books to reread is Strangers in Paradise, which was not the comic book that got me into superhero comics, nor the comic book that got me into comics in general. Every time I reread it, it makes me — as a representative of the average American female’s body type — feel beautiful.
HungryThe reason for this, as best I can tell, is that Terry Moore, the artist, loves the way women look. One of the major characters is drawn and described constantly as both beautiful and overweight; a minor subplot focuses on a string bikini she once wore and pictures of her in it while she was the same rounded person she is in the rest of the story. He draws women affected by gravity, in all sorts of outfits and lack thereof, and manages to keep even the mostly naked scenes from feeling gratuitous.
Not only do the women have normal proportions, but they take up emotional space on the page. They are never there simply to be curvy background noise. When they are sexy, they know it; when they are posing, they know it, and they have feelings about it that show on their faces and in their postures.
Maguire’s Powergirl 2Moore’s realistic-proportioned women are not the only ones who succeed for me, however; far be it from me to suggest that all superheroes should be replaced by realism. The quintessentially unrealistic Power Girl as drawn by Kevin Maguire also has many of the same qualities. In the JLA Confidential arc ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League,’ she shares page space with the non-super Sue Dibny, and both are characters with whom I can identify.
Maguire’s PowergirlThe major draw of Maguire’s Power Girl is her ability to have facial expressions that express subtle humor. Her chest is an exclamation point — he does not minimize it, nor its amusement and titillation potential — but he makes it clear that behind and above her monumental bosom, there is a person who exists for more reasons than to have her breasts observed. Some of this is due to the text he is given to work with, but more comes from his evident study of expressions.
Maguire and Moore’s work is relatively realistic, as comics penciling goes, but realism per se is not required to have women who look like women. Darwyn Cooke’s Wonder Woman and Catwoman are heavily stylized, with thick lines, hourglass figures, and a more cartoon feel to the art in general. This does not keep them from being expressive and emotionally present because Cooke gives their faces something to do other than be beautiful. They are idealized women — Wonder Woman in a stocky, Rosie the Riveter way that harkens back to her original designs, Catwoman in a forties pinup manner — but they are women who must carry part of the plot by emoting, feeling, and reacting to the things around them.
Scott’s Batgirl and SpoilerScott’s BatgirlEven more stylized than Cooke’s art in some respects is Damion Scott’s, one of the major artists for the now canceled Batgirl title and penciler for the arc in which Stephanie Brown is Robin. His work is highly kinetic and he is unafraid to play with perspective and proportion when drawing men or women to attain his visual goals. When he drew Batgirl, he was working with a character whose main method of communication and understanding the world depended on movement, and whose costume covered her entire face. This gave him the chance to use his action drawing skills to their fullest in order to show the reader what his protagonist thought and felt. A setting that might have hampered an artist who relied on expressions was one in which he excelled.
When discussions of cheesecake art in women-centered storytelling come up, Ed Benes, previous artist on Birds of Prey and Supergirl, is often mentioned. This is due to his frequent use of frames that exclude women’s faces while focusing on their hips, buttocks, or breasts, which are constantly idealized. However, there are many instances in which he does draw faces, and when he does, the women become functional characters instead of ornaments to the page. They think, they feel, and they respond substantively to what happens around them. Their faces — and, particularly in Benes’ case, the faces of the men around them — are significantly prettier than the average, just as their bodies are idealized, but they are clearly individuals, not wallpaper.
Benes’ Dinah
In a medium where the visuals are inseparable from the storytelling, the use of expression and posture to tell a story is invaluable. The creators I have mentioned are notable for their ability to use the medium well with the tools they have developed, whether or not they consistently use that ability. Artists who portray female characters as dolls and do not learn to portray them with a sense of depth are far too common, and, unfortunately, they often receive kudos for their empty drawings. It is a shame that so many have discarded the chance to tell full stories about both men and women, and we as fans should celebrate the creators who care enough to do things properly. Perhaps then we can convince people with creative control over the properties we so enjoy to hire those who can use the full spectrum of emotion more often.