Monday, May 27, 2013

Body Image and Comic Books: Part 1

My fellow panelists and I at the Emerald City Comicon
The following post is part of an ongoing dialog among a team of professionals artists, youth workers and concerned parents addressing the issue of Ethics in Comic books. The words below are an adaptation of my notes from a panel I sat on at the 2013 Seattle Comic Book Convention. This annual event brings in more than 30,000 attendees each year and our panel was listed alongside movie stars and industry celebrities. We were unsure how well received our ethics discussion would be received but we had the highest attendance of any panel of the weekend and we have been invited to speak at next year's convention as well. This is an amazing opportunity on many levels:

  1. As a youth worker, I get to speak about important issues facing youth culture. 
  2. As an artist (and as someone that co-leads a youth art program) we get to build strong links into a tight knit community of artists and publishing professionals. 
  3. As a Christian I am exited to have mutually respectful conversations with people that engage beyond the surface levels of life, starting with things like comic books. 
Stay tuned for continued conversations on the topic.  Happy Reading:

When Action Comics #1 was issued to the masses in 1938, no one could have predicted that what sold for a dime an issue would lead to a multimillion dollar industry. Comic books had been used prior to the arrival Superman, but they were largely propaganda material or at minimum a place to hold cheesy children's jokes. Superman introduced the concept of the costumed superhero that stirred the imagination of the populace and gained international recognition. There were still elements of both cheesy dialogue and propaganda-like messages imbedded within the dialogue, but through the teamwork effort of the young creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel, they were able to weave a fresh thread of humanity into the stories being shared. These two men were sons of Jewish immigrants. Their lives were in a state of constantly adjusting and reacting to their new surroundings in America. In creating a character that himself was an "alien" yet with bold abilities to overcome difficulties Superman was destined to become fused to the ethos of those growing up in the superhero era. As a seven-year-old at the time my dad bought the first issue of Superman and often spoke of his amazement over the character he found in those pages. If only he had kept the issue. At the time of this writing an original copy of Action Comic's #1 was found in the wall of an abandoned house. It is in the process of being auctioned off and the latest bid was $135,000. Read about it here: (

Superman was introduced to the world in 1938

 The question is why are these book bringing in so much money. What is it about "children's literature" that holds the value? I believe that the answer lies within the concept that the culture desperately is looking for heroes. For myself, I have always enjoyed comic book characters. Like the co-publisher of DC Comic's stated in an interview recorded in the book title "Countdown to Infinite Crises":

 "What got [me] hooked on comics in the first place [was the], high, octane action, bigger than life adventure, inconceivable villains, and the greatest heroes overcoming impossible odds." 

I may have started in the same position, but it was not until I began preparations to speak at the 2013 Emerald City Comicon on these issues did I begin to realize that comic books have become a much more legitimate source of art and literature. There is something about comic books that are the right combination of art and words to stir the hopes and imaginations of many. As such, there are many ethical issues that should be contemplated as they continue in their development. One such issue is the idea of what my colleagues and I have come to call "The Model Dilemma". It is defined as the following:

The model dilemma is the language of “curves” in comic books which uses human anatomy to indicate power. This perpetuates the notion that certain cosmetic traits inherently grant power to some and withhold it from others. 

What this is saying is that as time lead on beyond 1938, it was not enough for any superhero simply stop trains, or rescue babies. In order to maintain interest, the heroes must continue to face conflict. Without conflict they become unpalatable to a generation looking for a hero because the readers would be unable to relate to a being without struggle. This gave rise to villains and maniacal arch-nemesises that would increase the scale of conflict situations that the hero would face. To every Batman there is a Joker - to Every Superman there is a Lex Luthor.

 Even the situations that these heroes would face became larger.  As impressive as lifting a car may have once seemed, Superman eventually pushes the entire earth into a reverse rotation, therefore reversing time so he can save the day. Where is the ethical problem with this? It comes through the visual portrayal of power. More specifically, the portrayal of human anatomy to indicate power. As the scale of the conflicts arose, the heroes too grew in their proportions to continue to perpetuate a message of power. There are many examples of this, but it is well illustrated on the cover of All Star Superman Volume 2 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly:

 In order to communicate the power of Superman, he is shown as larger than the planet itself. Size therefore communicates power. That makes sense. The dilemma comes into place when we look into the evolution of the character over time and the implications that this may have on the readers. I found this very evident in an ad for Superhero themed Converse Shoes from Journeys. This particular ad I captured from the pages Supergirl #1 (New 52):

 As you can see there is a clear evolution of the Superman Character. The ad features panels of different eras of super heroes in the same pose, but clearly with a bigger and more muscular body. The interesting thing is that the Superman ethos clearly says that Clark Kent gets his superpowers from the yellow sun of our solar system so the reality is he could be a short, fat and bald man and still have just as much power. This would not really be a problem if comic books were not becoming a legitimate source of literature which we discussed above. Yet as they gain more credibility it is these ethical issues that will begin to become a major factor.

As an artist myself, I can recognize that some of this has simply arisen through the progression of an artistic standards within the industry. The art of newer comic books far outweighs the older books. So superman has a more detailed frame and structure. However, as a youth worker I have been witness to many young people who are struggle immensely with body image issues that lead to eating disorders, cutting and suicidal tendencies. Youth culture is already saturated with images of beautiful people within movies and advertisements.

  •  Do they need it within a fictional character as well? 
  •  Not only that, but does it not lead people away from the original idea behind superman as being a relatable hero? The "alien" who could overcome the difficulties of a new world? 
  • Are big muscles really the key to changing the world's problems? 
Weigh in on the issue by commenting below.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Youth Culture News: Amazing Teen Wow's the Tech World

Since so much of youth culture news focuses on the negative (violent crimes, dangers and case studies) I wanted to take a moment to highlight one of the more endearing new released about a teen that not only wowed her friends and family, but the whole of the tech world.

Read the original news release here:

If you don't have time to click on that, the basic idea is that this 18 year old girl created a device that can fully charge a cell phone in 20 seconds.  For many 18 year old's, their dreams are not nearly so lofty.  Just last week when asking a young person how their week was they responded, "Well... I didn't get arrested!"   What is the difference?  If I knew an answer that could be applied to turn a troubled kid into a brilliant inventor, then maybe I could be feature in the New York Daily News, like this girl.

The truth is, that kids are people, not projects.  We need to approach each one differently.  It is not about comparison, it is about value.  For the kid I work with, not getting arrested may actually be a bigger accomplishment than the latest tech invention.  If I don't value that, I am only going to compound the problem.  The universal principle is to be someone that actually takes the time to listen, encourage and dream big each kid.  It is why we have the slogan in our organization of:  We see the hope and potential in EVERY young person.  Do you?

Youth Worker Resources: Youth Worker Cafe

Have you ever heard of Larry Bumgardner?  I hadn't until I read an article titled:

Youth Workers gather to learn, network

Larry Bumgardner is a child therapist that was brought in by the Indiana Youth Institute to present at what was called a Youth Worker Cafe at a local library.  If you have time to read the post, you should.  It was affirming to hear why he belives that the world needs youth workers.  It ties in nicely with a post I wrote on the same issue (although my post came from the "real experts" in youth culture, the young people themselves).  Check out the video post here:

I bring this up because not everyone knows why youth workers exist.  Not even the youth workers themselves.  Unless we start to understand the need for people to do our job we are not every going to be respected as we should in the field. I am impressed that in places outside of North America, youth workers are seen as vital components in the life of young people, while often times here we are seen as little more than people that host fun events and that are not mature enough to get a real job.  This is shockingly apparent in the pay scales for most youth workers. 

Part of this is training.  I love the concept of the youth worker cafe hosted at the library.  If we start to take our jobs more seriously, connect with others around us and seek to make ourselves more effective in our work, I think we could see a revolution in the quality of youth work, longevity of youth workers and a strong impact on the lives of young people.  If groups like IYI exist in your area find out about how to get connected.  If not, create your own groups and up the ante in what it means to be a (pro) youth worker.

Youth Culture News: Mountain Dew's Youth Culture Magazine

Every company that targets youth have come to realize that in a social media generation it is not enough to simply market to young people, you have to connect with them.  As a result, it was reported by the advertising news site that the soft drink tycoon "Mountain Dew" has created an online youth culture magazine.  You can read the original news release here:

The site, is a site that fills a bit of a gap in connecting young people with news and information that would interest them such as Art, Music and Fashion.  Whether or not it draws in kids is a side point to why I bring it up.  For the young people I work with it is a cool site to show them.  For youth workers and parents it could be a good source to keep an ear to the ground so to speak.  If you're reading this you are probably already interested in the topic.   They certainly have the resources to post more that I do on the trending topics in the lives of teens. 

Youth Culture News: 3 Questions About Body Image

There is not doubt that body image is a huge issue for young people.  If were honest with ourselves for a minute, we could take the word "young" right out of that first sentence.  If that were not true than there would be no elective plastic surgery, breast implants or liposuction procedures. Some people have taken such issue with something that they do not like about themselves that it has driven them to extreme eating disorders and even suicide.  That is some serious stuff.  There are three distinct questions, for me, that arise from the issue.

1. Where are these issues arising from?

This issue is brought up this week with from the viral video introduced by the beauty products company Dove.  You can view the video here.

Inspirational right?  This video seems to say that these negative body image issues come, as we expected, from the inside.  That we really are better looking than we think and that other people don't notice the flaws that we see in ourselves.  I doubt that I would have taken the time to share that video if I hadn't come across this article in Scientific America by Ozgun Atasoy entitled:

You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think

You can read the post by clicking on the picture above, but basically it refutes the dove ad campaigns premise by introducing the scientific studies that give evidence to the opposite conclusion.  We as a culture tend to think of ourselves as better looking than average.  Of course, as the article points out, we tend to think of ourselves as better drivers, better workers and better students than average as well.  Somewhere between these two extremes lie the truth.

My opinion is that the ideas of what is beautiful or not come from external sources such as advertisements from beauty product companies, magazines and celebrity worship.  It leads to comparison to others either positively or negatively.  I wonder what this ad campaign would be like among some of the "mean girl" circles in the high school hallways where kids berate each others appearances behind each others backs. Probably wouldn't help to sell products if the conclusion was "you're ugly - fix it".  It is much better to say "you're beautiful - enhance it".  Both of which are faulty assumptions and do not lead to good things.

2. What long term effects do these perceptions have on society?

I could speak to this issue for a long time, but the first thought that came to my mind as I was reading all of these things came from Proverbs 31:30

Charm can be deceiving,
    and beauty fades away,
but a woman
who honors the Lord
    deserves to be praised.

Now whether you respect the Bible or not, look at the implications of this quote.  It is the unseen stuff that is the most valuable to concentrate time on.  As a society we need to stop judging each other based on the external.  The older I get the more of a reality this becomes.  When I am honest with myself I can see that I simply can't fight gravity as well.  I have more wrinkles, gray hair, sags, bumps and imperfections.  What if we took the time to find out more about the lasting characteristics of a person.  Their beliefs, their values, their strengths.  I like spending time with older people because they can't impress you with their looks and you take more time to listen to their hearts.

3. What can we do about it?

I think it is better to try to help young people learn how to think rather than try to impose rules.  For instance, I can say: stop thinking about that zit on your nose.  Of course that would be humiliating, unhelpful and counter productive.  All that kid would think about is that zit - and what a jerk I am.

I think what I will take from this is starting to talk more about my own heroes.  People I have come to love because of their viewpoint on life instead of their external attributes.  People like:

Mother Teresa


Bruxy Cavey

Shane Claiborne
Abe Lincoln