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.
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