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Superhero Body Diversity: Female Artists Offer Their Take

Two weeks ago we ran an article on ComicsAlliance looking at body diversity and superheroes. We asked four artists to rank male and female superheroes by size and describe which athletic types they resembled. The aim was to see if an unspoken consensus exists about what superheroes should look like or if they all belonged to the same generic model.

All four of the artists we spoke to were men. If you’re looking to represent the demographic diversity of the superhero industry that’s sadly a pretty accurate sample. But it didn’t allow us to see if there was a difference in the way male and female artists perceive superhero body shapes, and we thought that was an interesting question. So we reached out to some of the best female artists working in superhero comics today to see how they ranked the heroes.The artists we spoke to were Amazing Spider-Man and Cloak & Dagger artist Emma Rios; Earth 2 and Secret Six artist Nicola Scott; and Conan the Barbarian artist Becky Cloonan, who is believed to be the first female penciller to work on DC’s flagship Batman title in its near seventy year history.

As with the male artsts, we asked them to rank Batman, Captain America, Flash, Namor, Nightwing, Spider-Man, Superman and Thor by size. The artists could see the previous article with the male artists’ responses, but they could not see each other’s responses. This is what they said:

You can read the guys’ responses in more detail in the original article, but we’ve included them above for reference. The male artists are Kalman Andrasofszky, Ramón Pérez, Jamie McKelvie and Marcus To.

The male artists achieved a broad consensus in this exercise, placing Thor above Superman, Superman above Captain America, and Cap above Batman. Everyone placed Nightwing and Flash side-by-side, and three of the four artists placed Spider-Man last. In total they only had three deviations; Andrasofszky boosted Namor and Spider-Man, and To switched Flash and Nightwing.

The female artists had three deviations between them. Arguably the most significant was Cloonan’s decision to declare Superman bigger than Thor – the only one of all seven artists to do so. “I always imagine him really big,” said Cloonan, “like how Frank Quitely drew him in All Star Superman.” Cloonan also ranked Namor higher than her peers – though not as high as Andrasofszky. Finally, Nicola Scott deviated from Cloonan and Rios by placing Nightwing above Flash, but that actually places her in a majority with three of the four guys.

For body type, the artists still classify Thor as the body builder type. “Not ridiculously chunky but pretty beefy,” said Scott. Rios placed Superman in the same category, and agreed with Cloonan that Frank Quitely had the best depiction in All Star Superman. Scott had Superman down as a rugby player, and thought Captain America would be a similar size, while Rios paired Cap with Batman, noting that Cap “is stronger and a bit bigger, but both are in the line of heavyweight boxers mixed with artistic gymnastics athletes.”

“To me Batman was always a normal guy without super powers,” said Cloonan, “so of course he’d be smaller than Cap or Thor or Namor, who all have crazy enhanced mutant god genes.” Added Scott; “He’s got to be more of an all rounder. Stamina and strength. Bulkier than a triathlete.”

The consensus on Namor is still that he should have a swimmer’s physique, though Cloonan agreed with Andraszofsky that he would be bigger than Batman. As for the Flash; “Francis Manapul really draws the character how I imagine him,” said Cloonan. “Really tall, lanky, muscular! This guy must have suuuper long legs.”

Scott noted that Nightwing would be leaner and taller than the average gymnast; “Maybe like Jean Claude V[an] D[amme] back in the day.” Cloonan suggested a college football build. Rios paired Nightwing with Spider-Man; “I find them closer to acrobatic performers. Like slender gymnasts.” Scott noted that Amazing Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield was “spot on” for the role.

For the second half of the exercise we asked the artists to order Catwoman, Invisible Woman, Power Girl, Psylocke, Shadowcat, She-Hulk, Supergirl and Wonder Woman. The guys had several deviations here, with the artists unable to reach a clear consensus on Catwoman, Psylocke, Supergirl, Shadowcat or the Invisible Woman. Here are the female artists’ results:

On first glance the female artists’s lists look a little mixed up, but there are actually only two deviations here. Nicola Scott placed Power Girl above Wonder Woman; and Emma Rios placed Supergirl in fourth rather than seventh. Everyone else is in the same order. The female artists’ lists effectively establish a consensus that the male artists weren’t able to achieve, with Psylocke always above Catwoman, Catwoman always above Invisible Woman, and Invisible Woman always above Shadowcat. Supergirl is the biggest sticking point; the seven artists place her in four different positions on the list.

She-Hulk is the only character that all seven artists agreed on. No-one thought that Wonder Woman or Power Girl should be bigger than the jade giantess, though Emma Rios said Wonder Woman belongs in the same body builder category, describing her as “more balanced” than She-Hulk; “slender but also huge.”

Nicola Scott didn’t think that Wonder Woman needed a body builder’s frame, preferring to classify her as a mixed martial artist. “Diana is [a] perfect, god designed specimen, no huge muscle needed,” she said. She described her as “taller than [Power Girl], but I see her as leaner and longer.”

Becky Cloonan zeroed in on the feature most of us associate with Power Girl; “Maybe because of her boobs I always imagine her being short, but really stocky. Broad shoulders!” Scott noted, “She’s quite solidly built. Weightlifter or boxer maybe?” Rios agreed that Power Girl wouldn’t be tall, but also noted that, like Superman, her physique wasn’t related to her powers, so she preferred a more sensual, less sinewy depiction of the character. That explains why Rios was the only artist to put Power Girl and Supergirl together, though she also preferred a curvier Supergirl than most, citing weightlifter and new Tumblr sex symbol Samantha Wright as a possible model for the character.

The artists agreed that Catwoman and Psylocke would be about the same size, “but I think Catwoman has more of an hourglass shape, and I’d give Psylocke more muscles,” said Cloonan. “Psylocke should be definitively a bit bigger, in strength and muscle, she hits while Catwoman dodges,” said Rios. “I see Psylocke as a martial artist and Selina as an acrobat.” Scott echoed this assessment, noting that Psylocke would be “lean but just a little beefy”, while Catwoman “still has all her curves.”

Scott suggested a runner’s body for the Invisible Woman and a diver’s physique for Supergirl, while Cloonan said Supergirl should look like the captain of the cheerleading team. “I think maybe it’s the skirt?” Rios noted that neither the Invisible Woman nor Shadwocat are the physical type and said they would both just generally be in shape. (Shadowcat does have martial arts training, but given her powers it’s safe to see her as an evasive tactical striker rather than as another Psylocke.) “I always imagine [Shadowcat] being really small because her mutant ability is mostly defense or support,” said Cloonan. “Also when she was dating Colossus it made her seem even that much tinier!” Scott suggested that Kitty could be a rhythmic gymnast, which was also Ramon Pérez’s suggestion.

Though it’s difficult to draw any broad conclusions from such a small sample, it appears that these seven artists had broadly similar ideas about these heroes, but the female artists had a slightly stronger idea about how to rank the women. They were also more confident in talking about the women’s curves, butts and boobs, but maybe the guys were being gentlemen?

So do female artists bring a greater sensitivity to female body diversity in superhero comics? It seems very likely, but we can’t say we’ve established the case. It would be interesting to extend this survey further, but we already asked a sizeable percentage of the total number of women working in superhero comics.

Yes, three people is a sizeable percentage of the total number of women working in superhero comics. So when DC and Marvel have hired some more women to draw their books, maybe we’ll have a clearer idea about how that might improve the range of depictions of women in comics.

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