Superhero Bodies and What Real Athletes Look Like. There are certain phrases that have a special resonance for a Marvel kid like me. For example, Nightcrawler is an Olympic- class acrobat, even though that’s not a real thing unless you count opening ceremonies. Thanks to the current games in London we’re all getting a refresher on what Olympic athletes actually look like – and they look like a lot of very different people. They look like wrestlers, sprinters, fencers, weightlifters, boxers, shot- putters, rowers, marathon runners, judokas, pentathletes, swimmers, beach volleyball players, cyclists and a lot more besides. In fact, they seem a lot more varied than the characters in the pages of most super- books.
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So are superhero comics getting it wrong? A couple of years ago Bongo Comics artist Nina Matsumoto posted scans to her blog from a book called The Athlete, by Beverly Ornstein and Howard Schatz. The scans show photos of athletes standing side- by- side in black underwear; some tall, some short, some wide, some narrow, some ripped, some skinny. Matsumoto headlined the post “athletic body diversity reference for artists.” As with the current Olympics, the book shows that physically fit people come in a range of shapes and sizes – and by showing the athletes side- by- side and dressed alike, it communicates the idea concisely. For a lot of comic artists these photos were eye- opening. Body diversity is a rarity in comics. There are exceptions – guys like Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Beast stand out because uniqueness is part of the X- Men’s core concept – but most members of the Justice League or the Avengers would be hard to tell apart in silhouette without their costumes.
That’s not necessarily an accident. Even when character design is meant to be distinctive, an artist’s style will often take precedence.
Uniformity can be an artist’s hallmark. But it would be generous to assume that uniformity is always a stylistic choice. Over- reliance on the same basic models seems to be a crutch for a lot of superhero artists. I asked four comic artists who don’t have this problem to help me with a simple exercise. Kalman Andrasofszky, cover artist for X- Treme X- Men; Ram. I gave them a list of eight superheroes and asked them to rank them by size and match them to athletic body types to see if there was a consensus about what these superheroes should look like. The heroes were Batman, Captain America, Flash, Namor, Nightwing, Spider- Man, Superman and Thor.
All eight could conceivably be drawn on the same frame. So where did these artists place them on a scale from largest to smallest?(The images shown here are illustrative for this article. The artists were not provided with any reference.)Strikingly, Ram. Kalman Andrasofszky looks like an outlier, but he only placed Namor and Spider- Man two places higher than everyone else.
All four artists agree that Thor is bigger than Superman, Superman is bigger than Captain America, and Captain America is bigger than Batman. Nightwing, Flash and Spider- Man are all at the smaller end of the scale. When it came to applying an athletic body type, the consensus among the artists was that Thor is a bodybuilder type. All three types could be described as compactly muscular.
Because Batman is an all- rounder, he was tagged as either a triathlete or a mixed martial artist. Namor, unsurprisingly, was labelled a swimmer- type by three artists, though Andrasofszky’s ranking suggests a bulkier build.
The character is more of a brawler than a speedster, so a water polo physique might fit. Also unsurprisingly, three of four artists labelled Flash a sprinter, though Andrasofszky again dissented, suggesting he would be a speed skater; “little bitty guy up top with these massive, rippling thighs and calves.” Nightwing is typically thought of as a gymnast, but real gymnasts are often shorter and broader than Dick Grayson, so P. As for Spider- Man; Andrasofszky said swimmer, Mc. Kelvie said gymnast – “but on the wiry side,” To said “marathon runner,” and P? The challenge to distinguish between silhouettes is arguably tougher for female superheroes, because their bodies are subject to a different kind of interest from the typical superhero reader. The female athletes competing at the London Olympics are a diverse bunch, but the women in a Victoria’s Secret catalog are more likely to conform to type, and superwomen have traditionally been modelled more on the latter group than the former. I asked the four artists to repeat the ranking exercise with eight female heroes; Catwoman, Invisible Woman, Power Girl, Psylocke, Shadowcat, She- Hulk, Supergirl and Wonder Woman.
Here are the results: With the women there’s less clarity and less agreement. Everyone put She- Hulk first, but that seems like the gimme.
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Everyone put Wonder Woman and Power Girl in second and third, with only Kalman Andrasofszky reversing their order. After that it gets more scattered. Catwoman is either fourth or fifth.
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Psylocke is fourth, fifth or seventh. Supergirl is fifth, sixth or seventh.
Sue Storm is sixth, seventh or last, though three of the artists agreed that Shadowcat is the smallest of the women. So what athletic types would the artists match these women to? Just like Thor, everyone saw She- Hulk as a bodybuilder. Andrasofszky put Power Girl and Wonder Woman in the same category but in a different weight class, and Jamie Mc. Kelvie said that Wonder Woman could do with “a bit more muscle” than she’s usually shown with. Marcus To classed Wonder Woman as a mixed martial artist, while Ram. Power Girl is a swimmer according to P.
Catwoman is probably a gymnast, but To offered cyclist. Andrasofszky thought that Supergirl would have bigger muscles than either Psylocke or Catwoman, but that her youth would make her smaller than either of them. Marcus To had Sue Storm as a soccer player; Mc. Kelvie said she’s “just generally in shape”; Andrasofszky categorized her as “MILF,” which, again, is not a recognized sporting discipline. Shadowcat is a rhythmic gymnast by P. That’s probably not news worth holding the front page for.
Male heroes aren’t always drawn distinctively, but the distinctions are widely understood. For female heroes there’s less of a clear idea of what they’re meant to be, because very few female characters look like She- Hulk or Shadowcat. The Olympics show us an extraordinary range of female bodies, but even within the Olympics there has been controversy about what women “should” look like.
Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was criticized by the media for her weight; American hurdler Lolo Jones was accused of looking too good; and weightlifter Zoe Smith was trolled for not looking good enough. Smith brilliantly hit back by writing “what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?”Clockwise from top left: Beach volleyball player, wrestler, sprinter, weightlifter, gymnast, shot- putter, all at the London 2. Olympic Games. Body criticism of Olympic athletes seems especially inane given that these athletes get the bodies they need for the sport they dedicate their lives to. They exercise to be good, not to look good, which makes them very different to actors and models who focus on what Details calls “vanity muscles” rather than work muscles. Superheroes have the ultimate vanity muscles, because they never use their bodies at all; they only move in the minds of the reader. Superheroes exist to be seen, and their physiques are conjured from an inkwell.
That may be why we’ve arrived at a uniform look that’s based more on the men and women we see in ads, on TV and in movies than on the men and women we see on the track, on the court and in the water. Fantasy and glamour is important to superhero fiction. As Mc. Kelvie noted, Superman’s power has nothing to do with his physique. A lot of heroes are artificially enhanced by science, magic or mutation, including four of the women and six of the men on my lists. Superhero comics are not meant to be real. So does it matter that superheroes have diverse bodies?
All four of the artists I spoke to agree that it does, and they all gave the same reason; design speaks to character. When defining characters I try to make them as unique as possible from head to toe.”Andrasofszky adds; “A character’s physique tells as much about them as their face or their outfit.” He acknowledges that “some fans prefer generic gorgeousness, and there’s the concept Scott Mc. Cloud popularized, that the simpler and more iconic a character, the easier it is for anyone to identify with them,” but for his own art he prefers to vary physiques.“Superheroes are idealised, but there’s not any one specific ideal, and I think they should reflect that,” says Mc. Kelvie. Adds To, “If everyone looked the same I don’t think it would be as visually appealing to the eye. Superhero characters are products of design. If design matters, there should be some consistency in a character’s look from one artist to the next – and some inconsistency between characters from a single artist. It should matter that She- Hulk is big and Shadowcat is slender.
It should matter that Superman is bigger than Batman. It should matter that Power Girl doesn’t look like Supergirl, and it should matter that Spider- Man won’t be confused for Captain America in the dark. If design matters, if character matters, then diversity matters. Superheroes shouldn’t have to look like Olympians, but they should look as diverse as Olympians do.