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    How to Get Those Super-Bodies

    by Patrick Rollens

    BUILT LIKE BANE
    Grab a standard superhero comic off the shelf and flip through it. There’s no surprise in what you’ll find: icons of physical prowess, bronzed gods made of flesh and bone; each hero and villain visually rendered at the peak of musculature. Attractive, yes, but almost unattainable for all but the most genetically potent among us. It’s no secret that comic book artists cater to our sense of hero worship with their lavish illustrations of costumed crime fighters.

    And it’s not just the male characters. For every over-muscled hero dressed in form-fitting spandex, there’s a similarly-clad heroine standing shoulder to shoulder, proudly showing off her rectus abdominis for all the world to see. Many women, especially female comic creators, take exception to the historic portrayal of the female form in comics. Take Wonder Woman. “(She) was originally created by Dr. William Moulton Marston as a role model for girls, and girls loved it,” says pioneering comic creator Trina Robbins, who in 1986 became the first woman to draw Wonder Woman for DC Comics. “But with (Marston’s) death, the Amazon was taken over by a series of men who didn’t understand the character or know what to do with her. The book lost readership because it was neither fish nor fowl – they weren’t aiming at girls anymore, but boys didn’t want to read a girl’s title.”

    But wait – if women are offended by the portrayal of females in superhero comics, shouldn’t men should be offended at the male form’s treatment in these same books? Think again. “Over-muscled guys is a male fantasy; the boys love it,” Robbins says. “Giant-breasted girls is also a male fantasy.” And as far as these male fantasies are concerned, Robbins says, girls just couldn’t care less.

    Portrayal of females has changed over the years – moving from traditional damsel-in-distress characters to superpowered heroines every bit as capable as their male counterparts – although it still operates within the male-dominated fantasy paradigm Robbins described. But how far removed from reality is the female form in contemporary comics?

    I gave Dr. Steven Henry, plastic surgeon at the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia, an assortment of comics from the past five years – crime, superhero, even a couple “bad-girl” comics from the 1990s. Dr. Cari Worley, a family physician and specialist in obstetrics, joined us to provide her take on the internal workings of these pen-and-ink femmes. Dr. Henry dissected each frame with a surgeon’s eye, on the lookout for conspicuous folds, rolls and flabs. Oh, and rectus abdominis: That’s just a fancy name for abs.

    It took little persuasion to get Dr. Henry to jump into the stack of comics on the table. On top was “X-Men Unlimited” #1 (Marvel Comics) with a stunning Pat Lee cover showing White Queen cavorting beside Cyclops. Dr. Henry was drawn immediately to Lee’s portrayal of White Queen, pointing out that her hips and breasts are proportioned correctly; overall, he said, she’s “surprisingly attainable for a woman that has that biological disposition.”

    Biological disposition … right. But what exactly does that mean? Well, according to Dr. Henry, the way she’s drawn, with full hips and breasts, suggests that Lee’s grasp of the female form is not far off the real thing. Take White Queen’s bust. “Her breast is actually reasonably natural in that she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of upper pull fullness,” Dr. Henry says. Upper pull fullness is a sort of faux cleavage some women seek through plastic surgery; it’s unnatural and the doctor was pleasantly surprised to see that White Queen didn’t sport such obvious augmentation.

    Dr. Henry even went so far as to suggest that White Queen might even be a patient one day. “She’s got some trochanteric fatty deposition here,” he said, pointing to her upper thigh just below the right buttock. “I mean, if this person came to a plastic surgery clinic, she’d probably get signed up for a little liposuction.”

    The short story inside “X-Men Unlimited” #1 stars Sage, a mnemonic mutant dressed like Trinity from The Matrix. Again, Dr. Henry was surprised by artist Tony Lee’s rendition of Sage. “I’m struck by the fact that this artist is using a fairly reasonable and consistent body habitus,” he said. “This woman would be fairly muscular and stocky; she doesn’t have enormous breasts and a tiny frame.” Surprisingly, Dr. Henry remained confident that her musculature could even be achieved without using enhancement drugs. The verdict: Sage may be a femme fatale, but she’s all natural and naturally cool.

    The cover of “The Ultimates 2″ #6 (Marvel) by Bryan Hitch caught Dr. Henry’s attention next. Giant Man looms large in the background, and in the foreground Hellcat and Valkyrie strike sultry poses beside other members of the team. “This seems to be inspired by the whole Paris Hilton paradigm,” Dr. Henry said, indicating Hellcat. “(Women) are thin, they’re standing with a sloped stomach posture, their breasts aren’t excessively large,” he said. As a plastic surgeon, Dr. Henry has a keen grasp of what men and women find attractive. His cosmetic surgery patients frequently bring in pictures of attractive celebrities to show him exactly what they want from their plastic surgery. Ten years ago it was Pamela Anderson with her oversized breasts and tiny waist; now the paradigm has shifted and the lithe, waif-like Hilton body type is considered attractive.

    Then Dr. Henry reached to the bottom of the pile and pulled out Darkchylde. Actually, it was “Dreams of the Darkchylde,” (Darkchylde) but the overall effect – a drastically out-of-proportion, sexually-suggestive main character – is the same: Brandon Peterson’s images of Randy Queen’s voluptuous demon-teen. “And that’s getting kind of ridiculous,” Dr. Henry said, flipping quickly through the book. “Her hips are incredibly thin compared to her shoulders, and she’s got that artificially augmented bust,” he said. “This looks like a person who would have had no breast tissue but then would have had excessively large implants.”

    But what sort of real-world problems might this unnatural thinness cause on a person’s body? To begin with, being so thin is almost certainly a sign of some sort of eating disorder. “If you get this thin you can have trouble with your cycle becoming irregular,” Dr. Henry added. “That can have reproductive repercussions.”

    Dr. Worley explained that fat cells produce estrogen, which regulates a woman’s menstrual cycle. Many women who are very thin, including athletes, frequently have irregular or nonexistent monthly menstrual cycles. This can lead to infertility, but the most common side effect is osteoporosis. Bones become weak when the body has minimal estrogen, she said.

    As Dr. Henry flipped through each superhero book, he was continually (and pleasantly) surprised by the mature decisions artists in recent years have made when portraying female characters. Though many characters are still thin, artists seem to have a grasp of musculature and shape and are capable of rendering these female characters conceptually, if not necessarily biologically, accurate. In other words, these images still constitute physical ideals, but those ideals come a lot closer to the realm of attainability than ever.

    Posted by Tim Leong on April 30th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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