When you first start reading comics, you might not notice the art so much. Sometimes it’s enough just to see your fave punching faces in all their glory. Art appreciation doesn’t come naturally to me, so I make a conscious effort to consider it when I read – but once you start noticing this stuff, the first thing you realise is that sometimes the artwork…doesn’t work.
I’ve talked before about the “gritty” phase comics went through in the 90s and early 2000s, when Rob Liefeld’s work set off a trend of highly stylised and sexualised art while writers did whatever they could to distance themselves from the goofy, family-friendly image comics had had in the past. You can guess that it wasn’t the greatest time for female representation in comics, and that’s one of many reasons why Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey from 2003-2007 attracted so much praise. (Yes, I am back on my Simone bullshit, it was only a matter of time.)
Birds of Prey initially featured Black Canary, Huntress and Batgirl-turned-Oracle Barbara Gordon, and gradually brought in a load of other female DC heroes including Lady Blackhawk, Lady Shiva, Gypsy, Judomaster and Manhunter. The series was pretty new when Simone was brought in and she developed the Birds into one of the most widely popular female-led comic series: a crew of finely-drawn characters bonded by realistic friendship.
They’re still gorgeous women who run around in skimpy costumes, but this is not a series where one-dimensional blow-up dolls fight about boys and then we slap on a “strong female characters” label. They are smart, tough, funny, lovable women with complex relationships, and they genuinely love each other. When there was conflict between them, it was creatively done; even when sexual jealousy does come briefly into play between Barbara and Huntress, it’s used to explore backstories and character flaws. I’ve been hungrily reading all of it I can get my hands on.
But. This is what the art looks like.
The menfolk don’t escape unscathed either.
Would you look at these…breasts?
It’s important to note that Simone has never shied away from sex in her work, because sex is a part of life – and that includes hot people wearing barely-there outfits. Birds of Prey features Huntress’s one-night stands, dirty jokes about Big Barda’s Mega-Rod and Lady Blackhawk hitting on any man she chooses. This is all great and I’m glad it’s there!
The problem is that the art is about nothing but sex. The alien proportions and emphasis on breast details at all times – it’s not just uncomfortable to look at, it’s at odds with the writing. Here Simone is, trying to show us the quirks of their personalities, their brains and their ferocity, but all the time she’s competing with art which will not let you forget for one panel that these are, first and foremost, bangable fantasy babes.
Not bad, just framed that way
Earlier this week I was watching a Lindsay Ellis video about framing in the Transformers movies – specifically, how the script tries to set up Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) as smart and interesting, but she’s filmed like a straight-up sex object and because this is a visual medium, “sex object” is what the audience remembers. That’s pretty much what’s going on in this comic – script says one thing, visuals say another.
I ran into this with Shea Fontana’s Wonder Woman, too, where an internal monologue about objectification lost some of its power when placed alongside female characters with teeny tiny waists. Similarly, Greg Rucka’s arc before that, which was a sensitive story with an emotional focus illustrated by Liam Sharp’s frozen Botoxed faces – not so much a framing issue as just a mismatch of styles. Birds of Prey happened in a particularly egregious era, but this art dissonance still goes on all the time.
Like movies, comics are a visual medium: what you see matters at least as much as what you read. Editors are careful to make sure artists capture the tone of a story – whether it’s dark and noir-ish for Batman or friendly and cartoony for Unbeatable Squirrel Girl – because they know clashing styles will undermine each other. But I think it’s equally important for the artwork to support the point the comic is trying to make.
It’s not always about whether the writer has an axe to grind, although that makes it more obvious when there’s a mismatch. Whatever they’re trying to get across, even if it’s just “the power of friendship”, the artist needs to be on board for the work to be coherent. Pick someone who’s excited to do that story – not just that character – or someone who naturally emphasises those themes in their art. I went to an artist panel at London Super Comic Con in which they asked four established artists about the experience of working on DC Rebirth. They struggled to answer in-depth questions until one of them finally said he wasn’t involved in any decision-making, they just sent him the script and he drew it. “I guess Superman’s S looks a little bit different now?” If the person responsible for the most visible part of a comic has nothing to do with the rest of the production, there’s something wrong with your publishing process.
Creators do sometimes push back on things like this, but they only have a certain amount of power. It’s ultimately up to the editors, executives and everybody along the chain to listen, if they want to diversify their market segments with a wide variety of decent comics titles.
Worth the read?
I knew about Birds of Prey going in and maybe that’s what saved it for me. I found the art annoying and breathed a sigh of relief when Nicola Scott popped in for a few issues, but I tried to think of it as a product of its time. Like, in the 70s we painted everything brown and orange, in the 90s we wore JNCO jeans, and in the early 2000s we had MySpace and comics full of impossible breasts. We all make mistakes.
However, a friend of mine – Emily Zinkin, who just happens to be the newly-minted comics editor for The F Word! – made it through the first two volumes and gave up. She just could not hang with the art no matter how good the writing was. In the end, if half of what makes up a comic isn’t working for you, it’s very difficult to enjoy the work as a whole and ultimately kind of pointless – you might as well read a book.
Simone has gone on record saying she was happy with Ed Benes’ work – though she did object to the belly window in Huntress’ costume, which was eventually changed. Your mileage may vary on how much art style affects you, and maybe the style I’ve been talking about doesn’t bother you at all. A lot of it comes down to personal taste. But it’s also about creating comics where all the parts work together to really mean what they say. Like the Birds of Prey, it’s got to be a team effort.