The Comic Book Babe (CBB) stared at me from the cover of a well-known comic-related publication. She was elaborately computer-colored, her outfit a nice shade of purple. But something about her anatomy seemed fundamentally wrong. The longer I stared at it, the more wrong it looked -- and furthermore, looked wrong in a way that has become all too common over the last ten years. She looked as if her creator had gone straight from adolescent male comic fan doodling fantasy women on his pee-chee, to professional artist, with no stop at a life drawing class in between.
I got curious about just how far off of normal human anatomy this CBB was. (This is the sort of thing that seems really vital and interesting when you're unemployed.) So I did my best to twist my body into something resembling the position of the babe on the cover, and drew the results.
As a model, it was grueling. I had to lean back in a way that put a lot of stress on the rear leg, torque my back and hips in a way that would get my dance teacher scolding me about lumbar damage, and both hand positions were extremely difficult to maintain. Nothing about this pose felt natural. I was sore the rest of the day, as if from a really difficult dance workout.
Now, I'm sure my own version of the anatomy is slightly distorted in its own way. It is difficult to hold a pose and draw it at the same time, and even an artist working in the most realistic illustration style is bound to subtly alter things for dramatic purposes. I was struck by two things about my version of the pose: I thought it ended up looking a bit like fantasy illustrations from the sixties, and I thought the pose carried more drama than the CBB version. (Yeah, yeah, of course I like mine better) I believe my version contains more of the subtle clues that make the viewer really believe in the pose, and therefore, get an emotional charge from it. A better artist than I am could make the impact even more pronounced.
Today's comic artists who lack a solid grounding in human anatomy, who never turn to live models for their inspiration, are robbing their own work of a lot of the power it could have.
(A caveat: please don't write me angry e-mail about how the artist is stylizing things for dramatic purposes, or how I'm obviously some kind of badly dressed feminist who doesn't like beautiful babes, or how it's all fantasy and not supposed to look realistic, or whatever indignant thought rises to your mind. One, I think it's clear that this artist was aiming for a fairly realistic style. Two, it's still bad, because I can't tell that it's stylized. Three, it's my web site. So there.)
What's wrong with this picture?
To illustrate, I have traced a copy of the Babe Exemplar, omitting clothing details except where they obscured body lines, and lined it up with my version based on approximate head size.
There are two main categories of anatomical distortion that you can see here. One is conflicting information--where one portion of the figure indicates a position or camera angle different from other portions of the figure. The other is violation of basic human construction.
We'll start with overall proportions. The CBB is considerably smaller than mine except for distance from waist to bottom of leg (much longer) and arm length and hand size (about the same). Even her breasts are smaller. The elongation of the waist-to-leg distance combined with a tiny torso is similar to the foreshortening you would see if you positioned a camera very close to her hip, looking up, and this may have been the effect the artist was going for. However, to make this clear her hips should be larger instead of merely longer and her raised arm should be smaller. In fact, her arm is so long in relation to her body that if you saw it on real live person standing in front of you, she would look like the victim of some horrible industrial accident.
Perhaps this is the same industrial accident that has so horribly mangled the last two fingers of her right hand. The way they are positioned--spread out from the palm and bent toward the ground--is literally impossible with unbroken human fingers. (Go on, try it yourself if you don't believe me.) If she is inhuman, and possesses the three or four extra joints required for this pose, that is by no means clear.
The extra joint problem seems to be visible in her other hand as well. It also looks as though her last two fingers are attached to the side of her palm, which would look most peculiar. The arm attached to this hand (her left) appears damaged as well, having picked up a few extra tendons along the way.
Back to the upraised arm, which has an extremely confused position. The way her shoulder curves in is wrong for an arm raised up like that, and is missing any suggestion of the way the bones and muscles of the back stack up to support the arm. In fact, when I put them side-by-side, the CBB arm looks kind of withered and limp. Maybe the poor girl is starving.
This arm looks intended to be extended to its fullest reach, but the elbow is visible in a way that suggests a bent arm. In my version, where my arm is extended as far as I could go, the elbow has become concave. Yet, if her arm is supposed to be bent, either her upper or lower arm should be tilted at a more aggressive angle. Since this arm is the focus of the piece--she is using it to perform some sort of magical activity--the muddled pose here is where the figure loses a lot of its potential energy.
It is also difficult to frown like that with your eyebrows, and keep your mouth open without pursing it in a way that looks angry--unless your mouth is paralyzed. Maybe this is that horrible accident at work again. Or tragically botched plastic surgery. Perhaps it has also dislocated her jaw. This would explain why her eyes and nose are both drawn as if we were looking up at her face, but her chin is drawn as if we are looking at it straight on.
Not only is the CBB's mouth expression weak, but there is a real missed opportunity with her eyes. In my version, you can see that when a person is looking down at the camera it is possible to see white above her irises. This look, combined with the frowning eyebrows, makes my version look fierce or determined in a way the CBB does not. My nostrils are also slightly flared, contributing to the overall sense of some extreme emotion.
There is another missed opportunity with the CBB's neck. In my version, it forms a long, graceful line curving into the depression at the base of the throat. It was my favorite part of the whole pose, and I arranged her clothing to better show it off. In the CBB version, her neck is just a straight line--extending down into some bunched-up clothing
Dare I suggest that the artist was fudging here, because he didn't know what the neck would actually look like where it joined the rest of her body?
There seems to be another fudged area, where the tops of her breasts should be interacting with the rest of her torso. Remember, a woman's breasts are not pasted on her body like ornaments--the skin that covers them is the same skin that covers the rest of her body. In my version, you can see the muscle of her upraised arm curving smoothly into the top of her right breast. On her left, there is another smooth line where her torso becomes her left breast. In the CBB version, bunchy clothing obscures both these transition lines. Her breasts have no apparent relation to the upper part of her body.
Another problem is the right side of her right breast. In my version you can see the curve of the breast beginning right before it is obscured by clothing, and above that, a fairly long smooth transitional area. This curve is also fairly gentle. In the CBB version, the curve is very hard (delineated by outline rather than shading lines) and extends up so far it looks like the oval is about to close. It is difficult to imagine how even breast implants would give this effect--unless they were stored in separate pouches on top of the skin of her ribcage.
Speaking of that, her ribcage is just wrong. Even the most flexible yoga master doing a backbend would have a more shallow curve than what is shown here. And if she is supposed to be doing a backbend, her neck and arm positions are wrong, and you should see a more pronounced crease where her ribcage folds against the back of her pelvis.
One final problem: anybody with such a hard muscle line down the center of her abdomen would probably also have strong muscle development elsewhere, and would have at least a hint of that "six pack" look promised by advertisements for exercise devices.
My point in all this is not simply to complain about bad art (although that is fun.) I want comic fans and artists to be more thoughtfully critical of the work they see, and the work they create. I want comic book art to be something more than the same few poses recycled over and over, artists looking to the work of other artists instead of to a live model. I want people who don't currently appreciate comics to see them as something other than shallow fantasy material for adolescent boys.