A Ben Cohen Ink Comic


By Ben Cohen a “legendary master of the left field.” -BRP!

“Unintentionally misunderstood since 1975.” –Anonymous

“A big f@#k you, to the audience.” -B. Pendarvis

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Form and Function: The Power Girl Controversy

With a great deal of agreement, admiration and old friendship, the following is in response to Kelly Thompson's She Has No Head!-The Boob Window That Just Won't Die. Part of an on going debate over the latest explanation of Power Girl's costume:

I am in no position, nor do I want to be, to criticize what other heterosexual males find attractive in females.  In fact, I am huge supporter of those who somehow have remained uninfluenced by the incessant cultural onslaught defining what we should like; whether it is the fashion industry, comics, Hollywood, animation, our families, or porn.  I have collected enough anicdotal evidence to be convinced that veriety in preference is attainable. However, the truth is we have lost control of our individual impulses as much as our mothers, sisters, lovers, and daughters have lost control over their satisfaction with their physical identity.

It is the rule, not the exception since the onset of, what I like to call, the McFarlane era that women are depicted with statically improbable proportions. An hourglass form that takes the Barbie proportions to an extreme.  Depicted with breast that often are so absurd that they warrant mockery, except for the fear that their depiction has on adolescences.  For more evidence, you need not look further then Kelly Thompson's previous blog.
Perhaps some reality is appropriate to ground our assessment.  According to a study by North Carolina State University, approximately 46% of American women are "banana" shaped (less then 9 inches smaller then hips and bust measurements), while just over 20% are "pear," 14% "apple," and 8% "hourglass.”  In another study it was determined that the average American waist measurements have increased by 6 inches in the past 60 years.  There have been a number of studies done about the increase in breast cup size as well.  Some, but not all, of this can be explained with eating habits and our more sedimentary life style here in the US.  This does not fit with the expanding bust and shrinking waist in superhero comics.

What is plainly true is that not since the 1920's when "banana" was in, have our cultural preferences on female form been in-tune with the typical realities of the female members of our community.  When our preferences as a culture and our physical realities are not aliened, it becomes increasingly disruptive for both males and females.

The depiction of women in comics has not led they way in over a generation, but it continues to influence those in other areas of pop culture who do.  I am not saying it brainwashes the individual to be attracted to a particular type.  I am also not one to jump on the "media arts" are corrupting our society bandwagon.  The Arts reflect our culture far more then they influence it.  I have said in a previous post that our declining art education, focused on a visual lexicon, has contributed to visual communication more easily manipulating us and/or confusing us.  As well as, resulted in a decline of quality in some media arts visual communications.  I do, also, think media arts communicates a broad cultural consciousness that encourages you to suppress your impulses, question your thoughts and examine yourself in an unhelpful way.  This can fester into pervasive problem in some individuals that result in real world problems in relationships, self-esteem, productiveness, social interactions, and serious physical health and longevity issues.

Power Girl alone is innocuous, but due to the depiction of the vast majority of female characters in American superhero comics over the past two decades and PG’s proportions, the issue we are now focused on (yes pun) that deserves some real criticism.

Lets discuss the most legitimate defense.  It is comics, it is a cartoon, it is supposed to be out of proportion, it is an exaggeration of reality to bring more to the clarity of the story.  All true.  I am a cartoonist, and I will go to the mat defending the right of cartoonist to depict outlandishly to serve the aesthetics and visuals to communicate the story.  Lets get real here, this is lazy cartooning.  As established above you can’t have all of your characters have the same persona and visual dimensions.  The story becomes so carbon copy that even I cannot defend it.  I love the aping traditions in comics.  I think it has been an essential element contribution to Post-Post-Modernism in fine art (I smell a future post).  There certainly are artist out there who I tend to give a free pass, like R. Crumb, because he depicts females utilizing his fantasy, a fantasy that is the antithesis of the contemporary superhero comic (and I happen to prefer it myself, despite it also being exploitative on a underground scale…see bellow).  But in this context it is lazy of a cartoonist to consistently depict exploitative body type on all of its characters, male or female.  What makes it even worse is when these absurd proportions have become so iconic that it travels with the character from artist to artist, as is the case with PG.  It would be ok if she were depicted in a universe with the variations on female form we find in Love and Rocket’s.  But that is not often the case. 
Also discussed in Kelly Thompson's previous blog. Was the issue of balloon like breasts.  A fellow alumni of Kelly’s and mine from SCAD’s Sequential Art department, RennĂ© Alexander use to have a texture on how to draw women’s breast.  This was necessary, despite extensive life drawing classes, because many boys and a few girls in our department were brain washed by the McFarlane era and some Manga.  I would speculate that these basic understandings of the female form and gravity have served these cartoonists well in terms of visual storytelling and improved their personal lives.  As Kelly railed on the lack of clarity in muddle page layouts and cluttered panels (another sign of lazy, not talented, cartooning), it also makes sense in terms of clarity of story that diversity and believability in depiction of all forms even if they are exaggerated help the reader. 

I am no fan of the idea that female cartoonists get a free pass.  Amanda Connor taking on Power Girl does not automatically result in the disarmament of the minefield that is Power Girl.  However, she is handling it just about as well as anyone could.  The book is helped by variety of body types depicted.  Amanda and Jimmy Palmiotti played a small, but quit helpful role in my comics education and I also feel they are just about the best combination of bad ass and sweet you can get.  This clearly comes out in their comics.  While I take issue with some of their depictions, like needles panty shots, it is really how accessible the book is, not inaccessible that I have modest issues with.  The book feels like it is written for kids at times, but then the devil is in the details.  And sometimes I think, you know this may not be appropriate, despite the light heartedness of it all.  As Kelly point’s out Conner does not save it from the iconic problem.  While, Jen Van Meter (image above) just insults us.

There are male superhero cartoonists who have managed to depict women in comics with admiral variety and proportions.  Alan Davis, Darwyn Cooke come to mind, both you cannot argue are not exaggerating the female form, but the verity is there and the grounding in fundamental understanding of anatomy is too.  

For full disclosure my argument hear is not without masculine fetished clouding of judgment.  As mentioned above I do appreciate Crumb’s depiction of women, and not entirely on the principle here, but also from like-minded perversions.  I am a fan of Davis’s depiction of Meggan and Cooke’s depiction of Wonder Women for similar reasons.  It is no mistake that form comes into play with my favorite Love & Rockets characters; Maggie, Danita Lincoln, Vivian "Frogmouth" Solis, Petra, and Doralis.  All are voluptuous hour-glass.  But this not the BBW/FA excuse (Big Beautiful Women/Fat Admirer…totally STUPID terms, real I kid you not).  Ugly is still ugly, no mater the size or gender.  But comics should depict the character in terms of dialogue, narrative, thought, sound, action, and form.  Ugly is ok, even brilliant (see Dan Clowes).  If I respond to one character more it may have to do with form.  But, I should not be betrayed by sloppy storytelling and a lack of contrasting images to heighten my awareness of the characters place in the story. 

The other issue I have with this from an aesthetic perspective is that less is more, not just in terms of clarity of pages and panels, but also in terms of the seductiveness of the character.  Which from my understanding of Power Girl has little to do with her as businesspersons, family member, and local hero.  But if you were to play that up, wouldn’t you want to head the advise of many mothers over generations and strip club owners…keep them wanting more.

Some say this is a fashion issue.  Fashion is an issue (see my next blog).  But unfortunately for Power Girl the window has become synonymous with her iconic form and now there is an infinitely dumber explanation to go with it.

I the concept that somehow the statuesque is puling in new young readers, and as some friends have suggest to me, Kelly and others should move on to read Vertigo.  There is no ethical and non insulting reason that all comics should strive to represent fundamentally strong storytelling elements and technically professional approaches to cartooning.  This includes how women are depicted in comics.  The eye candy aproach limites the potential sale of a comic.  Comics should be made to be assesible and not personally insulting both in depiction and exsplination.  To continue on is to limit comics potential and undermine the bottom line.  Young readers have plenty of other sources of entertainment, it is time that comics including superhero comics consistently present quality that builds intelegence and ethical standers.  To not do so, is to side with villany and stupidity.

I’m talking too much again.  I’ll shut up.


  1. Thanks for the support and encouragement over on CSBG. And this is a great post.

    It's funny...this post still sounds just like you ten+ years ago...but more developed/refined. Do I sound the same to you I wonder? Hmmm. I think I wasn't as clear on my philosophies as you were back then, so perhaps not.

  2. You have become a fundamentally better writer then me (grammar, spelling and editing are still not my thing...note runs on ect...). For that alone, I greatly appreciate YOUR encouragement and analysis. So thanks. I think having gone through my MFA program and M.ED program helped the intellectual quality of my writing. I have changed some, but mostly when writing about politics, health care and Art Education (my other areas). Less so for comics and music. Glad I haven't sold out.

    Eliaz McMillan was commenting on how you haven't lost your bite when I shared your last blog with him. I think you were doing a great job barking at the wolves when we were in class. But I think you are at more dogged, yet balanced level now. It is so fun to read. I think the big change is just comfort and clarity in what you think...all those boys in class made it hard to get a word in. You were valiant, but when you had talkers like me it must have been frustrating.

    I have a question...how do you get your hands on so many comics? Is it being in an Urban area... or is it that I am to busy. I can't keep up.

  3. Well thank you. I still have some serious problems with grammar, but writing the book helped more than you can imagine.

    Happy to encourage a fellow SCAD alum, especially when he's saying things I agree with.

    It is good to see that you haven't sold out. So many do.

    I just friended Eliaz on FB. Thanks for helping us reconnect. I wasn't aware I had a bite back in school (although I do remember throwing a pen at Mark Kneece in History of Sequential...twice). That was a really critical time for me in figuring out what I believed...but I had trouble getting it right in my head I think, so back then it was more passion than intellect. I think for whatever reason (being sheltered and innocent perhaps?) I was slow out of the gate with figuring things out...but around 25 I FINALLY blossomed and I was shocked to find how little I really knew...which is the first step I think to really starting to learn.

    Since I live in Manhattan I think it's pretty easy to get any comics. Usually Jim Hanleys has everything I'm looking for (although if you miss an issue they sell out frustratingly fast). So it could be the urban environment, but it could also be that, though busy with my own stuff, I'm currently unemployed, so there's lots of time to focus on making sure I get what I need...so I've got something to write about for the column, which has become my new non-employed priority :)

  4. I remember having a good comic shop locally...when I was 10...in Berkeley. The one in Burlington use to be the worst...now it is respectible...they really turned things around. There is even a girl who works there. But I don't live in Burlington any more.

    Was I in that class with MArk. Was Kristin Hogan in the class?...Eli may have been too. It rattles a possible memory. I hope I saw that pen throwing. I LOVE Mark...the old curmudgeon, he really helped me.

  5. Yeah, but is the girl that works in the Burlington shop knowledgeable? Because there is nothing that pisses me off more than a girl that works in a comic shop that doesn't know shit about comics.

    I don't remember if you were in that class. I'm pretty sure it was History of Sequential. I think Eli was in it. That may have been my first class with Adam as well...I was probably trying to impress him with my pencil throwing rage. I don't know about Kristin, we were never friends.

  6. She seems to be. And I agree.

    I will have to check with Eli, but I don't think we had that class together now.