Monday, August 03, 2015

On ESPN The Magazine's The Body Issue: Super Heroes Edition

If you're better-versed in sports and athletics than I am–and you would almost have to be–then you likely already know that ESPN The Magazine has been publishing an annual "The Body Issue" special since 2009. Meant as a kinda sorta rival to Sports Illustrated's annual "Swimsuit Issue," each issue of "The Body Issue" features dozens of carefully-posed, often quite arty photographs of athletes–men and women–in the nude, showing off the rather wide variety of bodies and body types produced by specialization in various sports.

There is certainly a prurient element to the imagery, despite the fact that genitals (and the women's nipples) are always covered, although the intent is clearly in generating celebratory admiration of athletes and their bodies, rather than masturbatory admiration. It's sort of the modern, glossy magazine equivalent of ancient Greek art.

I imagine these issues and images should be of interest to super-comics artists and aspiring super-comics artists, as each issue certainly shows what men and women in peak physical condition look like without their clothes on, while highlighting the fact that there are more than two types of bodies (male and female).

This year's issue should be of extra-interest to comics readers, however, as it apparently included a 13-page pull-out collaboration between ESPN and Marvel entitled The Body Issue: Super Heroes Edition. I didn't read the magazine (although I did see the images in this year's issue online), but my father saved the insert for me.

Under a cover featuring an apparently nude Hulk–Bruce Banner wasn't wearing his over-sized purple pants with the elastic waist-band at the time of this transformation–jumping out of an explosion, there's a completely unnecessary table of contents (it's only 13 pages!) and a one paragraph introduction. The rest of the pull-out is devoted to nine superhereos, all sans costume, drawn by different Marvel artists.
Each of these pages feature, in addition to the drawing and the name of the hero, a little circle showing the character in costume (complete with artist credit for that image) and a smaller circle listing the year of their debut (no one earlier than 1962, no one later than 1980), their power or powers in as few words as possible and the name of the artist responsible for the drawing filling most of the page. There is also a paragraph or so long quote from each of the artists, talking a little bit about drawing super-characters for Marvel.

It's an all-around fun little package.

The heroes included are Ant-Man, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, Hulk, Iron Fist, Iron Man, Luke Cage, Medusa and She-Hulk. All are drawn in the nude, but, in the case of most of the men, they fade into white just above where the bas of the penis might begin. Two of the three women are shown from behind, from the small of the back-up; I think this may be the first I've ever seen She-Hulk and Captain Marvel Carol Danvers drawn without their breasts appearing in any way shape or form; not even a glance of side-boob, as the Internet calls it (And Shulkie is drawn by Frank Cho!).
The exceptions are The Hulk, whose whole body is visible save the part obscured by his huge hand and arm reaching toward the viewer (it's the same Jim Cheung drawn image that's on the cover of the insert, only minus the explosion background), Medusa, whose entire body head to toes is visible (but is wrapped from clavicles to crotch in her "Superstrong, prehensile hair"), Iron Man (who is drawn from the knees up, but in the act of assembling his armor around himself) and Ant-Man, who is seen from the thighs down, for some reason.

None of the heroes have any body hair at all, and Tony Stark and The Hulk both lack nipples.

I was at first a little disappointed by the fact that all of the heroes essentially have identical body types: Big and musclely, like body builders. With the exception of The Hulk, whose body is naturally exaggerated to cartoonish proportions. Daredevil and Iron Fist look slightly smaller in certain muscle groups than Luke Cage, but that's about it in terms of variety. I don't know what Carol Danvers' work out routine, but I was a little surprised at how cut Pichelli draws her, as she and She-Hulk have the same build in this.

I was also a bit disappointed at the relative lack of diversity in the characters, as here the term "people of color" apparently refers to the color green. There are more green people than brown people (and I was a bit curious about the inclusion of Iron Fist over Shang-Chi, especially when artist Russell Dauterman talked specifically about Bruce Lee as inspiration for his drawing of Danny Rand's physique).

There are plenty of men and women of different builds throughout the Marvel Universe, and it might have been nice to see a curvy Squirrel Girl or Volstagg in there, or a short and stocky (and hairy!) Wolverine or Puck, or characters who are slimmer of build like Spider-Man or Cyclops, or some characters of color other than green, some teenage characters (Kamala Khan's parents would never allow her to pose, but surely Robbie Reyes or some of the Young Avengers or Jean Grey students could), or a silver fox character like Doctor Strange or Mr. Fantastic. Let's see Namor, whose one costume is so skimpy he might as well be nude, some characters with fantastical bodies, like Nightcrawler or Beast or The Thing or Howard The Duck, let's see The Vision or Machine Man with their "skin" off.

Of course, it occurred to me rather quickly that the nine characters chosen had nothing to do with showing off a variety of body types, and more to do with corporate synergy and cross-media promotion.

Daredevil, Luke Cage and, I believe, Iron Fist have appeared in/will appear in the Netflix corner of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (K'un L'un gets mentioned in an episode of Daredevil, anyway). Ant-Man has a movie currently in theaters (Hell, it even says "See Ant-Man in theaters starting July 17" at the bottom of his page).

Hulk and Iron Man are both in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and while they probably could have filled this book or one two or three times as long just with Avengers that appeared in that movie, they decided against using Black Widow or The Falcon or Thor (curious, really, unless the idea was to promote heroes with upcoming film or TV projects, in addition to more current ones, achieving a sort of balance). Captain Marvel and Medusa have films announced, even if they are a long way off (Medusa will be appearing in Inhumans, not Medusa; her presence here is another indication of how hard Marvel is trying to promote the Inhumans as a brand these days). And as for She-Hulk...? Well, I don't know. Black Widow or The Wasp or The Scarlet Witch would have made more sense. Marvel doesn't exactly have many great female characters of the household name variety, particularly when you discount the X-Men franchise, so they may have just picked a woman with a more typical super hero physique.

Note that there are no X-Men, despite the wide variety of body-types that team has to offer, no Spider-Man and no Fantastic Four. The characters chosen had a lot to do with which ones Marvel Studios can exploit in other media, apparently.

Now, that disappointment on the same-ness waned after I actually started reading the quotes from the artists, as it quickly became evident that the point of this insert wasn't the same as that of "The Body Issue" proper; rather, this was simply a focused look at how artists draw superhero physiques, which is an equally valid (and, really, more interesting) way to go with it. After all, the characters aren't real, but the artists are.

The original pieces are drawn by Cheung, Cho, Dauterman, Mike Deodato, Greg Land, Emanuela Lupacchino, Alex Maleev, Sara Pichelli and Leinil Francis Yu. All are colored by either Jason Keith or Laura Martin, with the exception of Maleev's Daredevil, which he apparently colored himself. The other art that appears, the previously used images of the heroes in costume that appear in the little circles, are from Kaare Andrews (Iron Fist), Mark Brooks (Ant-Man), Cheung (She-Hulk), Cho (Hulk, Medusa), Greg Land (Luke Cage), Salvador Larocca (Iron Man), Ed McGunness (Captain Marvel) and Paolo Rivera (Daredevil).
It was, of course, dispiriting, if not depressing, to see Land included here. He draws Ant-Man, but he only draws a random pair of hairless human legs, posed between a few ant legs, framed by a magnifying glass. Ant-Man (apparently Scott Lang) is given huge quadraceps and calf muscles, as if he were a weight-lifter, which doesn't really track with Lang...or original Ant-Man Hank Pym, or Irredeemable Ant-Man Eric O'Grady. It does track with what Land says about his source material, which will sound like a wildly, laughable inaccurate statement to anyone who has read many–or any–Land comics and picked out the many celebrity likenesses of Hollywood actors and professional wrestlers, of catalog models and, as he's most often accused of using, porn stars, seemingly light-boxed onto the page (or whatever the computer age equivalent of a light box is).

"I always try to have the musculature of something that could possibly exist," Land is quoted as saying. "Even though everything looks extremely exaggerated, I still want him to look like he can move and be functional...If I need reference, I have old body-building magazines–guys like Frank Zane who have strong physiques but don't look exaggerated. I take their figures and translate them into something that can work in a comic book."

Huh. I admit I haven't read many Land comics of late, as I actively try to avoid his work, but I saw no evidence in his work from a few years ago. Maybe he just recently started drawing without reference–note the "if" in that sentence about reference–and, when he did, turning to old muscle magazines, instead of Google Image. I guess I could check Mighty Avengers to find out, but that would mean having to look at Land's art, and I've done more than enough of that in my life time, thank you.

Regardless, it was still a fun little package, one that perhaps gave some clues about how Marvel sees its characters at the moment, and how it would like the world to see them. I wouldn't mind Marvel Comics producing a similar package in the future, one that takes advantage of the whole Marvel Comics Universe, regardless of which studio owns the rights to which characters. It would be a fun way to highlight the diversity of body types within their increasingly diverse universe, and the importance of anatomy in comic work and could take the place of the old swimsuit specials.


Scott Beattie said...

On a Greg Land-related note, it was really interesting for me to see some of his old work. I got into comics in the mid-2000's, so I was really surprised when I saw a No Man's Land tie-in that he actually drew. It was solid, if not particularly remarkable. I suppose one advantage(?) of his current comic "art" is that it is memorable, even if it's for all the wrong reasons.

Brian said...

I miss old Greg Land work. I remember back when he was the artist on Chuck Dixon's BIRDS OF PREY – he and Butch Guice effectively alternated and were a good match that way. Before Land got so into photo-reference as a way of speeding up his work (and then going completely overboard with it), he was a very good figure artist in the post-Neal Adams style (I can imagine an alternate timeline where he kept up the same style and was one of the artists on Brubaker's CAPTAIN AMERICA alongside guys like Epting, Perkins, Guice, and Lark).

On the The Body Issue topic, I don't think that Volstagg or Squirrel Girl fit into something like this. It's just a matter of heroes who look like pro athletes. Of course, synergy aside, I don't think that Iron Man fits in either – Tony Stark should be a guy who is a fit man who hits the gym and diets (he's wealthy, he's gotten over health crises, and he knows to look his best for the ladies), but he shouldn't look like a guy who spends his day training his body like that; he's a man who works 80 hours/week AND is a global crimefighter, after all! All steroid jokes aside, the Avenger to use would have Captain America.

The other body diversity point is that, even among fitness imagery, there's a diversity isn't shown here. The Hulk is ripped here – everyone is ripped here, as comics and pop culture are fixated on. One of the things that I've liked in the depiction of THE AVENGERS's Hulk is that he's shown with that endothermic powerlifter's build instead of being all cut: he's got a bit of gut amidst all the giant muscles as you see if you interact with guys who actually seek to massive build and gain (something very different from the martial arts style build of a Daredevil or the middleweight boxer build of a Captain America). That diversity is something that is very real and recognizable to athletics, but ignored in comics art (the Hulk body shown here is only even approachable through carefully-regulated steroids; yes, the *scale* of a Hulk is always impossible, but the style of the cinematic Hulk is done realistically as a powerlifter's "I eat lots of carbs and then lift as much as I can to build muscle").