From Pin-Ups to Ass-Kickers: Girls in Comics Go Through Transitions

Comics is a medium that invites reader participation. One of the insights from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (HarperPerennial, 1993) is that comics require readers to complete the action, filling in, or inferring, the missing movements between panels. The simplicity of the technologies for making comics, essentially pencil and paper, further beckons readers not simply to participate in the narrative, but to become artists themselves. I doubt that there are many comics readers who, at some point in their lives, haven’t attempted to draw or trace their favorite characters. The more serious of those will begin to experiment with design, not just reproducing, but remaking, whoever catches their eyes, mind, and heart.

Professional artists have long had opportunities to turn these reworkings into pin-ups for publication in trade collections, or in the back of monthly issues. The internet has widened the field for sharing, while also opening it up to more artists, both professional and aspiring, and to fans with a penchant for drawing.

At the end of this past summer, via Dean Trippe’s and Chris Arrant’s Project: Rooftop, which is dedicated to, “Superheroes, Redesigned”, I saw the late Mike Wieringo’s (The Flash, 1993/1994, Tellos) Supergirl redo, which got me thinking about the nature, particularly, of fan and artist redesigns of female superheroes and what publishers might be able to learn from these unofficial ‘commissions’. The distinguishing characteristics of Wieringo’s design, as compared to the character’s official look, are typical of what fans and artists choose to do when reimagining female heroes.

Ross Campbell, March 2007

First, the shorter haircut is not only more practical than the classic flowing blonde locks, it also gives her a more serious and mature look. Giving women characters more of an ‘edge’ is a mark of these redesigns (look at Ross Campbell’s, Wet Moon, punked out, and dark-haired version of the character for an extreme representation of this tendency).

Women superheroes are often given costumes that are meant, first, to showcase their bodies, or to convey notions of femininity structured by the (heterosexual) male gaze, and are only secondarily created to fit the kinds of physical things these characters do – fight, fly, jump, intimidate.

Where Supergirl is concerned, the skirt is the primary sign of this sexiness/femininity first approach to women superheroes in mainstream comics. Wieringo has dispatched the skirt entirely, giving the character a full body suit instead. Even though the ’90s are over, in the comics, Supergirl, more often than not, is shown in a belly shirt, which Wieringo’s body suit also eliminates.

Scanning the contributions during Project: Rooftop’s, “Fashion emergency, Supergirl!”, event (from March 2007), while different artists deal with the skirt differently, virtually all of them made a choice to either get rid of it, or to directly address the problems posed by the garment by adding leggings or tights (she’s a teen-aged girl who flies, get it?). Equally notable is that most of the artists give her a covered midriff.

Michael Turner, from
Superman/Batman, vol. 2, DC Comics, 2005

As I note in a related column, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Supergirl’s Shorts” (20 November 2009), disputes about female characters and how they are attired is quickly framed in terms of “sexy” and “not sexy”, as if what appeals to the limbic systems of 12-year-old boys is what should define “sexy”.

Wieringo’s design, while it eliminates the fantasy of an upskirt, and also eliminates gratuitous skin exposure, hardly hides her body. While covering her up, the suit is form-fitting. The fact that “sex” is not the first thing that the costume signifies does not make it lacking for style or interest as fashion.

What this reworking does do is make the character appear self-aware, and like someone who dresses for her work, and not for the eyes of boys first. Discussions of the redesigns collected at Project: Rooftop make clear that one consideration given to both the making of the new looks and how they are evaluated is that they appear to be something that a superpowered teen girl in America might want to wear, and that Kara Zor-El, in particular, would want to wear. That determination is, as it should be, a complicated mix of practicality, personal sensibilities, and style.

Presented with the diversity of Supergirls at Project : Rooftop, I question why the actual design of the character has remained so static. I think it’s fair to suggest that the only ‘innovations’ with influence have been shorter skirts and exposed bellies. There are two arguments in favor of the status quo that I can think of.

One is tradition. Whatever you might think of the skirt, or the character’s basic look, it is canon, and, in the mainstream of American comics culture, you do not change canon lightly.

Appeal to tradition has its value, and arguably helps to deflect ill-advised changes as much as it prevents good ideas from being realized, but tradition is one thing when it comes to Superman or Spider-Man, characters that, for better or worse, are iconic, whether one reads comics or not. Few, maybe no, female superheroes are as culturally significant as the headlining male figures in the Marvel and DC universes. And those that come close, Batgirl, Supergirl, are all too often, in concept, little more than female versions of male characters, and not original creations.

The main problem when it comes to defending tradition in relation to women and girl superheroes is that tradition has not done well by these characters. Assigned supporting roles, placed in the background, subjected to bodily threats and drawn into sexualized poses that male characters are not, ‘tradition’ when it comes to female superheroes is not an innocent appeal to honoring the past, but a political argument about the (marginal) place of women in comics.

And where female characters are concerned, tradition is clearly, already, flexible. The original Supergirl and her readers would no doubt be scandalized by the current length of her skirt and exposed skin, not to mention her toned physique. So, while this reaction has its own issues when it comes to women, girls, and gender norms, it also suggests that the canon is only as fixed as publishers want it to be.

Closely related to tradition is fans, or readers, as a reason to retain a character’s look, or to at least avoid significant change.

I maybe wrong, but I doubt that Marvel or DC have done fine-grained market research on what readers think of the way their characters are drawn and costumed, male or female, but, particularly, I do not think that much is actually known about how wedded fans are to, for example, Supergirl’s skirt.

While I wouldn’t argue for artists being bound by market research when drawing characters, it seems clear enough that publishers place limits on what artists are allowed to do with the design of characters, and major changes, such as the recent redesign of Wonder Woman by Jim Lee with writer J. Michael Straczynski, are normally yoked to particular story changes, and not simply introduced as a matter of course.

Yes, there are undoubtedly readers who would complain, possibly loudly, if Supergirl were remade in Wieringo’s image, let alone Ross Campbell’s, but it seems unlikely that many would go so far as to cancel their subscriptions, or stop reading, for solely that reason.

Many of those who have put pencil to paper, or its digital equivalent, to begin reworking the looks of female superheroes do so as fans, or at least as people with some kind of affection for the characters. Fans and readers aren’t monolithic, and for publishers sometimes a choice needs to be made in terms of which fan constituency to appeal to in the design of characters and the direction of titles.

One insight I take from looking at many of the female character redesigns online is that there are comic book readers who take female heroes seriously as heroes and would like to see them drawn in ways that make them look as if they are ready for action in the skies and on the streets, and not on stage or by the pool. In this light, neither ‘fans’ nor ‘tradition’ are persuasive arguments to demur on the question of character design.

Most importantly, unofficial, off-page, reworkings, like Mike Wieringo’s Supergirl, contain in them additional layers meaning and new ways of thinking about characters that may exceed the current horizons of publishers. When it comes to women superheroes, that excess should be welcome.