Comic books are famous for stylized portrayals of men and women, with men being fetishized for strength and women for sex. Some depictions of breasts are so exaggerated that they look as though the woman has two inflated balloons velcroed to her chest. Superhero characters are intended to be exaggerated versions of humanity – that’s why they are “super”. Reams have been written about the discrepancies between how women and portrayed and how men have been portrayed, so I won’t revisit that here, except to say that as a woman, I’d much rather my superpower involve muscles than gravity-defying inflatable boobs. Once in a great while, we get a moment of refreshing anatomical realism, and one such moment occurs early in Girl Genius.
Girl Genius is an online comic by Phil and Kaja Foglio. It’s set in a steampunk fantasy land, with a main character named Agatha. Agatha is a lovely young woman who spends a lot of time in Victorian underwear. She’s a buxom girl in true comic book style, and what with the Victorian melodrama and the underwear, her bosom heaves attractively for many pages, until a miracle occurs. Agatha faints, and when she’s drawn as resting on her back, her breasts flop over to the side, just a little. The sight of Agatha’s floppy breasts is the most charming sight I’ve every seen in comics, a medium in which breasts have supernatural abilities to stick straight up in the air regardless of the position assumed by their bearer.
Comic books are about heroes, but not all of them are about the kinds of superheroes with magically enhanced physiques – and that’s important, because it suggests that all of us can be heroes given opportunity, motivations, and, ideally, an enormous bank account. Agatha has a lovely figure, but it’s not a bizarrely exaggerated one. She looks like a person. In Saga, the comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, Alana is very fit, but not super-humanly, so, and she complains about having “Squishy bits” a few weeks after giving birth. The women of Elfquest are famous for having a variety of shapes and sizes.
Of all the things I’ve ever gotten excited about in my life, I would not have expected to get so excited about the existence of a single panel that happened to include the natural positioning of breasts. But in a medium in which women’s bodies are distorted to comical levels in the search for eroticism, it is so refreshing to see an artist display a concept of what a woman’s body might actually look like. It has a larger importance, as well. Agatha, who has an essentially supernatural gift for invention as well as a natural talent for leadership, and Alana, who has no supernatural powers but a great deal of training and motivation, qualify as heroes. The relative realism of their bodies lends credibility to their stories, which take place in fantastical worlds. The realism of their bodies also suggests that real women, with real, complicated, sometimes wonderful and sometimes inconvenient bodies, can be heroes. There’s a place for the art of exaggeration, but there’s a place for gravity and squishy bits, as well. It’s good to be reminded that in the fight against evil, magical breasts are a bonus, not a necessity.