We got a big response to my last piece on sexualization in superhero art, and I'm back today with another look at the same premise: that comics art tells a story, and on a certain level, you can judge it according to how well it tells the story it's trying to tell. This week, we're going to compare and contrast how a female character is depicted in cape comics, what stories are being told by the art, and how effective different artists and styles are at telling those stories. Specifically, we're comparing Greg Land drawing Psylocke in Uncanny X-Men #5 from 2012 and Jerome Opeña drawing Psylocke in Uncanny X-Force #4, from early 2011.
I chose two pages that shared several similarities. They both feature Betsy "Psylocke" Braddock, a character traditionally associated with out-of-control cheesecake, and show her using a sword, interacting with a teammate, and displaying some strong emotion. The specifics are a little different, but the overall point of both pages are clear: Psylocke is skilled with a sword and cares about things. Land's page fails in its intent, while Opeña's does not. Let's talk about why.
Land's page falls short for several reasons. The figure work is wonky; Psylocke's arms are stick-thin, and you never really get a sense of her figure. Not in a sexualized sense, but in a basic "how big is this person?" sense. Magneto is in the background of the first panel, and Psylocke is clearly in the foreground, yet they appear to be the same height. There's no sense of motion, either; it's not immediately clear that Psylocke is chopping through a jungle.
The faces prove even more problematic. The context suggests that this is a tense conversation about the loss of a loved one, but try to identify the expressions you see here on the page. Panel 1: Narrowed eyes and pouty lips. Determination? Anger, maybe? Panel 2: Pursed lips, head cocked, and eyes pointing off to the side. Realization? She's telling a joke, but it's a bittersweet one. Should she look like she's just thought of a really good idea? Panel 4: Open-mouthed yelling, clenched eyes, and a tensed body. She's about to shout "You monster!" or "You monstrous so-and-so!" or "You monsignor!" perhaps. She's certainly got an angry face, but here's the problem: her mouth is half the size of her face, and she has the most generic "yelling!" expression in the world.
I can't buy the text on this page because the art doesn't sell it. It's free of overbearing amounts of T&A, but none of Psylocke's actions reflect the mood a reader would reasonably expect her to have. There's no sadness beneath her happiness when she speaks of irony, and no actual anger when she gets angry. It expresses a general or universal idea of what "anger" looks like, but the problem is that generic depictions don't work half as well as specific depictions do. We all get angry in different ways, whether in terms of facial expressions or expressions of that anger. Screaming, open-mouthed rage is one thing. Is that really what she'd be feeling here, though?
There are also the basic issues that come with any Greg Land comic, such as Psylocke's stupidly large shape-changing sword and the fact that Magneto's helmet is different in every single panel it appears in. His swiping poses a number of problems with depicting not just women, but every aspect of a comic book. His action comes off stiff, his characters unrealistic, and his backgrounds inconsistent. You can't believe in a Greg Land comic past its thin veneer of pseudo-realism, and that makes it harder to believe in the characters he draws. What can you tell about Psylocke from this page if you ignore the dialogue? Next to nothing, I'd argue, and that makes Psylocke paper-thin.
On the other hand, we have Opeña's page. It has three panels to Land's five, but Opeña manages to say a lot while depicting just a little. In the first panel, we see Psylocke standing tall, right foot forward, and holding her sword like she's ready to go. There's a child behind her, giving her position in the room a sense of depth. Her teammates are in the foreground, weapons up. There's an air of menace in this first panel, and it's coming from both Psylocke and her teammates. The boy behind her is worried and scared. Panel three is close on Psylocke and we see her expression — resigned, sad, regretful, or some combination of all three — as she raises her sword. Her hair is bound up, her muscles are drawn tensed; she looks upset.
Just for funsies, here's a second Opeña page. One of the biggest sins of poorly-executed cheesecake is how it dehumanizes the woman. You never see her face, and the face is the most human thing about us. You see her boobs or butt or some combination of the two. On paper, this page commits several sins of bad cheesecake, and yet it still manages to be good.
You don't see Psylocke's face in panel one, but you can tell by how she's drawn that she's tense and ready for a fight. Panel two, she blocks the boy with the sword, putting herself between him and danger. And finally, in panel five, we can see Psylocke's boobs and butt simultaneously, except it doesn't come off as crass. She's pissed, and every line that makes up her body is devoted to screaming that she's pissed, and thus she has no time to pose like a pin-up.
Do you see how much more information, how much more story you get when your artist approaches the page from characterization first, rather than simply putting colorforms and poses on the page? Opeña has clearly taken the time to look at his characters as actors rather than pin-ups, and that effort makes all the difference. Psylocke is wearing what is (objectively, I'd say) one of the dumbest costumes in comics, but Opeña salvages it, and her, by depicting her as a genuine threat instead of a cheesecake model. Character counts, and if your art doesn't depict anything but the most generic qualities, the comic and character are going to suffer horribly.
It follows, then, that one of the routes toward improving the portrayal of women in cape comics is to improve the level of art that the average reader expects to see. We praise artists who depict women well, but we should expect that level of craft, rather than hoping for exceptions. There is a gulf in quality between Land's version of Psylocke and Opeña's, and there definitely shouldn't be.