Not to get all Dickensian, but the comic-book industry in the '90s was the best and worst of times. It was an exciting era for artists and writers who were no longer tied to the industry giants (Marvel and DC) and were forming their own companies. The Comics Code Authority, the industry's arcane version of regulating content (read: censoring it), was now being ignored by a new generation of artists, subsequently ushering in a new era of creative freedom.
"The '90s were definitely the era of women with broken backs," says San Diego comic-book artist Alejandro "Alé" Garza, referring to the extremely exaggerated female caricatures of the era, with breasts so large that it seems inconceivable that they could also fight super-villains. "It was the master decade of exaggeration—basically, taking any atypical feature and playing it up to the extreme."
Garza, who grew up in Napa Valley, says he couldn't help but soak up the style of artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld. As a teen, he started doing books for smaller companies, which ultimately landed him a job at Lee's La Jolla-based Wildstorm Comics. Now a well-established artist who's worked on comics like Spider-Man, Supergirl and Deadpool, Garza freelances out of a Golden Hill apartment and has the freedom to focus on original projects (his new Maiden Age series and a forthcoming graphic novel), but he says he supports this work by doing pin-up-style covers, mostly of female characters.
"The thing is that those artists are still working, and that style hasn't changed," says Garza, who'll make multiple signing appearances at Comic-Con. "There's no diminishing market for that kind of art, and publishers know that. Over the top, highly detailed and not entirely anatomically accurate—that's not going away."
However, some people still take issue with it.
"Women characters are hyper-sexualized," says Cathy Camper, a Portland-based artist and writer who just finished a new graphic novel called Lowriders in Space. "And like porn movies, women characters are often all looks, whereas the guys, even superheroes, can be dog-ugly."
Local comics fan Sasha Orman, who's only missed Comic-Con three times since 1999, agrees that the caricatures aren't based in reality.
"It would be really hard to fight in a strapless bustier leotard," Orman says. "Why don't more female superheroes get costumes that are well-designed without being pin-up art?"
Camper's car-centric Lowriders features a strong female protagonist named Lupe Impala who Camper says can "wrangle a wrench with the best of them." At the same time, Lupe also hangs out with a talking mosquito and octopus, so it's clearly a work of fantasy. Garza argues this point when defending his work.
"What it all comes down to for me is this: All the women I draw are empowered. They're strong, and, yes, they might look, quote-unquote, sexy, but I'll, quote-unquote, objectify a female just as much as I would a male," he says. "The men I draw look nothing like most guys. None of them have pot bellies or love handles, and more often than not, my female characters are kicking a guy's ass."
Garza also sees the industry moving in a more anatomically progressive direction as a new generation of artists establishes itself. "It's evolving into more naturalistic images," says Garza, who cites Babs Tarr's recent Batgirl redesign as more "anatomically grounded in reality." Yet, he maintains that comics are fantasy, and, as with any genre that's based in suspended disbelief, the artistic renderings of the characters will remain fantastical no matter the gender.
"Just like all art: It's an interpretation of a reality that doesn't exist," Garza says. "We don't really have talking, space-traveling raccoons, we don't have thunder gods walking around and we don't have telekinetic women controlling the world with their minds."
He chuckles and adds, "Actually, we might have a few of those."
Write to email@example.com.