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A New Curve in Comics : Pop culture: Writers are shaping up their story lines by giving female characters more intelligence and equality. But the Playboy bodies are still there.


Comic-book heroines have hourglass figures, tight bikinis and long, flowing hair. Nowadays, though, they also have intelligence, perseverance, wit and equality as the comic-book industry tries to update its image without necessarily overhauling the medium.

The results are women who apparently have it all: perfect bodies, minds to match and leading-lady story lines, although not everybody sees the changes as progress.

The bodies are what strike you first. Flawless and well-built, they certainly represent a Playboy ideal, not a feminist one. But then, super-heroes have always had impeccable physiques. What is different, say those in the comic book business, is that the women have been sexualized to an extreme. "Feminine to the point of parody," said John Dacey of Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica. Brian Augustan, the editor of "Wonder Woman," specifically asks his artists not to go overboard but, he said, "It's like asking someone to draw Superman at 5-foot-10."

Even the heroines have opinions about how they are depicted. Take Black Canary, a leggy, busty, well-muscled blonde who in her moments of heroism wears a bodysuit, fishnet stockings and high-heeled boots. "This outfit's a real handicap in these situations," she mutters amid a chase. "There's something really stupid about keeping a sticky, wet wig on your head. . . ."

Said Danny O'Neil, Black Canary's editor at DC Comics: "The medium is growing up."

So are the characters. Stronger and more self-assured, they are evolving from helpless women needing rescue into leaders, vigilantes and breadwinners. No longer satisfied with merely being girlfriends or convenient victims, these women are leaving behind their dependent status and jumping ship to their own series. Wonder Woman, the mother of heroines, has always had her own.

Death, however, is a new convert to independent status. A spinoff character from "The Sandman," she is an upbeat, punkish 18-year-old who wears a symbol of life around her neck. Originally Sandman's older sister, she has become the centerpiece of "Death: The High Cost of Living," a special three-issue series illustrating the myth that for one day every century, Death becomes a mortal.

Her label is Vertigo, a new imprint from industry leader DC Comics. Vertigo is aimed at older, more mature readers, many of whom are women. Thus, it has more latitude than traditional comic books, which have catered primarily to adolescent males. "DC has been trying to portray women in a better light," said Karen Berger, Vertigo's editorial director. The women in this new line, she said, are just regular women. They are described as contemporary, liberal, grounded in the real world, and they have shed their triple-D cups for normal female bodies.

Normal female bodies, of course, is a relative term, as Flaxen, another heroine, can quickly demonstrate. She is the creation of Bill Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple, a comic book store on Melrose Avenue. Liebowitz based his character on a platinum-blond former Playboy model, Susie Owens, who is also the store's "living logo." Owens was a registered nurse who became a Playboy centerfold at 31.

The comic book details the ebb and flow of a young woman's self-esteem, turning her into Flaxen, the blond heroine, when it is high and Cora, the overweight nurse, when it falls low. As a bonus, a few photos and a pinup poster of Owens--complete with Flaxen's blue-and-gold bustier and heeled boots--are included in the package. "We didn't give her any special powers," Liebowitz said. "This comic is meant to serve as an inspiration, to show that the super powers are really within."

That a woman becomes a buxom blonde when she gains assurance and a registered nurse when she loses it might strike some as rather dubious characteristics for a role model. The irony of such situations is not lost on Trina Robbins. She is a writer and inker on the comic book "Barbie," a former illustrator for "Wonder Woman" and author of the upcoming book "A Century of Women Cartoonists."

Women characters have only regressed, she said, and drawings have become so much more sexist that they are now "exaggerated and stylized to the point of absurdity." In the 1940s, men were being drafted and their jobs in the comic book industry were filled with female writers and artists. That, she said, was the beginning of the age of action-heroines--women who were aviatrixes, war nurses or detectives; women who were, in effect, "strong, positive, beautiful role models."

The scantily clad, big-breasted women of today, she said, are merely the result of an extended male fantasy. Robbins points to the Black Canary series, whose writer, Sarah Byam, has been trying to do away with the high-heeled boots for ages. Byam has the character even go so far as to burn down the shoe store where the boots are being repaired. Yet, Robbins said, the male artist manages to bring them back in the next issue. Wonder Woman, she pointed out, has flat-heeled shoes.

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