A recent Batman story had the character flung back into prehistory, where he communed with cavemen while dressed in underpants. The story was illustrated by Chris Sprouse, who is a superb draftsman in many ways, but he has a particular gift for archetypal square-jawed, broad-shouldered masculine men.
I saw Sprouse at a convention over the summer, when he had just got back the original art for the story. He could barely have had a chance to set up his table, and already one of the key images in the story had been snapped up by a collector. This is that image:
Can you guess why it sold so quickly?
This seems to happen all the time. Any comic book image that presents a guy in a masculine, attractive, and preferably flesh-bearing pose will sell like a shot.
Partly this is because there is a hungry and under-served gay audience. I also met Archie Comics illustrator Dan Parent at a con this summer, shortly before the publication of the issue of Veronica that introduced gay character Kevin Keller, and the art for that story had already sold. It sold even before Parent got the art back from the publisher.
But it’s not just the gays, of course. Another artist at the same convention has a gift for drawing pretty fellas, and the poor guy doesn’t quite know what to do with the swarms of young women who come to him asking for commissions and throwing hundred-dollar bills in his direction.
Here’s a great unspoken secret about comic art. There are people out there who want to see hot guys. And they have money. And very few people seem willing to take that money from them.
Most comic artists today are honestly a little lost when it comes to the notion of attractive guys. Women are objectified all the time in superhero comics, and you’ll sometimes hear it said that the guys get exactly the same treatment. They’re hunky and handsome and dressed in skin-tight costumes. It’s the same, right?
It’s not the same. Female characters are sexualised. Their sexual assets are amplified by their poses, by their costumes, and by their mutant anatomy. Males are not drawn sexy or sexualised. They’re drawn strong and hyper-masculine. That can lead to attractive images, but usually only incidentally – and accidentally.
I used to have a convention sketchbook where the theme was ‘beefcake’. It was not a huge success, because too many artists would visibly flounder and panic at the idea of drawing a guy ‘sexy’. Though they would try their best, and though most of them produced terrific sketches, most of them failed to grasp what ‘beefcake’ meant. Some put the men in cheesecake poses, or cheesecake outfits, as if just swapping out female anatomy for male would achieve the desired ends. Many of them made a joke of it, giving the character a funny word balloon, as if it were too embarrassing to commit seriously to the idea of an attractive man. Some of them just drew a picture of a man, and neglected to give him a shirt. And a very few of them did a great job. Mostly the gay guys. Or the lady guys.
For future reference, here’s what beefcake is about. It’s the sexualised presentation of masculine men. Men as sex objects. It is the masculine equivalent of cheesecake art, and it can be humorous and charming, but it isn’t a joke in itself, and it isn’t just ‘cheesecake with men in it’.
The men in beefcake do not lie down and stick their bottoms in the air, or bite on a fingertip and flutter their eyelids. Beefcake is not submissive. Even when the guy is beaten, bruised, or tied to a chair, he should be confident and defiant. (Beefcake icons like The Spirit and Nightwing are constantly beaten up or tied up. You usually wouldn’t see cheesecake that explored these motifs because ‘tied up’ paired with ’submissive’ moves you into different territory.)
Beefcake guys may offer a knowing sneer or a glowing smile, but they do not offer themselves up the way cheesecake girls do. Rather, they present themselves. That’s a subtle but important difference. They are still there to be looked at, but they’re not there to be taken. They alsowon’t dress in nipple pasties and a scanty thong, but they should show some skin – not because they dressed up sexy, but because their shirt got torn, or they just finished swimming in the lagoon, or, hey, they just weren’t wearing a lot of clothes today. It was warm on the ranch!
A cheesecake girl coming out of the shower may blush and try to cover her curves with a too-small towel. She will playfully pretend she’s been caught out. A beefcake boy coming out of the shower will let his tiny towel slip a near-indecent degree while he smiles and wipes back his hair with a conveniently popped bicep. He hasn’t been caught out at all. (Importantly, neither image should cross the line into nudity. In my view, explicit nudity has no place in either beefcake or cheesecake art.)
You’ll notice that these suggestions play in to sexual stereotypes that are better left to the past in our real world interactions. However, these are still the fantasies that work. Fantasies were never meant to be the basis for polite social engagement or sound legislative policy. Fantasy is not correct.
I admit, despite the message, and despite my gayness, I love cheesecake art. I love the aesthetic, the joy and the wit. Just about every artist I see at conventions can manage a little cheesecake art. Most Artist’s Alley tables will have a cheesecake print or two. Evidently it sells.
I think it would be worth those artists’ time to try their hand at a little beefcake as well. It may push some artists a little outside their comfort zone, but that’s a good place for an artist to be.
So here’s my challenge to comic book artists. Make a print. One good beefcake print. See what happens. The audience is out there. You just haven’t tried to tap in to it yet.
And here are some final tips for achieving good beefcake. If you’re using an established character, steer clear of the leading man – he’s too squeaky clean. Go for the underdog or the bad boy; the Jason, not the Mark. Always remember that the V line, from the broad shoulders to the tight stomach, is as essential to beefcake as the hourglass is to cheesecake. And finally, steer clear of gags and punchlines. No-one wants to see a beefcake clown. No-one.