Having thumbed through comics books and graphic novels in the bookstores over the years, I’ve noticed something about them: Every leading male character has the sculpted look to them, with muscles larger than life and virtually every ounce of fat sucked out. Their jaws are always chiseled their biceps are always bulging, and they always have buns of steel.
And if they don’t have that physique like Batman up there, that simply means they’re not important and probably some sort of adversary to the main character.
In fact, in an article from Men’s Health Online, Marvel artist John Romita Jr. describes the process of drawing a comic book hero. He states that an average comic book hero is 9 heads tall, is 50% more muscular than the average man, and is drawn to represent a body fat content of approximately 3-5% (Romita, “How to Draw a Comic Book Hero”). In comparison, when drawing an average man, they’re approximately 8 heads tall, and muscle mass and body fat content is subjective to the subject of the drawing.
So why beef the boys up? Simple–no one in their right mind wants a weakling for a hero. Take, for example, the 2001 film adaptation of Spiderman. After being bitten by the spider, Peter Parker wakes up the next morning to discover a new, muscular body to replace his previous “geek physique”. By adding more muscle to him, he becomes more heroic. Pasty, skinny Peter Parker can’t save the world, but masked and muscular Spiderman certainly can!
However, this “ideal hero” image gets completely flipped on its head when we travel across the globe. While flipping through innumerable manga books, I’ve also come to notice another trend: The bishounen hero. “Bishounen”, which translates from Japanese as “beautiful youth (boy)” (“Bishounen”, Wiki Answers), refers to an art style in which the male is drawn as tall and thin, with lanky arms, angular features, and long hair. Many manga series feature a bishounen male as either the leading character or some kind of companion to the leading character. Some famous examples are Naruto‘s Sasuke Uchiha, Bleach‘s Ichigo Kurosaki (who can be considered bishounen by his tall, lanky figure, despite lacking the long hair), Hellsing‘s Alucard. and Inuyasha’s dog-demon siblings Inuyasha and Sesshomaru. Generally, any muscular man in manga or anime is some kind of hired goon for the main antagonist, or being played for laughs, as FullMetal Alchemist does with Major Alex Armstrong.
So why the difference?
While Western comic books have turned men into heroes by buffing them up, here, the male characters are turned into heroes by being romanticized. These are the boys that are too pretty to possibly be true. Coupled with a tragic backstory that usually consists of parental death or abandonment (or, on occasion, both), they become the heroes because the audience is attracted to them, but also sympathizes with them. They appear fragile, but underneath, are capable of being just as much a hero as any muscular goon.
It’s something that I’ve decided to write on because I found it interesting. Why is there such a difference? Is it a cultural difference–Western culture values physical strength in men, while Eastern culture values physical beauty in men? Is it what sells better? Or is it simply personal choice by the artist that leads to such a vast difference between the beefcakes and the bishounen?