Beefcakes vs. Bishounen: A Comparison of Comic Book and Manga Male Characters

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?

  3 comments for “Beefcakes vs. Bishounen: A Comparison of Comic Book and Manga Male Characters

  1. jrandal2
    April 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    This is fascinating, and a good addition to the earlier blog post about the Hawkeye Initiative, in which body image of female characters was questioned. I love that you pointed out the differences in comic representation between American comics “Beefcakes” and manga style “Bishouden”. I would like to think that it might go along with the manga art style and therefore make sense that manga style makes their men more physically realistic. Remember in the beginning of the year, when Scott McCloud defined the types of panel transitions? Well, manga uses a lot of “aspect to aspect” transitions, which focuses on tiny details and on capturing the world around them. In this case, it is mostly the human world being captured, so I would guess that it goes along that they try to show aspects of humans as they naturally appear (that is, not having only 2-3% body fat and ridiculous muscles). Also interesting to note, is that when manga do include buff male bodies, it is generally to show “tough guys” or bullies (I’m thinking Harima from School Rumble if anyone is familiar). The ideal image of “hero” from american standards is projected as being inferior most of the time to the delicate male in most manga, a complete 180 from american comics.

  2. Kate D'Andrea
    April 5, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I think this was a really interesting topic to write about. I’m glad you pointed out Alex Armstrong because he is really only played for laughs (other than times of muscular activity). There’s nothing overly sexual about his muscles, unlike some American comics which tend to sexualize a super hero’s body. (See: Batman’s nippled out chest plate)

    I think the root of the difference lies in who the comic/manga is targeting. American super hero comics tend to pander to teen/young adult male audience, which view muscly men as very desirable and powerful. Manga, on the other hand, has a wider audience demographic so must play to a more generalized version of what the most amount of people are going to find attractive.

    This is a well done post.

  3. John
    July 1, 2013 at 11:48 am

    It’s not that manga don’t have muscular studs as heroes, it’s just that manga as a whole is more diverse than Western superhero comics. Take one of the greatest manga of all time that is Dragonball for example. The saiyan warriors like Goku and Vegeta may not be as big as The Hulk (in this case, Broly would be more of a matchup), but they sure are all more muscular than Batman and pals. And there are much more than Dragonball, say Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, Kinnikuman, etc. And when I say Manga is more diverse I mean not only the way the characters are drawn, but in general (the topic, story/plot, setting, etc.) In manga, it’s not always about a hero fighting villains and trying to save the world from apocalypse.

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