Wonder Woman: Bondage (2005) developmental drawing. Bill Sienkiewicz.
Bill Sienkiewicz is one of comics' hushed voices. This is a medium full of career trajectories that tell deeply interesting stories, narratives that jump out at you from the wikipedia issue bibliographies or random appearances in quarter-bin books' credits boxes. All too often these narratives hit high points before ending in heartbreak, whether in the pages of comics that don't deserve the talent working on them or in drawings like these, random scatterings from projects with promise that never were. In a lot of ways what this picture is shorthands pretty well for the whole Bill Sienkiewicz story, or at least the parts of it that happened in comics. The guy hit the medium like a freight train in the '80s, moving from a black rain of Neal Adams-influenced typical superhero issues to lysergic, genre-exploding action comics like the Frank Miller-written Elektra Assassin to formalist, early artcomix rage in his Alan Moore collaborations and creator-owned Stray Toasters series. Then came the dropoff, the quixotic Jimi Hendrix graphic novel and the return to work-for-hire mainstream comics that followed, now largely minus the paintbrushes and typesetting and photographic elements that made Sienkiewicz's work sing in tones the medium had never heard before.
What was left was the line, the brittle, scratchy, deep-black curlicuing stabs into the paper, the rigorously imperfect tracings of perfect shapes. It's I enjoy Sienkiewicz almost as much as an inker of rote modern-superhero nonsense as I do in his electric-murderer mid-'80s mode. There's a frenzied darkness to this line, an Adams slickness run through with Egon Schiele poetic roughness. They look like work, these inked spasms, like the hand behind them is attached to a body that has something it needs to get through. And seeing it blasted on over some hapless hero hack's pencils, seeing it corrode and destroy and elevate, is quite something. But it's even better when Sienkiewicz builds the pictures from the ground up, when that line is structured by the same acme that produces it, when it's allowed to pull the images from thin air. It lets the artist go much more minimal with certain aspects of the figure than in any of his inking work -- those blot-ridden, sculpted legs are a minor masterpiece -- showing us where tics like the deep-focus hatching on the arms and the spiraling spotted blacks in the hair fit into the totality of the Sienkiewicz method. There's a weightless quality to this picture despite the near-chaos of the hatching, a perfect welding of stylistic expression to underlying structure.
That underlying structure is one that can use some unpacking, though. Genre comics, whether at their cartooned boldest or decked out with photorealist gloss, almost always deal in certain iconographic shapes: the hard edge of a square jawline, the rippling bump of a bicep, the flowing lines of a windblown haircut. Or the curves and swells of the modern image of a flawless female body. A geometry so precise that examples of it don't exist in the real world, but one so powerful that the hands of countless figure artists have graphed it, shaped it, known it intimately. It's a symbol, a stamp, an icon, and like all icons there's only one correct way of it. Balance is key, and so is vision: exaggerate too far and the realism leaves it. Fail to exaggerate enough and the idealism vanishes, the thread of fantasy drops away. Those essential elements, exaggeration, realism, idealism, fantasy, are merely the intellectual aspects of the purpose served by their outward manifestations. The flawless blank sections of skin, the pillowy breasts and thrusting asses, all in concert, none taking precedence. The purpose is titillation. Sienkiewicz knows his way through this process as well as anyone, and he does the "pretty girl" flawlessly here, complete with high heels and taut, expressive body language.
It doesn't have to be a bad thing that so many comics come with some kind of sexual excitement as part of their intended effect. There's a deep vein running between lust and aesthetic appreciation, and great artists that hail from and work in every demographic imaginable have gone down to mine it. But our lusts, our erotic pressure points, are so private and so personal that the very comics-specific creation of a single iconographic avatar to produce a planned reaction in them is questionable to say the least. There's also a much more significant problem. While comics' other iconic shapes code for individual characters with their own attached ideas, your Charlie Browns and Popeyes and Batmen, this particular one stands in for the generality of "woman" in a good... I'm going to say 50 percent of the comics you'll find in any store or graphic novel section, but it's usually much higher than that. This picture's got Wonder Woman, and that character is certainly the one most people would say if shown the shape and asked to name it, but the reality is that it has no name. And that given the effect the shape is designed to produce, it needs no name. It needs, as above, not even a face. Idealization can be a powerful thing, an empowering thing even, but the idealized shape in this picture isn't meant in the same way as the layers of musculature added onto the radioactive nerds who so often become superheroes on the pages of that same 50 percent of the medium. When it is made faceless, nameless, a shape alone, it -- "woman" -- is made to be what it all too often is: a blank sexual object.
The thing about this drawing is that you can know that, you can have a problem with it, but you can't deny what the other object, the drawing itself, is. It's an item of incredible craft, to my eye one of great beauty. Sienkiewicz's evocation of the icon gets at so much that's missing from lesser artists' treatments of it. The mix of roughness and grace in the inking, the sumptuous palette of lineweights that shimmers across the familiar warps and wefts of the shape, the textured modeling that lends a jarringly tangible quality to the fantasy object. There's also the subject matter, which makes it perfectly clear that Sienkiewicz understands what he's creating and choosing to satirize it. But he's still doing the same thing that the thing he's satirizing does, walking the same unsteady ground. A picture of Wonder Woman in bondage is about as loaded as it gets in the world of comics symbols, and I can't say whether or not it's a bad thing to take part in it any more than Sienkiewicz can really be called on the carpet for making it. I can drink in the beauty of the loose ink lines around the legs or the perfect alchemy of black and white that forms the metal breastplate all I want, but there are subject-specific elements of craft that make this picture so great at what it does too. The locks of hair spilling loosely on the floor. The fragile tension of the pose. The flat line of body against hard surface, all the way down. Those are things I'm not so sure about admiring, not so sure about pulling the beauty from.
They are native to a culture by men for men, expressions of a helpless woman meant to trigger male sexual response. They belong to a medium in which prominent female critics have stalkers, in which "tentacle rape" is a concept thrown into a bestselling book as a knowing wink to a hundred thousand fans, in which big industry figures cast doubt on women's ability to effectively serve on a jury. It's not Bill Sienkiewicz or Wonder Woman or bondage shots that causes me consternation in this image, it's comics. It's a word in the language, a common one like hey or girl. It's often been a beautiful one, and it's used beautifully here. This article is not a call for its abolition or curtailment. As with absolutely everything, comics have room to encompass it. But given the way it hits the vast majority of the medium's readership, it's a word whose power we should probably give more thought to. I live in Hollywood and I see women every day who have gone beneath the knife to make themselves look like this drawing. Sometimes I even find them beautiful. But it's never the same, and I think this picture is a good example of art that, while lovely, should stay on the page.
Bulletproof thanks to Tucker Stone for suggesting this panel.