The Diver, by Sef Joosten
My friend Sef Joosten (his blog! His dA!) sent me this sweet drawing of the diver. He says the diver’s chest hair looks like a cross-eyed wolf, and I’m inclined to agree. It got me thinking, though!

Hair in comics is a strange thing. No wait, let’s take that back a step. Hair is a strange topic in general. Less the hair on the head (which still manages to have lots of issues, but there are plenty of books about head hair an how it relates to gender and race and all that, so I won’t even try to talk about that), but specifically body hair. I’d say is one of the most culturally-charged body parts.

The slow buildup of soap scum we commonly call culture (read: rules that we, as a group perpetuate, and learn to enforce) has a way of putting pressure on the individuals within it to conform to certain expectations of propriety when it comes to body hair. Some cultures define smooth arms, underarms, and legs as the pinnacle (and by extension, the only form of) attractiveness in women. Some demand the opposite. Back hair in men is disgusting, but arm hair is fine. Chest hair has to go, but beards can stay. Your feet can’t be hairy and you must have sideburns to be sexy. Like etymologies of words you can trace back to roots thousands of years ago, traditions and perceptions of beauty start somewhere practical and morph/evolve over time as usage reshapes them into new, and when looked at from the outside, bizarre, seemingly arbitrary forms.

You always have to question external forces that tell you something genetic is disgusting or inherently wrong when it’s completely harmless. A little bit (or heck, a whole barrel-full) of iconoclasm is good for sanity in cases like these. I feel like before I continue I should mention that I grew up in Australia and then the United States (in Southern California, no less), so my experiences with these issues have been colored accordingly.

Page 9 of Alpha Flag has the diver stripping out of his dive suit to take a shower, revealing that he has quite a fair bit of body hair! Most men have body hair. It spans from small clusters of hairs that you could easily count, to a light dusting on the abdomen, to a full pelt like the diver, to more (what comes after a pelt? A suit of armor? That sounds pretty rad. Let’s go with that)! And then the hair comes in all sorts of shapes and patterns, growing in all sorts of directions. I find the differences and patterns fascinating! It’s like if fingerprints had a stronger connection to genetics. Yet, it got bundled in with fashion somewhere along the line, so we have to deal with real, specific demands being placed on all of us all the time. Demanding people shave their entire bodies is unreasonable when being hairless is “in”, and growing “attractive” distributions of hair is unfeasible (the bald spot under my chin killing all hopes of a beard is proof), just how women can’t just have the “perfect body” that’s popular this season.

Culture isn’t a single, unified front, though, so those subjected to it don’t receive a uniform message. When it comes to things mostly spoken about subtextually like appropriateness of men’s body hair (the message is pretty clear for women in America, so I’ll focus on the dudes), we only get told small chunks of what to do/be, so expectation gets confused. Ask women/gay men/whoever is into men how they like body hair in their partners and you’ll get wildly varied–I’d even say polarized–opinions, with an overall cultural trend emerging only after you collect enough data. Then it usually lines up with popular celebrities/advertising campaigns/culturally projected messages that match up with the ages of those polled.

What does this have to do with comics? Well, in mainstream American comics, body hair has become codified to mean very specific things, most of the time. If you’re hairy, you’re generally feral (Wolverine), from an ancient, brutal ancient civilization (Marvel’s version of Hercules, the modern Hawkman, [Puck]), or evil (too many to list).* It’s really easy to lean on people’s prejudices about certain features to establish your character quickly and without much effort, but it’s so incredibly lazy and generally ends up with you holding an incredibly flat, boring character. I guess I should be glad that some characters even body hair at all, though. For the first couple of decades of comics, showing anything remotely sexual (like traits that appear post-puberty, or heaven forbid nipples on men, the scandalous things) was outright banned. Now it’s only de facto banned by male artists not wanting to seem gay for drawing sexualized (as in, having sex. Not even being sexy.) men. There are comics published in 2010 where a shirtless male character will have a completely hairless body, no nipples, and no crotch as if the hero is some kind of action figure come to life. It’s just silly when compared to the super-sexualized women that stand next to (/behind) them.

*(Of course, there are the occasional heroes that flip back and forth between some and none depending on the artist drawing them, but that’s more of a problem of consistency from comic-to-comic, and that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)

I guess I just wanted to write this so I could link people when they ask, as they always do, why X character is “so hairy” when they have any form of drawn on body hair. Not drawing body hair is weird. It’s real. People have it. Characters having it shouldn’t really be noteworthy.