Perhaps the most surprising discovery, going through the old comics in the Smithsonian collection of newspaper comics, is how wide a range of body types the strips from the 1920s etc. show--before the so-called era of "realism" in comics. Young, pretty girls are all hourglass-shaped but slender, but other women and all men come in a range of sizes that is astonishingly realistic. Also, in the 1950s through 1980s or so in mainstream comics, when a character is fat, that defines him or her--that's hir gimmick. This is not true of the early comics.
Note, it's not the presence of fat characters per se that I find so amazing, but the range of body types. Another way in which the fat body is unrealistically portrayed in many works is that there is no gradient of sizes--in fact, there really often is no midsize at all, just "normal" and supersize fat. Even in an otherwise-realistic work like Sandman's story-arc "A Game of You," the butch lesbian Hazel stands out because she's the only slightly hefty character in a world of slender (almost everyone)/obese (Despair, a homeless woman, a domineering mother). Astro City, which seems so surface-level realistic, is even more disappointing in terms of body types; even stereotyped fat people seem not to exist.
I'm also working on how realism comes back into comic art: and in terms of the field itself (as opposed to cultural influences on the field), it's largely the undergrounds, especially (1) autobiographical works like Lee Marrs' and Aline Kominsky's and (2) lesbian/feminsist works that make a deliberate effort to include a realistic spectrum of racial, sexual, and body types.
My other main approach is looking at how fat characters in particular are presented. In some ways, I'm finding this less interesting, because there are fewer surprises, but it's still worth presenting in a codified way. Types that I have noted so far include the sidekick, often more wily than he appears to be, such as Woozy Winks and Wimpy; the strong/bossy woman, usually a mother and/or henpecking wife, which goes back almost to the beginning of comics; the rich person, at first male or female (think the Dithers in Blondie) and later mostly just male (through The Kingpin and, sometimes, Lex Luthor); the strongman, usually a villain (the Blob, for instance); the half-heroic, half-parodic character, such as Herbie, going back to the Red Tornado (the one who looks somewhat like Forbushman), who comes out of the strong/bossy woman tradition.
Whew! Obviously, whittling this down to a 20-minute presentation is going to be my next step, but right now I'm still going through materials and hunting up leads, to get a feel for the whole issue. ("The Zeitgeist? You're soaking in it now!) I find this stage very pleasurable, and it does help in my analysis when I do focus my topic more precisely.
Thanks to womzilla for both nigh-infinite comics knowledge and physical work digging up back issues; and to supergee for other research help, including finding that The Journal of Popular Culture is available in PDF files online.
Mood: interested, cheerful, trying to keep balance instead of going too short on sleep