The Cover (Non-)Story
Comic book cover controversy is apparently in this year. I can’t wait for 2015 to bring a whole new thing we should be outraged about, because this one is as dumb as dumping a bucket of ice on your head during a drought.
Before I dive in, let me note that this post my opinion and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of others who contribute to this site. Okay?
The first kerfuffle started ruffling feathers this past Spring, with this cover for Teen Titans #1:
It should be pretty obvious what social critics found most objectionable about the cover, even if the argument is reducible to “the artist acknowledged that women have breasts.” Yes, Wondergirl is a teenage heroine (although not necessarily underage, and gasp, teenagers have anatomies as well), but besides the mere presence of breasts, there is nothing especially lurid about the picture or Wondergirl’s pose or position. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other problems with this cluttered mess of a cover, but from an artistic perspective, the boobs aren’t the worst of it. It’s the ‘what the hell is going on here,’ of the composition that gets to me.
Of course, the Teen Titans were only the tip of the iceberg.
This week, the comics world has been aflame with stories about Milo Manara’s variant cover for the forthcoming Spider-Woman #1:
A canny reader can probably work out what part of this picture has had the Internet social justice warriors sharpening their swords all week. Never mind that this is a rare variant cover, drawn by a world famous artist who is widely known–like other luminaries such as Frank Frazetta–for his erotica, which should suggest that his work would emphasize the female form. The commentary ignores the real artistic crime: that apparently, Spider-Woman looks just like this guy:
Jokes aside, yeah, her butt, it’s like, right there. But you know what? That’s a pretty classic Spider-Man pose. How about this one:
What we have here is a picture of Peter Parker in a state of estrus, presenting like a baboon of the Serengeti. Or, maybe just climbing on a wall, like he has for the past sixty years, just like Spider-Jackson… I mean Michael-Woman… ahem, Spider-Woman is in the picture above. Yes, her butt is in the air, but I haven’t seen many complaints about Peter Parker’s myriad contortions, which often put his Ken Doll crotch front and center of the cover, or poses like the above that make him look like he’s auditioning for the part of ‘the catcher’ for some especially racy direct to DVD content. The fact is, comics distort the body, artists will portray their peccadilloes, and not every cover which features a woman not clad in a burqa requires a renewed dialog about the male gaze–especially when comics, not to mention the films, are overwhelmingly filled with unrealistic portrayals of the male physique.
I recognize that my position could be construed as concern trolling by some. But the fact is that people, both men and women, enjoy depictions of the human body that accentuate the things that we find attractive. The vast majority of the Spider-Woman audience will never see the variant cover in the flesh–it has been vastly amplified by bloggers and news sites running with the story. Truthfully though, it’s innocuous. Is that butt crack an inch too deep? Maybe. But in the grand scheme of things, why care? Don’t buy that one, and get the other cover. Or don’t buy it at all. But if you’re going to bitch about a little booty on the cover of a comic book, try to be at least a little reflexive when you’re fanning out over Chris Platt or Chris Pine’s abs the next time you go to the movies. Or, if you’re like this Slate writer, decry this:
in the same article you’re praising this:
Because that just makes you look fucking stupid.
With the Teen Titans cover, it’s that the artist gave her giant, fake breasts. There’s no way those things are natural. Natural boobs do not work the way the artist thinks they work. And she’s a teenage girl with her huge fake boobs practically popping out of her top. Teen Titans is a book that really should be trying to appeal to an audience of girls – the same ones who loved the Teen Titans cartoon – but instead, it’s making an effort to turn girls away.
With the Spider-Woman cover, part of it is that Marvel’s been doing so well lately when it comes to female characters. They’ve got a bunch of female solo comics, all of them really good. Ms. Marvel’s been getting a lot of love as one of the best new characters in years, and for being one of the most fun, cute, cheerful, optimistic comics out there. They got national press attention for their Lady Thor announcement. So they’ve been building up a lot of goodwill when it comes to treatment of women. This cover feels like backsliding, and that’s something most of us want Marvel to avoid.
Also, your comparison to a Spider-Man pose is a false equivalence. Compare the Spider-Man pose you chose to the Spider-Woman chose. Don’t see the difference? Then I’ll tell you: Spider-Man’s costume acts like fabric, squaring his ass off. Spider-Woman’s costume acts like body paint, clinging to cause the world’s ultimate wedgie. Here’s another difference: Spider-Man’s butt is fairly flat relative to the rest of his body. Spider-Woman’s ass is way in the air for no damned reason at all. The fact is, they’re not at all the same, or similar.
Ultimately, these covers are used as examples of problems in the And comic book industry. If these were isolated incidents, then no one would particularly care. But they’re part of a larger trend, and a trend that has almost certainly been hurting the comic book industry. A person looking at those covers is going to have the takeaway that comics are for horny, perverted men wanting to jerk it to the women. These covers promote the idea of superhero comic fans as man-children living in their mom’s basements.
Taken on their own, these covers are meaningless. Taken as part of a larger trend, they become a lot less meaningless. It’s like the Bechdel Test: An individual movie failing the Bechdel Test isn’t a problem. If 90% of movies failed the Bechdel Test, that would be a deeply worrying trend.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
I disagree on the Teen Titan’s cover. Yes, she’s busty, but she’s hardly falling out. If anything, she seems somewhat corseted, which–given the pedigree of the character–would not be surprising (many in the media are clamoring for a Wonder Woman movie… I wonder how many of those same have already written their ‘Wonder Woman’s roots are in male bondage fantasy!’ for the next round of outrage?). Does the character have sexual characteristics? Yes. Is she being especially sexualized? Not really. She’s just there, at the center of an admittedly badly composed picture, in a position of authority. Yes, parts of her breasts are visible, but they’re the same part that people make visible every day in more demure outfits. In contrast to say, I dunno, Witchblade, is this really so provocative?
To your second point, I completely agree that the big guys have been doing much better about issues of gender and sexuality lately. I’ve written numerous posts about titles that I adore, like Young Avengers and Runaways, and I praised Marvel just a few weeks back for Lady Thor. But this cover? It’s not backsliding. Hell, it’s not even especially provocative. There have been She-Hulk covers in recent memory that are way more WTF than this. This feels like outrage for outrage’s sake to me. And frankly, my comparison between the two poses is not nearly so disingenuous as you suggest, I’m afraid. They aren’t precisely the same, no, but they are very similar, and they show the same set of contours. The only arguable difference is that S-M’s costume does look more like ‘cloth’ and S-W’s clings like spandex or the like. Other than that, the differences are much more a product of sexual dimorphism than composition or content.
To your point, I agree that there are problems in the industry with how women are some times portrayed by artists, but things have vastly improved, are continuing to get better (tho there is a long way to go, to be sure). But an odd cheesecake cover hardly demands the opprobrium that the Spider-Woman cover has garnered.
Chris, I’m usually right there with you on most subjects, but I think this post seems a bit tone-deaf on a couple of points here. Personally, I’m not offended by the cover, but I do think it’s sexist, for reasons I’ll explain below.
First off, I’ve never seen anyone use the phrase “social justice warriors” as a way to dismiss a person’s or group’s concerns out of hand. It’s a null-value phrase, like “feminazi”, and needs to die.
So, the cover is a variant, drawn by a guy whose known for his erotica. All true. Also maybe a reason why Marvel should have known this was coming. I realize that it’s just the internet, and controversy boosts sales, but I really hope no one at Marvel is shocked by this. That, I think, is an undercurrent of the Spider-Woman cover debate: Marvel either deliberately engaged an artist known for erotica and approved this iffy cover knowing that it would be controversial, or they had no idea that anyone would find it objectionable because (and I’m speculating, not stating) they’re a bunch of guys who don’t have to think about these things.
Your Spider-Man picture isn’t really equivalent. First, it’s a wall-crawling pose, clearly. Spider-Woman’s pose is just awkward. She’s on a roof, so she’s not wall-crawling. She’s on at least one knee, so she’s not in any sort of attack position. She has her shoulders down, but her butt up in the air, and her head at what appears to be a 90 degree angle that should be cracking vertebrae. And as Xmenexpert pointed out, spandex doesn’t just doesn’t behave like that.
As far as “unrealistic portrayals of the male physique” goes, here’s how I think it breaks down with regards to exaggeration in comics art:
Women’s bodies are exaggerated to enhance their sexual characteristics, so as to appeal to men.
Men’s bodies are exaggerated to enhance their strength and power, so as to appeal to men.
It’s the old phrase, “men want to be him, women want to be with him” in tights, basically.
And finally, I’m going to throw your question back at you: Why care? Some people think the cover is sexist, and while they may enjoy pictures of attractive people, they might prefer them not to be quite so blatantly selling sex if they’re supposed to be selling superheroes. You disagree, clearly, but so what? Your lack of concern doesn’t invalidate or disprove anyone else’s concerns.
I also disagree with you about the Spider-Woman/Nicki Minaj thing, but if the reasons the blog writer gave weren’t convincing, me restating them won’t help.
Amazing comment, as always. And you’re right – I’m being a little tone deaf and extra acerbic, but it is somewhat intentional. I’ll go point for point.
Re: Social justice warriors. It’s not a phrase I especially like to deploy, but I think that it effectively describes a growing contingent of that I think of as the perpetually offended. Whether the offense they feel is for themselves or on others behalf, the social justice warrior misses one very important detail about the world: Not all things are made for them, nor should they be especially crafted to conform to their delicate web of triggers and preferences. And that goes double for art. Is the cover sexist? No, it’s neither prejudicial nor discriminatory on the basis of sex. Is it provocative? Yes, it is–it was designed that way, and Marvel has afforded readers a number of very clear choices to navigate these rocky shoals. The first choice might be, “don’t buy this limited edition variant cover, buy the mass market cover instead.” The second choice might be, “Don’t buy Spider-Woman #1.” The third choice might be, “Don’t buy Marvel comics at all.” My position is this reducible to this: It’s art. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to buy it, but Marvel’s growing cachet as a more inclusive label should not be undermined by the odd stray cover, or disproportionate bosom. It’s two dimensional graphic art. It’s not always going to conform to life like a Dove soap commercial.
On point two, I’m still wrestling with the wall-crawling pictures. They seem very parallel to me, even though she’s on a roof (mostly) and he’s ostensibly on a wall. If anything, Spider-Woman’s awkward pose is exacerbated by the fact that one of her legs is still dangling off the edge. That said, they’re both undeniably awkward poses from a long legacy of awkward spider-posing. I disagree about her head and neck though – she’s slightly contorted but its not unnatural. The most unnatural part of the picture above the waist is the Michael Jackson of it all…
On point three, I wholeheartedly disagree. Women’s bodies are exaggerated to appeal to men… and also to women. And men’s bodies are exaggerated to appeal to men… and also to women. Bodies are exaggerated in media because people like bodies. The male gaze is a thing, but the female gaze is too, and it’s one of the worst myths going that women are only ever offended by depictions of women that accentuate secondary sexual characteristics. A far more apt, albeit distressingly awkward turn of phrase might be, “Men want to be him. And some men want him, and some women do too. And her? Yeah, a lot of men want her, and so do quite a few women. And some women would like to be her too, no doubt… And yeah, some men want to be her as well.” The days when the male gaze was the sole driving force for how people are depicted in media has largely passed. We can acknowledge that some (many? most?) women like pictures of pretty people too. And bad ass people. And badass people who are also pretty people too.
On point four: I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s concerns, though I may disagree with them. I like to think of it as participating in the shouting match. If people feel the need to post opinions I disagree with (that Marvel was foolish, regressive, sexist, etc. for having a provocative cover), I certainly see no reason why I shouldn’t voice my disagreement with (a very little bit of) wit and (much more) snark. What does concern me is the prevailing sense that such art should not be, or that Marvel shouldn’t be an outlet for it. It’s not my cuppa – I’m certainly not going to buy Spider-Woman #1 with either cover, because I have no interest in the title – but I’ll defend the artistic choice to have her butt in the air against anyone who says she shouldn’t.
As for the Nicki Minaj thing, also not my cuppa… but I think the Slate blogger’s position is just dim. The logical conclusion from her argument is thus: any vaguely erotic art that depicts a member of the sex opposite that of the creator in a way that a member of the depicted sex finds somehow questionable is inherently creepy. By that logic, Christian Grey’s existence in the popular consciousness is a constant offense to me, and any of the myriad of artistes on Deviant Art posting romantic depictions of Harry, Draco, and Snape having sexy time by the Whomping Willow should be tried for war crimes. It doesn’t compute.
I don’t disagree about the “perpetually offended.” There are certainly people who pick battles that I wouldn’t consider worthwhile, and some who seem to argue simply to argue. And yes, you certainly can voice your disagreement any way you choose. But really, that’s what I’m talking about. You dismiss their opinions as a “(Non-)Story” in the course of giving your own opinion.
I’m of the opinion that discussions like these are rarely about the thing they’re focused on. I don’t think this is really about Manara’s Spider-Woman, and it’s not even really about censoring artwork. I think it’s about recognizing that yes, there are men and some women who enjoy this kind of artwork, but that there are also people who would prefer a more balanced, NON-exaggerated female presence in comics. It’s about a largely male creative base accepting and accommodating women and girls as an important part of the comics community. When you’re making art for a mass audience, you can make pure art that the audience can take or leave, or you can consider the audience as a factor in how that art is created. Whether it’s true or not, some people think that Manara’s Spider-Woman cover, and the idea of hiring an erotica artist in the first place, is symptomatic of a larger problem in comics that needs to be addressed. You say “The days when the male gaze was the sole driving force for how people are depicted in media has largely passed,” but I think this exactly what leads to Manara variant covers. Which I would be happy to move away from, if for no other reason that man, you’re right about that face. His faces are just awful. It’s like all of Steve Dillon and Carlos Ezquerra’s worst artist tics combined into one.
I’m late to the discussion, but here goes. A better comparison of Spider-butts:
I think Maddox broke it down even better in his video here:
A couple of things here: Spider-Man is crawling on criminals that he’s captured, and who are done up in spider-webbing. So he’s more-or-less posing in a spidery way. The focus of the picture (in my opinion, anyhow) is the center of the webbing mass, with his head and the terrified criminals. The Spider-Woman cover, on the other hand, shows her…climbing onto a roof. It’s not an action shot, she hasn’t done anything, she’s just posed. And while Spider-Man’s butt is on top of the picture here, Spider-Woman’s butt is up in the air for…reasons. The whole thing just looks awkward. I don’t buy the argument that the two pictures are the same.
And wow, that guy in the video is really angry.
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