Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why Marvel gave us a sexualized Spider-Woman no one asked for

Warning: This post contains some NSFW images from artist Milo Manara's portfolio.

Over the past week, Marvel found itself in a storm of criticism after revealing sexist cover art for its upcoming Spider-Woman comic. After finally getting a comic of her own, Spider-Woman is pictured atop a building, arching her back to present a heart-shaped butt to the city and the comic's readers. She looks more like an extra in Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" video than a crime-fighting superhero.

What's even more strange is that Marvel had been riding a streak of good press and even praise for its treatment of female and minority characters.

After a wave of criticism, Marvel, the artist who drew the cover, and the comic's writer have finally responded. And not all of them seem to be on the same page. Here's a brief guide to the cover everyone's talking about, for those of you who don't know Spider-Woman from Spider-girl.

So what's the cover everyone is talking about?

It's a variant cover of Spider-Woman #1. Variant covers are special covers that aren't as common as a comic's regular cover:

Spider-Woman

Spider-Woman #1 (Marvel)

That's — hmmm.

Racy. Yeah.

Here's a comparison of how Spider-Woman poses and how Spider-Man poses:

(Marvel)

Isn't that how women in comics have usually been depicted?

Yeah. Let's be clear, superhero comics aren't the place to look for realistic depictions of both male and female bodies. In the superhero world, obese characters (see: the Blob, or the X-Woman Karma when she was possessed) are rarities. When they're seen, they're usually a punchline to a joke. Most superheroes, regardless of gender, have abs that have abs.

But female characters have an added layer of sexualization that their male counterparts often do not. Female superheroes' (and villains' too) costumes are far more revealing. Women in comics also often pose like centerfolds. Oftentimes, you have male artists drawing these women and putting them in these positions. As an example, here are two different covers of solo comics for two popular X-Men characters in 2003:

Emma Frost #3/Wolverine #4 (Marvel/Marvel)

"A woman might find these big dudes attractive, but they're not designed for her; they're designed for him. The same 'him' that the female heroes have traditionally been designed for. It's all for him," Andrew Wheeler wrote at Comics Alliance.

A common refrain from fans who think the cover is overblown is that comics are made for the men who read them. Never mind that that narrow-minded comment really doesn't do comics or their readers justice. It also ignores research that says the gender split of comic readers isn't that large. Or consider this: more than half of the attendees at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle were women.

That said, there has been a shift towards (though there's plenty of work to be done) better depictions of female characters, especially from Marvel (see: Captain Marvel; Ms. Marvel). That's one reason people are so disappointed with this cover.

Who drew it?

Milo Manara, a veteran artist who is known for his work in erotic comics, drew the variant cover. As The Mary Sue, site that focuses on women in geek culture, pointed out, the Spider-Woman pose is strikingly similar to Manara's erotic comics work:

Click! #2 (Amazon)

Has Manara said anything?

Yes. And it's not going to satisfy critics.  Manara has responded to the criticism, by minimizing the importance of his own comic.

"[I]t seems to me that both in the United States and around the world, there are things much more important and serious to worry about. What's happened in Ferguson, or Ebola's dramatic rise, for example," he told the Italian comics site, Fumettologica.

He then, with the adeptness of a master troll, compared the complaints about his comic to censorship, and also managed to throw in a reference to Islam:

Unless the point is that, in these days, a sort of hypersensitivity to erotic images is spreading, maybe due to the ongoing discussions we are facing related to Islam. We know that censorship on woman's body should not be a Western trait. That too, is quite surprising to me

Does he have a point?

No.

The argument about censorship is a straw man. No one wants Manara to stop drawing covers. There's a place for erotic comics and that kind of imagery. People who enjoy Manara's work in that capacity should be able to enjoy his art.

The problem is that no one was really asking for Spider-Woman to be an erotic image.

At major comics conventions, Marvel often holds a panel called The Women of Marvel. It's a panel where the company's female writers, creators, editors, and artists talk to fans. They candidly address things like sexism in the industry, the lack of women in the industry, and the representation of women in comics. There's a lot of frustration aired, but also a lot of inspiration too.

Part of that inspiration comes in the form of comic announcements that usually involve female superheroes — female superheroes who, until recently, did not get the spotlight their male counterparts did. At New York Comic-Con last year, the panelists announced that She-Hulk and Black Widow would be getting solo books. At San Diego Comic-Con this year, Spider-Woman's solo was announced.

And Marvel's female-led solo books are, usually, a place where characters aren't overtly sexualized. Ms. Marvel, one of the company's best-selling books, is about a Muslim teenager with shape-shifting abilities. Storm's solo series is about a character battling with morality and pride. Captain Marvel has been about reclaiming a character that used to be a sex object, instead highlighting her struggle with being a leader.

There was an expectation that Spider-Woman would follow that lead. This cover didn't really match up with the tone of those solo books.

What has Marvel said?

"I think that the people who are upset about that cover have a point, at least in how the image relates to them," Tom Brevoort, Marvel VP of publishing, said on his Tumblr. But he also, more or less, said that people should have known better when the company announced a "Manara cover."

"Milo Manara has been working as a cartoonist since 1969, and what he does hasn't materially changed in all that time. So when we say 'Manara cover,' his body of work indicates what sort of thing he's going to do," Brevoort wrote.

Though Brevoort explained why people shouldn't really be surprised or offended with a Manara cover, he also never explains why Marvel Manara was chosen for this particular cover.

How does Spider-Woman's writer feel about it?

Not good.

Dennis Hopeless, the comic's writer, acknowledged the sexualization of the cover and addressed it on Twitter. "I can promise you we have no intention of blatantly sexualizing any of the characters in our story," Hopeless tweeted.

Hopeless also distanced himself from the cover art: "I don't have any input at all on covers. You have my word that our story treats Jess with the utmost respect."

When does Spider-Woman's comic come out?

The comic is slated for November.

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