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UUUGGHHH, goes up the collective groan. Another Manara parody?!
Yeah, well, I wanted to riff on the Manara cover last year when it was still news, but I was busy. I would have let the sleeping dog lie if the cauldron of controversy hadn’t been stirred last month by Frank Cho’s Spider-Gwen sketch. That somehow made it into my news feed, so – blame Mr. Cho.
Getting right to the point, I’m not wild about the cover. I don’t dislike Manara’s work, I don’t think the cover is outrageous, I don’t think it’s offensive – at least, not on a purely visual level. I simply don’t like what it represents.
I want to begin by saying that I don’t think Manara did anything wrong.
Illustrators have responsibilities. So do clients. Illustrators have a responsibility to produce art that will meet the client’s needs in the style that the client wants. Clients have a responsibility to communicate their needs to the artist and to select the artist who will produce the style of art they want.
Manara is a very established artist. Among other things, he’s been one of the preeminent eroticists in comics for, what, forty years now? That’s what he does, that’s his style. Arnold Schwarzeneggar plays every role with an Austrian accent. Manara draws erotic female figures on every job.
When Marvel hired him for the X-Women 1-shot in 2010 (in my opinion, a more transgressive piece of work than the Spider-Woman cover), they knew what they were getting. For heck’s sake, the description on marvel.com reads, “Storm, Psylocke, Shadowcat, Marvel Girl and Rogue save the world and look great doing it” (emphasis mine). For every subsequent variant cover they’ve commissioned from him, they’ve known what they were getting. Clients can always send work back for revision if it’s not what they want/need, or simply not print it. They printed it. Marvel editorial obviously thinks that the level of eroticism Manara brings to his superhero work is acceptable for the comic’s intended audience.
And, y'know what? I don’t unconditionally object to the level of visual eroticism in Manara’s Marvel work. It’s pretty tame stuff, and I think if it were presented in a context that warranted eroticism – a seduction, an intimate romantic scene, etc. – it’s entirely suitable for a mainstream superhero comic.
Now, having broached the subject of context, let’s get into this Hillary Clinton picture I’ve posted.
Hopefully your first reaction was laughter, because that’s what I was aiming for. It is absolutely the wrong context for sexuality, and I’m hoping there’s humour in that contextual dissonance. And, I also hope it helps illustrate the points I’m going to try to make here with anvil-drop subtlety.
Hillary Clinton wants to be evaluated based on her political acumen, her character, her ability to lead – not on whether or not she gives men a boner. The visual elements in her media campaign are going to be designed to make you think all kinds of things about her: that she’s down-to-earth, that she’s listening to you and is interested in your issues, that she’s strong and resolute – but eroticism won’t come into it.
Yet, she is certainly going to face more criticism than any male presidential candidate on the basis of how “good” she looks from day to day – whether she looks tired, or old, or cranky, whether or not her hair is done well, or her lipstick is the right colour, or her outfit is too stylish, or not stylish enough (female politicians can’t just wear the same suit every day). And she’s going to face these criticisms because that’s how we, men and women both, are enculturated to evaluate women in America.
Part of that process of enculturation is exposure to media. Books, magazines, television, films, and yes, comic books – in all of these media, every time we allow the sexuality of women to be evinced in contexts where the sexuality of men is omitted, we’re reinforcing the primacy of sexuality and physical attractiveness in our evaluations of women.
Some people think that’s the natural order; that a woman’s role, ordained by nature, is to be, first and foremost, pleasing to the eye. I think that’s horse shit. It’s cultural programming.
Publishers need to operate with an awareness of the fact that they are shapers of culture. Artists do, too – now more than ever, since any yahoo with an internet connection can reach an audience of millions with the right stroke of luck. But, publishers in particular need to be aware, because at this point in time publishers in print and traditional broadcast media still have significantly more cultural cachet than bloggers or online personae, and they have the resources to make sure that their media reach more eyeballs than independent artists who pray for the gods of virality to smile on their work. When a lone artist independently publishes something online, it’s a personal statement. When a publisher publishes and markets a piece of work, that’s the establishment taking a position of support behind an artist’s personal statement.
There have been two defenses for the Manara cover. The first defense is denial. “I’ve seen Spider-Man in that same pose a million times! There’s nothing sexual about it.“ This position is, at best, naïve. At worst, it’s ignorant. Yes, we’ve seen Spider-Man over and over again with his butt at the top of the frame, and his head at the bottom - but no honest person can look at Manara’s cover and deny that the butt is a focal point of the image, and that it’s been rendered in such a fashion as to appear essentially nude rather than costumed. In the image that went to the presses, the butt was considerably de-emphasized by the placement of the Spider-Woman logo, but the full artwork, sans-logo, was all over the internet, and it was plain to everyone who saw it that the piece was overtly erotic in character – and this has never been the case in any of the similarly composed Spider-Man images that we’ve all seen.
The second defense is not actually a defense at all: "yeah, Spider-Woman’s lookin’ sexy on the cover – so, what?”
Alright, let’s hew the weeds before getting into this one: if you are a man who says the word feminism with a sneer, you can probably just go fuck off right now. I hope some day your world is shaken by a woman that you actually respect as a peer, or you have a daughter and despair at the realization that she’s going to grow up facing a host of biases that you never had to. This little essay will probably read to you as some kind of softball “SJW” tract, and you’ll dismiss it off-hand. C'est la vie.
If you’re a woman who says the word feminism with a sneer, I honestly don’t know if I’ve got the persuasive power to reach you, but feel free to read on if you care.
For the rest of the “so what?” crowd: what do you think it says to 13-year-old girls who see Spider-Woman presented as a piece of ass on a comic-book cover, when they never see Spider-Man presented in that way? Remember, this is a T+ comic, a 13-and-up comic. What do you think it says to 13-year-old boys? It’s not saying Spider-Woman is strong, Spider-Woman is courageous, Spider-Woman is heroic – it’s saying Spider-Woman is sexy. And this is something that covers never say about Spider-Man or his male cohorts.
Who does this serve?
Well, it obviously serves people who enjoy Manara’s aesthetic. That goes without saying. And it serves Manara by exposing him to a large audience that may not be familiar with the foremost European comics artists. And it serves Marvel by giving them the prestige of saying “variant cover by international superstar Milo Manara!”
Does it serve the narrative? No – but this isn’t anomalous as the narrative function of comic book covers is being deprecated by the industry. That’s another essay.
Does it serve the character? Not particularly. In my reading of the cover, Spider-Woman isn’t portrayed as an action hero or crime-fighter or superhuman, she’s portrayed as some kind of sex object.
Does it serve the existing Spider-Woman fan-base? Only the ones who are interested in seeing the character sexually fetishized.
Does it serve to attract the book’s target audience? Probably not. It’s not an erotic comic book, it’s mainstream superhero stuff, so the cover could be seen as a bit of bait-and-switch.
Basically, the cover was printed because some people at Marvel – probably men – liked it and thought it would sell books. And they thought, hey, a little sexiness never hurt anyone, right? I mean, it’s not pornographic or anything!
But it does hurt. Equal opportunity for women is never going to happen without equal representation in government, in business, in academia, and in media. Maxim magazine, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, sexy depictions of female superheroes – these things aren’t inherently evil, but they’re symptomatic of a culture that sexually objectifies women to a far, far higher degree than it does men.
There’s a place in comics for sexuality and eroticism – even in superhero comics. But, I don’t think that routine, casual, decontextualized sexualization of female characters – titilation for titilation’s sake – especially in the absence of corresponding treatment of male characters, is acceptable in comics marketed to a very broad demographic that includes young teens and preteens.
There’s a bit of an unresolved issue in that, though: are comics like Spider-Woman marketed to young readers? The T+ rating that Spider-Woman carries is defined as “appropriate for most readers 13 and up, parents are advised they may want to read before or with younger children”. All that means is that Marvel thinks Spider-Woman won’t psychologically damage 13-year-olds; it doesn’t tell us who the book is actually intended for.
But the issue is moot, because here’s how this usually works: in comic book shops and book stores, care is taken to place the little kid stuff in one area, the adults-only stuff in another area, and everything else gets lumped together. So, regardless of the target readership, any comic book that isn’t for small children or strictly for adults ends-up being on offer to anyone who bothers to walk by the racks or shelves; nine-year-olds and forty-year-olds, boys and girls and everyone inbetween. Comics don’t advertise except in comics, so the cover sells the book.
I don’t think covers like Manara’s will psychologically damage 13-year-olds. I do think that they serve to maintain an undesirable status quo, though. When you’ve got comics reaching the same demographic as prime-time television, I think you have a responsibility to strive for fair and equal representation of men and women. I think this is especially important when you’re dealing with all-ages superheroes – characters that are traditionally intended to be positive role-models for younger readers.
* * *
I mentioned Frank Cho up at the top, so I might as well put my two cents in on that as well.
Frank Cho is allowed to post whatever the hell he wants on his own website. I read the Spider-Gwen sketch as light humour, and I don’t have a problem with it. Some find it objectionable that Cho did a cheesecake sketch of a teenage character, and I understand that point of view. Spider-Man’s reaction at seeing Gwen’s butt – it’s all-ages humour. Nothing worth getting up in arms about. The manner in which Gwen’s eyes are addressing the viewer, though – that’s where there’s a potential issue, and I’m sympathetic to those who take offense even though I’m not sure I do.
* * *
I also want to mention Alex Maleev. Maleev did some beatiful Spider-Woman artwork on the 2009 series that Brian Michael Bendis wrote. His renderings of the character’s costume were essentially nude as well, but there was no kerfuffle over his covers. I think there are two important points to make with regards to that.
First, I think the fact that Manara is well-known as an author of erotic comics really amplified the negative reactions against his Spider-Woman piece. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have made much news at all if it were a lesser-known artist. A few people might have blogged about it, but that would have been the end of it. Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing that it blew up the way it did, because it got a lot of people thinking and talking about sexualization and representation of female characters in comics.
The second point is that nudity isn’t always sexual. Manara’s cover isn’t problematic solely because of the treatment he gave to the costume – it’s more to do with posture and composition, and the way that Spider-Woman’s expressionless face is partially occulted behind a mask while her virtually naked body is left exposed to the viewer. It’s depersonalized, objectifying. Maleev’s Spider-Woman work, on the other hand, has a different tone to it. The covers for issues #4 and #7 in particular have a very intimate, very naked quality, but this makes them work as portraits, not pinups – Spider-Woman feels more like a person, and not a piece of meat.
My attitudes regarding nudity in art are pretty liberal. I don’t have a problem with it in principle. In fact, I think one of the things that makes superhero comics so visually compelling is the virtual nudity of superheroes. The expressive potential of the human form is immense. When we’re naked we are our most vulnerable, our most fragile, and yet how better can you illustrate bravery, strength, and courage, than by depicting a powerful naked figure in perilous conflict? It is strength and vulnerability in apposition – it’s high physical drama.
The hazard of this effectual nudity is that when you have a majority of male heterosexual illustrators, there’s an arguably natural tendency to see the female figure employed as an object of desire, and not as an object of expression. Editorial oversight is supposed to provide a check on this tendency.
* * *
That’s the last asterism, I promise.
Since I finished this picture a few days ago, I’ve started to second-guess myself about whether I should post it or not. When I look at it, I still think it’s funny. It’s silly. I did a picture of Betty White as a professional wrestler some years back and the humour of this works on the same level for me as that. The absurdity of it.
But, there’s also something slightly offensive about it, and I don’t know if it actually works as the satirical piece I intended it to be.
Who’s the butt of the joke, here? …Hillary Clinton? It’s not supposed to be a Hillary Clinton joke. I picked Hillary because she’s in the news a lot right now, and because she’s a woman with a very high public profile who is taken seriously as a professional – someone who doesn’t need to market herself as a sex symbol and who isn’t subject to the same pressures to do so that entertainers are subjected to – someone whose reputation would actually be adversely affected if she suddenly began to campaign in that way.
It’s supposed to be inappropriate – to say, hey, the gratuitous sexual objectification of women is out of control. Where does it end?
But I worry that what it will actually read as to a lot of people is, hur hur hur, Hillary Clinton is a woman, and this is what I think women are good for.
No way to know until I post it, right?
Okay. Here goes!