There has been a lot of buzz about Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman, a variant released after a new Spider-Woman solo series was announced to be written by Dennis Hopeless (Cable and X-Force, Avengers Arena, Avengers Undercover) with art by Greg Land (Iron Man, Mighty Avengers, Uncanny X-Men). On the heels of successful female solo titles from Marvel recently, like Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, She-Hulk and more, there is certainly a bright beacon of hope for those wishing for more quality comics featuring female protagonists that are more than just sexy lamps. I’ve personally been a fan of Spider-Woman since Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias, and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Avengers Assemble series did a lot to give the character a fresh, new voice. Rarely has Jess gotten the solo notice she deserves, so the promise of a new solo title that (hopefully) lasts beyond a handful of issues? Dare to dream, Jessica Drew fans.
There was immediate outrage after the cover first went on-line, and while I take no direct issue with Manara’s style, I do take issue with how it’s used. Erotica has a place in art just like everything else, and it’s okay to enjoy it. It’s also okay to critique it, particularly when it ends up on the cover of a book that has absolutely nothing to do with eroticism. The obvious anatomical problems have already been illustrated much better by others, and they’re as relevant as every other impossibly positioned woman on the cover of a comic book. However, my main concern isn’t necessarily how physically problematic Spider-Woman is drawn, nor do I think balancing the ratio of male to female characters sexually exploited in comics will actually help as some have previously suggested. Fighting sexualization with more sexualization only further embeds the already inherent problems in the system. I don’t feel the crushing weight of inequality because male heroes aren’t as frequently drawn in the same objectifying way that women often are, and while there have been some humorous attempts, that’s only one side of the issue.
The fact is, female characters in comics are frequently sexualized in ways that men are not. From covers to interior art, this speaks to a larger issue that doesn’t stop with Manara. For decades, female characters have been objectified and frequently depicted in manners that are both degrading and offensive, and those are just a few examples. For how far the industry has come in just the last handful of years, there are some points of nostalgia that may not actually be appropriate anymore. Comics seemingly promoted to attract a female audience are still often drawn for the already attentive and biased male gaze, which is how covers like Manara’s Spider-Woman still happen, and how the hilarious but all too close to the truth Hawkeye Initiative was even born. At one point this sort of provocative cover may have played a larger role in turning more potential readers off from picking up a comic, but the status quo is shifting. Female readers are coming in newly determined droves, especially for comics about and created by women. What kind of message does it send when a new female-led comic book is introduced with blatant eroticism? Hint: a really bad one.
In Manara’s response to the criticism he stated, “It’s not my fault if women are like that”. Objectification of the female body in comics has become a semi-permanent fixture to the point of passing as normality, so this point of view in the industry isn’t a surprise, but is it still acceptable? More women are reading comics now than ever, and the female gaze isn’t necessarily interested in sexually charged covers, though there’s always room for an appreciative eye no matter your orientation. The difference is in the infrequently sexualized ways that men are displayed. Somehow, they manage to still maintain some dignity, while women are blatantly bent over rooftops or stripped of their clothing to show how powerless they are. Characters can and should be sexy, but it doesn’t get you very far if that’s all you’re bringing to the table. A female superhero posing suggestively to an insignificant background says nothing except how she looks, offering nothing else. Why can’t we simply have good covers that are reflective of the comics and characters being marketed to us? Covers like these illustrate how women can be sexy while still remaining powerful. Even the DC Bombshell variants, which you would expect to be over the top, were less provocative.
Publishers need to figure out what message they’re trying to send and how to send it. Hiring Manara to do a cover for the first issue of a new, female-led series was maybe not the best way to promote that, but the artist isn’t to blame. In fact, there are times when even Manara’s art isn’t the most provocative, at least when it comes to the male superheroes. The underlying issue is that it’s not just Manara, it’s the general attitude of the industry towards female characters who allow these covers. This isn’t about policing what others find ‘sexy’, or art censorship. This is about the conscious choice of a publisher to include such a provocative cover that’s helping to introduce a new female driven title, and boiling her down to a sexual object because that’s the way it’s always been. That excuse doesn’t work anymore. What is considered sexy is in the eye of the beholder, but in a long list of examples this Manara cover clearly illustrates that sexy can only mean one thing when drawing a female superhero. If Marvel is intent on moving away from this stigma, they (and other publishers who feel the same) should reevaluate the way they view their own female characters and how they choose to promote their titles. If you know what you’re getting when you hire an artist like Manara, is it so ludicrous to think they could have gone with someone else for that project? Apparently after some thought Marvel already has, though that kind of solution feels like a quick fix with a band aid, and not actually addressing the source of the problem.
It’s not the main cover, and yet this variant is getting more publicity then the actual comic itself. A shame, but it’s sparked a crucial conversation. Female readership is at an all-time high, and covers like this Spider-Woman variant are giving readers the wrong impression before the series has even started, making the statement that this is about how sexy she looks and not how powerful she is. It’s the archaic attitude of the publisher assuming that female character eye candy is enough, when it’s not anymore. I do believe there should be something for everyone, but that isn’t the balance we currently live with, and that needs to change. This isn’t a cry to stop artists from making art, or for Manara to never do work for Marvel again. He still is, by the way, but this was never about ‘censoring’ an artist. This is about company based decisions that reflect negatively on comics as a whole. Is it too much to ask that we save the eroticism for what it’s actually meant for — erotica? Maybe start a line based solely on sexy superheros, a collaboration of artists similar to Marvel’s Strange Tales that has nothing to do with a current ongoing series. Give the people who want eroticism what they want, and give the people who want art that actually reflects the comics that they’re buying what they want. Covers like these anti-bullying variants still clearly illustrate who these heroes are and what they stand for. Why couldn’t a Spider-Woman variant show something like that? Just because something is ‘the way it is’ doesn’t mean it has to stay that way forever.