Spider-Woman’s Ass and the Comic Book Boys’ Club

If you follow the world of comic books (and if not, why are you reading this? This is an article on a comic book company’s website), you know that the biggest story this week has been Spider-Woman’s ass. Marvel released an image of a variant cover to Spider-Woman #1 by Milo Manara this week, and it caused a bit of an uproar. That, normally, wouldn’t be enough to get me to sit down and write an article about it, but the backlash against the uproar disturbed me enough that I felt compelled to voice an opinion.

There are two covers to Spider-Woman #1. One is by Greg Land:

Fasteball special!

Greg Land is an artist who, if you’re not familiar with his work, literally traces photographs for his comic art, and there’s strong evidence that many of those images were originally pornographic in nature:

None of these people are actually supposed to be having sex
None of these people are actually supposed to be having sex

Surprisingly, the Land cover is not the one that caused an uproar for being overly sexualized. No, the cover that caused all the commotion is a variant by European erotica artist Milo Manara:

Isn't she looking heroic?

First, let’s be realistic about what we’re looking at here. This is a sexualized image of Spider-Woman. She has her back arched in a way that is anatomically questionable, and certainly not practical, and she has her buttocks pointing out in a very suggestive way. Her nose is tiny and her lips are full and pouty. This is a sexualized image. If you can’t acknowledge that, then you don’t get a seat at the grown-ups table. Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, in a Tumblr response to the controversy, said, “It’s also, for a Manara piece, one of the less sexualized ones, at least to my eye.” Less sexualized than most of the art of a man known for drawing erotica, but that’s an admission from a Marvel higher up that the image is sexualized.

Before I delve too far into the controversy, I will say that, prior to this cover, I wasn’t familiar with Manara’s work. Shocking, I know, but I’m not too into European erotica. Looking at his body of work, he’s certainly a talented artist in his chosen style and field. This image isn’t among his best. Ignoring the sexualized nature for a moment, there are noticeable anatomical problems (what is going on with her neck?) and perspective issues with the background.

Some people have commented on the issue, and I’m referring specifically to female commentators here, because they’re the ones people are getting up-in-arms over. There are some professional artists whose work I admire greatly who, when this story broke, came out with a resounding and, sadly predictable, round of, “Oh, great, here comes the complaining from the feminist wanna-be artists.” Because, of course, the only reason anyone would ever dislike something is because they’re frustrated that they aren’t able to do whatever it is they dislike.

(On a quick aside about comments on the Land cover: there are literally entire websites dedicated to arguing that Greg Land is a hack and figuring out what movies, other comics, and pornographic films/pictures he takes his imagery from. But those are run by guys)

It’s disheartening to hear that sort of talk from artists whose work I admire. As someone involved in the comic creator community, even if on a much lower level, these are guys I’ve admired. I think their artwork is fantastic, and I’ve had to opportunity to spend time with some of them at conventions, and they’ve been nothing but great to me, even if I’m a relative nobody.

I must also say that I find a couple of things wrong, offensively so, about that statement. The first is that “feminist” is not a dirty word. Feminism simply means the belief that women should be given equal treatment and respect to men. That’s not a terrible concept, but the word has been twisted over the years to conjure all sorts of horrible, emasculating stereotypes. The second part of the statement that I take offense to is this notion of “wanna-be artists.” To my mind, there’s no such thing as a wanna-be artist. I’ve had numerous people talk to me at conventions and store appearances and tell me they wanted to be an artist, or they were an aspiring artist, or whatever, and I always look them dead in the eye and tell them they already are an artist. If you have creativity in your heart, if you express yourself through some sort of artistic medium, you are an artist. You might not be a professional artist, you might not be on the level of skill that you’d like to achieve, but you’re already an artist.

A defense I’ve heard in favor of this cover is that “Manara’s a master of female anatomy,” implying both that, because he’s a master, he’s above critique, and that he actually is a master. I guess drawing something over and over for many years gives one greater knowledge of that thing than people who actually possess it? Telling women that Milo Manara knows female anatomy better than them is more than a little insulting.

All this talk of raging feminists and attempts to silence female critics really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It seems there are many who view the world of comic books as a boys’ club. How dare any “outsider,” someone who’s not a professional in this industry, and especially a female outsider, dare to criticize “one of our own.”

I get being defensive. I get it. The comics community is a tight knit group, and that’s awesome. I’ve often found it to be one of the greatest things about comics how open it is to people with a genuine passion for it. I’m a virtual nobody in the world of comics, and yet I can go to a show and get the same table space and foot traffic as J. Scott Campbell or David Finch. I can rub elbows with Chuck Dixon and Greg Horn, and have conversations with Talent Caldwell and George Perez where I’m treated like an equal. It’s a great feeling. To then see that not everyone is given that same equality and welcoming is really sad.

Women make up at least have of the population of the planet (and people who love women make up even more), so why not try to include them, if not strictly from a business standpoint? And, seriously, who wants to go to a party with no girls? I’ve had the guys at my day job trying to get me to go have a beer with them every weekend for the last month, and every week we have the same conversation: “Will there be any women there?” “Nope, just creepy, socially awkward dudes.” “No thank you.”

One argument I’ve heard put forth is that Spider-Woman is, by her nature, a sexual character. “Isn’t part of her powerset pheromones that she can use to seduce people?” Well, yes, but I have to shake my head when people can’t understand the difference between sexual and sexualized. Women are, shockingly, people, human beings, and human beings, like all animals, are sexual creatures. They like sex, want sex, and have sex. And that’s okay. That’s more than okay. It’s pretty great. It’s debatable whether Jessica Drew having pheromones as part of her power set automatically makes her a “sexual character,” (especially when you examine how screwed up her backstory is otherwise), but when you reduce a woman to her physical form, and an exaggerated, nearly-impossible physical form at that, that’s not a woman being sexual, that’s sexualizing a woman. The woman depicted on the variant cover of Spider-Woman #1? That’s not a woman in control of her sexuality and her agency, that’s an object of desire for men to beat off to.

I’m reminded of a scene from this summer’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” a scene which, due to the cyclical time-traveling nature of the film, happened over and over again. When Tom Cruise’s character first meets Emily Blunt’s character, she’s doing push-ups, and gets off the ground in the most amazingly sexualized way possible, by pressing her pelvis against the floor and giving her back a ridiculous amount of chest-thrusting curvature. It wasn’t sexy. It was actually kind of funny. It was the same footage played again every time that moment came up, and I can see why. There’s no way that kind of movement can be comfortable, or easily replicable.

But, without that, how will we be reminded that Emily blunt is attractive? You know, besides looking at her. Emily Blunt doesn’t need to go through all that to remind us she’s sexy. Emily Blunt looks sexy running, jumping, punching, shooting, stabbing, or even just doing the damn push-ups. Because Emily Blunt’s a beautiful woman. Spider-Woman is a woman in a skin tight suit who goes around kicking ass. She’s a super spy who can fly, bench press a semi-truck, and shoot electricity out of her hands. That’s hot.

Look, I’m not a prude. Far from it. Ask anyone who knows me. I enjoy sex. I enjoy erotica and pornography. But there’s a time and a place. The workplace is usually not that place. A fast food restaurant is not that place. The parking lot outside of an office supply store is not that place. And the cover of a mainstream superhero comic, one that’s attempting to depict a strong, empowering image of a female character, is not that place.

Without a doubt, this Spider-Woman cover is a sexualized image of a woman. A high-ranking rep for Marvel admitted it is. Some argue that Marvel would never depict a male superhero in this way, while others will post pictures of Spider-Man that do show off his curves as he crawls, though none of them actually attain quite the spine-breaking curvature that’s on display in this picture. A counterargument I’ve heard there is that men and women are idealized differently by society (though in this instance, we’re talking about the sexualizing of a character/gender, which is a very different thing than idealizing). That’s a whole other argument, but it got me thinking: let’s set aside the male vs. female issue. I think part of the problem here is that the Manara defenders see an object of desire, a beautiful woman, idealized in a way that they find appealing: that is, with her butt in the air and legs spread. Because they find the image appealing, they won’t admit that it could be offensive or off-putting to anyone. And because it was done by “one of us,” they won’t stand for any detractors who aren’t part of the boys’ club.

What I’d like to do is image what the reaction from those same defenders would be if she were idealized in a way that was not as appealing to their ultra-macho, super-hetero viewpoint.

As Brevoort himself has said on Tumblr, “When we say ‘Manara cover’, his body of work indicates what sort of thing he’s going to do.” Yes, because he’s an artist of erotica. His body of work is provocative pictures of nearly-impossibly sexy people, sometimes doing very risqué things.

Instead of a noted artist of female erotica like Manara, what if Marvel had instead hired an artist well known for drawing futanari? A guy with just as much experience and just as long of a career. The “king” of futa. That guy has to be out there, because futanari is a thing. We wouldn’t even have a name for it, and you wouldn’t all have known what I was talking about, if it wasn’t a thing.

Instead of a woman with her apple-shaped butt a little too high in the air, the viewers were presented with a woman thrusting her crotch towards them, with a noticeable bulge in the front of her tights. No nudity, as one of the lines of defense being offered for the Manara cover is that “she’s not naked,” though her costume appears painted on. So no, no nudity, but the central focus of the hypothetical cover would be a well-defined penis and pair of testicles visible through her body-hugging suit.

I couldn't find an actual futa image of Spider-Woman that wasn't NSFW. Or almost any futa that wasn't NSFW
Okay, I couldn’t find an actual futa image of Spider-Woman that wasn’t NSFW. Or almost any futa that wasn’t NSFW. Just imagine these girls were posed in a position just as compromising as the one Spider-Woman was drawn in.

Would the people currently defending Manara be so quick to pull out the, “That’s just his style” defense when faced with an image like that? To some people, that’s an idealized image, as much as Spider-Woman’s butt all up in the air (it must be, or futa wouldn’t be a thing, and we’ve already established that futa is a thing). Should Spider-Woman, or any mainstream comic character, be depicted thrusting their erogenous zones at the viewer?

Let me try to head off one of the arguments I’m sure this will give rise to: But Spider-Woman isn’t a futa! The cover would be wrong!

My first response to this would be, how do you know? She’s never been shown full-frontal in any official publication.

My second response would be, “But that’s the artist’s style! You knew what you were getting when he was hired!” Come on, what’s good for the goose is good for the… um, shit, I’m not sure the pronoun protocol when talking about futa. Is it the same for talking about actual transgender people? (Because I’m not talking about an actual transgender person here, I’m talking about an idealized, pornographic depiction of a woman with a penis, the same as the Spider-Woman cover that started all this depicts an over-idealized image of a cis woman)

My third response would be, “She’s also not the type of character to go around ‘presenting’ to the entire city.” Now, some people are exhibitionists. They might enjoy flashing their bits at the world, and getting a little thrill that someone might be watching. Jessica Drew’s never been depicted as that kind of character (and that’s maybe a topic that shouldn’t be explored in mainstream superhero comics). To my mind, getting a character’s personality wrong is as bad as or worse than getting their physical appearance wrong.

And no, Spider-Woman in the Manara cover isn’t just “climbing.” That’s not how you climb. Your spine bends the other way when you climb.

Once the personal appeal has been removed (“Ooh, a sexy lady with a nice butt”) and replaced with something not as personally desirable (“A woman with a wang? Not my bag, man”), hopefully the pitchfork wielding defenders of the Spider-Woman cover can see how such an image might seem inappropriate. The same people who are now championing Manara, with their cries of, “That’s his style, you knew what you were getting,” could have the same thing turned back on them with this hypothetical king of futa. I have to believe most of them would have to admit, “Maybe getting a guy known exclusively for drawing chicks with dicks isn’t the best choice for the cover of a mainstream superhero book.” Just like getting a guy known exclusively for drawing erotica.

One thought on “Spider-Woman’s Ass and the Comic Book Boys’ Club

  1. Things can be seen in another way.

    Replace Spider-Woman with Spider-Man in the Manara variant, in the same exact position… and you’ll have just another Todd Mc-Farlane Amazing Spider-Man cover from the ’90s.

    (by the way, I could wage that it is how Manara conceived it… he took a McFarlane cover and used that as a rough sketch… he never dabbled into superheroes, so their iconography is foreign to him; I also think that he feels that the whole genre is dumb-rock stupid – a quite common view in European “auteurs” from the ’70s – and thus, probably, he didn’t care at all for this work, hence the shaky perspective).

    Peter Parker has shown his ass in this kind of positions, on his covers, for around a decade without anyone fussing about it.

    And, if the lady was replaced by a futanari, the one protesting would likely be the Westborough Baptist Church, not some feminists, while some of the defenders would be the same, for a kind of “guild” spirit.

    At the same time, hiring the(se) guy(s) for the cover of the first number has been an exploit in dumbness.

    Manara – if he was hired – because he is a deLuxe has-been… if one has to get an Italian (not to say European) artist with a flair for drawing sexy women, there are many others that can actually manage to hint a story in a cover, and be more subtle.

    Land, on his part, is not all that good even in playing with his photographic references(in and by itself, I do not see it as a mortal sin)…

    His cover isn’t really anything better than an inside panel, as it could be drawn by any good artist.

    I don’t care for unnecessary eroticism – fanservice is my bread and butter, I often do worse – but the sloppiness is another thing altogether.

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