Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sexy & Comics & Covers

Unless you’ve been living under a comics news blocking rock, you’ll have noticed a series of complicated and heated conversations about a variant cover for the new Spider-Woman comic. It was painted by Milo Manara and could probably be best summed up as Dat Ass. As most outlets said straight away, Manara is a European erotic artist with many decades worth of (often) hardcore erotic comics/art under his belt. There seem to be about 14 covers total that Manara has been commissioned to do so far by Marvel for various titles.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, in a nutshell: a lot of people were wondering about the choice to have an erotic artist do this variant, which was featured prominently in Previews, to represent a book that was recently announced at SDCC during a Women of Marvel panel. The book was promoted as “for a female audience”, is not a mature reader book, and has since had some art choices that left a lot of people scratching their heads about the mixed messaging.

Personally, along with the problems above, I think it’s a weird choice for a #1 and not a super great example of the kind of pinup art Manara is capable of. You can see much better examples of his work with a quick NSFW Google search or just taking a gander at the other Marvel variants he’s done.

While I don’t have an overall problem with sexy images of women (I worked on a Jenna Jameson book and a Suicide Girls comic, in case you need credentials or whatever), and I’m not offended by this piece, I am perplexed at the use of it for this title.  I think how women are portrayed as sexy, whether they have any personality and agency beyond just sex appeal, and whether or not it’s right for the tone of the story, are all pretty important questions to ask in an industry that has a long history of portraying female characters as sex object first, character a distant second. Since Spider-Woman is not, to my knowledge, a mature reader book, having such an overtly sexual image seems like a strange decision. We set the tone with covers, so it matters whether or not that tone actually reflects the story or not.

In case anyone needs actual proof this qualifies, as Kelly Sue Deconnick has often said, as a “sexy lamp” type of image (ie. If you replaced this pic with that of a sexy lamp, would you get basically the same impression of the character, personality, and story from it? If so, time to rethink it.) I offer these points:

1Milo Manara is a world-renowned erotic artist. He was clearly chosen because of that style and genre. That is obviously why it was commissioned. To be viewed as sexy. No one’s debated that that I can see. It simply indicates the intent of the cover pretty clearly.

2. The choice of pose and the focal point of the piece. There is no getting around that we are meant to look at her presenting position. That butt is the main feature over everything else. The compositional reasons this is the clear goal? The pronounced heart shape, in red, against a dark, receding background that is nowhere near as detailed. The fact that the butt is at the top while the head/face at the bottom draws your attention, when viewing top to bottom as we tend to do, butt first. It draws your eye and holds your attention. An artist as experienced as Manara is very well aware of composition, focal points, and how to draw the viewers eye where he wants it to go. This is why I find arguments that the piece isn’t sexual in nature absurd.

3. That choice of pose defines the piece as sexual object first, character second.

4. The lack of any story elements further defines the piece as sexual image, not story image. A generic city and a ledge, coupled with her pose, make it clear that story was barely a consideration.

5. Her painted on costume. Everything is in service to, and revolves around, the extremely defined butt crack.

6. The choice of back view is so that it can be highly sexual and give the impression of near nudity, but avoid the trappings of “full frontal” on what is not a mature reader or erotic comic. That’s not by accident.

7. Yes, it could also be an interpretation of a classic Spider-man pose. But it is executed differently with a focus on sexuality, not heroism, story, or character. And since Spider-Man is a title for a straight male audience, as we have been told over and over, it’s very unlikely any butt definition going on is intended to sexually interest the intended audience. There’s no way you can argue that about the Spider-Woman cover.

8. If you removed the head from this piece this could be any female character. The body language and pose do not convey any characteristic other than “sex”.

9. The face, which has a partial mask, has a virtually blank expression. It also conveys nothing about the character’s personality. It is passive.

10. Compared to his other covers this one is particularly striking for the overtness of the pose and the lack of doing anything else of relevance in the piece. His other covers show characters in mid action, striking with swords, posing with strength, expressions clear on their faces. That they are also somewhat revealing doesn’t undermine the actual character.

Which brings us to: Arguments and Counter Arguments. (cont after break)

“Marvel commissioned Manara to do a sexy cover. Why is anyone shocked an erotic artist did a sexy cover?”

I don’t think anyone aware of Manara’s art is shocked he created a sexy cover.  Certainly not any of the outlets who first critiqued it, like The Mary Sue, who discussed Manara’s career and art at the very beginning of their initial piece. I don’t know how that strawman got started but you could look at it funny and it would fall apart.

The question is: why was an erotic artist chosen to do a sexy cover for a non-mature readers book? What kind of message does that send about the book, comics, and the purpose of female characters, even on the covers of their own books? Remember, this is a #1 for a new book. It is the first image people will see that represents the character and story, and that includes the variants used to promote it. Manara doing this cover is part of the incentive, not an afterthought. Otherwise there would be no real point in using him for it.

So, the criticism by most outlets on this has been about why Marvel chose this for a book they announced as being “for a female audience” when it straight up objectifies the character. This cover (and frankly the main cover as well) doesn’t indicate the female audience was much of a consideration. Not because women don’t like sexy ladies sometimes, but because it is a sex first depiction that clearly indicate a male audience was the primary consideration. Regardless of whether you like pinups or sexy art, women readers and what they’d like to see on a cover were, at best, an afterthought. Because this has been the default style of image for the male audience for decades, it’s not suddenly “for” a female audience that’s barely been considered until now.

Which means that regardless of what was said at the SDCC panel, at least these first covers defaulted to the same status quo audience. And since it’s been established that companies like Marvel worry more about alienating the core readership, it’s not an unfair guess that they are deliberately walking a fine line here. And in case anyone thinks that’s speculation: Marvel made statements a few years back about avoiding doing products aimed at girls because their core audience “might” get angry and basically stop buying books because they made necklaces with their characters on them/cooties.  Thankfully they have made strides with other titles and branching out with more female led stories. That’s one reason why this stood out so strangely.

Finally, if you view this cover with the others Marvel commissioned by Manara you can see a rather stark difference between Spider-Woman and the rest. There is a distinct lack of character, strength, movement, and power in this that the others almost all have. You can view them here:

“Comics covers often have sexualized women on them. Why is everyone suddenly upset about this one?”

No one is “suddenly” upset. This is simply another example in what has been a long, ongoing conversation about the depiction of female characters in comics. The fact that this kind of image isn’t new is in no way relevant to whether or not it is an example of objectification. It rather proves the point that objectification of female characters is so common, it is viewed as their main purpose, even on the covers of their own titles.

Additionally, because this cover is not unique in its sexualization of a female character, but is rather part of many decades worth of a now very familiar art trope, it also proves the need for ongoing critique of that prevalence. Because it is still seems to be the default depiction.

Finally, this cover is getting a lot of attention because it’s the #1 issue of a new series that was heavily promoted as being for a female audience. It can be reasonably argued that a cover that depicts the main character of that book as a sex object is not necessarily the best outreach to new readers.

“You must not like sexy women/hate sex/hate sexy comics.”

No. Questioning the use of this image is not a reflection on someone’s appreciation of sex or sexy images generally. It is a reflection of the use of this image in this context, and whether or not it was the best choice for this title and character. Sexiness in and of itself is not the problem. Sexual objectification in this context is under discussion.

Further, plenty of women like the Manara cover and sexy covers/art in general. No one is calling for a ban on sexy art, either. That’s another strawman you could knock over with a shallow breath. The problem under discussion is context and the history of female characters portrayed as sexy first, character second (if ever), as a largely default state. So regardless of anyone’s personal tastes in terms of sexy art, this cover exists in a larger conversation about women’s representation in comics and pop culture.

“Comics are escapist, raunchy, sexy. They are supposed to be full of sexy ladies.”

Specific comics can be escapist, raunchy, and sexy. Comics, as a storytelling medium, is not inherently any of those things. Conflating genre or type of comic with the entire medium is a mistake. Comics are many things and encompass all genres of literature and art. They are not default “sexy” as an entire medium. They aren’t even default escapist, since plenty of comics are not fantastical, either.

“It’s just a picture, pictures can’t influence how people view women/people/life.”

If that were true, art would have no purpose. Since art is an expression that is both influenced by, and influences people, the culture, and everything from politics to pop entertainment, it clearly isn’t “just a picture” or story or movie. Art can and does change minds, teaches us, moves us, and has a huge impact on our day to day existence. Can it “make” you believe something, like it’s mugging you for your thoughts? No. But it has an impact and influences you, me, everyone, both subtly and obviously. We aren’t little vacuums going through life, consuming media, without it having an impact on our inner lives or the world around us. Art expresses, perpetuates, discusses ideas good and bad, and reflects our cultural consciousness all the time. It is worthwhile to consider and critique that.

“Artists like Manara should not be criticized.”

Well, no. They should. Once you put work out there, it is open to interpretation and critique. Critique is not inherently evil nor is it censorship. It’s simply looking at the context something exists in and investigating what its intention is, what the execution conveys, and how it exists in a larger framework. There is no art or artist above that.

“But I like the cover!”

Super! I like toast! Wait, you don’t think my personal like or dislike of toast is relevant? Weird. Because as it happens your like or dislike of this cover isn’t relevant to whether it’s problematic or not, either.

On The Purpose of Covers, Including Variants

I’ve been a comic book editor for well over a decade. I’ve commissioned a LOT of covers. Probably on books you’ve read. I can’t speak for every other editor or every other editorial department’s cover development process, but, there seem to be some general “rules” just about everyone follows. And the purpose of covers is pretty universal.

Covers are the first image an audience sees in a shop. They are also (more often than not) the major promotional tool for a title before interiors.  So, what is their main function?

1.     To attract readers with an eye-catching image that conveys story elements like tone, character and genre. A good cover will give you a solid impression of what you can expect on the inside without necessarily being a literal representation of all story elements. It’s meant to indicate what you can expect from a story in both general and specific ways, usually most related to genre and tone and who your character’s are.

What else are covers supposed to accomplish?

2.     Serial comics covers convey an element/s in the story in each issue, usually featuring the main characters in that particular issue or the overall story, and teasing scenes or themes an audience will hopefully be interested in. They don’t necessarily reflect the arc as a whole, but the individual issues story.
      A. The first cover to any new series (and arc) tends to be iconic and, ideally, gives a solid teaser of what the series is going to be.

3.     Collected comics covers, like novel covers, tend to be an overall representation of the entire series or storyline that it’s collecting.

What are variant covers?

Variant covers, or incentive covers, are fairly unique to comics. They often feature different artists and styles from the main cover and serve to interest collectors, people who may not be into the style of the main cover, and as incentives for retailers to sell as limited or special items. There’s actually quite a lot of debate about the efficacy of variants between retailers and publishers. Some find them gimmicky and not very useful in driving higher sales. Others find them valuable as collectors items, some have even been catered to specific shops to be used as promotional tools. Consensus on whether they are universally “good” or “bad” has yet to be established. See also big “events” and re-launches of lines every few years.

It’s been argued that variant covers shouldn’t be, or don’t need to be, story, book, or content relevant. In my experience, that’s not true most of the time. Especially for #1’s. And it’s especially not the case that variant covers have no responsibility to, at least, not deviate completely from the book and the intended audience. Especially since variants and incentives are generally used to promote books in Previews alongside the main art. If they have nothing to do with the title, they’re a poor promotional tool

Now, what is and is not appropriate for a variant can be very subjective. But. A variant that, for instance, suggests a non-mature reader book is mature, is, in my opinion, an editorial mistake. It’s fine to deviate in style, but not from intended audience. Assuming variants will only be seen by a small audience is not practical today, especially since variants usually involve “names” so they ARE an incentives for retailers. Variants typically involve name artists and are used in Previews and online to generate more interest, so it’s clear they aren’t seen by only a handful of people. Publishers also can’t dictate how a shop will use a cover, variant or otherwise. I’ve seen variants used as a main display, especially if the artist is a very known quantity.  So, again, potentially much larger audiences than those specifically interested in variants as collector’s items will see them.  

If we use the Manara cover as an example, that cover does not suggest a book that will be appropriate for a non-adult audience for the reasons listed above. Since it’s not, however, a mature reader book, that’s a problem. If we are trying to grow our books audiences beyond a particular core, that’s something that should be considered.

Honesty in Advertising

Something I don’t think is brought up often in conversation about comic covers and sexualized imagery is a rather simple concept which is: honesty in advertising. Comics contains within it all sorts of genres, include straight up porn. Which is great! But superhero comics have this weird pseudo porn image sometimes, kind of like Skinemax, where it’s everything but the actual sex. It can sometimes seem like the visual equivalent of dry humping in bathing suits.

On the one hand comics wants to be seen as modern mythology and create these sweeping movie universes for wide audiences including kids…but the comics themselves still play very fast and loose with just what audience they’re for.  We say we want more kids reading comics, more women, but then wonder why we aren’t reaching that audience. I’d argue one reason is the way we present the books. Which is also one reason why we don’t see the significant audience growth for the comics a lot of very popular films are based on. There are other issues here like access and the direct market’s role in that access, but that’s for another time.

There’s nothing wrong with adult content. But it’s not appropriate for every story.  And if a comic isn’t porn or mature reader, suggesting it is with overtly sexual cover imagery is misleading. It’s a tease with no payoff. And it gives a very specific impression of the medium, due to its most visible books having this warring personality issue…but it also reflects on the industry and the genre of superheroes as a whole. The fact that a lot of people just assume “comics” means “T & A” is NOT a positive. Because that is a genre, not the medium. That would be like associating prose with only one of its genres, or movies with just, say, violence.

There are, of course, erotic supe comics, too. And they’re great! But they’re also honest about it. They are not coy or shy. Mainstream supe books seem to want the benefits of being perceived as porn-like without being porn, and then get cranky when they’re called out on the weird messaging.

Art and Criticism

So, beyond the well over a decade I’ve been editing comics, I’m an also an illustrator and have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts. Since illustration is both a storytelling and commercial art form, the purpose of an image tends to be different than in fine art. Fine art is generally more abstract conceptually and its purpose is often more subjective and personal than commercial illustration. Commercial illustration is generally for a specific client and audience, with a particular goal. Comics covers for publishers fall into this category, but I’d argue that even self-published comics are also for a client: that client just happens to be the creator and whatever audience they’re trying to reach.

The idea of an audience is important in illustration and definitely important for comics covers.

So, how are covers developed? Well, editorially speaking, you chat with your team. In an ideal situation you’ll have scripts to give to a cover artist so they can get an idea of the story and come up with sketches based on that impression. Sometimes writers have very specific needs for a cover and go over that in detail, other times more loose concepts, and sometimes they just give a cover artist free reign to interpret.

As a general rule you want covers to involve the main characters of the series or issue, give an idea of the story as it progresses, and be useful tools in promoting the book. First covers are usually the most iconic for a reason: they are the first impression your series is going to give. You want to make that count.

If you don’t’ have scripts to work with you can go by the outline, or get cover concepts from the writer. These are often worked on together and some editors are more involved than others. Things that editors have to consider with covers is how they are going to be used for promotion, whether the art is giving the impression everyone has agreed the book should give, and whether or not it’s eye-catching up close and at a distance. Amongst other things, like composition, logo placement, etc etc.

Then it is sketch time and I personally like to get a few loose options to pick from. At the very least I like to have two choices. Once that’s decided on the cover is made, typically at least 3 months before a book comes out because that’s when it gets solicited. Covers are generally developed quite a bit earlier than other aspects of a title for that reason. You want to start getting people interested as soon as possible.

Now, deadlines are also a major part of any comics lifespan. Sometimes cover artists drop out, get sick, and you have to rush to get something done for print. Due to the way things work in comics, if you solicit with covers by a certain artist but ultimately don’t have those covers, the book becomes returnable. We like to avoid that. Hence why we try to have that sort of thing sorted a lot earlier. But, life happens. Rush covers come with their own issues, and I personally tend to try to keep them simple and iconic so they can apply to the series generally if they can’t be issue specific because of time constraints.

With variants, there are a lot of options. I like them to be complimentary in some way, either by being a cool contrasting style to the main so they can showcase each other’s strengths, or something with a similar feel but a different take on the material. I don’t like variants that veer away from the book entirely or give the opposite impression of the book. The only exception would be humorous, tongue firmly in cheek, deliberately, outrageously, and obviously wide of the mark art. But that’s only appropriate for certain stories, genre’s, and audiences. It’s just a flat out bad call to offer an alt cover for a kid’s title that looks like porn.

Now, people are going to say: art is subjective. And my unpopular answer is: yes and no. Commercial art has a visual language and it’s not nearly as subjective as people tend to think. As I mentioned before, we aren’t little vacuums walking around, never influenced by anything around us (and likewise never influencing anything else). Art in pop culture is influenced by the culture, and most of us have at least a similar frame of reference when it comes to things like cover art.

For instance, if you were born and grew up in the US as I was, we aren’t coming from radically different points of view on pop culture. We may have different personal preferences and experiences, but we’ve been shaped by the same culture. We know its language. There’s a lot of overlap. So in that sense, “it’s subjective” doesn’t quite work the way people think it does.

Take, for instance, something like Star Wars. Those of us who have seen it (and even quite a few who haven’t) are very aware of the themes and story elements of it. In A New Hope, for instance, we are upset by Ben’s death because the story has led us to care about him and root for him and because we also view his relationship with Luke as central to that character’s arc, we understand that he is Important. While I’m sure there are individuals who don’t care about Ben, generally speaking, we all experienced that scene in roughly in the same way, sharing the same emotions. Are there added things a given individual may bring to that scene? Absolutely! But overall, it has the impact it was intended to and we all understand what that scene means. This is what I mean by “not always that subjective”.

This is why something like the Manara Spider-Woman cover doesn’t really have as subjective an existence as you might think. And as always there’s a difference between personal preferences and “objective” quality. We all like things, even love them, that have massive problems when looked at critically. It’s incredibly important to be aware of the difference between those things, especially as in regards to pop culture criticism. Criticism of a piece like the that cover is not a judgment on an individual liking it. It is a criticism of it based on the context it exists it, what it represents, and what it says beyond individual interpretation.

So, why should you listen to me? Well, you don’t have to. That’s entirely up to you. But why I think my opinion has value and weight: 10+ years experience commissioning comics covers, a degree in visual art that makes me very familiar with the language of commercial art, and the fact that my opinion is based on evidence and context, not my personal art style preferences.

At the end of the day, editing comics is a complicated juggling act. As editors we make calls all the time that may or may not work out. Its’ not about someone being a “bad” editor so much as it is about the fact that none of us get it 100% right all the time and we need to be willing to own those mistakes. I’ve made them, everyone’s made them. Sometimes you just don’t see a problem with an image until other people point it out. Sometimes you think the intent is clearer than it ends up being. Sometimes you are intending a very specific thing, but the reaction isn’t positive. I don’t personally believe “all press is good press”. Especially when you’re alienating a lot of potential readers.

Comics, as an industry, has major peaks and valleys. What we need is a steady growth in readership, which means appealing to more people than the base that has been, let’s face it, catered to for a very long time. That base is not hurting for images that have been designed for them. And further: it’s not a growing audience. Getting kids, women, people of color, and other diverse pov’s into comics, sharing the medium, welcoming them into the industry as creators and fans…that’s really the only way to both sustain and grow beyond a niche. I frankly don’t want comics to remain an insulated fan club. That’s stagnant for storytelling and eventual death for it as a viable, evolving art form.

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