Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 23 August 2014

Comic Books, Feminism and Spider Woman #1

How many times have I begun a blog post with the words, “I am a feminist.”?

It’s fine, you don’t have to answer that.

I’ve also begun several blog posts with the words, “I don’t often talk about comics.”.

Milo Manara's alternate cover
for Spider Woman #1
Marvel Comics has set the cat among the pigeons and given me the subject of today’s blog... Well, not so much the cat as the Spider Woman, and there aren’t actually any pigeons on the rooftop she’s perched upon on Milo Manara’s alternate cover for Spider Woman #1, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

Superheroes have been around for a long time. Superman was introduced in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and the genre has been growing ever since. That’s more than three-quarters of a century of men in tights. I’d say lycra, but spandex wasn’t invented until 1959, which makes you wonder just how the poor dears managed for those first twenty-one years.

The first female superhero with real longevity was Wonder Woman, who began life in All Star Comics #8 in January 1942, not very far behind Superman.

Traditionally, it has been men who write and draw comic books and men and boys who read them... certainly in the USA. Comic books are different things in different cultures. The European market is different from the American one, in production, content and in sales; so is the Japanese market.

Today, of course, I’m talking about Spider Woman.

Today, I’m talking about women in comics and women outside of comics looking in.

Recently, the spotlight has been shone on comics by women, by feminists, by commenters, bloggers and journalists, and it’s about time, too.

I talked about women in comics in this blog a week or two ago, and my opinion hasn’t changed.

Women are taking an interest in comics for reasons that might be explained by a breaking down of gender stereotypes in our culture. That pleases me.

It is not surprising that when women take an interest, they begin with women characters in comics. 

Marvel is about to release a new issue #1 of the Spider Woman comic. What better place for any girl or woman interested in the medium to start to read comics? And what better place for anyone woman in the media to scrutinise the comics industry?

As for the men in the Marvel office, they were simply putting out the potential bestselling issue #1 that they were able, using long years of experience in their industry, doing what they do, which, for the most part is producing a malecentric product in a malecentric marketplace. I rather doubt that they sat down and talked about how to attract girls and women to read their comic. They were looking for a crowd-pleaser for a crowd they know and understood.

The star of the book is a woman.

When the star of a comic book is a man, the understanding is that the reader wants to be him.

When the star of a comic book is a woman, the understanding is that the reader wants to do her.

It’s not rocket science.

OK, so maybe that’s abhorrent, and maybe, as feminists the idea makes us cringe. I know it makes me cringe, but beefcake and cheesecake have sold superhero comic books for approaching eight decades. This stuff isn’t going to change over night.

Honestly, I wasn’t bowled over by either cover, but as a woman who’s been exposed to comic books for decades I can tell you that covers like this, art like this is par for the course. It isn’t new, it hasn’t got more graphic, and it doesn’t sexualise women more than it did ten or twenty years ago. Comic books just seem to be the latest target for feminists.

I’ll say it again, “I am a feminist!”

I’ve railed against this kind of art in comics my entire adult life. I’ve refused to read particular titles because of the way that women have been portrayed. I have no doubt that when some hugely talented artists with massive reputations in the comic book world come under the scrutiny of the feminist press they'll be flayed alive. And when those women get hold of Power Girl there’s going to be hell to pay.

I’m not going to argue about the two covers for Spider Man #1, but if you’d like to see a female artist’s take on them, there’s an interesting article over here. I am going to say that I’m not a fan of Greg Land, but that he works a lot and is known for his cheesecake approach. He also has quite a following. His books sell.

Milo Manara is beyond normal retiring age, but what artist ever retires? He’s quite a legend, and he draws erotica. That’s who he is, that’s what he does. He’s an aging European with a long and illustrious career. Not for nothing, I happen to own two Milo Manaras, although neither of them are comic book covers. One of them hangs in my downstairs bathroom, and it always makes me smile.

Tearing down individual artists, who were commissioned to do a job and whose work was passed for publication is utterly pointless. They filled the brief.

Tearing down the publisher who gave the artists that brief? I don’t know. Isn’t it his job to produce a successful book in a competitive market? This book is already a success if it has got people talking, and it has. You can’t buy the sort of publicity that Spider Woman #1 has had, certainly not with an ad budget. That thing is going to fly off the shelves, and people will absolutely be framing that Manara variant cover, although I’m guessing none of those people will be women.

Was it a cynical ploy on the part of Marvel? Perhaps. But I seriously doubt it, because all the company did was put out a comic using precisely the same criteria that it always does. As I said before, female superheroes have been getting the cheesecake treatment for a very long time; this is the default. This wasn’t done to upset women. It wasn’t done because of women, it wasn’t even done in spite of women. It was done without any regard to women, (and that's almost the biggest problem). This is commerce.

I suppose what I’m saying is that we need to start scratching away at society. 

Of course feminists should and must question the things they see that undermine the status of women as equals in our culture, and this is a good example of that.

It goes deeper, though, doesn’t it?

Men and boys still buy those comic books. They still like the soft porn approach to depicting women in comics, even heroic women.

There’s a reason for that.

We all like sex. Sex is a wonderful thing. The human body should be celebrated and enjoyed. 

If anyone likes sex more than the average person it is probably teenagers. Not for nothing, teenaged boys is the demographic that is also buying an awful lot of superhero comic books. 

When we stifle a healthy interest in sex it’s bound to leach out all over the place, so of course people respond to titillating images wherever they can find them... That’ll be teenagers again. Come on people... Do we blame them? Of course we bloody don’t!

If we could just stop subverting and oppressing and repressing boys and girls, and if we could just start acknowledging sex in broader strokes and in healthier ways then maybe sexual images wouldn’t pop up where they’re not wanted, where they’re not useful and where they’re just plain exploitative.

Milo Manara said some odd things when he answered his critics on the subject of his variant cover for Spider Man #1, but I think he had a point when he suggested that Europe was closer to a healthier attitude to sex than America is. Not for nothing, this comic book was produced in America and is a culturally American phenomenon.

1 comment:

  1. There will always be some people out there who want comics to feature cheesecake girls and ripped muscular men. So things are not as bad these days as they were through the top heavy, impossible waisted, inflated rumps of Danger Girl and Lara Croft, but to a bigger or lesser degree, they will always be there.

    But that is not ALL they have to be. Darwin Cooke toned down the sexuality of his Catwoman. Sure, it was still there in the costume, but it was not as stupidly over the top as it had been up to that point. It was a start. Comics like the Runaways have shown that the heroes don't have to be body glove wearing refugees from a rogue martini advert at all.

    Sure some people have inherited characters that were deliberately crafted as "sexy", but I like the idea that this is becoming less and less what defines the characters as a whole. There are people I know who discovered Spider-Woman because they wanted to read an Avengers comic, and the words they use to describe her are the "spy", "traitor", "Hydra-ish" one, all before they think about 'hot' or 'spandex'.

    But here is the kicker: I like to convince myself that is because the character is defined by more than just ink lines. But on the other hand it could just be that every other woman on the team, from Alias to Squirrel Girl, are also drawn in a way that is equally hot.