Monday, September 8, 2014

Spider-Woman, Milo Manara and Geek Controversy

Italian artist Milo Manara was commissioned to produce a variant cover for the upcoming Spider-Woman #1. Anyone who’s been anywhere near the Internet in the last few weeks is already aware of this. Here’s what he produced:

It's important to remember that this is a variant cover. Most people will never see this on the comic stand. This is just an incentive created by Marvel to encourage retailers to order more copies of Spider-Woman #1. 

If you’ve already seen this variant cover, you’re more than likely aware of the reaction its received. Almost immediately, the cover was vehemently denounced as yet another glaring example of the overly, and perhaps unfairly, sexualization of a female character. Twitter exploded and not only did the comic press weigh in but so too did many mainstream news outlets, many of which don’t typically give any indication of caring about comics one way or another. It trickled down from there, as my own Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with friends and acquaintances who’d never shown an interest in comics all of a sudden expressing strong opinions on Manara’s variant Spider-Woman cover.

Like all controversies, both geek centric and otherwise, this one divided a lot of people. On one side there were the folks saying that this cover represented all that was wrong with the treatment of females in comics and sometimes even pop culture in general and on the other side were the folks telling those upset to chill out, and that there was absolutely nothing to be upset about.

So where does Chris stand on all of this?

I don’t like the hyper sexualization of mainstream comic characters. Never have. I think it cheapens the character and the property. I think no matter the intention, it attracts the wrong kind of fan to the hobby; the kind of fan looking for jerk-off material rather than an entertainment experience unlike anything else available in any other medium. And yes, there’s a difference between “sexy,” “sexual” and “sexualized.”

As for the Manara Spider-Woman cover, there is zero denying that the intent of both artist and publisher was to create something sexually provocative. After all, Manara is known as being an artist who's stock and trade tends to be erotic art. I understand why so many fans are upset by it. Covers like this one send an awkward, mixed message to the growing number of female fans walking into the comic shop every week. After all, this isn’t 1994 where comics are the sole domain of the 14-year-old boy nor is it 2004 where comics are the sole domain of the 20-to-30-something-year-old man.

At the same time, I think some outlets and bloggers (many mainstream, “legit” news sites) took the Manara Spider-Woman cover and its ensuing controversy as an opportunity to generate traffic and clicks on a slow news day. Still others saw an opportunity to promote themselves via insertion into a conversation they had no point of reference for. Some even took a strong moral stance against the cover despite their very publication’s editorial decisions consistently undermining any point the writer was trying to make (looking at you, Elle Magazine).

For better or for worse, this kind of cover is nothing new to the medium and publishers have a long and storied history of using sex to move product. And when said product stars gorgeous men and women built like Olympic champions wearing what looks to be body paint (or “fetish suits” as writer Warren Ellis is wont to call super costumes), then sexualization is going to be an easy go-to for enticing readers to pick a book up. Publishers are, after all, for profit businesses and history shows that nothing makes people fork over their dough quite like a little skin.

However, no matter what side you fall on or if, like me, you’re somewhere in the middle, what I think Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman cover ultimately accomplished was putting a spotlight on the current growing pains being experienced by the comic book medium. For the first time since perhaps the 1960s, comic books and their super hero stars are part of the mainstream cultural conversation. People are showing an interest in comics who historically haven’t given much of anything even resembling a damn. And not just women are coming to the comic reading table; people, both men and women, who want as much substance from comics as they want style are pulling up a chair as well.

Believe it or not, the Milo Manara Spider-Woman variant cover controversy is a good thing for people who want comics crafted on a foundation of substance. Five years ago, hell, one year ago, a cover like that one would have generated zero interest in any one besides people into images of super heroes in erotic poses. I know I’m not the only longtime reader who’s been frustrated on more than one occasion, feeling like publishers are outright pandering to the wrong kind of comic fan. There is a tangible sea change afoot, and no matter what side of the Manara controversy you fall on, I think we can all agree that a comic industry focused on actual substance over the occasional sexualization of characters is one that’s better for all of us in the long run.

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