Social Justice Warrior
Let's Talk About Marvel Comics And Spider Woman's Ass

Ross Lincoln | 21 Aug 2014 20:30
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A rare instance in which both sides are right, the variant cover by Milo Manara is provocative and a provocation all at once.

Variant comic covers are usually a win-win-win. Yes, the practice emerged during the speculator boom that nearly destroyed the comics industry during the 1990s, but it isn't inherently bad. For one thing, it allows notable artists to interpret a comic character in their own style, enriching the art of comics. For another, it can create genuinely collectable content that encourages greater sales of specific comic books, potentially enriching the coffers of a comic publisher. And for yet another, in many cases they serve as an introduction to an artist's work for readers who might never have heard of them.

But as Marvel - maybe* - discovered to its chagrin, hiring an artist whose work falls far outside of a specific comic title's assumed parameters can sometimes explode in one's face.

This week, the company unveiled a special variant cover for Spider Woman #1, drawn by Italian comics legend Milo Manara. For those of you who don't know, it's long past time to dig into his work. His art is textured, detailed and subtle, and in many ways he's the Jean Henri Gaston Giraud (AKA MÅ“bius) of Italy, especially in how it's impossible to separate his work from his country's style of comic art. That he's worked with luminaries like Fellini and Neil Gaiman, among many others, is only a tiny tribute to his impact and renown among visual artists of all stripes.

But most importantly, he is one of the all time great practitioners of erotic comic book art, and it is in that capacity he is most well known in the anglosphere. His style can always be identified by his signature "heart shaped ass", but his depictions of sex, women and sexuality generally are striking, beautiful, and frankly, very hot. All of which is to say that if you hire him, presumably you do so because that's what he does.

Here is, by the way, what he did for Marvel:

image

If this cover is the very first time you've paid attention to his work (or, as I've noticed in some cases, even heard of him), you probably won't think "here is the work of a master". And if you're someone for whom the recent history of the comics industry is galling, it's probably understandable if this image provokes a... less than enthusiastic response. So it was yesterday that reaction to Manara's variant cover prompted a huge amount of fierce criticism. You can see a good cross-sampling here, here and here.

My initial reaction to these criticisms was negative. I'll admit that I do think that some critics - NOT the ones I've cited here - veer dangerously close to a kind of anti-sex sentiment that suggests the eroticism itself is what is most offensive. Others critics do appear not to know who Milo Manara is, leading to some rather weird dismissals of his work. But these criticisms, I'm happy to report, make up a small minority of complaints.

The larger complaints get to something that my initial reaction to this cover missed. You see, I happen to think Manara is a genius and that comic readers would be genuinely enriched by checking out his work. I also happen to think that there is no possible harm that can come to anyone younger than adulthood who happens upon sexually charged (non-abusive) images. And I think, even accounting for the sad history of sexism intrinsically tied to it, that the pinup is an important pop art form that I'm always happy to see revived.

But here's the thing: yes, in a context-free framework concerned only with the art on its own terms and with the artist and his career, this cover is unambiguously both a cool work of erotic art and a cool take on a classic character. However, this cover doesn't exist in a context-free framework. We don't live in a cultural environment in which this painting of Spider Woman is just one cover by an undisputed artistic master in his style, among many.

So what environment do we actually live in?

* Marvel almost certainly knew this would generate heat and controversy. There is no way the company was blindsided by this.

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