She Has No Head! - The Manara Variant Isn't The Problem

So, much to everyone’s shock (I’m guessing), I have very little problem with the Milo Manara Spider-Woman #1 variant cover. Surprising to nobody, I do have some issues with the information we have thus far for the forthcoming Spider-Woman book.

So let’s get into it.

Milo Manara is a well-known creator/writer/artist primarily of porn and erotica, perhaps mostly notably a series called Click! (which, full disclosure, I own). So, when you hire Milo Manara to draw a variant, you are hiring him to get a very specific thing: titillating erotic imagery that is at the very least reminiscent of porn and generally of women.

This is exactly what he delivered. It seems ridiculous to criticize Manara for delivering exactly what he does and what was surely expected of him. Though his response to the Spider-Woman cover controversy is depressing and predictable it's not particularly surprising. Yes, it's practically a bingo card of alarming statements we see all the time when people try justify portrayals of women in media: the "there's other 'real' problems in the world to worry about" "all superheroes are basically naked with colors on them anyway" "women are just built this way, I draw what I see" "it's not my fault this how women are/look" "women wear less than this/are more provocative than this in real life" etc. and of course the artist describing the character/his work as "beautiful, nice, attractive, seductive" all of which have to do only with how Spider-Woman looks to him/should look to him and nothing to do with who she is or what she does. Pretty depressing stuff.

But again, as sad as it is to hear these statements, this is a European (Manara is Italian) man that draws Erotica for a living and has for decades. None of this is terribly surprising and anyone surprised by it is not paying attention. The question shouldn’t be why does Manara draw a Spider-Woman that looks more like a porn star than a superhero, the question also shouldn't be why didn't Marvel send Manara back to the drawing board when he turned in his work. The question should be why is this what Marvel wanted in the first place?

Marvel knew exactly what they would be getting, and we can only assume that they are happy with it – or else surely they wouldn’t have released it?  So if you want to criticize the Manara Variant existing, you need to aim your questions at Marvel, not Manara who is just doing what he does and has for years. Worth nothing (possibly?) is that there is also a Skottie Young Spider-Woman Variant forthcoming, which will surely be adorable. It might have been wise to release the Manara and Young variants at the same time, but Marvel clearly made a decision not to do that, possibly because they knew they were going to get this attention for their book and wanted it. And look it that. Here. We. Are.

So why are we (the collective we) up in arms about this one when so many others have come before it? Well, there are several reasons for it by my estimation but let’s lay them all out, since we’re here.

#1. The Manara Spider-Woman Cover is more aggressively objectifying and arguably gross than other recent Manara variants.

This Manara variant is pretty extreme for Manara’s superheroine covers (this comparison by The Mary Sue with an image from his porn series Click! is pretty jaw dropping even for someone that owns and has read Click). It’s worth noting at this point that hiring Manara to do variants is not an unusual thing for Marvel. By my count (and I may have missed a couple?) Marvel has had 14 Manara variant covers in the last year and a half. Here they are in all their glory/non-glory:

The last three (next to Spider-Woman) belong to: Black Widow #1 (released only 8 months ago), one of Storm for the all-female new X-Men #1 from mid-2013, and one of Valkyrie for the now defunct Fearless Defenders #1 from early 2013. These are particularly of note to our discussion because unlike the others, these are for female led/headlining/named series, like Spider-Woman. So, did those covers draw less negative attention because they were less aggressive and sexually overt than the Spider-Woman variant? Probably.

#2. Is this one drawing more fire because it was released differently?

In the "exclusive solicits" (released/updated on August 18th in the afternoon on CBR), both the Greg Land cover and the Manara Variant were shown although other forthcoming variants were listed (Skottie Young, Siya Oyum, and a TBA Groot and Rocket Variant). In the "full solicits" that went up the following day, it was still the Land cover, the Manara Variant, and one page of the Land interiors.

Conversely, Black Widow #1 had three illustrated variants and while they were all listed with credits in the solicitation, only the Phil Noto cover was actually shown. X-Men #1 had a whopping five “official” variants plus another five “sponsored” variants but when announced in solicitations only the Coipel Cover and the Terry Dodson Variant were shown. Fearless Defenders #1 eventually had three illustrated variants. The solicitations only listed two - the Manara and a Mike Deodato variants - and the Skottie Young Variant came later, but regardless, only the primary Mark Brooks cover was actually shown in the solicits.

This new approach of putting the Manara Variant front and center certainly got them news coverage. They not only got the usual comic book coverage they might expect from a comic/cover reveal, they also got the mainstream media talking. Huffington Post, io9, Entertainment Weekly, Slate, Elle, The Guardian, Vox, The Daily Mail (and many more) all covered the solicit news. The pieces that offered commentary were unfriendly at best.

So did Marvel make a clear PR choice on this - the most aggressive of their Manara variants - to release it with the original cover – which for anyone that reads comic is also a bit suspect since it’s done by Greg Land? Or is it something as simple as the Manara variant was done and ready to go at solicitation time and nothing else was? If "raising awareness" of the book was the goal then...well, doing it this way, by design or by accident, I'd say mission accomplished. But I've never been a believer in the whole "any PR is good PR" thing so I wouldn't have opted for this method. Still, a hell of a lot more people know about a new Spider-Woman book now than this time last week. But unlike with their new female Thor announcement I have trouble imagining those potential new readers turning out (or picking up for their kids, etc.) something that has these negative connotations stapled to it.

Particularly problematic for Spider-Woman is that the regular Greg Land cover also happens to be reasonably offensive - to anyone with eyes - but that’s a whole other thing. So is this a calculated attempt to get some PR, negative or otherwise? Why else release a Land cover and a Manara Variant and nothing else? While we’re at it, why put Greg Land on a book starring women anyway? Wait…we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

#3. Is this cover perhaps drawing more fire because Marvel has been making good moves when it comes to women lately and this feels like a huge step back to people?

To be honest, Marvel has been killing it when it comes to female characters in comics. When the new Thor, Angela, Spider-Woman, and the announced Leia book come out, Marvel will have an astounding (and awesome) 11 female-led titles. And while the books that are currently out headlining/starring women (Black Widow, Elektra, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Storm, and X-Men) obviously have differing levels of quality and success from book to book (and month to month) it’s a staggering push forward and an effort that has been shockingly well executed overall.

Since we’re focused on art for our purposes today let’s quickly summarize the art in Marvel’s current female-led books. They each have impressive artists known for their accomplished and well-considered work – in fact, there’s not a cheesecake or "controversial" artist among them. They also represent awesome diversity when it comes to execution: Phil Noto’s Black Widow is a realistic but effortlessly loose watercolor style that highlights Natasha’s gift for violence and her humanity in equal measure; David Lopez’s Captain Marvel is a classic superhero style with an emphasis on smart design and strong emotional beats; Mike Del Mundo’s Elektra is a highly rendered painted style showing off an understanding of Elektra as a fighter in a way we have not seen since Bill Sienkiewicz’s revolutionary work on Elektra Assassin; Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk is flat, cartoonish, and wonderfully exaggerated focusing largely on Jennifer’s sense of humor and the bizarre dualities of her life; Victor Ibanez’s Storm is a traditional comic book style anchored in real world problems and with Storm meticulously rendered to feel like an incredibly well-developed person rather than a superhero-meets-supermodel caricature, or worse, an untouchable and unrelatable goddess; while Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel is a visual smorgasbord of unique characters we never see in comics and capitalizes beautifully on his heroine’s highly creative powerset and creative mind.

These are excellent choices. EVERY. TIME. Do you know how hard that is? It’s hard. Or at least comics have lead us to believe it’s hard (and we've seen a whole lot of evidence to back it up). Marvel has done it incredibly well with their new 2013 and 2014 Marvel Now titles, so it’s strange to suddenly add Spider-Woman by Greg Land to the pile…but again, let’s put a pin in that and circle back.

#4. Perhaps the outcry has been so loud simply because the voices interested in these issues – and the voices that support women in comics – characters, creators, and readers – has gotten so powerful and so mainstream that you simply can’t release something like this and expect it to not be commented on?

When I started writing this column about women in comics, I certainly wasn’t alone in talking about these issues, I was not blazing some new trail, but I am honestly stunned by how many voices have joined the discussion just in the last five years…the voices are many and they are loud. The Internet is certainly a mixed bag, but it has provided access to information and made it possible for anyone with a strong voice to be heard, even on issues that formerly weren't considered particularly important. But enough people invested in media -- both big and small -- have decided that the representation of women in superhero comics is something that can and should be discussed. So there's a particular amount of attention paid to things like this and you simply cannot expect (or hope?) to slip under the radar these days.

When you add a little bit from each of the previous points to the mix, you end up with “of course there was going to be a shitstorm.” And given that most people naturally don’t think it’s good to tie female superheroes to porn in this day and age, of course the response was going to be primarily critical and negative. If the Manara variant had been a bit less aggressive then it might have drawn less aggressive criticism even if it hadn’t slipped entirely under the radar. If Marvel had released it along with an adorable Skottie Young variant it might have at least blunted the force of the reveals and shown people another option of a cover to buy since the Land version isn’t a great option either. And that brings us to the real problem, which we’ve been slowly getting to (and sidestepping) throughout this column.

The problem is not the Manara variant that nobody has to buy. The problem is that the regular cover is by Greg Land and the book will have Greg Land interior art as well. For the uninitiated, the complaints about Land’s work  range from that he’s a rampant tracer/swiper/recycler to the fact that much of what he traces and photo references is porn. Porn has its place but it's not in mainstream superhero comics.

So it’s hard to understand how Marvel thought that this was a good idea. But it occurs to me that maybe they took a look at their book line up and felt that a titillating male gaze book was what was missing from their current female-led titles. Technically, they're right. And it feels like Marvel has drawn a line to say that while they ARE interested in female characters and female led books, this Spider-Woman book? That one is not for “the ladies” or people generally concerned with the portrayal of women in superhero comics. What other message can they possibly be sending by putting Greg Land on the book and also releasing their most aggressive Manara Variant? The message feels clear.

You can make an argument that if you’re looking for diversity among your female led titles that what’s currently missing IS actually a super-male gaze titillating visual style But it seems like a pretty good idea to have that be missing.

It’s a good idea to leave that out because we’ve had years and years and years of books devoted to sexualizing female characters for no good reason, and you can still find plenty of them on stands, far more than are needed. There’s really no need to make sure one of these female led titles be what we have far too much of already - the demographic that might cater to specifically is a demographic that is already well over-served in comics. But as much as I disagree with the approach because it selfishly leaves me out of a book I'd love to read and would otherwise have a good shot at liking, I have to admit that Marvel has given me a lot to read lately. They've been smart about it, and so, as disappointing as it is to be shut out of Jessica's new book, I know that not every book can or should be designed for me...so I can accept that. But there's no way to pretend it isn't disappointing.

As always it comes down to context but in this case there are a few and some of them are at odds with one another. Perhaps Marvel legitimately sees their context as one where they need to appeal to a more "traditional" comic reading base demographic with at least one of their female-led titles. For a reader like me, the context is that the field is already quite crowded with that kind of art, even if they aren't the artists on Marvel's existing female led books. For Manara the context is perhaps that his Spider-Woman isn't naked and isn't showing off tits AND ass and so the illustration seems quite tame. For many readers the context is simply one more woman being objectified in superhero comics and by an artist known for his erotic work, which immediately sets a clear and frustrating if not disturbing tone.

Greg Land, for me, and for many people, is an instant deal breaker on any book but is particularly disheartening on a female-led book like Spider-Woman. Artists are salt to taste for individuals of course, but there are only three or four artists I refuse to read outright - Land is one of them. I was one of many excited to read Mighty Avengers considering it featured one of my favorite (and much underused) characters – Monica Rambeau – but with Land drawing it, it was a non-starter. Even with a writer I like writing the new Spider-Woman (Dennis Hopeless who did the excellent X-Men: Season One as well as the fantastic Legion of Monsters mini-series among other things) I just can't do it. Some might ask, why complain about/refuse to buy Land but not Manara? Well, quite simply, Manara draws erotica and it LOOKS, appropriately, like erotica. Land draws superhero comics, which frequently look, inappropriately, like erotica.

Obviously Land sells enough comics that Marvel keeps hiring him. So this is a deliberate choice Marvel has made and though I can’t see the advantage, especially when they’ve been on such an incredible hot streak with female characters and books, surely they have a plan, it's just not one I understand (or agree with). By the same token, the Manara variants must be selling too – if they weren’t, Marvel wouldn’t have commissioned 14 in the last 18 months. I don’t personally like the message the Manara variants send, but that at least is a pretty easy thing for me to ignore as a reader. It's a random variant I never have to really see or purchase and designed to please a small collectors market. So consider it ignored. What I can’t ignore is a Manara variant coupled with a book drawn by Greg Land when it’s also supposed to be a book I might read, might write about and review, might relate to. Because man, I fucking love Jessica Drew. I was one of the (apparently) few people that read and liked (despite it’s extreme decompression) her 2009 Spider-Woman series. But I can’t follow her here.

With the inclusion of a Spider-Woman book Marvel will bring their female-led titles up to an awesome eleven. And I’m reading or plan to read all of them, EXCEPT this one.

Perhaps Marvel sees putting Land on a Spider-Woman title as a way to actually be more diverse with their eleven female-led titles, but I can only see it as easy way to let me know that that book is not intended for me to read, promote, or support. So, I guess…thanks for the super clear message? Bummer.

Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist

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