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:
1. Milo 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)