When Marvel presented its Milo Manara variant cover to Spiderwoman #1, the internet exploded with people condemning both Marvel and the artist for the unnecessary sexualization of the character. The defenders of Manara’s work argue that you can find similar poses at a yoga studio or complain that male superheroes are sexualized, too. Some of of the defenders believe that the opposition party are crying for an end to sexiness in comics. While that may be the case for some people who did not appreciate Marvel selecting an erotic artist to depict their hero, it’s not necessarily the case for me.
You see, I love sexy. I love the female body as much as I do the male body. In fact, I even enjoy erotica from time to time and like some of Manara’s work. What I don’t like is when, in a medium meant to tell a non-erotica-based story through its imagery, the art becomes more about being sexy than about the story. Instead of characters, we get unnaturally sexualized bodies–or just body parts–that happen to be in the costumes of a character we might know and love.
Let’s compare the fantasy with the reality:
On the left, we have Manara’s cover. On the right is model Ivy Cosplay in body paint, photographed by MC Illusion Photography. To me, the image on the right is fantastic. That’s a sexy female body, and she doesn’t look like she’s breaking her spine to please my eyes. To me, the image on the right says, “This is Spiderwoman–who happens to be sexy–climbing over a wall.” It makes me wonder what bad guy she’s sneaking up on in the name of justice. The image on the left screams “LOOK AT SPIDERWOMAN’S APPLE BUTT! TURN HER UPSIDE DOWN, AND SHE LOOKS LIKE A PENIS! DURHURHUR.”
In comics, this is predominantly a problem with the female form, with boobs, butts, and vulvas taking centre stage. But yes, sometimes, male characters are sexualized too (though it took me a helluva lot longer to find a suitable example–thank goodness for Dick’s ass.)
Like I said, I have no problem with sexy. Believe it or not, I actually like Manara’s art within the context of the erotica he usually draws. But when it comes to a story about a crime fighting superhero, I prefer the sexuality to be contextual rather than gratuitous. Sell me the story and the character. Not the sex. Yes, yes, I know that “sex sells.” I’m certainly not immune to that — sometimes I don’t mind sexy for the sake of sexy. In fact, this entire train of thought has made me nostalgic for the good old days of Marvel Swimsuit Specials, where both male and female characters got to cut loose and show off what they’ve got.
Modelled after the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions, the Marvel versions, running from 1991 to 1995, featured various heroes in their bikinis, thongs, banana hammocks–or nothing at all. As a gallery of characters, the players were as varied as the artists who drew them, including the Hildebrandt brothers, Brian Stelfreeze, Jan Duursema, Adam Hughes, Joyce Chin, and more. Each issue had a theme, such as “Take a Wakanda Wild Side” in 1992, which featured Storm on its cover (perhaps foreshadowing her eventual, if short-lived, role as Queen of Wakanda?). In 1994, Namor and Sue Storm (above right) invited us to “Come to the Moon and View Heavenly Bodies.”
Amazing Heroes started the swimsuit issue trend in 1990, but, after Marvel made it popular, several comic companies followed suit, including Image Comics (right) and Chaos Comics, but the Marvel versions remain my favourite. Unlike Marvel, the other companies tended to focus more heavily on the female characters in lusty poses, while Marvel’s issues offered greater equality and never took themselves seriously.
Tongue-in-cheek commentary accompanied each image, and while some characters were posed in typical swimsuit model fashion, many of them were far more playful and humourous. I have a fondness for the ones that remind us that superheroes aren’t always about saving the world. Sometimes, they just want to chill out and have fun.
So no. When I complain about Milo Manara’s Spiderwoman cover, it isn’t because I want to deprive the world of two-dimensional boobs. Nor does it mean that I want to see male characters sporting crotch windows in the name of equality. It means that, when I’m reading a non-erotica-based book meant to tell me a story through its art, I want it to do just that. It can still be sexy, but it doesn’t have to be gratuitous, and it certainly doesn’t have to be ridiculously maladjusted (even though “applebutt” is really fun to say).
However, when I just want to give my brain cells a rest and ogle hawt superhero bodies, then by all means! Give me back my swimsuit issues, so that I can admire Namor in a seashell thong. Or see Psylocke actually have a reason to wear a swimsuit for once…