Those of us who have been in comics a long time know the deal with variant covers: They exist to inflate, I mean, increase sales numbers, and their target audience is people who actually know about variant covers and will pre-order them. So they’re for the fans who truly committed to and entrenched in the comic book industry. And to comics publishers, that slice of their fanbase is middle-aged and male (and probably white). And they choose the artists for their variant covers accordingly. Like Milo Manara. And Frank Cho. And now, J. Scott Campbell.
This variant cover of Invincible Iron Man depicts Riri Williams, a fifteen-year-old genius who creates her own Iron Man-esque armor in her MIT dorm room and takes on the role of the superhero “Ironheart.” Her introduction is part of several efforts Marvel Comics has made to appeal to comics’ widening audience, which is increasingly young, female, and non-white.
But this cover, created as a store-exclusive for the three Midtown Comics stores in New York City, shows just whom Marvel sees as its essential fanbase. Despite the progress it has made with characters like Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Spider-Gwen, Moon Girl, and Squirrel Girl, Marvel has to make sure to let middle-aged fanboys know that they will still get what they want. Which Marvel apparently thinks is covers like these. (And which, admittedly, sales numbers bear out.) There are generally a few elements that “controversial variant covers” have in common. This one hits most of them:
Riri is fifteen years old. The cocked hip, the strangely elongated exposed torso, and the ridiculously low-low-rise pants (Are they leggings? Are they jeans? Who knows.) that, frankly, are almost exposing her pubic area—this is just not the way anyone should be depicting a young teenager. Additionally, the sexualization of black girls is a fraught issue that makes it even more distasteful.
I got into comics at about the same time when J. Scott Campbell’s career was really taking off with his series Danger Girl after having illustrated Gen13. While not to my taste and really boob-sock-heavy (and I do mean heavy!), the art in Danger Girl is often fun, expressive, and dynamic. This? This is flat. Boring. Poorly drawn. (That hand, though! No, not that one, the other one. Well, I guess that one, too.)
Middle-Aged Male Artist
Like I said, Campbell’s career was reaching its height when I got into comics, which is, dear god, about twenty years ago. Now, I’m not saying publishers should discriminate based on age, but they should choose artists who produce images that match the tone of the book. Yes, even for variant covers.
The mismatch between intention, tone, and image is a lack of what business jargon-y people call synergy. All of the elements of a project should unite to form an effective message. What is the message Marvel is trying to send with this cover on this book? It’s muddled.
And that’s the biggest problem, really. Publishers try to serve two gods. They want to appeal to a new, young audience, but covers like this one push that audience away. It makes Marvel’s outreach seem inauthentic, possibly pandering, and comics like Ms. Marvel or Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and, very possibly, Invincible Iron Man, don’t deserve to be cast under that shadow.