Jenny Frison’s covers first came to my attention when she was selected as the main cover artist for Gail Simone’s run on Red Sonja. Considering the amazing artists handpicked by Simone for the first issue included Fiona Staples, Nicola Scott, and Stephanie Buscema, I wasn’t too keen on Frison for the main covers. Not because I didn’t admire Frison’s art, but because I found it “too pretty.” Frison’s art nouveau-influenced covers did not represent my version of the She-Devil with a Sword. But fortunately, over the course of Simone’s run on Red Sonja, my version has changed. This is due in part to Simone’s cheeky writing and thoughtful take on problematic tropes, but also has a lot to do with Frison’s covers—the very first thing I encounter before opening up yet another stellar issue from Simone and Walter Geovani (main illustrator).
If you take a look at Frison’s Red Sonja covers, the color palette is muted, sometimes water colored in appearance with water stains that possibly indicate blood stains. Outlines are thin. The chainmail bikini is a literal string bikini, one of the flimsiest version of the costume that Red Sonja has worn. Yet, Frison’s covers don’t induce the sort of ickiness that other covers of the famous She-Devil often do. And I kept wondering why.
The Eyes Have It
As women writing about comics, we talk a lot about the male gaze in comic art and storytelling: how female characters are drawn in ridiculous poses and/or costumes to simultaneously emphasize their most physically sexualized features: breasts, ass, gaping mouths. Justifications are as about as flimsy as these character’s spines: she uses her sex appeal to distract her male opponents, she’s an alien from a culture with lax sexual mores, she’s invulnerable so she doesn’t need clothing, and so on. These reasons might be justifiable if they didn’t apply to the majority of female characters, including those whose characterization veers in the opposite direction of super sexy. Not every female character is an Emma Frost.
Red Sonja’s depiction, particularly as a barbarian character, gives off a lot of mixed signals. On covers in particular, she is often in the middle of battle, hacking and slashing her way through her enemies. Her eyes often make direct contact with the viewer. All of these features indicate a directness, a defiance of potential objectification, but this potential is often negated by any and or all of the following aspects:
– The chainmail bikini top barely containing her breasts;
– The chainmail bikini bottom flying up to reveal bare ass;
– In general, the chainmail bikini being two sizes too small;
– Posing that involves straddling snakes or positioning her sword between her legs (hello, phallus!);
– Brokeback poses;
– Posing with legs spread wide apart, often holding sword in between, (which hey isn’t that how all warrior women hold their swords?);
– Farrah Fawcett or highly stylized hair (I don’t want to know where she might carry that tiny bottle of hairspray on her person);
– Obvious eye make-up;
– Open or gaping mouth; and/or
– Heavily stylized facial features that emphasize youthfulness.
These mixed signals often end up undermining the aggressiveness of Red Sonja via sexualization. She becomes less threatening because she is still there to reassure the male viewer of sexual obtainability. So she might not hack your penis right off, presumed cis-male viewer, rest assured.
However, the gaze does not have to be limited to a presumed male viewer, and Jenny Frison’s covers are a great example of this. Take a gander at the following image:
The angle requires the viewer to look down on Red Sonja. Such a position would usually indicate a subordinate relationship. Additionally, Red Sonja looks past the viewer. She’s in water which carries a sexual connotation because of the double meaning of “being wet.” Her chainmail bikini is very literally a bikini. Signs seem to point towards “icky,” yet there are some subtle tweaks in this image that push back against a simplistic reading of “this is some sexist shit!”
Before, we proceed, let’s talk about a little more about the gaze. The gaze creates a three-way relationship (kinky!) between the character, the creator, and the viewer:
The character who is the object in the image raises several questions: what is the character asking of the viewer? How is the character being positioned? Comics in general are very character-driven (see how most comic book titles are character names).
The creator. Now I am not necessarily speaking to intentionality here (the author is supposedly dead after all), but I am speaking to the importance of storytelling and context in this case.
The viewer is generally considered the primary relationship in this three-way. What is the viewer experiencing based on the image? This can be highly subjective, but as humans, we are social creatures and socialized to read signs and symbols in certain ways otherwise we have no basis for meaning-making in our world. Think of the perspective of the viewer as an amorphous conglomeration of the socialized and the individualized.
Now let’s see how this applies to the above image: Red Sonja looks past the viewer, in fact, she doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. She deflects including you into the relationship at all. You can only wonder what has caught her eye. There is no come-hither gaze, no hint of sexual availability. She is entirely disinterested in the viewer. The eyes are where Frison really nails it.
As a self-identified illustrator, Frison has said that her goal is to make her images “as affecting as possible.” This is obviously a smart move because in the crowded shelves of the your local comic shop, Frison’s covers stand out for not being the usual T&A poses and come hither glances. Frison’s covers stand out for invoking sexy in a very different way.
Let’s examine another image where Red Sonja looks directly at the viewer:
Check out those eyes. They pierce the viewer, and they push back at the viewer. They do not invite the viewer. The concealment of Red Sonja’s mouth by her sword-wielding hands further emphasizes her eyes as does the contrast of her flaming red hair with her pale eyes. This cover is all about the eyes, and the close crop of the image prevents the viewer from ogling the character’s body.
Now look at this full-body image:
This composition of this image is in keeping with traditional Red Sonja covers. She fully faces the viewer, she is centered, her sword(s) are present, most of her body is visible, and her mouth is open. But there is also a lot here that is very different from more traditional covers. Again, the eyes—their lightness in contrast with the the rest of her coloring, the way she looks—are meant to be discomfiting. Her body is drawn as more athletic with clear muscle definition (as Frison always draws it). Her bikini cups do not runneth over (thank the goddess Scathach). And the colors are not saturated, cartoon-y covers. The watercolor trees and pinkish/red tint indicate more illustration than cartoon. Is it sexy because we are seeing a scantily-clad feminine body on display? That is up to you viewer, but whether or not you decide the image is sexy, traditional notions of sexy are disrupted by Frison’s tweaks.
Speaking of Sexy
Let’s look at another Red Sonja cover:
Red Sonja is positioned for the viewer to look down her bikini top. How titillating! (Pun absolutely intended.) Yet, her position, crouched on the ground, her facial expression, her sword all indicate a particular scenario that prevents her body from being on display for the sheer pleasure of the reader. She is stealthy, perhaps hunting food, or, not unlikely, after her newest human victim. And her breasts aren’t squished together as though that itty, bitty bikini top has built in underwire (Please). Her ass is not sticking up in the air so the viewer gets an unrealistic viewpoint of a female character’s most sexualized body parts. Her mouth is closed.
We are primed to read sexiness into Red Sonja via history and characterization, her scantily-clad feminine body, and her red hair. These covers indicate all of this, yet they manage to deflect an easy reading of sexiness.
Here is the cover that finally did it for me:
Red Sonja in a field of poppies. To quote WWAC Assistant Editor Wendy Browne who gave me the idea for the title of this article:
“Is it bad that I want to say that I cite her cover image of Sonja as an example of great side boob?”
There is definitely side boob here. How can there not when she wears a chainmail bikini? But it’s not gratuitous and therefore doesn’t first grab the viewer’s eye. Again, her face does that. It is flushed, her eyes hooded, her sword hangs at her side—the poppies are intoxicating her. She is vulnerable. She is vulnerable, she is certainly sexy, she is not sexualized. For me, I saw this image and saw my favorite comic book character vulnerable. Favorite for many reasons, one of them being her seeming invulnerability. But invulnerability does not a good character make. It just makes another one-dimensional action hero that reinforces patriarchal norms that feminized conditions like vulnerability are weak.
One more image that reflects vulnerability in a more common situation for my favorite barbarian:
That expression reads “oh, shit.” We know the She-Devil with a Sword will find her way out of this precarious situation, but that captured moment humanizes Red Sonja. She is not foolish, nor arrogant enough, to walk into a situation assuming she is invincible. That’s not how a cunning warrior thinks, and notably, Simone is all about Red Sonja’s cunning.
I could go on and on about Frison’s Red Sonja covers, but I also want to emphasize some of Frison’s other work (though if you want to gaze at all of Frison’s Red Sonja covers, check out the Comic Book Database).
The Gothic Gaze
While Frison’s covers for Red Sonja influenced a newer and more nuanced view of my favorite red-headed comic book character, Frison’s style really shines when she is drawing for horror comics. I recently started reading Tim Seeley and Mike Norton’s Revival from Image. I just finished volume three in trade and am eagerly looking forward to picking up the rest of the series as I can. If you like horror, you should absolutely be reading this creator-owned comic that Seeley calls a “rural noir.” The premise is one wintery day in Wausau, Wisconsin, the recently deceased come back to life, but these “revivers” aren’t zombies, they seem like any other living person. Frison, who shares a studio with Seeley and Norton, does the majority of the covers for this series.
Frison’s earliest work was on horror. She started out on Seeley’s Hack/Slash by Image (formerly of Devil’s Due Publishing) and then was hired for covers for iVampire, Angel, Vampirella, Spike, etc. The majority of her work has been in horror and/or gothic-influenced comics. This genre is where a lot of Frison’s cited influences, such as art nouveau king Alphonse Mucha, Victorian decorative art, etc., are happily at home. Connoting curves, nature, and the domestic (all features often associated with femininity), these styles add a feminine quality to Frison’s images that seek to find what she calls “the beauty in the grotesque.” For example:
On first looks this appears to be an attractive woman swimming nude, but the context of the comic along with Frison’s art undermines the potential sexualization of this image. The character in this image is Em, the sister of Revival’s main character, Dana. Em is also a Reviver. On the day of the Revival, she woke up floating in a river after being murdered. Further, many of the Revivers are struggling with their identities: are they dead, alive, or somewhere in between? Em goes swimming in wintery Wisconsin to capture a sense of aliveness. In this image, while the positioning of her left hand indicates that she is living, her eyes are glazed over and her face is paler than the rest of her body. The beautiful dead woman is a common literary trope, but Em is not dead…entirely. Yes, this image is beautiful, but it is also grotesque when look at little more closely and take into account the context of the story. Since this is issue 16, we have more story for understanding Em’s story, so let’s look at some earlier covers.
On the cover of issue one, Em appeared like this:
She is fully dressed for a Wisconsin winter, carrying a bloody scythe. Without reading the comic, the clothing makes sense in the context of winter. The bloody scythe piques interest. In later covers, she is depicted in less clothing:
Here’s a hot girl in her underwear. But is it sexualized? Again, the eyes are key. Even without knowing the character, her gaze stares right back at the viewer as she performs a traditional feminine activity in her underwear. She challenges the viewer, what could be a coy image that invites the viewer in, puts off the viewer. This is further exacerbated by her scarred body. As a Reviver, Em has the ability to regenerate. These scars are from the frequent encounters she has with death in attempts to help others and also test her own mortality/immortality. (Seriously, this comic is sooooo good.) The item she is sewing is the skeleton hoodie she frequently wears. It’s symbolism is potent—the hoodie replicates the bones of the upper body. Em has used red thread to sew it back up after a deadly encounter that scarred her body. Her physical scars are reflected in her clothing. This cover is emblematic of what Frison noted in a 2013 interview with Multiversity:
“Sometimes showing skin isn’t about being sexy, it’s about story telling.”
This is the crux; too often, this sentiment is used when it is not actually the case. But Frison’s cover for Revival #6 is an excellent example of when showing skin is actually about storytelling. There is nothing inherently sexual or shameful about the female body, but when our bodies are frequently sexualized to the point of objectification, they are stripped of their humanity. Their stories do not matter because they are mere objects for patriarchal desires.
Let’s take a gander at one more Frison cover for Revival:
Tears streak Em’s face and smear her eye make-up as she leans over in the snow, retching out this strange, amorphous demon creature. This is the leaky, feminine body that disrupts our notions of femininity and feminine beauty. The objectified female body does not leak—it exudes no tangible indications of its humanity like tears, blood, sweat, piss, and shit.
This cover appeared before the previously depicted covers—when we know less about Em and what was happening in Wausau. At this point, her sexuality is largely not a point of concern. She’s still grappling with her identity as a reviver, and her sister Dana, a cop, is still trying to figure out how Em was murdered and what secrets Em is keeping from her.
The covers where Em is depicted in less clothing come later. This is an important, because we readers first experience Em as a character dealing with the inevitable identity issues of being a Reviver. Her sexuality emerges later and is important, as it is for all of us, but it does not define our interpretation of the character. In a medium so often defined and shaped by the male gaze, this is a feminist move on the part of the creators and people involved with this comic. Like Simone’s Red Sonja run, Frison’s covers for Revival enhances this by capturing the tone of the story and offering us something fresh to look at. Frison’s fresh take is proof that sexy is achievable without sexualization, and that sexy isn’t even necessary for a comic book cover featuring a female character to catch your eye.