This J. Scott Campbell Midtown Comics variant cover for Invincible Iron Man depicts 15 year old Riri Williams in the same outfit as she wore on the cover that introduced her to us. She has the same hairstyle, the same earrings. Instead of the ghost of Stark’s past in the background, there’s an industrial robotic arm. She looks…younger, I think, than in that first cover, but does she look 15? Does that pose look physically possible? Is this still too sexualized for a 15 year old character?
First off, let’s talk about the composition of the cover. All that white, er, blue space. The vague screens? windows? the robot arm? and Riri right up front. What does the cover want you to pay attention to? What effect does it want to achieve?
Kat Overland: The more I look at it the more I think the focal points are her chest and her hip jut—which is a shame because her face is pretty cute.
Clara Mae: She looks like she’s standing in that room Alice in Wonderland initially falls down, or like she’s using one of the gradient backgrounds from those 90s photoshoots we all did when we were 12. We have no idea what that robot arm is for. Is it floating behind her? Is it falling? Who knows. Despite Bendis saying she’s a teen genius and smarter than Iron Man, in this image she’s certainly not in any workshop that’s meant for actual work. It’s like the equivalent of saying you’re going to draw a girl gaming, and then you draw one of those images where the girl is just kissing a controller.
I’d say the eye is meant to be drawn to her waist and stomach. I mean there’s literally nothing else to really focus on except for her body.
Melissa Brinks: I honestly have no idea what the cover is going for here. There’s so much detail on Riri as compared to the background that I’m sure she’s where I’m supposed to be looking, but the lines of the robot arm (I think? What is that?), the window light, and her arm are making my eyes uncertain of where they need to look. Instead, I go to bright colors, which means my eye is drawn immediately toward her chest, then down to her midriff, which I’m not sure belongs to a human woman, much less a 15-year-old girl.
One thing I can say for certain is that, in all the moments I’ve spent trying to figure out this cover’s goals, my eye is never drawn to her face.
Jamie Kingston: if I really, reeaallyy stretch my imagination, maybe she’s in a holographic room that hasn’t resolved yet. The robot arm makes me think of “Dummy” from the movies, so no idea why it’d be here since she’s supposed to independently stand on her own. I get that she’s the centerpiece and they don’t want the background crowding her out, but it seems like the artist just didn’t want to bother, honestly.
The pose. What do you think of it? Let’s talk about the mechanics. Her left leg looks a little out of joint. She seems to be halfway between a big yoga stretch and…dancing? It’s a little weird. What does J. Scott Campbell want us to see/think?
Kat: Honestly, I think J. Scott Campbell might think of this as a normal, slightly “sassy” pose for a woman, rather than one that has sexual connotations (see: Spider-Gwen variant). Her face isn’t pouting, or overtly sensual. But that hip jut! It says everything when combined with the sexy~ anatomy. I don’t need comic book art to adhere to perfect anatomical expectations—stylization often bends what’s possible, and that’s fine. But there are specific things here that stylize in an overtly sexual way. Her torso is elongated, seemingly so her crop top can show off maximum skin, complete with hip divots. In real life, a 15-year-old in this outfit might not raise too many eyebrows (crop tops and leggings are in, even though crop tops might be one of the great scourges of superhero book fashion), but drawn like this, there’s no way to deny she’s meant to be “sexy.” That’s troubling when she’s the product of an adult man’s imagination.
Another issue here, though, is the fact that Midtown Comics requested J. Scott Campbell for this book at all. He’s known for sexy ladies—why is he being hired to draw teenaged girls in his sexy style? Put him on a sexy lady book.
Stephanie Tran: Campbell wants us to think that Riri’s standing in a confident, I-don’t-need-no-man-pose (which opens up a whole other can of worms about black female tropes and stereotypes but I digress) with her hand outstretched in what I assume is supposed to be an Iron Man blast pose. It might have worked if the viewer’s eye was drawn down from the brown machinery, Riri’s arm, and those weird squares (computer screens?) down to her breasts, hips, and waist and if Riri actually had a blaster on her palm as she does in the other cover. Without the suit she looks like she was posed by a straight guy to emphasize her sexuality. She’s not a person or even a character with her own feelings—just a prop.
Clara: I really don’t mind Campbell’s art, but as Kat points out I wouldn’t have ever commissioned him to draw a teen girl. His inspiration is clearly drawn from very sexual, pandering-to-the-male-gaze pin-up girl poses. (For example, his entire fairy tale fantasy series is very much for ogling Disney princesses.) I think, when you take his portfolio into account, it could’ve been way worse. The pose is not The Worst Thing Ever for me, but it does make me long for a cover that shows off her intellect in some way instead of just her body. I could’ve even dealt with the pose if maybe it was showing her posing in front of a mirror, which I used to do all the time as a teen. But the way it is now? Nah, she’s just putting herself on display for an assumedly male reader.
Melissa: The pose looks so unnatural. With the strange curve of her spine and the exaggerated hip, she looks like a Gumby doll posed to look sexy. There’s nothing about this that communicates any of the things I’d like to see from this new character—where is her genius, her age, her agency? If she wasn’t holding the helmet, I would have no idea what book this cover belonged to. Even the arc reactor looks subdued in comparison to the way her body is posed, which is the crux of my problem with the cover: she looks posed, like somebody has come along and set her up this way. Which is, of course, what’s happened.
I have nothing against cheesecake art, but there is a time and place, and issue one of a comic about a fifteen-year-old girl is not that time or place. This just shows that the slim character diversity efforts Marvel is making are missing the point—not only do we not have a black woman writing or drawing the book, but it’s clearly not targeted at young black women, either. It’s targeted at presumed straight men who want to look at a sexualized teen girl. Is that really the audience you want to court? Is that really the image you want to present?
Jamie: the pose is…well, the first thing that comes to mind is contraindicated. Who holds a helmet on their hip like that with their opposite hip sticking out? No one. The hip tilts toward the object. Then there is her hyper elongated midsection: it looks like Riri has 6 more inches of spine between her ribs and her hips. Maybe teen boys want to see girls like in gangsta rap videos, but black people are not a monolith. The teen girls who want to see Riri showing off her brain are stuck with art that says “that’s nice that she’s smart, but is she sexy?”
Let’s talk about the suit.
Stephanie: What isn’t wrong with the damned suit. First of all I understand the basic idea that you sketch the figure first before adding the clothing (or in this case, the suit) on top. Thing is besides the suit’s knees and shoulders the suit is as restrictively tight as if it was painted on. There should be some added bulk everywhere, not just the shoulders and knees and whatever the heck the breastplates are doing that are making Riri’s breasts oh so perky. How is she supposed to put this thing on? Is it cloth with circuitry? And if it is, how the heck is that supposed to protect her from physical blows.
Kat: Considering the current Al Ewing-helmed The New Avengers run has put two different women in two different armored suits and managed to avoid making either skin tight, the suit’s disappointing. Compare that to Toni Ho’s Rescue suit in The New Avengers #14, pencils by Paco Medina:
Here, the suit has bulk – it’s adding width and weight to Toni Ho’s frame, rather than acting like a leotard. There’s no boob cup armor, which has been debunked over and over by fantasy fans. Her torso is protected, and the suit isn’t designed to give her a sexy hourglass shape—practicality is the name of the game with this suit. It’s almost as if artists are scared of desexualizing women when they enter bulky armor—Pepper Potts as Rescue suffered a similar fate. Without a wasp waist and boobs, how will a reader know that there’s a sexy lady inside?
Clara: Yeah I’m just completely ignoring Campbell’s version of the suit, since in the end it’s just a variant cover and again, while pretty, it looks painted on. I’m going to go by the art that series artist Stefano Caselli put out, which to me looks a lot more practical.
Melissa: This doesn’t look like armor, plain and simple. It looks like patterned material, like Iron Man themed leggings. Must we see her exaggerated silhouette while she fights crime? Can we not read a comic about a woman without knowing for certain that there’s a hot bod under that armor? Come on. If you will not be practical, be cool. Campbell has done neither.
Jamie: Again, if I really stretch, maybe it’s unstable molecules like the rest of Marvel Universe wears. But if it is, then it’s not armor. That aside, I am ignoring it too because there is no way a character who’s a genius scientist would build a skin-tight suit to wear and call it armor. It’s impractical. She knows she would be in danger of crushing her bones and internal organs if she took more than the slightest blow. She’s fifteen and wants to grow older.
What do you think of how the piece depicts Riri, a 15-year-old black girl?
Kat: Mike Deodato based his initial design of Riri Williams on Skai Jackson, an actual 14 year old actress on the Disney Channel. So, comparing an actual black teenager to Campbell’s cover shows there’s only a tangential resemblance.
It also shows how his depiction of Riri adds to the larger problem of media oversexualizing black girls in particular. J. Scott Campbell’s idea of a 15 year old is divorced from the reality. She’s also much lighter skinned than she was depicted in the initial character art.
— Mike Deodato, Jr. (@mikedeodato) July 11, 2016
Clara: I mean if they are hoping to attract fifteen year old girls to this title by having a young protagonist, this cover is like the last thing you should be putting in front of them. The pose, the clothing, the background coloring…it’s outdated, to be quite honest. It certainly looks like it was drawn for the usual older male demographic. A younger me would’ve likely passed on this and gravitated more towards something like Gotham Academy or Ms. Marvel, which features teen girls who actually look like teen girls, and who have the fashion sense of, well, teen girls. (As opposed to actually looking like they were drawn by a 40-something-year-old man who has no idea what current fashion trends are or, you know, how women’s clothing works. Like, is she wearing cotton tights? Yoga pants? Jeans? Why are there no belt loops and it’s baggier in the knee? Is this like some ‘90s style jeggings? Workout tights that hit a snag in the dryer?)
Melissa: Is this how Campbell sees young women? When I look at this cover, I don’t see a teenager. I see a woman in her mid-twenties. More intelligent and qualified people than me have spoken about the oversexualization of young black women, and I defer to their expertise in that regard. You can tell from just a quick glance that the person who drew this cover is not black, is not a woman, and doesn’t know the first thing about how unwanted sexualization makes women feel. You can claim that Riri chose this outfit herself, but it isn’t true—Campbell drew her this way, exaggerated her hips and breasts, bared her midriff to reveal an Adonis belt, and thought it was acceptable.
This variant screams that it’s not for the demographic it represents. As Clara mentioned, many young women will see this cover and pass over it because it doesn’t look like it’s for them. I know it’s a variant, and I know other covers may do a better job of showing Riri’s strengths and personality, but sexualizing a young black woman for the sake of selling fancy covers is a pretty awful business practice.
Jamie: What Kat and Melissa said. It contributes to “black children and teens aren’t children and teens.” It contributes to the hypersexualization and “fast tailed” reputation already ascribed to black girls from childhood. And it still looks more like it’s for horny fanboy gratification than encouraging STEM girls.
What do you think of this cover?