Who Does Marvel Care About: J. Scott Campbell’s Sexualization of 15yo Riri Williams

Riri Williams, Iron Man | Marvel Comics

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:

Unnecessary Sexualization

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.

Rushed-Looking Artwork

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.

Jennifer de Guzman

Jennifer de Guzman

Jennifer de Guzman has been working professionally in the comic book industry for 15 years, in editing, marketing, and journalism. Her novel Half a Person is available on Amazon, Kobo, and Scribd. Learn more about her at jenniferdeguzman.com.

24 thoughts on “Who Does Marvel Care About: J. Scott Campbell’s Sexualization of 15yo Riri Williams

  1. I get the feeling that Riri is going to be one of the reasons I someday fistfight Brian Bendis in a parking lot of a convention center in Texas. She’ll join Bobby Drake, Jean Grey, and Wanda Maximoff on that list…

    (Is it just me, or does anyone else think that if I challenged Brian to a fistfight, he’d be ego-bound to fight me? He just seems like that kind of guy.)

  2. While I think it’s great to have more representation in comics (both Marvel and DC have made real progress in the last couple years) I have teal misgivings about Marvel’s intentions with this title in particular. The fact that it’s being written by Brian Bendis, and the editing team is all old guard comic guys gives me pause. I want to believe that they have food intentions, but it’s also easy to imagine them patting themselves on the back for a job well done, and bringing up Riri every time they are questioned about diversity. This variant cover thing doesn’t do anything to make me feel better about it. I hope I’m wrong and this series ends up being really good, but I’d feel a lot better if there was more representation above the line.

  3. Someday, and I hope it is soon, we will reach the top of that Mountain, and teenage black girls featured on comic book covers will all be drawn by half asian/half Cherokee LGBTQ women in their early thirties, and will only look like Precious.

  4. Frank, truly curious. Why did you ask how many titles people buy? Can you expand on why it’s relevant?

  5. What a clever response. Its no small wonder why you have to beg for money instead of producing work people would actually pay for, Claire. Maybe someday you’ll reach $50 a month on Patreon.

  6. Synergy, that was the word I was looking for when I was trying to explain this to my professor(Late 60s) in my Masters course. That said he and I both agreed that Marvel needed to realize who they were producing this comic series for as this variant like you’ve pointed out serves the older fan base but the character was made for children. I thought they could have gotten another Artist. My professor thought that Marvel needs to learn what their audience wants and take the necessary steps to market towards them as their current methods arent doing it. As always WWAC keep doing your thing. I love being able to use your articles to get a business marketing conversation going.

    1. My concern is that the big two know exactly who their audience is. The main art for the book and most of the other covers are just fine and reflective of the real 14yo girl that the character was modeled on, which an artist like JSC could easily have referenced if he cared — but that’s not really his thing. Variants tend to attract the collector, who is not, for example, my pre-teen daughter who I’d want to buy the book for. My concern is that Marvel and DC know damn well what kind of controversy this stirs up and rely on it as a gross marketing tactic. That some of the characters that have been part of such controversies of late (Batgirl being another example) are books meant for a younger (female) audience, and that this particular character, again, is based on a real live underage human being, speaks to some serious perversion to allow this kind of marketing for the sake of a dollar.

  7. Grow a thicker skin, Frank. Or try proving that your question had any goodwill behind it. Usually, when the question is asked – over and over, every single time this discussion comes up – there isn’t any goodwill behind it, so I can understand people here making assumptions about your motives. Your passive aggressive attitude is backing up those assumptions too, actually. I’m actually starting to wonder if you’re a bot.

  8. Nobody wants to answer a simple question but has already made up their mind as to what I was going to respond with, so I guess there’s no reason to continue since you both seem to have a magic crystal ball that tells you the future. Have fun in what seems to be a closed loop website where only people who write for to it, are allowed to discuss things. Smart.

    1. The answer is 4. The answer is 0. The answer is 20. Do you also need to see receipts? What exactly is the intent of your simple question (which seems to have changed from the original question), Frank? What is the context in reference to the sexualization of a teenaged female character?

    1. Frank! You’re asking a woman who works in comics if she even comics — on a site devoted to comics.

      Question. Who do you think you are?

  9. The complaints ring a little hollow to me because this is how he draws EVERYTHING. The core issue, which I think could be more explicit here, is that *that means he shouldn’t be drawing this at all*. Of course it’s sexualized – that’s just what he does – but why in the hell would you get him to do this at all?

    1. Campbell’s inability to expand or achieve appropriate tone is not a thing that makes complaint about this hollow. It is a criticism of his ability as an artist.

      Secondarily, yes, Midtown’s choices are being investigated.

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