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

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

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

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.

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24 Comments

  • Frank
    October 20, 2016, 2:55 pm

    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.

    REPLY
  • Frank
    October 20, 2016, 2:36 pm

    No, I asked what Marvel titles she buys. It’s a simple question.

    REPLY
    • Wendy Browne@Frank
      October 20, 2016, 2:45 pm

      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?

      REPLY
  • Frank
    October 20, 2016, 1:41 pm

    No. It’s a fair question.

    REPLY
    • Wendy Browne@Frank
      October 20, 2016, 1:53 pm

      That would prove/is relevant to what?

      REPLY
    • Megan Purdy@Frank
      October 20, 2016, 2:15 pm

      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?

      REPLY
  • Frank
    October 20, 2016, 1:04 pm

    Question. How many Marvel titles do you buy every month?

    REPLY
    • Megan Purdy@Frank
      October 20, 2016, 1:28 pm

      Are you fucking kidding me?

      REPLY
  • AS
    October 20, 2016, 12:43 pm

    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?

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    • Claire Napier@AS
      October 20, 2016, 1:00 pm

      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.

      REPLY

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