On Aug. 18, 1Marvel Comics revealed the variant covers of its Spider-Woman comic that is to be released in November. One cover, drawn by well-known erotic artist Milo Manara, featured Spider-Woman crawling over the edge of a wall; with her back arched, and her face looking directly up at the reader. Her costume looked as if it had been painted on. The cover almost immediately drew criticism by fans and commentators. In addition to placing Spider-Woman in a physically impossible pose, the cover over- sexualized the character, and people felt it was misogynistic.
The biggest problem with the cover is that it goes against all of the great efforts Marvel has been making to improve its relationship with female fans recently. Since 2012, Marvel has given solo titles to six of its female characters, and each of them has featured some of Marvels best artwork and writing. In addition Marvel showcased an all-female X-Men title, and its female characters are spotlighted in some of its diverse team-centric books, like Guardians of the Galaxy. With more female-centric books being released in November, including Spider-Women, a cover like this sullies all of the work Marvel has done to expand its content for female readers, and to fix the troubled history the comic book industry has had with its portrayal of women.
This troubled history is one of the reasons the cover is so problematic. In the 1960s, DC Comics had its own internal code which regulated how it utilized its female characters, including the feminist-icon of Wonder Women. That code stated: “The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.”
Despite the mandate to draw women realistically, and in non-sexual ways, during this time women were reserved to only be supporting characters, meant to give the male superhero something to fight to save. Even Marvel had this issue, though it was not institutionalized. Its first female hero, The Invisible Woman, played a supporting role on the Fantastic Four. Its X-Men titles, generally considered representative of minority groups and struggles, kept its female members on the sidelines.
Women are also overwhelmingly portrayed in an objectified manner in comics. Comics are marketed mainly towards young men, which results in stories being told through a male gaze, which means they are drawn from the perspective of a man watching the story. According to a 2005 study looking at 18 different graphic novels conducted by Jessica Zellers of the University of North Carolina, 38 percent of female characters are suggestively clad, partially clad or naked, as opposed to 6 percent of male characters. Only 2 percent of male characters were depicted as nude, while 24 percent of female characters were depicted as nude at some point in the books.
But the readership is changing. According to media research done by Brett Schenker approximately 40 percent of comic book fans are now women, and they overwhelmingly are fans of female characters. Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor-in-chief has stated: “While we don’t have any market research, the eyes don’t lie. If you go to conventions and comic book stores, more and more female readers are emerging. They are starved for content and looking for content they can relate to.” Marvel has been trying to meet the new demand for strong, well-written and well-drawn female characters. But this cover goes against Marvels efforts to attract more female readers and expand content for them. By even considering having a famous erotica artist draw cover art for a book aimed at female readers, Marvel is taking a huge step back in the fight to change the misogynistic trends of the comic book industry’s past.