Invincible Iron Man #1 (2016). Marvel Comics.

3 Points About Marvel’s Latest Comic Book Cover Controversy, Unpacked

J. Scott Campbell’s Invincible Iron Man variant cover featuring a sexualized Riri Williams prompted some criticism this week.

Back in July, Marvel announced that a new character called Riri Williams, a 15-year-old black girl, would be taking over the mantle of Iron Man (later clarifying that she will go by the title of Ironheart). While a step in the right direction for race and gender representation in mainstream comics, the announcement was not entirely praised by everyone. Over on Women Write About Comics, Olivia Stephens identified a number of issues, including the fact that the creative team is all-white and relating this to an ongoing lack of black creative talent at the publisher. Still, the character can be positioned within the recent wave of woman-centric titles Marvel publishes, including Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and others.

Promotional artwork for Invincible Iron Man #1 by Jeff Dekal. Marvel Comics.

Ever the publisher which, despite having good intentions, sometimes missteps when it comes to political issues, Marvel has yet again caused a little controversy with this new book. Having been tasked with producing a special variant cover for the first issue of Invincible Iron Man, artist J. Scott Campbell received some backlash after the artwork was revealed. Campbell is most known for his stylized pin-up artwork of comic book characters. The backlash revolves largely around the ways in which his version of Riri has been read as sexualized and age inappropriate. Variant comics with this cover have been cancelled and will not be available to buy.

If ever there were a debate topic portrayed as being split neatly down the middle, this is one of them. Here’s a rundown of the key points raised in these discussions.

The Recurring Theme of Women’s Sexualization in Comics

The cover features Riri in a hip-led Iron Man pose looking at readers with vague bedroom eyes and a face that we have seen from Campbell hundreds of times before. She wears what is presumably her signature ensemble of a red crop top and black pants. She’s an engineer so there’s some mechanical-looking machinery behind her. Also there’s a window and some blue.

The cover is one of two pieces which are nearly identical — one in which Riri is wearing the Iron Man suit, and one in which she is not.

Cancelled Invincible Iron Man variant covers by J. Scott Campbell. Marvel Comics.

Critics were quick to argue that Riri does not look like a 15-year-old. Others drew attention to the sexy style of the image, calling it inappropriate (because, in theory, this should be a 15-year-old girl). Some also took issue with the character’s skin color on the cover, which has been inconsistent from the get-go (another recurring problem in comics).

The responses came quickly on Twitter. Vulture’s Abraham Riesman cites one particular tweet by blogger Stephanie Humphrey as setting off the discussion. This was followed by the hashtag #TeensThatLookLikeTeens, created by black writer Tee Franklin. The purpose of the tag was to showcase art in which Riri actually looks like a teenager.

Teresa Jusino of The Mary Sue similarly wrote a piece titled “Dear Marvel: Stop Sexualizing Female Teenage Characters Like Riri Williams. Love, Everyone.” Meanwhile, Jennifer de Guzman drew parallels between this Marvel controversy and those which have occurred previously. These include Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman cover and Frank Cho’s cover for Wonder Woman #3, both of which were covered in both the mainstream and comics press because of the issues about the sexualization of superheroines which were raised by fans.

The crux of this particular matter, though, is race because sexualization (or hypersexualization) has been a staple of portrayals of black bodies in white media for millennia. This has been a way to devalue black bodies and present them in opposition to intellectual, chaste and pure white people. These points do not draw attention away from the ways in which white women’s bodies have also been sexualized and policed throughout history, rather they highlights the very complicated relationship which race has to gender and sexuality.

“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.” — Jennifer de Guzman

The Attack of the “SJWs”

Some reactions to these criticisms refer to the so-called “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors) for once again interfering with the “natural” order of comics and making problems out of nothing. Previous headlines have included “Female Thor Is What Happens When Progressive Hand-Wringing And Misandry Ruin A Cherished Art-Form,” “The SJW movement tries to destroy our hobbies and pop culture” and “How Social Justice Warriors are Ruining Comic Books for Everyone.” The use of the term SJW here usually serves the purpose of discrediting supporters of politics thought of as progressive, such as feminism, civil rights, LGBT rights, etc.

Milo Manara’s variant artwork for Spider-Woman #1 (left. Marvel Comics.) and Frank Cho’s variant cover for Wonder Woman #3 (right. DC Comics.)

At the heart of these articles are ideas about comics, supposedly once good and unsoiled by politics, being “ruined,” “censored” or otherwise irreversibly altered in order to pander to particular (“politically correct”) audiences. They are rife with suspicion and portray innocent readers having their stories snatched away undeservedly by people who just want to complain and change everything. This begs questions about which readers and whose stories, not to mention what changes and why.

“I’d like to ask all the progressives busily rebooting the superheroes of my youth to kindly get their stinking paws off my comic books already.” — David Menzies

While these voices are overwhelmingly aligned with right-wing politics, it seems almost too convenient to be able to place these arguments within such a rigid political binary. And yet, with conservative outlets such as Breitbart setting an example, it is difficult to argue otherwise.

Like Cho and Manara, Campbell responded to the criticisms. The result doubtless resonates with readers who share the opinions of campaigners against change in comics. Corresponding with artist Eric Larsen, Campbell stated that he was “Sitting this SJW whine-fest out. Not taking their bait this round,” followed by a winking emoji.

Attending to Details While Ignoring the Bigger Picture

While we can’t expect all comics creators to have the same political sympathies, responses such as this (and Cho’s and Manara’s) are indicative of a wider issue involving some media producers’ unwillingness to embrace feedback and reflect on the greater implications of their work. Comics Alliance’s Kieran Shiach puts it this way:

The cover has since been pulled by Midtown Comics, but that has only fueled the controversy and again created a divide between fans with legitimate criticisms and a creator who won’t consider the problematic nature of his work.

Shiach discusses a number of recent Marvel mishaps in which the publisher offered stories and narrative points which alienated readers who are already socially marginalized. He also refers to Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso’s tone-deaf responses in which he himself refers to SJWs. When influential people like Alonso and Campbell refer to SJWs, they legitimize a term which only has value to those who oppose what they believe it represents.

Like political correctness, the ill-defined SJW remains an imaginary invention which serves no purpose other than to support the points of those arguing against it. Anti-SJW rhetoric isn’t merely about opposing change, it’s about opposing change that is perceived as politically correct. And like political correctness, anti-SJW sentiments resist change even though it is an inevitable feature of a society which has been historically unfair to certain people working towards equality. The term SJW makes it about particular individuals who want to ruin it for the rest of us. It’s not about the bigger picture.

As I’ve mentioned, Campbell’s cover links to a number of issues. Most notably is the issue of women’s representation in comics, specifically black women’s representation. It goes even further though because shouldn’t just be about the ways in which individuals respond to these issues.

Campbell’s cover was considered problematic because his body of work has always had a complex relationship to women. When comic book readers see a J. Scott Campbell image, they don’t just see that image. They see an image that reaches to every instance in which a superheroine has been unnecessarily sexualized. Beyond this there have been more general discussions about the sexualization of women in comic books since comic books became popular. And this relates to even bigger issues about how the ways in which people are portrayed in the media feed back into and are informed by more general social attitudes towards such people. This in turn affects and is affected by how identity issues are dealt with on an institutional, even legislative, level.

This is the problem when creators respond dismissively to readers’ concerns. The media they create are considered individually, within a vacuum (a vacuum, it is made to seem, which certain unauthorized people have forcibly broken). Bigger issues about gender and racial equality rarely crop up in these discussions because the focus is on individuals seeking to censor other individuals. Or it’s about the supposedly “natural” state of comic book art just being objectifying towards women, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

If anything, such responses downplay the beneficial role which comics play in creating social change — the idea that comics matter. And that’s just a little insulting to comics, don’t you think?

Invincible Iron Man will be released on November 8.

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