Superhero Comics' Girl Trouble

All the comics industry has to do ishang out a gigantic sign announcing Girls: We Hate You And We Have No Interest In Your Business. Unfortunately, that's effectively what it's doing right now.
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The American superhero comics industry -- once supported at least as much by girls as by boys -- has been desperately trying to figure out how to bring back women readers for decades. It's very simple. All it has to do is not hang out a gigantic sign announcing GIRLS: WE HATE YOU AND WE HAVE NO INTEREST IN YOUR BUSINESS. Unfortunately, that's effectively what it's doing right now.

There was a well-publicized kerfuffle a few weeks ago about a limited-edition statue Marvel Comics licensed, depicting Mary Jane Watson leaning over to pull Spider-Man's costume out of a laundry basket -- butt and boobs maximally displayed, boop-boop-be-doop expression on face, thong peeking out of ripped jeans. It didn't help matters much when the statue's designer, Adam Hughes, attempted to explain himself by arguing that he'd simply been misinterpreted, and went on to torpedo his own argument by making a comparison to his and Dave Chappelle's respective ability to use "the 'n-word,'" and claiming that his detractors think his statue is "the most awful thing to hit mankind since the Holocaust."

Around the same time, DC Comics advertised a forthcoming Justice League of America cover on which Michael Turner has drawn Power Girl with breasts roughly the size of her head. And, most recently, Sana Takeda's cover for a forthcoming issue of Marvel's Heroes for Hire has set comics commentators on edge with its depiction of... well, this requires a little bit of an explanation.

There is a subcategory of Japanese cartooning (both comics and animation) called "tentacle porn," which is exactly what it sounds like (it was invented to get around the terms of Japanese censorship laws; that's a whole other story). The cover Takeda drew for Heroes for Hire #13 shows several of the series' women tied up, showing a lot of skin, bleeding a little, and being manhandled, or rather squidhandled, by a set of sinister-looking tentacles. There's no visible penetration, of course --Heroes for Hire is the equivalent of a PG-rated movie at most-- but it's very obviously an allusion to tentacle porn. (Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, asked point-blank about Takeda's cover, claimed rather disingenuously that it was just a straightforward illustration of a story point, nothing porny about it.)

Now, nobody's suggesting that these sorts of images are crimes against humanity -- although you'd never know it from Hughes and Quesada's weaselly denials that there's anything amiss with them. They're just sleazy, bad for business in the long term, and tacky as all hell, because their symbolic value is precisely that they do piss people off; there's a snickering tone of "in your face, ladies!" to all of them, and that's their selling point. In the case of the Heroes for Hire cover, the intended targets have to be in on the joke even to understand why they're supposed to be offended--which shuts them out, one way or the other.

There's a certain sexed-up visual atmosphere that's endemic to superhero comics; the way their characters are drawn is supposed to be not just attractive but viscerally appealing, to provoke a kind of somatic response. That's why Superman and Captain America are tall and ripplingly muscled, why Catwoman and Elektra are curvy and ripped, why all the heroes wear skintight outfits, and -- ideally -- part of why both men and women find them fun to look at. But stripping everything but quasipornographic lust-puppetry from superhero comics' women characters actually gets that principle wrong. It's a deliberate attempt to repulse half of their potential audience, and to sell "collectibles" to people who like the idea of repulsing that half. And it's embarrassing to anyone who loves what's left of the superhero genre.

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