Covergirls

Recently, DC comics came out with this Batgirl variant:

batgirl variant

This image caused a stir because of the sexual undertones and the fact that it hearkened back to one of the darkest points in Barbara Gordon’s history: The Killing Joke. For those few who haven’t read this graphic novel, it’s the comic where the Joker cripples and humiliates Babs in order to get at her father. It was one of the most problematic moments in the story, and even Alan Moore has gone on record regretting the decision to cripple her without paying much attention to the trauma she’d suffered.

DC Comics has pulled this variant at the request of the artist, and, regardless of whether they were right or wrong to do so, I just love their statement: “Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books – threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.” Now, you would think that the artist was the one getting the threats, but nope! It’s actually the critics that were being harassed. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but that’s incredibly misleading. Thankfully, though, Raphael Albuquerque cleared that up. You can read an interview of his here.

That got me thinking about the portrayal of women on comic covers. It’s no secret that women in comics tend to be sexualized more than men. All you have to do is Google the covers of almost any superheroine and compare how many images of her being sexualized to any male superhero in the top results alone. For example:

Black Canary: This is the third image result.

Black_Canary_v.3_2
Black Canary: martial artist, master of the Canary Cry, and ostrich enthusiast?

Aside from an ostrich impression, I don’t even know what she’s supposed to be doing in this pose. I may not be an expert martial artist, but that fighting stance looks incredibly impractical.

Spider-Woman: First, second, and third result.

spiderwoman
That is the wedgie to end all wedgies.

To be fair, this image was also at the center of a controversy, but the fourth result was only slightly better.

spiderwoman 1

I have two questions. 1. Where are Spider-Woman’s calves and feet? 2. What is up with that woman’s waist and pose? Her pose is awkward and her waist cannot possibly hold any organs. This is really beginning to lend credence to my theory that superheroines secretly store all of their intestines in their breasts and butt.

Hawkgirl: First result.

Hawkgirl_Vol_1_56

 

These proportions are so strangely drawn and disjointed, and that’s even ignoring the elephant in the room. Namely, her spherical breasts. Everyone and their grandmother has pointed out how unrealistic the breasts of superheroines are drawn, but it bears repeating: boobs aren’t gravity defying spheres that move independently of the woman. And don’t even get me started on Power Girl’s notorious boob window.

The exceptions are the current Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel, on the other hand, not so much), any Batgirl, Batwoman, the female Thor, and most teenage heroines. Most.

teen-titans-1-c63fa

I’ll leave it to Comic Book Resource’s Janelle Asselin to delineate everything wrong with putting giant breasts on a teenage Wonder Girl more eloquently than I.

Even Batgirl isn’t immune to astonishingly sexist covers. Behold Showcase Presents Batgirl:

Showcase_Presents_-_Batgirl,_Volume_1

Where do I even begin? The only nice thing I can say about the cover is that that at least she isn’t sexualized. This just baffles me. Typically, with collected trades like Showcase Presents intend to celebrate the history of the character or event. But this? It paints Barbara Gordon, the courageous, intelligent, and tenacious leader of the Birds of Prey, as a vapid woman who let’s the boys do all the fighting while she applies her makeup. Batgirl, who is one of the most recognizable and longest running superheroines, and this is how they want to celebrate her beginnings? I really hate to be negative, but of all the reader alienating covers I’ve seen, this one boils my blood more than any other one I’ve seen. I mean, really? This volume was published in 2007! It’s the 21st century! Honestly, I find this absolutely amazing, and not in a good way. This is one of the most insulting covers depicting a female character I have ever seen.

Now, why is this a problem? Well, according to a 2014 survey, the fastest growing demographic of comic fans is women from the ages of 17-33. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to appeal more to a wider demographic, and by a wider demographic, I mean 50% of the population. It would be a good idea not to turn off those potential new readers with covers that depict women as T&A first, strong characters with heroic agency second. That means that we need a lot more diversity in character designs. We can still have women in glorified bathing suits fighting villains, but we should also have more practical armor and outfits. Marvel and DC are slowly but surely improving the costumes, but we still get a ridiculous statements like the ones from Erik Larson on the new Wonder Woman design and Kamala Kahn’s costume. Personally, I don’t care for Wonder Woman’s costume because it’s just not great looking, but not because “I’m tired of the big two placating a vocal minority at the expense of the rest of the paying audience by making more practical women outfits”.  This vocal minority happens to be the rapidly growing demographic of female comic fans I mentioned earlier and they’re not going away. Sadly though, we still have a ways to go before others realize this.

So, how would I get started in fixing this?

First, by reading this article on writing empowering female characters. How does it apply to covers? It’s simple. If the shoe fits, wear it. Draw a female character is a character first. When she’s depicted, the cover should fit her personality and the tone of the book. It has to feel natural for the character and, most of all, entice readers of both genders. Otherwise, as J. Shea puts it, ” the character’s agency – even if it exists in-universe – is unpleasantly overtaken by the author’s control”. To put this in perspective: imagine that you open a Batman comic. The Dark Knight is going about his business of solving crimes and fighting supervillains, but he’s doing it all while wearing a tutu.

Thank you Internet. You will always be awesome.
Thank you Internet. You will always be awesome.

There’s no in universe explanation for it. He’s just wearing a tutu because the writer wanted him in a tutu and artist wanted to draw him that way. After the initial humor of seeing something that ridiculous, you realize that for the rest of their run, he’s going to be wearing a tutu. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense for him to be fighting crime in a tutu, nor is it in character. It doesn’t feel natural for him to wear a tutu, but Batman can’t do anything about it. He’s a fictional character. Thus,  his agency is overtaken by the writer’s control.  It’s how women often feel looking at covers of superheroines that are more interested in fanservice than displaying the qualities of character depicted. We can laugh at how ridiculous they look, but it still wears us down after a while. That doesn’t mean that we need to get rid of fanservice altogether, but the cover needs to have something else going for it.

For example, let’s compare two Red Sonja Covers. The first is cover A from her recent 48 page hundred issue special and the second is from Jenny Frison.

red sonja cover A

This is an example of what not to do. First of all, Red Sonja’s gravity defying boobs are huge and front and center. This will cause the straight/asexual female readers and gay/asexual male readers to write off the comic as just T&A. Honestly, I wouldn’t even give it a second glance when it’s on the shelves. Yes, in the reboot, Red Sonja is very comfortable with her sexuality, but it’s not her defining characteristic. It’s her fighting prowess, ferocity, bawdy sense of humor, and compassion. The second problem is that, aside from the T&A, it’s got nothing going for it. The colors are bland, and Red Sonja just looks like she’s pouting at the reader.

.Red-Sonja-8

This cover, on the other hand, stands on it’s own. The contrast of red and white make it eye catching. Her face is front and center and the intensity of her gaze draws the reader in. She looks like she’s about to kill you, but she’s also beautiful. Because she appears mostly naked, there is a bit of sexuality to her, but it’s not her defining characteristic or the most noticeable  part of the cover. Covers that are fanservice for the sake of fanservice don’t draw female readers in. As Jill Pantozzi of the Mary Sue put it in her article on the notorious Spider-Woman variant shown above, “does [the variant] tell women this is a comic they should consider spending money on. In fact, what the variant cover actually says is ‘Run away. Run far, far away and don’t ever come back.'”

Now what about that Batgirl variant that started it all? How could that be fixed? Susan Polo, founder of the Mary Sue, compared the variant to Gotham Central #10.

Gotham_Central_Vol_1_10

She tweets, “THAT is how you draw that pose without making the woman into a sexualized victim. That’s how you draw it and retain her heroism and agency.” If a heroine is depicted as a hostage, make her look defiant. Let the reader know that she’s not going to meekly let allow her captors do what they want. She’s going to fight them every step of the way.

When drawing women in fighting stance, show off her fighting prowess first, her assets second. For example:

664425_fbcb6e4fd542306050fc70c887b76da9783267b1

In this cover, Batgirl is ready for action. Unlike Black Canary’s ostrich impression, she’s is a believable fighting stance. Even though she’s bleeding, she still looks defiant and ready for round two. If you want to show her in action, worry about making the action well drawn first.

For example:
Wonder_Woman_Vol_4-6_Cover-1

This Wonder Woman cover is dynamic and interesting. She’s still got breasts, but they aren’t lovingly outlined. Always draw the heroine with agency. It makes the cover more visually interesting and draws the reader in. We want to see how Wonder Woman got into the Cerberus’s mouth. We’re not interested in an insanely proportioned Red Sonja standing with her boobs front and center and pouting at the reader.

Like I said before, DC and Marvel are getting better about this. Many of the newest female led titles all have gorgeous cover art, but considering that Red Sonja #100’s cover was released just last month and the amount of oversexualized women on covers released just this week, we still have a ways to go before women on comics covers are seen less as sexual objects or victims and more as heroic characters with agency.

All images belong to their respective owners.

41 thoughts on “Covergirls”

  1. This is an excellent article that not only thoughtfully discusses the problems with the depiction of women on covers, but also offers a constructive critique of how to improve these depictions. Well done.

  2. I agree with Reed. Great article 🙂 I agree that the depiction of women in comics is getting better but there is a long way to go. I think the fact that the artist and marvel caught a lot of shit for that spider-woman cover is proof that things are moving in the right direction and people are noticing those kind of overtly sexst renderings. The batgirl showcase cover is pretty shocking to me, however. The way we make change is by voting with our dollar and the publishers will eventually catch on.

    1. Thanks. Yes, it is improving quite a lot. They’re still making sexist covers, but at least it’s getting better. I remember seeing the Batgirl Showcase in the back of one of my others and being horrified. For the sake of my sanity, a little part of me hoped that the cover was just old, but nope! It was published in 2007. That lame Red Sonja cover is sadly par for the course, but that? I have never seen something so insulting towards a character. I’m surprised no one’s pointed it out before, not even on the amazon reviews.

  3. Agreed. Now if we could only get women in charge of everything else in this world we would have a little less bloodshed.

  4. Great article. As Reed points out you do more than complain but offer constructive thoughts for improvement. Things may be better than the past but there is still a lot that could be better . . .

    Also Jenny Frison is a great artist. I’ve never read a Red Sonja story but I love Frison’s covers for the series . . .

    1. Thanks. The best way to improve conditions is to understand what’s being done wrong and how to do it right. You should totally read Red Sonja, I’ve fallen behind, but it’s tons of fun, the art is wonderful, and Gail Simone is one of my heroes. I love Jenny Frison’s gorgeous covers. I could have picked any of them, but that one in particular is one of my favorites.

  5. I kinda want to see a playful book starring Batman in a tutu now. ☺️

    A nice & thoughtful article. I don’t mind glorified swimsuits so much, but the lack of armor in big battle royals drives me nuts. You never see women in military situations wearing a tank-top and panties. Can you imagine Batman wearing a sleeveless undershirt & boxer shorts while searching Gotham for Scarecrow? It’s just not practical. I was in the “pants for Wonder Woman” camp.

    I totally agree that most of these covers are horrid: Spider-Woman’s butt looks like a heart, which is kind of funny.
    Grown men drawing large, teenage breasts is questionable at best, but to be fair, he’s probably been doing that since middle school, but still. Old habits can be hard to break, but some are really worth examining and breaking.
    Batgirl doing her make-up in the middle of a fight is obsurd. Looks like something from the 50’s.

    Now, when it comes to BATGIRL/JOKER variant by Rafael, I like that DC respected one of their artist enough to pull the cover at his request, but I don’t like that Rafael didn’t respect his work enough to stand by it in the face of adversity. It’s a great homage to one of the best Joker stories ever. For me, it’s not about how far the character has come since or where she is at the moment. The whole point of a homage is to look to the past. Also, when most people think of Babs & Joker together, I’d be willing to wager that most of us at least have a flashback to KILLING JOKE. Maybe Rafael could have at least redrawn it with a tougher looking Babs. Or maybe he should have replaced Babs altogether with Comissioner Gordon. Naked with the fetish dog collar. Would anyone mind him crying? Yeah, probably, uh?

    1. According to one article I read, he submitted one with Babs looking tougher, but DC asked him to make it more extreme. The link can be found in the beginning of my article with the interview. Much of the criticism stems from the fact that she looks terrified and lost her agency, which is why I used Susan Polo’s comparison. I do like that DC respected his request and respect his decision.

      1. My wife saw the image and doesn’t understand what the big deal is. Horror is meant to be unsettling. She asked me if people just don’t like KILLING JOKE, which she is very familiar with, to which the answer seems to be “no”. In fact, everyone seems to hold it in the highest of regard, but this image that references it is damnable for reasons that are conflicting within themselves. It’s a sensitive issue that I think people are blowing out of proportion. I think people forget that the point of Joker variant month is to showcase a manical serial killer in his 75th year. The character is deplorable and so thus are his actions. Furthermore, he’s victimized countless characters over the years.
        It would make more sense to damn KILLING JOKE for its depictions, rather than this cover. The issue has raised some very interesting questions and engaging debates. Perhaps we do put women in freezers too often to express a villain’s depravity & a hero’s resolve. However, the key to the paradox might not lie in less women in freezers, but perhaps more men in freezers to balance the scales. For example, I was hoping to see a homage on REDHOOD AND THE OUTLAWS cover with the Joker, Jason Todd and a crowbar.

        1. Actually, the praise for Killing Joke is not as unanimous as you might think. There are plenty of detractors who criticize aspects of it from Batman’s portrayal to Moore’s possible origin for the Joker (which then became canon for at least part of the 90s). However, the biggest source of criticism is the treatment of Barbara. As I believe Reed pointed out in another thread, Moore himself has expressed regret that Barbara was victimized in the way that she was.

          Do most fans, such as myself, admire the work as a whole? Yes. However, there are plenty of those who feel the book is overrated.

          1. And those people are in the minority . . .
            Every piece of art in the world is hated by somebody, somewhere. There are people who hate the Mona Lisa, statue of David and even the pyramids.

            1. Actually, I’m one of those people who find Michelangelo’s David overrated — I much prefer Bernini’s. Of course, Michelangelo in general is not one of my favorite artists. I only like his late period stuff when he became preoccupied with his mortality. The rest of it is too emotionally cold for my tastes . . .

              Now, the Mona Lisa is just as beautiful as its reputation suggests . . .

                1. When you say on the opposite end do you mean Titian’s Pastoral Concert on the reverse side of the wall or Paolo Veronese huge canvas on the other end of the room? Or maybe something else entirely . . ?

                    1. Yeah that’s the one by Veronese. I want to say that it’s The Marriage at Cana or The Supper at Emmaus but I could be wrong. I can check later. Either way it was one of those ostensibly religious painting which was really just an excuse to paint daily life.

                      It is a great painting .. . .

                    2. Now is my time to jump in and add that the Sistine chapel painting is also overrated! What a let down.

        2. Yes, and a lot of Batgirl’s history afterward, as Oracle and Batgirl again in the New 52, is about putting the event behind her. Most of her fans want to put it behind them as well. The problem is that they, and by extension, Babs, are constantly reminded of it, even when it’s inappropriate. The variant also wasn’t approved by the creative team. Cameron Stewart went on record criticizing it. TKJ was criticized a lot for Babs being used as a prop to further a man’s angst, and like Cosma said, Moore regrets this fridging her.

          1. “Most of her fans want to put it behind them as well.”
            That’s never going to happen, and I’ll tell you why:
            1) We’re dealing in serialized fiction. Every event in a character’s history that has had any significant impact, will be recycled and remembered always.
            2) It’s Oracle’s origin story.
            Most every superhero & villain have suffered a severe traumatic experience in their past that has affected who they are. They go nuts, dress up in tights and either fight crime or cause chaos. Should we try to put Uncle Ben’s death behind us because it makes Peter sad? How many times have we seen the image of little Bruce Wayne kneeing down and balling his eyes out over his parents who were just murdered in front of him? What about Jason Todd? The Joker brutally beat him to near death and then blew up him and his mother. Yet, no one seems to get upset & outraged over it like with the Babs situation. Why? Because boys are tough? Is ok to exploit a male child’s pain & suffering, but not a grown woman? To me, that seems sexist. In this quest to empower fictional females, I think we’re losing sight of equality. We’re putting females on pedestals like delicate flowers because we don’t want to offend or hurt feelings.
            There’s progress to be made, I just think we might be going about it the wrong way.

            1. That’s fair enough. What I intended to say, and I apologize for making it unclear, was more the fact that she is portrayed less like a hero and more like a victim. The whole point of her becoming Oracle is to never be a victim again. It’s okay to homage TKJ, I just would like her to be portrayed as defiant as she fights the Joker. I agree that her history should not be forgotten, and she should be allowed to suffer as much as a guy, but I highly doubt we’ll ever see a cover of the Joker holding a crowbar over the head of Jason Todd while he looks at the reader with tears in his eyes, begging for help.

              1. “…but I highly doubt we’ll ever see a cover of the Joker holding a crowbar over the head of Jason Todd while he looks at the reader with tears in his eyes, begging for help.”

                Do you think anyone would care if they did? Would there be any backlash whatsoever? I think not, personally.
                As I pointed out above, I think that would make an awesome cover. 😃

                1. I think part of the problem is the tone of the current Batgirl comic. The comic is all light and bubbly and is very good by the way. It doesn’t have a dark tone so this cover was wrong for that book. If it was a Batman book it would be more appropriate but in her own book (that is all about fun) it could easily disturb some fans that aren’t buying that book for hyper realistic violence.

                  1. @iroberts
                    That’s a fair point, and if it were just a random variant at some random time, I would be inclined to agree with you, but June is the Joker’s 75th anniversary and we’ll be celebrating every great story the character has been involved with. So all of these variants aren’t about the hero’s book, but all about the Joker himself. If it was Batgirl’s anniversary, then this variant would absolutely be inappropriate to celebrate Babs.

  6. 😋 I also wanted to touch on Powergirl’s boob window (phrasing😜).
    I think most of us can agree that it’s pretty (phrasing😜) ridiculous
    and serves no purpose other than to tantilize adolescent boys back in the day. Like car magazines that feature underwear/swimsuit models. But imagine they did away with the boob window. Given the skin tight costume, the only real differerence would being coloring. Either the boobs are white with costume or a little flesh colored.
    And as far as boobs defying gravity, what’s the alternative? They weigh superheroes down? 😄 I keep imagining WW or PG racing to stop a rocket, but they can’t fly high enough because their boobs can’t defy gravity like the rest of their body. 😝

      1. Basically, artists should be more realistic about how women’s anatomy actually functions. There is a reason gymnasts have very small, slight figures. Back in the 90s I read a comment which (sadly) remains true today: “If Catwoman actually had breasts the size she’s usually drawn with she couldn’t do at least half the acrobatic moves she’s supposed to. Her center of gravity would be all off.”

        For a good positive alternative, I would look at how Michael Lark draws Forever in Lazarus. Here is a strong, physical female fighter whose body type resembles how women’s bodies actually work . . . .

        1. Well, sure gymnasts may have small chests from low body fat percentage but they normally have massive legs and butts so “slight” is relative. Gymnasts (best athletes in the world). I’m sure you just meant chests right though?

        2. Actually now that I think about it Forever (great comic by the way) would probably be much more bulky. She looks like a runner. A gymnast or a fighter wouldn’t look like that (see Ronda Rousey). This is another thing that people argue about in terms of female superheroes. “Slightness” is not realistic either. Muscle is bulky and sometimes less attractive so artists opt for underwear model looks rather than athlete looks. Only She hulk has a “realistic” superhero build.

  7. My point with Forever is that she does definitely have muscle bulk to her and does not at all resemble an underwear model. Perhaps in the “real world” she would have even more, but then that leads to a debate about what Malcom tailed her genes for more agility, strength or a balance between the two. (I suspect that it’s the last one) . . .

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