Recently, DC comics came out with this 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.
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.
To be fair, this image was also at the center of a controversy, but the fourth result was only slightly better.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.