For decades, one of the most loathsome aspects of the geek-culture ecosystem has been the way male artists draw female characters in mainstream comics. Half of the human race has generally been sketched as a parade of walking pinups since the medium’s inception in the 1930s, but in the late '80s, the problem became especially pernicious. In tales of superheroes and super-anti-heroes, ladies seemingly had their spines removed in order to better show off their mountainous butts and beach-ball breasts. Though that trend has, thankfully, leveled off a bit, images of oversexualized women remain so ubiquitous that readers often hardly even notice them.
But not always. Every so often, for one reason or another, social media’s nerd commentariat decides that an image — usually from the cover of a comic book — has gone too far. In 2014, critic Janelle Asselin wrote an influential piece for Comic Book Resources about the way artist Kenneth Rocafort drew Wonder Girl on a Teen Titans cover. That same year, a Spider-Woman cover by Italian soft-core porn artist Milo Manara drew jeers for the mind-bending anatomy of the title character’s butt ("It looks more like a colonoscopy than a costume,” wrote Slate’s Amanda Marcotte). This week, a new image entered the outrage pantheon: a limited-edition cover for the upcoming Invincible Iron Man No. 1, penciled by J. Scott Campbell and depicting a 15-year-old girl named Riri Williams (see below).
As you might recall, Riri was chosen by Marvel to replace Tony Stark as the new Iron Man — well, she’s actually going by “Ironheart” — after he disappears in the wake of a superhero civil war. That news brought unexpected controversy when critics objected to the fact that this black, female character was going to have her adventures written and drawn by white men. It died down, but Riri-centric anger was born anew this week when Marvel and New York megaretailer Midtown Comics unveiled Campbell’s so-called “variant” cover, only available at the store, for next month’s Invincible Iron Man No. 1.
Campbell has been a creator of note since the mid-’90s, when he co-created Image Comics superteam Gen¹³, then dreamed up spy trio Danger Girl. His female leads were busty and butt-y, which was, as Grandpa Simpson might say, the style at the time. His fame has faded somewhat in recent years, but he still has a significant fan following. For example, he has roughly 223,000 followers on Instagram, and he took to that site three days ago to tease that he was doing something involving Riri.
A few hours later, comics site Bleeding Cool tossed up a post showing two full images from Campbell, each set to be available as variants at Midtown. In both, the underage girl stood, hips cocked, with one arm holding a helmet and one reaching toward the viewer. One version featured her in full body armor; the other showed her as she’d been seen in the first promotional image of Ironheart, drawn by Jeff Dekal: midriff exposed beneath a red crop-top. Here, her breasts were more prominent and her back more snakelike than they’d been in Dekal’s piece. (To be fair, she's been depicted as significantly less adult-like in existing Iron Man stories illustrated by Mike Deodato Jr.) A night passed without much chatter about the works.
The trouble began on Wednesday, just after 9 a.m. Writer Stephanie Humphrey — a black woman — tweeted out the bare-midriff version of the cover, along with the comment, “Is this how people see 15 year old black girls?” She mentioned other covers depicting Riri, but it was clear that this was, in her mind, the worst offender. The tweet blew up, garnering nearly 1,500 retweets and 1,800 likes as of this writing. About an hour later, another black female writer, Tee Franklin, quoted that tweet, adding, “Love seeing children sexualized on comics. But you know, black girls are FAST, so it's fine. 😒 /end sarcasm.” As a wave of tweeted criticisms built, Franklin popped up again at 1 p.m. “With all this RiRi talk and the new variant cover that doesn't depict her as a teenager, I got an idea,” she wrote. “Hey artists, tweet me your #TeensThatLookLikeTeens art & use that hashtag. I wanna see something.”
Hey artists, tweet me your #TeensThatLookLikeTeens art & use that hashtag. I wanna see something.— #MHAnthology (@MizCaramelVixen) October 19, 2016
The tag quickly became a hit, prompting amateur and professional artists alike to either sketch out original drawings of Riri or post existing images of pronouncedly non-sexualized teen-girl characters. The chorus of pointed tweets grew louder. Campbell, however, was unmoved. He retweeted Image co-founder Erik Larsen’s comment, “So, apparently, body shaming is completely acceptable as long as the person being shamed is fit and attractive,” then replied to Larsen, saying, “Ha! Nope, nope. Sitting this SJW whine-fest out. Not taking their bait this round ;)” A few hours later, he changed his mind, tweeting out the old Dekal drawing and adding, “Hmmm.. This is the character I was asked to draw, people understand that, right? Is it THAT different? #nonconroversy #movealong”
As you might expect, his critics had no interest in following that instruction. The attacks spread: “An ‘Iron Man’ Cover Is the Latest Example of Why Pinup Artists Shouldn’t Draw Teenagers,” read a headline at HitFix. “Dear Marvel: Stop Sexualizing Female Teenage Characters Like Riri Williams. Love, Everyone,” said The Mary Sue. Campbell, meanwhile, started retweeting and replying to praise from supporters. Beneath his “#movealong” tweet, dozens of sub-threads featuring clashes between the two sides erupted. (Riri’s co-creator and the writer of the comic, Brian Michael Bendis, mostly sat it all out, just pointing out that he had nothing to do with the image.) The dueling went on through the night and into the next day.
You do realize these are valid critiques from both fans and critics right? This deserves your attention. https://t.co/TzYZcfJZnx— Black Girl Nerds (@BlackGirlNerds) October 19, 2016
It's not that they're *trying* to sexualize a teen. It's that they're actually incapable of drawing humans well—what they make living at.— Matt Bors (@MattBors) October 20, 2016
And then, sometime in the mid-afternoon yesterday, an executive decision was made. According to a representative for Marvel who I spoke to, the company and Midtown decided to pull the cover (the representative declined to specify a reason and Midtown did not respond to my request for a comment). Midtown quietly changed the entry for the variant in its online store to read, “DO NOT USE (Item Canceled).” The unarmored version was gone. The retailer’s tweet announcing the cover was deleted. Around that time, Marvel — in a totally unrelated move — tweeted out significantly tamer Riri character designs from Stefano Caselli, who’s the artist doing the pencils for the actual story within the comic. Critics took note and declared victory. “Tweet Army strikes again. *closes laptop in triumph*” wrote Twitter user @DeleMage.
Campbell declined my request for comment, saying he was “not sure talking about this any further helps the situation.” But, to his credit, he changed his mind on that front around 7 p.m. He put out a long statement in the form of replies to a critic on Twitter (helpfully compiled into a single paragraph by writer Jill Pantozzi). It wasn’t exactly an apology, but it acknowledged that he could have done a better job and learned from the experience.
“Perhaps given this feedback I could've drawn Riri younger but I can assure you, ‘sexual’ was not what I was going for,” he wrote. “Sometimes these covers, like this one, are drawn in haste to meet a deadline and you have fly by the seat of your pants and fall back a bit on instinct rather than ultra-careful thought.” He remained defiant at the end, though, adding that he has young daughters and “would not be embarrassed for them to see this cover.” He kept replying to people with comments along these lines for hours, staying up well past 4 a.m. "[I]f it's offensive to black women I'll consider that in the future," he wrote, right before adding, "But when you have this many touchy triggers all you do is frighten away any artists from even wanting to try, and thats sad."
As far as online backlashes toward comics publishers go, this one was pretty reasonable. For one thing, unlike the chaotic war that broke out after Marvel published a comic wherein Captain America was revealed to be working for a Nazi-associated organization, this discussion didn’t include death threats. For another, this whole kerfuffle was sorely needed. It’s deeply frustrating that unrealistically sexualized depictions of women in comics, especially superhero ones, have persisted for so long and become a kind of objectionable white noise, thrumming without abatement. It’s even more irritating that publishers are only taking notice so recently, and in such a piecemeal fashion — but hey, better late than never. Perhaps most important, the pushback against the Campbell cover is also highlighting an even bigger problem than the end product on the page: the fact that big comics companies employ hardly any black people, and a negligible number of black women.
“At the end of the day, I don't blame the artists; I blame the editorial team, really,” blogger Karama Horne, better known as theblerdgurl, told me. Franklin, who has a 13-year-old child, added that she and others were upset by the initial Dekal drawing from a few months ago, but that their anger then was drowned out by the larger outcry over the lack of black female creators handling the character. Even though that criticism wasn’t the focus this time around, she thinks it’s more important than ever. “Marvel just straight-up needs to hire more women of color as creators and as editors so if something like this slips through the cracks, the editor can stop it,” she told me. “Alas, if that happens, hell will freeze over.”