The recent alternate cover for Spider-Woman, by Milo Manara, is more important than we thought at first. Manara has actually, finally, managed to define a character who has been nebulous for decades. I predict Spider-Woman movies will now follow.
I have very few super-powers, but one of them is a magical mystical intuitive sense of the world of the comic book zeitgeist. That world has moved. Spider-Woman is now a first-tier character.
Let’s talk a little bit about Spider-Man first.
Spider-Man is about sexuality. More precisely, Spider-Man is about male shame in the 1960s, and that meant sexuality.
Spider-Man is a boy who suddenly discovers he is super-strong, has strange feelings that he’s never felt before, and after a little bit of effort he can shoot goo from his fists. We all know what’s going on. And it is going on. Don’t ever try to pretend, even for a second, that this is not the thudding bassline underneath everything that has ever happened with Spider-Man.
The reason that he’s a great character, and Spider-Man has possibly the greatest costume of any super-hero, is because it’s also more than that.
Spider-Man is shame personified, embodied, and empowered. That’s the core of the character. The child who feels shame has become mighty. He still feels shame, this does not cancel the shame out. What it does is it makes the shame a source of strength. Just as the Hulk says “when I am angry, I am all-mighty”….
Spider-Man says, “when I am shamed I am unstoppable.”
A much more complex statement! But that’s the way things are. I probably would never have articulated or perceived that shame can be a source of strength if Spider-Man had not been invented, and it’s not enough for me to drop a fortune cookie line like that and say, now design a character to match it. It doesn’t work that way.
I could tell you, for example, that “the ego is the part of the mind that justifies what you are doing at the exact moment. Art is the superego examining the ego.” That’s a sort of interesting, sort of frustrating, sort of unprovable statement. It probably doesn’t really tell you much of anything. But man, if I could invent a super-hero that embodies that principle, that would be something. That is what art is for. To take a feeling, and the psychological reality that arises from the feeling, and translate it into a mental symbol that other people can use. That’s where it’s at, kids. That’s what we’re trying to do.
That’s what Manara managed to do with Spider-Woman, by the way, but let’s stay on Spider-Man for a bit longer.
Spider-Man is shame. His costume is red in the parts of the body that feel hot when you feel shame and blue in the parts that feel cold. But there’s a lot more than that going on.
First off, he’s basically wearing a corset. The spider-symbol in the middle represents, among other things, cleavage.
Maybe not direct artistic intent, but not an accident either. Steve Ditko, the guy who came up with Spider-Man’s classic costume, worked as a bondage erotica artist when he wasn’t doing comics. Ditko’s interest in restriction and compulsion, evident throughout his entire body of work, points to a hard childhood for sure. His sexuality and sexual identity is encoded everywhere in his work. But Ditko is also very, very smart. Look at those weblines.
Those weblines are so dang important. First, they closely follow the “meridians,” or the lines of energy that some of mystical traditions claim power and control the body. Second, they define the anatomy and draw attention. Third, they supported a generation of background inkers. Drawing the web-lines on Spider-Man was one of the first chores that aspiring Marvel inkers had to do, and the miniscule amounts of money they received for their uncredited efforts was the gateway to (equally low-paying) stardom for generations. It’s mostly done with computers now, but there was a time when it was a big deal.
Web-lines are motion lines. No matter what’s happening on the page, odds are good that the dymamic faux-open hatching demanded by the design attract the eye to Spidey, make him the most three-dimensional object on the page (he’s basically wearing a wireframe), and the webs under his arms make it look like he’s moving really, really fast.
Finally, look at the blue areas of the costume. The Spider-Man costume is quite slimming. It also makes him look freaky and nonhuman. It helps that they put him in a wide variety of odd poses. That’s part of the character.
Spider-Man’s not just an “athlete,” he’s a naked man rotating freely in three-dimensional space. What’s more, he has boobs on his face and he’s wearing a painted-on corset. And he’s spurting fluid from both fists as he does it.
He’s a synthesis of male and female, but he’s definitely, defiantly male. He represents male sexual liberation as seen by a boy who grew up repressed in the 1950s, but he was designed with such deep thought and ineffable grace that he transcended Ditko’s personal concerns and became a larger symbol that was accessible and useful to large numbers of people, most of whom had practically nothing in common with the creator.
He’s creepy. He’s sexual. He’s in your face. Shame personified, sexual shame to be precise, unstoppable as a tornado. This isn’t just a little bit brilliant, you know. This is brilliant in so many different ways that it literally qualifies as genius.
Go ahead — search my blog, see how often I call something genius. It’s not often. The word should be reserved for things like this, the costume design for Spider-Man. “Greatest superhero costume ever” is not a small compliment. There have probably been near a million superhero costumes designed and published, and that makes this design one in a million.
Now let’s take a look at Spider-Woman.
Threat or Menace?
The artistic criticism of this cover, I assume, is mostly coming from people who are not artists or are insane. Witness the 3d model, which is a hit job by a moron:
Dear inferior artist who made that 3d piece — if you take a swing at a king, better be sure you hit. Here is a quick overlay of the 3d model with the piece:
That is just dishonest. That’s not what’s depicted, and it’s screwed up as much as it possibly can be for the joke. So, dear 3d artist who made that — screw you. Just because your copy of Poser can’t be pretzeled into the right shape doesn’t mean that you have proven anything about realism. What you have demonstrated is your own lousy standards and lack of dedication to your craft.
Short digression — one of the reasons I like art, and superhero art in particular, is because I am a human being who longs for moral fixity. Deep down, I desire there to be a right and a wrong in the world. That’s what I love about art — it’s all surface. If it looks right, it’s right. If it looks wrong, it’s wrong. That’s all there is. There’s nothing but how it looks. “Fake” art that “only looks right” is every bit as good as “real art.” There is actually no difference between the two. This is taken to an even greater extreme in the world of superhero art, because there is no more rigid and judgmental school of life drawing anywhere, anywhere, then in the pages of a superhero book. Many people are coming to this controversy now and saying, hey, that costume looks like it was painted on. Congratulations, you have figured out the incredibly difficult secret that superheroes are all nude models with crotches left out and costumes painted on.
I am aware of nowhere in the world where there is a stronger and clearer line between “right” and “wrong” than superhero comics art, except math. There is astoundingly little room for variation in the stern and financially unrewarding world of superheroics. Drawings of the human form in action are right or they are wrong and there are practically no points of intersection between the two.
The 3d artist here has sinned against that. I find their actions repulsive. They should have been able to look at their own model and said, “Hey, that’s not even close to right. I should spend my time honing my own craft instead of taking crap potshots at somebody else’s.” This offends me on the same level that hearing a creationist announce that evolution is “just somebody’s opinion” offends me.
This is a little better:
Congratulations on making the pose much less interesting without solving any of the problems you set out to solve, but at least you can draw. You’re not Manara’s equal on faces, hair, hands, or pose, but who is?
Manara is a real problem, because he’s unabashedly scummy. The stuff he draws is, oh, what’s the word? Porn. Yeah, that’s the word. Lots and lots of porn. He’s really into naked women in scandalous situations and voluptuous poses within those situations. That said, he’s amazing. And I don’t mean amazing at porn, I mean plain old amazing.
There are maybe a thousand people in this whole entire world who are Manara’s equal at life drawing. I’d bet about 667 of them don’t speak English, 300 of the remainder don’t care, and the other 33 work in comics and are impressed as hell that Manara managed to get this much attention. I’m not saying that we don’t get to criticize Manara, because we can and we should and we must. I’m saying it’s tricky, and trying to correct the old man’s art with paintovers is stupid.
It’s just stupid. Any honest artist should look at this and say, this is accurate. The problems are with the presentation and the subject matter. Looking at this drawing, rolling up your sleeves, and saying “I’m gonna show Manara how it’s done” is like drawing on Billy the Kid with a potato gun. Don’t do it. You’ll be killed before we get to hear your reasoned critique of the Kid’s choices of who to shoot.
Now, normally, I’d say that there are a lot of wonderfully critical things to say about this dreadful old man. But not this time, kids. This time, he nailed it.
Friendly Neighborhood Spider-People
First, let’s get something important out of the way.
Manara’s choice of pose, with this particular character, is not inappropriate.
In fact, it is one of the very few drawings of the character that has anything to say.
This is how we’re used to seeing Spider-Woman:
This is how we’re used to seeing Spider-Man:
This is how we’re used to seeing Spider-Woman:
Just to finish driving my point into the ground, here are Spider-Man and Spider-Woman together on the same page:
They just give her less interesting poses. She’s a less interesting character all around, or at least she used to be. Manara finally found a way to make her compelling, but we’re getting to that.
This here video is occasionally excellent:
But when he says the sexiness is all in your mind he’s being disingenuous. The character is about sex. The artist is about sex. Sure, the artist says he is about “celebrating the human body.” He’s celebrating the human body…having sex.
There’s nothing wrong with this whatsoever. It’s somewhat challenging, which makes it a fit subject for examination by fiction. But it’s nearly as dishonest to pretend there is nothing sexual going on here as it is to pretend that there has to be something wrong with what’s going on here. He argues that she is not “presenting herself,” but rather climbing up a building. Yyyyyyyyeah, no. Let’s be honest about why that particular moment and that particular angle was chosen. It wasn’t an accident. Manara wasn’t standing there with a camera next to a woman climbing a ladder and saying “I shall draw the tenth photograph I take and I don’t care what it is.” This is sexual. That’s the point.
This is the female Spider-Man, that’s why her name is Spider-Woman. I’m not saying that’s all she’ll ever be, but nobody’s really figured out what to do with her yet. She’s been around for like forty years, and she’s just not super-interesting. They keep her around because her costume’s pretty good.
Her super-power is that she’s sexy. Seriously. She can fly and she can shoot energy bolts and she’s a super-spy and she’s sexy. It’s technically “pheromones” that she secretes that make her sexy, but what actually makes her sexy is highly trained artists trying to draw her all sexy-like. I’m not a fan of how the character has usually been treated, though I’ll admit that she began to gather interest in the Bendis years.
So we have a collection of cliches and a pretty good costume. That’s all that’s been done with the concept so far. But there is possibility here. Let’s say that she’s actually the female version of Spider-Man.
Hmm, no. Or, at least, that’s not all we’re looking at here. This is the female version of Spider-Man — designed by men. If there were a female version of Spider-Man designed by women she would look very, very different.
So let’s follow the concept of Spider-Man through. It’s not the only take on the character, but it’s the take that Manara chose, and it’s the one that worked, so let’s retrace his steps.
If Spider-Man is about boys overcoming their shame at their own sexuality through rambunctious display, then it follows that Spider-Woman should be about girls doing the same thing.
Let’s look at the heat maps again and see if any of them resemble Spider-Woman’s costume.
Well, they call it “love” in that picture, but it’s probably more like lust. Spider-Woman represents, or can be made and seen to represent, a woman who likes sex. She represents aggressive female sexuality. Not fertility. Carnality.
That’s a terrifying concept to our culture. A woman who is completely sexually open is a confusing and upsetting thing to us — is she in danger? Is something wrong with her? Does she have a terrible disease? We are used to a man who will have sex with any woman who will have him; that describes a depressingly large proportion of the population. We cannot imagine a woman who will have sex with any man who wants her. She would be dead, or sick, or pregnant, or sinful, or….something. Something is very wrong there.
Spider-Woman is, like Spider-Man, sexual. She represents overt, open carnal desire transformed into great justice and, therefore, revenge. Justice is just revenge plus justification, after all.
Spider-Woman’s supposed to be creepy.
She’s supposed to be weird, and disturbing, and defiantly sexual. Not a bashful demure dance-of-the-seven-veils sexy, but a burning naked woman with scarlet skin.
I predict that this is the aspect of the character that will catch on. I predict female and trans creators (and that includes cosplayers) will make this side of the character their own and follow the thread through to something truly new, interesting and strange. This is the first glimpse of light that has ever been seen in this character’s forty year history. Even though this should have been obvious from day one, it took forty years for our culture to get to the point where they could accept this interpretation, and now it’s here and it’s definitive. We are finally ready to begin to examine female sexuality through the same tool that we first deployed on male sexuality two generations ago. That’s how long the lag is due to our ingrained cultural sexism.
I honestly don’t know if this is “empowering” to women or not. I doubt it; not in the sense most people mean, at least. This is probably not what feminism had in mind! However, this is certainly, literally, super-empowering. Because Spider-Woman’s taking women in positions and postures that are usually considered degrading and literally giving them super-powers. Compare and contrast with Wonder Woman and you’ll start to see a pattern.
Spider-Woman is one of the few characters, anywhere, ever, that makes porntrace a reasonable artistic choice. When you draw Spider-Woman according to this new Manara formula, you will be taking women in postures that are usually seen as vulnerable and dominated and making them strong and super-humanly powerful, all in the service of Fighting Crime. It’s sort of beautiful in a sort of gross way.
So I can’t judge in what sense precisely this is “empowering.” I know that it’s interesting, and the world follows interesting. I know that this cover, a freakin’ alternate cover, has gotten more press and been seen by more people than practically any other comic book cover since the death of whatsisface. I know that Marvel has gotten metric tons of free publicity, that sales are through the roof, that it will be in print forever, and that Manara has finally become a household name like few living artists ever are.
This single image is the most interesting take on Spider-Woman yet. By a country mile.
If Spider-Woman isn’t unsettling, she’s boring.
She should never be just standing there. She should be contorted, odd, strange, challenging.
In other word, she should be this picture.
Is this a particularly sexy pose? No, it is not. It is sexual. It is animalistic. It is weird. But there are many, many, many, many more sexy things in the world than this. If you were a heterosexual man, and you walked into a room, and you saw a woman standing there like this:
You’d probably think, there is an attractive woman who is attracted to me. She is enticing and sexy. She has that triangle thing going on between her legs, I’ve seen that on many swimsuit models.
If you were a heterosexual man and walked into a room and saw a woman standing there like this:
You would probably be shocked into fight or flight. And by “fight” I probably mean “attempt to fuck.” But I don’t really know what you would do. It would be a deeply personal decision. Any way you look at it, you would most likely be filled with a deep and unreasoning fear, a nearly holy terror. You would be immediately confronted with very primal decisions that are, sadly, possibly beyond your control.
That’s what the character should be about, y’all. She should be scary. If she is a male vision of the power of feminine sexuality, then own it. This demure crap isn’t it, not one bit. Manara has finally found a way to make the character compelling. She is the Scarlet Woman.
Let her be.