Spider-Woman: Frank Cho, Milo Manara, and marketing.

“Milo Manara, master artist and storyteller, came in at the last ten minutes of my Art and Women panel and handed me a special gift in appreciation for fighting censorship—an original watercolor painting of Spider-Woman. The packed auditorium went wild.”Frank Cho

Frank Cho and Milo ManaraIllustrating cheesecake is not a fight against censorship. No one has censored Frank Cho—not DC, not Marvel, not even the American government. To state otherwise is a lie. It is a lie put forward to market to men who feel that their rights have been taken from them because the companies they adore have begun to market select products to focus groups that do not include them.

Frank Cho and Milo Manara are well within their rights to create cheesecake featuring Marvel and DC superheroines. Selling said images at conventions is a gray area, but I’d argue that Marvel and DC should look the other way in regards to the practice in order to maintain a friendly relationship with freelancers. Marvel and DC are also well within their rights to decide that employing controversial good-girl artists for books that will be heavily marketed to feminist readers seeking empowering stories is no longer profitable for them.

Crying censorship simply because you are unhappy with the consequences of your actions is dishonest. Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t being censored because she didn’t receive an invitation to perform at the Hip Hop Honors. She makes delightful pop music. As a result, her work isn’t considered for certain venues and is prioritized at others. Cho is a talented good-girl artist. He should be considered for jobs where pin-up art is required. However, his continued needling of feminist consumers may have rightfully made companies wary of taking him on as a freelancer much in the same way that Twitter has struggled to find buyers given its problems with harassment. We have reached an age where subpar social skills can override immense talent. It is much easier to hire a freelancer who is an asset both behind the desk and on a panel.

I have a collection filled with the work of Warren, Conner, Linsner, and Barbucci—all highly recommended—so I am certainly no stranger to cheesecake. However, the actions of Cho and Manara have consequences. Their work and behavior have made a Marvel character an embarrassment. Unlike Wonder Woman, a character with decades as a feminist icon under her belt, Spider-Woman is in no way a strong enough character to bounce back from this. No matter how many female creators attempt to salvage the mess these two men have created, this character is now best known as a mean-spirited industry in-joke made at the expense of women and girls seeking an aspirational heroine to believe in.

Perhaps the best bet for Marvel would be to simply acknowledge the joke Cho and Manara have made of Spider-Woman (at Marvel’s expense and their own profit) and sell the character accordingly. What other options does the company have left? Of course, Cho and Manara have proved absolutely incapable of launching the charm offensive needed to sell a sex-kitten anti-heroine that doesn’t belittle or infuriate feminist readers while simultaneously refraining from shaming straight male fans of pin-up art. And it can be done—with the right creative team.

It is absolutely fascinating how Frank Cho has fed off Marvel characters given that he is not a Marvel employee and has actively interfered with Marvel’s marketing strategy in regards to wooing female readers! And for all his cries of censorship he has surprisingly suffered absolutely no consequences for it. I wonder how many other freelancers plan to follow in his footsteps. How easy it would be for a famous artist to loudly claim that Marvel wishes to rid itself of all cheesecake (it doesn’t) and rake in the cash of frenzied collectors by pumping out pornographic images to buy at conventions. Then leave Marvel to put out the PR fires ignited by the images being spread all over social media.

Of course the real money is in helming a Harley Quinn—a character that draws dollars from feminists and misogynists alike, a character that allows one to draw cheesecake at conventions and draw checks from a mainstream comic company, a character that allows for a much wider range of material that is deemed appropriate by all. But the quick money is in outrage. As Frank Cho is only too aware.


Oh, what a web!

If a company markets one product to two diametrically opposed groups within the same arena, said company should expect a spectacle as those two groups angrily vie for the sole attention of the company and dominion over the product. The spectacle will be a boon to the company as those not even interested in the product will flock to the spectacle to witness the clashing of the two groups—promotion via chaos. It is a deeply exploitative form of marketing that I find distasteful, and it is a form that Marvel has recently used with greater frequency, causing me to shy away from its products.

The rapid growth of the number of women involved in geek circles has sent various entertainment industries that once catered wholly to men scrambling to find material to sell to a new and untapped market. In comics, Marvel has wisely made space in its roster for empowering and entertaining works featuring female characters that are helmed by female creators. Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel are notable examples. However, two books and two female creators are not enough to service the growing number of female readers. Demand has clearly outstripped supply.

One way Marvel has countered is by upping the number of books featuring female leads. The upcoming Spider-Woman was announced at Marvel’s Women of Marvel panel at the well-attended San Diego Comic-Con (the panel amusingly stated by Melissa Molina of Comic Book Resources to have dispelled stereotypes). It was here that Marvel marketed to its first group—men and women frustrated with poorly conceived, sexist, and sexualized material that objectifies solely women.

spider-woman-1-coverAnd it was here, in the cover created by erotic artist Milo Manara and in the choice of the notorious Greg Land as series penciller, Marvel marketed to its second group—men craving sexualized images of women to objectify—a group that is in direct opposition to the men and women who were in attendance at the panel. It is a group that is frustrated due to the belief that they are being stripped of the ability to enjoy erotic art featuring Marvel characters as an increasing number of female characters are used to create empowering works for women. These two groups were bound to clash—and clash they did in several notable places, which drew the attention of the mainstream media. And with the attention of the mainstream media Marvel got exactly what it set out to obtain when it first championed Spider-Woman to female audiences and then hired the industry’s most infamous “cheesecake” artist and its most talented erotic artist for the project. And it only had to gaslight its female readers, a group already battling sexism and harassment in an industry that is hostile to them to do so.