Joe Quesada gets a lot of shit. When you're the EIC of the biggest company in your field that's what happens. I'd say most of it is entirely undeserved, although I do have some more thoughts on the latest tempest in a teacup over Marvel Divas. You'll probably recall me mentioning this on this site before: bottom line, I love all the characters and the creators but while I hold out hope for something awesome I'm used to having those hopes dashed and the way the book is being promoted by Marvel has me less than enthused. I'm not alone; while it has been far from a backlash a murmuring has arisen among the internet intelligentsia as to whether this latest move by Marvel is sexist. The short answer is that it isn't. The long answer is that it kind of is but we should be used to it by now. I wouldn't blame Quesada, though. After all, he's only doing what the industry demands. He'll be the first to tell you this. (SNARKTALITY!)
I mean, to prove any personal responsibility in Marvel Comics sexism you'd need to show an established pattern of either outright sexist or insensitive creative decisions and products released during his term as Editor in Chief.
Let's get the miniseries that began all this mess out of the way first. Most of my problems with Marvel Divas are story concerns...why would these characters hang out together, won't you have to portray one or more of them vastly different from prior characterizations to get this to work, since when were all these women having relationship troubles...stuff like that. Additionally, concept sketches and solicitation text for issue #2 have more or less revealed that the series will, at least in part, focus on Firestar dealing with a cancer scare (one might surmise a breast lump). It's a serious story and one that makes sense given her microwave powers but wasn't the whole her-powers-are-hurting-her story done already? Not only done, but resolved in the pages of Avengers? Nobody's saying that she couldn't develop breast cancer (or bone cancer or liver cancer, no reason to jump to conclusions) independent of her powers but as far as being sold it feels a little like old ground and helps to create an idea of Angelica as a sufferer (I hesitate to say victim since she was always too strong a character for that)...Will her body betraying her forever plague the character, as Hank Pym's mental problems or Iron Man's alcoholism have? Time will tell.
Anyhow, Marvel Divas is Marvel's Sex in the City cash-in, which I've already made fun of them for. Marvel's idea of being topical seems to fluctuate between "three years behind a trend" and "Juggernaut and Dr. Doom crying at the World Trade Center." Even the name "Diva" is out of vogue. Even when it was in vogue its connotations were never that positive. If Firestar refused to fight crime until her personal assistant brought her Evian instead of Dasani, for example, it might be described as "diva-like behavior." It's usually applied to singers. In fact, sitting next to me is The Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus; let's look up "diva":
Forget connotations, the word has a problem concerning denotations. So either the girls form a jug band (Black Cat on washboard!) or they're assholes? That doesn't sound right. If you're unfamiliar with the textbook definition for prima donna, here it is:
It's probably pure coincidence that the book was announced by way of Quesada talking about positive female role models at Marvel. What else could it be, right? Nobody would deliberately name their book "Marvel Assholes" and use it as an example for positive portrayals of women, right? Perhaps they address this in the solicitation text...
MARVEL DIVAS #1 (of 4)
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art by Tonci Zonjic
Cover by J. SCOTT CAMPBELL
70s DECADE VARIANT by TBA
Diva (dee-vah), noun: An unusually glamorous and powerful woman. See: Patsy "Hellcat" Walker; Felicia "Black Cat" Hardy; Angelica "Firestar" Jones; and Monica "Photon" Rambeau. What happens when you take four of the Marvel Universe's most fabulous single girls and throw them together, adding liberal amounts of suds and drama? You get the sassiest, sexiest, soapiest series to come out of the House of Ideas since Millie the Model! Romance, action, ex-boyfriends, and a last page that changes everything! Let your inner divas out with this one, fellas, you won't regret it!
32 PGS./Parental Advisory …$3.99
What the hell is that? While I accept that this may be an accepted definition in certain subcultures or contexts you can't act like you're doing a dictionary definition gag and choose to gloss over the negatives associated with a word, crafting a sort of general description instead, just because it's convenient. Even if they got this from an actual dictionary I can promise you that's not the whole entry...Surely they would have given this a second thought when writing this, right? Perhaps that's a minor quibble, though. After all, with language being so mercurial maybe I should cut them some slack. Let's look at the initial announcement again:
“The idea behind the series was to have some sudsy fun and lift the curtain a bit and take a peep at some of our most fabulous super heroines. In the series, they're an unlikely foursome of friends--Black Cat, Hell Cat, Firestar, and Photon--with TWO things in common: They're all leading double-lives and they're all having romantic trouble. The pitch started as "Sex and the City" in the Marvel Universe, and there's definitely that "naughty" element to it, but I also think the series is doing to a deeper place, asking question about what it means...truly means...to be a woman in an industry dominated by testosterone and guns. (And I mean both the super hero industry and the comic book industry.) But mostly it's just a lot of hot fun.”
They at least cop to it being an unlikely ensemble; don't get me wrong, I am interested in seeing where any of these characters even met each other, but considering Marvel covered the previously unmentioned "epic" romance of Storm and Black Panther in about a minute prior to their wedding I'm sure they'll find a way (Black Panther was also the book that had Monica acting like she didn't know what the hell she was doing. I kind of hated Black Panther recently, you know?). One thing you'll notice is a disparity between Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's comments and the solicitation text. They both describe the book as sudsy and soapy (the text in Previews does it twice in one paragraph) which is terminology which has its own troubles of connotation and denotation (read: it sounds worse than it is but even what it is isn't very good) but Roberto seems to be trying harder to get across the idea that while this may have seem a bouncy lark at first he really intends to tell a more serious story. I take him at his word and can assume that "Marvel's Sex and the City" was a sort of pitch-meeting high concept like Hollywood was famous for at one time; "Like Die Hard on a boat," or "Like Predator meets Sense and Sensibility." Even within his own statement, however, he seems to be struggling against the packaging of the book, even trying to have his cake and eat it, too: "It seriously weighs the complexity of these characters in a story about women and their roles in society. We do this through soapy bouncy red-hot naughtiness." If his comments in the initial announcement (which you can read here for context) seem at war with themselves they seem doubly at odds with the solicitation text above. It's unfair to the book, to the point of almost sounding like an Observe and Report-level bait and switch (you know, Seth Rogen's dark comedy disguised as Paul Blart: Mall Cop) for the readers who actually buy into the ad copy.
TAKE A LOOK AT MY VAGINA!"
I pause here to repeat myself: what I look for in superhero comics starring women is the same thing I look for in superhero comics starring men. Some ass kicking, some cool sci-fi crap, some strong character-based writing, a good supporting cast, maybe a cool bad guy if you have the time but if not I'll honestly take generic muggers or robots. Marvel Divas sounds like it has a lot of this. It also sounds like it doesn't. I think the tendency to go for the hard-sell on this book turned a lot of people off who might have really enjoyed the title (as the cover might have done; even the people seeing it as harmless are describing it as "harmless T&A") and may end up attracting some people who think it's going to be some kind of sexual diary of superheroes (One of my writing professors, Michael Martone, wrote a short story entitled "The Sex Lives of the Fantastic Four;" I think he's still waiting for the Marvel legal penny to drop, even though it's obviously a fair-use parody).
There are also, of course, cover concerns, the cover being the most fundamental element of attracting readers. J. Scott Campbell's cover (above) has helped fuel a lot of this controversy so we start with that. For starters, you have two monochromatic costumes and two costumes that are almost entirely yellow, both red-heads at that. Why not use Firestar's George Perez costume? Or the one designedfor the book? Zonjic or no, why would anybody use Monica's NextWave look instead of her old brilliant costume if given their druthers? There's the fact that each woman has an almost identical body and face construction to the woman next to her. There's really nothing else even going on in the piece beyond "here are some characters" so if Marvel has a problem with people nit-picking they maybe should have made the damn cover more interesting beyond the skintight bodysuits; She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel wear even more revealing suits but they're also usually doing something. So like the ad copy the cover seems somewhat misleading. The first issue also comes with a 70's variant, apparently, though I have no idea what that means; even the art credit is listed as TBA. Was this a last minute variant edition because of the backlash starting with the Cup o' Joe announcement? Probably not, but I still have questions. Why a 70's variant when two of these characters weren't even around then? Is it just going to be old-school trade dress or are the characters going to be dressed up? Will Monica's halfro return? If you look at the second cover (immediately below, by Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic ) you'll see a similar image to the first issue in that it's four characters just standing around. I still have some issues with the composition (Is Monica's head turning just slightly too far? Would you be able to see so much of her left boob at that angle?) the difference is still notable. Their heads and faces are given different shapes and different expressions. Their hair looks better. Their costumes look less like they body-painted themselves. More to the point, though, this cover is actually in-your-face, a tone the book seems to be going for, and it's pretty to boot. The expressions on these faces and Hellcat in particular engaging the reader directly tells us something about each of these ladies; here, the focus is more on the characters instead of "here's some characters," on their personalities instead of their bodies. Even though I like this one better than the first one, it still doesn't answer the question of why Tonci Zonjic, whose pencils and sketches look fantastic, doesn't provide covers. It would have conveyed the series just as well, I imagine, and would have more accurately reflected the interiors (not just in terms of line-work but I suspect also in terms of tone and characterization). This is kind of a trend at Marvel and DC; it seems like the comics where the artist of the book provides the cover are fewer and further between than ever. Is it just me? If not, what was the root of this trend? Was it Alex Ross? It'd be something interesting to look at, I suppose...
Now if you've read this far you've probably figured this out, but it's important so I'll put it into some big-ass letters: my chief problem is not with Marvel Divas, the book, the work, but with the way it has been marketed and how the fans' response to that marketing has been handled. It's indicative of larger problems in the industry, problems bigger than Joe Quesada or Marvel. After all, it's not like there's a pattern of sexually suggestive or borderline inappropriate imagery published during Joe Quesada's run as Editor in Chief.
In an interview with Quesada conducted by Wizard alum and friend Jim MacLaughlin on 4/28/2009, the following exchange takes place:
JM: Sure. That series of vacuum tubes. It seems like a large amount of people just wanna hate on Marvel Divas. Is this your perception as well? If so…why do you think? The title? The high concept? Anything?
JQ: Well, first of all, I'd take exception to "a large amount of people." What's a large amount of people? Two? Two million? I dunno. But the bottom line is, there's not a single thing we could talk about here that someone won't hate on. And some people really like to find something, make it negative, and focus on it.
It starts out sounding like everything that came before. If fans have a problem with a Marvel Comic it's the fans who are at fault. Or the artist, or bloggers. We made this a crappy cover, willfully, because we enjoy heaping abuse on people. I don't think that's the case. There's similar sentiment to come, though. Something else of note is the conciliatory tone of the interviewer, something remarked about concerning Newsarama's Matt Brady during a previous debacle. This is how the comics press works. If you work for E! and you're talking about the movie Hounddog you probably mention the underage rape scene with Dakota Fanning and all the controversy surrounding it. Now the movie isn't a two-hour Dakota Rape and has a lot of stuff going on but you're not going to ignore the controversy, downplay it, or act like the people who are shocked by the news are the ones who are crazy. The film tries to shock. It's what they're going for. If there's negative spin on the movie, a reporter doesn't go up to Deborah Kampmeier and say, "Unfortunately, there are some sad people out there who can only focus on the on-screen sexual victimization of a twelve year old girl, which is a shame. Is there any validity at all to questions about the exploitation of the idea of minor girls as sexual entities, or do you feel that since you're a woman it redeems any supposed negativity surrounding the scene?" In comics, you do that. In the rest of the entertainment industry you get news because there are people working for these companies whose job it is to grant interviews, respond to questions, and disseminate news. In comics there is the potential for even more intimacy with your subject but there is also a greater ease when it comes to shunting newshounds and critics out of the loop, since we as a community only get the news we're allowed to have. This is how you get things like the Death of Captain America debacle; comics news sites and retailers weren't allowed to print or discuss or know what was happening until the box arrived in their store, eight hours after the rest of the world saw it in the fucking newspapers and on television.
This is a comic about strong ass-kicking women who hold their own with Shang Chi. Can you tell? Can you find Shang Chi? Look closely. Oh, there's Black Cat again.
A few days later, in the final MySpace Cup O' Joe, we got a lot out of Joe Q and it's this stuff that I truly want to address. Read the whole thing yourself first, and I'll break in where I think is necessary:
About the "hating" on Marvel Divas, let's call it what it really is—criticizing how sexist this book appears to be. If Marvel produces comics that are offensive to female readers, why shouldn't people "hate" on it? Why would I want to support a company that produces offensive, sexist material? Why shouldn’t everyone speak out against it? While the book hasn't come out yet, what has been released so far is blatantly sexist. But what troubles me the most is that Marvel thinks people want to read this, and this constitutes strong female characterization. Does Marvel actually want to attract female readers or is the whole point that Marvel Comics are only for guys?JQ- Ashley, while I completely respect your opinion as I do every Marvel fan, your calling Marvel Comics and this particular mini series sexist is a bit extreme from where I’m standing.
I can get behind JQ here. "What has been released so far" at this point consisted of what I've shared with you above: the initial announcement, the cover, and the solicitation text. Is it sexist? Yeah. Would I call it blatantly and offensively sexist? I can see where people might but I wouldn't; I just call it kind of stupid marketing that blew up in their face (NOT that the two concepts are mutually exclusive). I do think it's all counter-productive if they want to bring in female readers with this book but the cover and copy seemed to be more concerned with winning over guys. While I know Marvel and other companies are always trying to attract female fans I can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that's not what they were trying to do here. That in itself raises the question of whether it was just assumed female fans would buy this book, hence the hard-sell to the guys. There's no way to prove this and nothing explicit to suggest this so I'll leave it alone, except to note that the idea that all we need to do to get girls to read comics is to just throw big piles of girls everywhere (more girls in this comic, a comic starring all girls, a comic about a cheerleader) and bitch-come-a-runnin' seems to drive a lot of books launched with the hope of attracting the so-called fairer sex.
Keep reading and "I respect your opinion" starts to look an awful lot like "Haha no I don't."
I’m going to go on a limb here and assume you’re a Marvel reader. It’s an assumption I’m making based upon the fact that you’re responding to this column. If you’re Marvel reader and truly feel we’re sexist, then why are you reading our books? Now, perhaps you’re not a Marvel reader, then if that’s the case, I’m not quite sure what you’re criticizing if you don’t read our books?
This is a particularly frustrating passage. If you read Marvel you're not allowed to criticize their product or decisions, but if you don't read Marvel you have not allowed to criticize them either. That is some Yossarian shit right there. That would get me laughed out of any English 101 class at any college in the country and this is the Editor in Chief of Marvel Comics, a representative of one of the largest brands in the world. By this rationale, Joe Quesada has no right to make bitchy comments about DC in interviews or on Twitter since either his support of certain of their titles indicates unilateral support and approval for everything they do or his reticence to purchase Justice League of America precludes him from commenting on any news, creative decisions, or press releases coming out of DC's offices. Or are we operating under the elementary school philosophy that you can say anything you want if you're "just kidding" but if someone ELSE says something it's SERIOUS and therefore BAD?
Please, I can buy you saying that you’re cautiously pessimistic based upon what you’ve heard so far, but to throw around allegations like that is completely unfair, not just to Marvel or myself, but to the creators and editors who are working on this book. Have you ever read any of Sacasa’s work? Have you ever found him to be a sexist writer? Is the cover image provocative, perhaps, but it’s no more or less than any other book we do.
Another excellent point by Quesada: the damn book isn't out yet so to call it sexist and offensive is jumping the gun, and I doubt anybody really feels JQ or Dan Buckley called a meeting and said "How can we rile up the skirts this week, boys?" Saying it sounds and seems sexist isn't premature, however. It's a judgment made based on available evidence, evidence I remind JQ that his people made available. This judgment may prove to be inaccurate but you know what? Comics marketing is, now more than ever, predicated on buzz and word of mouth. You can tease fans and leak sketches and feed us bites of news to get us excited about a series and if it looks really awesome then the internet is filled with "OMG this book lokes AWESOME!!!1" However, if that's not what happens you can't just say that fans aren't allowed to have a contrary opinion. If you want the public (mainstream news outlets, comics and geek news outlets, Twitterers, bloggers, chatrooms, forums) to get worked up into a buying frenzy before a book even comes out due to hype and rumors, that's fine. It obviously works. However, if you want that to happen you have to be willing to accept the idea that it won't, that the opposite will happen, and that you'll have to deal with or take responsibility for the consequences. If I walk into a meeting of the Bon Jovi fan club and say, "Bon Jovi is playing here tomorrow," everybody will cheer. If I walk into the same room and say that, for example, "Mastodon will be playing here tomorrow," I might find the crowd indifferent or I might find them disapproving or even hostile. "Boo Mastodon," they would cry, to which I would reply "That's ridiculous! They haven't even played yet! How can you know how you're going to like their show, based solely on your established tastes, likes and dislikes and everything you know about Mastodon! You don't have all the information yet! There will be a fog machine!" There may indeed be more information and there may indeed be a fog machine but the point stands: a comic may not be racist or sexist or ageist or what-have-you but if it looks and sounds like a sexist duck then people assume it's a sexist duck. And that's your fault, "you" being whoever supplied them with the information that led the public to believe that, even if that belief is erroneous.
This comic is about a privileged but trouble young schoolgirl dealing
with her first crush. Can you tell?
JQ also deflects a little here, asking if Sacasa's work has ever been sexist. I can't comment, but I can comment that whether his work is sexist or not the questions of sexism aren't leveled at Sacasa but at Marvel, the institution, for allowing this to happen, for institutionalizing sexism as a company just as superhero comics have institutionalized sexism as a genre. That's a large part of what JQ is trying to deflect and deservedly so: Joe Quesada is not the reason for sexism in comics. He's not even the reason for institutionalized sexism at Marvel; it existed before him and will exist after him. He is the EIC but he also has people above and adjacent to him, publishers and marketing people and investors and that's just the comic books division of the whole Marvel media giant; at the end of the day ALL those people have to make Avi Arad happy. There's enough blame to spread around but don't forget how many people there are to spread to blame for comics sexism to. JQ alludes to the industry and fan expectations along this line several times in his response, specifically stating that while the cover may be inflammatory it isn't any more inflammatory than any other Marvel cover. And he's right, but I'll take it further: compared to a lot of comics coming out in July the cover is incredibly tame. And that's a problem. (By the way, being aware of the image's problems didn't keep Marvel from soliciting a BIG ASS POSTER of the cover for July.) Everybody knows that sex sells and women, let's face it, are sexy. All women are sexy, in my opinion, but I differentiate between sexy and sexist. A sexy cover celebrates a woman's sexuality and attractiveness but it is the character, not the sexuality, which is featured. This can be anything from someone having coffee to sleeping to building a house to punching Omega Red. A sexist cover is devoted entirely to the sexuality as enticement: extreme close-ups on breasts, ass and panty shots (or lack-of-panty shots) that are entirely unneccessary; not simply an idealized appearance (which most women in comics and, indeed, in all art, have) but an idealized situation...passive-submissive: the character is tied up, or posing awkwardly, or just standing there with a vacant expression. Look through Previews and note all the covers featuring men and all the covers centrally featuring women. How many look frightened? How many look submissive? How many are tied up? Crying? How many look like they're waiting to get fucked? So yeah, JQ, Pink's album covers are sexy and strong and fun, but for the most part they aren't exploitative. There's a difference between "buy this album by Pink, who is sexy" and "buy this album by sex."
I'm not talking about Marvel Comics in particular or Joe Quesada. To prove any personal complicity in comics sexism there would have to be a provable record of offensive, sexist or insensitive products and images signed off on during his time as EIC
From the Women of Marvel collection.
Continuing to talk about the cover, Quesada comes to another point which is woefully true: he's just giving the fans what they want (Holy shit, I've played bingo on message boards and in comments before but I've never gotten a whole bingo from one interview!) and ensuring a "successful launch" for a book that might have trouble finding an audience (gee, I wonder why anybody would hesitate to pick this comic up?). His reasoning is that if they had launched this book with a "soft cover" (one without people in costumes, is basically how it's defined in the response) the book would be canceled before it even hit store shelves (much like the Epic line? Wait, I'm sorry, that was killed by corporate and not lack of interest, my mistake). That may be true. We'll find out, and when we do we'll come to another interesting spin: if the book sells well it will be because JQ was right and gave the fans what they want, and if it fails it's not the marketing at fault or these very comments but the fact that fans just don't like these characters/a team of women can't sustain a book/etc.
Incidentally, if you wanted a "hard cover" (I guess would be the term) with women in costume, why not put them in costume and have them:
- Talking in a coffee house with surprised patrons and baristas looking on.
- Fighting MODOK or some other character barely featured in the story.
- Racing off somewhere (to save lives or buy shoes, your choice).
- Contrasted with their civilian counterparts, showcasing two different kinds of strength.
- Playing Scrabble.
Now all of this is just business as usual. But it's still worth being mad over. If every day someone shits on you it's still shit whether you're used to it or not, and sometimes you need to point that out to people who can't tell a turd from a diamond. At the end of the day, though, I feel for Joe Quesada. I really do. I think he handled this whole thing badly but like he says, at least he didn't ignore it. He recognized people had issues and he tried to address them. Remember, he's the EIC; it isn't his job to be a liaison to the fans, but he chooses to do so, and yay JQ for that. But if he thinks he didn't step in it slightly with this he's mistaken. I understand he had to spin. It's his job to say shit, just like it's my job to say shit and like it's my perogative to say shit about the shit he says. But the correct answer to "doesn't this all sound kind of sexist" was "Yes, it does, and that was a mistake on our part because the book is actually deep and sensitive, a real gem. We hope you'll still check it out and if the cover's a problem there's also this variant cover right here," and then you'd show the variant cover. It's not rocket surgery, is it?
You can't write sexism off as a superhero comics institution without acknowledging that you're a part of that. That you help to perpetuate it. Marvel Comics sure does and whether Quesada does personally or not he does personally help to perpetuate Marvel Comics. If the fans are complicit in wanting "sudsy fun" Quesada is still complicit in the institutionalization of sexim in the act of giving it to them, however innocent the model of supply and demand might be on its own. Cop to it, JQ. I'm not saying call a press conference and register yourself in accordance with Megan's Law but if called out point-blank cop to being part of the problem instead of acting like people aren't entitled to their opinions, like they aren't entitled to disagree with the company line of how awesome a book sounds, like they aren't allowed to generate bad buzz without being bad fans. Even if they stop quoting your Twitter they're still going to think for themselves and nothing will change that. Still, I'm probably too hard on JQ even at that. It's not like there's an established history of, say, sexualization of minors and the exploitation of the idea of minors as sexual entities during his tenure at Marvel.
This comic is about drug-addled homeless mutants and teenage prostitutes.
Finally, truth in advertising!
Oh shit, that one has Quesada's name on it, too. Shit, I didn't even have to bring up Norman Osborn's baby-momma! SNARKTALITY!