A few days ago, long time comic book artist Erik Larsen sparked a bit of a Twitter flame war with this comment:
For those of you unfamiliar with Larsen, he’s done tons of work at both Marvel and DC, working on titles such as Adventures of Superman, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Defenders, and more. Larsen also played a role in founding Image Comics and one of its signature series, Savage Dragon. I recently talked with Erik about what exactly he meant and the controversy surrounding his comment.
Chris Bechtloff: Erik, thanks for taking the time to talk with me for our readers here. I know your schedule is tight. A few days ago, you Tweeted that you were sick of the Big Two “placating a vocal minority” by doing things like making Wonder Woman’s costume more supposedly practical. Could you elaborate on that some more for us?
Erik Larsen: First, by “vocal minority” I don’t mean any group other than the collective group of all people talking. Anybody with a voice who talks online or sends emails, anybody who gives feedback of any kind, and that includes me.
The largest segment of our audience is silent. They say nothing at all. They likely talk amongst friends and family like anybody else, but they’re not inclined to go online and share their opinions with the masses.
There’s a tendency to treat any feedback as though it represents a measurable portion of the audience. If a book gets one letter for every thousand readers, editorial sometimes assumes that each letter talks for the other 999 people, but that’s nonsense. If one guy says he’d totally buy a signed and numbered hardcover 3-D Man collection, it may very well be that just that one reader is interested in such a book. There’s no reason to think the other 999 unspoken readers would fall in line and purchase such an unlikely collection. It’s no way to run a company. That single voice really doesn’t speak for the others. That one reader speaks for that one reader. Others may agree. Others may not but they aren’t making their opinions known.
There’s also a tendency to bellyache. Readers don’t necessarily run out and sing the praises of anything: they’re more likely to bitch and moan, especially on the Internet with a screen-name that isn’t their actual name. Is Babylon656 really an actual living, breathing reader or a lapsed reader who hasn’t purchased a comic book in twenty years but enjoys hanging out with an online community that can keep him or her up to date on what’s going on in the world of contemporary pictorial literature? One can only guess.
The call for realism seems to be the fallout from the movies. In the movies, it’s nearly impossible to create costumes that fit as well and look as good as those in the comics. That’s an advantage artists have when putting lines on paper: they can have clothes be perfectly form-fitting and we can see every muscle and sinew, even through cloth. This means that an artist can draw a far prettier picture than could possibly appear on film.
The disadvantage is, of course, that if lines are added to costumes, then an artist needs to draw those lines again and again, whereas in the movies that’s not a big deal. Since movies are incapable of making superhero outfits that fit and look as good as the ones in the comic books, they have to make alterations in order to make up for that. Theirs is a compromise. Our mistake is following their lead as though it is a lead instead of a compromise.
This started out as comics emulating movies, but it’s expanded. And for a large part the argument is that it “makes costumes more realistic.” When Batman is on screen he wears armor, so Batman in the comics has to wear armor now, and then Superman has to and Wonder Woman and it just gets silly. The audience expects this and justifies it, arguing that, “of course Batman would wear armor!”
But the reality is this: armor is ridiculous, not realistic! One of the reasons superheroes wore tights in the first place is because acrobats wore tights, and why did acrobats wear tights? So they could move! Modern actors have admitted that they can hardly move in the Batman suits. In some cases the actors couldn’t even turn their heads: they had to move their entire bodies in order to look from side to side. One famously admitted that anybody could beat the crap out of him in that suit!
Runners wear shorts, wrestlers and boxers wear shorts. When Bruce Lee gets into a fight he takes his shirt off, he doesn’t put a football uniform on. Is Batman designed to take a blow or land one? Is he playing defense or offense? The Batman who existed for decades was prepared to do battle with criminals, but he came ready to fight, not cower. When villains attacked, he landed the first blow and because he was Batman, that was frequently the last blow as well. But that was before he had “realistic” armor to slow him down!
CB: Why do you think Marvel and DC have been moving in that direction?
EL: Partly to emulate the movies and partly to placate vocal fans. Readers have often been prickly when it comes to bodies, especially those of women. What doesn’t seem to be understood is that there’s a big difference between costume design and character design. Wonder Woman’s costume is perfectly fine. It’s strong, it’s iconic, it harkens back to ancient Greece with athletes in appropriate sporting attire. It’s a costume that functions.
But it’s also one which can be abused. Women characters can be drawn sexy or strong, girlish or mature, thin or voluptuous and everything in between. If DC doesn’t want Wonder Woman to pose seductively and prance around like a sex object, they should make that point clear. Frank Miller drew Elektra as a powerful, taut ball of muscle. Wonder Woman can be that: she doesn’t need to be a tart. But that’s the way she’s drawn, not costume design.
I’ve attached two images that I’ve joined together showing Wonder Woman drawn by artists Mark Beachum and Bruce Timm. Both draw the same Wonder Woman costume, but one looks weak, vulnerable and slutty as all hell and one looks proud, confident and powerful.
So is it the costume to blame or the approach to drawing the character? I say the problem is the approach. DC and Marvel seem to act as though the problem is the costume design.
CB: And what do you—as both a creator and a fan—want to see?
EL: Ultimately, both fans and the companies would benefit from stronger design over weaker design.
And my argument isn’t that I prefer “sexy” costumes over non-sexy ones. I’m not championing sleaze by any means. My point is that I prefer stronger designs over weaker ones.
Invisible Woman’s cutaway uniform from the ’90s showed more skin than her standard Kirby uniform, but the standard version is a stronger, better designed costume which is why I prefer it.
Jim Balent’s Catwoman was a tacky embarrassment, honestly, but that was due to the way he drew her, not the costume necessarily. David Mazzucchelli’s Catwoman outfit in Batman: Year One was not that far removed from the costume Balent’s Catwoman wore, but the approach was vastly different. Mazzucchelli drew her as a woman, not a sex toy. My favorite Catwoman outfit was Darwyn Cooke’s version. Yes, it’s less form-fitting (you can’t see where her navel is), but it’s a stronger design. It’s a better costume.
CB: What was the reaction you received for these comments?
EL: Largely idiotic. Almost entirely misunderstood. You might have thought I’d called for implants for all female characters. It was a parade of stupidity and inane assumptions. Welcome to the Internet. And you wonder why I don’t think these voices should be listened to.
CB: Did the reaction surprise you?
EL: The level of stupidity? Yes. This is the kind of thing usually reserved for comments on YouTube. Just inane. And some comments came from fellow creators who felt as though I had called them out merely by mentioning characters whose costumes I thought had suffered from redesign.
CB: On Tuesday, your Twitter was gone for a while there. What happened? Was this in relation to some of the backlash you faced?
EL: I just walked away. There were too many threads to follow and it became too overwhelming. There was no way to put out all of those fires. I can see why so many people just put the lot of these nitwits on Mute or never click to read the responses. I couldn’t tell who was talking to who. Twitter is a poor place to hold a nuanced conversation. People would grab one isolated sentence, misinterpret it and run wild. Pretty soon, a thousand people were all arguing with each other, and even those who claimed to be taking my side failed to understand it.
I was reminded of the time when Image started and we had put out a press release where I said something like, “In many ways we’ve been holding back. Some of our best creations will see print here for the first time” and the first sentence was separated from the other and maliciously misinterpreted to make it sound as though I had said we were all intentionally doing substandard work, not merely withholding characters. This was more of the same: either people unable to grasp what I was saying and making shit up or intentionally misrepresenting what I said because misinformation is easier to argue with.
Take Batgirl. Now, I like Batgirl. I haven’t read Batgirl in years, but the new creative team has me checking out Batgirl and my one bone to pick is simply that I don’t think that version of the Batgirl costume is stronger, from a design perspective, than the Carmine Infantino version. And again, I’m not talking body types at all: I’m talking pure costume design, clothes. I don’t think the new version is as strong as the old. Great book. I’ll look at it regardless, but that’s what I think.
You’d think I’d have asked for her to be fingering herself in front of a large studio audience. Absolute mayhem! Just inane comments from clueless nincompoops who thought I wanted the book to stop being for a younger, largely female, audience and start pandering to sweaty-palmed middle-aged men. It was pretty infuriating. And it’s bad enough when your opponents spin stuff. My supporters were just as bad, and frequently they spoke for me as though I supported things I’d have no interest in supporting. Some suggested that I denied certain readers existed and that the lonely middle-aged men needed to be placated with borderline stroke books. Not at all what I said.
In any case, it’s likely that my Twitter presence will be drastically reduced in the future. I don’t want to give up my handle because then somebody else could assume it and cause trouble, but I don’t imagine I’ll attempt any more conversations that require much more than simple nodding.
CB: Recently, DC pulled a Batgirl variant cover at the request of the artist due to complaints of sexism. What’s your take on that as a fellow artist?
EL: This story is widely misreported. It’s my understanding that DC commissioned the cover and that once it was in and the creative team saw it that they raised an objection to it. They didn’t want it on their book because they thought it was inappropriate given the tone of the title. The artist heard what they had to say and came to agree with their point and had it pulled. It was not the case of an online backlash causing it to be withdrawn. So, it wasn’t censorship per se.
CB: How should they have handled it?
EL: Ideally, we would never have known the cover existed. Ideally, editorial would have shown the cover to the creative team and they would have made their feelings known and it would have vanished before it ever appeared. We’d have never known about it. Given that DC shared the image immediately, they did the best they could with it. Frankly, I think it was in questionable taste given the nature of the book. I support the artist and the decision.
The danger is, of course, that the online community feels that they are empowered. We already saw a Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover censored due (I would think) to online pressure and since that time Spider-Woman’s costume was altered as well. Where will this lead? Well, if history is any indication it can lead to something like the Comics Code Authority in the ’50s where a group of outraged individuals policed everything we read. I’m not convinced that’s such a great idea.
As for Spider-Woman, again, the new costume is inferior to the old one and, again, it could have been handled with an editorial edict to not have her be drawn in such a fashion. As with my previous Wonder Woman example, you can see that how a character is drawn can be more important than what that character is wearing. In both cases Spider-Woman is clothed head-to-toe, so why opt for a less well-designed costume?
CB: And how will you react if and when they tell you some of your art is “problematic?”
EL: I don’t need to do a thing. I’m in charge here. Readers can buy what I’m selling or not. Ideally that’s what it should be. A candy bar company makes a candy bar and you can buy it or not. Those are your two choices. The internet assumes there are two other options: that candy bars can be pulled off the shelves and returned to their manufacturers unsold or that those buying candy bars can stipulate the ingredients. You want to make a different comic book? Make one of your own. You can buy the one I produce or you can not buy it, but you can’t dictate what goes on inside those pages. One guy makes that call.
CB: Lastly Erik, what do you think the long term effects will be if the comic industry continues to acquiesce to these sort of demands?
EL: The slippery slope is a return to the Comics Code. That, or some other kind of censoring body who knows better than the rest of us. Movies have gone in a direction where everything is pre-screened to an audience who weighs in on them and decides what’s good or bad and changes are made accordingly. The danger of taking cues from the audience is pablum like Star Wars Episode I where fans weighed in on what they wanted, George Lucas gave them what he thought they wanted and then they hated what he gave them. The audience is not wiser than the creative people. If they were better writers and artists than those in the field, they would be employed in the field. They’re mouthy amateurs and their suggestions should largely be treated like the witless ramblings of an insane person.
Years ago, Stan Lee instituted a new policy because of a number of letters from readers. Some vocal fans had complained that continued stories were problematic. Since distribution was spotty at best, many readers often missed chapters of continued stories and so they asked that Marvel stop producing continued stories. And so they did. The policy went into effect and a few months later all of their books were self-contained. And then another batch of mail came in complaining about the simple, dull one-part stories throughout the line. And so that policy was tossed out the window.
The danger is in thinking that the vocal few represent the entirety of your audience. They don’t. And so what we’re getting is situations like Jim Lee giving Wonder Woman pants in the Justice League because readers demanded it, then getting rid of them because other readers demanded it, all before the pants version saw print! These publishers are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to please everybody and not knowing who to listen to, and I can’t help but feel that a lot of the people yelling and screaming aren’t buying the comics, pants or no pants.
We’re getting creators changing the outcome of stories because a couple people guessed “who did it” online, when their response should have been to ignore those posts and tell the story they set out to tell. If the original ending makes more sense, to hell with those few who figured it out. They can be shamed for spoiling stories or congratulated for figuring things out. Why have a limp story see print and be on a bookshelf until the end of time? The online spoilers vanish over time, but the books endure.
The bottom line is that you can’t please everybody and everybody’s voice is not being heard. So your best bet is to do the best work you can, try to expand the market and try new things and do more of the things that work and less of the things that don’t work.
There are a lot of variables. It’s not always as simple as fans not liking a costume or the color of a logo. Sometimes the way a book is drawn is a bigger factor than how a costume is designed. Good design is good design. The average person may not understand the difference, but the collective audience will appreciate it, regardless.
For more on Erik Larsen, check out SavageDragon.com.