Art is subjective. Comic books are no exception, and this is especially true of comic book superhero costumes. Designs come and go with trends and tastes, some more successful and enduring than others. While it’s common for fans to debate the merits of costume changes (as seen with DC’s recent costume reveals for Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman), seeing industry professionals come out to publicly criticize costume designs warrants attention. In the case of Image co-founder Erik Larsen’s criticism of recent female costume designs, it also raises a lot of questions about the state of the industry.
Taking to Twitter earlier this week, the Savage Dragon creator aired his grievances with female costumes, specifically calling out heroes like Ms. Marvel, Batgirl and Spider-Woman. Some of his criticism, on face value, seem reasonable enough:
After all, yes, superheroes are fantasy. Their costumes don’t have to adhere to realistic convention. There’s also an element of truth in his sports analogy: runners, gymnasts, and swimmers wear sleek, form-fitting, often revealing clothing due to the conditions they perform in. The sheer physicality of being a superhero calls for similar costume choices. (Personally I wouldn’t put on bicycle shorts and a tank top to fight crime, but that’s just me.) However, the ultimate point of his criticism is far less concerned with aesthetics:
According to Larsen, recent costume designs are not only “bulky and ugly,” they are a sure-fire sign of DC and Marvel shortchanging their core demographic. Which appears to be men, who are suffering for the more “practical” costume choices of characters like Ms. Marvel (who, need I remind you, is a fifteen year old girl), Batgirl and Spider-Woman. Naturally, fans, journalists, and industry professionals took to Twitter to debate the validity of Larsen’s criticism. As the drama unfolded, the prevailing argument I noticed coming from fans in Larsen’s corner appeared to be that titles like Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, and other female-led books are evidence of how the increased visibility of women in comic fandom is essentially “ruining” the spirit of superhero comics. This “vocal minority” is harming the industry and its audience with their aggressive politically correctness, and compromising the quality of the genre itself by not allowing characters to be “sexy.”
But….how is this a problem?
As reported by The Outhousers, the aforementioned Batgirl and Spider-Woman both sell about 45,000 print copies per month. Ms. Marvel sells around 30,000, with strong digital sales numbers to boot. In the last two years, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, Silk, Captain Marvel, and Spider-Woman have all sold out, going into multiple reprints for key issues. All of these titles feature costume designs that show little to no skin, including some layered elements such as jackets and scarves. Larsen’s Savage Dragon, on the other hand, sells about 5000 print issues per month. I’m not going to disparage Savage Dragon, which has had a dedicated audience of its own since the early 1990s, but it’s clear that people are buying these “politically correct” books. There’s a market for them, and Marvel and DC are both profiting from it. This isn’t a tragic misstep for the industry; it’s just good business sense.
Here’s the thing: beneath all the rhetoric and debate, this isn’t about costumes. Everyone is free to love or hate costume changes, for any number of reasons. This is really about people who want to maintain the status quo of the historically male-oriented comic book industry. By bemoaning these so-called “bulky and ugly” costumes, designed to reflect the characters and the interests of their audiences, Larsen’s really saying “This wasn’t made with me in mind and I don’t like it.” And that’s okay, because these books really aren’t for people like Larsen. These books are for the thousands of people who buy them every month. They’re for all the readers who have messaged me in the last two years to tell me that books like Captain Marvel and Batgirl have them reading comics for the first time in their lives. They’re for the returning readers who have told me how happy they are to finally have books they can relate to, after feeling alienated by most of mainstream comics for the last decade. They’re for people who just want to read entertaining superhero books about compelling characters, who just happen to wear jackets and scarves.
What really troubles me about comments by people like Larsen is the inherent misunderstanding of the comics they seem so eager to defend. Nobody’s trying to take the “sexy” out of superhero comics. (Unless we’re talking about Ms. Marvel, naturally – again, she’s fifteen.) If you only see a character as “sexy” when they’re half-naked, I think you’re missing a huge part of what makes that character sexy. Power makes a character sexy. Composure makes a character sexy. Physical prowess, intellect, and the strength of will to stand up against tyranny makes a character sexy, too. You can have all this and a “practical” costume, too. Batman does, right? After all, at their core, superhero comics are power fantasy. Superheroes provide their readers with wish fulfillment, because power is sexy and escapism is great. These are things we all enjoy, because we’re human. Carol Danvers is just as sexy in her Captain Marvel uniform as her Ms. Marvel swim suit and thigh-high boots. Wonder Woman is a force to be reckoned with, whether she’s in a one-piece or pants. Why? Because of the strength of the person inside the costume.
I don’t know about Erik Larsen, but I want more of that kind of sexy in my comics.