On Friday afternoon at Baltimore Comic Con, there was a panel of various comics creators to discuss the line between characters being sexy or attractive people, or being seen as sexualized objects. With the recent outcry over Italian erotic comics artist Milo Manara’s variant cover for the upcoming Spider-Woman series, this is and will be an important topic of discussion among comics fans and creators with people straddling all areas of the divide. The “Sexy or Sexualized” panel, which was moderated by former DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz, included a wide variety of creators, both old and new, including Gail Simone (Batgirl, Red Sonja), Marguerite Bennett (Lois Lane, Batgirl), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen, Secret Service), Adam Hughes (Catwoman, Wonder Woman), Christina Blanch (The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood), and Thom Zahler (Love and Capes).The variety of backgrounds and points of views allowed for a lively discussion, which included audience participation as well.
Paul Levitz opened up the panel with a quote from artist Amy Reeder in which she said that the dividing line between sexy and sexualized is if the woman being portrayed has “personhood” with “life breathed into them” and “personality”, not just an object to be looked at. This theme was expanded upon the panelists. Gail Simone opened by saying her upcoming Secret Six series would have everything “Frederic Wertham wouldn’t want in a comic” and that she liked sexy things, like cheesecake art, in comics, but that each cover should have a story just like the interior art, suit the character, and not just show off a giant boob. Dave Gibbons said that this was a non-issue for him and that he drew woman as characters and not to show off their sexiness. Marguerite Bennett said that art should get into character’s heads and personalities and used the example of a Tumblr with Greek statues taking selfies that has been criticized to show how the male gaze is predominantly privileged in both society and comics. Adam Hughes, who is known for his pin-up style covers of DC Comics heroines, like Wonder Woman and Catwoman, took a different approach. He said he draws on instinct and based on what he wants to see as an artist. Simone vouched for him and said that his covers are sexy, but tell a story and that he asked her what the comic was specifically about before he did work on books, like Batgirl. Hughes also talked about how starting to think about how people perceive his work, which an audience member interrupted and said, “That’s every day as a woman” drawing attention to the double standards that exist in both society and superhero comics.
Christina Blanch contributed many good ideas to the panel. She pointed out that people have varying definitions of sexy and sexualized depending on their beliefs and life experiences. She expanded on Thom Zahler’s idea that the line between sexy and sexuality depends on the age of the audience of the comic by using the example of Starfire, who was beloved by kids in the Teen Titans cartoon, but received quite the sexualized makeover in the New 52. There was a little discussion about how covers were like the film trailers of comics, and that unlike the film industry, which carefully chooses the ratings of trailers to go with films, comics can have “PG” and “R” rated material shelved closed to each other. This was followed by Simone and Gibbons talking about how superhero comics have been sexualized over the years with physically fit bodies, tight costumes etc. Gibbons said this is lazy art, and how he enjoyed drawing different body shapes to go with unique personalities, and that the “big muscles, big boobs” style was tedious to look at. Zahler said he did a similar thing in Love and Capes where he researched fashion websites to match characters’ clothes to their personality.
A well timed audience question helped put the panel back on track as a woman asked if an objectified female figure was appropriate for any age. Simone and Blanch pointed to the onslaught of Photoshopped and sexualized images of women in advertising, and Simone said that with comics’ diverse readership that creators should get away from this and draw and write new things and situations that haven’t been seen before. (She alluded to “beefcake” men in her new Secret Six book.) Gibbons and Blanch echoed this by talking about how they liked to draw and write respectively characters with nuances beyond their sex appeal. Levitz talked about how unique and unpredictable comics are by saying, “The wonderful thing about this medium is that with writing and art, 1+1=3”. The panel with Simone talking about how she wrote Red Sonja, a character whose original origin involved a rape and has been subjected to a variety of objectifying poses over the years. Simone’s Red Sonja as drawn by various cover artists and interior artist Walter Geovani is a barbarian who is savage and doesn’t have time for sexy poses, but still wears the chainmail bikini because she isn’t comfortable in formal clothing. However, her character is the most important thing. Marguerite Bennett ended the panel on a great note by talking about how there is a diversity of personalities in comic book characters. and this should be extended to sexuality too. This panel showed that the line between sexy and sexualized female characters comic is an ongoing discussion with no clear answers, but at least it’s being talked about in an open forum like this.