Marvel Hire Greg Land and Milo Manara for Spider-Woman – What Expectations Does That Raise?

This last week, Marvel unveiled a variant cover for issue #1 of their upcoming Spider-Woman series, drawn by Italian artist Milo Manara. Known for his erotica, Manara’s cover raised eyebrows, as his cover features the eponymous hero crouched on a ledge, thrusting her bum out in classic spider-fashion. Discussion followed.

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The Mary Sue caught the cover first, and have spent parts of this week wondering why it was commissioned for this series in particular – this led to various people talking about the cover over social media, with Spider-Man writer Dan Slott in particular coming down hard on those who critiqued Manara’s work.

His reasoning was that Manara was a well-known and renowned artist in his field, and that this was a rare artistic variant cover which wasn’t commissioned to represent what was inside the comic. It simply existed as a nice painting of the character, which select fans would be interested in collecting. In response, critics like Mariah Huehner and Janelle Asselin stated that their issue wasn’t with Manara’s artwork (although The Mary Sue later posted a ‘correction’ post that altered the anatomy in Manara’s cover, which I don’t personally think was a very valid form of criticism) but instead that he was brought on for this project in particular.

See, the thing with Milo Manara is – he has a particular reputation, and fans know his style very well. When he’s put on a book where his style fits the style and tone of a story, he’s a fine artist – and Marvel have in the past used this awareness to create buzz around an ‘X-Women’ hardcover he created with Chris Claremont. Fans knew exactly what the book was about, and the creative team worked together to create a story which played into the reputation of both writer and artist – it was a book about female sexuality, by two people whose careers have been dominated by exactly that.

Spider-Woman, on the other hand, has not exactly been the sort of character writers use to explore sexuality or gender dynamics. Instead, she’s mostly been used as an example of post-traumatic stress and recovery. In Secret Invasion a few years back, it was revealed that the Spider-Woman fans had been following for the past few years was actually a Skrull (a shapeshifting alien) imposter, and the real Spider-Woman was locked away in space whilst somebody used her image to commit mass murder. Upon making it back to Earth, she was a hate-figure, and became suicidal.

That was a storyline from Brian Michael Bendis, who explored the character in great detail during a short solo series, which was pencilled by Alex Maleev. As one might expect from a Bendis/Maleev story, this was a dark, introspective narrative, with the character wrecked by undeserved guilt and horror at every stage – a character exploration which brought direct comparisons between Spider-Woman and Daredevil, in fact.

The new Spider-Woman series, however, is a change of face – quite literally, in fact, as Greg Land was announced to be drawing the first arc of the book. Just as Alex Maleev’s style is indicative of a certain tone of story, so too is the work of Land. He’s well-known as an artist who uses a lightbox to compose his pages – he takes facial expression and body language directly from photo reference, and transposes that into his comics, creating a glossy, artificial take on characters which many have spoken against. It doesn’t help, perhaps, that he’s often used pornographic material for characters, regardless of if they are, y’know, teenagers. As seen in this scene from Uncanny X-Men, where the character Pixie is meant to be receiving a beating:

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But instead looks to be, uh, enjoying it a little.

The point is that Land has a reputation, and naming him as the artist for a female solo title is a move which has an immediate affect for readers. Many people will skip a series simply because he is the artist – and in the past, this has been notably reckoned to be the female audience in particular. Putting Greg Land on a book about a female character is a statement of intent for many, in other words. And then adding Milo Manara as the artist for the variant cover? People start to gain an expectation for the work inside.

As solicitations, previews, and cover reveals have become de rigour online, readers have developed the ability to pre-decide whether they want to follow and support a comic or not, and comic companies have played into that in various ways. See how DC have handled the announcement of a new creative team for Batgirl, for example – altering the costume of the character, emphasising in previews how the story will have a new tone, and so on. In comparison, Marvel have told readers that Spider-Woman will have a sex-driven artistic style inside, and a sexy variant cover to boot.

One approach has guided female readers towards a series – the other has led to derision online. It’s not that Manara is a bad artist, by any means – it’s the way Marvel have deployed him. They’ve used him before in very effective ways, but they’ve also made risky decisions like commission him for their all-female ‘Fearless Defenders’ series. In that case he offered this cover of Valkyrie:

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Which is still a pin-up, but didn’t raise the attention of critics as much as the Spider-Woman cover. Why? Because of the overall context, I’d suggest. The Manara cover felt like a variant, in that case – but with this Spider-Woman cover, it doesn’t feel ‘variant’ at all. It feels like an emphasising of the knowledge that Greg Land is going to draw the book. Readers and critics already had reason to wonder if this was a book aiming itself at the male gaze – and Manara’s cover only serves to emphasise that belief. All we have been given in advance is sex, and that’s taken away from what could be a really good comic from Dennis Hopeless.

Comic publishers created this online speculation game, where everybody knows about comics far in advance and can predict what they do or don’t want to support – setting up a combination of Greg Land and Milo Manara indicates that they have a very clear idea of how they want readers to view Spider-Woman.

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