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Monday, March 30, 2015 

Erik Larsen talks about costumes and vocal minorities

Larsen gave an interview to Reaxxion about his recent experience with people on Twitter attacking him because he didn't like specific costumes, and how listening to a loud minority only destroys good storytelling. As dismaying as I find his leftism, some of his arguments in this topic about stuff like costumes are interesting in themselves, so let's see what he has to say here. For example:
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!
I do faintly recall Peter Weller saying he couldn't move in all that Robocop armor, and Michael Keaton found his rubber-like 1989 Batman suit a sweating experience. So what's so great about armor? Even onscreen, it doesn't look very appealing in live action, so why should comic book metahumans have to wear them either? The way much of this is handled today is particularly awful when artists like Jim Lee start eliminating the red tights from Superman's design and make it look like blue armor instead, all to suit their idea of commercialization.
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.
That also makes sense. There's all sorts of ways to draw various characters, and it's ridiculous to pin the blame on costumes alone. Yet there seems to be some idiots out there who do, and even if the outfits are changed, the chances the complainers will suddenly read the book overnight are very slim.
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?
He's right that the new Spider-Woman outfit is unappealing and very dull, and Marvel was wrong to succumb to outrage over the Manara variant cover. I hope he realizes, as somebody who veers to the left, that it was a leftist (Wertham) who led to the forming of the CCA in the 1950s, and he'd do well to ponder how it's leftists today who're leading some of these censorship tactics. It certainly has looked for a while now like all these laughable outrages over something that's otherwise harmless are leading to situations not unlike what we saw during the 50s, and depending on the situation, neither Marvel nor DC are helping by caving on those demands by people who may not read their products anyway. Towards the end, he says:
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.
See, this is what I've come to suspect, and I'm sure it's a lot more accurate than we might think: the demands are being made by a vocal minority who won't buy and read the books even if their demands are met. Yet these same baboons never even demand that some of the worst storytelling effects involving misogynist tactics like Identity Crisis and Avengers: Disassembled be reversed and disavowed from continuity. Nor do they even object to reboots like New 52, for that matter. The earliest example of DC's publishers failing to decide for themselves was the 1988 phone-in vote for whether Jason Todd should live or die. Since that was self-contained to the Batbooks, it might be easier to forgive than what came later, but it was still very poor thinking on DC editorial's part, and they should've known better than to have the audience decide for them. Mainly because some of the voters probably didn't even read Batman on any regular basis. This also confirms an argument that the internet's not a reliable source for most opinions because it's impossible to tell if certain people online actually buy specific products.

However, Larsen's failing to mention another segment that's no less destructive: columnists and reviewers for prominent magazines and online sites who can make many of the same demands and be just as damaging. CBR and The Mary Sue are just some of the problems. Don't they count as well? Of course. They're practically part of this vocal minority he speaks of, and probably even worse because of their own political correctness. Failing to take them to task doesn't help, because they too will prove a problem for the very reasons he and others have brought up.

Larsen was also interviewed on the topics at The Outhousers, and he had more to say:
There’s also an audience who clearly loves these characters being more sexualized. Some of the horniest comics I’ve read have been written or drawn by woman and many of the people I heard from during this flap were female readers or creators saying they like that aspect of superheroes--both male and female superheroes. And it’s not always easy to pinpoint who exactly is going to want to buy any given book. Ideally there would be comics for all readers.
That's right too. Mike Grell's wife, Sharon Wright, ghost-wrote 2 years worth of the Warlord in the early 80s, and it's clear she had no issues with the leading ladies wearing skimpy outfits. There's also lady artists out there like Rachel Dodson who've drawn their share of beauties in sexy outfits, something the puritans aren't acknowledging either.

Now, here's a most interesting part of the arguments he's made, involving one of Marvel's most PC directions ever made:
Just as all people have different tastes in clothing and style, not all superheroes would dress in the same style. In the case of a character like Batgirl as she’s presented in her current ongoing, the costume seems to suit the character. Even more so, Ms. Marvel, whose costume you specifically called “hideous, unflattering, cumbersome, awkward, and ugly,” wears a costume that is specifically tied into her cultural identity as a Muslim teenager. Both of these books show the characters in street clothes a lot as well as in costume, and I would say that fashion plays more of a role in the art of these books than usual. How important is something like that to costume design? How much did you know about these characters before criticizing their look, and what role should characterization play in costume design?

The current Ms. Marvel is just a weak design. Most character/costume design tries to give a character a strong visual hook and a unique silhouette. Ms. Marvel has neither. If you’re arguing that the costume she is wearing is the strongest it can possibly be under the parameters set I would say that you are kidding yourself.

And of course character plays into design. In many, many cases character design has been very much at odds with the characters themselves. The original Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel costume with her bare belly showing was pretty silly when contrasted with her ‘70s women’s lib stance--Power Girl was another character with a forceful women’s lib stance coupled with a keyhole top allowing readers to peer in at her cleavage. But both characters did lose their peek-a-boo windows early on (although Power Girl’s keeps coming back).

Carol’s current Captain Marvel costume is more appropriate to the character, certainly, but less visually interesting than, say, the Dave Cockrum redesign. That was a flashy outfit. And sometimes you do need to weigh visual appeal, distinctiveness and the character itself. To me, Carol’s current look is more like a team member or a Star Trek character than a lead character with her own title. It’s a bit bland.

Distinctiveness doesn’t mean “sexy” by any means. Hell, Tintin wears street clothes but has a strong visual hook, a unique silhouette and a unique look which sets him apart from other characters visually. Superman had a spit curl for a reason--to make him visually distinctive. The current Ms. Marvel has none of that. Her haircut is not distinctive, her character design is not especially distinctive and her outfit simply isn’t very strong. If you really think it’s inconceivable that a better costume could be created for the character--I would have to disagree. I think a better costume--a better look-- could be found and the character and book would be more successful if that was to happen.

Of course, that doesn’t sound as inflammatory as, “Erik Larsen says, ‘Ms. Marvel sucks!’” but it is what it is.

Actually, this whole thing was due to me having a big brain fart and forgetting that Carol wasn’t still called Ms. Marvel. I was initially reacting to the change in Captain Marvel’s uniform, as it turned out. But then I looked up Ms. Marvel and saw that it was a pretty lackluster design as well, so my comments weren’t totally off base. Still--there was no real change in this character’s costume since it’s a new character so some of my previous comments made may not apply.

Did I mention that I’m an idiot? I thought we’d covered that…
Where he would be an idiot, I'm afraid, is in his political opinions. But here, this is quite a surprise that he minced no words, not just about Carol's new costume, but also the costume worn by the Kamala Khan character, and called it out for what it is, a very unappealing garb you might see at a kid's party. And it makes no difference whether it's supposed to "tie in" with her religious background, that doesn't make it any better. I would also note that religion is not a defense for denying oneself vitamin D from the sunlight by wearing a practical dress, especially one that covers the whole head like a burka/abaya/niqab. Many women in Islamofascist regimes have suffered osteoporosis as a result (also those living in western countries), and it makes no difference whether it's Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Islam, nobody should have to wear oppressive clothes at the expense of their health. Those who wear practical clothes should do it because they consider it dignified, not because it's supposedly sinful not to. The whole notion of wearing practical clothes out of fanatical religious ideas only enforces the notion that women are sexual and nothing more. And that doesn't help any religion, good or bad, if they take up such notions.

Larsen and interviewer, however, go on to say:
According to statements Marvel has gone on record with (which I could point you to if you want), Ms. Marvel sells more copies digitally than she does in stores, and also is Marvel's number one digital seller. Going by the current sales numbers and if that digital statement still holds true, that would put her at at least 60,000 copies a month currently, and her first issue would have sold over 100,000 copies (not counting the six or seven reprints). I know fans aren't privy to all the details, but at least from what we can tell, Ms. Marvel seems to be a very successful comic. Doesn't that kind of response justify the continued push to create more inclusive comics and respond to feedback in that area?

Absolutely. If sales on a book are strong and your job is to sell books--do more of the same. Which still doesn’t mean she’s got an awesome costume. There are a lot of factors that go into the sales of a book. It’s not all based on costume design, otherwise all Spider-Man comics would sell the same regardless of who did them and that’s clearly not the case.
Any "inclusiveness" they speak of here is phony at best, because the Muslim Ms. Marvel book was launched as little more than a propaganda vehicle. If they'd really been serious about inclusiveness, they would've left out all religious aspects. Besides, I'm skeptical Ms. Muslim sells any better online than it does in print. Let's remember, even online content from Marvel usually costs money, and if they're charging for what's offered online, then not everyone's going to fork out dollars for something that could cost nearly as much as it does for printed books, and turn out to be a waste of time. If Marvel hasn't given exact figures, that's all the more reason to doubt their statements.
What are your thoughts on changing trends in male costume design? In many ways, male characters, like female characters, are increasingly being covered up too. The change isn't (and hasn't been) characterized as political by anyone, but when you look back, there were a TON of male characters in the ‘70s and ‘80s especially who were showing upper thigh, abs, etc. Like the classic black/purple Brainiac costume, or early Colossus (X-men) costumes, or Darkseid, or even something like Lion-O (Thundercats) or He-Man. You don't see that as much anymore. Is it possible that the changing designs of female characters has less to do with appealing to an audience and more to do with the broader evolution of comic aesthetic?

I’m sure that plays a part. But largely that should apply to new characters or characters that need a push either because their costumes are hopelessly stuck in another era (like, say, Luke Cage from the ‘70s) or aren’t especially strong (such as Dr. Octopus whose standard villain duds, for years, were an uninspired set of green and orange tights). To have characters be in a constant flux and constantly chasing trends is not a good idea in the long run. Better to have a timeless, iconic costume than having some character with a mullet or man-bun which will have some collections looking helplessly dated.

Male characters are getting redesigned all the time as well. Superman just got a new costume, consisting of jeans and a t-shirt, for the post-Convergence DCU, which a lot of fans took issue with. Thor and Iron Man's costumes change pretty frequently. The X-Men get redesigns every couple of years. Batman is going to be wearing, I shit you not, a suit of robot bunny armor after Convergence. With that in mind, why did you focus on female characters in your criticism, and how do you think it differs from the male character redesigns in motivation or execution?

I’ve bitched about male costumes quite frequently. All of my complaints apply to those as well, frankly. Many of those are equally awkward and hard to draw. If I had to draw the Falcon’s Captain America costume over and over again I’d probably go completely mad. Just a pain in the ass, that one.
The new costume for Sam Wilson does look pretty forced. I wouldn't worry too much about villains' costumes, because they're not supposed to be admirable people. But if he's bothered about Luke Cage's designs, I wonder what he thinks of the recent transformation into a guy with a bald head. It doesn't look appealing at all; just a sharp swerve into idiotic trendiness for the sake of it.
Do you think the comic book audience has changed over the past twenty years? If so, in what ways? And if the audience has changed, should comics adapt to those changes, and how?

Comics are changing. That’s happening. Image comics is a leader in that regard, actually. New audiences are being found as new titles are introduced and the company is experiencing massive growth over the last few years.

The concern at Marvel and DC is publishers tossing the baby out with the bathwater. If you have an audience for a book already you want to add to that--not drive that audience away in the hope of grabbing another one. So, maybe you add a new title instead of changing the existing one--maybe you try multiple books with the same characters but a different approach and see where things go. When the New 52 hit initially there was a rush of curiosity about these books--a few years later we can see that the older readers used it as a jumping off point and not enough new readers jumped on and stayed there. It’s not always simple.
The change is that any audience today cares more about books from smaller publishers like Image than it does about mainstream superheroes, whose publishers have been throwing out the baby along with all the messy sewage water.
If, as you imply when saying online fans are a vocal minority, the majority of fans are "silent," then how does Image gauge fan reaction to what they decide to publish and the way you as a company do business? Is it entirely sales figures? Feedback at cons?

Image doesn’t drive content or push creators. We allow creators to tell their own stories. We don’t tell anybody what to write or draw. The creators tell their stories and the readers decide. If a creator has a story to tell--we help make that a reality. And sales determine which books are successful.
There's one little thing we should remind everyone of: even Image's output doesn't sell much better than Marvel and DC's in terms of sales figures, and even they may have a product or three that's gathering dust in a bargain bin.
You gave your first big interview on this topic to Reaxxion, which is a site heavily affiliated with the Gamergate movement. Did you know about that beforehand? Do you have an opinion on Gamergate, or the culture wars in general?

I know nothing about it beforehand. I was asked by a guy who emailed me if I would answer some questions. I had no idea about the site or its viewpoint. At the same time--people go on Fox News all the time who don’t agree with their agenda. People are interviewed in Hustler or Penthouse who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy in their possession.

I have no position or working knowledge of Gamergate. I don’t play games of any kind. I don’t follow what goes on in that world.

I really can’t talk with much authority on that, I’m afraid.

Hell, I haven’t checked into the site THIS is going up on. It may be just as bad or not--I’m taking your word that it’s the most awe-inspiring site on the Internet.
If he knows what the politics of many Gamergaters are like, that's one more reason why he probably wouldn't mind speaking to their followers. At the same time, I honestly think it's funny why some of his fellow leftist peers would have a problem with Gamergate if the supporters veer to the left.
In that interview, you said that you supported the decision to pull the recent controversial Batgirl variant, but you condemned Marvel’s decision to pull the infamous Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover. What do you see as the difference?

I’m on the side of the artists. In the Batgirl case the art was commissioned--the cover was drawn--the creators balked, the cover artist pulled the piece and that should have been the end of it. If readers demand that DC publish the cover--tough shit--the artist pulled it and that’s the end of that. DC wasn’t giving in to readers’ demands one way or the other. The creative people made a choice.

In the Spider-Woman case there was an online flap and Marvel gave in.
Yes, but even DC's been pandering to progressive agendas with the WW picture seen recently, doing various acts their predecessors weren't trying to do. As for the Manara cover, it actually was published, but with a big logo going over Jessica Drew's rear end.

While some of these arguments in themselves have value, it's a shame Larsen still doubtless sticks to his ultra-leftist politics in spite of what he's been telling everyone here. That's why this is a case where I wish I could say I appreciated this more than I do. But I figure he'll continue with his standings, such as these statements he made, which are some of the more atrocious leanings he took. And that's hugely disappointing. As a result, his comments on "Costumegate" do not have the impact he'd probably want, and that's why he can't expect them to have much influence if he can't bring himself to take better stances on political issues. Simply put, his ultra-leftism is a huge obstacle to making better impacts.

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