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Friday, October 19, 2018 

A magazine tore down on Marvel's early 90s swimsuit specials

I found an article in Mel magazine from about a year ago, with a negative view of the Marvel Swimsuit Specials from the early 1990s, which were written and illustrated almost like a storybook combined with Life magazine, and were meant as a tongue-in-cheek venture for simple escapism. None of which seems to matter to the propagandist who wrote this piece:
Full disclosure: I’m a comics nerd. I’m also a big fan of oral histories. With this in mind — and working at a site whose mission is to investigate evolving masculinity and sexuality, occasionally through a pop culture lens — it seemed a no-brainer to mash it all together in one glorious article: The Oral History of Marvel’s Swimsuit Editions.
Let me take a moment to ask why masculinity matters, but not femininity? Yes, seriously. Considering that the specials focused as much on the menfolk of Marvel in beach gear as the women, that's why the notion only masculinity is an issue here isn't a good start for such a pretentious article. IMO, it sounds like a social justice advocate is implying something's wrong with masculinity, and that's what made me suspicious, though maybe not as much as what's to follow:
That’s a great idea, right? The entire story of the so-bad-they’re-good, cheesecake-stuffed comic books published during the mid-1990s, as told by the people who made them. Why did the famed comics company decide to put out whole issues containing pictures of their most popular superheroes in thong bikinis? How did they decide who to feature, and what they’d wear? Who wrote those amazingly awful blurbs for each pic? Who decided the Punisher needed a set of skull-themed Speedos?

We had so many questions.

But tragically, we got so few answers.

Now, I’ll relate the sad story of why.
You might first want to relate the real sad story: why you can't seem to grasp that those blurbs - or captions, as they pretty much are - happen to be humorous? Ghost Rider made an appearance in one of them, accompanied by a joke caption, and I enjoyed quite a chuckle at how they stated he was showing quite a bit of bone. As I said, the whole idea was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, and the first of the specials was supposed to be set in Wakanda, with busloads of characters invited to a special event. And using the term "so bad they're good" is more like a put down, because the swimsuit specials were some of the most charming ideas they had in a decade where story quality, sadly enough, was beginning to decline. But unlike the clown who wrote this, I wouldn't put the swimsuit specials in a bracket for bad storytelling, mainly because they're not meant to be written in same way as the MCU itself, and were basically outside of regular continuity.
It started out well enough: I found a writer with solid connections to the comics industry (a published comics writer and artist, in fact) and told him what I wanted. He was stoked: This was late March — he’d have it to me by early May, he promised.

By late April, we still had nothing. Conventions were a problem, publicists and agents told us. Chicago’s C2E2 was eating up everyone’s time, and with San Diego Comic Con just a couple short months away, finding time for talent to speak was getting harder with each passing day. At this point, my Spidey-sense began tingling. Convention season traditionally meant a glut of famed comic artists and writers being paraded out for interviews — the fact no one was biting was troubling.

By mid-May — around the time we had originally planned to publish it — my fears were justified: The writer threw in the towel and admitted, frustrated, that it was best I reassign the piece. No one wanted to talk about it, he told me: Unlike some other major comics milestones of the 1990s, the Swimsuit Editions weren’t works that creators were terribly proud of.

Fond reminiscence, it seemed, was entirely off the table.
This honestly sounds fishy. Why wouldn't any artists who'd worked on the 5 specials be proud of their art? I took a look on Twitter, and turned up this item by Adam Hughes, who had some early work published in them:

IMO, it sounds like Hughes has pride in his work, and by all means, these were something to feel great about illustrating. So the whole notion nobody wants to talk about it is honestly bewildering, because there's artists like J. Scott Campbell who take pride in the variant covers they draw, and if he published early work in the Marvel Swimsuit specials, I'd expect him to reminisce fondly about them.
Still, I was determined to have my oral history, so I found another writer, this time one with even deeper, more friendly connections to the industry, particularly Marvel. Things began looking up almost immediately: Interviews were scored with former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco and X-Men writer supreme Chris Claremont, titans of the industry and two of the most influential voices in comics at the time. Neither of them had anything particularly nice to say about the Swimsuit Issues, but still, I held out hope.

Legendary artists George Perez and John Romita Jr. soon gave their takes on the issues and more interviews, the writer assured me, had also been arranged and conducted, and needed just to be transcribed.

It was finally coming together.

Then, in early June: Disaster. The writer’s laptop — with all the recorded interviews — was stolen from his car. None had yet been transcribed.

The writer valiantly attempted to try again, but largely struck out. Perez had a stroke shortly after the first phone call, and was unable to complete a second. Other creators, after some reflection, decided they weren’t willing to speak about the infamous issues after all, with multiple writers and artists admitting, off the record, that they simply didn’t want to be associated with them. One went so far as to laugh and hang up the phone when initially asked for an interview.
Let me get this straight. He left his laptop in his car unguarded, and didn't upload any of the material to Dropbox? I don't know why, but this sounds awfully farfetched, ditto the notion everybody's ashamed from A to Z. The "infamous" part also sounds suspect.
By late September, it was clear that we had nothing close to a comprehensive oral history. Claremont and DeFalco were kind enough to weigh in once more, but their discomfort with the subject matter was palpable, meaning any chance of a fun, nostalgic romp was dead in the water.

“Right from the beginning, the magazine was problematic and plagued by the inherent disadvantage female characters face, always,” Claremont told us. “We were trying to tell engaging stories in the comics. Meanwhile, they were slapping this thing [together] at the last minute.”

While not quite as critical of the project as Claremont, DeFalco was less than enthusiastic. “Something like the Marvel Swimsuit Edition probably wouldn’t happen today,” he admitted. “The world was very different in those days. Marvel Comics basically lived or died on how would the comic books were doing: We had a small licensing program. We had an animation studio that was constantly struggling. We couldn’t give away our movie licenses. We lived on the publishing. The idea of having a swimsuit issue kept coming up because in those days, the Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was one of the hottest selling magazines each year, so we decided to have a Swimsuit Issue, too.”

Despite being a clear attempt at a money grab, DeFalco felt that, if nothing else, the male and female characters in the specials received equal treatment. “Unlike other Swimsuit Issues, we had both male and female models. One of the guys came in and was like, ‘We should have the guys in speedos if the women have to wear bikinis!’ At the time, that was very sexualized for a male hero. We did break a lot of walls in terms of sexualizing some of the male characters. Comic books are always accused of sexualizing women and idealizing women, but the truth is we sexualized everybody.”
Assuming Claremont, the guy who had Storm take nude baths early in his X-Men run, and even had some other ladies don hot outfits too, actually said this, it's peculiar. Did he suddenly become "woke"? Did deFalco do the same? I don't know. Something's just not right about this piece, though at least Tom did make clear that the men were as sexualized as the women in the specials. Including the Hulk and Rick Jones, as they spend time in the sun with Betty Banner and Marlo Chandler! By the way, did I mention the alleged statement from deFalco is actually unclear, and it could just as well be he's sad such a project may not be possible today under Marvel's social justice-advocating overlords? That's why I'd better try to give even Claremont the benefit of the doubt here, because it's possible both guys had their words twisted and used against them by an ingrate.

And is sexualizing/idealizing women an inherently bad thing? I'd say no, and they shouldn't be caving on a project that was simply meant for escapism and showcasing fabulous art. And if the writer's implying they did something merely for money, that's insulting too. I get the vibe that what Claremont really spoke about was the sans-adjective X-Men beginning in 1991, which was pretty last minute, and underwent editorial mandates he wasn't happy with, since he'd departed after just 3-4 issues, and left the X-Men altogether for at least 7 years. And when he returned, it didn't look like he had a firm grasp on the casts he'd left behind several years prior anymore. Given how far his skills had fallen, why should a stand-alone swimsuit project annoy him so much?
For Claremont, one of the biggest failings of the project was that they didn’t tell any kind of story, giving them even less justification for existing. “If I had a choice of how to portray the Swimsuit Issue, my instinct would be to showcase the characters and occasionally catch the readers by surprise [with skin]. That would be a way of telling the reader that it isn’t just a sequence of gratuitous images, there’s something here. If you get this book, you’re gonna learn some neat stuff about the characters, so you’ll have to buy it even if you don’t want to look at swimsuits.”

Alas, as anyone who’s read them knows, this isn’t what happened.
Well gee whiz, it wasn't meant to happen as Claremont allegedly put it. Seems like everybody completely misunderstood that it wasn't intended to occur within Marvel continuity proper, and was just meant as a goofy tongue-in-cheek product that wasn't supposed to be taken seriously. Something many SJWs refuse to comprehend. And why does all this matter so much to Claremont, if he'd really said that, but not his own fumblings that even showed up prior to his departure from Marvel in 1991? The sans-adjective X-Men may have seen nearly a million copies printed, but many of them gathered dust at the store level back in the day. If deFalco really threw all involved in the swimsuit specials under the bus, that's hugely disappointing too, confirming he caved to modern PC.
Eventually, to my immense shame and sadness, the piece I had eagerly pitched way back in February was thrown on the scrap heap of abandoned story ideas in early October. The Swimsuit Issues had failed to save Marvel (who filed for bankruptcy in 1996, bailed out only by a slew of suddenly highly profitable movie deals), and they’d failed to bring together the top talent of the time to minutely discuss their awesome terribleness.
For crying out loud, the swimsuit issues aren't the only thing that mattered! What about any and all of their ongoing comics proper? How about the fact the X-Men slid into mediocrity by the mid-90s, and Spider-Man met disaster with the Clone Saga? Or that Tony Stark was replaced by a time-displaced past teenage edition of himself in the Iron Man armor in late 1995? Or, the dreadful Heroes Reborn quartet, 2 of which were drawn by the awful Rob Liefeld? Swimsuit art specials alone aren't going to salvage a once fine company if the quality in the rest of their work is sinking. Just look where they are now. Also, the word "terrible" pretty much gives away where the writer apparently stands.
It was all over — the everlovin’ end, true believer.

With the piece clearly a no-go, I asked the writer to mail me the old Marvel Swimsuit Issues I’d had him buy off eBay to art the story. If nothing else, I thought, I’d be able to expense a fun memento of the project.

The package arrived two days later and was promptly stolen from the doorway of our building.

The curse of the Marvel Swimsuit Issues is still, it seems, a long way from being lifted.
Why does this part also sound hard to swallow? Does this kind of mail theft - which is a federal offense - typically occur? Besides, there's just so much of this material available on the web that you wouldn't even need to buy the issues through eBay to decorate the article, let alone for research purposes. I'm sorry, but with not one, but two thefts alleged here, something about this article sounds so farfetched, so surprisingly negative underneath, that I can only conclude it was contrived for the sake of putting down one of the more tasteful ideas from the 90s for the sake of a modern leftist social justice agenda. One that Claremont and deFalco, if what the article claims they said is true, have sold out to at the expense of their own writings in the process (but again, rest assured, I realize it's possible their words were taken out of context. Certainly the latter's).

Oddly enough, the left-leaning Women Write About Comics' contributors seemed to recognize what the Swimsuit Specials were, over 3 years ago, and one of those cited in this article said:
Sarah R: I second everything Megan said about the context of sexualization in comics. The swimsuit special was incredibly tongue in cheek; everything about it was ridiculous and over-the-top, and that was the whole point. The men and women are treated as equals with various combinations of playful and pouty poses, and it’s fun because the “models” are obviously having fun. I don’t believe it was ever featured in a swimsuit special, but my favorite example of this is Joe Jusko’s gorgeous poster of She-Hulk on Muscle Beach, where she’s featured in a bikini and lifting what I estimate is a kajillion pounds over her head while reading a romance novel. It’s empowering and sexy without feeling exploitative, and her muscular body is seen as attractive and feminine.
See? My thoughts exactly. It also differs considerably from J. Michael Straczynski's 9-11 Spider-Man issue 36, which was blatantly political and where putting villains like Dr. Doom at Ground Zero without opposition definitely did not make sense. If you have to put villains in the same setting as heroes, then the way Marvel Swimsuit Specials did it, with crooks like the Kingpin spending time at the jungle/seaside paradise, works far better, mainly because there was no political agenda slipped into its proceedings. Of course, the above was written at least 3 years ago, so who knows where WWAC stands now on the subject of fun-in-the-sun projects inspired by modeling procedures?

The Marvel Swimsuit Specials, as mentioned before, were decidedly some of the better ideas of the 1990s, and DC, Image and at least a few other companies also produced at least one similar project of their own at the time. In fact, a lot artists working on variant covers today would be far better served if they'd reserve their masterpieces for ideas like the swimsuit specials, where it'd all be much more effective. Now, look where we stand, when even DC and Image have increasingly lost their way, eschewing entertainment and what makes it for the sake of SJW-influenced censorship and political correctness. Under the current management, which is unlikely to be changed at ease, Marvel would never allow swimsuit specials or capitalize on what Sports Illustrated made an art form out of anymore. In any event, most important, lest we forget, is that story merit's gone out the window along with continuity in the regular universe titles to boot. Which is why I reiterate my belief that the best way to mend all the damage is to buy out all these superhero properties through a business with responsible management, which is certainly a lot more than can be said for how Disney oversees their own business assets.

Anyway, while we're on the subject, I think, for the sake of defending the concepts of freedom and escapism, I'll post a few more examples from past swimsuit specials and variations, such as the following, which includes DC, Image and even Zenescope:
If the picture from Zenescope's Grimm Fairy Tales is more recent, I gotta give them credit for upholding some of the best ideas you can put to use in the comics medium. Now, here's a few more from Marvel's 90s classics:
This is one of the reasons why to read and make comics, if not the only one - for entertainment, escapism, and to cherish the basic concepts of freedom, inspiration and wish fulfillment. And I'll be really happy if more artists working in the industry can show they have what it takes to stand up for and defend these ideas, which are good for women as well as men too.

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
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