Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Betty & Veronica #1, written and drawn by Adam Hughes (Catwoman, Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan) with colorist Jose Villarrubia (X-Men: Legacy, Promethea), and Justice League #1, written by Bryan Hitch (Justice League Of America, America’s Got Powers) with art by Tony S. Daniel (Detective Comics, Deathstroke), inker Sandu Florea (Detective Comics, Deathstroke), and colorist Tomeu Morey (Action Comics, Detective Comics). These two issues are part of an ongoing discussion regarding the sexualization of female characters in comics, revealing the importance of strong editorial direction in creating respectful depictions of women and their bodies. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong about cheesecake art. If an artist wants to create a sexualized image accentuating the breasts and/or behind of a woman, they have the right to do that without getting attacked for it. But that doesn’t protect them from criticism and editing if it’s commissioned work. Last week, Frank Cho made a very public exit from his current gig as DC’s Wonder Woman cover artist, citing censorship as the reason for his departure, when DC asked him to modify his artwork after writer Greg Rucka allegedly aired concerns. The cover in question is the variant for next week’s Wonder Woman #3, which is cropped in the final version so that Diana’s underwear is no longer visible, and while it may seem like a small change, Cho interpreted it as a hostile attack motivated by Rucka’s “weird political agenda” against him.
According to Cho, in a statement given to The Mary Sue, DC gave Rucka complete and total editorial control over Wonder Woman (including variant covers), and both Cho and DC art director Mark Chiarello hadn’t been informed of this contractual agreement. It’s understandable why DC would ask for input from Rucka given the fiasco of last year’s Batgirl #41 variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque, a disturbing tribute to The Killing Joke that was totally incongruous with the tone of the interior contents. Rucka was a major get for DC’s Rebirth initiative, and given his own tumultuous relationship with DC editorial, it makes sense that DC would go out of its way to satisfy him. Rucka is the major selling point for this new Wonder Woman series, and what Cho describes as a “power trip” actually comes across as sensible suggestions to create a more respectful interpretation of the character.
Editorial is ultimately at fault for the miscommunication regarding Rucka’s role on the title and his authority over Cho’s work, but editorial is also at fault for hiring Cho in the first place. He’s a cheesecake artist who courts controversy with his work, and while he’s a very skilled cartoonist, his reputation over the last few years makes him a strange choice of variant cover artist for a run written by someone like Rucka, who has built his reputation on creating compelling, multi-dimensional female characters (see: Queen & Country, Batwoman, and Lazarus). It’s not much of a surprise that this decision blew up in DC’s face, but hopefully the company has learned a valuable lesson here regarding hiring the right talent for the right projects and having open lines of communication between editors and freelancers.
Cheesecake art can be great when it’s applied to the right project. The late Dave Stevens was a master of cheesecake, but his art was a direct pastiche of the pin-up art of the ’40s and ’50s, which fit exceptionally well for his retro The Rocketeer comics. The current DC Bombshells series operates in similar territory, and it’s done astounding work using a cheesecake foundation (Ant Lucia’s DC Bombshells statues and variant covers) to tell engaging, thoughtful stories about the female superheroes of World War II. The amount of cheesecake changes depending on the artist (most of whom are women), but in this case a certain amount of sexualization is acceptable given the book’s general concept and the undeniably feminist perspective of writer Marguerite Bennett. DC Bombshells features strong, smart women who also happen to be very pretty, and the creative team embraces that beauty in a way that is still respectful to the characters.
Cho’s departure from Wonder Woman reignited debate regarding the sexualization of women in superhero comics, and one of the most enlightening contributions to the conversation came from Renae De Liz, writer and artist of DC’s phenomenal The Legend Of Wonder Woman. On Tuesday, De Liz started a Twitter thread offering tips on how artists can de-objectify and add power to female characters, using two different drawings of Power Girl to break down seven areas of interest: face, breasts, arms, hands, waist, legs, and feet. As of Thursday, the original tweet has over 3,000 likes and 2,000 retweets, and the thread is both an excellent guide for artists that want to improve their depictions of women and a prime example of the knowledge and care that has made De Liz’s take on Wonder Woman so captivating.
It’s not a coincidence that the best depictions of women at DC Comics are coming from female creators and editors, and when men are in charge of these stories, the male gaze is going to find its way into the content if they’re not actively fighting against it like Rucka. Take this week’s Justice League #1, which has an all-male creative and editorial team and begins with Wonder Woman’s butt peeking out from her skirt as she crashes into a war zone. It’s a powerful opening rendered in impressive detail by artist Tony S. Daniel, but it’s spoiled by that unnecessary bit of sexualization, a little detail that makes a big statement when it’s highlighted on the first page of the first issue of one of DC’s flagship titles. The artwork in the rest of the issue keeps Diana’s behind covered, so why the need to include that extra bit of skin at the top of the issue? The skirt is there to keep her backside covered, so when artists like Cho and Daniel can’t resist the temptation to throw in that little flash of butt, an editor should step in and ask for changes.
One of the biggest editorial missteps of 2016 is this week’s Betty & Veronica #1, which features Adam Hughes writing and drawing the ongoing adventures of Archie’s dueling love interests. There’s no denying that Adam Hughes is a brilliant artist. His understanding of body language and facial expressions is comprehensive, he has a talent for bold compositions that immediately grab a reader’s attention (which makes him an excellent cover artist), and he’s able to modify his style to fit a variety of story tones without losing the elements that make his art distinct. But he’s also best known for his cheesecake art. His depictions of the female form are often sexualized, and while most of these are fairly tasteful riffs on the classic pin-up style, they still prioritize beauty above all else.
Hughes is a puzzling choice to helm the new Betty & Veronica series. He has limited writing experience and hasn’t proven that he can pen complex, relatable female characters. The women in his artwork are far more mature than the teenage leads of the Archie series. The initial announcement was strange, but there was still the chance that Hughes would do a great job with the series and tell an interesting story that gives Betty and Veronica rich inner lives. The chance was small, but until the issue was actually released, there was no way of firmly knowing if Hughes was the right or wrong fit for the project.
Betty & Veronica #1 is out and it’s clear that Hughes is the wrong fit. The artwork is not the problem, and while there is one glaring moment of self-aware cheesecake, he actually does very good work minimizing the sexualization of the girls in the cast. The problem is that Hughes doesn’t care about exploring the nuances of his leads’ personalities, resulting in very superficial characterizations that don’t bring anything new to Betty or Veronica. Betty is a compassionate tomboy while Veronica is a cold, arrogant princess, but Hughes doesn’t dig much deeper than that. The story involves Betty trying to find a way to keep Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe from being replaced by a coffee chain, and the plot is so generic that the characters comment on how often they’ve been in this exact situation. Commenting on the unoriginality of a story isn’t clever; it spotlights how derivative it is, and there’s a general feeling that the plot doesn’t matter much to Hughes.
This feeling is heightened during the two pages when Betty and Veronica take over the narration from Jughead’s dog, Hot Dog, who has “eaten” Adam Hughes’ homework resulting in the loss of two pages of story. Betty and Veronica recount the events of these two pages while lying down in their swimsuits against an empty white background, a sequence that brings Hughes’ storytelling flaws to the surface. His narrative is so uninspired that he stops drawing it so that he can work in his preferred mode, giving the impression that he’d rather be drawing a full issue of Betty and Veronica posing in their swimsuits than this bland story about Pop’s shop getting closed again.
Archie Comics is working hard to give itself a more modern voice and look, and Betty & Veronica was the perfect opportunity to bring on a woman writer to make these girls fully formed characters rather than caricatures of the roles they’ve played for decades. Editor Mike Pellerito did not seize that opportunity, and instead hired a creator whose success in the industry is largely due to his sexualized depictions of women. Betty & Veronica is a beautifully illustrated book, but the scripting is overly dense and Hughes’ teen dialogue reads as exceptionally awkward and out of touch. The faded colors by Jose Villarrubia give the art a dated look that goes against the publisher’s efforts to modernize, and while it’s not a horrible match for Hughes’ Rockwell-inspired linework, the coloring gives the book a dusty appearance that doesn’t fit this interpretation of the characters.
The role of the editor in creative decisions cannot be understated, and this past week has shown the dangers of misguided editorial choices in regards to attaching the right creators to the right projects. Artists that have had the most success by creating cheesecake art are going to keep making cheesecake art, and it’s up to an editor to decide if that’s an appropriate fit for the story being told. The Frank Cho drama could have been avoided if DC looked at Cho’s incendiary behavior over the last couple of years and decided to go with a different cover artist who was open to criticism and editing. The disappointment of Betty & Veronica could have been avoided if Archie sought out a creator with experience writing women with rich, layered personalities rather than hiring someone who spends most of his time focusing on the surface beauty of his female characters. The industry has made some big strides in terms of de-objectifying women on the page, largely thanks to more and more women stepping into creative roles, but there’s still plenty that needs to be done and that work starts at the top.