Marvel unveiled its July variant cover theme at C2E2 this past weekend, and the pictures definitely tell a story. As a follow-up to March's "Women of Power" covers, which highlighted the strength of Marvel's heroic women, the July covers are dubbed "Mighty Men of Marvel." While "covers with men on them" might seem like an unremarkable theme, given that it describes most Marvel covers already, it's clear from the art released thus far that the concept was meant to be more bold than that --- but it's equally clear that Marvel missed its target.

Several of the covers suggest that this was meant to be a "sexy guys of Marvel" beefcake theme month; something Marvel editor Tom Brevoort once questioned the demand for. It's a fun idea, and showcasing the sexiness of Marvel's male heroes is the perfect complement to a set of covers that showcase the strength of its female heroes, given that superhero comics have typically depicted men as strong and women as sexy, and not the other way around.

 

Astonishing Ant-Man #10 Mark Bagley
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #7, Guillem March

 

Yet very few of the covers rise to the level of "pin-up." Hardly any of the heroes are presented in sexy or flirty ways, and though many of the covers are great illustrations, most of them would look equally at home in any non-themed month of covers (if such a thing existed). None of the covers capture the sort of confidence that Marvel showed twenty years ago with its famously tongue-in-cheek Swimsuit Specials.

Artists with a reputation for great beefcake are either surpisingly absent from the list of contributors, like Kevin Wada and Jo Chen, or were saddled with subjects that don't lend themselves to the theme. What is Kristafer Anka, the king of comic book abs, meant to do with teenager Miles Morales? Why is Otto Schmidt, one of the great pin-up artists working in comics today, given the scar-riddled body of Deadpool to work with? Even the best attempts in the set look compromised, as if Marvel lost its nerve and sent notes to tone it all down. How else to explain the awkward sight of Captain America's left nipple poking out of a half-tattered costume? (Tat-for-tit, if you will.)

 

Amazing Spider-Man #15, Dan Panosian
Black Panther #4, Jay Anacleto

 

For many superhero artists, drawing beefcake is a real challenge, because they're grounded in a tradition that depicts male heroes as physique fantasies targeted at a straight male readership rather than as subjects of sexual desire. Sexy male pin-ups are not in their skill set or in their comfort zone. That may also be the case for Marvel at an institutional level; the publisher simply isn't used to thinking inclusively about the sort of readership that finds men sexy, and the weak effort on show in these variant covers speaks to that failure of imagination.

Yet there are plenty of comic artists who can do beefcake well, and whose work appeals brilliantly to that audience when given free rein, from Marvel regulars like Olivier Coipel to webcomic artists like HamletMachine. This variant theme could have been amazing, if Marvel had the guts to follow through.

 

Daredevil #9, Fiona Staples
Deadpool #15, Otto Schmidt

 

Now, you may already be halfway through copy-pasting your, "Why is it okay to objectify men if it's not okay to objectify women" comment (because the people who leave those comments never read the whole article first), but if you're still with us, let me clarify; It's never okay to reduce someone to just an object without their consent, but it is okay to celebrate desire in a respectful and inclusive way. Sex appeal is a great ingredient to have  in some comics, but it shouldn't be the case that women always have to be sexy and men never do. What we've seen here from Marvel is further evidence that bastions of the status quo live in dread of the idea that men could ever be treated the way men treat women.

But Marvel's male heroes are in no danger of being reduced to just sexual objects, because they'll always be treated as characters first --- so a month of "sexy men" covers only serves as a welcome antidote to the superhero industry's historical double standards towards male and female characters.

A month of "sexy women" covers would only reinforce that inequality --- though a month of sexy women covers drawn entirely by women, with no interference from a male editor, could subvert that idea in an interesting way. Pin-ups can be a lot of fun, so long as everyone is allowed to share equally in that fun. Yet half-cocked efforts like these are no fun for anyone.

Check out the rest of the Mighty Men of Marvel covers below:

 

Doctor Strange #19, Erica Henderson
Totally Awesome Hulk #8, Yasmine Putri
Invincible Iron Man #11, Dale Keown
Old Man Logan #8, Rafael Albuquerque
Power Man and Iron Fist #6, Andrew Robinson
Mighty Thor #9, David Lopez
Spider-Man #6, Kris Anka
Uncanny Avengers #11, Meghan Hetrick
Uncanny Inhumans #12, Greg Land

 

Four covers have yet to be released. They are:

  • All-New, All-Different Avengers #12, Aaron Kuder
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #10, Joelle Jones
  • Squadron Supreme #9, Jenny Frison
  • New Avengers #13, Declan Shalvey