Zenescope’s Joe Brusha and the Problem with Provocative Covers

Founded in 2005 by Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco, Zenescope’s notorious covers have been a topic of intense conversation within the comic community for the entirety of the company’s history.  From souped-up, sexy Dorothy and the skankalicious Wicked Witch of the West to nubile genderswap Mowgli, Zenescope’s provocative line of fairy tale and fantasy inspired comics always manage to elicit strong reactions.

In an interview with CBR on the nature of Zenescope’s tantalizing covers, co-founder Brusha openly flaunts the company’s M.O. of using overtly sexualized images to sell materials.  He claims that these covers “get the job done . . . [enticing] a specific fanbase that really wants [them]. [Zenescope has] actually pulled in the reins sometimes on covers.  [Fans] want them even more sexy, more explicit.  So [they’re] just satisfying that fanbase.”

While this statement segues into a plethora of issues surrounding the commoditized female form, the male gaze, and body diversity, the capitalist in me can’t argue with him; sex sells.

Sex in comics isn’t a new thing.  And, honestly, sex in comics is often a good thing.  Shame and antagonism towards sexuality in the media is a constant struggle that disenfranchises anyone in a happy, healthy sexual relationship from entering the moral majority. Positively portraying the spectrum of sex and sexuality in popular media is a fight I will gladly arm myself for.

But the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction.  There is a line between the celebration of sex and the gimicky, tawdry portrayal of women that Zenescope fronts on their books.

Childhood. Destroyed.

Brusha is definitely aware of the women that read Zenescope’s books — though he believes that a healthy diet of Disney films as children creates a desire in women to watch their favorite princess spread ‘em in the name of justice.  He states that as women grow into adulthood, “those [fairy tales] hold a special place in their heart, but they also want to see different reinventions of those characters.”

If the racy reinventions of these classic characters is something women want, how does Brusha handle the accusation that Zenescope’s books are nothing but gratuitous T&A? Brusha states:

“There’s a lot of comic snobs out there, people who just go, ‘I won’t read that because there’s a scantily clad Red Riding Hood on the cover.’ Yet if you look at a Marvel comic or a DC comic, and it has a female character in it, they’re portrayed very much the same way, in my opinion.”

Brusha is effectively saying is that he knows women read Zenescope’s books and he’s happy that these stories draw in female fans, but he doesn’t care enough about their sense of self-worth to advance the portrayal of women positively.  Claiming that exploiting the female form is acceptable because DC and Marvel are also culprits is not only a childish way to view the issue, it is also an inappropriate moral equivalence.

This is not how you achieve progress.  While I agree that mainstream comics have a nasty history of stripping their female leads on the cover to sell books, I do not believe that gives independents the right to emulate these female stereotypes because the big boys did it first.  Independent comics are supposed to push boundaries, break barriers, and effectively dismantle the oligarchy of mainstream publishers.

If the standard is damaging, why not be the game changer?  Brusha admits that Zenescope alters the covers for trade paperback publications — toning down the sex and making the books more approachable to those put off by their standard risque art.  Why not take this same approach with regular issues?  If the work inside is so solid, why rely on cheap thrills to entice new readers?

Brusha defends his female characters because they are “very strong, they’re badass, they don’t need a man to come save them” inside the books — but new readers cannot infer this from covers alone.  If you’re put off by all them big ol’ titties and perfectly spherical bums, you’re just a snob.

General dickheadery aside, he is nowhere near wrong when he criticizes the Big Two.  He is especially on point when mentioning DC’s sordid history with books and boobs.

It’s been almost three years since the lackluster New 52 rent itself free from the bloated corpse of the DC universe.  What a ride these past few years have been!  We’ve seen the tartification of Starfire, the penetration of Catwoman (though I personally found her spine-breaking boob thrust far more problematic), the eroticization of Harley Quinn’s suicide, and, most recently, the inflation of Wonder Girl:

I love, love, love Kenneth Rocafort’s work.  There is a watercolor quality to his work that makes his pieces instantly recognizable.  His pastel colours are almost ethereal, his textures are full and vibrant, and his variety in posing always makes for dynamic, well-composed pieces.

Some bloggers have gone on the defensive over the physical proportions of Wonder Girl, and there is definite validity to these concerns.  Again: unattainable beauty standards, lack of body diversity, and so on.  But I’m the kind of gal who buys Olivia De Berardinis’ pin-up calendars every year.  Rocafort is DC’s Olivia – cheesecake, but beautiful.

I am, suffice it to say, pretty squicked out by the fact Cassandra Sandsmark is a Teen Titan, but that’s another issue for another day.

Nonetheless, there’s a huge difference between Rochefort’s boobalicious Wonder Girl and whatever the fuck is going on here:

Call me a snob if you want, Brusha, but I’m judging Fly before I read it.

Rocafort may have puffed up Sandsmark’s breasts to an uncomfortable level, but she isn’t lying spread-eagle with Beast Boy…

…doing something like that.

Rocafort’s art isn’t trashy.  Wonder Girl, though underage, is not being completely exploited for her sexuality.  Brusha’s strong, independant women?  Always, always in some sort of compromising position — often with gaze fixed directly on a camel toe so fierce that Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose readers look snobby.

Yes.  Tarot, the beach ball breasted, haunted vagina fighting, warrior witch is often found in less dubious poses on her covers than Zenescope’s upstanding, respectable reimaginings.

Jim Balent has no pretentions about his work and how Tarot fits into the modern cultural canon: somewhere between some teenage Wiccan’s Book of Shadows and World of Whorecraft. It’s not particularly clever, it’s nowhere near good, but it doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t.  Seriously.  One of Tarot’s enemies is Licky-D, the lesbian vampire.  That has to be proof of some sense of self awareness, right?

Balent would never refer to readers made uncomfortable by his artwork as snobs — his work is one nip-slip away from receiving the ol’ Black Kiss treatment and being blocked at the border.

Joe Brusha admits he is bothered that his books receive so much criticism from both fans and contemporaries based on their covers alone, yet he eagerly points to the fans as rabid smut consumers.  He assures us that the actual stories his writers produce present women we can be proud of, but he has no qualms about reducing these supposedly strong characters to their base bodies.

There are truly some fun stories in the Zenescope Universe.  The first run of Robyn Hood had a decent premise, The Jungle Book was surprisingly engaging, and I did make it through the first three volumes of Grimm Fairy Tales. Overall, the majority of the material deserves a solid B-.  It’s miles ahead of Tarot in composition and execution — though Tarot’s covers are ultimately less deceiving.  In fact, Tarot may have some of the most upfront covers currently in publication.

Should there be a boycott on Zenescope for their bawdy covers?  No.  Joe Brusha’s flimsy, faltering excuses for trivializing his female leads likely come from a place of ignorance, not animosity.  Brusha might, however, want to reconsider morally equivocating his place in the portrayal of comic book women with that of mainstream publishers when Balent’s Broadsword Comics — with their company logo of a broad holding a giant sword — often bares equal amounts of flesh per cover as any of Zenescope’s supposedly empowered heroines.

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Christa Aylward worked full time at a comic shop to put herself through university at Kwantlen Polytechnic. Through blood, sweat, tears, and more Joyce than could possibly be considered healthy, she emerged victorious with her undergraduate degree with a major in English Lit. With it she can continue to work in a comic shop because, well, what else is an Arts grad qualified for? She’s not bitter, by the way. Not at all.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Christa!
    Just reaching out :)
    I’m not certain if we know each other – I noticed we weren’t pals on FB
    and you’re name isn’t familiar to me- I’m kinda good remembering our Readers’ names :)

    I’m here if you’d like to fact check…cause I noticed some of your info is incorrect

    Have a lovely 4th!
    Holly G!

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