Variant cover for Rancid comic book dubbed the “Tropical Heat” edition 

Rancid is a comic book drawn by Canadian artist H4wkArt

I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to draw promotional art for the series.  This is the story of how that happened.

I grew up reading comics at an interesting time.

In the 80s I read Spider-Man, with the occasional issue of X-men and Ducktales thrown in there because my dad was a responsible parent who wanted to make sure that I grew up to be a well rounded human being.  Some of these stories were new; some of them were reprints; all of them had a “classic” comics feel to them.  

They were mostly simple stories about people with extraordinary powers trying to do the right thing and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

Then in the 90s, comics changed.  The art got better, or worse, depending on who you ask.  And the stories got…more complicated.  Crossover events which spanned multiple titles and dozens of issues became alarmingly common.  Continuity was a mess with constant reboots.  And, suddenly, Superman was dead and Spider-Man was a clone.

It was a rough time if you read mainstream Marvel and DC comics.

At the same time, comic book publishers were pushing the envelope and making comics edgier, chasing the dragon that had been unleashed by the grim and gritty trend of the 1980s.  

Over at Image, Savage Dragon was constantly trying to see what it could get away with in regards to sex and violence (though, it also told a compelling story).  Vertigo had Preacher, a book that was notoriously unafraid to depict violence underscored with profanity in Jesse Custer’s quest to find God.  And Chaos! Comics had Evil Ernie, a comic about a literal superpowered serial killer with a talking smiley face button for a sidekick.  

“Bad girl” comics were also thing.  As a counterpoint to the “good girl” art of the 1940s, strong female characters who were often buxom and barely dressed became a strategic marketing tool. 

These weren’t comics that were behind the counter either.  You could walk into any comic book store and find Lady Death, Shi, Witchblade, Angela, and Vampirella alongside other mainstream books.

It was an undeniable (if obvious) fact that sexy women sold comics and the industry as a whole seemed very at peace with that fact in the 1990s.  The success of artists like Adam Hughes, Joseph Michael Linsner, Joe Chiodo, Jim Balent, and Frank Cho demonstrated that publishers were more than willing to promote artists who were capable of drawing attractive women.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that 1990s comics are often criticized for their hypersexualized depiction of female characters. 

And perhaps it’s not surprising that in the second decade of the 2000s comic book art seemed to move in the opposite direction in response to criticism and changing cultural attitudes.

And that’s where our story begins. 

Without delving into all of the sordid details, in the last decade comic book publishers, Marvel and DC in particular, have made a concerted effort to make comics more representative and more inclusive.  Whether this is a good thing or not depends on who you ask.

Industry insiders, for the most part, seem to think it’s a good thing.  Books that are more representative in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation mean books that have wider appeal and wider appeal means more sales and more money.  That makes sense.

On the other side are a minority of comic book fans who feel that the social justice movement has coopted the comics industry to push a liberal agenda at the expense of art and storytelling in comics.

Maybe I’m not cynical enough, but I don’t think the shift in the comics industry is due to some secret “liberal agenda.”  I believe that corporations make decisions based on what is calculated to generate the most profit, and comic books are no exception.

“But comic books are art!” some might say.  And I don’t disagree.  But art is not about making something that everyone enjoys.  Art is about creating something that tells a story and leaves an impression on the viewer.

What concerns me about the current shift in comics is the tone of the criticism.  Implicit in cultural critiques such as the Hawkeye Initiative is the assertion that certain aesthetic values are invalid and that liking media which contains that aesthetic is morally wrong.  To me, that’s fascism.

Granted, I’m coming at this from the perspective of somebody whose art has been criticized as sexist because I often depict nude women with a specific set of physical characteristics.  And I understand and accept that criticism.  But I am not going to be told by anyone that I can’t draw that if I want to.

But instead of engaging in flame wars on Twitter (which accomplish nothing) I decided that I was going to collaborate with artists who shared my values and my appreciation for a certain visual aesthetic.  Because we’re the rebels now and if we’re not going to make subversive content that offends some people, we might as well take all of our art and burn it.

As it happened, I came across something in my Twitter timeline that made me nostalgic for the particular brand of sleazy that only the 90s could conjure up.

H4wkArt’s original cover for Issue #1 of Rancid

Everything about it was just a little too perfect for me.  The monster.  The girl.  The adolescent fantasies that were suddenly running through my head.

I felt like a kid in a comic book store in the 90s.

So I knew at that point that I wanted to draw Rancid, because it was exactly the brand of trouble that I liked.

Convincing H4wkArt to let me draw some promotional art for his book wasn’t too hard.  He was thrilled at the idea that his dream project was attracting the attention of other creators.  And in true 90s fashion we agreed that I would draw 1 cover and a variant.  The regular cover, called the “Camo Edition” would be the main character in her normal attire.  

Promotional art for Rancid comic book “Camo Edition”

The variant cover, dubbed the “Tropical Heat” edition, would feature the character with significantly less clothing, in a nod to some of the racier bad girl books of the 90s which occasionally ran with nude variant covers.

Early cover concept

And maybe it’s juvenile.  And maybe it’s hypersexualized.  And maybe it has no place in comics in 2018.

But, drawing it felt good.