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Problematic: Robert Kirkman Is Releasing A Walking Dead Michonne Origin Story In Playboy

The Mary Sue got an email yesterday from Playboy. Not the kind of mail we’ve come to expect but it was about The Walking Dead so we gave it a look. Turns out, writer Robert Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard are releasing an origin story for one of the comic’s most famous characters – Michonne – exclusively in Playboy today. We find this slightly odd. Here’s why. 

First, let me say that if you’re not a reader of the comic, you may want to turn away. This is not something I can discuss without discussing certain specific plot points of the series and things that happen to the character. You have now officially been warned for spoilers. I will also state for the record before I continue that I do not have a problem with Playboy magazine or what lies in its pages, porn, soft porn, really soft porn, liquid porn, solid, plasma, or gas porn.

Ok, so. Fans of the Image Comic series The Walking Dead, and who also watch the television show on AMC, are highly anticipating the arrival of Michonne. Although we have yet to hear that she’s been cast, we’re assuming she’ll show up next season (or, crossing fingers, in the finale). The character is a quiet, yet extremely talented zombie killer. The survivors certainly don’t know what to make of her at first but she quickly becomes a huge asset to the group. But along the way, Michonne runs into trouble she can’t fight her way out of. She’s captured by the antagonist in the series, The Governor, and sexually assaulted in the most brutal and disgusting ways.

And this is why I feel putting the story of Michonne in Playboy is problematic.

I don’t find Playboy offensive, I think they do what they do tastefully and also provide interesting articles. (Although some people do find it offensive and misogynistic and have every right to think so.) Yes, ha ha, that’s the old joke. “I read it for the articles.” But it’s true, Playboy has a long history of think pieces as well as publishing bits of novels and other literary work in its pages. Hugh Hefner himself has a history with comic books so it’s not totally bizarre to me that they would feature a comic in the magazine. The problem I have is that they chose this character to feature.

Publishing the origin story of a character who’s been the victim of sexual assault in the pages of a magazine who’s purpose is to showcase the bodies of woman is concerning to say the least. It doesn’t match up with what we know about the character and it just rubs me the wrong way. Not to mention, this is how they described her in the press release: “The story features brilliant art to accompany the never-before-seen mystery that explores how the iconic and sexy Michonne discovered her impressive skills as a master swordswoman and became the most admired and beloved survivor.”

I’m sorry, people may have sex in The Walking Dead from time to time but I honestly don’t think any of these characters are written to be “sexy” and the first word that should come to mind when considering Michonne is “badass.”

I’m not angry about the decision, I don’t know who approached who for this team-up, not do I want their job or head on a platter or even an apology. It just strikes me as slightly odd that this didn’t cause them hesitation. I wouldn’t have thought twice about the news had it not been Michonne, if instead it was the origin story of Andrea, Glen or someone else. I don’t think the choice was done maliciously, I just don’t think people consider all the angles sometimes or how this could be perceived. I suppose the train of thought was that Michonne will be showing up on the AMC show soon and they wanted to promote both that and the comic. But putting aside the issues I have placing this particular character in an adult magazine, it’s also a tough position to put long-time fans of the comic series in.

The news did not say whether or not the 6-page story would be released in regular comic or graphic novel format down the road and a lot of people don’t want to, or don’t feel comfortable purchasing a magazine like Playboy, men or women. I know the move was to reach a wider, possibly new, readership by publishing the comic there but perhaps another magazine would have been more well-received by fans. Rolling Stone perhaps?

That being said, yesterday, the Hollywood Reporter mistakenly published the entirety of the origin story on their website. It was later taken down and now only two pages remain, but I got a chance to read it before it was. And it was very good. Certainly what you’ve come to expect from Kirkman and Adlard, just, you know, not where you’ve come to expect it.

You can debate or defend the legitimacy or professionalism of Playboy if you want. Like I said, I have nothing against the magazine. Let’s not kid ourselves. If you removed the nude photos, the magazine wouldn’t be nearly as popular. That is what Playboy is famous for, and so placing a sexual abuse survivor’s origin story in its pages without some time spent unpacking the issue seems in bad taste to me.

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  • Anonymous

    Will this count as reading the articles, or looking at the pictures?

  • Travis Fischer

    Like I said on FB, it’s controversial. I can definitely see a problem with showcasing a story about a character who was raped in a pornographic magazine, even if the story itself isn’t pornographic and takes place long before the incident happened.

    On the other hand, it could also be said that Michonne’s rape shouldn’t, and doesn’t, define her. The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Michonne IS “badass” and I don’t think her origin story would be completely out of place in Playboy.

    I honestly can’t decide if I think it’s appropriate or not. I recognize the problem, but I’m not sure if the problem should be considered a problem.

  • Wil Sisney

    I’ve been reading The Walking Dead from very early on, and like Jill I’m very much looking forward to Michonne’s character’s debut on the TV series.  I would love to know more of Michonne’s back-story and think publishing it is a great way to add to the series.  But I’m downright ANGRY that this is being published in Playboy.  I typically don’t mind cross-publishing, but I don’t read Playboy, I don’t want to buy a Playboy, and I certainly don’t want to keep Playboy around my house where my 5 year old daughter might find it.  I’m working hard on raising an intelligent, confident and empowered daughter and whatever your moral stance on Playboy you have to admit that it emphasizes looks over anything else.  That’s not the message I want to communicate to my daughter.
    But that’s not what really makes me mad.  I’ve been reading this book since the very beginning, and have thrown buckets of money at it since then.  I buy floppy issues monthly – by far the most expensive way to experience a comic.  I’ve bought tie-in novels, merchandise, and I’ve attended the panels for the fledgling show at Comic-Con.  I am your loyal fan, and you’re going to make me miss this story because it’s published in a magazine?  Collecting it into a future trade is not good enough, either. I want this story published in the monthly issue the same time it comes out in Playboy.  I don’t care if you publish this in Playboy, but you’d damn sure better publish it for your real fan base as well.
    Also, I agree with Jill – Michonne’s character might be sexy, but you’d better not say that within her earshot.  Badass does not begin to cover this woman, which is why I want to read all the material I can get about her.  She’s got a compelling story – so let your loyal fans read it!

  • Trevor Whitaker

    It’s a series that is geared towards adults and a character with serious adult problems being featured in an adult magazine.  I’m failing to see the controversy here.  By your same logic, should Playboy never interview anyone that has been the victim of rape or abuse?

  • Gregory Huelsenbeck

    Weather the character thinks of herself as “sexy” or not, guys generally find strong, ass-kicking heroines “sexy”. I hope for all the people who are uncomfortable with buying nudie mags, they do publish it as a stand alone comic. But I have no problem with it being in Playboy.

  • ainok


  • Chance Wheeler

    I’m with Trevor on this one. I don’t have much to add, but I read my first Stephen King story, many years ago in Playboy (Word Processor of the Gods), and it made me a fan of his work. I haven’t bought an issue of Playboy in years, and won’t go out of my way to buy this one, but it could be a good marketing idea, introducing the comic to a larger demographic. I have a friend who watches the show, but didn’t know there even was a comic until I introduced her to it.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    You think she would be offended?

  • Anonymous

    I agree that publishing a possibly “sexy” story about a rape survivor could be problematic, but seeing as you read the story and said it was good, I don’t really see the problem. As there was no fetishization of the sexual assault (I assume you’d have mentioned if there were), why would this be an issue?

    If anything, I think it’s problematic to imply that rape survivors can’t or shouldn’t be sexy. Rape is a crime done to a person, and rape survivors shouldn’t be forced to be defined by that crime (as mentioned by another commenter above). Not to mention the fact that rape has absolutely nothing to do with a woman’s sexiness.

    It is a little irritating that Playboy couldn’t think of a better word to describe her than sexy, but I get the feeling that that’s more of a general issue for the magazine when it comes to all women featured in it.

  • JoAnna Luffman

    Well, guess I need to find a place in redneckistan that carries Playboy. 

  • Wil Sisney

    My gut tells me that Michonne is the type of woman who chooses who she wants to be with.  She doesn’t get chosen.  I don’t see her responding well to flowery flattery, given her no BS attitude.

  • Comic Book Candy

    Yeah I don’t really care how good the story is. It’s not worth contributing my money towards sub-par smut peddlers like Playboy to get my Walking Dead fix. But you know, I’m glad to see Kirkman courting the oft-ignored the straight male demographic!

  • Abby Hernandez

    I honestly see the point that you’re making about Michonne being sexual assault survivor and being place in magazine the essentially sells sexy pictures.

    However, I’m just going to right out say I don’t feel comfortable buying a Playboy magazine, which severely bothers me, because I’ve been waiting for Michonne’s back story for a long time.

    Sure, I’m probably going to end up finding it online now, but I would’ve much rather preferred having a hard copy to set with the rest of my walking dead comics/books.

  • Anna B

    I suppose I don’t necessarily have a problem with the story being published in Playboy. It’s all publicity and marketing, and however shallow the connection, it’s an easy one to make. As far as girlie mags go, Playboy is about as classy as they come, and yes, its long history of good, intelligent features lends credibility to it being a good place to feature Michonne’s back story. I agree that the description is problematic, but it’s something to be expected from Playboy–meaning, the magazine focuses a lot on “sexy”. The comic will speak for itself. Michonne’s character will speak for itself. The definition is merely the hook. 

    All things considered, if they wanted it featured on a mainstream magazine, I might have been terribly annoyed if they chose something stupid like a fashion or gossip magazine. And if they chose a newspaper, that would’ve caused an unnecessary controversy.  I’m trying to think of another mainstream magazine that this could’ve worked–certainly not Maxim–the bunch of them are buffoons. It’s no place to put a kickass story of a strong lady.

  • A. Sturdivant

    so wait, Fashion is ‘stupid’, but airbushed, homogeneous nudity is okay? 

  • Adam Whitley

    pretty much

  • Adam Whitley

    How much do playboys even cost aren’t they on the expensive side? They should have just ran it in Heavy Metal.

  • michael otoole

    my girlfriend got me a subsciption to playboy 1 cuz it was free 2 she not ultra conservitive like these people . any way its a good back story . they think playboy is porn now thats funny

  • Jerri Blank

    I’m slightly annoyed only because Playboy just kinda sucks. A stand alone book for the fans was the way to go imo

  • James Kirk

    seems reasonable – the tv show/comic book both contain adult themes so dont see the problem with it myself
    does anyone know how i could get hold of this in england?

  • Anna B

    I’m not saying it’s stupid, but if you ask my opinion on that, yes, it is. However, that’ isn’t the issue here. I suppose it’s a kind of product placement.

    And now that you mention it, I don’t find anything particularly wrong with nudity, airbrushed or otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    I think there are two (potentially) problematic aspects here.
    The first is that (female) rape victims and abuse survivors’ stories are frequently sexualized to appeal to (straight) men. And rape is a trope of sexual fantasy (we’ve all seen or heard of advertisements and playboy spreads where the woman is a passive “victim” of male attention). There’s nothing wrong with a woman who is a rape survivor being seen as sexy. There is, however, something wrong with a woman’s story about rape being used to sexually titillate people.
    Now, I don’t know what aspects of Michonne’s story are being highlighted in the Playboy issue, so I don’t know if that’s a problem or not. If the story is handled correctly (if they stay away from the rape story or sexual abuse or the woman as a passive victim like the plague) it probably won’t be a problem. But I can understand why people would be upset, in that putting Michonne in playboy unconsciously bridges the gap between Michonne’s story (which involves rape) and sexual excitement.

    The second to me is the bigger problem: putting this story in playboy sends a (no doubt unconscious) message that The Walking Dead is a comic for (straight) men. And that (straight) women are not invited to play. Sure, they can visit the comic, but really? It’s for men. If a (straight) woman wants to read Michonne’s origin story, she has to go out of her way to buy a magazine that is in no way meant to appeal to her, and that, for many women, may be offensive. Again and again, the message is: you are not are target audience. We are not interested in appealing to you. (I am, by the way, in no way implying that there aren’t female comic book fans or female fans of The Walking Dead. I’m saying that this particular decision by the Walking Dead creative team shows that they’re far more interested in appealing to men than to women).

     And that’s quite sad, because one of the ways comic books CAN appeal to women is by having interesting, complex female characters. Here, The Walking Dead clearly HAS an interesting, complex character, but the comic isn’t interested in using her to appeal to women. She’s being used to appeal to men. It reinforces the message that comic books are a male form, for men, by men. Which: fine, but let’s not pretend that’s not what’s happening here.

  • Jill Pantozzi

    Well said!

  • Anonymous

    High five, girl. 

  • Jennifer Vetere

     I was going to reply… but I think you just said everything that needs saying. 

  • Anonymous

    Well, at least it makes more sense than when Penthouse had a gorgeous fully painted Scott Hampton comic adaptation of the book of genesis. 

  • Leon L. Sandall

    Her entrance to the TV show last night was the BEST ENTRANCE EVAR!!

  • Anonymous

    Another nice overthink piece.   I’m more shocked that TWD and AMC cut a deal for OC publication with a magazine that nobody buys or cares about anymore. 

  • Michail Velichansky

    There’s no way you could know if that was a thought at all. It’s just as likely that Playboy approached the creators, offered enough money to cover several months rent — they pay, or at least used to pay, extremely well for fiction — and that was that. I don’t think it’s all that reasonable to expect them to turn it down just because the choice of publisher is problematic and the audience stereotypical. They probably just figured they’d take the money, write a story people would like, and eventually release it in a more mainstream way.

    Obviously I don’t know that either. I just thought I’d mention that artists need to earn a living too, so I don’t know how much they should have taken the stuff brought up here and in the article into account when choosing to move forward with this, especially given that it sounds like the story was both good and in good taste itself.

    I dunno that unquestionable taste need always trump economic reality, especially if the art itself (versus the context it’s published in temporarily) is uncompromised.

  • SuzanneF

    “There’s no way you could know if that was a thought at all”

     This is very true… and it’s also why I said that in my post (to
    paraphrase myself, the marginalization of women was “no doubt
    unconscious”). The author of the article also says that she doesn’t
    think the move was done maliciously. I don’t think anyone believes that
    comic book creators sit around a giant fire and plot devious ways to
    exclude female comic book fans (although that would make a GREAT movie).

    But whether or not the authors INTENDED to marginalize women… they
    did. Which is, in my opinion, far more important than what they
    intended. And it’s way more powerful. We live in a
    racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. society NOT because most people are
    actively racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. but because most people just
    don’t think about the impact of their actions. Or care.

    It’s no doubt true that Robert Kirkman and co. sold “The Walking Dead”
    to Playboy for economic reasons. But economic reasons don’t protect
    people from being criticized for your decisions. It’s not the be-all,
    end-all excuse. Economic decisions have huge social ramifications; they
    can’t be sealed off from their consequences. For example (and yes, this
    is an exaggeration, but it’s useful) you can’t go “hey, this really
    racist magazine sells a lot of copies, I think I’ll sell my story to
    them!” and expect not to be criticized for it. You can do it… but then
    we get to criticize you for it! (and then you get to criticize us for
    criticizing them, because free speech is wonderful).

    Besides, there is no such thing as a purely economic decision.  I don’t
    think they’re just selling to Playboy because they want the couple
    thousand dollars Playboy will give them. Kirkman and Image comics have
    options: The Walking Dead is a hugely successful comic *cough* TV show
    *cough*. Image Comics is one of the most successful comics publishers
    today – a couple thousand is probably not the thing keeping them from
    bankruptcy. I could be wrong here, admittedly – but even if I am,
    Playboy is not the only game in town. Kirkman and Image Comics are
    SMART: If they’re choosing Playboy (rather than the many, many other
    magazines that I’m sure would kill to get an original “Walking Dead”
    story), there’s a method to their madness.

     Presumably, they’re choosing to market themselves through Playboy
    because they want the money… but also because they want to appeal to
    the people who READ Playboy… straight men.

    Here’s where CONTEXT matters. If the Playboy decision happened in a
    void, I wouldn’t think it was problematic. But it’s NOT happening in a
    void. It’s not like “The Walking Dead” is marketing in Playboy AND
    also trying to market to women. They’re just trying to appeal to their
    (straight men). And given how terrible mainstream comics have been at
    marketing to women – or at giving a shit (pardon my language) what their
    female fans thing (looking at you, DC reboot) – the “Walking Dead”
    decision just becomes the latest in a long line of choices that signals
    how uninterested mainstream comics are in appealing to women.

    And frankly, that’s just stupid. If, as your comment implies,
    artist/creators need to look at economics first… then the Playboy
    decision is a TERRIBLE decision.Good god, has no one realized that
    women make up 50% of the population (we do have those handy powers of invisibility)? Does no one realize that women have money? As Jill Pantozzi pointed out herself in this
    (fantastic) article on the DC reboot
    ( “The relaunch
    was to revitalize your sales, you don’t do that by appealing to the
    audience you already have. You do that by extending your audience (…) No, most women don’t want to
    read comics where female characters are objectified in the worst
    ways. You need children and you need women if your business is to
    continue and thrive. End of story.”

    If it’s ONLY about economics, then “The Walking Dead” should be
    appealing to women with all their might. Because women (and children)
    are the great untapped market for mainstream comics. But since ‘The
    Walking Dead’ team is not trying to appeal to women – since they keep
    making decisions that appeal to straight men while also excluding
    women… there has to be something else going on. And that’s where
    unconscious biases come in.

    Like I said, I don’t think Kirkman and co. actively think “NO! NO women
    must EVER READ OUR COMICS! Let’s sell to PLAYBOY!” But I think that
    they… just haven’t considered women as a potential market (because
    women can’t possibly like comics! They only like pink! And cupcakes!
    /sarcasm/). Or that they’re not interested in putting the work required
    to appeal to women. Either consciously, or unconsciously, their
    decisions continue to marginalize women. And if Kirkman and co. don’t
    care, that’s their business (and it’s a terrible business decision). But
    again… let’s not pretend that’s not happening here. Because it is.

  • Amanda Jean Carroll

    Why showcase your strongest female character in a magazine so few females read? 
    The TV show hasn’t been kind to their female characters in terms of bad-assitude so far, and this is just… more of the same.