Saving The Superheroes

What do you see when you first look at a comic book cover? That 7 seconds of a first impression is all that’s needed to make a judgement call. You might use it to gauge the tone of the story, based on where the characters are and what they’re doing. With something like Amazing Spider-Man #400, you’ll jump to an easy conclusion with the “Death in the Family” etched tombstone on the cover. In a case like X-Men Vol 2 #24, you might be curious as to how romance blooms as Gambit and Rogue embrace each other. Action. Humor. Tension. Desperation. Whatever feeling is evoked – it belongs to you. But in recent years, the illustrations that grace the front of a comic have come under fire with recent scandal.

Cover art is the target of controversy in the industry today, with critics claiming that some women are depicted in a compromising way. One side of the debate is focused on diversity in both the medium and the workplace, while the other just wants artists to be allowed to do what they want without having to worry about the ramifications. It’s a challenge to understand this debacle at first, but there’s actually a bit of history to it, spanning back to the 1950s. The Comics Code Authority normalized and officiated censorship of the medium, after American fears about the effects on children boiled over thanks to the media outlets of the time.  The government got the heads of the Comic market together and ordered them to sort it out among themselves. This CCA controlled the content and tone of comic products in the following few decades. But comic book makers grew out of this habit of self-policing, making the scares of the past nothing more than a bad memory.

But history has a way of repeating itself. With the dawn of the internet, the position of the press is renewed. With everyone interconnected on social media, journalists are able to interact with industry folks at the touch of a button, and vice versa. It’s a new world. But with the same old set of problems. The variables may have changed, but the stakes of censorship are the same.

To understand where comics are today, we have to understand where they came from. 

To keep things simple, a brief history of comic book heroes over the past years has been organized into this graph.  The Golden Age started in 1938 and lasted until 1954. This is the era where superheroes were born, with the dawn of Superman. Comics were widely popular through World War II, but post-war scares caused the government to order comic companies to police themselves, giving rise to the Comics Code Authority in October 1954. The Silver Age was the peak of the CCA, which placed heavy regulations on the content that comic books were allowed to have. The storylines ended up being more nonsensical as a result. The era saw the rise of Stan Lee and Marvel – who was able to successfully undermine the Comics Code Authority in 1971, the regulations were relaxed a bit. This was the start of the Bronze Age. Reprints start happening. Tie-ins with other media projects become more commonplace, most notable example being Star Wars. Modern Comics paved the way for what we see now. Todd McFarlane’s 1990 Spider-Man series was a success in part due to the usage of variant covers, which the avid buyers of the comic market gravitated to.

Not only did the cover art itself change throughout the decades, but the stories that were told in the comic book pages had gone through an evolution too. Alpha Flight #106 in March 1992 had the Canadian superhero Northstar come out as gay. Gwen Stacy’s death (Amazing Spider-Man #121|June 1973). By the time we see the meta commentary of the Watchmen series, there’s a clear display of the figurative depth the medium was able to achieve. DC pushed their limits to such an extent, they had to hit the reset button on everything more than once. They even killed off Superman in October 1992/early 1993 after a long battle with Doomsday.

The history of comics demonstrates different eras of creative expression. The openness of the Golden Age came to a close after the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. This set of guidelines that various publications were obligated to adhere with was the byproduct of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, which assumed there was a correlation between crime/violence and comic books. 

But how did the government get involved? To understand why things got to that point, context of the time period is necessary.

Most historians and other commentators who discuss this time period tend to quote The Chicago Daily News editorial entitled A National Disgrace (And a Challenge to American Parents), published in their newspapers on May 8, 1940.

 “Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.”

When the 1950s came around, the comic book industry faced heavy controversy from the public. This pushback would put a damper on the popularity of the medium. The war against comics was waged by a German psychiatrist named Dr. Fredric Wertham. He’d lead the public protest against comic books, and go on to leave an even larger dark mark on the medium’s legacy.

Fredric’s path started back in 1932 when he was working with New York hospitals as a psychiatrist. The experiences Wertham had in those decades as a clinical director formed the foundation of his ideology, as he grew interested in studying the effects of media on his youth clients. The American 1950s were a period of Cold War tension and paranoia, which Wertham used to sway people to his point of view. From 1945 he had crusaded against comics in the years leading to that Senate Hearing. He was spotted in a March 1948 academic paper titled the “The Psychopathology of Comic Books”, and magazines like Saturday Review of Literature, Family Circle, and Collier’s Magazine had features on him. This media spotlight heightened the comic book scare, and that’s how comic book burnings became more commonplace.

In an essay from The Times Record, the author reflects on his grade school years back in Autumn 1948. At age ten, the writer was a comic book fanatic. But their reading teacher caught on to what the author and other kids spent their time doing, and organized a comic book burning bonfire to “save” the youth from this new kind of illiteracy. Further reading on how tensions rose can be found here and here. But if you want to dive in deep exploring this time period, David Hajdu’s book The Ten Cent Plague – The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America is the best resource.

The media had backed the Comic Book Industry into a corner before the hearings even began. The public’s attention was stirred up by magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal after they published a preview of Seduction of the Innocent in one of their issues. The book (published in 1954) attacked comics as the source of degeneracy in the American youth. Assertions he made included the notion that Batman and Robin were gay for each other, and Wonder Woman was a lesbian. Here’s an assortment of examples used in the book.

Uncle Sam would respond with a concentrated effort to sanitize comic books, in hopes that it would address the juvenile delinquency issue the country was facing at the time.  An effort began back in 1948 with the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers, but the regulations at that time (based on the Hays Code for movies) lacked any sort of enforcement to them. Determined to try again, the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency were held in New York in April and June of that year. The focus of the investigation explored the genres of horror and crime comics in particular. Wertham was in attendance. 

A transcript of his testimony preserves the arguments he made to the courts back then:

If it were my task, Mr. Chairman, to teach children delinquency, to tell them how to rape and seduce girls, how to hurt people, how to break into stores, how to cheat, how to forge, how to do any known crime, if it were my task to teach that, I would have to enlist the crime comic book industry.

Formerly to impair the morals was a minor was a punishable offense. It has now become a mass industry. I will say that every crime of delinquency is described in detail and that if you teach somebody the technique of something you, of course, seduce him into it.

What came out of these hearings? The Senate told the Comic Industry to sort it out themselves. “A competent job of self-policing within the industry will achieve much,” according to officials at the time. Thus, the Comics Code Authority was born.

William M Gaines did an interview with The Comics Journal where he reflected on that period of his life. He tried to gather comics publishers together for a plan of action meeting. Gaines pushed for an independent research effort to help determine if Wertham’s arguments had any merit.

It didn’t go as planned.

None of these guys wanted to do that, and right away the whole thing was taken away from me, and they turned it into a situation where they wrote a Code, and the Code forbade the use of the words horror, terror, or crime — this was all my books — and weird, even weird, [laughter] so that would wipe me out. So I didn’t join the association. But then I decided to drop all those books anyway and put out the New Direction stuff. I put out the six first issues, six bi-monthlies, and they sold 10, 15 percent. You can’t believe how horrendous the sales were. And I later found out that it was because the word was passed by the wholesalers, “Get ‘im!” So they got me.

As soon as I heard this I joined the Association. You’ll notice that from the second issue of each title on, I’m an Association member. So my sales went up from 10 to 20, but it was still disastrous.

As the publisher of EC comics, William’s company portfolio (Crime SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror, etc.) was under direct attack from the Comics Code. His relationship with it was short lived after his initial reluctant agreement to take the rules seriously. Gaines ended up resigning from the CMAA only one year after the rules were officially enacted. The exact circumstances around what pushed him over the breaking point aren’t clear. But, one of the stories out there claim Gaines submitted a comic that had a black astronaut with sweat running down his face – which caused the CMAA to reject it on the grounds they thought it was racist.

Gaines ended up starting MAD magazine after that, positioning himself in a place within the comics industry where he wasn’t stymied by the CCA guidelines.

But what exactly were the specific laws of this mysterious and omniscient authority that was made?

Adopted on October 26th, 1954. The way the tenets are broken down is apt in separating the various aspects of focus when it comes to comic book self-censorship. You had to meet the requirements of the authority in order to get the seal, if you didn’t you had to revise your work or shelve it altogether. There was no legal power behind the seal, but the “code approved” comic book distributors wouldn’t agree to publish an issue without that stamp. 

To analyze the effects of the Comics Code Authority from the financial aspect, a post on Marvel and DC sales figures lets us peer inside the numbers for the period. Around the time the Code of Comics Authority came into effect, the stat totals take a plunge. Long term, the Golden Age generation of comics would become a valuable commodity for enthusiasts and collectors. But the social impact of the Code would also fall under the detrimental category. The industry was expected to police themselves, and they had spent the past two decades honing their craft when it came to big topics like horror, romance, and war stories. But their successful careers faced this upheaval by facing punishment if they didn’t toe a politically acceptable party line. Many comics folks ended up leaving the scene altogether because of the red tape.

As it applies to stories, places like Comic Book Legal Defense Fund are a great resource for deeper research into the medium’s push for enacting censorship.  Joe Sergi compiled examples of the immediate aftermath of the Comics Code arrival. If there were any reprints of old stories, publishers would have to make changes to their look in order to comply with the new system of rules. In the case of Race to the Moon #1, the story depictions are tamed to seem less grim. The protesting scientist who’s being forced into a rocket for launch into space originally said “he didn’t want to die,” but the reworked version that came out after the Comics Code Authority was made has that scientist simply saying “he didn’t want to go” on the trip. In another example – facial expressions change from depicting any fear, and the shop owner goes from being murdered to having his store robbed instead. A deeper analysis of the CCA’s rules affecting comics can be found here.

Between May and July 1971, Stan Lee released a three part arc in The Amazing Spider-Man series. Issues #96-98 were controversial for their time because of the inclusion of main characters dealing with the effects of drug abuse. Lee says he got a letter from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that urged him to use his comic book influence and tell a story about the dangers of drugs.

Stan Lee attempted to get the Comics Code seal of approval on the series, but he was stopped.

And when they were reading these [Spider-Man] stories, before they would put the seal of approval on the magazine, they said, ‘oh no, you can’t do this story.’ And I said, ‘why?’ They said, ‘according to the rules of the Code Authority, you can’t mention drugs in a story.’ And I said, ‘Look we’re not telling kids to take drugs, this is an anti-drug theme.’ [They said,] ‘Oh no it doesn’t matter, you mention drugs.’ And I said, ‘but the Department of Health Education and Welfare, a government agency, asked us to do it.’ and they said, ‘it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs.’

The story was notable in the history of comic books because it broke the expectations and norms of the time period. The incident actually prompted the Comics Code Authority to relax their rules a bit.

At a glance, the 1954 Comics Code and 1971 revision seem to be identical. But if you take a closer look between the two you see careful changes were made throughout the document. Stories about addictions have to be presented as a “vicious habit,” and comic book writers couldn’t emphasize the short-term (getting high) or long-term (selling drugs for cash) reasons people get involved with them. You could show crimes being committed if it was too implausible for lawbreakers to duplicate, vampires and spooky creatures could be depicted if they were similar to classical literature counterparts, the death of a law enforcement officer wasn’t frowned upon if they “lived a criminally guilty and terrible existence,” The newer Marriage/Sex bylaws consolidated the sanctity of marriage and respect for parents into “preserving the family unit,” and the rule stating that passion and romantic interest couldn’t be depicted as stimulating was taken out. But females were still supposed to be depicted in realistic fashion, with no sexually suggestive costumes allowed.

The Comics Code Authority rules were revised because society was changing over time. A key components of that was how comics were being distributed. Thanks to this industry timeline, the evolution of how comic books went from the company to the reader is easy to understand. Leading up to World War II, comics had a strong profitability and demand alongside newspapers. The start of the decline came after the CCA and continued through the 1960s as the new media kept the public’s eyes towards the TV.  In the 1970s, a new hope had arrived in the form of Phil Seuling. His distribution company would buy comic creator’s goods at the same rate as newsstands did, but he’d have a no return policy in place. This deal would give retailers a chance against newsstands for selling comic books to the public. Irjax Enterprises would sue Seagate in 1978 for what they believed was a monopoly, resulting in the  doors of the direct market being opened for any aspiring distributor to deal with the comic makers. This gave the comic book industry their second wind. Shops were appearing at a rapid pace, and by the 1980s comic book creators could explore stories beyond the reach of the Comics Code Authority. The erosion of importance and relevance of the CCA continued through the 90s and 2000s era. 

The final stake in the heart of it was when the internet happened. With the New 52 relaunch at DC Comics, the outlet of digital distribution for these upcoming issues was given mainstream focus. The only thing that gave the Comics Code Authority any power was the ability for wholesale distributors to reject publishing. With the advancement of technology and market opportunities, that grip they had over comic creators was taken away from them. New publishers had no reason to join the group because of the lack of financial consequence if they refused. The oldest companies deviated from the rules to publish other content as they saw fit. The death of the Comics Code Authority was slow – with the political and economic value of it being eroded by time itself.

The natural evolution for industry giants was to make their own content approval system. Marvel did that in 2001 and Bongo jumped ship in 2010. DC and Archie Comics were the last holdouts, and by the end of January 2011 both of these companies would discontinue it. In the statements made by each of them, they reveal that the CCA had become nothing more than a symbolic gesture. With the dawn of the digital age it was time to take their editorial guidelines in-house.

But history would repeat itself, as comic books came under attack again. The same sort of hysteria and outrage that fueled the late 1940s and early 50s would be reborn. The opportunities for exchanging ideas and information on the internet would set the stage for the new battleground of debate.

In the past few decades, comic books were able to redefine themselves in the public eye. They weren’t seen as hazardous materials that needed to be burned, but instead as a medium with a rich and colorful history to it that was worthy of people’s attention. In one form or another, comics had a governing authority that regulated themselves. When that was removed from the equation, a vacuum of power was created.

What’s the thought process behind protesting against comic book covers? According a recent piece by The Mary Sue:

When comics fans complain about a particular variant cover, it’s less about the individual artist, and more about the company that lets certain sexist covers get through editorial for public consumption. And let’s be clear, when you’re only drawing female characters in sexual ways, that’s inherently sexist. You are objectifying the female form in a way you are not objectifying the male form. And sure, you could argue that “Hey, we’re straight men! We’re drawing what we like!” But it’s not like anyone’s hiring gay male or straight female artists to draw male characters in a sexualized fashion. The comics environment is clearly lopsided in favor of cis straight men–many of whom get upset when fans, and later the companies they work for, try to level the field a bit. God forbid they have their privilege taken away from them for a second.

This general mindset serves as the rule-of-thumb for why these controversies break out online.

Catwoman #0 Cover (June 12th 2012): The story of artist Guillem March’s Catwoman cover controversy arose when the previews for a number of different The New 52 DC stories was happening, and that was an overall relaunch by DC comics of their collection of superheroes and storylines. Basically, the setup and format of the Catwoman cover wasn’t limited to them alone. A similar unified look was forecasted for nearly all the issues being published that upcoming September. But she was signaled out, nonetheless. Places like The Mary Sue and Uproxx blasted the proportions of the Heroine’s pose as outrageous, using internet drawings that were posted on social media as an outlet for their outrage this time.

“Teen Titans” #1 (April 11th 2014): The outrage over this cover is depicted in a piece on CBR titled Anatomy of a Bad Cover: DC’s New “Teen Titans” #1, which indicated how far along the public debate over comic book covers was going by 2014. The writer of the piece, Janelle Austin, starts  by saying there’s no thought put into superhero comic covers. She says the cover for Teen Titans #1 was a failure for DC Comics to do their job with it, and specifically calls out artist Kenneth Rocafort as well. Their purpose is to draw audiences in, while giving an idea of the story inside. But then the article’s direction takes a left turn, as the author goes on to say the inherent flaws of the Teen Titans cover are due to the physical characteristics of the people on it. They open their remarks by saying “Wonder Girl’s rack” is the elephant in the room – the overall anatomy issues with the image in general are trumped by the allegedly disproportionate breasts on a teen girl. They close their piece by summing up the ordeal as a failure to represent diversity and improper marketing. The only statistical piece of evidence they mention is that the Teen Titans Facebook page has 260,000 out of 500,000 female followers.

Spider-Woman #1 Variant Cover (August 18th 2014): Comic Book Resources got an exclusive look (provided directly by Marvel) at covers for different upcoming Spider-Man stories at the time. One of those was for a Spider-Woman arc, which had featured a variant cover drawn by Milo Manara. The next day, The Mary Sue responded with Marvel, This Is When You Send An Artist Back To The Drawing Board, which had Jill Pantozzi expressing her concerns about it. She describes the situation as misogynistic in her opening statements. When introducing the cover, they depict  the image as a “warning” to run away from Marvel’s attempts for new female centric titles. Bringing up Milo Manara’s career with erotic art, Jill says the Spider-Woman pose is nearly identical to a depiction in one of Milo’s erotic works. But what’s different about the Spider-Woman controversy was the fact that more outlets began to acknowledge the spectacle as it was happening. Vox echoed the things said initially by The Mary Sue, while Time said the situation was something that Marvel needed to apologize for. A popular rebuttal was mentioning the case of The Amazing Spider-Man #30 (1999), where the male hero is making a similar pose on that cover. Any chance of the incident dying down on its own was diminished when Dan Slott took to Twitter to respond to everything. This in turn would cause The Mary Sue to double down on their message to the comic book community in a follow-up piece. The quoting choices used by The Mary Sue differed to Slott’s actual tone and argument chronologically. The Mary Sue piece (also) omits any mention of, is the fact that Dan Slott actually responded to Jill directly. Dan Slott emphasized the argument wasn’t just about variant covers, but the attacks on an artist’s style that happened alongside that. Marvel editor in chief BB made a statement at the end of that August, apologizing for any mixed messaging the public had received.

Batgirl #41 Variant Cover (March 16th 2015): The most high-profile comic book cover to-date came with this one, which takes inspiration from The Killing Joke Batman story where the Joker shoots Batgirl and paralyzes her, and went to a great effort to try and push Commissioner Gordon to insanity. Donna Dickens showed up at Hitfix with a piece on the matter titled Has DC lost their mind with the BATGIRL #41 variant cover, where she chastised DC for the move. A writer on the project, Cameron Stewart, publicly stated “The cover was not seen or approved by anyone on Team Batgirl and was completely at odds with what we are doing with the comic,” in a tweet at the time. The conversation exploded onto social media when #SaveTheCover and #ChangeTheCover hashtags were used on Twitter. Representing the two sides of the public debate, arguments went on for months about the merits and consequences of the artwork. Some of the points raised by #SaveTheCover included the double standards that didn’t apply to cases where Batman himself was in bondage and he and Robin faced other positions of disempowerment. Parodies were made that looked at the situation from different angles. But at the end of it all, the artist who made it saw the fighting and decided to take it down himself. In a statement given the night of March 16th 2015 to Comic Book Resources, Rafael Albuquerque said he really admired The Killing Joke’s artistic depiction of “the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker.” But the overwhelming public response fighting to save or change it made Rafael realize his cover hit a sensitive topic of discussion. He ended up telling DC to pull it from publishing in June with the Batgirl issue.

Frank Cho Spider Gwen Sketch (April 5th 2015): In this particular instance, this wasn’t even a variant cover. Rather, comic book artist Frank Cho made a sketch cover that paid homage to the Spider-Woman cover controversy of 2014. It was presented as nothing more than a “fun doodle” to get Cho out of a creativity block he was having at the time. The Mary Sue response, as seen in Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should, develops the overall comic book cover controversy discussion even further. The author of the article wasn’t mad about something outrageous being depicted, but rather the fact that the outrage itself was being satirized. On the 7th, the creator of the Spider-Gwen comic that Cho was referencing responds. Robbi Rodriguez took to Twitter about it. “Your drawing dirty pics of one of my kids. Be lucky your never around me,” he tweeted. By the 8th, Cho would post a follow-up. Frank said he didn’t expect the response that resulted from his initial sketch, and that he thought he was now dealing with “a small group of angry and humorless people ranting against my DRAWING of a pretty woman,” according to his description. Alongside this post, he presented his blanket response to the avalanche of interview requests and questions that were sent his way. A picture. In this newest one, he drew Harley Quinn doing the same pose. The dialogue exchange between her and the Joker takes a jab at internet outrage. Following up after calling Cho a “fucktard” on Twitter, Rodriguez elaborated on his stance via Facebook. He said that he enjoyed the work of people like Milo Manara, but Rodriguez personally thought that the context was important during a time when people are fickle about sexual expression. He goes on to say the comic book industry was getting more readers, and he couldn’t bare how cringey it was to sign them for fans in the presence of these new readers.

Everything came to a head towards the end of October 2016. The community got into an uproar about an Iron Man cover by J. Scott Campbell.

A teenaged (15 years old) African-American girl named Riri Williams is the leading lady in the new Invincible Iron Man storyline. But The Mary Sue wrote Dear Marvel: Stop Sexualizing Female Teenage Characters Like Riri Williams. Love, Everyone on the 19th, lambasting a variant cover of the debut issue by J. Scott Campbell as being guilty of sexualizing the female protagonist’s appearance.

Steph Will (host of a Pop Culture podcast called the @lemonadeshow) made it a racial issue, debating on Twitter about the ramifications to the colored community this Iron Man variant would have. Donna Dickens of Hitfix was the other leading voice in making the argument. She wrote An ‘Iron Man’ Cover Is The Latest Example Of Why Pinup Artists Shouldn’t Draw Teenagers on the site, but took to Twitter to further discuss the matter.

Let me be frank. This is gross. I have a fifteen-year-old. They are caught in the hellscape that is transitioning from a child to an adult. It is gangly and awkward and full of rightful angst over this strange metamorphosis. But as grown-up, as they feel, a fifteen-year-old is not an adult. They are children. (Sorry, son). Riri Williams is a child. Both legally and emotionally. So why hire J. Scott Campbell, known for his pin-up work, to draw her? Campbell has some beautiful work in his portfolio, but this was not the time or place for his style. Even as a variant cover, sexualizing a young teenage girl is not a good look.

She uses this “Think of the Children” argument to claim Comic Books as a medium have this recurring issue. Donna cites Kate Bishop of the Young Avengers, the new 52 era portrayal of Wonder Girl, a variant cover of Supergirl from a August 2004 comic (which is noted by collectors as a rare item, which makes the implication of it being a mainstream cover questionable), and a Powerpuff Girls piece as all being part of a problem.

What unfolded in the same timeframe was comic book writer Chelsea Cain would quit Twitter due to what the media says was a harassment problem. Lasting 8 issues before cancellation (a practice that’s common to comic book series), Cain’s Mockingbird told the story of feminist superhero Bobbi Morse. It’s set in the Agents of SHIELD part of the universe, having involvement with the TV show in some capacity.

The kerfuffle began when Cain made a tweet asking people to purchase the eighth issue, with had a picture attached of the cover. “Ask me about my feminist agenda,” the protagonist’s shirt says. This caught the attention of a fairly sizeable part of the internet from people who feel obligated to throw in their two cents in on it. She announced on the 17th that the eighth issue would be the last. In the days that followed, the public conversation grew too much for Cain to care about, and she chose to leave the social media site.

The problem people have expressed concerns about is the lack of specific examples cited when depicting the harassment Chelsea Cain was said to have faced. The Oregonian lists 2 negative tweets made about the situation in their article. The Daily Dot uses the topic to talk about general sexism in the Comic Industry instead. Entertainment Weekly lists tweets of support she received from a hashtag that was made as a response to the controversy. How are readers going to understand what to look out for if they don’t see it themselves? When comic artist Eric Basaldua was found unexpectedly naked in bed at an anonymous female artist’s hotel room at HeroesCon in 2011, the cited testimonies and physical evidence provided when describing the incident help verify that such a harrowing ordeal had indeed occurred.

On October 27th, Cain wrote a blog post letter that explained what happened and the reason she had for leaving Twitter. She claims she was tagged thousands of times.

But know that I did not leave Twitter because of rape threats or because someone had posted my address, or any of the truly vile tactics you hear about.  I left Twitter because of the ordinary daily abuse that I decided I didn’t want to live with anymore. The base level of casual crassness and sexism. 

Sure, by the time I deactivated my account on Thursday morning, the whole thing had imploded.  And I bet that some of the thousands of posts on my feed were really really vicious.  But I don’t know.  Because you know what?  I didn’t read them.  That’s the power we have, right?  If a stranger yells at you on the street?  You walk away.

Let me be clear: I did not leave Twitter because I was trolled; I was trolled because I said I was going to leave Twitter.  I left Twitter because, in the end, all the good stuff about Twitter didn’t make up for all the bad stuff.

That was that.

Criticizing the work of J Scott Campbell was perfectly fine. But social media critique of Chelsea Cain wasn’t allowed? Thus is the crux of the current issue in the world of comics. There’s the face of it, and also what lies beneath. Every one of the problems going on right now in that industry are entangled with one another, with the missteps of the medium’s distant past echoing into today’s generation.

It was a battle involving the public, the media, and the creators of comics. The internet presented the opportunity for the comic community to be more interconnected. The journalists used that to push into comic criticism and analysis, to help supplement their coverage. In theory, this sounds straightforward. But with the amount of instantaneous feedback and daily activity that’d happen daily, it also presented a chance for these interactions between groups to get out of control and dramatic. The creators just wanted to make good art, but the media took it upon themselves to try and start a conversation about the direction of the medium.

Returning to what was mentioned earlier, Donna Dickens of HitFix was one of the main forces behind protesting against the Iron Man variant cover. She defines her job as “an entertainment journalist. I cover Hollywood and feminism,” according to a tweet. Dickens recently acknowledged the notion she can use her position in the Comics Industry to make demands out of it. Even before the variant cover controversy started up, Dickens seemed dissatisfied that the series had “white male creators” when it was first announced. If one glances into their tweets, they’d see Dickens does this sort of thing on a regular basis. She has a tendency to comment on any piece of media that they interpret as sexist in some way. When they talk about Marvel and the comics industry, Donna paints herself as someone who believes they know better than the companies do. But in her defense, Dickens is passionate about the comics medium. They make a point of balancing out diversity talk by going over the importance of marketing concerns. The mainstream fixation on the medium might be the film adaptations, but Donna still remembers where these blockbuster flicks came from. 

Donna crosses the line when she starts directly attacking people’s careers. Trying to making an industry employee feel embarrassed for their artwork,  telling companies not to hire certain artists, and drudging up the distant past of comic creators in order to cause drama. When she found out that Frank Cho was apparently doing a variant cover for Wonder Woman Rebirth #1, she labeled it as a “not to buy” item. But Donna wouldn’t leave it at that – going to call Frank Cho a “racist grandpa,” and attack DC Comics over their decision to give contract work to him.

Later on, Dickens would continue their campaign of trying to push Frank Cho out of a job. “I’m so pleased Frank Cho & Milo Manara doubled down on their creepy schtick. Please boys, make it harder to justify your employment,” she writes.

When it comes to other examples of media critics, the case of the (now former) Editor in Chief at The Mary Sue is another example. As mentioned earlier, marvel comic writer Dan Slott had criticized Jill Pantozzi for her method of public criticism against a fellow artist. She’s vocal about harassment in the comics community, and treads the line when it comes to separating “an abuser” in the industry from their work. Jill is keenly aware of that artist-to-art protective relationship when it comes to criticism, but there’s supporting evidence that she uses her position to dictate the community conversation. “If artists don’t want to be given direction perhaps they should stop taking work for hire at companies with IP to protect,” she once tweeted.

Jill Pantozzi would cross the line when an incident with the Calgary Expo happened in April 2015. Alison Tieman (founder of a group called the Honey Badgers) is a comic artist, known for their Xenospara series. Due to a disagreement involving personal politics and an accusation of “starting shit with panelists,” the Honey Badgers booth was forced to leave Calgary Expo. The way that the situation was handled became the grounds of a legal fight between both parties, which is scheduled to go to trial on January 12th 2017. Tieman would eventually recount the incident in detail via a Reddit timeline, explaining why she and the Honey Badger Brigade believed they had grounds to sue.

There was an official partnership of some kind between Calgary Expo and The Mary Sue, due to the jointly-ran cosplay contest show they were scheduled to put on during the event. Connecting the Honey Badger Brigade group to GamerGate, Jill Pantozzi asserts that the group ran a crowdfunding campaign under false pretenses, claiming that the fact Honey Badger Brigade founder Alison Tieman signing up for vendor/exhibitor status using her webcomic site (for Calgary Expo – a Comic convention) – that alone was apparently grounds for expulsion from the Expo.

Mentioning that Honey Badger radio was broadcast by A Voice for Men, Jill brings up the fact that details for the group’s convention plans were available on their website. This is what Jill says was the website’s description of the group. This is the description written on April 13th 2015 from A Voice for Men.

“HBR is a space for all points of view, regardless of political or religious affiliation,” is a part of that which is absent from Jill Pantozzi’s version.

When it came to the disruption allegation, which apparently occurred at the Women into Comics panel. Jill had a quote from about it from panelist Brittney Le Blanc. The first half talks about how two members involved with the Honey Badger Brigade questioned the panel about the portrayal of men and women in comics, and the different perceptions behind how that is carried out in a story. While the interaction may have been heated in Brittney’s perspective, she remarked that it helped spark a discussion about how people of colour are represented in comics.The second half describes Brittney’s thoughts and disappointment that this whole controversy happened at all. She alleges the Brigade’s intent was “to stand up and have their say,” based on a video they posted at the time. But Brittney also admits she didn’t watch the video from start to finish.

Did Jill Pantozzi put the Calgary Expo in a compromising situation as a result of how this situation was handled? Jill finished her piece by asserting the right of Calgary Expo to kick anyone out without a refund, which makes it a matter of perception. Whatever or not it was justified is an argument that’s being left up to the courts – but is the legal fallout itself something that Jill was responsible for causing? By allegedly intervening with the situation personally, Pantozzi changed the course of events. Based on their response when dealing with someone who had a different political point of view, the time and money spent with litigation afterward may not have had to come to pass.

A final outspoken player in comics media critique is Andrew Wheeler, the Editor-in-chief of the Comics Alliance. His hyperfocus on trying to change comic book culture as a whole is prominent in his tweets. Although Andrew prides himself as a champion of diversity, he finds conservative women “disturbing” emotionally. Often focused on the hiring practices of Marvel, when it comes to women and minorities – when it came to the casting for Iron Fist Andrew expressed his disappointment by saying “Hey, congrats on your tired, lazy, colonialist, white supremacist bullshit, Marvel,” in a tweet. In a jab at one of the executives, Wheeler said “Marvel doing an AIDS walk? Does Joe Quesada know the point of an AIDS walk is to fight AIDS? I know how much he likes his dead homosexuals.” He wanted people to “take some photos of LGBTQ people and tape them to Marvel’s windows,” allegedly. Back in November 2015, he demanded people resign from Marvel if adult Iceman wasn’t gay. “I feel despised by Marvel,” he laments.

Wheeler went after Dan Slott on occasion, but other comic book industry folks would have run-ins with him as well.  A notable occurrence was the feud between Andrew and Nick Spencer. He writes Captain America and Ant-Man comics – a position that drew Wheeler’s ire whenever he made story choices. In January 2016, the two clashed over the reveal of Steve Rogers returning as Captain America. Andrew wanted Sam Wilson to be the sole hero with that title (“for the sake of diversity”), and the idea of having two people associated with it was seen as “bad optics,” according to Wheeler.

The conversation rebounded towards the end of May when Spencer revealed the twist that Captain America was an agent of Hydra in the upcoming arc. The controversial move ticked off the comic book community, causing an onslaught of death threats to be sent in Nick’s direction online. Any hope for constructive discourse is squandered when Wheeler withdraws himself and accuses Spencer of “painting a target” on him, and claims Nick launched a “harassment campaign” against him because Spencer responded to something Wheeler was saying.

Wheeler doesn’t solely identify himself as a fan of comic books. The other motive he has to try and increase diversity in the industry by whatever means necessary. Which was actually what Dan Slott highlighted in a deleted tweet, where Wheeler says comic creators need to “”look past themselves a little bit,” when it comes to death threats. Andrew Wheeler took the real issue of comic book creators getting death threats, and he made it all about himself. He tells Nick Spencer to “go to hell” for misrepresenting him. 

What we know for sure is that people say there is a harassment problem in the Comics Industry, and it tends to deter the ability to carry out a critical discussion of the medium’s faults without unnecessary distractions.

Janelle Asselin, who wrote a piece criticizing that Teen Titans cover mentioned earlier, also wrote about the backlash she received after publishing.

The article about TT #1 ran at comics site Comic Book Resources and as soon as it was posted, the low-level hum of misogyny began. The commenters doubted my credentials and my secret “agenda.” I was accused of being a disgruntled former employee. Feminist was used as a dirty word at least half a dozen times toward me and there were a few bonus “feminazi”s thrown in for good measure. I was accused of trying to make superhero comics something they are not. Most of those who disagreed with me got stuck on my two (out of 14) paragraphs about the teen in the foreground having large, unrealistically shaped breasts.

Janelle’s criticisms were aimed at the piece, and the reader’s responses had negative feedback to them. When Asselin made a follow-up survey about the topic of harassment, some of the responses she got from people online made their insults personal, sometimes even threatening.

That public to author relationship and vice versa aspect of the harassment argument is one thing. But when a dispute emerges between industry professionals it’s a whole different story. A collection of workplace harassment about that was compiled here.

Someone felt obligated to create a blacklist of people in the comic industry they label as creeps. “The more pressure on publishers to kick creeps out of comics, the better,” they write. Actually, according to what they themselves call “Comicreep,” it’s run by a group of three women.

They explain it more on their website:

If you or someone you know is dealing with harassment, in a workplace, a convention, or even a comic book shop, documentation is your first line of defense (unless you have superpowers, then, you know, maybe go with those.) We know how you feel: The first impulse is to escape, to delete, to want to pretend that someone else’s gross behavior never happened and move on with your life. If that’s what you need to do to stay safe and healthy, do that. But if you feel you safely can, keep proof. Get that IRL bastard on camera. Screengrab that grossly inappropriate email. Go public. Refuse to be silenced. And if anyone gives you shit about posting your proof for the world instead of going to the authorities, tell them we’ve seen what the authorities do about things like this and we are not impressed.

There’s a distinction between court of law and the court of public opinion. The former is an official investigation into law-breaking activities, resulting in a final decision from a judge and/or jury. Innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. The latter “system of justice” is motioned by whoever speaks the loudest and is capable of convincing *anyone in the public* to perceive it as truth.

When the website list came online at the end of April 2016, The Mary Sue and Bleeding Cool wrote about it. They tell us that the person who made it was Rachel Sharp, and she put together the website that’s described as “a resource for harassment victims and their allies,” according to The Mary Sue piece. The author is careful in separating Sharp’s point of view from their publication, stating that the list of comics professionals and their alleged behaviors is reason enough for her to not support their work.

Now, keep in mind that boycotts in comics are tricky things, because they don’t only affect their targets. They affect everyone working on a book, so use your conscience and your best judgement. Also, keep in mind that this list is not so that people can go harass the people named on the list. (Sharp explicitly discourages this.) The list is strictly to be used as a resource. That’s the spirit with which it has been posted, and the spirit with which we here at TMS advise that it should be used. It’s defense, not offense.

Key things need to be considered when it comes to making lists like this. The intent behind starting it, and the separation of involvement between the list makers and the news sites it aggregates from.

“I just realized that the list of men in comics who have publicly committed sexual harassment/assault is so long I’m losing track. Not okay,” Sharp tweeted in the days before starting her website. With Sharp’s focus on men specifically, it alludes to the possibility the list is focused solely to keep men out of work in comics.

Their goal? “If comics can go even a year without a newsworthy incident of harassment or assault, we’ll shutter the whole site,” apparently. People reacted to this by saying “You can say it’s not a blacklist, but it looks and quacks like a blacklist. And people are very likely going to use it that way,” in response.

The separation between the list maker and the media was removed when Jill Pantozzi, now former Editor in Chief of The Mary Sue (she had moved on to work at Hitfix Harpy with Donna Dickens in March 2016), publicly motioned their support of this comic industry blacklist – going as far as to make an effort to add someone else’s name to it. By directly inserting themselves with the project’s work, and not acting independently of that, goes beyond the realm of what’s considered appropriate use of position and power as a public figure.

“they are now deciding if they will add him to the list based on the Outhousers link I sent them yesterday,” she tweeted. On June 7th 2016, Comicreep acknowledged the link was brought to their attention. As of today, it’s what the website links to on their blacklist page.

What do comic book companies themselves think about the incidents Comicreep highlights? According to a statement made by Dark Horse President, Mike Richardson, in response to an incident involving Scott Allie at the time:

I also want to make one thing very clear: Dark Horse as a company, and myself as an individual, take the kinds of inexcusable incidents reported by Ms. Asselin very seriously—doubly so when it involves one of our employees. In cases such as these, we have been proactive in our response, with a variety of professional services involved, all with the goal of changing behavior. Additionally, a number of internal responses are acted upon, including termination if such behavior continues. Under no circumstance is any individual “harbored.” In this particular case, action was taken immediately, though we did not, and cannot, perform a public flogging, as some might wish.

Secondly, there is no “us-against-them” attitude here. I have an open door policy and every employee, no matter where she/he sits in the company, is invited to come in to my office with any complaint or observation, at any time. I restate this policy constantly. I won’t go into the assumptions made here that are just untrue, because my intent is not to undermine the purpose of her piece, but no one here has ever turned a “blind eye” to these behaviors, not in this case, not in any case. With regard to sexual harassment, it is simply not tolerated. Dark Horse agrees 100% with the EEOC Guidelines.

The definition of harassment may be an ambiguous term, with the perception changing based on point of view. The list puts actual criminal acts (one guy was arrested for murder) alongside harassment cases and treating them as equal offenses goes against what the law itself says. Comicreep responds to this by stating “Abusers escalate. We know this. Yet we don’t take harassment/assault seriously until that same guy kills someone,” in a tweet.

If the Comics media were to entangle themselves directly in those affairs, they’re creating an undue influence on the subjects they’re supposed to be reporting on without bias.

The conversation about harassment is still important to have, but a clearer distinction of the facts in those matters is necessary. If a woman feels uncomfortable in the workplace, they have every right to speak up about it and tell their stories. Places like The Mary Sue, The Daily Dot, and the comics media are simply doing their jobs by reporting on them. The reason why Rachel Sharp made this list was because she believed the comics industry wasn’t proactive enough about dealing with it.

But taking it a step too far does more harm than good. Getting too absorbed into fighting one another for solutions and change, we all stand the risk of losing the end results that were desired in the first place.

The controversy surrounding comic book covers is interconnected to the past history of the medium, in addition to the present tug-of-war of ideas on the internet today. Was it possible that comics could’ve been extreme? Certainly. But the debate has gone out of control as the separation between an artist and their creation is removed. Advocating for diversity isn’t a bad thing. But obsession over it to the point of attacking the careers of comic artists and writers is another thing entirely. By drawing attention to certain comic book covers and labeling them as controversial, they gain more fame and recognition regardless. 

Brian Wood wrote a post online that made its way to Pastebin, and it goes over the current state of the Comic Book Industry. He was inspired to write it due to current events at that time, and it ends up describing the overall picture in a general sense.

A word I keep hearing people use around these events, and the larger goals they claim, is empathy.  Which is a good word and as a writer its an important, necessary, skill to have.  Its required when you write people who are very different to your own personality, or to people you know well.  You have to be able to humanize flawed people, bad people, and put yourself in their shoes and figure out how they might think.  And this push for diversity and inclusion and representation requires a good deal of empathy from everyone involved, and that needs to go both ways.

He goes on to talk about how he changed on a personal level when it came to interacting with others, thanks to his decision to do CrossFit.  Brain was someone with a socialist and liberal arts background, and he made friends with people with military and law enforcement backgrounds thanks to this CrossFit fitness program.

That experience is what made him be introspective to the situation in the Comic Book Industry. Continued:

But schadenfreude is the name of the game these days, and in this industry of people who refuse to put a ceiling, or even a definition, on what the proper punishment should be for transgressors, or people who believe that “persecution” (their word) is the same thing as due process, or that doxxing and similarly abusive tools are a-okay when deployed by a righteous mob… how can this end well?  How is this a unifying movement?  Answer: its not.  Instead people put up that popcorn-eating .gif and laugh.

That statement he makes about punishment mirrors the situation with the Comics Code Authority. The industry was in a position where they policed themselves, and the only defining factor of punishment for not following the CCA was refusal from wholesalers to cooperate. What started as an omniscient and all-knowing force of guidelines, had hole after hole poked into it over time as people worked around their restrictions. Which undermines the reason they were made in the first place.

The last thing that really needs to be said about this whole comic book controversy situation is how does the community move forward? On November 9th, J. Scott Campbell revealed a Riri Redux cover that didn’t have a pose which would upset some critics.

But why did he do it? According to Gizmodo:

Campbell clarified that the work wasn’t done at the behest of Marvel or Midtown, or really as a response to the controversy over his previous cover, but simply because he wanted to do it. But now the artwork will be the official Midtown Comics variant for Invincible Iron Man #2, after the store and Marvel reached out to Campbell to purchase the cover

Comic book artists are at their best when they have the freedom to do what they want when it comes to cover artwork. But if the community finds something objectionable about it, the best approach to enacting change is convincing the artist directly. If critics are able to respectfully express their point of view, then the artist is more easily convinced to consider that.

It’s all about respect on both sides.