Amidst harassment, indie comics publishers remain supportive of marginalized creators

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Feb 16, 2018

If you thought we were done with the endless clashes between so-called fans and creators after the dust of Gamergate finally settled, well, then you haven't been paying attention. In fact, it seems as though the campaign that had so many concerned about "ethics in game journalism" three years ago was simply the opening salvo in an ongoing battle between creators who strive for greater representation in various media and the longtime fans who would like it if things simply stayed the way they are.

What began on message boards and in places like Reddit and 4chan has gone on to affect nerd havens like science fiction literature, as demonstrated in the Sad Puppy takeover of the Hugo Awards in 2015 (though the Sad Puppies had started their vendetta two years previous) and has now made its way to the comic book industry. Its supporters refer to the "movement" as "Comicsgate."

Unless you're part of the comic book industry, are a journalist working in tandem with that industry, or are a member of the group itself, it's unlikely you've heard of it. That's because unlike with Gamergate — or even the Sad Puppy campaign at the Hugos — "Comicsgate"'s audience is very insular. There is no public debate about journalistic ethics (regardless of whether they have anything to do with the harassment of game developers) and no public takeover of what had previously been a civilized voting and nomination system. Instead, those involved in "Comicsgate" speak mostly to each other, rallying around a select number of Twitter and YouTube accounts where otherwise charismatic men lament the current state of the comic book industry, blaming a downtick in sales on what they see as forced diversity titles at major publishers like Marvel. 

In fact, Marvel Comics is one of the core components of the "Comicsgate" contingent's concerns, as the publisher has been largely open about its sales troubles in the last few years. One of the company's SVPs made waves last year when he claimed part of the problem was that audiences don't want to buy diverse titles. If you listen solely to those rallying behind "Comicsgate," then you might believe he is correct. Of course, if that were true, then a female Muslim-American hero wouldn't have become one of the publisher's most popular new additions of the last few years, Captain Marvel would still be a man, and the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl wouldn't be quite so unbeatable. 

Supporters of "Comicsgate" would have you believe that the inclusion of these characters — meaning women, POC, LGBTQ+ characters, many of whom have seen their books canceled in recent months — was all an attempt to shoehorn in politically correct, faux-progressive titles in an effort to pander to these diverse audiences at the expense of good storytelling. Another way to look at it, of course, is that, in a world where superhero movies and TV shows are becoming increasingly popular and lucrative, coupled with shifting societal conversations about race, sexuality, and gender, publishers are simply making an attempt to court new, younger, more diverse and progressive audiences by creating titles that feature characters that look like them, love like them, and deal with the same pressures and challenges that they do.

This whole ordeal began last year with a milkshake, when Marvel editor, Heather Antos, tweeted a now-infamous photo of herself and a handful of other women in the publisher's editorial division hanging out, drinking milkshakes after work. The innocent-enough tweet sparked a deluge of sexist responses and harassment as other users declared that this photo somehow represented what was wrong with comics these days. Antos reported receiving threatening messages in response to the tweet and in direct messages on the social media platform.

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Harassment—especially anonymous, online harassment lobbed at women, POC, and LGBTQ+ creators and activists—is nothing new in any industry. Most of those harassed, however, suffer in relative silence until every so often it reaches critical mass and spills over into a larger conversation. Such was the case a few months after the Antos incident. The exact timeline of the growing concern about specific harassers — who were rallying around a number of vocal critics of supposed SJW work — is fuzzy at best, as most of those reportedly being harassed are unwilling to speak on the record. But in September Mark Waid, a powerful voice in the comic book industry, published a few statements on his professional Facebook page condemning those anonymous harassers for escalating the issue and creating an environment in which said creators felt unsafe.

A section of that statement read:

The actual problem is that there are a large number of younger creators/professionals/staffers in this industry—a larger number than you could possibly imagine—who do not have that same privilege. They are being harassed repeatedly, and it’s getting worse. As I say, I’ve been talking with many of them over the last few weeks. These are not histrionic people. These are not overly dramatic people. They are reasonable adults, some of whom cannot speak out because of their employers. And yet they are legitimately frightened by harassers who threaten to come and find them at conventions, at stores, *at their homes.* One was told she should be burned to death. Another was told that she should be put down like a dog. And those are examples of some of the less hateful attacks. I have screencaps of all of this material, I’m looking at them right now, and they’re being dealt with by authorities, but that’s where we’re at. This is becoming commonplace, and I have reached the end of my patience.

Two days later, Vault Comics, an independent publisher out of Missoula, Montana, who publishes titles like Alien Bounty Hunter and Heathen, released its own statement supporting those creators.

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Public reaction to the statement was as mixed as you might expect. Many of Vault's fans, fans of comics in general, professionals and retailers applauded the statement of support, sharing thanks or their own words of solidarity with the publisher. Others offered skepticism that there was any harassment in the first place or demanded to see proof before accepting that there was a problem.

Speaking with SYFY Fangrrls in February 2018, four months after this statement was released, Vault Comics' CEO Damian Wassel called the statement an act of solidarity with creators, saying, "I recognize that to a lot of readers, that's a four-letter word that ought to be anathema to a businessperson. But Vault publishes creator-owned comics. We share in the success of our creators, and it's only fair that we share their burdens too. We hope that everyone who works with Vault knows that we'll support them to the ends of our resources. At the time we released the statement, we wanted to make sure everyone else knew our creators had someone standing beside them." Wassel was quick to add that the statement did not represent "an opening salvo against comics fans," who he called "an extraordinary audience; they are loyal, engaged, supportive, and deeply committed to the medium we all love."

When asked if the environment has changed since September, Wassel stated, "Those who confuse harassment for criticism tend also to mistakenly assume that their right to speak freely entails a corresponding duty on everyone else's part to listen. The truth is, no one owes them even the briefest second of attention. If the environment has changed, it has been in the following respect: the so-called trolls still rattle their sabers and growl from the periphery, but the rest of us grow steadily better at tuning them out."

And for publishers like Vault, that is certainly true. Indie publishers, those who publish creator-owned work, have long sought innovative work by up and coming creators, and at least in recent years, that has meant more work by women, POC and LGBTQ+ creators (and all the intersections therein). This year's GLAAD-nominated comic books include four from BOOM! Comics (more than either Marvel or DC), including Backstagers, Lumberjanes, Goldie Vance, and The Woods. Also on the list: Quantum Teens Are Go from Black Mask Studios, whose slate of books also include several books where women of color fill lead roles in science fiction stories and superhero narratives, and the widely lauded CALEXIT, a comic about American resistance to tyrannical rule. 

Titles from Black Mask Studios and Valiant Comics also made the shortlist of nominees for the 2017 Eisner Awards, one of the highest honors in the comics industry, both of those stories starring characters of highly underrepresented identities. Meanwhile, Image Comics, one of the largest creator-owned publishers in the business, continued to dominate at the annual awards, as series like Saga and Paper Girls, which place women at the front of their narratives, pulled in a number of nominations.

This isn't even touching on the number of creators finding an audience through self-published work or reaching new readers through even smaller publishers. Many of these creators are themselves women, POC, and LGBTQ+ creators who are working to tell stories from their own perspectives in their own communities—communities hungry to see themselves represented in the medium.

Harassment of marginalized creators has not ceased. In fact, it is unlikely to cease in any short period of time, as these creators become more vocal and their stories are offered larger platforms at bigger publishers. Comics readers who support this so-called "Comicsgate" movement are opposed to change in their longstanding industry, and these creators and their stories represent the core of that change. They continue to publish "blacklists" of creators, editors, and even members of the press in an attempt to warn their followers about those individuals who seek to unravel the industry they love.

The trouble is, if the continued commitment from these smaller publishers is any indication, the people they target aren't listening.