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Discussing harassment of comic creators with Valerie D'Orazio

Contributed by
Oct 8, 2018

It’s often said that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, and while the belief in rehabilitation and change is central to much progressive thought, it is still true that most actions, good or bad, have prior precedent. When Marvel Comics recently pulled Chelsea Cain’s Vision series, there was a backlash from Cain herself and from her many supporters, but for some longtime fans and creators alike, the incident recalled multiple prior stories of bad treatment, particularly among people who have found themselves at the heart of harassment campaigns.

One of those individuals was Valerie D’Orazio, who has worked for both DC and Marvel. D’Orazio was the subject of such an extensive and extreme harassment campaign for a single issue of The Punisher that she had written that she no longer felt safe or wanted in the world of comics. Despite a solid resume of prior work as an assistant editor, her move to writing comics for Marvel had come under an unreasonable level of public scrutiny from many. This was widely covered, but perhaps most importantly via her own blog where she has extensively recorded her experiences with harassment. Her story has been the subject of much discussion and was given an in-depth look in context of comics harassment overall in a piece by Emma Houxbois for Comicosity last year.

It’s been discussed in depth via various mediums that the harassment campaign had been assembled theoretically around Dorazio’s assumed inability to write superhero comics, but it began well before the comics in question were released and after she had already written as an editor and a blogger for some time. In fact, D’Orazio’s background for her interest in a career in comics was similar to that of most fans. In her words, “I was raised on comics. My dad bought me comics since I was a very small child, and I immediately took to them. I knew I wanted to work in comics since I was 8 or 9 years old. That was my goal.”

D’Orazio was approached by Marvel to pitch to them for lines that were to be takes on female characters by female creators. She was slated to do a Cloak and Dagger series with artist Irene Flores, but even after promoting the book at comic conventions, it was pulled after three scripts and much of the artwork on the first issue had been turned in. While this was going on, in the words of D’Orazio, “I was continually harassed on the internet by several people, the most notable was a guy named Chris Sims, who I had never met before, had no relationship with, but he seemed to really focus on me — a lot.”

D’Orazio went on to describe the events following the cancelation of the Cloak and Dagger series. “Axel Alonso offers me what he literally calls ‘a consolation prize.’ We’ll have you write an issue of Punisher MAX. I had an interest in the Punisher. I read Punisher comics when I was a kid. I’m thinking, alright, I’m going to make this work. So I’m writing pitches, and I’m thinking I’m going to write Frank Castle. He doesn’t want me to write Frank Castle. We’re going to write this new female character that you create. She’ll be a hitwoman. We’ll go through her life, and it’ll be like your life, how you talk about your life on your blog. All a one-shot. She’ll have written a tell-all about her life, and we’ll go through vignettes about how she was abused. The caveat is at the end she has to die. So, this is a character based on me, and she has to be dead at the end, preferably by the Punisher himself. It’s a moving story, but it’s very vulnerable, and very personal. It puts me in a weird spot. Axel’s happy with the book.

“At 8 o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday, he calls me from Marvel to say, there’s a lot of negative buzz out there about this book. Basically, you’re on your own kid. All this negative stuff floods the internet. Every reviewer in a mainstream review site trashes it. I get nasty emails about it, I get death threats, violence threats. Mind you, this is a book about a woman who tells all about her story and gets harassed to death. That’s the comic plot. No backup from Marvel. My career at Marvel was over. I couldn’t contact any editors, and nobody had any work for me. Several years later, they hired Chris Sims to write for them. The editor that was the last editor on the Cloak and Dagger book was the person that hired him. I feel like I was hired as a token woman, but Chris Sims really represented what they wanted. It was such a slap in the face.”

The occurrences that D’Orazio details above happened nearly a decade ago and many people involved in them have left their positions since then, but the story springs freshly to many people’s minds when presently watching the publishers in question make old mistakes anew. While the news is perpetually reporting stories in which harassers are rewarded with powerful or enviable positions, those that are harassed end up with therapy bills and PTSD diagnoses, and not much in the way of justice.

Over the years, D’Orazio has had time to reflect, and in watching the rise in Comicsgate from afar while observing familiar patterns of behavior from major publishers has given her some insight. Reflecting on whether or not comics have changed since her time at Marvel, D’Orazio said, “I don’t think it’s changed enough. There are good people who are forward-thinking in comics who want to change things, but I just see too much of the same things happening. The same stuff after 10 years, 15 years. It’s getting to the point of maybe the people behind these main publishers need to step in and get more involved. I know people at Disney Publishing, and they’re great. I know Marvel outsources some stuff to IDW, and there’s really good people at IDW. If these types of scandals and people keep being mistreated, I think the parent companies really need to step in, because ultimately it looks bad on their brand."

These companies have made attempts to incorporate diversity into their comics at varying degrees of success. In concern to how Marvel might have failed her and other creators and what can be done going forward, D’Orazio said, “I think for diversity to work, you need to have organic diversity within editorial to start. You need diversity in the higher rankings in the editors, and then you’ll naturally hire diverse people. I worked for a publisher that was like that. I worked at DC as an editor, and we literally had to have a memo called the Diversity Memo sent to us to specifically tell us to put diverse people in our comics. It becomes a very thankless situation for creators that are hired for creators that are so-called diversity hires.” In reference to a lot of the internal struggles at mainstream comic companies, the question has come up recently as to what level of responsibility other creators have to those that are harassed excessively on social media. During the last few months, there has been an increased number of bloggers questioning to what extent popular comic creators are reaching out assistance to others. In D’Orazio’s words, “I think what has worked is when successful creators internally tell their editors and the higher-ups, this stuff is not going to fly. I’ve had creators email support. Them internally saying something. You see discrimination and you speak to your editor. That’s the stuff that works the absolute best. It’s a risk, but it’s worth it. I’ve known many cases where people have gone to bat for me.”

The question of what creators can do to take better care of themselves is a bit trickier. According to D’Orazio, “I should have done more self-care. I would recommend doing a lot of self-care. If you’re being harassed online, see a therapist, talk to a trusted friend. Also, you don’t have to be on social media all the time. You want to sell your books, and you want to be public, and you want to be out there. I think sometimes you have to pull back. You have to take care of yourself first, because it can get really brutal. It can feel like people dogpiling on you. You shouldn’t feel ashamed to block people and take these steps to make yourself feel safer. Number one thing, you have to feel safe.” Still, D’Orazio added, “After stuff with the Punisher, I never felt safe on a convention again, and definitely never wanted to do a signing again. I think there needs to be better security, especially for people who have been targeted like this.”

When asked how she if her harassers’ tactics resembled those of the current Comicsgate, D’Orazio responded, “It’s a parallel or a precursor to that. I can really draw a line between the attitudes of these major publishers — their own internal attitudes towards diversity — you could draw a line from that to Comicsgate. It’s almost like Comicsgate is their Frankenstein’s monster they slowly created over this entire time.”

Looking back on her work at major publishers, D’Orazio concludes, “If you want to work in comics, don’t be naive. They will absolutely eat you alive. No remorse. I could tell you a thousand stories.”

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