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How mainstream comics companies fail female creators

Contributed by
Oct 1, 2018

From Bill Finger to Jack Kirby to Alan Moore and beyond, the popular adage “comics will break your heart” finds new credence for each generation. There are countless stories of comic book creators that were underpaid for their work, had their work misrepresented or stolen, or who were unfairly treated by mainstream comic companies in various other ways. Comic book freelancers are notoriously underpaid, and due to the nature of freelancing, companies are not required to offer healthcare. This is not an industry-specific problem and does affect freelancers absolutely across the board, but comics have their own set of issues that make the state of worker’s rights specifically dire.

Although comics are a brutal job for anyone, there is a specifically troubling attitude towards female creators. Women who work on mainstream books are often left open to harassment campaigns, with little to no back-up from their publishers. Opportunities for women are disproportionate to opportunities for male creators, and most women are asked to work on books focusing on female characters almost exclusively. Most women that are now hired by companies like Marvel and DC have established careers outside of comics in contrast to male creators who are more likely to be hired on sparse resumes by an incredibly wide margin. Even with an apparently required background of award-winning literature required for most women to break into the industry, female creators are often accused by readers of not having the talent or experience to write even a single issue of a comic book. Portions of fandom will swear off a book by a female writer well before the book ever even hits the stands, indicating a level of aggression that few male creators have encountered.

In 2016, Chelsea Cain’s Mockingbird series was canceled with the third issue but allowed for a run of eight issues to be published. The cover of Mockingbird #8 featured the now infamous Joelle Jones cover in which Mockingbird, an openly feminist character, sported a t-shirt that read, “Ask me about my feminist agenda.” This led to backlash against Chelsea Cain, who had already been a target of harassment campaigns as the book was initially announced.

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Cain left Twitter for a time after that, releasing a statement on her reasoning for doing so in full on her blog. Fans and writers alike questioned if we would see this award-winning author working in comics ever again. Marvel’s response and their failure to take strong stances against the open harassment of their female creators has been criticized at length, perhaps most notably in the downloadable essay Shut the F*ck Up Marvel. Recently, Cain revealed that she had been in development on her Vision series since the cancelation of Mockingbird despite the questionable way in which the company handled the very public backlash against her. Recently, it was announced that while the Vision series had four of six issues completed, it would not see the light of day due to poor pre-sales and a desire to take the character in a different direction. Responses from fans of Cain’s work were immediate, but a lot of comic readers and fans of Cain’s work expressed confusion that they had not even heard of a pending Vision series by Chelsea Cain, indicating a significant failure in marketing. The cancelation of the series occurred only seven weeks after its announcement before the first issue hit the stands.

There has been commentary on why this is a loss for comics overall, as a story featuring Vision’s relationship with his daughter Viv by Cain and husband Marc Mohan would have provided unique insight to the character growth, and the art by Aud Koch looked incredible. What has yet to be commented on in full is that this is not an isolated incident. Mainstream comic companies have been consistently responsible for failing to support their creators in many ways, but there are upsettingly similar instances of books by female creators at the heart of harassment campaigns being cut loose by the companies for which they work.

Former Marvel and DC editor and current freelancer Valerie D’Orazio, like Cain, left Twitter for quite some time after receiving a great deal of harassment. In an interview conducted by SYFY, D’Orazio detailed a long history of being targeted by bloggers, prominently Chris Sims but not limited to him, when her Cloak and Dagger series was announced. The book was, like the Vision, canceled before its release, despite having been announced at SDCC of that year. She was offered a Punisher story, which she has said was referred to as “a consolation prize.” Bloggers responded with anger and outrage that very much reflects current Comicsgate attitudes, and her job at Marvel just seemed to slowly disappear. She was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD from the constant flood of threats and vitriol, which she has addressed on her blog.

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Besides failing to support female creators overall, there is a well-documented history of people in the comics industry hiring harassers that have actively caused many women to leave comics forever. There are obvious examples in Eddie Berganza, who was employed for years by DC until a long campaign to get him removed from his job finally succeeded after his actions alienated several women from working in the comics industry, but that in and of itself is far from an isolated incident. Dating as far back as the first days of the medium in the United States, there have been reports of sexual harassment and unfair treatment.

Dorothy Woolfolk endured what would be considered a proto harassment campaign while editing Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, and was unfairly let go from her job and replaced by an antagonistic Robert Kanigher. Although he wrote and edited the Wonder Woman line for many years, he later oversaw a comic scene in which a female character that appeared to be a direct analog of Woolfolk was shot dead by a sniper. Even women that ended up working in comics for a long time would comment on the boys club, for instance, Marie Severin’s commentary on simply tuning out during staff meetings. Although posthumously considered a comic book icon, the case could be made that during her lifetime Severin received far less recognition for her contributions in comics than any number of her male peers. More recently, creators like Colleen Doran have openly discussed sexual harassment at major comic book companies throughout her career.

This history is shocking, but let anyone claim that times have changed, the gender bias continues, as does the embracing of harassers. It’s almost impossible to detail all the accounts of women who no longer work in comics. Around the time Cain’s Vision series was pulled, Scott Lobdell’s assignment to Nightwing was announced. Lobdell has been accused of having a very anti-woman mindset by many, notably when creator MariNaomi discussed his open harassment of her while they were on a panel at a convention together. Lobdell publicly issued an apology, but MariNaomi is not the only female creator or fan that has complained about him, and there has been no apparent effect on his ability to get work through major companies.

In the case of Valerie D’Orazio, her primary source of harassment outside of the industry was led up by Chris Sims, who was at the time a blogger who Valerie notes she had “never met before, but he seemed to really focus on me.” She notes that the harshest criticism from bloggers like Sims came for books that had not yet been released, which shows their approach to be very much in line with what we would consider Comicsgate tactics today. Sims would later release an apology, but D’Orazio herself remains skeptical of it as it was not issued directly to her and was published publicly as a column on ComicsAlliance. The timing of the apology was also considered questionable, as it came alongside the announcement that Sims would be working for Marvel, a company that he had been instrumental in pushing D’Orazio out of.

The response to harassment of Chelsea Cain led to Marvel executives suggesting fans buy more copies of her book, although what that might have done to end harassment campaigns against women remains unclear. Multiple women have stated a sense of unease and fear around attending comic conventions and making public appearances in response to targeted harassment campaigns and threats to their physical safety, however there was little in the way of public discourse on convention security until Tom King began tweeting about his need for a security guard at SDCC in 2018 after receiving death threats for Batman #50. Later, it was commented on that his security guard actually has a history of harassing and alienating female comic creators himself.

Alternatives for female creators are unfortunately sparse. In the cases of Cain, D'Orazio, and others, they spoke out about unfair treatment and their ability to secure further work from the companies is unlikely. For female creators, independent presses are an alternative, but many of them have been called out for similar treatment of female and queer creators. Many creators are simply foregoing mainstream publishers at this point. Avenues such as Patreon have allowed for many creators to function and thrive that would arguably not be hired at mainstream comic companies due to discrimination or simply the subject matter of their work. Webcomics need very little in the way of start-up cash, and many of them have gone on to reap financial reward at least equal to the generally meager salaries offered to talent by mainstream comic companies. Not to mention, several queer artists and writers that desire to write queer characters and would likely not have the chance to do so at major publishers due to an incredibly small job market have thrived via such alternatives.

Women working for themselves via these alternatives may ease that struggle somewhat, but it doesn't excuse the fact that they often are forced to do so because of hostility from publishers and fans. Still, it is important to note that what mainstream comic publishers offer their creators has shrunk to being mostly negligible while the benefits to online DIY publishing have grown exponentially over the last several years. Working for a mainstream publisher or working for yourself, you’re likely to still have to pay for your own health insurance. Self-publishing at least allows for creator control.

The cancelation of Chelsea Cain’s Vision stories is symptomatic of a deep failing on the part of many comic companies to do right by their female employees. It’s not the first time a creator that was on the receiving end of a harassment campaign had their book outright pulled before it was given a fair shake, and it seems increasingly hard to imagine that there’s an end to these at best dismissive and at worst abusive patterns towards female creators anywhere on the horizon, which are reflective of the unsupportive attitudes towards all women in all industries. Even now, those that are able to speak out on comics are those that have left the industry or who already have successful careers outside of the industry. Many still fear blacklisting and targeted harassment, and companies have repeatedly attempted to absolve themselves of all responsibility when these things occur.

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