An Editorial: 8 Things that Need to Change in Comics – Threats, Harassment And Understanding

Posted by April 16, 2014 Comment

By Erik Grove

I wrote a column about Batman for this week but this isn’t that column. That column will come in the future. I’ve also got several interviews and other pieces I’m very excited about coming up. This week’s column is different though.

I had a personal guideline when I pitched the Essential 8 column to Bleeding Cool; I wasn’t going to dwell on divisive and negative things. I was going to accentuate the things I love about comics and I was going to leave the rest of the Internet to chime in about what was wrong. I decided if I didn’t enjoy a comic book or a creator or anything comic book related, I wouldn’t write about it and I decided that I would challenge myself to keep an open mind and explore new things I didn’t know about.

I’m proud of this principle and I’m proud of the material I’ve contributed for Bleeding Cool. I think the cynicism and frustration of some things in the comics industry overshadows things that are really positive and progressive. I think that’s really unfortunate and it’s something I wanted to counteract. But this week, for this column, for what I have to say, I’m not going to be following my guideline. This is not a column about 8 things I love and I’m excited about. This is a column about 8 things about comics and the culture that really disappoint me as a longtime reader and someone that writes about comics and that I think need to change. You may not agree with all of my points, you may have points or counterpoints of your own but comics matter very much to me and I think it’s critical that we talk earnestly and directly about (Editorial) 8 Things that Need to Change in Comics.

No One Should Threaten Violence or Sexual Assault – Ever

What really made me do a full stop on Batman and change course this week was Janelle Asselin. Asselin wrote a piece for Comic Book Resources  about the recently released Teen Titans #1 cover. She was critical of a lot of the cover design including the anatomical decisions made by the artist for Wonder Girl. Asselin is also conducting a survey of sexual harassment in comics. The responses that she’s gotten both to her piece on CBR and the survey are nothing short of repugnant. She was demeaned, condescended to and threatened. You can read a blog post she wrote about it here where you’ll find references and some screenshots to specific exchanges.

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Two things about Asselin’s blog post immediately upset and repulsed me. First, that this happened at all in this seemingly modern age of comic books and second that it didn’t surprise me at all. There’s a vocal minority of fans that are incensed by “hot button” gender issues and an even smaller minority of fans that respond with disgusting and shameful threats of rape or violence. This happens to women in and out of comics when they approach these “hot button” gender issues and it has been happening for years. Other creators have had death threats sent after making “controversial” story choices with popular characters. Sometimes these threats have been publicized. Sometimes they haven’t.

It needs to stop. Now. Not only is threatening someone with violence immature, reckless and unacceptable behavior, it’s often illegal and it creates an atmosphere of poisonous hostility. I love comics. I love the medium and industry and the creators and the fans but the little bitty group of people that feel empowered to threaten under the protection of internet anonymity need to be shown the door and asked never to return to our hobby.

No One Should Use Hate Speech During a Disagreement – Ever

People are going to want to argue the semantics of this with me. “What’s hate speech mean, Erik – is that whatever you and your politically correct gestapo want it to mean?” Someone may throw out the word censorship. But let’s get right down to the level here and talk frankly. If you’re reading this column you’re an adult. This column, isn’t really little kid friendly. So that means I should be able to expect everyone to stop being disingenuous and stop playing straw man arguments and stop looking for exceptions and minutia in every point in the pursuit of winning an internet argument. Hate speech is hate speech. It’s derogatory language hurled out at a person that targets them on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, race or religion and if I’m leaving something out, well, don’t use that language either.

My preference is for us all to avoid personal insults altogether and focus on finding common ground but that’s easier said than done. If you’re not sure if language you want to use in a conversation is hate speech, ask yourself what someone like the person you wanted to direct it at would say if you asked them about it first. So, if you want to call a contributor to a website a “bitter cunt”, ask yourself what your mother or sister or girlfriend or wife or daughter or female friend would think about that before you send it out on Twitter. I’m going to guess that most of the time you might want to rethink your initial response.

We Need to Be More Upset About Threats and Hate Speech in Our Community

When I write “Don’t threaten to rape people just because you disagree with them” or “don’t drop racist or homophobic slurs” I should be preaching to the choir. Every one of you reading this should just be nodding your head and thinking “well, yeah – obviously that’s not cool, Erik.” I’m not saying anything controversial. But agreeing it’s “not cool” isn’t nearly enough. More than decrying and condemning the tiny sliver of unhinged “fans” that do this, we also need to go deeper and get really fucking angry about it. I’ve read a lot of vitriol and hyperbole about comic book movie casting or about how undoing Spider-Man’s marriage is the worst thing ever and I get that. I get that fans are invested in their characters and their mythology and when they feel like creators are disrespecting something that’s so personal and beloved, they get upset. But you shouldn’t be angrier about Spider-Man’s marital status than you are that a bunch of sociopaths threatened to kill or rape someone in our community.

I’ve seen this cycle repeat itself many times. Someone comes forward with a story about threats or harassment. Some people immediately doubt that it happened or that it happened the way it’s being reported. They question the motives of the accuser or even attack the credibility of the accuser. A lot more people are supportive. There’s a dialog about it for a little while that’s a little constructive and a little bit not constructive and then Marvel or DC Comics announces a new book or crossover and the conversation on Twitter and in comic book forums shifts. Fans, even journalists, move on to the next story and we can’t keep doing that. We need to get angrier. We need to hold on to this long enough that it moves us to take steps that prevent it from happening again.

We Need to Endeavor to Understand But Not Judge

After my last point advocating getting angrier about this stuff, I imagine some people think I’m suggesting a lynch mob mentality. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. In fact, I think we need to endeavor to withhold judgment and withhold condemnation but do so compassionately. If Person Y accuses Person X or sexual harassment, a story we’ve seen before in comics media, we should first try to understand what Person Y is saying and what Person X is saying and try to be sensitive to both of them until we know more information. When these stories come out about impropriety between creators or publishers or even fans, there’s this instinct to rush to battle stations. That’s a bad instinct and it only divides us. You always read about the presumption of innocence when these stories come out and you also read about victim shaming. Both of these behaviors are products of a rush to judgment.

It’s not only completely acceptable but preferable to simply not take anyone’s side until the dust settles a little bit. When I read about someone reportedly behaving badly, it’s a struggle for me personally not to immediately dislike the accused but it’s a worthy struggle. Ultimately, this isn’t a court of law and there’s no great Internet jury that will decide anyone’s guilt or innocence with a well considered argument or counterargument. We need to shift toward understanding and resist finger pointing. When I say I want us to be angrier, what I mean is that I want us all to be angry at the problem, not at the people. I think we’re capable of making that distinction.

We Need to Stop Pretending That Harassment Is Not Happening

Harassment, intolerance and shitty behavior happens in this community. It just does and part of the reason it continues to happen is that people continue to want to minimize and hide it. These aren’t isolated instances. No, not every woman that goes to a con in cosplay gets groped by a stranger but isn’t any amount of women getting groped by strangers unacceptable? Maybe you’ve never seen it personally. Maybe you don’t know anyone that’s experienced it personally. Okay. That’s awesome. You’re lucky and the people you know are lucky or they’re embarrassed to talk about it. Either way, this doesn’t excuse the countless reports now and in the past. Sexual harassment is a real problem in our community and industry and to argue otherwise is like arguing the Earth is flat. In the meantime, I’ve seen a lot of racist and homophobic chatter on forums, even well moderated forums, crop up all the time. Give me 15 minutes and I’ll find some reprehensible thing someone posted somewhere with high visibility. I might find 15 of them.

We Need to Stop Jumping to Easy Conclusions

In my column last week I used the term “creep” to define someone that intentionally made people uncomfortable or unsafe at comic conventions. Some forum posters called me out on my word choice and questioned whether I was suggesting or unfairly insinuating that people that look like they could be creeps should be shunned or not tolerated. This was a really good point and I think it underscores why some men in comics are uncomfortable with the topic of sexual harassment. Some fans can be shy or socially uncomfortable. We can accidentally say or imply things we don’t mean. I’ve done it. I still do it. You get nervous and you see yourself from the third person and you have to wonder “who is this weirdo that stole my body?” There’s this fear I think for some that expressing awkward interest in a woman could be misconstrued as an unwanted pick up and that could be interpreted as harassment. There’s a difference that some can’t easily define between a romantic gaze and a creepy stare. Smarter people than I am can help break this one down. My point is that every awkward guy or girl isn’t a creep and every confident girl or guy isn’t necessarily interested in being approached. This is not a men versus women argument and as long as it’s framed that way, we’ll struggle to work together.

We Need to Talk To Each Other to Figure Out How to Fix This

I’m a straight white male and no one has ever sexually harassed me or used hate speech with me. There are a lot of straight white males that read comics that have probably not had those experiences personally. Most of us are still appalled by harassment, violence and insults and we sympathize with the people that do experience them. I’m completely comfortable saying I don’t completely understand what it feels like to have rape threats hurled at you. What that experience is all about, and the appropriate response and reaction to that experience, really needs to come from people that are on the receiving end. What can we do to make comics more tolerant, more inclusive and less hostile to women, all races and all sexual orientations? This is not an easy question to answer and it shouldn’t be but we need to listen and really consider the point of view of people that are most impacted by it. We might disagree with it but after we’ve heard that point of view, we can express ours. Talking to and listening to one another is the only way to establish the trust and unit that I think is imperative to making lasting changes.

We All Have to Be Part of the Solution

I believe that every one of us needs to be involved in improving this industry. We all need to compromise and strain to think of things in different ways. I think more diverse people working in comics helps. I think more diverse opinions about comics helps. I also think that those of that are straight white men have an opportunity to support and encourage changes either by making it overwhelmingly clear that we want change or just by being cheerleaders, loud or quiet, for the people who are leading the way. One of the things that really distinguishes comics from other types of hobbies is how closely knit our community is going back to the very beginning with letter columns and local comic cons. We’re a small, passionate and committed group that rally for characters to return or for TV series to come back from cancellation. For every voice demanding the return of Wally West or Donna Troy, Stephanie Brown or Rich Rider, there needs to be a voice demanding more diversity and tolerance in characters, creators, editors and fans. United and working toward a common goal, there is nothing that we can’t accomplish. This isn’t about political correctness or some liberal agenda. This is about the heart and soul of this thing that we all love. These 8 things are not nails in a coffin or more slings and arrows, these are impassioned and considered pleas and one comic book lover’s hopes for a bigger and better future for comics.

I expect this column may generate a response. I hope it’s constructive. This is an emotional and complicated matter and I very much hope that any discussions around it can be done calmly and with sensitivity.

Erik Grove is a writer. Follow on Twitter @ erikgrove and you find links to previous columns, short fiction, blogs and novel excerpts at www.erikgrove.com.