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Sunday’s Signal Boost

When this particular news story started popping up all over the comics internet I figured we were going to go through the same old cycle of stupid.

This time is different, though. Someone’s trying to change the usual narrative. What she and her friends have done is really terrific and a welcome change from the usual back-and-forth sniping. It made me smile so much that I thought I’d talk about it here and help spread the word.

But let’s review the background first.

By now you probably have heard about Janelle Asselin and how her review of a (frankly, pretty embarrassing) Teen Titans cover blew up into an insane whirl of misogyny and sputtering fanrage that has resulted in, among other things, Ms. Asselin getting actual rape threats.

I was disgusted, as usual, but I wasn’t surprised. Because this is an ongoing thing. Women are treated like shit in the mainstream comics industry– well, not mainstream, realistically it’s a tiny subset of “comics” overall when you add in newspaper comics and manga and indies and the entire spectrum. But in our corner of it, the superhero/adventure comics industry, women have not fared well. Over and over, they are dismissed, threatened, harassed, and marginalized in every way by both fans and pros on a personal and professional level.

I’ve heard all the arguments dismissing this and I’m really fed up with it. Apologists always say, Crazy entitled fans are shitty to everybody, they don’t single out just women. Sorry, but yeah they do. Sure, any time any of us on the blog writes something critical of the big publishers– DC in particular– we are swarmed by idiots screaming at us about how we are unreasoning haters who are down on superheroes in general or something like that, that’s true. But only Sonia and Kelly are dismissed because of their gender. Only they are sneered at and told they’re “clearly pushing a feminist agenda” or that they “need to get laid” … and there have been rape threats here too, a couple of them scary enough that they were passed on to the police.

This has happened often enough that they’re jaded about it now. In a recent column Kelly even said that she is as disgusted by the Asselin thing as anyone but she just didn’t have the energy to go through the whole cycle one more time.

The thing that makes me angrier than anything else is that this has gone on for years. Probably as long as there has been a comics fan community, and certainly ever since the internet became a thing, superhero comics fandom has been an especially hostile environment for women. And yet, every single time an instance of this hostility is brought up, no matter how thoroughly documented, no matter how carefully explained, the cycle is the same. People are shocked– SHOCKED!– that such things happen, and pundits and bloggers write sad articles about how tragic it is that we have such things in a fandom that allegedly celebrates heroism, like they’ve never heard of this awful behavior before. Then, right on cue, a mob of apologists (most of whom are ridiculously paranoid about the next Wertham showing up to take their toys away) materializes with their usual straw-man defenses. Not all fans are like that. You’re generalizing about all men. Clearly you are an angry feminist with a mad-on for men. Drawing big boobs isn’t harassment. And, of course, That’s just the way superheroes look, get over it. It’s always a spectacular display of lack of empathy, and a truly impressive demonstration of the enraged commenters’ inability to read what these women actually wrote in the first place.

And yeah, it does make me angry. It’d make you angry too if you had co-workers you respected being treated like crap by a bunch of entitled whiny man-children for the crime of pointing out something we all already know. It’s something so basic that it amazes me the knots fans tie themselves into pretending it isn’t true: Female superheroes are sexualized in a way that male heroes are not. Period.

Yes, men wear tights as well as women, but it is not equal. Kelly wrote about that years ago and ran a bunch of examples and she was excoriated for it then– this latest Titans thing must feel like being in an echo chamber for her, it did for me and I was just an onlooker. No wonder she didn’t feel like getting into it again.

Janelle Asselin is just the latest to be vilified for suggesting that maybe the huge potential audience out there for a Titans comic– most of whom are only familiar with the version from TV– might be, oh, a little put off by the one she undertook to review. Look, here’s a side-by-side comparison.

The hell of it is, this particular Titans cover isn’t anywhere near the worst of the many that routinely show the bodies of sexualized superhero women as the visual focus; it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of this one or this one– and that second example was toned down from this one for Chrissake. To deny that this is the industry norm for female superheroes is ridiculous.

And the fact that it’s pandering to the worst elements of the audience at the expense of a far larger potential one seems obvious to me too, but God forbid anyone say so… especially a woman. Simply suggesting that it was a bad editorial call for launching a new Titans book that had such a huge audience ready-made, one that had grown up on the cartoons– a common-sense observation about on the level of, “Plants need water to live”– was enough to get Ms. Asselin rape threats. Rape threats.

If you’re a man reading this, think about that. Consider all the criticisms you’ve ever aired about, oh, say, a comics-to-film adaptation. Think about what it would be like for you as a man to write something relatively innocuous and obvious like “Agents of SHIELD has been really disappointing, I had hoped for more” and be bombarded with hundreds of vicious emails saying things like Fuck you hater you should be reemed up your ass! Go back to your elitist self-hating dungen and masterbate over your indie snob comix and leave superheroes alone! That kind of vile, sexually-loaded hate mail sounds insane, right?

But that’s what women in and around superhero comics put up with constantly, and we all shrug it off. It’s routine for them and the rest of us sigh and say, “It’s too bad things are like that in comics, but it’s just the way it is,” often with a side of, “I would never do that, so why are you talking to me about it?” The wonder is that the women don’t all flee screaming en masse.

I take it extra-personally, I suppose, because I have been teaching comics and writing in middle schools and high schools here in Seattle for almost twenty years. The vast majority of my students have been girls, many of whom have grown up to become smart young women who’ve gone on to table at shows with their own comics ‘zines and art. The thought that they might have to contend with this kind of institutionalized misogyny, just to keep on doing work they love, makes me livid. I admit it.

Then there’s this idiocy from Wondercon last week, the clueless shirt salesman who still doesn’t get why anyone might have found this offensive.

Called on it, he explained that he didn’t mean ALL fangirls, just the ones he deemed unfit. Like that makes it better.

It’s hard enough to be in comics in the first place. There’s no fame or glamor attached to it, it’s really hard work, and there’s not very much money. Why make it harder for people– any people, regardless of gender– who want to join in to do so? Why shut out half the population? Haven’t enough of us had personal experience with bullying gatekeepers who declare we’re not cool enough for their particular group? How can anyone who’s experienced that turn around and do the exact same thing to someone else? What the hell is wrong with these idiots?

But that’s as far as I could take it. I didn’t have any real answer, no counter to the ignominious state of the status quo. I could write about how angry it makes me and use this platform here to publish it, but that’s about it.

But clearly Rachel Edidin is smarter than me because she thought of something really cool. That’s what I wanted to share with you. All the preceding was preamble.

She, along with Arturo Garcia, Elle Collins, and Jen Vaughn, have started this great Tumblr campaign called We Are Comics. Here’s the mission statement:

We are comics: creators, publishers, retailers, readers; professionals and fans. And we are a lot more diverse than you might think.

We Are Comics is a campaign to show—and celebrate—the faces of our community, our industry, and our culture; to promote the visibility of marginalized members of our population; and to stand in solidarity against harassment and abuse.

It’s really simple. You submit a photo and a quick paragraph about what you love about comics and your involvement with them. Fan, pro, doesn’t matter. Just looking at the various pictures and the personal stories that have come in so far has been tremendously cheering. Given the speed with which the submissions have been coming in, pretty soon they’ll have a huge mosaic portrait of the comics audience– and it’s a hell of a lot more diverse and tolerant than many people think it is. I knew in my heart that fandom just couldn’t be dominated by all those Simpsons Comic Book Guys, but it sure is nice to see all the others speaking up.

Again, here’s the link. Here’s where you can submit your own entry. And if you’re one of those who reads about awful misogynist comics fans and says to yourself, God that’s horrible I would never do that, take a minute and put it on the record. Be heard. It may not seem like much but it’s better than the echoing nothing we’ve had up to this point.

Here’s the one I sent in:

My name is Greg and I’ve loved comics since I was six years old. This is me and my wife Julie and a bunch of the students and graduates of the Cartooning after-school arts program at our booth at Emerald City Con, where the students– who are usually female– display their art and their ‘zines every year. I write about comics and pop culture every week at CBR, but the single thing I’m proudest of in all my years in and around comic books is opening the door for these talented young ladies and many others to come and do their own comics and be part of it all. Comics and reading gave me a badly-needed safe harbor to go to when I was a kid, and being able to provide that same refuge for so many of my students now, and to see them blossom and come into their own, has been easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been part of. I hope this campaign shows everyone how important it is to keep comics a safe and welcoming environment for anyone who wants to be part of it.

*

So that’s mine. Let’s see yours. It’s just a few minutes out of your life and you probably can do it without leaving the desk you’re sitting at to read this column, but it’ll mean a lot, to a lot of people, to see some decency from fans put out there.

Give it some thought. And I’ll see you back here, next week.

21 Comments

nice article about the whole thing and how nuts the thing that happen to janelle is for that really uncalled for one and two who says only comics should ever be for male fans. but mostly people who would resort to something like issuing rape threats to a lady proves sadly why fandom gets the bad name it has gotten from time to time. and glad some one finaly said enough and decided to do something about it with we are comics.

Loved this post, Greg. I’m so amazed by the patience and resiliency that Janelle, Kelly Thompson, and SO many others of our friends and colleagues have for putting up with the garbage that they receive. It’s so sad that sexist, COMPLETELY out-of-line trolls still exist amongst our industry — or at least on the outskirts of it, but I was so happy to see the united stand that most creators and people took with Janelle in support.

It’s really impressive the way that DC has cultivated a fan base that’s every bit as classy and mature as the books that publisher puts out.

Hear. Hear.

I am glad to see someone doing something positive. Let’s hope the folks running the Big Two pay some small bit of attention.

What has become of DC Comics makes me really sad. Their animation group is almost always good. Batman TAS, Superman TAS, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, Teen Go! and Batman: Brave & the Bold are all awesome. Green Lantern: TAS and the Legion cartoon were pretty good. The DTV animated features are usually worth a look. I liked New Frontier and All-Star Superman a lot. The live action TV stuff is also pretty good. I liked the first 3-4 seasons of Smallville and am enjoying Arrow. The Arkham games and the Lego games were fun. Even the under-performing live-action features are typically decent when they stick to Batman and Superman.

And yet, the comics themselves are generally terrible. They’ve cultivated this rude, misanthropic and sexist fan base that live and breathe for what T. dubbed “Hot Topic Batman”. With the nu52, that aesthetic has become everything. DC seems deeply committed to that audience at the expense of every other possible audience despite the fact that it has never opened a movie, sustained a TV series or done much of anything other than push the occasional comic into the (very) low six figures in sales. Now, they seem intent on pushing that aesthetic into other media.

I literally grew up with DC Comics and love their characters, but I really cannot support the flag under which these hateful people fly.

I think it’s time that a ‘governing body’ be formed to get us as a fan community under control–who’s with me?

I think it’s time that a ‘governing body’ be formed to get us as a fan community under control–who’s with me?

Why not just the simple resolve not to be a complete jackass that most people have as their societal minimum setting when they go out among other people? That’s the part that baffles me. A great many folks manage this in their daily lives without a whole lot of difficulty. It never seems like an unthinkable request out in the real world. But whenever any of us on the blog suggest that maybe we attempt to make this the norm on the comics internet, there’s always someone lamenting the loss of the old Wild West atmosphere where you could be as big an asshole as you wanted without fear of censure. Not saying that’s you, Acer, but the comment clearly implies that it’s laughable to expect fans NOT to be jerks.

Why is that? What’s so ridiculous about the suggestion to make our minimum expectation of behavior to NOT be an asshole and practice a little SELF-governance, and take two minutes to make a post to a Tumblr saying so? I don’t think it’s an unreasonable thing to ask.

As for the reason it’s worth doing, I thought I made that clear, but to reiterate it– I think it’s worth saying it out loud in front of everyone that jerk behavior is jerk behavior, it shouldn’t be tolerated, and we need to stop shrugging it off as the cost of doing business. Ignoring it isn’t making it go away. It’s enabling it to continue.

Aside from the idiotic sexism that’s crept into these character designs and covers (remember when John Byrne first introduced Wonder Girl as a smart, tomboyish and completely flat-chested teenage girl? Didn’t take long for others to “boob her up” later!), part of what’s wrong with the covers is that they are all slick, wordless, mostly static paintings with very little to do with the contents of the comic itself. For example, look at all 24 covers of Amazing Spider-Man from 2002-2003, a series of portraits of Spidey swinging around, only one or two relating to the stories within.

Each issue’s cover is only in competition with the four or five covers before or after that one as to which one will make it to the cover of the collected edition! No, no, we can’t have dialogue, blurbs, sound effects or thumbnails of other characters on comics covers, we don’t want it to look like a goddamned COMIC BOOK or something, NO! Comics are grown up now, better just show some tits and ass on the chick with the broken back and hope that does it. Covers just aren’t FUN anymore! When was the last time you saw a hero beg, “READER- Don’t open this book, or you’ll learn the terrible secret of the Mecha-Mermaids!”

Looks like in this issue of Titans, it’s the one where they all stand around wondering what to eat for lunch.

I find it amusing that after all this negative coverage about the depiction of women in comics due to that Titans cover, Marvel Comics still decided to release a promotional ad featuring a large breasted Angela, wearing a skimpy outfit with a ludicrous mid-riff, with her male counterparts Thor, Loki, and Odin all covered in armour. The only male flesh you can see is Thor’s arms. And next to Loki is I assume Sif, covered in Armour, yet the breast plate appears to be a massive bowling ball, cut in half to accentuate her warrior assets.

Even amidst all this controversy the lesson is lost. I also find it interesting that CBR’s commentators are largely, and understandably disturbed by such depictions yet the website promotes such ludicrous images front and centre.

Didn’t read this whole thing, but got the jist of it. Cool idea that makes something good out of this stupid stuff.

Man, I’d seen the Ty Templeton parodies of that t-shirt, but not only is the concept offensive, but the thing isn’t funny at all. Wow. “Girls are icky, because…they are.” Fortunately this means these fanboys probably won’t breed, at least ;)

It always amazes me that people don’t realise how dumb they sound when they bring the hate.
Somebody should have pointed out that all that T shirt said was that the person wearing it has decided to inform all the hundreds of single attractive women with the same likes and hobbies as him that he prefers to spend time among drawings of fake women than actually you know meeting one, falling in love and having a pet dog named Gnort.
In Scotland there seems to be more female geeks, last week for example I was talking about why I disliked Amazing Spiderman 2 and used the phrase (SPOILERS) only thing Gwen Stacey is remembered for without having to explain it to a teenaged girl, and my Batman impression cheers up many parents with kids.
And I am guessing that many of the guys saying she just needs to get laid should check exactly how long its been since they had sex, newsflash if its been more than a year you legally lose the right to say that to someone.

I also find it interesting that CBR’s commentators are largely, and understandably disturbed by such depictions yet the website promotes such ludicrous images front and centre.

If you mean ads, there’s no crossover there at all. Jonah’s very scrupulous about keeping ads separate from editorial. The last time an advertiser tried to pressure Jonah into getting more positive coverage on the site because he was buying a lot of ads, Jonah explained to him that when you buy an ad, you get an ad, you don’t also get softball coverage, and suggested that if he didn’t like what we wrote then his company was free to consider other venues. I’ve worked for CBR as a writer in one capacity or another for fourteen years now and never have I been asked to change a word or tone down an opinion for fear of upsetting a publisher or an advertiser.

If you mean coverage itself, I’m not sure how to answer that. The covers of books are what they are– when you run a preview of a new book, you kind of have to show what’s in the book. We try to keep the opinion pieces and the news separate too.

LouReedRichards

April 28, 2014 at 8:32 am

Thanks for the information Greg, My wife and I will contribute our bit to the campaign.

@Acer

I think it’s time that a ‘governing body’ be formed to get us as a fan community under control–who’s with me?

Not me. Like Greg said, it’s up to the individual to not act like an offensive creep. The last thing we need is a U.N. of the comics community. In fact the very concept is chilling.
Unless you meant it as a joke, in which case, it was a good one.

Yeah, I actually first read about this most recent ugliness directed at Janelle Asselin on a blog that focuses on social justice and feminism – and let out a heavy sigh, because all too often when our little corner of comics fandom (i.e., the superhero set) gets the attention of the wider blogosphere and media in general, it’s for crap like this.
Anyway, Greg, thanks for writing about this, linking to the We Are Comics campaign, and for posting that utterly awesome picture. It just brings a big smile to my face.

It’s my hope that a large percentage of the super-hero comics professionals, especially ones with followings, just tell their fans that this kind of stuff is not cool. Every once in a while we see somthing like that, Bendis and Kirkman and even Kevin Smith and turned around to their fans a corrected them. This needs to happen more often.

In this instance right here, Brett Booth needs to come out and tell people to stop. He encouraged this, he has the responsibilty to stop it.

It would definitely also help if Kenneth Rocafort came out and told people to stop attacking her. He doesn’t have to agree with her or apologize for the image, he just has to say that this counter-reaction against her is not acceptable.

Another excellent essay, Greg. If only…if only the head honchos at Marvel and DC and Warner Brothers and Disney would take this to heart.

Rin Adams/DarkBlade

April 28, 2014 at 2:42 pm

I totally sympathize with Kelly. It’s friggan exhausting. When I was in high school, I had the energy to jump up and down online and explain to people and list and show facts and explain emotions and reactions and perceptions. At 31, after doing it so many %#$@(!ing times, combined with worsening health issues and being a parent and everything else going on, saying the same stuff over and over (and usually getting jumped on for it) just seems like a waste of time and energy. These days, I know better than to expect (or really, even hope much for) changes in attitude and depiction and everything else. Especially changes that actually stick. I still love my superheroes, but so often now I glance at the comics and don’t even bother with it for myself, much less for my 12 year old.

What those immature idiots did to Asselin was purely disgusting.

I felt that while it was obviously nowhere near the same level as rape comments, Asselin’s facetious stance on latently linking Rocafort and his editors with pedophilia was also in poor taste.

I find this general lack of tact on all sides a good representation on what a bunch of nerdy weirdos the superhero comics community is, fanboys, fangirls, journalists, and creators alike.

Thank you Greg for pointing out that it’s been a cycle of “wash, rinse, repeat” for YEARS now… and every time it gets the “OMG! I had no idea people could be so outrageous!” response in many quarters (along with the repeat response from some that attacks it all as “virulent feminism and thus just as bad as ‘the other guys’” garbage.

The simple fact that there are *some* guys who are getting really tired of the “astonishment” response, is wonderful. The simple fact that more and more guys who are sick of the loud-mouthed losers spewing bile and *assuming* they represent all male comic fans, that there are more and more guys who are speaking up to say “I in no way resemble your ass-hattery, you’re a hate-filled tiny minority in fandom and I reject everything you say and stand for,” is very encouraging.

In light of that, I’d like to share this TedX talk with your readers—because I think the men who are standing up against this kind of garbage need to realize they’re actually becoming leaders, and why that’s important:

“Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue: Jackson Katz”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTvSfeCRxe8

Andrew Collins

April 29, 2014 at 5:22 pm

I’ve pretty much stopped commenting on message boards about comics, other than the occasional post here, because GOD HELP YOU if you dare to criticize anything DC or Marvel do because they are apparently the most infallible godlike institutions on this planet and you are a loser “fagget” a-hole if you don’t agree.

This goes beyond the pale, however, in terms of how EXTREME the overreaction has been. I agreed with Janelle’s piece and thought it was well reasoned and well written. If you disagree, fine. Your right to do so and your right to say so. But NO ONE should ever think rape and death threats are okay. I don’t care how anonymous you think you are on the internet, fanboys.

I just hope it’s only a small band of jerks giving the rest of us a bad name…

Fact is, the folks who made the animated Teen Titans are working with smarter people, with more development time, more money, demographic research and a bigger creative studio than the folks who churn out monthly comic books. Everything is a team effort on a TV show; they don’t have a single artist or writer shouldering the entire art or writing burden and leaving in the middle of a story arc. They are really two completely different industries. As beautifully detailed and realistic as print comic art can be, it takes a lot more thought and discipline to make iconic, on-model “simplified” animated adventures.

George: read Janelle’s article again. At NO POINT does she compare the cover, artist or editors to pedophiles.

You’ve joined their side. Even of you didn’t leave a rape threat. “But but but SHE said THIS!” Which, of course, she didn’t.

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