For the last few weeks, a story has been going around, recounted by artist Tess Fowler, about how a comics pro seemed to be interested in her work, but when he asked her to come to his room, she declined, and he then said he had never been interested in her work, and disparaged her cosplay and did other shitty things. Fowler tweeted the story, it was written up, and she added:
The behavior of the man in question is considered normal in this business. And the few people who know about it consider it to be my fault for “falling for it” when he feigned interest in my work. In my pursuit of doing this work professionally I ran a gauntlet of this sort of thing. I came in with stars in my eyes and were it not for the handful of really good people who stepped in to keep me safe, I might not have made it through without being completely jaded by it. I am older now, with young impressionable followers of my own. And I do my best to help them over these kinds of hurdles when they arise. I wish more people were brave enough to speak out. But for every voice raised in protest, there are a thousand to defend the person in question. It’s daunting.
While it was pretty easy to figure out who she was talking about—and the matter was discussed with me several times over the last few weeks of conventions—today she came out and named a name: Brian Wood. The Outhouse has most of Fowler’s Twitter statements from yesterday archived but one they didn’t is this one:
I’ve been nice. REALLY nice. But when I have 3 women in my inbox in TEARS as they’re typing over the same guy? Yeah, screw being nice.
— TessFowler (@TessFowler) November 13, 2013
Since this story broke, I’ve felt uncomfortable reporting on one side of the story, so I reached out to Wood for comment, and he declined to comment.
As one might expect, Twitter and FB lit up like a pinball machine. In one way it’s good to have things out in the open, because what Fowler has been writing about all along is how internalizing these things is bad and how a culture of silence punishes the victim. Other women have since spoken out (without naming names) about harassment and unwanted attention.
I think it’s important to note that what Wood has been accused of is skeevy and sketchy and shouldn’t be tolerated—but it isn’t illegal. Sadly, I have in my inbox allegations of an actual crime committed by a different comics pro, one where legal action has been sought, and I’m investigating it before writing about it. But these incidents aren’t isolated or unique.
They are also, sad to say, typical of just about all industries where this is male/female interaction. None of what I’ve just written about is comics behavior. It’s HUMAN behavior. There are jerks and assholes in every industry. In all the vast body of writing about the increasing tensions of men and women — many attractive, most sexually active—interacting in the comics sphere there is bad stuff that is singular to our corner of the world, but most of it is everywhere. And as women enter the field in ever greater capacities—as readers, as creators, as fans—these problems have become more common.
More good stuff happens, too. But we’re not here to talk about that right now.
Rachel Edidin, a former editor at Dark Horse, has an excellent piece here called Comics Guys, Harassment, and Missing Stairs, which points out that while women usually rely on the “girls network” to point out which guys are pervs and gropers and worse, it’s still putting all the pressure on women not to get into these situations, when maybe it should be men who don’t do bad shit in the first place:
I’m putting this firmly on the men in comics, because, you know what? Men are the overwhelming majority of the people in the industry with institutional and hiring power. Even most of the most senior women in editorial departments answer to one or more male boss, usually a dude who has been in the industry long enough and played its games effectively enough to be pretty solidly entrenched in the existing power structure; and, even if he is basically a decent human being, to have capitulated to and internalized and regurgitated and privileged appeals to tradition and status quo over things like personal dignity and safety and minimal motherfucking professionalism.
Men in comics, especially men in positions of institutional power and popular visibility, you need to step the fuck up. It has been going on for so, so, so goddamn long. And the women who speak up get written off as squeaky wheels and malcontents and difficult, and patronized and blacklisted and quietly driven off, and everyone is fucking terrified to go public because the worst perpetrators are the most entrenched and protected.
We’ve come a long way since there were only five women in comics and we all sat in the corner with our arms crossed. When I first got into comics there were all sorts of awkward horrible stories because guys in comics were in such a man’s world they really had no idea how to DEAL with women as colleagues. There’s the woman I know who went to show a male editor her portfolio and after he told her she wasn’t ready yet asked her on a date. Awkward. And demoralizing if you just want to get in the door and get work and make a living doing what you dream of doing. Everyone wants to be taken seriously. Colleen Doran has written extensively about the sexual harassment she underwent as a very young woman trying to break into the industry. I never went through anything that severe but I had my share of weird moments in my youth…most of it I just shrugged off. But that’s me. I try to be a hard-nosed football player. I’ve also seen the constant unwanted attention erode women’s confidence and make them question everything about their chosen career.
Fowler writes very convincingly, I think, about how this can’t be tolerated. We need to create a space where ANYONE feels they have a chance at their chosen career and unpleasant or illegal actions by others aren’t going to kill their chances.
Now, to be fair, I’ve seen every other iteration of human behavior in the comics arena, as well. I’ve seen women—and men—use their sexuality to get attention for their work. One female cartoonist long ago told me that if she had to sleep with a certain publisher to get her book published…well, she just shrugged, but I got her message. There are now comics groupies and stage door johnnies. And I’m not even going to get into cosplay which brings a whole new level of gaze and exhibitionism and fantasy role playing.
As convention culture spreads, it’s almost like a never-end rock band on tour, with all the attendant drunken passes, successful and unsuccessful. Like I said, human behavior. Men and women are always going to want to have sex with each other, and it’s often going to get fucked up somehow.
Anyway, I’m sort of sitting here wondering if any of this will ever improve. I will say, indie comics seem to have escaped most of these levels of power tripping and “I want to look at your portfolio in my hotel room.” For one thing, most indie cartoonists are poor and stay on someone’s couch. BA DOM CHING. For another, they are mostly at the age that hooking up is just something that happens and not the way to a contract with Drawn & Second. There are tears and regrets and angry break-ups, but its mostly what would happen if they all worked at Trader Joe’s, and not comics-specific.
Of course there are creepy dudes and inappropriate behavior in indies, too, just less of it.
I do know that some skeevy guys in comics have been informally banned from various companies. And freelancers who do too many shitty things occasionally get lectured by editors. It doesn’t happen NEARLY often enough, but it does happen. But sadly—there’s that word again—it’s also widely known that at one super mega comics publisher, many of the top execs have had huge human resources files and nothing has been done about it. That’s pretty fucking fucked up.
But far, far more often, women feel helpless and victimized and nothing is done. Like Edidin, I’d like to see more PREVENTION than cure. I’d like to see the status of the women in comics ELEVATED and RESPECTED to the level where this is not tolerated or condoned or laughed at or whatever. To be honest, that’s why at this site I tend to talk mostly about the matters which I feel are specific to the comics industry, including the lingering, persistent belief that female creators are inferior or non-serious about their work.
There are always going to be skeevy, sketchy dudes. But there are also going to be many many people who know the workplace is a place where you respect your co-workers. It’s why women need to be on panels that aren’t about gender, and need to be written about in history books, and their work needs to be judged on is own merits. It’s why phrases like “one of the best female _____s” need to be banished.
I think the most feminist show I’ve watched in recent months has been The Ultimate Fighter: Team Rousey vs. Team Tate, where for the first time men and women fighters have been in the same house. I wrote a bit about it here, but the way the mixed-gender house has been handled in editing and presentation should be studied for a long time. TUF has never had any shortage of hot people in their underwear, and the female fighters have been shown in hot tub scenes and are constantly lounging around in ugly biker shorts—just like the guys. But UFC president Dana White’s goal is to build UP the women’s division, and to do that they must be taken seriously. The women are presented as equals and as athletes, not sex objects who wandered into the sport. The women have given and received brutal beatdowns. They’ve rolled and they’ve banged. They sit around with the men talking about fighting, and the men listen. The men and women comment equally on all the fights, and once again, the women are presented seriously. They are worthy of respect.
It’s telling that the incredibly macho world of cage fighting has caught on to something that the wimpy world of comics hasn’t.
At the end of the day, Brian Wood is a talented writer who seems to have done some very questionable, jerky things as a human being. I sincerely hope he gets his shit together in whatever capacity he needs to and learns from mistakes in the past.
At the end of the day, Tess Fowler is a talented artist. She seems like a very determined person, and she seems to have risen above these early setbacks to find her own way. All this talk of fear and blacklisting depresses me, but I hope we as an industry can work on a teeny tiny way to prevent or remove that. And sometimes you need to shine the light into the dark place to find out the safe path forward.
EDITED TO ADD: I wrote this piece late at night and kind of thought through it as I did, and I see I did leave out the most important part: While it’s nice to leave on the image of Tess Fowler getting on with her life, that is not the call to action here: the call to action is to not let there be MORE Tess Fowlers who NEED to get on with things. As Rachel wrote above, to the power structure of comics—the mostly male power structure—it’s up to YOU to be Dana White and create both a more diverse atmosphere and, perhaps more importantly, one where being skeevy and sketchy is NOT condoned and NOT business as usual.
Update 11.15: Wood has released a statement on the matter:
For the last couple weeks I’ve been accused of a lot of very serious things. I feel I have to speak up for myself and for my friends and colleagues who are finding themselves under a sort of scrutiny they don’t deserve. This situation has reached the point where it is affecting people who in no way deserve it, up to and including my family.
Tess Fowler is correct about this: I did make a pass at her at SDCC Hyatt bar roughly 8 years ago. But when she declined, that was the conclusion of the matter for me. There was never a promise of quid pro quo, no exertion of power, no threats, and no revenge. This was at a time in my career when I had very little professional power or industry recognition. The pickup was a lame move, absolutely, and I’ll accept the heat for having done it, but that’s all it was: I liked her, I took a chance, and was shot down. I immediately regretted it, and I apologize to Ms. Fowler for the tackiness and embarrassment of it all.
I’ve kept quiet for these last couple weeks because this is a problematic thing to address without unintended blowback. While I believe she is as incorrect as she can be about what my intent and motivations were, I don’t want to encourage any negative opinion directed back at her.
I think the larger issues of abuse in the comics industry are genuine and I share everyone’s concerns. As a father to a young daughter showing an interest in making her own comics, I do really care about this stuff. So I don’t want our difference of accounts to take attention away from that industry-wide discussion that needs to happen.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.