[First go read this story by Janelle Asselin at Graphic Policy and then come back here.]
At the recently concluded Small Press Expo in Bethesda a very cool thing happened. A bunch of awards were presented to several talented, unique cartoonists who are turning out thought provoking, beautifully crafted work, influential work. The winners were all popular and well deserved. And they all happened to be women. It was a thing, for sure, and much talked about. What struck me, first off, was just how strong the work was–Sophie Goldstein’s multi leveled future history of a world where having a baby became a rebellious act, Emily Carroll’s mastery of horror and structure, Eleanor Davis’s powerful examination of self-sabotaging quests for self-esteem in many settings.
The other thing that struck me was the contrast with the other conversations I was having at the show. Talking with people I used to work with in the “mainstream” comics industry about the long lists of men who would never have given Goldstein, Carroll or Davis a shot at telling their stories. Because they are women, and those people didn’t think women could make good comics.
I’ve been around the comics industry a long time. When I started as a fanzine writer I was one of a mere handful of “women in comics.” And when I say handful, I mean…a handful. The women who had made it to any position of influence were clear examples of over achievers. To achieve anything in the comics industry of the direct sales era, a woman didn’t have to be twice as good as a man, a woman had to be five times as good. And you had to be questioned constantly and continuously as to why you belonged. The atmosphere was somewhere between Alien 3’s prison planet and an Alaskan fishing boat—but without as much testosterone. The men in comics of the time were outcasts from jock world, refugees from their own bullied childhoods to a world of hyper-masculine men in tights. Or as Will Eisner once put it, “As long as young boys doubt their masculinity, there will be a need for superheroes.”
Thrust into this insecure, niche culture, women who wanted to make comics were assailed not only by relentless questioning of their talent — the likes of which would reduce anyone to a neurotic mess — but endless sexual attention. Some of it was harmless, or flattering—most of the women in comics of those days dated or married guys in comics. But much of it was unwanted and inappropriate…or terrifying.
Take the most notorious example of this is the story of a woman we’ll call Christine Dobbs, a talented, driven artist who dreamed up her own SF epic and started drawing it while only a teenager. Such a precocious talent should be encouraged and nurtured. It’s hard to imagine that a lad with such ambitious career plans wouldn’t be welcomed into the man’s club (although maybe envied a bit) and pointed to as an example of vital new blood.
Unfortunately, Dobbs had the misfortune to be born female. Instead of her desire to make art and tell stories being accepted as a natural, wonderful thing, it was questioned, belittled (“draws like a girl!” “manga stuff”) and subjugated to her position as an attractive teen-aged girl trying to break into a man’s world. While still a teenager, Dobbs attempted to break into mainstream comics after winning an art contest. Somewhere along the way, Dobbs was left alone in a limousine with Julius Schwartz. Uncle Julie. The guy who invented fandom, who invented the Silver Age. A god among men to the teenagers who doubted their masculinity.
And also a man who was known to be incredibly “handsy” with any woman or girl who got near him. A man who regularly greeted me whenever I was near him with a bit wet kiss on the mouth no matter how much I squirmed away. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Dobbs told the story of what happened in that limousine once, without naming names, in a post now scrubbed from the internet, and to the Comics Journal in the past—a story they decided to run only after Schwartz was dead, which made it look opportunistic. It involved groping, which is sexual assault. And when she complained to the ADULTS who ran DC Comics, they decided to solve the problem by not giving her any work, the symbolic purdah that so many women were relegated to in those days.
So let’s back up for a moment. An older man in a position of respect and authority in the comic book industry is in a car with an aspiring and talented artist who happens to be a young woman. His first thought is not to support this talented young creator—or even to encourage that rarest of things, a woman who can draw comics, perhaps a bit of affirmative action to diversify what everyone agrees is a struggling medium.
His thought is that he can’t keep his hands off her.
This story was not a secret even in the days before the internet. Schwartz’s annoying-to-repulsive behavior with women was not a secret. It was joked about openly. And what was the punishment for his actions? Well, from his Wikipedia page:
He remained a “Goodwill Ambassador” for DC Comics and an Editor Emeritus up until his death. He was a popular guest at comics and science fiction conventions, often attending between ten and twelve conventions a year.
Suffice to say that if you were a women, Julius Schwartz took a hands on approach to goodwill.
I’m happy to say that Dobbs also survived this, drew several comics for me when I was an editor and has gone on to a busy successful career on her own creations and freelance work. She’s a survivor.
They say the internet lasts forever, but in the case of this incident it sure doesn’t. As I say, Dobbs did an interview about it years ago on a site called Buzzscope. Not even the Wayback machine still has it. But Johanna Draper Carlson, an ex DC employee wrote about it here in 2006:
[Christine] isn’t clear in the interview, but one of her attackers was fanboy icon Julie Schwartz. When that came out a couple of years ago, after his death, I saw her savagely attacked online for daring to besmirch his memory. He played his “kindly uncle who loves the ladies” persona for years if not decades, and few of the boys who grew up reading his comics wanted to hear about how devastating his inappropriate behavior could be to a teenage girl. The memory of someone few of them had ever met was more important than the truth of his harassment, and as she says, they assumed she was “asking for it” or lying about what happened.
and later she writes [emphasis mine.]
Women who complain are told they’re misunderstanding the situation or have no sense of humor or take things too seriously. It’s still a boys’ club. Telling doesn’t make things better. It should, because the superhero comics tell us that we are all supposed to try and do the right, heroic thing, and that makes the world better… but we’re talking about corporations who are only interested in protecting the entrenched. One of them responded to an official complaint of sexual harassment by trying to move the harasser into an office next door to the harassee. Idiots.
On the individual level, while it’s cute to see guys who seem to have rarely thought about this saying “it makes me so mad I want to punch something”, I’m waiting for the backlash as guys get tired of hearing about what women in comics face all the time. I give it another two weeks before the crowd wants to turn its attention elsewhere and start resenting the women who want their stories told and respected and acted on.
I don’t think we live in a more enlightened time now than 2006, but we certainly live in a LOUDER world, where more people can express themselves and make their opinions heard without gate keepers. Today’s Christine Dobbs don’t need to get into that limo and lie back and think about the Flash. They put their stuff on the internet and everyone can see it is good without people saying it is good for a girl, too much like manga, or badly drawn.
On the Mary Sue, the writer Marcy Cook wrote a piece called Harassment in the Comics Industry, and How to End It: An Investigation. I don’t think it’s a great piece of journalism but it is a passionate piece. And it lays out all kinds of recent instances of overt harassment in the comics industry.
Some of these incidents were things I talked about with my old co workers from DC Comics at SPX and at other recent gatherings. There are at least three editors who worked at DC comics while I was there who had complaints filed against them with HR. I know this because the people who filed the reports told me this directly. Over the years very few female staffers would be hired by DC editorial and the constant weirdness and inappropriate behavior drove most of them away, or led them to question themselves so much that their work suffered and they had to leave. Because women can’t handle drawing superhero comics, you know. I was told that by my supervisor when I worked at DC. Yep.
Now let me jump in here and say that I’m not a very sensitive person about this kind of thing. I find dumbass “Sexy talk” annoying, and when its more than that I remove myself from situations that make me uncomfortable. But that’s me. I’m not the litmus test for this. People shouldn’t be fired for making one dumb joke, but when it’s a pattern of abusive behavior that goes on and on and on, it’s clearly something that needs to be stopped.
So it is that I find some of the harassers more pitiful than anything else. I pity their victims more, but all of them are part of a system where an old man who gropes a teenager in a car is made an Ambassador of Comics without anyone questioning if this is a good idea. As one of my friends says, “It’s in the DNA.” DC and Marvel go back to the pulps, an industry of backroom pornographers who were little more than lowlife cheats and grifters themselves. It was no more sensitive to individual dignity than that fishing boat. Aside from a few places like individual art shops, that attitude has been passed down through the ages. It chewed up and spit out lots of men and women.
But mostly women.
So, you know, this is not a made up thing. In a world where superheroes of the ’70s and ’80 are still being relaunched every month, and comics events that happened in the 90s are still discussed as if they happened yesterday, the same backwards attitudes and boys club mentality still lingers. There’s been a lot of talk about how whistleblowers are afraid to come forward for fear of being blacklisted. But an even greater crime is that when employees did the right thing and complained to Human Resources about obvious and shocking breaches, those complaints were swept under the rug. The harassers were reprimanded, some were demoted, but the unspoken rules remained. The victims were the problem, the ones who needed to be removed.
I’m sympathetic to the confusion of awkward, socially inept men who don’t know how to behave around women. But when that behavior is tolerated, forgiven and seen as the natural way of things you create a toxic, close-minded environment that doesn’t allow new ideas and destroys real people. You have the “mainstream” comics industry of the last 40 years.
I’m far more sympathetic to the confusion of women who have a dream and talent and see those dreams dismissed and talent mocked and wonder if they should even try. So many just gave up.
Comics are far from the only industry where women are harassed and demeaned. It’s kind of universal, unfortunately. But as I’ve said many times in the past few months, comics have been damaged far more by the boys club mentality. Women watch movies, watch TV, buy records and use the internet. But for a long, long time it was decided that the entire comics medium itself was off limit to women, even as readers. It’s not too hard to see why an industry run by men who had no idea how to interact with women, as colleagues. would have a hard time creating material that appealed to women. But suddenly…internet! Once the gatekeepers who said women couldn’t read this stuff were removed, it turned out this was a universal art form after all, and ANYONE could make comics and ANYONE could read those comics.
We’re about to see names named. The veil is being lifted. And it’s going to cause a lot of pain and humiliation. But that is the price you pay when you condone harassment and say it’s the natural way of things, or when you look the other way when people who should not be allowed to be public ambassadors of comics are promoted into positions which they are not emotionally equipped to deal with.
We talk a lot about how comics are big time now, the Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy, bestsellers, National Book Award. We’re everywhere. And when you hit the big time you have to act like a grown up. You have to have a human resources department that does its job, you have to hire people who are diverse and who don’t harass their employees and freelancers. No matter how much they know about continuity. Opening the closets and sweeping out the stables is a painful part of this process. Luckily, several other comics cultures have sprung up in—indie comics, mainstream publishing, webcomics—which, while not immune to the frailties of human nature, don’t have a toxic boys club spiraling through their DNA. I was lunching with some colleagues who are in the book publishing world recently and asked if they had ever been in a meeting where it was stated that women couldn’t read or make books. The very suggestion was ludicrous.
Writer and former DC employee Valerie D’Orazio has been putting up a series of very personal and painful posts recently about the harassment she has received. I would urge you to roll through her recent posts to see them, but here’s one that deals specifically with the fallout from her Punisher story and the online harassment she got from Chris Sims:
Marvel pushed me to write the most painfully honest, lurid, personal comic possible, delivering it to a demographic—egged on by people like Sims—who would absolutely hate it the most. And when they received advance word that most of the mainstream comics press would savage the book, I was called by my editor Axel Alonso early on a Wednesday morning to give me a curt “just letting you know, people really hate this book; try to hang in there, kid” speech.
I realize now that I was really just a pawn used by Alonso and Marvel Comics to “stick it” to DC Comics—to rub it in their face. The fact that they were playing with extremely delicate situations and emotions did not matter to a bunch of big boys who thought they were still in high-school.
There in a few words, is the exegesis of the culture of doubt all female creators in the superhero industry got until very recently. If Punisher MAX: Butterfly had been written by Harry D’Orazio it would not have received the online derision it got. In her self published “Goodbye to Comics,” D’Orazio retells a lot of the incidents I’ve spoken about, although with pseudonyms (most you wouldn’t have to have worked at DC to figure out.) Her career in comics started in the mid 90s and goes through most of the stages I’ve spoken about: harassment, mockery and a consistent, openly expressed doubt about her ability to be in the industry. This kind of constant emotional abuse—something that nearly every woman in superhero comics had to deal with on some level until the last few years—would leave anyone shaken or at least require the combined self confidence of ARod and Donald Trump to overcome.
The last few years seem to have, on the surface anyway, exploded the notion that women don’t belong in comics. I hope Annie Wu and Babs Tarr and Marguerite Bennett and Amy Chu and Jody Houser and the rest of today’s emerging creators never have to get in that limo. As an industry, at every level, we need to make sure that limo never appears again. We’re all grown ups now; time to act like it.
And so…to Scott Allie and Joe Harris. Like many many people, I witnessed Allie’s blackout drinking episodes at conventions. They were embarrassing for him, and as I come from a family where there’s alcoholism, I knew he needed help. I don’t know Scott very well, and I hope he’s gotten the support he needs and can move on. I do know Joe Harris. He’s a friend of mine and a good man, and one thing I can tell you is that neither he nor any other freelancer needs the editor in chief of a top five comics company coming up at a major comics event grabbing his or her junk in front of everyone. I know Scott is a fine editor and many speak highly of him. I also know that someone with a history of blackout drunk episodes of harassment should not be made editor in chief. That is a social position, a leadership position and it needs someone who can handle that part of the job. Allie is no longer EIC so maybe things are being righted.
Joe Harris going public with this incident is powerful because we know he wasn’t “wearing a short skirt” or “asking for it.” He was just doing what is part of a freelancers job description: socializing with other industry professionals in a relaxed setting. It’s ironic that this incident, of all of them, didn’t even involve a female employee. But it does show that comics companies don’t take this stuff seriously. I did not know of the history of problematic behavior that Janelle reported on. But if even half of it is true, then this man should, for the good of himself, Dark Horse and the comics business, have never been put into a leadership position in this industry.
NOTE: I have struck out one sentence that I meant to revise before this was published. I do know that this particularly incident was taken seriously by Dark Horse in that Scott Allie is no longer Editor in Chief, so saying that it was never taken seriously wasn’t entirely fair. However, its the entire environment of comics that needs to be examined not just one person’s or company’s actions.
I am sorry that so many people have been hurt by this. But this toxic ticking time bomb was set to go off. Janelle’s piece has many sound ideas about HR and what should be done legally and ethically. And morally, if you believe in such things.
This is a wake up call for everyone to realize that the degradation of dignity and integrity that started with the sleazy pulp origins of comics is no more.
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.