Thought Bubble, one of the UK’s leading comics shows, has announced that Frank Miller will no longer be a guest at this year’s show. The news comes after a two-day period of outcry on social media following ShortBox publisher Zainab Akhtar‘s own statement that the festival had failed to address her concerns regarding Miller’s past Islamophobic work, and Akhtar’s subsequent withdrawal of support from the show.
Here is a rough timeline of what happened:
On June 2, Thought Bubble announced its second guest line up which featured Frank Miller. At the time, the news seemed to have either been positively received or passed without much notice on social media.
Oh, hello… what's this? Another incredible guest announcement?!
Each guest will be at Thought Bubble, Nov 13-14 2021 at Harrogate Convention Centre, see you there! #TBF21
— Thought Bubble Festival (@ThoughtBubbleUK) June 2, 2021
Miller, whose work includes seminal books like The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil: Born Again, also has a history of Islamophobic themes in his work. His 2011 graphic novel Holy Terror has been described as “a screed against Islam, completely uninterested in any nuance or empathy toward 1.2 billion people he conflates with a few murderous conspiracy theorists.” While never outright apologizing for Holy Terror, Miller has since expressed regret over producing the book, which he has said is representative, like all of his work, of “what [he was] going through.”
Following Thought Bubble’s announcement of Miller as a guest, it appears some other exhibitors, including Akhtar, immediately issued private complaints and reservations to festival organizers about having Miller as a guest, citing his past Islamophobic work and seeing his presence as inviting a racist element into the safe and inclusive space that Thought Bubble has vocally claimed itself to be.
Allegedly a process of discussion and consideration of the complaints took place but, on Monday July 27, Thought Bubble chose to side with keeping Frank Miller – likely assuming any controversy would blow over (as none occurred publicly at the initial announcement or up until this point) and that the big ticket draw of Miller would provide a vital financial lifeline after the pandemic lockdowns and cancellations last year. In response, Akhtar took to Twitter to announce her withdrawal from and boycott of Thought Bubble.
For clarity: I first contacted Thought Bubble about this, privately, 8 weeks ago. After discussions, I was assured action would be taken. This week it's been communicated to me that I am the acceptable loss: repercussions to my career/income over repercussions to theirs. https://t.co/ofGeWVKHqR
— ShortBox (@Short_Box) July 27, 2021
Akhtar’s statement reads:
I am sorry to inform you that ShortBox and I will no longer be attending Thought Bubble festival this November. I was invited as a guest in 2020 which rolled over to this year. I have been excited to attend, represent my authors, and share our books with readers after almost 2 years of no conventions. However, as a proud Muslim woman, I cannot in good conscience attend a festival that deems it appropriate to invite and platform Frank Miller, a person who is responsible for the propagation of abhorrent anti-Muslim hate, particularly via his work. Anti-Muslim bigotry is repugnant and condemnable yet has become so deeply rooted, so widely accepted in society that it is not even given a cursory consideration, as evidenced once again in this situation. I cannot comprehend how time and time again, festivals and communities within comics espouse values regarding inclusivity, diversity, ‘comics being for everyone’, zero tolerance of hate, but all that lip-service evaporates when they are asked to enact those same values.
The tweet accompanying the statement clarifies that Akhtar raised the issue with Thought Bubble in June: “After discussions, I was assured action would be taken. This week it’s been communicated to me that I am the acceptable loss: repercussions to my career/income over repercussions to theirs.”
In the hours following Akhtar’s statement, fans, friends and creators rallied in support of the publisher, and the belated controversy of Miller crystallised as ‘Festival Chooses Racist Islamophobe Over Muslim Woman Of Color.’
All festivals/cons need to think twice about who they invite as special guests. A quick google search will let you know if that person is a bigot and will make your event unsafe for others. You create these D&I policies but don’t do the bare minimum to uphold them.
— Jamila Rowser (@JamilaRowser) July 27, 2021
I don't understand how such a good con, one that has had outreach programmes for underrepresented creators of all kinds, can not know that inviting someone like FM could possibly undermine everything they're trying to do.
— Bevis Musson (@bevismusson) July 27, 2021
lrt: I love Thought Bubble and have every year for the 10, but morally I can’t and won’t be there w/ Frank Miller attending and we should stand behind Short Box
— B. Mure (@beemure) July 27, 2021
With threats of more boycotts and withdrawals from the show, Thought Bubble issued a statement yesterday, July 28, announcing the withdrawal of Miller’s invitation, and the day seemed full of damage control – with the Thought Bubble social media account on Twitter and Facebook working in overdrive.
A statement from us.
— Thought Bubble Festival (@ThoughtBubbleUK) July 28, 2021
In a tweet a few hours later, festival organizer Chloe Green explained that the online backlash following Akhtar’s announcement had given the festival the proof they needed to justify withdrawing Miller’s invite (Green has since made her Twitter account private). As Akhtar put it, “I was used to do TB’s dirty work for them, and as an acceptable sacrifice in order for them to garner and provide ‘proof’ to Miller’s team and extract themselves from the situation.”
Akhtar also said she was subjected to racist trolling and attack:
Waking up to right-wing videos being made about me and a wave of racists in my mentions. Irrespective of what happens going forward, I won't be attending TB this year. In refusing to address this, knowing it would mean I would do that work, this is what I've been exposed to.
— ShortBox (@Short_Box) July 28, 2021
Criticism of the show and support of Akhtar continued throughout the day.
Kind of shit a marginalized woman had to do the work & put herself in the line of fire for coordinated abuse from bigots before you changed position.
You could have written this weeks ago and spared @Short_Box a lot.
But still: thanks for seeing reason. It's appreciated. https://t.co/4J7IObs0Jd
— Iron Spike (@Iron_Spike) July 28, 2021
For me, this is the most recent in a string of actions by Thoughtbubble staff.
This is a very personal POV, so please take it with a grain of salt but I've personally had trouble every year I've come to Thoughtbubble as an independant creative
— Shazleen @ KS recuperation (@shazleenmkhan) July 28, 2021
What concerns me is that we can hold views that are difficult. Should TBubz have booked him? No. Would it have been a nightmare to cancel that agreement? Yes. Should Zainab have had to post? No. Should other creators have vocally been against this? Yes. There’s a lot here.
— Nirish Kat (@thenirishkat) July 28, 2021
The outpouring of support for Akhtar has had at least one positive outcome for the publisher: the Kickstarter for the final ShortBox has surged to over 1,000 backers. Still, it’s pretty disappointing to see a previously well-respected festival like Thought Bubble basically throw one of its biggest supporters to the wolves rather than properly address and take responsibility for an ill-considered decision.