By Brian Hibbs
So, this is kind of hard column to write, because it means being vulnerable and honest about issues that are genuinely hard to discuss, especially in the exact political climate we live in today. These are also things that are hard for me personally to discuss because I’m a fifty year old straight white male: pretty close to the exact definition of “privileged” in America.
I’ve read many pieces of #MeToo commentary over the last couple of days, and I’ve spoken intensively to several women I know about their experiences, and let me tell you in no uncertain terms that the assault and harassment and interference and abuse that the majority of women regularly experience in this world is not something that should be tolerated or accepted or handwaved away, ever. I’m utterly horrified that as many women that I know who have felt demeaned, repressed, subjected to harassment, catcalled, or otherwise depersonalized. It’s gross, and it’s wrong, and I can only imagine if the things I read about in those #MeToo posts happened to me, I’d freak the hell out.
It doesn’t happen to me, however; I’m a man. I’ve never (to the best of my knowledge) engaged in such behavior, but I fully believe that it happens to women every day, and I have at least some culpability in calling it out, despite that lack of participation. How could I not? This is a problem for all of society. But sometimes, these things can be hard to fully recognize things that others identify as problems, but that you yourself are blind to.
These things are hard for the “Good Guys” to talk about – we don’t think we’re part of the problem, and maybe in many senses we’re not, but if we don’t confront discrimination and sexism openly and evenly, how can things ever improve in the face of the assholes?
And sometimes…. Well, sometimes we can’t even see that something needs to be changed.
I’ve run a comic book store since 1989. Twenty-seven years so far, and in that time I’ve seen the business change from a nearly solely male-dominated thing to something a lot more open and inclusive. I think that comics are significantly better off for it, and I want to think that I’ve been one of the voices that helped push that inclusiveness forward to at least some degree. Probably not enough (who can ever say they’ve done “enough”?), but the best I could.
One of the things we’ve done over the run of the store is a whole lot of creator appearances. I long ago lost track of the exact number, but I suspect it’s something at or over two hundred over the years. We also do two Graphic Novel of the Month clubs, one for adults, one for kids, each one that is specifically tied to creator appearances as a part of the offerings.
We’ve been doing creators appearances from the very beginning (We had Erik Larsen and Chris Marinan just 78 days after we first opened!), and we did sixty-three signings in the first sixty months that we were open, which is pretty stupid when you think about it (because most signings don’t actually make any money).
Starting in 1994, we started having artists “sign in” by doing a drawing in the bathroom of the store. Beginning with Teddy Kristiansen and James Robinson (they were there signing for the first issue of Grendel Tales), we have scores of artists who have done art on the wall.
So, this is a “living history of the store” (at least the creative appearances), and features a lot crazy names, and great stories, and if you catch me at the right moment, I’ll proudly walk store visitors through each one individually, with an full anecdote about our experience with those creators and the good times we’ve had during our event, and the books they were promoting.
Doing this purely from memory as I sit at home, and in order of appearance, our wall has contributions from the aforementioned James & Teddy, as well as Mike Allred, Trina Robbins, Rachel Pollack, Linda Medley (those three from a “women in comics” event way back in 1994!), Shea Anton Pensa, Howard Chaykin & John Francis Moore, Tim Sale & Jeph Loeb, Gary Amaro, Kurt Busiek, Dan Brereton, Chris Claremont, Paul Pope & Michael Cohen & Teri Wood, P. Craig Russell, Paul Guinan, Dave Sim, Trace Beaulieu & Jim Mallon (from Mystery Science Theatre 3000), Jim Lee, Matt Wagner, Darick Robertson & John McCrea & Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon & Warren Ellis & Grant Morrison & Matt Hollingsworth (which we called the “Mad Bastards Tour”, despite it only having one [AWESOME!] stop), Scott Allie &Kevin McGovern, Kevin O’Neill, Geoff Johns, Neil Gaiman (one of five appearances), MariNaomi, Matt Rosenberg & Frank Barbieri, Kevin Wada, Chad Michael Murray, Ted Naifeh, Charles Soule, Leela Corman, Brian K. Vaughan, Ilya, Craig Thompson, Judd Winick, Gene Yang, Tyler Crook, Derek Fridolfs & Dustin Nguyen, Josh Cotter, Svetlana Chmakova, Zander Cannon, Tony Cliff, Daniel Clowes, Anne Szabla, Paul DIni, Raina Telgemeier, Marjorie Liu & Sana Takada, Hope Larson, Ken Garing, Sarah Glidden, Jeffrey Brown, Ian Bertram, Lorena Alvarez, Michael DeForge, Mike Lawrence, Gabrielle Bell, Jillian Tamaki, LeUyen Pham, Gerard Way & Nick Derington, Ben Costa & James Parks, Brenden Fletcher, Katie Skelly, and Hamish Steele. Whew!
It is kind of a Murderer’s Row of comics creators?
I’m proud of this wall. Perhaps too proud, even, but I’m damn proud of the history of events and creative people who have been willing to be part of my store’s history over the decades – I mean absolutely nothing without the talent of these men and women, and they (and the wall of drawings) absolutely reflect a pride in my story of the store. The wall of appearances reflects my blood, sweat and very much tears, in trying to make a comics industry for everyone.
Now, up until the “Mad Bastards Tour” mentioned above, there was sort of a rough attempt to do a “story” in each successive panel. It wasn’t at all a good story, and it didn’t make a lick of sense, but there was some vague sense of continuity to it. But then Garth and Steve and McCrea, and Warren and Darick and Grant and Hollingsworth flew up to San Francisco after that year’s San Diego Comic Con, and we essentially held an all-day public party, laughing and drinking and joking, and just generally misbehaving. There might have even been nitrous oxide involved, but all in all, it was one of the most fun days the store has ever hosted, with hundreds of fans meeting a great line up of saucy (and sauced) creators, everybody taking the piss on everyone else, and just generally having a god-damn blast.
And one point, Darick goes into the bathroom, and draws on the (then still relatively nascent) wall. At that point I had drawn out borders of “pages” to bind the art, and virtually every creator up until that point just did a “panel” on one of the “pages” – we had 3-5 artists on each page. Darick, however, decided it would be funny to take up most of a page by drawing an angel screwing a sheep. And he comes out of the bathroom, laughing, then John McCrea goes in, and, being John McCrea, instantly draws The Lord God fucking that same angel, also, the size of a full page, and then naturally Garth Ennis has to try to top that with a goofy cartoon Satan jerking off and the caption “Satan always comes first!” – and it just goes on from there.
It’s highly stupid, it’s overwhelmingly juvenile, but it was also, at the time and in context of the event, undeniably funny, and a great memory of that day. It was crass, sure, but in my opinion, it’s on “this side” of “The Line” – the art was done with great joy and in the spirit of fun, and while there are gigantic (absurdly so) cartoon phalluses, there aren’t any women involved, this wasn’t about being sexual or aggressive at all, as I see it.
We’ll come back to this in a minute, but I want to digress into a few other points, so that the context is fully understood. First and foremost, while this is in the store’s bathroom, said bathroom isn’t “public” – its way in the back, there’s a wall blocking any sightlines into the store, and just from basic security we do not let customers back there, except customers who have crossed over the line to “friends”. Shit, it can’t be a public bathroom because of ADA issues – there’s a flight of stairs you’d have to traverse to get there, and the floor in the backroom is all uneven and stuff. Most especially, kids never go back there – we direct all requests for a bathroom to the café down the block.
We do “open” the bathroom during certain events (like when the store itself is closed for our private graphic novel club meetings), and when it is an event that has any children at it at all, we have a paper curtain we hang up over that one wall to spare young eyes.
(John McCrea, being McCrea, also decided to draw out on the store floor. We have a pillar in the back of the store that he drew, at about waist level, a “Bueno Excellante” from his and Garth’s wonderful “Hitman” comic. Bueno Excellante’s “super power” is basically that he’s a creepy perv in a trenchcoat, and he’s in a “team” that includes characters like the Defenstrator (look it up, it’s a great word), Six-Pack (a total drunk who has alcoholic fantasies of being the secret leader of the Justice League) and DogWelder – who welds dogs to criminals. This comic book, by the way, is published by Warner Brothers. Anyway, this time, McCrea drew Bueno with his trench open, and, running all the way down the post, revealing a four foot long penis. “Dude!” I yelled at him, once I noticed it, “We can’t have that on the sales floor! Children come in here!” He painted that one over, of course.)
Here’s more of my context: we’re a store in San Francisco. We’ve always embraced every aspect of comics and comics art. We have a strong “adults only” section filled with cartoon representations of sex (it’s pretty highly-skewed towards female-positive depictions), and we proudly stock work from creators like S. Clay Wilson and Milo Manara and Robert Crumb…. All of which are probably now considered “problematic”, but all of whom are important masters of the form. I’ve always considered it OK for art to make some people feel uncomfortable – it fact, that’s sometimes one of the responsibilities of art, to push you and make you consider and reconsider your own perceptions of the word. Art is not meant to make you feel safe. And people, let’s be honest, enjoy fucking. They enjoy watching fucking, and, at the end of the day, the overwhelmingly vast majority of human beings are on earth because people, at some point, fucked.
So we sell comics that depict people fucking (and doing much worse), and they’re on the same sales floor as comics aimed at 6 years old, and we know how to police the sections so that never the twain shall meet. And they never do.
Moreover, as a parent myself, I’m far more bothered by the violent content of many comics we sell and stock than I am of sexuality – presumably my child will eventually have lots of sex one day, but I very much hope he never has to confront violence. And there’s at least one drawing in the bathroom that genuinely disturbs me (Ken Garing’s drawing of a guy unzipping his forehead and having raw brain coming out), and I’m also kind of creeped out by the Cthulu-esque tentacles erupting out of back of the toilet by Ian Betram, or even how Gabrielle Bell transformed the toilet itself into a snake. I shudder from that last one each and every time I walk into the bathroom. But I sat on the Board of Directors of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and I’d never ever condemn or block or change a drawing just because it doesn’t meet my sensibilities.
If my store wasn’t in San Francisco, I might be much more reticent of this, but this is the city in which City Lights bookstore fought and beat obscenity charges against Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems”; this is the town that was the home of the infamous Barbary Coast, this is a town that was one of the central homes to the Underground comics movement, that’s the home to Last Gasp publishing, where the Air Pirates was born, that was central in both “The Summer of Love” and the AIDS epidemic, that has been at the forefront of virtually every American conversation about sex and sexuality for the last 150 years. Having a few cartoon cocks on the wall of a private bathroom never seemed to me like any kind of a thing, y’know? A cartoon cock is emphatically not a real penis, and nothing there targeted or objectified women, with one possible exception depicting relatively chastely-shot sex between well-known cartoon characters by the last contributor – and to me, that one is a specific moment of parody of “beloved” characters that goes to a long tradition in comics (see the “Air Pirates” link above, or read anything about “Tijuana Bibles”)
But times and perceptions change.
I recount all of this context, because I personally think it’s all important. And when I give “tours” of the art and the bathroom, I usually talk about these contexts, and, especially when we get to the “Mad Bastards” section, go into some depth about the how and the why of it. And numerous other artists have reflected and commented on the “Mad Bastards” section in their own pieces (my favorite, I think, being Gene Yang’s cute cartoon robot which says, in binary:
Which translates directly as “WTF?”)
So, let’s get to the point of all of this recitation.
Recently, a cartoonist came to do a kids-oriented event with us. She happened to be in a pretty large rush because of her travel schedule, so I pushed the “signing the bathroom” to the beginning of the event, since there probably wouldn’t be time afterwards. And because it was like 9:30 in the morning, and I still had event-prep to do before the kids showed up, I gave the two-minute version of the tour, where I just ran through the names real fast, but provided little context. She actually didn’t appear to know the overwhelming majority of the names involved, which isn’t a real surprise – most of the newer crop of graphic novel creating authors don’t know very much about periodical comics or their creators or history at all. There is nothing at all wrong with this – you’re going to hear “Calvin & Hobbes” as a primary inspiration these days far more than “X-Men” these days, and that’s pretty awesome – but I mention it because folks who know who Garth Ennis, John McCrea, et al. are, and what their body of work is, tend to react very positively to that section and the story of the Mad Bastards. This includes women as well.
I leave her to draw, and she comes out and we do the kids club meeting and it just kills. The kids are highly engaged, the cartoonist gives me great answers, everyone has a great time and goes home happy as clams. Yay!
But a few days later, I get an email from the cartoonist. She, as it turns out, was deeply distressed by what she considered “aggressively sexual” drawings on the wall, and, while she had added some art of her own, after reflecting upon it for a few days, she said she really didn’t want to be associated with that, and would I please take the art down?
(Of course we have, it’s her art, not mine)
I want to stress that I think this woman was extremely in the right for expressing her opinion, and I think that doing so was really very brave on her part. It’s not easy to tell someone you’ve been made to feel uncomfortable. On my end, I never even imagined this being a problem, and I am truly grateful this was brought to my attention.
I didn’t really know how to process this, however. Like I said, in the context of what I know, there’s not a problem here, and in literally twenty years this art has been on the wall, I’ve never received anything but positive reactions from anyone of any gender, but if I’m capable of learning, and if #MeToo taught me anything, it’s super super important to have a conversation and to try and fix things if people feel wronged.
So, I asked my predominantly (four out of seven) female staff if they felt uncomfortable. And the majority admitted that they did.
Guess this is one where I am wrong, and all of the things that I thought I knew were wrong.
Wow, let me let that sink in for a minute.
Clearly something has to be done – the last thing I want is for anyone, especially my staff, to feel uncomfortable. These concerns are a very real thing, as is sexual harassment. So something must be done.
But the thorny question is… exactly what?
I see three, possibly four responses, none of which I especially like.
First, obviously, is I could continue to let the status remain quo. It’s a non-public area, and going into the bathroom (or even working for or with the store) is a conscious decision that people make. Tours of the bathroom happen before I hire people, before I ask cartoonists to participate, so everyone knows what they’re agreeing to. This, however, is a pretty shitty “solution”, and it’s one that seems likely to engender hard feelings over the long haul, and may in fact have unnecessarily caused hard feelings in the past that I was never made aware of. I don’t want to make people feel bad – especially the hard-working staff and incredibly talented cartoonists that give me any possible way to continue my business.
Second, I could paint over the offending sections. I’m probably not going to do that for a whole host of reasons, the foremost is that smacks hard of censorship to me, the secondary that it’s an integral part of the whole installation and that many other pieces later on the wall refer back directly to the Mad Bastards section.
As a corollary to that, I’ve given serious consideration to simply erasing everything back there. Destroy it all, and never have a cartoonist on the wall again. I pretty much hate that answer too, but it makes more sense to me if we go in the “destroy” direction, because, as I noted, there are pieces back there that make me squirm for unrelated reasons, so why would I keep those if we’re getting rid of things that make other people uncomfortable?
The benefit of that approach is that then this topic is closed forever, in a definitive way. However: literally destroying history. Though on the third hand: art is meant to be ephemeral?
Third would be some sort of cover-up compromise where we make individual “cover ups” on the Mad Bastards art, that are essentially “content warnings” that people could open up “at their own risk”. It was suggested to me that some of those artists might want to provide me with new art for the cover-up, others could be a statement about, say, the CBLDF or the first amendment or #MeToo or Planned Parenthood, or something similarly “pro-social”, while the original art itself stays untouched.
This is somewhat appealing, and, honestly, will probably end up being the end decision, but I think that it, too, is problematic for two main reasons: A) I think that that kind of solution ends up magnifying the controversy by essentially drawing an enormous underline with circles and giant red arrows around the art, double-dog-daring people to look. B) I’m literally the only person in the world that gives the bathroom “tour”, and this means that at least twice a month, for the rest of my life, I’ll have to essentially explain and apologize for something that, purely as a piece of art and history, I’m not actually sure is “wrong”. Yuck, I don’t want to have to do that.
(Though I brought that last point to a female friend who coolly gazed at me and reminded me that she’s never gone a day in her adult life without being cat-called, so maybe twice-a-month having to be uncomfortable about something ain’t so bad. Touché. And understood!)
The possible fourth solution was floated for literally ripping out the walls, and auctioning them off, donating money to RAINN or a similar – that way someone has the art, and that the gain from that is channeled someplace positive, but that seems like a really big logistical nightmare for probably nowhere near enough gain.
I don’t know, maybe there’s another choice that I’m not seeing. But the ones I have pretty much all stink on ice. Though, of course, nowhere near as bad as being regularly subjected to harassment, is it?
I think a lot of men handwave a lot of things away that are uncomfortable, or that they don’t know how to process. I don’t want to hand wave this one away, which is why I want to put this out there publicly to try and spark a dialogue about what might be our own, uncomfortable-to-discuss, culpabilities – especially ones we might not even be conscious of.
I never even imagined the Mad Bastards section could make some women uncomfortable. Some women, including a minority of my female employees, have told me that they have never found it offensive at all; in the absence of competing voices I naively assumed that everyone felt that way, and so I was blind to the possibility that it even could be for some.
And maybe that’s the real lesson for men in this conversation. How can we learn to see past our implicit assumptions? I know I don’t have the answer myself. I was blind in the face of my own perceptions, until someone confronted me. Sometimes, maybe, we have to have it put right in our face so we can learn that we’ve created a problem.
The cartoonist who started this conversation later said to me (I’ll paraphrase): “When I was alone in the bathroom with those drawings, I wasn’t sure if I belonged here.” That’s not a thing you ever want another person to feel, and I’m truly sorry I didn’t see it myself before then.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.