Don’t Feed the Troll, and Other Dumb Advice
A numbers of years ago, when the flap over “Emerald Twilight” — Hal Jordan out, Kyle Rayner in — was still hot to the touch, there was a guy who would write letters to DC Comics, demanding that I be fired, that editor Kevin Dooley be fired, and that the “Green Lantern” title go back to the way he wanted it to be. Actually, there was more than one guy writing letters demanding such things, but this was one guy in particular.
This was in the early days of the internet. Twitter didn’t exist, of course. Interactions with fans were limited to message boards, and once in a while, chat sessions. My attention was directed to message boards — I honestly don’t remember which ones — where the same guy would rant on about me, calling me “misogynist” and “hack” and a laundry list of other names. He pontificated that I must have had a horrible relationship with my mother, and that I obviously hated women (which was news to my wife). And so it went.
When you do this job, you develop a thick skin. Or at least you should. If you put your work in front of people, they’re going to tell you what they think. That’s the audience’s right. And it’s not always pleasant or even civil, but it goes with the territory. You learn pretty quickly not to become invested in audience reaction. You’ve heard me say it before: write for yourself, not for the audience.
A few years later, I was a guest at a convention in Portland. At the show, a gentleman was pointed out to me, maybe 50 years-old, a little pudgy, glasses, wavy white hair, smile on his face. “That’s the guy,” I was told. “That’s the guy who was writing letters to get you fired, and posting all that stuff on message boards.”
He looked harmless. He looked… jovial. That guy? Really? I wondered if he’d actually come over and vent at me, or if he’d just steer clear.
An hour or two later, I looked up from my table to find him standing in front of me. Interacting with somebody at a con has a built-in awkward factor, because the creator is usually seated behind the table, while the person on the other side of the table is standing. You’re constantly looking up at the other person (unless you’re a big fan of staring at belly buttons). The guy glared down at me, and finally said, “I didn’t like what you did to Hal Jordan.” I said, “Well, I’m sorry to hear you’re not happy, but the decision was made to take the book in a different direction.” He did not seem placated.
“I have something for you,” he said, and started digging in his pocket while he kept a stack of comics clamped under his other arm. Uh-oh. When he pulled his hand out of his pocket, he was holding a laminated card. He handed it to me, and told me it was my membership card for H.E.A.T., which stood for Hal’s Emerald Attack Team. It had an Alex Ross image of Hal Jordan on the front. On the back, there was a list of H.E.A.T.’s goals; prominent among those goals was getting me fired from the writing duties on “Green Lantern.”
Smiling, he explained I was now an honorary member of H.E.A.T. “We have almost 50 members!” he enthused. I said I wasn’t real excited about being a member of an organization that wanted to make me unemployed. He said I didn’t have to pay the membership fee. “Uh, okay, thanks,” I said. (I threw out the card when I got back to the hotel room.)
There was an awkward silence. He fixed me with his gaze… and then held out his stack of comics toward me, each issue protected in snug mylar. “Would you sign my books please?” he asked. It was a stack of “Green Lantern” issues I’d written. Yes, the same issues that had so outraged him that he wanted me out of a job, and branded me a misogynist and inveterate hack.
“Sure thing,” I said, and signed his books. “This too,” he said, and handed me a Parallax action figure, still in the package. I signed it across the plastic with a green Sharpie. He thanked me, I thanked him, and we parted ways.
That’s usually how it goes. The vitriol you encounter online is almost never repeated in face-to-face interactions. Internet anonymity breeds internet bravery, and all that. Which brings us to what happened last week, and over the weekend.
You might have seen the flap concerning a Twitter troll to whom I tried to draw attention. You don’t need me to rehash the details. There are accounts on various sites, including the Robot 6 blog here at CBR. Most of them are more or less accurate. I certainly won’t be reproducing any of the guy’s reprehensible comments here.
It started last week, with replies to a couple of politically-themed tweets (me poking fun at Paul Ryan for telling some whoppers during his Republican National Convention speech). Someone billing himself as @mistere2009 replied with invective. That’s not unusual. Tweeting your politics is the quickest way to an argument, if someone’s looking for one. A fair number of creators seem to avoid engaging in political commentary, but I feel like that’s also part of who I am, just like comics and music and the Mets and Giants. So I’m not going to censor myself.
The replies from @mistere2009 were far nastier than most. More profane, more personal. So I looked up his profile, and discovered pornographic wallpaper featuring a woman dressed as Catwoman. Well, “dressed” wouldn’t be the correct description. I also discovered a litany of vile, misogynistic comments aimed at women, including many creators and industry pros. Digging a little deeper, it became obvious @JonVeee was another identity for the same guy (nearly the same wallpaper, exact same misogyny). It has since been revealed there was at least one other Twitter alias, this one featuring the troll impersonating a woman. You can read this blog piece for a first-hand account of the sort of stalking this guy engaged in.
My immediate reaction was that this was someone who needed to be humiliated in public, and booted from Twitter. Yes, guilty as charged, that’s a pretty nasty reaction. But I believe you reap what you sow. If you’re going to engage in seething, serial misogyny and threats of rape, you absolutely deserve to suffer the consequences.
So I tried to bring as much attention as possible to his accounts, asking my followers to block him, and report his behavior to Twitter. A lot of people took notice, and further spread the word. One of the people who noticed was Mark Millar, writer of lots of comics, with a well-earned reputation for being outspoken. Mark took up the cause, put his money where his mouth is, and engaged an investigator to track down @mistere2009/@JonVeee’s identity and location. He was found in a matter of hours: 51 years-old, married, living in San Diego. The investigation is ongoing. It’s likely he was visited by the police. His Twitter accounts were shut down and deleted. Beyond that, it’s a legal matter now, and I’m not sure the details need to be public.
Obviously, all credit to Mark for spending his time and resources to stop this individual. I’m proud to know Mark, and I’m proud to have played a role, however small, in what transpired. It’s satisfying to feel like you did some good in the world.
When all this was going on, I heard from a number of people essentially asking, “Why not just ignore him?” Their reasoning was that this guy was a troll looking for attention, and I was giving him exactly what he wanted. I was urged to just block him and forget about him. That’s the easier thing to do, certainly. I have plenty of deadlines to which I need to devote time. I’d much prefer to spend time with my wife and kids. Just click a button and move on. But that’s not the point.
Ignoring a miscreant does nothing to prevent the same disgusting behavior from being inflicted upon someone else. It probably encourages it, frankly. You’re just passing the buck. I’d rather spend time dealing with it, and finding a way to get the abusive behavior stopped, than turning a blind eye. The goal should be to prevent the asshole in question from moving on to the next victim.
Comics is a medium that tells a great many stories about heroes, about people who do what they can to protect others. About doing the right thing, especially when it’s hard. I like that. I believe in doing what’s right, and helping others when they need it. I believe people who cross the line of acceptable behavior so outrageously should be punished. That’s why I did what I did. That’s why Mark did what he did.
While there’s been plenty of support for what happened (which is much appreciated), I’ve also seen a fair amount of dismissive reaction: everything from claiming this poor troll is having his free-speech rights violated, to the lazy shrug of “Well, it’s the internet…” Maybe I’m pissing into the wind here just as much as I am when get on my soapbox about digital piracy. But in just the same way, I believe it’s a discussion is worth having, a fight worth fighting.
Yes, the usual rule should apply: if you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, then don’t say it online, especially anonymously. But obviously that’s not a guideline that ever occurs to the worst offenders. It strikes me that those people trying to fill a hole in their lives by lashing out at others. What that hole is — loneliness, self-loathing, impotent rage, even mental illness — I can’t begin to guess. It would be sad, if it wasn’t so hurtful to the targets.
We are still a small community, comparatively, a niche audience for a niche product. I’ve said many times, and still fervently believe, that the comic industry has more good people than any other business I’ve ever come into contact with. The behavior of this troll, this is not who we are. It should not be a reflection on comics in any way, save for the fact that people came together to take care of each other.
Social media offers access for people like him to abuse innocents. But it also offers ways for us to come together and do what’s right. If you see something that shouldn’t be happening, don’t just ignore it. Do something about it. If you’re suffering abuse from someone, ask others to help you. We can all be somebody’s hero.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” for Top Cow, “Prophecy” for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.