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Sunday’s Signal Boost

by  in Comics, Comic News Comment
Sunday’s Signal Boost

When this particular news story started popping up all over the comics internet I figured we were going to go through the same old cycle of stupid.

This time is different, though. Someone’s trying to change the usual narrative. What she and her friends have done is really terrific and a welcome change from the usual back-and-forth sniping. It made me smile so much that I thought I’d talk about it here and help spread the word.

But let’s review the background first.

By now you probably have heard about Janelle Asselin and how her review of a (frankly, pretty embarrassing) Teen Titans cover blew up into an insane whirl of misogyny and sputtering fanrage that has resulted in, among other things, Ms. Asselin getting actual rape threats.

I was disgusted, as usual, but I wasn’t surprised. Because this is an ongoing thing. Women are treated like shit in the mainstream comics industry– well, not mainstream, realistically it’s a tiny subset of “comics” overall when you add in newspaper comics and manga and indies and the entire spectrum. But in our corner of it, the superhero/adventure comics industry, women have not fared well. Over and over, they are dismissed, threatened, harassed, and marginalized in every way by both fans and pros on a personal and professional level.

I’ve heard all the arguments dismissing this and I’m really fed up with it. Apologists always say, Crazy entitled fans are shitty to everybody, they don’t single out just women. Sorry, but yeah they do. Sure, any time any of us on the blog writes something critical of the big publishers– DC in particular– we are swarmed by idiots screaming at us about how we are unreasoning haters who are down on superheroes in general or something like that, that’s true. But only Sonia and Kelly are dismissed because of their gender. Only they are sneered at and told they’re “clearly pushing a feminist agenda” or that they “need to get laid” … and there have been rape threats here too, a couple of them scary enough that they were passed on to the police.

This has happened often enough that they’re jaded about it now. In a recent column Kelly even said that she is as disgusted by the Asselin thing as anyone but she just didn’t have the energy to go through the whole cycle one more time.

The thing that makes me angrier than anything else is that this has gone on for years. Probably as long as there has been a comics fan community, and certainly ever since the internet became a thing, superhero comics fandom has been an especially hostile environment for women. And yet, every single time an instance of this hostility is brought up, no matter how thoroughly documented, no matter how carefully explained, the cycle is the same. People are shocked– SHOCKED!– that such things happen, and pundits and bloggers write sad articles about how tragic it is that we have such things in a fandom that allegedly celebrates heroism, like they’ve never heard of this awful behavior before. Then, right on cue, a mob of apologists (most of whom are ridiculously paranoid about the next Wertham showing up to take their toys away) materializes with their usual straw-man defenses. Not all fans are like that. You’re generalizing about all men. Clearly you are an angry feminist with a mad-on for men. Drawing big boobs isn’t harassment. And, of course, That’s just the way superheroes look, get over it. It’s always a spectacular display of lack of empathy, and a truly impressive demonstration of the enraged commenters’ inability to read what these women actually wrote in the first place.

And yeah, it does make me angry. It’d make you angry too if you had co-workers you respected being treated like crap by a bunch of entitled whiny man-children for the crime of pointing out something we all already know. It’s something so basic that it amazes me the knots fans tie themselves into pretending it isn’t true: Female superheroes are sexualized in a way that male heroes are not. Period.

Yes, men wear tights as well as women, but it is not equal. Kelly wrote about that years ago and ran a bunch of examples and she was excoriated for it then– this latest Titans thing must feel like being in an echo chamber for her, it did for me and I was just an onlooker. No wonder she didn’t feel like getting into it again.

Janelle Asselin is just the latest to be vilified for suggesting that maybe the huge potential audience out there for a Titans comic– most of whom are only familiar with the version from TV– might be, oh, a little put off by the one she undertook to review. Look, here’s a side-by-side comparison.

The hell of it is, this particular Titans cover isn’t anywhere near the worst of the many that routinely show the bodies of sexualized superhero women as the visual focus; it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of this one or this one— and that second example was toned down from this one for Chrissake. To deny that this is the industry norm for female superheroes is ridiculous.

And the fact that it’s pandering to the worst elements of the audience at the expense of a far larger potential one seems obvious to me too, but God forbid anyone say so… especially a woman. Simply suggesting that it was a bad editorial call for launching a new Titans book that had such a huge audience ready-made, one that had grown up on the cartoons– a common-sense observation about on the level of, “Plants need water to live”– was enough to get Ms. Asselin rape threats. Rape threats.

If you’re a man reading this, think about that. Consider all the criticisms you’ve ever aired about, oh, say, a comics-to-film adaptation. Think about what it would be like for you as a man to write something relatively innocuous and obvious like “Agents of SHIELD has been really disappointing, I had hoped for more” and be bombarded with hundreds of vicious emails saying things like Fuck you hater you should be reemed up your ass! Go back to your elitist self-hating dungen and masterbate over your indie snob comix and leave superheroes alone! That kind of vile, sexually-loaded hate mail sounds insane, right?

But that’s what women in and around superhero comics put up with constantly, and we all shrug it off. It’s routine for them and the rest of us sigh and say, “It’s too bad things are like that in comics, but it’s just the way it is,” often with a side of, “I would never do that, so why are you talking to me about it?” The wonder is that the women don’t all flee screaming en masse.

I take it extra-personally, I suppose, because I have been teaching comics and writing in middle schools and high schools here in Seattle for almost twenty years. The vast majority of my students have been girls, many of whom have grown up to become smart young women who’ve gone on to table at shows with their own comics ‘zines and art. The thought that they might have to contend with this kind of institutionalized misogyny, just to keep on doing work they love, makes me livid. I admit it.

Then there’s this idiocy from Wondercon last week, the clueless shirt salesman who still doesn’t get why anyone might have found this offensive.

Called on it, he explained that he didn’t mean ALL fangirls, just the ones he deemed unfit. Like that makes it better.

It’s hard enough to be in comics in the first place. There’s no fame or glamor attached to it, it’s really hard work, and there’s not very much money. Why make it harder for people– any people, regardless of gender– who want to join in to do so? Why shut out half the population? Haven’t enough of us had personal experience with bullying gatekeepers who declare we’re not cool enough for their particular group? How can anyone who’s experienced that turn around and do the exact same thing to someone else? What the hell is wrong with these idiots?

But that’s as far as I could take it. I didn’t have any real answer, no counter to the ignominious state of the status quo. I could write about how angry it makes me and use this platform here to publish it, but that’s about it.

But clearly Rachel Edidin is smarter than me because she thought of something really cool. That’s what I wanted to share with you. All the preceding was preamble.

She, along with Arturo Garcia, Elle Collins, and Jen Vaughn, have started this great Tumblr campaign called We Are Comics. Here’s the mission statement:

We are comics: creators, publishers, retailers, readers; professionals and fans. And we are a lot more diverse than you might think.

We Are Comics is a campaign to show—and celebrate—the faces of our community, our industry, and our culture; to promote the visibility of marginalized members of our population; and to stand in solidarity against harassment and abuse.

It’s really simple. You submit a photo and a quick paragraph about what you love about comics and your involvement with them. Fan, pro, doesn’t matter. Just looking at the various pictures and the personal stories that have come in so far has been tremendously cheering. Given the speed with which the submissions have been coming in, pretty soon they’ll have a huge mosaic portrait of the comics audience– and it’s a hell of a lot more diverse and tolerant than many people think it is. I knew in my heart that fandom just couldn’t be dominated by all those Simpsons Comic Book Guys, but it sure is nice to see all the others speaking up.

Again, here’s the link. Here’s where you can submit your own entry. And if you’re one of those who reads about awful misogynist comics fans and says to yourself, God that’s horrible I would never do that, take a minute and put it on the record. Be heard. It may not seem like much but it’s better than the echoing nothing we’ve had up to this point.

Here’s the one I sent in:

My name is Greg and I’ve loved comics since I was six years old. This is me and my wife Julie and a bunch of the students and graduates of the Cartooning after-school arts program at our booth at Emerald City Con, where the students– who are usually female– display their art and their ‘zines every year. I write about comics and pop culture every week at CBR, but the single thing I’m proudest of in all my years in and around comic books is opening the door for these talented young ladies and many others to come and do their own comics and be part of it all. Comics and reading gave me a badly-needed safe harbor to go to when I was a kid, and being able to provide that same refuge for so many of my students now, and to see them blossom and come into their own, has been easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been part of. I hope this campaign shows everyone how important it is to keep comics a safe and welcoming environment for anyone who wants to be part of it.


So that’s mine. Let’s see yours. It’s just a few minutes out of your life and you probably can do it without leaving the desk you’re sitting at to read this column, but it’ll mean a lot, to a lot of people, to see some decency from fans put out there.

Give it some thought. And I’ll see you back here, next week.

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