In the tradition of superhero comics, a recap page for readers who have missed out on the difficult-to-follow saga:
Over the last few years, a group of outspoken bigots, trolls and opportunists have convened under the banner of “ComicsGate” or #ComicsGate, a name inspired by the GamerGate harassment campaigns that continue to plague the videogame community. The stated “goal” of ComicsGate is to Make Comics Great Again by…harassing marginalized creators on YouTube and Twitter? It’s unclear what ComicsGate pretends to think it’s doing, but it engages in concern-trolling to pass itself off as a genuine movement to improve the sales of mainstream monthly comics which, in ComicsGate’s eyes, have been damaged by “forced” diversity and liberal politics. We’re not going to waste time rebutting this, because you can’t win an argument with someone arguing in bad faith. Any struggles the mainstream superhero comic industry may face can only be aided by diversifying the talent behind the books and the audience consuming them—to believe otherwise is ridiculous. Doubling down on a specific, dwindling subset of consumers will only hasten the slide into irrelevancy.
ComicsGate’s most visible personalities include a rabidly transphobic self-published creator who believes himself unfairly shut out of the mainstream industry and a former A-list superhero artist with a long history of online bullying and harassment. We’re not going to name them here because they don’t deserve the publicity and we don’t deserve a legal headache. It’s difficult to say that ComicsGate aligns perfectly with alt-right ideologies, but the group shares many of its trolling tactics and rhetorical devices with fringe conservatives, and one of ComicsGate’s common complaints is that “conservative” (i.e. openly bigoted) voices aren’t more prominent in mainstream comics. At least two outspoken right-leaning creators with successful runs at Marvel and DC went on bigoted Twitter rants in the last year, cried censorship when they faced backlash and parlayed the attention into successful crowd-funding initiatives. When angled the right way, it seems that being “shut out” of mainstream comics can be very lucrative for the men of ComicsGate.
While ComicsGate’s biggest incidents have revolved around the “Big Two” of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, ComicsGate routinely harasses independent cartoonists of color, trans creators, queer critics and anyone else in the comic community who doesn’t conform to their view of who “should” be making, reading and discussing comics. This didn’t start with ComicsGate’s harassment of female Marvel employees drinking milkshakes, or even with Marvel writer Chelsea Cain’s Feminist Agenda. This has been going on for years, before the label “ComicsGate” stuck. Marginalized creators, whether they publish independently or through Marvel and DC, rarely have any choice in engaging with ComicsGate; if the group catches wind of you, you can face everything from Twitter harassment to doxxing and death threats. The straight, cisgender and typically white men who still make up the majority of the mainstream comic industry, on the other hand, usually have the privilege to pick and choose when they address ComicsGate, and that brings us to this weekend’s events.
Less than a week ago, a ComicsGate-affiliated Twitter account posted a video that proved, in his eyes, that late comic legend Darwyn Cooke would have supported ComicsGate. Marsha Cooke, Darwyn's widow, quickly (and awesomely) clarified that Darwyn “thought you comics gate idiots were a bunch of crybaby losers ruining comics.” Anyone with an ounce of self-awareness would have deleted their account in shame, but because we live in the most idiotic possible timeline, what ensued was a drawn-out debate over whether or not a widow knows her deceased husband better than a bunch of random assholes on Twitter.
As with Chelsea Cain and “Make Mine Milkshake” before it, the attacks on Marsha Cooke's character were finally enough to trigger reactions from a large number of mainstream comic professionals, from Jeff Lemire to Bill Sienkiewicz to Tom Taylor, whose condemnation of ComicsGate became something of a viral tweet. Fans, pros and retailers copied and pasted Taylor's tweet word for word as a show of solidarity. Unfortunately, not all of Taylor's words were well chosen.
In case you can't read the embedded tweet, Taylor posted: “I believe comics are for everyone. There is no excuse for harassment. There is no place for homophobia, transphobia, racism or misogyny in comics criticism.” Given how rarely mainstream creators weigh in on ComicsGate, there is much to appreciate about Taylor's statement. It's unambiguous in supporting marginalized identities and it is fairly inclusive in addressing the most common forms of bigotry ComicsGate practices. It's the final word of the tweet that set off a wave of responses.
ComicsGate is not a venue for “comics criticism.” While it's true that prominent ComicsGate personalities “review” comics on YouTube, these reviews are often targeted attacks that focus more on the identities of comic creators than on the book's contents. Sometimes these “reviews” take the form of a ComicsGate affiliate stabbing a book he doesn't like with a knife. This is not, it shouldn't have to be said, “criticism,” and labeling it as such externalizes the problem. Comics criticism is thankless enough without dropping ComicsGate at the feet of under- or unpaid critics who write about comics out of passion for the medium. But beyond any wounded critic egos, labeling ComicsGate as “criticism” only serves to legitimize ComicsGate's claims and give mainstream creators a certain comfortable distance in condemning their actions. If ComicsGate is a criticism problem, it stands to reason, then there is less responsibility for creators to reckon with their own ongoing role in the problem.
The loudest voices in ComicsGate are former Marvel and DC creators, along with a self-published writer who is upset that DC and Marvel doesn't return his calls. While Taylor surely meant well and has since clarified his intent, another prominent Tom, Batman and Mister Miracle writer Tom King, spoke out in even hazier terms yesterday.
“Comics aren’t for everyone,” he tweeted alongside a David Finch/Jordie Bellaire page from his own Batman run. “Created by the children of immigrants, it is the medium of the outsider and the outcast, the nerd who won’t fit in. We exist, we thrive because we recognize and amplify the voices to those who must struggle mightily to be heard. We say, I’m here.”
In a discussion about the harassment heaped on women, creators of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals, valorizing the concept of the Outsider Nerd is…not great. Not only is it disingenuous to pretend like superhero comics are an obscure passion in 2018—comics have inspired some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, comic adaptations have found success on a dozen TV networks and comic-related merchandise is ubiquitous most of the world over—it’s also a frequent talking point of the very harassers King is ostensibly speaking against. ComicsGate, like GamerGate before it, seeks to frame the industry as a haven for the (straight white cis male) nerd with nowhere else to go, now besieged by “social justice warriors” and girls with cooties. Even giving King’s intentions the benefit of the doubt, his politically neutral language still “reads like one of those doormats that says ‘welcome’ no matter what side you’re standing on,” as succinctly worded by fellow creator Jen Bartel. Yes, superhero comics have a fundamental connection to the immigrant experience and have been punching Nazis since the ‘40s, but the specific problem today is that marginalized creators can’t create without placing themselves at risk for targeted harassment.
Of course, before King even tweeted his statement, Taylor’s seemingly less ambiguous condemnation was co-opted by ComicsGate anyway. Dozens of ComicsGate accounts tweeted the same phrases as Taylor, with the added, “We are #ComicsGate and this is what we believe.” Troll movements see no cognitive dissonance in claiming to stand against transphobia while idolizing a figurehead who constantly misgenders the trans creators he dislikes. ComicsGate will always excuse the most extreme actions of its adherents as outliers among a well-intentioned group, which is why even the best-worded tweets will never sufficiently address the harassment perpetuated by hateful individuals with too much time on their hands.
There is no simple or straightforward way to “fix” or “defeat” ComicsGate. GamerGate has been around longer, and while it generates fewer headlines, its effects are still very much felt around the gaming industry. In all likelihood, ComicsGate is a Pandora’s box that can’t be shut again. Now that opportunists have discovered that there’s money to be made in weaponizing bigotry in comics, they and others like them will ride the hate wave as far as it will take them. At the very least, prominent creators like Taylor, Lemire, Sienkiewicz, King and their many peers who still remain silent should continue to speak up, and to actively listen and process feedback from marginalized community members when their words fall short of acknowledging the actual problem.
Beyond the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” on Twitter, the most powerful members of the comics industry and community need to pay attention to who’s being harassed even when it’s not someone one step removed from Marvel or DC Comics. ComicsGate has so far only seen significant backlash when they’ve gone after well-connected white women in the industry—will A-list creators speak up for the self-published Black women who routinely get targeted, or the trans indie cartoonists whose Twitter notifications are made a daily hell by ComicsGate followers? If comics are truly for everyone, then a direct relationship with Marvel Comics shouldn’t be a prerequisite for support when a hate group harasses you. Well-intentioned tweets are a great start, but now it’s time for the most visible and secure voices in the industry to begin the hard work of listening to and uplifting those of us most at risk. ComicsGate probably isn’t going away any time soon, but consistent, unambiguous and thoughtful support from those in positions of power will go a long way toward minimizing the harm internet bigots can enact on the comic community’s most vulnerable members.