Why is the Comics Industry Still Struggling with Harassment?

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Conversations regarding harassment within the comics community, and the accountability for that harassment, have reached a fever pitch. Professionals and commentators have spoken more openly about the sexual harassment of creators and editorial staffers by fellow creators, editors and executives. On her personal blog, No Mercy writer Alex de Campi wrote, “I am sick to death of corporate comics telling me they caaare about me and my lady-dollar as a reader, and then continuing to employ/protect known harassers.” Within two weeks, journalist and former Marvel writer Valerie D’Orazio, who said she was forced out of the industry by a campaign of harassment that had few repercussions, wrote, “The list of female talent and editors who have been pushed out of this industry is huge. It’s a scandal, and I don’t see it really ending until the way comics themselves are produced, distributed, and promoted changes.” While these conversations are not new—The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald recalls several instances of similar discourse springing up intermittently since 2006—they are becoming more frequent and more prominent, due largely to the proliferation of new media. Social channels have enabled the historically unheard to speak openly, bolstered by the rise of a new generation of journalists and critics deploying more objective measures.

What all of this new conversation actually means, however, is still up for debate. While some perceive the unprecedented dialogue as a boon with some downsides, others consider it as downright malignant with fleeting perks. Cartoonist and writer about comics Sarah Horrocks says these channels cultivate a “mob culture…which largely seeks to fan its own flames of outrage to an undefined end, without perspective, largely for its own weekly entertainment.” Horrocks’ isn’t alone in her views—author Jon Ronson’s recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is dedicated to excoriating that culture. Less common, however, is the perspective that this discourse actually leads to a hard conclusion. Writer Brian Wood, who was accused of sexually harassing Rat Queens artist Tess Fowler, sent an unsolicited newsletter, which Horrocks was addressing in her remarks, to writers, artists and journalists. The very first line? “It’s going to end with someone killing themselves.” Wood never asserts that this is an intended consequence, but describes suicide as a “natural end to all this…”

The claim describes the severity of the dialogue and is designed to cool the discourse, even if it obscures the circumstances. Wood follows up his suicidal prophesying by saying that people are seeking “empathy,” which is consistent with Valerie D’Orazio’s initial broaching of her harassment by X-Men ’92 and ComicsAlliance writer Chris Sims: “I think Sims totally has the right to write his X-Men comic… For a living I help others tell their unique stories in comic book form—and every story is important.” But Wood insists that the open-ended nature of these conversations enables those who lack empathy. If people intent on exposing predators and harassers can’t articulate a specific—and benevolent—goal, what possible outcome could they expect?

Well, a reasonable outcome, as a few voices have offered. Nick Hanover, who in full-disclosure, I have written for and am friends with, makes the goal explicit: “eliminating protectors of predators and outmoded structures that hide their bad behavior.” While the ambiguity of language allows for a more sinister reading, the gist is basic: standing HR policies need to be enforced, editors should cease assigning work to offenders and comics as a culture should cultivate an open conversation without fear of reciprocation or shaming.

Unfortunately, that shift is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Take the most recent, and one of the highest-profile manifestations, of this problem: the accusations levied at Scott Allie, former editor-in-chief and current Senior Executive Editor of Dark Horse Comics. Allie, who apologized for an incident at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. Allie, who reportedly bit and inappropriately touched creators under the influence of alcohol, is still with the company. Mike Richardson, founder and owner of Dark Horse, issued a statement in response:

I also want to make one thing very clear: Dark Horse as a company, and myself as an individual, take the kinds of inexcusable incidents reported by [Janelle] Asselin very seriously—doubly so when it involves one of our employees. In cases such as these, we have been proactive in our response, with a variety of professional services involved, all with the goal of changing behavior. Additionally, a number of internal responses are acted upon, including termination if such behavior continues. Under no circumstance is any individual “harbored.” In this particular case, action was taken immediately, though we did not, and cannot, perform a public flogging, as some might wish.

The accusation and admission that Allie was under the influence of alcohol makes his case inherently more complicated. Alcoholism is acknowledged under the Americans with Disabilities Act. While it’s impossible to know the factor this plays internally, Dark Horse appears to follow the precedent established in Rogers v. Lehman, which provides a five-step sequence of action an employer can take—beginning with the offer for counseling. Discharge isn’t allowed until treatment has been completed and a relapse has occurred; an employer cannot simply fire an employee suffering from alcoholism if that person “is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job.” Who determines what that bar is remains murky, because it’s a subjective left up to the individual’s employer, a standard unenforceable by anyone who may be an objective party to the situation. And there lies the rub—a wrinkle that recurs in discourse surrounding harassment. If this were an isolated incident, it would be merely unfortunate, but Allie’s situation is simply a recent anecdote that illustrates a larger, systemic point.

Like other instances, Allie’s case falls within the realm of intercompany (and personal) politics. There is no version of this that is objective. And in this realm of subjectivity, emotionally-motivated decision making can influence outcomes; not just in Allie’s case, but in all of these situations. In any instance where someone is accused of harassment or professional misconduct, the accusers and the people responsible for punishing them are forced to consider the accused’s actions in the context of their relationships. Maybe they’ve worked together for years, met each other’s families, shared meals or mutual struggles—all things that solidify lasting relationships.

Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter offers his own take on how to end this cycle:

My guess is that comics may not have the constitution to seriously work through these issues because of how closely its culture is driven by personal and social need, in the same way that issues of aggressive violence are difficult for a wider US culture that’s fear- and entitlement-driven. It may be, then, that it’s going to take a brave figure to stand up and sue the bejesus out of an individual, their supervisor, their company, the host of a party, the setting of a party, the convention under whose auspices this takes and five or six people I can’t think of at 3:20 in the morning.

And he’s not wrong. The Supreme Court of the United States of America considers incorporated entities people, and like people, corporations tend to operate within a framework of “permissible unless otherwise stated,” which is to say they believe they can unless they’re shown they can’t. “Many companies have codes of ethics, mission statements, commitments to social and environmental responsibility, etc,” says Roy Lewicki, ethics expert and Irving Abramowitz Memorial Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “They use these to guide decision making about a variety of issues. However, they are not REQUIRED to have them…” And while Lewicki insists that “[An organization] maintains its credibility by practicing what it preaches,” he also acknowledged that companies may lack a stated ethical imperative, or they may disregard it. This places the ethical obligations of corporations in a non-existent limbo—some may have them and adhere to them, but there’s no legal precedent for them being penalized if they were to ignore them. The only appeal is to a corporation’s “conscience.”

However, unlike people, corporations aren’t bothered by an inarticulable anxiety or guilt. Their conscience is purely fiscal, and an appeal to that conscience is any strategy that involves raiding their coffers. That is why, historically, lawsuits, and sometimes even just the threat of lawsuits, provide the impetus that impels companies to offer greater, more explicit and specific legal protections. Legal action can also instill a caution in companies, which makes them more likely to enforce those protections. To quote Frank Herbert, it is “a lesson they will remember in their bones.” Alex de Campi echoed this sentiment to Paste, saying, “Nobody in this entire fucking business operates a grown-up, professional HR department and someday it is going to bite them in the ass so hard…” The hard part is figuring out if creators or editorial employees have the grounds to bite a company in the ass.

“You can have legal liability two ways: what the law requires of you and the legal promises you make,” Katie Lane, lawyer and writer at Work Made For Hire, told Paste via email. “When a business has rules about how it will deal with harassment, those are promises it has to keep. If it doesn’t keep those promises and someone can prove they only worked for or with the business because of those promises, there’s the potential for liability.” While that may seem pretty black and white, those “promises” vary from company to company, and, in some cases, employee to employee.

Even if an environment of harassment persists, human resources protocols can only be initiated when, and if, someone comes forward to make a claim. Writing about her personal experience with harassment—this time from a fan—cartoonist Julie Wertz, whose work falls firmly outside the arbitrarily-defined “mainstream comics” community, inadvertently hits on why Spurgeon’s call-to-action may ultimately go unanswered.

The idea of the “angry militant feminist” is losing ground, but it definitely still exists. We’re also often accused of overreacting, which is infuriating and demeaning. All of it is infuriating, and sometimes it’s even scary, which is why when women address being harassed, we bring to it all the harassment of the past, and because we keep it all bottled up, it comes out with a lot of emotion and anger. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but hopefully the message will come through the (totally justifiable) anger.

Women may endure a strong social pressure to remain silent if harassed. That pressure is real—the result of a culture that blames the victim and leaves accountability in the hands of the very people abusing their power. For example, Ellen Pao was edged out of the Reddit executiveship by the virulent horde of sexist, racist trolls lurking on Reddit itself. Helen Lewis, writing for The New Statesman, articulates the situation well:

Allegations of sexual harassment are so difficult to deal with because they are about two things: hierarchy, and shame. Whistleblowers are often incredibly badly treated – even when they have sheaves of documents to prove wrongdoing. Imagine being a whistleblower when you know that half your listeners don’t think that being patted on the leg sounds like such a big deal, anyway.

But the willingness of Pao to fight has had a rippling effect, emboldening others to come forward with their stories.

These scenarios aren’t limited to corporate America, unfortunately, but they do manifest within that culture. This leads to de facto exclusive spaces, and it sometimes leads to defined exclusivity. Alex de Campi, for example, has accused DC Comics of purposely not hiring women in the Wonder Woman editorial department because of that department head’s habit of harassing his female employees.

Other than the disservice that such practices do to the affected employees, they also seal those corporate cultures, inoculating them against change. The longer they go unchecked, the longer they are allowed to perpetuate, and that culture becomes the norm. An exclusive environment stagnates quickly, and this practical trajectory has compounding negative effects on the innovative potential of a company. “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity,” writes Ruchika Tulshyan, “are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry peers.” (Racially diverse companies are 35 percent more likely.)

But, if the ossified bones of these companies have hardened to resist change, how then can these companies, and this industry, be bettered? Spurgeon had the right idea. It’s only through legal mandates—through self-preservation—and the explicit guarantee of certain employee rights and privileges that the toleration of inappropriate behavior will be curbed. Unfortunately, the comics industry isn’t in a place that’s friendly to those guarantees, and comics culture isn’t in a place to facilitate the necessary shift. At least, not right now it’s not.

Publishers Marvel and DC declined to comment.

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