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Harassment in the Comics Industry, and How to End It: An Investigation

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The comics industry is in deep trouble. Not because it isn’t getting taken seriously, it is; the sheer volume of comic book movies, novels and articles about comics can attest to that.

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It isn’t even that comics aren’t making money. Sales are up in many key ways, women are in particular buying more books than ever before, and that holds true for PoC as well. Independent comics are selling more than ever. In some ways the entire industry is in the best place it has ever been in. So why is the industry in deep trouble?

The people that actually make the comics we read–the business people, editors, artists, scriptwriters, and colorists are almost all men. Let’s clarify this further–almost all are able, white, straight, cisgender men. This is reflected in the representation of gender in comics; only about one in four comic book characters are women, they appear approximately 30% of the time compared to male characters. It’s even worse when it comes to PoC, and worse still for LGBTQ+ and disabled characters in comics.

Having a near monolithic ethnicity, gender and sexual preference in any group of people making media is a problem. Diversity becomes marginalised at best, or it is brushed off, or at worst, repelled. Without diverse staff it becomes impossible to know what might be a problem. Take a look at Marvel’s Hip Hop cover disaster. You know how many trans people are working on mainstream comics? Very few. I know of Sophie Campbell on Jem and the Holograms, and myself on Fresh Romance. (There are more than this, I believe, but I don’t know them. If you do, give a shout out in the comments, please!)

Significant lack of diversity creates other problems; it enables culturally reinforced and accepted inappropriate behavior.

According to a source I spoke to for this article who wished to remain nameless, one of the most senior editors at DC is known by management to have multiple sexual harassment allegations already in his HR file. Instead of firing someone who has behaved inappropriately multiple times, DC has, according to my well-known source, stopped hiring women who would have to work with him. This offender was kept in the DC offices when DC made the move from its New York City location to Burbank–possibly because he’s not the company’s worst offender.

There is allegedly another employee still working at DC who allegedly assaulted a woman multiple times in his office. The woman concerned reported him multiple times to management at DC and the person who hired her, but didn’t receive the support she needed and eventually left DC altogether. Instead of firing the alleged offender for his actions, DC, I am told, moved him from comics to another department. It was apparently considered more important to shield the man involved, than to offer support to the woman. The man allegedly now works under a tacit rule where no women are allowed alone in his office.

According to another source who requested anonymity, another DC editor is allegedly renowned within the industry for the way he ‘mentors’ women (his ‘process’ allegedly involves sleeping with them). This has reportedly been going on for years, and is considered an ‘open secret’ at the company. But it’s not just DC. According to another source, Marvel Comics employs a non editorial staffer who staff now apparently seat away from any women at events. He’s well known for his wandering hands, and they tend to wander up the legs of women nearby without asking for consent first. The same source told about another Marvel regular who worked on very prominent titles in the 80s and 90s is well-known for inappropriate touching.

Marvel’s recently-announced Red Wolf title has also become a very public PR disaster for employing a publicly named and accused abuser. Many readers feel Marvel is forcing fans to choose to either support a diverse book knowing that they are also supporting the abuser, or not support the book but hurt the sales of a diverse comic. It’s a situation that could easily be avoided by Marvel removing the problem individual and then continuing with the title, but the easy solution has not been publicly discussed by Marvel.

Two different sources told me the same story involving a smaller press. I can only reveal the specifics of one story, as one of those sources asked for some of the information to be withheld. The man involved allegedly has a drinking issue, is deeply disliked by staffers, and has reportedly grabbed employees’ crotches (and in one instance, licked an employee’s ear) without permission. Multiple incidents have happened in public, but for various reasons I can’t discuss those at this time. I was told two other stories about small independent press, but was asked not to give that information out. I’m not sure what it takes to be a guy and get fired from a comics publisher but I know it must take a lot.

Lack of diversity in comics is being reinforced by the industry’s failure to support victims of harassment and its protection of abusers. The volume of abuse within the industry has created a culture of fear and protectionism, and although women and people of color are the usual targets, that’s not to say men have not been affected too. I was told a story by one source of a straight guy getting his crotch grabbed by another guy. The comic book industry is small and very set in its ways, and we have a situation right now where the abusers keep getting rehired but those trying to blow the whistle are blacklisted.

As a script and article writer (and very part time webcomic creator), I would worry about getting blacklisted, too; but given that I’m a trans woman, in the current comic culture I’m more likely to find an iguana on a unicycle singing show tunes in my fridge before I’d get hired at either DC or Marvel. For other people within the industry the risk of talking to people is too great.

In investigating this article, I asked influential comics industry people in private for information, and I’ve yelled it across Twitter publicly, asking for people to step forward and provide me examples either on or off the record. Very few people were willing to do it. The culture of fear, of getting blacklisted, is that strong. These people have to work with the abusers and meet them many times a year at cons, which can be people’s main or sole income. The risk of them getting discovered as the person that talked is still too great. I really cannot blame people for not taking that risk.

Which leaves us in the situation we’re in now. Despite my total confidence in my sources, I can’t publicly name the abusive people within the comics industry, for fear of legal action they might take to silence me. The only thing I can do is keep shining a light on the abuses as they get spoken about, because at last the dam of silence has cracks in it. The protectionist culture is finally breaking down, and I’ve been told that huge stories are coming on two different editors. If you want proof of the cracks, there is Brian Wood’s newsletter that was dumped onto pastebin. Wood is the writer of Star Wars, Wolverine, and Hellboy comics; his newsletter was apparently an appeal to people not to speak out against the abusers because the abusers might kill themselves.

Yes, the abusers. Not the abused. This is how bad things are, people are speaking up for the abusers.

I love comics. I love reading them, writing them and also writing about them; comics are a big part of my life. What I don’t love is the industry that currently surrounds comics. Quite a few people are fighting to change it, and all respect to them. They are the brave ones. I think the industry needs to make the following changes:

  • Stop the blacklisting of people within the industry. Now.
  • Start enforcing HR policy. If you don’t have appropriate HR policy, create it now.
  • Support and believe people reporting abuse within these companies. A safe reporting structure. Investigate and prevent people from protecting abusers.
  • No-one is exempt from investigation, regardless of how high they are up in the company. With great power…
  • Create a diversity awareness education program that all staff must complete.
  • If you have failed to hire diverse staff over the last 60 years or so, announce a system of enhanced hiring of diverse staff at ALL LEVELS. You can’t seem to do it on your own naturally so force the issue forward.
  • Announce that anyone being abusive to others will face sanctions, including firing and legal action.

Hiring new, more diverse staff will start breaking up the near monolithic able white straight male culture and bring in new people from different backgrounds. Preventing blacklisting will allow people to talk freely. Enforcing HR policy and taking action against abusers will educate staff on what constitutes abuse, and what the consequences for abuse will be.

The current situation within comics can be fixed, and it will obviously come with creative benefits as well– when people are safer they are happier, when people are happier they work better and more productively, which means we’d get better comics. It’s a win-win for both the readers and workers within the comics industry.

Regardless, the current culture of sexism, harassment, and reprisals against those who have the courage to report it, needs to end. Now.

Marcy (@marcyjcook) is an immigrant trans woman and writer. This includes, a website dedicated to informing and helping trans Canadians. She also has a nerd job, too many cats, is a part time volunteer sex educator and has an ongoing sordid love affair with Lego. Those last two are not related… probably.

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