Spend enough time looking at comics harassment controversies and you’ll quickly notice what all of the ones that get attention from pros in comics have in common: fandom. As this week’s Marvel Milkshake incident proved, comics pros are usually willing to speak up about harassment when it’s coming from fans irate over things as benign as a group photo of women at Marvel enjoying a treat, just as they were with the fan harassment thrown the way of Chelsea Cain after sexist idiots took issue with a cover for her series Mockingbird. But when the harassment is coming from inside the house of comics, creators are curiously silent or, in a depressing number of cases, supportive of the harasser rather than the victims.
Like clockwork, the Marvel Milkshake incident was immediately followed up by another harassment incident that put this hypocrisy into sharp relief. Aggravated by an essay at Kotaku by Heather Alexandra about the “mean-spirited satire” of his game franchise Earthworm Jim, comics creator Doug TenNapel proceeded to target Alexandra on Twitter and purposefully misgender her, setting an example for his legion of trollish fans, implicitly encouraging them to do the same.
TenNapel, who also writes for alt-right hate site Breitbart, has a long history of homophobia and general bigotry yet most other creators who happily jumped into the Milkshake fray are currently remaining curiously silent on TenNapel.
Two of the most prominent creators who are speaking up are Tamra Bonvillain and Magdalene Vissagio, who are themselves trans, once again putting an unfair burden on the communities being victimized while privileged creators who generally frame themselves as allies are not present. Creators know that fans, generally speaking, have no individual power over their careers, so it’s always easier to speak up about their behavior than stand up for their peers when other peers target and harass them.
It goes without saying that harassment within the industry also almost always targets underrepresented groups, so even when creators call out fan harassment, they save their biggest support for white male comic pros like Nick Spencer and Tom Brevoort and white women anyway. As MJ Rae put it in her essay on the Milkshake incident at Comicosity
We must take this opportunity to consider the marginalized creators who are being criticized every. single. day. just for existing in this industry and in the world.
Folks in the comics industry, fans, creators, professionals from all walks of life, stepped up to support this hashtag. They went out of their way to go buy a milkshake, take that milkshake to their local comic book shop, take a picture with their friends, and then tweet about it. This kind of support can spread like wildfire and draw attention to an issue, but it becomes performative if people only put in this effort when it is easy.
The fact is, it is overwhelmingly easier to defend, support, and stand with white women. Do not misunderstand this point: it is correct to lend a hand, but where is that same effort when things get hard?
TenNapel’s attempt to harass Alexandra out of her right to speak provided a perfect opportunity for comics to show it can also put it in effort “when things get hard,” but so far, the industry has failed to do so, and by failing the trans community specifically, comics continues a disturbing tradition of letting down that community every single time a trans representation crisis happens in comics. Is it any wonder that trans creators aren’t just exhausted by this consistent failure but also losing faith in the industry as a result of it?
There’s a sharp divide in the people I see interact with anything I have to say in general and on trans things. Losing a lot of trust, tbh
— Tamra Bonvillain (@TBonvillain) August 4, 2017
And who can blame them? Any given week, you’ll see more condemnation from creators of a reviewer Declan Shalvey has singled out for not properly crediting artists than any instance of transphobia or racism or sexism by a comics pro. More pros spoke up about Howard Chaykin’s right to not have bigoted, racist imagery edited out of an Image title than will defend Alexandra’s right to criticize TenNapel. And even outed predators in behind the scenes positions in the industry, like Scott Allie at Dark Horse and Eddie Berganza at DC, remain employed and oversee the work of “allies” who more often than not don’t call out how absurd that is, particularly when DC and Marvel capitalize on things like the Milkshake incident by “joining forces to send out a defiant message against misogynistic online abuse” despite the fact that DC continues to not do a damn thing about the misogynistic abuser within their ranks.
While it’s absolutely correct to call out fans for general harassment of creators, after a certain point, one must ask what is going on in comics that encourages some fans to believe they can behave this way. And when one does that, it’s necessary to examine whether the comics industry’s choice in what it does or does not speak out against is contributing. There is a message that is sent to fans when comics companies keep sexual predators employed, when creators refuse to call out the bad behavior of their peers, when they leave underrepresented pros and critics out to dry whenever they’re harassed. That message is that comics is not only willing to tolerate harassment but to foster it and let it grow, and that as long as you don’t go after the groups of people comics has decided are worth defending, you can do whatever you want.
If this industry wants respect and to be taken seriously, as it so often loudly claims it does, then it must reflect on these problems and how the industry’s general behavior contributes to them. Comics are stronger creatively than they’ve ever been before and much of that is due to the influx of bold, fearless voices from communities that have historically been shut out of the medium. These people are bravely forcing comics to change and the least we can do is support them any time they feel harassed, regardless of whether that’s coming from fandom or pros.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover