For the past month or so, the key buzzword in comics has been “conversation.” At some point, the problem children of comics realized that shock was a loaded term and they needed to find a new way to absolve themselves of blame and guilt any time a questionable work of theirs received intense scrutiny and negative criticism. And so we landed on conversation, a word that instills a sense of casualness and low stakes but also education and growth. We have conversations with friends, relatives, coworkers, strangers. We may not always enjoy those conversations, but they’re a necessary part of being in society, a key component of the exchange of ideas that differentiates us from animals. And yet, who hasn’t been stuck in a conversation they desperately wish to escape? A conversation where one party dominates the discussion and shouts down others? A conversation that goes nowhere, never ends and pushes everyone involved in it further apart?
As much as Eric Stephenson and Image Comics, the company he has proudly made himself the vocal face of, trumpet the conversations they have started with Howard Chaykin’s Divided States of Hysteria, it is abundantly clear they have no interest in these conversations being two sided. Image Comics under Eric Stephenson has become the type of conversationalist you avoid in a room, the red faced bully who refuses to answer questions about their approach and just cackles at you for not being able to take a joke and being “too sensitive”. And the comics community, for whatever reason, has largely embraced this, following Stephenson’s lead and helping twist necessary, uncomfortable conversations about representation into obnoxious messes of strawman arguments, loaded diversions and erasure.
This is how we arrive at a point where the outcry over a despicable cover featuring a hate crime and slur is treated as an isolated incident and not part of a large, complex conversation many people have been trying to have with Image for several years, a conversation which resurfaced less than a month ago because Image marketed the same comic in a way that was exploitative of Pride and then issued a statement that did not address this but instead gloated about the controversy increasing sales. As much as the comics industry hopes this conversation will die down, though, it is only going to continue to escalate, particularly since Image’s statement on this most recent cover once again does not make any apology for using Pride to market Divided States of Hysteria despite concerns by trans fans and critics over its scenes of brutal, senseless violence against a problematically constructed trans character, in fact it does not even make a single mention of this prior incident.
By completely ignoring these concerns and the frustrations the queer community has with Image presenting itself as an ally (and even coopting Pride imagery on social media and in advertising), Eric Stephenson and Image send a message that they only value queer fans and creators for marketing purposes. Image is happy to talk all day about freedom of expression and artistic rights as long as those subjects are used to excuse their behavior. And the comics industry is happy to talk all day about those same subjects as long as they don’t also have to discuss why women, people of color and members of the queer community never seem to be afforded the same level of expression or support. Both Image and the comics industry are also eager to discuss the threat posed by editors, as long as you mean in regards to editorial interference with their work, and not the longstanding issues with editors like Eddie Berganza at DC and Scott Allie at Dark Horse sexually harassing and assaulting their employees and freelancers.
It has been incredibly disappointing to watch the comics industry rally behind Image’s “right to shock,” constantly steering the conversation towards that neverending comics demand for publishers to let artists long past their prime release whatever idiotic hot take they think will make people pay attention to them again. It doesn’t matter that when pressed, most supporters of Divided States of Hysteria will admit that while they demand critics be intimately familiar with Howard Chaykin’s work before commenting on it, they haven’t read any of the artist’s work in more than a decade. For them, this is only a battle for free speech, happening in a vacuum, completely unconnected to longstanding issues transpiring at Image to too little notice. It’s a one sided conversation, where they have the right to freely express every problematic view they desire while you only have the right to shut up and listen and any statement about both Image and Howard Chaykin’s longstanding trans representation issues rooted in in-depth knowledge of these subjects won’t be considered.
And what’s heartbreaking is that in the case of Image, the trans community is always the first to be swept under the rug. Trans fans, critics and creators have tried desperately to get Image Comics to respect them when the company makes a mistake, whether it’s one of their creators harassing a trans critic for bringing attention to recurring trans representation problems in a hit book or trans slurs in another “shocking” title. In that latter instance, Image creator James Robinson admitted he was at fault and worked to apologize for and correct his behavior, but the publisher itself was inexplicably silent. The conversation happened around Image, with the company coasting on it’s “at least we’re not Marvel or DC” reputation to avoid scrutiny, paving the way for the failures of the Divided States of Hysteria marketing and statements. That previous incident, in fact, gave the industry the talking points it’s now using to actively shut down true conversation, particularly if it has less to do with freedom of expression than it does with Image’s exploitation of the queer community and people of color.
James Robinson was left to fend for himself, because, as the company and its supporters love to point out, Image isn’t a “traditional publisher.” While Robinson wrote in a number of his peers and even Stephenson himself into Airboy, we are expected to believe no one at Image is aware of anything anyone else is doing. As has been pointed out a number of times during this Divided States of Hysteria mess, Image doesn’t have editors, so how could anyone know what was going to happen with the series? Nevermind the fact that in his statement bragging about increased sales of Divided States of Hysteria, Stephenson made it clear he had read and fully supported everything that would be happening in the title. And because Image isn’t a traditional publisher, how could it stop a book by one of its creators from being published? Nevermind the fact that there are plenty of titles throughout Image’s history that have been canceled for any number of reasons, and their status as a flexible, non-contract bound publisher actually makes it much easier for them to drop titles than traditional publishers.
To make it even clearer how manipulative it is for Image to constantly hide behind its structure, take a look at how the indie music community dealt with the revelation that queer punk band PWR BTTM were guilty of ongoing harassment of fans and peers. Within a week of the mere accusation that PWR BTTM was engaging in harassment, the band was dropped by its label and publicity firm and its tour was canceled. It didn’t matter that PWR BTTM was on an indie label structured more or less identically to Image, the problem was brought to light, discussed and properly reacted to. And while it is important to keep in mind that the members of themselves are queer, unlike Howard Chaykin and Eric Stephenson, and thus don’t enjoy the privilege those straight white men do, this is the type of conversation and follow-through comics should be seeking to emulate rather than decades old discussions of dead anti-comics zealot Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code Authority his claims about comics provoked the creation of. Instead of hand wringing over supposed witch hunts, PWR BTTM’s peers largely spoke up against the band’s behavior and supported the band’s label and support staff for dropping them. So far, this has not led to the utter destruction of the indie music community.
It is of the utmost importance that fans, critics and pros not back down from putting pressure on Image to improve, and that they specifically force Image to acknowledge and reckon with their exploitation of the queer community. The comics industry must not be allowed to duck out of this conversation and Image needs to answer for its decision to not just publish a series as insensitive and irresponsible as Divided States of Hysteria, but to also market it by exploiting the queer community. To make it clear how much worse this situation is getting, look no further than this extremely concerning statement from the team behind the upcoming Image series Moonstruck which indicates that Image is now eagerly letting underrepresented creators on their roster literally take on the financial burden of educating other Image creators and staff. Let me reiterate that: the team behind Moonstruck is so concerned with the Divided States of Hysteria situation they offered to pay for Image creators to go through trans sensitivity webinars and Image did not take on the cost themselves but instead let the team pay out of pocket to clean up the company’s mess. It’s also necessary to point out that despite Stephenson apparently privately telling the Moonstruck team he is supportive of educating himself and others, he has yet to release a public statement or apologize for the original issues with how Divided States of Hysteria was marketed with Pride imagery.
The message this sends is that Image is happy to take money from the queer community, whether it’s in the form of sales or the funding of sensitivity training that they refuse to publicly acknowledge they need, but that it does not respect the queer community enough to apologize for their ongoing representation issues. It is long past time that this consistent disrespect by Stephenson and Image Comics to the trans community in particular is allowed to be the center of conversation rather than the ego stroking artistic expression and anti-editor conversations that always distract from it. The comics community can no longer be allowed to ignore and erase this conversation or dictate the terms under which conversations about representation happen. And if Image continues to refuse to engage with this conversation, then they must face the repercussions of that, whether it’s a boycott by fans or an effort by pros to make their publisher be accountable for this or some combination of both. Image must not be allowed to continue to use the queer community exclusively for their gain while presenting themselves as “the Future of Comics” and we must rally behind the queer community, not Image Comics, as they fight to be recognized and respected. Any viable future of this industry must center around acknowledging and overcoming the bad elements that have plagued comics and perpetually stunted its growth.
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