Marvel's Mockingbird Vol. 1: I Can Explain currently sits at #1 on Amazon's “Best Sellers in Marvel Comics & Graphic Novels” list. Why? Because its writer, Chelsea Cain was harassed on Twitter and everyone got really, really angry about it. This isn't new. This is comics.
Being in the comics community, especially as a woman, is exhausting. I haven't read a comic in over a year because of how bad the industry makes me feel. And as someone who grew up looking up to superhero characters, it's also incredibly depressing. Superheroes are meant to embody the best aspects of human nature, those who care for others no matter the cost, the ones who fight for equality and against discrimination.
From gatekeeping, scolding, and snide remarks to full-on misogyny and harassment, some segments of the comics industry (creators and editorial included) and fans are depicting the very behavior our heroes are fighting against.
This is comics. Maybe not for those who've been catered to by the industry forever and already have a secure place there, but for countless women and LGBTQ+ fans it is. Is it just comics? No, we've seen the worst of the worst this year in the Ghostbusters backlash and as it trickled down to Leslie Jones. This kind of behavior is everywhere. But comics, being the smaller industry it is, can certainly do something about it.
Yesterday bestselling novelist Chelsea Cain, who had been taking her first foray into comics with Kate Niemczyk on Marvel's Mockingbird title, deleted her Twitter account after discussing the harassment she was receiving over her work.
The comic, which was explicitly feminist in nature, also featured a fantastic cover for issue #8 by Joëlle Jones which had the character wearing a shirt that read “Ask me about my feminist agenda.” There wasn't a ton of noise about it until yesterday when Cain let the world know she was being harassed over it, perhaps as some weird revenge over Marvel pulling J. Scott Campbell's Invincible Iron Man cover (something many others, particularly black women, were targeted for harassment over just last week).
Cain wrote a lengthy explanation of what she experienced on her website today. She explained that she had been getting a few odd comments here and there since she started on the series but yesterday was when it became overwhelming.
“During the life of that series, the tenor on my Twitter feed changed. Comics readers are 99% the best people you”d ever want to meet. The other 1% can be really mean. Perhaps that statistic holds up across humans, in general, but in my experience, this is a different kind of mean. It”s misogynist and dismissive and obsessive and it thrives off taking down other people,” she wrote. “Every time an issue came out. I”d get lots of love and support. And a handful of people who seem to thrive off making sure strangers feel hated. I guess it”s a way of being seen. It”s not different than what most comic book writers deal with, especially female ones. The tweets that bothered me were never the ones concerned with content; they were the ones that questioned my right to write comics at all, and were disgusted by the idea of a female hero having her own series.”
Cain went on to say a lot of what she was seeing seemed to be coming from those “mad at women in general.” She had announced she was “done with Twitter” and left the computer for a while. When she returned, she realized her feed had changed even more. “I did not leave Twitter because I was trolled,” she says, “I was trolled because I said I was going to leave Twitter.”
She also wrote: “There is still a vocal segment of the comic book readership that is dominated by sexist jerks with Twitter accounts. Twitter is still a highly flawed platform that nurtures a culture of bullying…Know that I did not leave Twitter because of rape threats or because someone had posted my address, or any of the truly vile tactics you hear about. I left Twitter because of the ordinary daily abuse that I decided I didn”t want to live with anymore.”
Prior to all of this, on October 17th, Cain announced Mockingbird had been canceled but said on Twitter, “We need to make sure @Marvel makes room for more titles by women about women kicking ass…Please buy Mockingbird #8 this Wed. Send a message to @marvel that there”s room in comics for super hero stories about grown-up women.” ComicsBeat.com noted at the time “Interestingly, the decision to cancel Mockingbird was made without waiting to see how trade sales of the book fare.” And now:
– Graphic Policy (@graphicpolicy) October 27, 2016
The bump in sales was likely directly affected by the wave of support to Cain, especially after she decided to delete her account. The hashtag #IStandWithChelseaCain (I've also seen #StandWithChelseaCain and #IStandWithChelsea used) started trending yesterday and many took photos of their individual comic purchase or purchase of the t-shirt (both versions of that are also best sellers now) in what was both a nice gesture but also a discouraging snapshot of how things have continued to grow worse in comics. Cain herself noted that in all her years writing thrillers, she'd never been harassed. Not until comics.
As great as the support is, the damage has been done. Cain has left Twitter and I wouldn't blame her for never writing comics again (others have done it after being treated horribly). Why should she when the companies themselves don't offer any type of training or support for situations like these which are becoming more and more regular? Elana Brooklyn writes on this for Graphic Policy:
This can mean stepping in in online conversations to explain why harassment is out of bounds. It can mean using their corporate power to get harassers banned from Twitter. It can also mean actually supporting excellent work from diverse voices even if it takes a little longer to become a hit and let people who do want to support diverse media know where to find it. It can also mean telling employees to stop harassing fans online. It can also mean publishers not bragging about being against social justice.
Yes, Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso said that. It's what makes his comment yesterday on Cain's situation so frustrating.
I stand w/ Chelsea Cain, condemn online harassment, and think the MU, and the industry, benefits & grows from diverse creators & characters.
– axel alonso (@axelalonsomarv) October 26, 2016
The fans seething with hate over diversity in their comics forget superheroes and their publishers have been sending progressive messages since the early days, but they're also spurred on when those in positions of power don't put words into actions. Or worse, feed into the worst of the worst.
Some creators tried to “help” yesterday by suggesting those being harassed simply block or mute the harassers. Sure, it's one thing you can do, but it doesn't stop you seeing the harassment first. It doesn't prevent people from creating new accounts to continue the harassment, or prevent them from coming for you somewhere else. Much like Twitter at large needs to take harassment more seriously, so do comic publishers. If you want diverse books with diverse creators to succeed you not only have to market the hell out of them (Captain America will survive some of his attention being taken away) but you also have to protect those making the titles, to make sure they feel it's safe for them to enter the fray. Because right now, it's an apocalyptic war zone out there.
When controversies like this happen, it's so easy for people to forget comics is so much more than Marvel and DC. While they have brand and character recognition, other comic work is constantly on best seller lists. Mockingbird is at #15 on Amazon's main “Best Sellers in Comics & Graphic Novels” list, but it's surrounded by things like Scott Pilgrim and The Walking Dead, or Jeffrey Brown's Star Wars children's books and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. The NY Times paperback graphic novels list has Raina Telgemeier's graphic novels sitting at #1, #2, and #3. Representative John Lewis' work March (with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell) is at #4, and Telgemeier's work is back at #5. In hardcover, just one of the Big 2 publishers are in the top 3 and it's Ryan North and Erica Henderson's Squirrel Girl.
If things keep going in the direction they have been, expect women and LGBTQ+ creators and fans to leave the shores of superhero comics for good. It's what some of these harassers want, to be sure, but publishers would likely take a hit they couldn't bounce back from. Comics are for everyone; they should give us joy, they should be welcoming, and those creating them shouldn't be run out of town because their publisher was too afraid to say stand up to hateful racist, misogynist, transmisogynist, and homophobic fans. Your heroes would be ashamed.