Stop accepting sexual assault as just part of the “culture.”
One of the joking-but-not-really comments I make to my friends is about how some of my columns are going to be forever relevant. Every time I’ve written about shitty behavior in geek culture, whether in comics, at conventions or in the games industry, I may as well have written a macro that I can just customize as needed. Hell with this latest event, I’ve been tempted to literally reprint a column and switch out the names and see if anyone noticed. In fact, I might have been able to do it three times within the last month.
As I’m always saying: once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and three times is something toxic at the core of the culture. And that rotten core spreads outwards, infecting the whole of fandom. We don’t need to just be treating the symptoms, we need to treat the source.
…And Introducing Bitey The Clown!
One of the worst-kept secrets in comics is the number of bad actors – writers, artists and editorial staff who are known harassers and abusers. Almost every woman in comics has heard from the underground network of whispers about which individuals they should watch out for and who they should never be alone in a room with. Some individuals are so well known that it’s all but openly acknowledged; some companies even go so far as to make joking references to it in their own goddamn PR material. Such was the case of Scott Allie, the former editor-in-chief at Dark Horse Comics. For over 20 years, Scott Allie was known as being a “bad drunk”, which conjures images of a goofy-but-ultimately lovable sad-sack ne’r-do-well whose inebriated antics are always good for a laugh and a post-convention story to share with one’s friends.
In practice however, Allie was prone to severe boundary crossing behavior including getting black-out drunk and biting people like a Walking Dead extra who wandered into the wrong party at Comic-Con. His behavior was so infamous that he was known as “Bitey The Clown”… and yet Dark Horse seemed perfectly content to ignore Allies’ disturbing behavior. In fact,several sources spoke to Janelle Asselin at the blog Graphic Policy on the matter, saying that not only did reporting his behavior accomplish nothing, but that they were encouraged to keep silent on the matter. As with many cases of sexual harassment, the victims frequently are pressured to not speak up or make waves, even as the abusive behavior goes unchecked.
However, on July 9th, Allie crossed the line again… only this time with someone who wasn’t content to keep silent. While attending a party at San Diego Comic-Con, an inebriated Allie walked up to comics writer Joe Harris and grabbed Harris’ balls. As Harris tried to back away, Allie then leaned in and bit him on the ear before slurring “you’re doing a great job on your book,” and wandering off. Other witnesses mention Allie leaning in and licking another person’s face that night.
That Harris was willing to speak on the record about Allie’s behavior is significant. By coming forward and naming names, Harris was breaking a code of silence that has hung over the comics industry for generations, shielding some of the worst abusers and harassers from the consequences of their actions.
The Comics Code of Omerta
The fact of the matter is that comics has had a sexual harassment problem almost since its inception and one that continues until today. As with many cases of sexual harassment, the perpetrators are frequently protected by their superiors while the victims are pressured to keep silent. It’s not just that issues of abuse or sexual harassment get pointedly ignored or go unaddressed1 but that the companies will take steps to protect the harassers rather than the victims. In a no-holds barred post to her tumblr, comics writer Alex de Campi aimed both barrels at Marvel and DC Comics for harboring and protecting known harassers:
The main Wonder Woman comic is part of the Superman office. Now, the Superman office allegedly employs no women, and a cursory glance over the mastheads of several Superman titles and Wonder Woman seems to confirm that allegation. The reason, I’ve been told by several people who work or used to work at DC, is because one of the most senior editors is a sexual harasser with multiple incidents on his HR file. I don’t use “alleged” here because at least one incident (grabbing a woman’s breasts) happened publicly at a corporate social gathering with multiple witnesses. There was also something about sticking his tongue down an artist’s girlfriend’s throat when the artist was in the bathroom. Again, public gathering. It is not known to me whether the no-chicks-in-Supes-office diktat is the preference of the harasser, or whether it’s the HR department crossing its fingers and hoping to Jesus they don’t get hit with a liability lawsuit so big it’s visible from space. This guy was kept in the move to Burbank despite his record – allegedly because he has blackmail on one of DC’s most senior staff members.
The reference to the editor’s blackmail is part of the open secret of the comics industry; the comic news site Bleeding Cool also made reference to this individual in a blind-item posted back in August:
Which comic book editor has risen through the publisher, despite an HR file the size of Belgium, is commonly gossiped to have blackmail material to preserve their position?
de Campi wasn’t any more sparing to Marvel, mentioning that there are two individuals there who’re benefitting from high-profile writing assignments despite being well-known, vindictive harassers, much to the consternation of others in the industry. In fact, this resentment seemed to boil over when Marvel announced that writer Nathan Edmondson was being assigned to write the Native American superhero Red Wolf, with many creators and critics openly making accusations about Edmondson’s behavior. The pattern of protection of the accused happens over and over again. When I talked with de Campi about her post, she mentioned another prominent comics editor who was so notorious for sexual harassment and assaulting women – one woman repeatedly – that the company made a rule that he wasn’t allowed to have women in his office. Not “fired him for his behavior”, just putting a restriction on him while he was in-house. When the company moved offices, he was allowed to quit and be rehired in order to give him a clean HR record. Then, there was another prominent comic writer whose behavior meant that senior editors at DC would have to rearrange the seating at company events so that he wasn’t seated next to the new female hires. And then there are the legends like Julius “Uncle Julie” Schwartz – a beloved figure in the comics industry and a serial sexual harasser with a propensity for assaulting young women. Despite sexually assaulting a teenager in a limo, he was a Goodwill Ambassador for DC Comics until the day he died and a regular guest at comic conventions. He was lionized despite being a sexual predator and celebrated as a legend for creating the Silver Age of comics. Even magazines like The Comics Journal refused to discuss his reputation for assault until after he died. Even when they do address the issue, the code of silence remains in effect. Dark Horse Comics founder Mike Richardson issued a response to Asselin’s piece, saying:
I applaud Ms. Asselin’s intentions in dealing with sexual harassment in the comics industry. 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 Ms. 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. Secondly, there is no “us-against-them” attitude here. I have an open door policy and every employee, no matter where she/he sits in the company, is invited to come in to my office with any complaint or observation, at any time. I restate this policy constantly. I won’t go into the assumptions made here that are just untrue, because my intent is not to undermine the purpose of her piece, but no one here has ever turned a “blind eye” to these behaviors, not in this case, not in any case. With regard to sexual harassment, it is simply not tolerated. Dark Horse agrees 100% with the EEOC Guidelines. Ms. Asselin turns her eye toward me. I have never met or talked with Ms. Asselin. If she knew me, she would learn that I am extremely sensitive on this subject, being the father of three daughters and having experienced first hand the effects of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. I have fought against that harassment, not just in a social environment, but also within our own publishing schedule. I have also fought for gender equality in our school system and championed social and racial diversity both in and out of Dark Horse, activities I am still involved with. Her assumption that my longevity somehow “embeds” within me an attitude of inappropriate permissiveness is not only wrong, it is insulting. I agree that harassment of any kind, routine or not, is unacceptable. It always has been. We at Dark Horse will renew our efforts to make sure that our company is never again mentioned with regard to this type of occurrence. As quoted in the article, our goal has always been to provide a positive, safe, and respectful environment for its employees, creators, and fans.
It’s hard not to notice the aggrieved – even passive-aggressive – tone of the response; it’s clear that Richardson feels annoyed at having to actually address the issue. The language ranges from the condescending – Asselin’s “intentions” in dealing with sexual harassment – to the over-the top language of how she “turns her eye towards him,” as though she were Sauron and he was a Hobbit who accidentally picked up the One Ring.
But beyond the absurd defensiveness – how, exactly, does having daughters make you especially sensitive to the acts of one of your employees assaulting a man? – is that the tone doesn’t match the behavior. It’s one thing to say say that nobody has ever turned a blind eye to Allie’s behavior when it’s literally joked about in a press piece with the phrase “Watch out, he bites!” It’s another when not only does Richardson not apologize to Joe Harris but doesn’t even mention him. And while saying that it’s not company policy to “administer public floggings” sounds nice, the fact of the matter is that seemingly nothing has been done, which drives home Asselin’s point: that speaking up about the issue is the bigger problem than the harassing behavior itself. And hey, let’s not miss the significance of this point: “We at Dark Horse will renew our efforts to make sure that our company is never again mentioned with regard to this type of occurrence.” The problem isn’t the reputation of the company, it’s that an employee can go for 20 years, driving away literally dozens of coworkers and just be an inter-office joke.
The Missing Stair And The Pressure To Stay Silent
There’s a term coined by the blogger Cliff Pervocracy that I like: the missing stair. It refers to a structural fault in a house – a missing stair, for example – that has been there for so long that it’s just become part of the background. Everyone who lives in the house knows that they just have to watch out for the missing stair, and because everyone sees that it’s there, they don’t think that it’s a problem. Right until someone new comes to the house and nobody thinks to warn her of the missing stair. Comics has a massive missing stair problem. I have a number of female friends who work in the comic industry to one degree or another – writers, artists, editors, publishers, craftswomen, etc. One of the most striking things, as I said when when Tess Fowler spoke up about her harassment, is that every single one of them has a story of someone in the industry harassing them. Moreover, they share names amongst themselves in a sort of self-defense whisper network to make sure that they know to be careful around this person or that one because, frankly, nobody else is doing the job. “All of this is an open secret, at least to old pros,” said de Campi “But what about the new girls? What if they go to a party and one of these known predators is there? A particular editor chats her up about her ‘portfolio’….” In his post A Chorus of Silence: On the Impossibility of Reporting on Chronic Abusers in Comics, Nick Hanover talks about the frustration of trying to build stories about the known predators; almost nobody is willing to publish those stories without redacting them and obscuring the details so much that they become meaningless, a series of blind-items and allegations. Many – most even – big name comic journalism sites are more likely to maintain their silence for fear of losing access to the Big 3’s exclusives and sneak previews.
Moreover, while everyone is willing to tell their stories off the record, they’re afraid to name names publicly. And it’s no wonder; the comics industry is incredibly small and more incestuous than a Lannister family reunion. Everyone knows everyone else and it takes very little for someone to be blacklisted. There are damned few jobs to begin with and getting on the bad side of just one wrong person can mean being frozen out of the big publishers entirely.
When a young female cartoonist came to the editors at DC about being groped by Julie Schwartz, DC responded by refusing to give her any more work. When Lea Hernandez came forward with stories of her own harassment, she was pilloried by fans and lost out on jobs. When women in junior positions at Marvel and DC complained about being harassed, they were ignored or retaliated against; after filing a sexual harassment complaint to HR, the company moved one woman into the office next to her harasser.
This doesn’t even get into the issue that whistleblowers and harassment victims who are willing to speak out are seemingly marked for life. When MariNaomi wrote a piece for XOJane about being sexually harassed on a panel at a convention, she didn’t name her harasser. When Scott Lobdell outed himself as her harasser, it was MariNaomi who suffered from the deluge of hate mail. Her harassment is now among the first links to come up when you Google her name. Similarly, it’s impossible to mention Valerie D’Orazio’s harassment by Chris Sims without people creeping up out of the woodwork to say “Well, nobody deserves harassment but…” Meanwhile, when Brian Wood writes a self-pitying newsletter about why we shouldn’t be upset at harassers (they might hurt themselves!), Tess Fowler gets even more harassing messages sent to her on Twitter and to her email.
Meanwhile, companies ignore repeated accusations of their employees’ and freelancers’ behavior and continue to insulate them from consequences and give them work like a priest being shuffled to a new parish ahead of rumors of impropriety, and virtually nobody will comment on it.
We need to break the culture of silence.
What We Can Do About Sexual Harassment In Comics
As disturbing as this spate of victims coming forward may be, this is actually a good thing. When I talked to Asselin about her article, she said that “the fact that we can name more people now means it’s actually getting better. It means that there are more employees and victims going on the record with their bosses and of course with journalists than ever before.”
The fact that people feel empowered enough to come forward, to risk the blacklists and abuse that comes with speaking up means that things are changing. But while we should admire de Campi, Hernandez, Fowler, Harris and Asselin for speaking up, we have to remember that we don’t know – we can’t know – how many people who have been chased out of hobbies, communities and careers that they loved, rather than put up with the abuse and the culture of silence that enables it. As Asselin says in her article:
Dozens, maybe hundreds of comics professionals sit silent in comics and whisper the names of harassers behind our hands. Dozens more sit frozen out of something even more sinister — PTSD from assault, fear of someone who has harassed them, or fear of losing a job.
But while improvement is a start, it’s only a start. The fact remains that sexual harassment and the culture of silence is poisoning the core of fandom and fixing it means we have to start from the top, too. Fandom takes its cues from the creators and the culture reflects the attitudes of those who create it. When a company rewards or protects the abusers and punishes the abused, it sends the message that this behavior is acceptable – even normal.
I’ve written much about how we need to change geek culture on the individual level and I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks on how we can fix it. What we need from the creators, the conventions and the publishers is evidence that they take harassment seriously. We need companies to quit turning a blind eye to the behavior of their employees and for conventions not to tolerate harassment of their guests. We need to write directly to the heads of DC, Marvel and Dark Horse, urging for stronger HR policies and public anti-harassment stances. We need them to recognize and acknowledge the responsibility they have for their employees and freelancers’ behavior.
Similarly, we need to support the victims and – if possible – encourage them to come forward. Not everybody can or is able to, but the more we can support the ones who do, the more we can empower others. The more attention we can bring to this issue, the less the corporate enablers are able to ignore it.
And we need to support those who cover these stories. As Asselin told me: “The Scott Allie story was really just the warning shot. I’ve been looking into any number of rumored harassers in comics, investigating sources, conducting interviews — because the industry and community deserves to know who these people are and what they’re capable of.”
We can’t wait for change to happen. If we want to save our community, we have to take an active role. We have to protect those who’ve spoken up and demand change from the ones who benefit from the codes of silence.
By Dr. NerdLove
This post originally appeared on Paging Dr. NerdLove. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. NerdLove dispenses love, sex and life advice for geeks, otaku, dweebs, poozers, nerds and the occasional neo-maxie-zoom-dweebie. Making geeks sexier since 20011.
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