Disclaimer: Any views expressed herein are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the rest of the staff at The Grim Tower.
If one plunges the bowels of internet pop culture news enough, they may come across mentions of something called Comicsgate. What is it? Comicsgate, put simply, is the online backlash among a rather sizable chunk of the comics fandom against the direction that contemporary comics have taken in terms of art and storytelling. Like Gamergate before it, to hear certain online media outlets tell the story, it is being painted as a movement of nothing more than a collection of misogynist, transphobic, homophobic, insert long list of phobias and ists here. Of course, with the alleged “rise” of the so-called “alt right,” you can throw in a few accusations of Nazism as well. Because, of course, “Nazi” and “fascist” have become the new debate stoppers since the 2016 election. So, what the hell is comicsgate and where did it start? This lengthy diatribe will cover some of the personalities and events involved in the matter.
The origins of what would recently be christened comicsgate go back to the time between re-brandings. Between the end of “Marvel NOW!” and “All New, All Different Marvel,” the so-called “house of ideas” rolled out new titles that saw poorly fleshed out tokenism characters take over the roles of long established heroes. It also saw marvel hand writing duties on books not to people with a legitimate interest in and talent for pulp story telling, but to a slew of C-tier “young adult” authors, racist grievance merchants, and even a failed politician. This was done, ostensibly (according to the defenders) in an effort to court a new audience. Albeit an audience that had no interest in comics and who, based on the sales, still has no interest in comics. The failure of the characters to connect was famously framed by Marvel’s David Gabriel in March of last year as being a rejection of diversity. This provided the foundation for thin-skinned “creators” upon which to build their frivolous accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. I’m no PR strategist, but tacitly issuing a blanket accusation of several ists and isms at your readers doesn’t seem like the best way to get them to line up for your product. Then there is, of course, the matter of the story telling. The tried and true themes that people read comic books for seemed to fall by the wayside. Grand tales of action and adventure, of living gods doing battle with potentially world destroying beings, and super powered vigilantes bagging equally powerful criminals gave way to dragging, go nowhere tales of bickering and validation. This didn’t sit well with fans, but thanks in no small part to David Gabriel’s verbal diarrhea, “creators” could now dismiss any criticism as being a manifestation of whatever progressive bugbear they saw fit to use at the time.
II. Donald Trump
A strange topic for an article on comics, I know. However, it does at least tangentially relate. It is undeniably true that in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, more than a few comic book celebrities went off the deep end. It almost seemed to kick their already open hostility toward fans into high gear as a new bugaboo for them to latch onto arose: the “alt-right.” Just who constitutes the alt-right? Well, if the words of any number of “creators” are to be believed, it seems to be anyone who levies even the mildest of criticisms. Didn’t like Secret Empire? Alt-right nazi. Don’t like Dan Slott’s weak and ineffectual emo spidey? Alt-right nazi. Noticed the flagrant racism in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther and the Crew? Alt-right nazi. Think Marvel is letting just a few too many typographical errors slip into the final printed product these days? Why, my friend, you’re clearly just an alt-right nazi, and probably a homophobic sexist as well.
III. Of Geeks and Milkshakes: False Start
Much has been made of a small sub incident that occurred sometime last year that has intermittently been referred to as “milkshakegate.” In July of 2017, Marvel associate editor Heather Antos tweeted out a photo of herself and some other female Marvel employees getting milkshakes. Predictably, this being the internet and all, she received some saucy comments. This was spun, over the course of several days, into Antos being the target of a vicious online harassment campaign. This culminated in other comic publishers sending female employees to get milkshakes and tweeting out the images, or tweeting inane milkshake related memes under the hashtag “makeminemilkshake.” Unfortunately for Antos, her attempt to self insert and turn herself into the Anita Sarkeesian of comicsgate hasn’t paid off, and at this point she is little more than a one note joke a la Suey Park. What makes me seriously doubt Ms. Antos’ grand tale of sustained harassment and threats is the incredibly low threshold that members of her (and unfortunately my) generation have for what constitutes both. “Millennials” can spin a story of a months long harassment campaign out of one person making a vaguely sexual comment on a photo, or their name being casually mentioned one time in a very general way. I remember one time having some moron on Blabbermouth track down my information and threaten to kill me simply because I said I didn’t particularly like “Reign in Blood” and I just continued living my life. I certainly didn’t spin a grand yarn about Slayer fans having a deep seated hatred for Franco-Americans, but I digress. There were some mentions and attempts to get a comicsgate hashtag going in the wake of Antos’ histrionics, but cooler heads pointed out that this was a rather stupid hill for their movement to die upon, and those cooler heads prevailed. Although it did spawn some memes, some of them themed after Frank Cho’s “outrage” sketches, that were good for a chuckle, I suppose. There are also infrequent attempts still being made by pop culture news sites to spin this event into a bigger deal than it really was.
IV. HRH Grand Poobah Richard C. Meyer
In April of 2017, the Diversity & Comics Youtube channel was launched by sometimes comic writer Richard C. Meyer. The channel, which consists of Meyer’s stream of consciousness commentaries and comic reviews, grew in popularity pretty fast and quickly amassed 45,000 subscribers. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t seem like much, especially considering that some of the story time comics youtubers like ComicsExplained and Comicstorian have over one million. However, in a comic book industry where titles can be sustained selling 15,000 copies, it caused some pros to start paying attention. Much effort has been made by various pros and industry related journalists to cast Meyer (whose family is almost as comically diverse as the Disney tween sitcoms he compares Mark Waid’s Champions to) as some sort of terrible racist bigot in an effort to deflect his mostly very valid criticism. There have also been threats of violence against the man by b-tier creators. One particular incident of note involved a secret conclave of pros, which consisted of B. Clay Moore, Isaac Goodhart, Kelly Thompson, and Taylor Esposito among others, who planned to follow Meyer around and harass him at a comic con (it was either Baltimore or New York) in an effort to goad him into attacking so that Moore could, to use Esposito’s words, “level him.” Even more ridiculous was the case of a fringe (very fringe) figure named calling him/her/itself “Susan Auger.” Susan scoured the internet, searching for whatever information on Meyer she could find and collecting it in a sort of bizarre Facebook voodoo shrine. In this group (which included one Ms. Heather Antos), Auger and other fringe players would spin ridiculous tales of Meyer’s alleged racism. Their smoking gun? Well, you see, on the way back to New York after visiting family in Virginia, Meyer stopped off at a shop in Charlottesville to purchase some comics. It just so happened to be on the same day as the now infamous “Unite the Right” rally. Huzzah! Nazi confirmed! The ridiculous campaign against Meyer also spilled over to comics news site Bleeding cool, where Jude Terror authored a hit piece or two on Meyer and then Joe Glass (“possibly” at the urging of site founder Rich Johnston, who always admits to things in a cloying coy manner) led a false flagging campaign against Meyer’s Youtube channel and other platforms in an effort to have him shut down. These are just a few examples. I could write an entire article on Meyer because he, one middle aged nerd with a smartphone and a tablet, has managed to ruffle so many feathers. From C-listers like B. Clay Moore all the way up to A-list talent like Mark Waid, all have had a good cry about the man.
V. It Begins: Ethan Van Sciver, Jon Malin, and the Weaponizing of the Fringe
Ethan Van Sciver has been drawing comics for about as long as I have been reading them. In 2007, he released a sketchbook for conventions. It featured Sinestro on the cover, who had then recently been redesigned to look a bit like Hitler, and was titled My Struggle. In mid to late 2017, this was seized upon by a few fringe players in the industry, chief among them being CBR and Polygon contributor Kieran Shiach and an Austin based artist named Tim Doyle, claiming that the sketchbook’s title was a sign that Van Sciver was a sign of the man holding white supremacist views (not only that, that last name could be Austrian… you know who else came from Austria?). The fact that Van Sciver had released a second sketchbook called Manifesto the following year should have been enough to dispel this garbage, but where dogmatic weirdos are concerned, inconvenient facts are to be disregarded. This had nothing to do with legitimate concern over nazis, whatever that incredibly overused and devalued word means these days, and everything to do with an ideological crusade to have Van Sciver sacked by DC because he committed the unforgivable sin of being a Republican working in a creative industry. As far as I can tell, Van Sciver isn’t even any kind of particularly hardline ideologue. He’s just a milquetoast center-right moderate Republican. Doyle and Shiach were helped in their crusade by Bleeding Cool founder, and noted hack, Rich Johnston who published a defense cum hit piece on Van Sciver on August 14, 2017 titled No, Comic Creator Ethan Van Sciver is Not a Nazi. The content of the article boiled down to a sharing of Doyle and Shiach’s fantastical tweets, ending with some editorializing from Rich that culminated with the sensitive bearded socialist essentially saying that while he wouldn’t say Van Sciver was a nazi, he wouldn’t say he wasn’t either.
A somewhat similar incident would erupt around artist Jon Malin. On October 17, 2017, Bleeding Cool’s Jude Terror posted a piece in which he took exception to Malin’s cover art for Cable #153. What was the matter? Malin’s art is a throwback to the glory days of 1990s X-Men comics, which means impossibly buff guys, spade shaped feet, and shapely women of sometimes generous proportions. To say Malin draws a little bit like Rob Liefeld in his heyday would be an understatement. So, needless to say, when Jude saw the cover of issue 153, with blink wearing a form fitting black costume with a plunging neckline and a generous bust, well that was all he could handle. Prompting Terror to cry about pandering to the “male gaze” and the costume’s lack of practicality (please keep in mind that there is no such thing as a practical superhero costume, it’s fantasy). Things weren’t done there though. It didn’t stop there of course, as other moral scolds began to pester Malin over the costume design on social media, lecturing him about the need for women to be completely covered in 2017 (lest ye wish to offend the delicate sensibilities of the Taliba… i mean feminists and their “allies”). This culminated in a January 21, 2018 incident where Malin, upon being lectured about the X-Men’s status as SJWs, said that they were more akin to “Jews in SJW Hitler’s Germany fighting for freedom because they see ideologues rising, silencing them, weaponizing hate, racism and socialism against the people they claim are the root of social ills” and that “SJWs are not Nazis but Nazis are SJWs and X-MEN aren’t SJWs.” Needless to say, that didn’t sit right with many leftists in the online comics fandom, prompting the obligatory angry tweets of faux outrage and I’m sure a very strongly worded email or two expressing the same faux outrage. The following day, right on schedule, self-styled comic fandom gatekeeper Rich Johnston was there to offer a piece on Malin that, in addition to sharing screenshots of the messages that caused so much offense, got to the real meat of the issue. For Rich had found conclusive proof that John Malin was…. an ALT-RIGHT NAZI, or rather – in Rich’s typical style – maybe not a nazi, but maybe probably. For, you see, in a panel in Thunderbolts #4, Malin made a visual reference to the 1998 Alex Proyas directed neo-noir Dark City (an eminently enjoyable film that I highly recommend) in the form of a Shell Beach billboard. When Malin voiced objection to Johnston’s characterization of the reference and explained to Johnston, he said that he would update the piece to reflect this information but did so (in typical Rich Johnson fashion) more than 24 hours later when the story had already sank off of the front page and on down the memory hole.
Things don’t stop there though. The same night of the outrage over Malin’s tweets about SJWs, he became the target of the paranoid nazi fantasies of webcomic creator, and prodigious tweeter Darryl Ayo. Another fringe figure who somehow gets signal boosted the right people to the point where he seems to think he has some sort of pull. Ethan Van Sciver, who had already been the target of Ayo’s delusional fantasies, invited Ayo onto an impromptu podcast to have a discussion with Jon Malin. Van Sciver sent Ayo two or three tweets explaining the situation and inviting him on the podcast. Ayo refused, and then spun this into a grand tale of sustained harassment by Van Sciver. A grand tale that was signal boosted by various other fringe players in the industry and was, predictably, happily boosted by Rich Johnston in an article titled The Return of Ethan Van Sciver’s “Mean Streak.” In it, Johnston trots out half baked accusations of harassment from Ayo, references chats with his phantom DC sources who assure him that Van Sciver is soon to be out (and the self-proclaimed clairvoyant is never wrong). Some of the animosity toward Van Sciver may very well be warranted, I’ve never met the man and I’ve never really interacted with him online. I’ve seen the Phenomenalfx blog (the link to which is in the Bleeding Cool article) where Alfred Norris recounts his tale of orchestrated harassment, and I’ve read the famous IGN forum post “Artist Ethan Van Sciver: Internet Bully.” The latter comes off as a post by an obsessive who doesn’t understand where the line between fandom, friendship, and stalking lies. The former, when coupled with additional communications that Van Sciver has shared in a video or two on the situation, and that Norris conveniently left out of his blog, seems like a case of a troll who got out trolled and is now fishing for sympathy and someone to blame. These two naked attempts at taking skulls are what really crystallized the comicsgate movement. Unfortunately, it also led to the creation of that stupid boycott list or blacklist that was recently circulated.
VI. Current Status
Currently, much to the chagrin of the “social justice warriors” that fill out the B-tier in modern comics, one could assert that the comicsgate crowd have won some victories. With the latter part of his tenure as editor-in-chief being dogged by controversy and drama, Marvel parted ways with Axel Alonso in November of 2017. He was replaced in the role by C.B. Cebulski, a move that buoyed the enthusiasm of many comicsgate followers, but didn’t sit right with their detractors who immediately attempted to tar Cebulski as some sort of racist, or accuse him of insubordination for writing under the pen name of Akira Yoshida whilst working as an associate editor at Marvel. What Cebulski’s tenure as editor-in-chief will bring in terms of stories and, more importantly, sales remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though, things certainly began with a splash. In December of 2017, many of the low selling titles that comicsgate followers argued were kept in publication purely for political reasons were cancelled in what was dubbed by a breathless Joe Glass as the “Marvel cancellation bloodbath.” Mr. Glass, predictably, tried to frame it as being some sort of manifestation of manifestation of racism, sexism, homphobia, (insert your favourite ism or phobia here). It was also recently announced that 2018 would see the return of many of the classic characters that Alonso-era Marvel unceremoniously cast aside in their efforts to pander to an audience that never seemed to show up. Whether this will pay off in terms of increased sales, we will see in the coming months. More recently, the comicsgate hashtag has also been dropped in favour of the “movetheneedle” hashtag, which supporters are using to boost the work of creators they do enjoy. Giving the movement an air of positivity that gamergate and the so-called “sfgate” never seemed to be able to achieve, which goes a long way in making their opponents look even more unhinged.
I don’t really follow comicsgate to too great a degree. I also didn’t follow gamergate to too great a degree either. However, like gamergate before it, I do view comicsgate as something that needs to happen. These new generation moral scolds will ruin everything they touch. They enter a fandom, sap all the joy and creativity out of it, turn people against each other, and then move on to the next thing. They’re doing it with Black Metal (how joyful black metal was to start with is a matter of debate though, i suppose), they’ve essentially done it with comedy, they’ve all but successfully done it with science fiction, and now it’s on to comics. These people don’t believe that you should have an escape. In their view you shouldn’t be able to do anything that makes you happy. In their view, the world is a uniformly terrible place, and you should be reminded of it at all times, in all venues, from all fronts. They’re miserable, and goddammit, you should be too. I will close with a variation on the advice that I first gave to gamers in my piece on political correctness in video games way back in 2014. Be mindful of who you let into your “community.” Nobody likes a gatekeeper, this is true, I mean there’s a reason why so many people find Wil Wheaton insufferable, but if someone claims to be a comics fan and spends more time crowing about the need for representation than they do talking about how much they enjoy The Punisher, then chances are good they are not one of you. They’re there to start trouble, to tear down what you enjoy. We hear a great deal about toxic fandoms these days, well these are the people that turn fandoms toxic and they should be identified and ostracized.