How to Dismantle the Comic-Books Boys' Club

New allegations of sexual harassment and inequality could help change a culture that routinely alienates female fans and cartoonists.
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The comic-book industry's domination by men is hardly a revelation to readers, creators, or anyone who has engaged with the comics sub-culture to any extent. The details, though, can still depress. Earlier this month, Heidi MacDonald of the comics news site The Beat put up a lengthy post discussing the fact that the last few issues of the venerable and respected print Comics Journal had almost no articles by women writers or coverage of women cartoonists.

Even more disturbingly, a number of accusations have surfaced over the last couple of weeks about high-profile comics creator Brian Wood, who has worked on as DMZ and various X-Men titles. Cartoonist Tess Fowler, in a lengthy post on her tumblr, has said that in 2007 Wood made a pass at her at a comics convention, suggesting that if she was forthcoming, he would help her with her career. When she turned him down, she says, he screamed at her on the convention floor. This week, Anne Scherbina, who worked in a comic book store in the 1990s and at DC comics between 2000 and 20002, wrote a post detailing her own experiences with Wood. As with Fowler, she says Wood made a pass at her. She refused, and she says he retaliated by passing a blind item to Rich Johnston's column Lying in the Gutters suggesting that she was passing out sexual favors in the DC stockroom. Though the item did not mention her by name, she says it was clear who was being implicated, and it damaged her career at DC. (Johnston has posted a public apology.)

Wood has issued a statement in response to Fowler, which addresses some but not all of the relevant issues. He says he did make a pass at her but that “she is as incorrect as she can be about what” his “intent and motivations were,” adding, “I don’t want to encourage any negative opinion directed back at her.” He doesn't mention other accusations—shouting at her on the convention floor, for example.

Comics news and blogs have been covering this issue extensively (one of the best accounts I've seen is here.) Many writers have talked about how this is a systemic problem in comics, where low-level harassment (and worse than low-level harassment) of women is expected, tolerated, and de facto protected. Heidi MacDonald notes it's "widely known that at one super mega comics publisher, many of the top execs have had huge human resources files and nothing has been done about it." Harris O'Malley at the website Dr. Nerdlove lists a whole slew of past incidents, including many involving beloved DC editor Julius Schwartz. "This behavior grinds down even the strongest and brightest, destroying their confidence and self-esteem," O'Malley says. "It chases some of the best and brightest talent out of the industry—and why should they want to take part in a system that continually tells them that they’re only there to be decorative, to be a consumable sexual object?"

As Dr. Nerdlove suggests, the issue here is not just one instance of harassment, but a system that, in ways big and small, treats women as marginal and as outsiders. Acceptance of harassment is one way that that plays out, but it's not the only one. The fake-geek-girl meme, which suggests that women at comics conventions (especially women cosplayers) are not "real" fans, is an example. So is the consistent treatment of female characters as sexualized props in mainstream titles. And so, in a subtler way, is the absence of female writers or female cartoonists from The Comics Journal, which MacDonald discusses. In ways large and not, comics tells women that they don't matter and are not welcome.

Brian Wood is only a small part of this. And not even always a negative part, as he's known for creating believable female characters. There have been calls to boycott his work, but Fowler seems to suggest focusing on the larger problem:

Brian Wood has every right to be a part of comics. To make books and make a living unhindered. I believe that. I also believe his behavior is a symptom of a much bigger disease. A disease of silence, where you go along to get along.

In fact, Fowler speaking out may already be an effective step towards treating the disease she’s talking about. The comics' boys' club is based on a logic that says that guys are in and girls are out. That's a privilege extended to guys as a group, but also to guys as individuals. Guys, as individuals, are assured, again in big ways and small, that they can treat women as they like, and there will be no consequences. There's a culture of impunity. Changing that culture means holding individuals accountable, on every level.

Fowler's decision to name Brian Wood is part of that. Wood, while yet to entirely apologize or explain his side of things, seems chastened and says he wants there to be an industry-wide dialogue on sexism; Johnston expressed regret that he'd used his column to enable harassment, and suggested "it might not be such a bad thing if a number of men in comics just had a think about their behaviour over the years." For their part, folks at the online Comic Journal have been talking thoughtfully, and with a welcome lack of defensiveness, about the need for more women contributors. These seem like positive developments. If the threat of public exposure leads comics professionals to behave more professionally, that's surely a good thing.

Maybe this all will encourage more women to come forward, and more men to create an environment where they don't have to. And maybe eventually, piece by piece, we can replace the current clubhouse with something big enough to include the other half of humanity.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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