The Art War Before Gamergate

Before diehard defenders of the pulpy mainstream trolled the Internet, they trolled comic books.

Sports scandals, political uproar, plagues, social injustice, and suffering—in terms of sheer online vitriol and animosity, the video game controversy “#gamergate” seems like it swamps them all. Even though I don't play a log of video games myself, it's been an alternately fascinating and horrifying spectacle. Partly that's just because when there's a mess online it can be hard to look away. But mostly it's because the anger and abuse around video games echoes the anger and abuse I'm used to hearing about in a community I am more familiar with—comics.

Gamergate, for those who have blessedly missed it, started back in August when online trolls began attacking indie game developer Zoe Quinn over her sex life. That same month, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian released the latest in her series of YouTube videos analyzing sexism in video games; she received credible death threats and was forced out of her home. Many game journalists were repulsed by this outpouring of misogynist abuse and wrote articles excoriating the games community. Leigh Alexander for instance called those attacking Quinn and Sarkeesian "These obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers," and argued that games were attracting a more diverse audience than just misogynistic white guys. Many gamers were in turn furious at being labeled as violent woman-hating jerks and argued that games journalists were corrupt colluders out to get them. They started the hashtag #gamergate to push for what they called ethics in journalism, and to push back against "SJWs," or social justice warrior critical of misogyny and lack of representation in gaming.

Meanwhile, harassment of women in games continued; Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech in Utah State after someone threatened to commit mass murder at the venue; game developer Brianna Wu was also forced to leave her home after death threats. Some #gamergate supporters have also been harassed, doxxed, and threatened.  (There are many more extensive accounts online: for example, here and here.)

So what does this all have to do with comics? The answer, surprisingly, is neither misogyny, nor journalistic ethics. One important component of the gamergate controversy is the question of whether games can be, or should be, viewed as art.

The controversy began not with attacks on a journalist but with the trolling of an indie developer. Quinn was a target in part because her creation, Depression Quest, a text game about experiencing depression, has been roundly criticized by gamers for being boring; people were resentful that something that was not a "real game" received attention in the press, or even existed. The Anita Sarkeesian video that caused so much controversy in August has been condemned for its criticism of mainstream games—but in a lot of ways the main point comes at the end of the video, when Sarkeesian praises Papo & Yo, a game about domestic abuse and violence. Sarkeesian's argument is not "games are bad" but rather, that games, as art, can deal with serious issues in a meaningful way. Christopher Grant, the editor of games website Polygon, stated this point explicitly in a recent post against gamergate: "if you believe video games are an art form, that video games are important, that video games actually mean something, then demands for silence couldn't be a less effective tactic for promoting those beliefs."

The gamergate debate, then, is in part a battle between art and pulp. That's an argument that has been going on for some years in games before it reached this particular crescendo. But it's been going on even longer in comics. Back in the 1970s, comics, like games, were viewed overwhelmingly as a pulp medium, with a fandom focused mainly on adventure and action material. And, as with games, a small but determined group of journalists and artists set about criticizing the mainstream in an effort to make space for a different kind of comic—one that focused less on muscled guys in their underwear hitting each other, and more on serious issues, like mental illness, trauma, sexuality, and personal expression.

There were many creators involved in comics efforts to turn itself into art—including most notably Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly through their seminal anthology RAW. But the most important journalist and critic was undoubtedly Gary Groth, editor of The Comics Journal and founder of the independent publisher Fantagraphics.

Groth, as writer and publisher, was a tireless promoter of inventive, independent work—and an acerbic critic of cape comics and what he saw as their callow, troglodyte audience. Groth talked about superhero comics readers in much the same way as Leigh Alexander and others have talked about gamers: "super heroes are, in my view, an intrinsically adolescent genre—perfectly OK if you're an adolescent," but not so much if you're an adult, he said in 2000. More pugnaciously, in 1991, he wrote:

Marvel's only goal, with which honorable men and women in this profession have nothing in common, is to generate as much profit for Ronald Perelman as they can, and to shovel as much shit down the public's gullet as they can get away with. They prey upon the ignorance of children and the stupidity of adults, and if they could wish every sophisticated reader of comic books to become stupid tomorrow they would do so, such is their commitment to art and humanity. They see comics not as art but as product from which the only end to be gotten is profit.

As you'd expect, this sort of rhetoric made people furious. Groth was at the center of numerous brutal, convoluted feuds with people like mainstream writer Peter David (who memorably called Groth "a cockroach in the Grand Hotel of Comics"), science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter (whom Groth referred to in an editorial as "Our Nixon"). Groth was in some ways, and for decades, a one-man rolling #gamergate flashpoint, spitting on cape comics with a seemingly endless supply of saliva, and gleefully enjoying the resulting outrage.

For all his righteous attacks on the forces of pulp bilge, though, the controversies around Groth never reached the crescendo of hatred and death threats that has characterized the fight around gamergate. From one vantage point, this seems bizarre. Groth was a master of biting prose (which, full disclosure, he's turned against me on occasion.) Sarkeesian's videos, on the other hand, are scholarly and low-key; she never insults gamers personally. Even Leigh Alexander's column is restrained compared to Groth in full flight. Why then has #gamergate gotten so much worse than comics controversies ever did?

A good deal of the answer is, no doubt, the Internet, which has empowered anonymous sadists everywhere. Mostly, though, it's sexism. The art/pulp fight in gaming is also about gender and diversity in a way that comics' struggle for legitimacy never was. Groth supported, and continues to support, many female creators (Fantagraphics publishes Debbie Dreschler and Lilli Carré, to name just two comics artists). But the center of TCJ's canon has always focused on guys like Jack Kirby, the Hernandez Brothers, and especially R. Crumb—an artist well known for depictions of women that aren't notably less sexist or sexualized than those found in cape comics.

Groth sneered at superheroes because they were impersonal and corporate, not because they were all about white guys. He was also very focused on free speech—the censorious anti-comics crusaders of the 1950s occupied the same position for him as Tipper Gore occupies for gamergaters. For their part, feminist critics like Trina Robbins and (in a recent piece) Heidi MacDonald have as often as not criticized the vision of alternative comics created by Groth and Crumb. The art/pulp fight and the diversity fight in comics have largely been separate. In games, they've overlapped—and that overlap has been explosive.

Comics has now finally reached a point where it is seen as an at least potentially serious medium; creators like Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, and Art Spiegelman are all recognized as serious creators among the art and literary establishments. This has not meant the end of pulp; superhero comics remain a niche market, but fans of the genre have no shortage of product to view on big screens or small. Gamers of all sorts can take a lesson from that success; a healthy medium has room for art and pulp both. Secure in that knowledge, maybe anti-gamergate folks could tone down the Grothian insults aimed at gamers. For their part, 8chan-dwelling sociopaths and abusive trolls who have latched onto the gamergate hashtag, could stop with the death threats and harassment aimed at women, feminists, and developers making games about empathy. If there's space for art and pulp in comics, there should be space for both in games. But there shouldn't be space for misogyny in either.