Mainstream superhero comics have exploded in general popularity over the past decade. Characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot are household names, mentioned in between discussions of the Grammys or the March Madness tournament. New waves of fans are checking out DC and Marvel comic books, many of them for the first time in their lives, drawn by charismatic performances by everyone from Steven Amell to Scarlet Johansson. And comic book publishers, as businesses who want to make money, are noticing.
As comics culture opens up to a newer, more diverse fanbase (there have always been women, POC, and LGBT comics fans, but they’re more visible than ever before, and the recent growth in their number and influence is undeniable), there’s a number of female-led books undergoing a renaissance. Books like Batgirl and Captain Marvel feature a non-sexualized look at these characters, with functional costumes and personal stories separated from male counterparts. New characters like Silk, Spider-Gwen and Thor provide a different, engaging take on familiar premises. Things aren’t perfect, but the trend towards zip-up outfits and independent narratives over tight spandex and cheesecake is gaining momentum. So of course, there’s a vocal element of boys’ club fandom that hates it.
There’s a rising tide of semi-anonymous harassers on social media, old-school fans of comics who feel that any broadening of the appeal of comics is a direct attack against them. They tend to operate as a mob, searching and seeking out those who complain about sexism in comics and tweeting rude and offensive statements and threats. They’re armed primarily with a distorted, childlike understanding of the First Amendment, and both a wealth of energy and time and a dearth of empathy. These groups go after comics creators, journalists, and outspoken fans alike, with a particular eye for anyone who’s already in a potentially vulnerable position (women, LGBT individuals, folks dealing with depression).
It’s partially tied to Gamergate, the loose confederation of harassers in the video game industry, but more generally it’s the same boys’ clubs that have thrived in small, insular comic shops for years. The rise of social media allows fandom to interact and come together more freely, but it also lets these guys seek out targets to bully and harass with greater ease. Bullies are bullies, and they’ve just learned some new tricks.
Among these tricks are clothing their harassment in progressive buzzwords. Free speech is good, right? And censorship is bad. This is America, after all. So even the most sexist remarks by creators, the most offensive artwork and the most prolonged harassment must be good, since they’re “free speech.” Similarly, anytime someone criticizes said speech, it must be censorship, because that’s the opposite, right? The logic extends to pretty insane levels, like the argument that going private or blocking people online is censorship, or even cyberbullying. Freedom of speech isn’t the only progressive term that gets twisted into a parody of itself for these arguments. I recently criticized a sketch cover by Frank Cho of Spider-Gwen, one that was drawn specifically as an homage to the sexualized Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover. Before long I had strangers telling me that I was “a misogynist” and “hated women’s bodies.” A cursory look at their profiles showed that they would use any kind of logic to justify yelling at strangers for drawing a line. To them, phrases like “feminism” or “free speech” are just magic words, tossed out as an attempt to sideline and silence the real discussion.
You can play whack-a-mole with these guys, blocking them as they pop up. You can go round for round with them, unleashing stress and rebuttals to their toxic opinions like a virtual heavy bag. But their sheer numbers turn them into a sandblaster, wearing away your energy and resolve. The key, I think, to cutting out this damaging sect of the community is to vote with your wallet. Support books and creators with considered, progressive content. Don’t buy sexist media, even if it’s well-reviewed or important to continuity (trust me, continuity is much less important than publishers seem to want you to think). Be outspoken in your support of women working in comics. Show zero tolerance for creators who actively try to hurt people through their work and defend a dying status quo that treats women like props or set dressing.
See, not buying a comic because it’s offensive isn’t against the First Amendment. Posting on Twitter that Frank Cho is a vile, despicable man isn’t against the First Amendment. Even Marvel or DC choosing not to do business with someone over his retrogressive statements and work isn’t against the First Amendment. For those who need a refresher, the First Amendment applies to the government’s interaction with its citizens. No one is arguing Cho or other cheesecake factories should be thrown in prison, or that their work should be confiscated and burned by the feds. But freedom from censorship doesn’t shield you from valid criticism, and it certainly doesn’t give you a pass to ignore when your work is actively hurting people.
And to writers, artists, and everyone involved in making and publishing comics: be very careful of what you put out into the world. Rafael Albuquerque’s Batgirl variant cover for “Endgame” was an ill-conceived, inappropriate drawing, and thankfully both the artist and publisher thought better of it and prevented it from going to press. But despite everyone involved disavowing it, it still appears with increasing frequency as a banner for the lower elements of fandom, a triggering image used to add an edge to their bile. These groups don’t really care about free speech, or artistic intent, or anything except protecting their little corner. Don’t cater to them, don’t give them a pass, and don’t stay silent.
Comics are undergoing a renaissance, piece by piece. I can’t wait to see what the Justice League or the Avengers looks like in five years, if these trends continue. But there are always going to be backward, petty fans who dress up their beefs with concepts like free speech and censorship. The key is to keep pushing creators to improve, to recognize those who do, and to not tolerate those who don’t. It’s not censorship. It’s moving forward.