Leonard Pitts Jr

Comicsgate: Alt-right fan boys go after women in world of comics

A fan looks at the display rack at a Pennsylvania comic book store on Free Comic Book Day.
A fan looks at the display rack at a Pennsylvania comic book store on Free Comic Book Day. AP file

No one knew the alt-right had come to comic books until a group of co-workers went out for milkshakes.

This was in July 2017, a few days after Florence Steinberg died. The woman Stan Lee dubbed “Fabulous” Flo” had been his “gal Friday” at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, back when that term was still used to describe female administrative assistants. A few days after she passed, a group of Marvel women went out for milkshakes in honor of their foremother. The women took a selfie, and one of them, an assistant editor named Heather Antos, posted it to Twitter. “It’s the Marvel milkshake crew!” she wrote.

It was an anodyne caption for an anodyne image. The response was anything but.

“Can we just get off of feminism and social justice and actually print stories,” one person tweeted.

Another dubbed the women “the creepiest collection of stereotypical SJWs anyone could possibly imagine,” using a right-wing acronym for “social justice warrior.”

Still another tweeted “I would totally bang the girl in front” — Antos — to which someone else responded: “Better have her sign a consent form, she looks like the ‘false rape charge’ type.”

Nor was that the worst of it. There were also rape threats and sexually explicit images. Antos was “doxed”; i.e., had personal documents released online. Her friends and colleagues were harassed. And she was stalked. At the height of the furor, she was receiving about a thousand notifications — positive and negative — per hour. Antos posted a series of distraught tweets that suggested the toll the harassment was taking.

July 29 at 9:04 p.m..: “The internet is an awful, horrible, and disgusting place.”

July 29 at 9:23 p.m.: “How dare I post a picture of my friends on the internet without expecting to be bullied, insulted, harassed and targeted.”

July 30 at 8:03 a.m. “Woke up today to a slew of more garbage tweets and DMs. For being a woman. In comics. Who posted a selfie of her friends getting milkshakes.”

And the harassment just didn’t stop. For days, then for weeks, then for months, the tweets kept pouring in from people infuriated at the idea that there are women in comics. Many carried a then-new hashtag: “Comicsgate.”

As movements go, Comicsgate was loosely organized, but certainly its most visible figure was one Richard C. Meyer, a little known, self-published comics writer who acted as a kind of ringmaster, using the ironic handle, “DiversityAndCmx.” Antos, he once tweeted, “looks like a hooker from some random episode of STARSKY & HUTCH.”

Antos finally left Marvel the following March. And Comicsgate was officially, as they say, a thing, an affiliation of alt-right comic book fan boys united by their hatred of women, themes of feminism or diversity in comics and by their willingness to bully and harass. Consider it a measure of their effectiveness that a handful of women who were targeted by Comicsgate were approached about participating in this article, but all either ignored the request or refused to be quoted, even anonymously. After calling Meyer and crew “knuckleheads,” the owner of one comics shop even asked that its name not be used here.

If Comicsgate has not managed to “make comics great again” — one of its hashtags — it has certainly managed to make comics fearful again in a way arguably not seen since the anti-comics Congressional hearings of the 1950s. And if the tactics it employs sound familiar, that’s because they are.

In 2014, the video game world was rocked by “Gamergate,” a campaign against female video game players, designers and critics. It rose after a free experimental game released by designer Zoe Quinn in 2013. Instead of centering on basketball or commando raids, “Depression Quest” dealt with, well...depression. In response, she started receiving menacing emails, her documents were released and message boards began to fill with threats like one that proposed gamers give Quinn “a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal … a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”

In 2016, there was a similar response to the reboot of the movie “Ghostbusters” with four female leads. Actress Leslie Jones, who is African-American, was a particular focus of the hatred. She reported repeatedly being called an “ape” and said someone even sent an image of her face streaked with semen. Jones briefly shut down her Twitter account, writing, “I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart. All this cause I did a movie.”

In 2017, when Kelly Marie Tran, who was born in San Diego to parents from Vietnam, starred in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she was the target of online harassment that included someone rewriting a Wikipedia page for her character so that it read: “Ching Chong Wing Tong is a dumbass f------ character Disney made and is a stupid, retarded, and autistic love interest... She better die in the coma because she is a dumbass bitch.”

The comics industry got its first whiff of all this in 2016 after Mockingbird, a female superhero, was depicted wearing a T-shirt that said, “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” The bullying that followed was enough to drive the book’s author, novelist Chelsea Cain, off of Twitter. A year later, when writer Magdalene “Mags” Visaggio came out in defense of Antos, the bullies took special joy in ridiculing her as a transgender woman. Meyer dubbed her “a violent unstable man in a Party City wig.” As recently as August, when poet and academic Eve Ewing was announced as the writer of “Ironheart,” a new series whose protagonist is a black teenage girl, observers pronounced her “unqualified” and — again — an ”SJW.”

In their world, apparently, there are few things worse than to be a warrior for social justice. Like, say, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem or Martin Luther King.

Dr. Morten Bay of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism thinks what we are seeing here is a perfect storm of today’s angry political environment and the “amplification mechanism” of social media. Though it positions itself as a criticism of the work, movements like Comicsgate are actually more about who gets to have a voice than about artistic merit. That, at least, is what Bay found when he analyzed the Twitter feed of director Rian Johnson from the period when his film “The Last Jedi” was so heavily criticized for presenting an Asian-American woman as a hero.

It is worth noting that, Comicsgate ire aside, there has never been a time when comics did not address politics. Superman liberated a concentration camp during World War II. The Sub-Mariner has long campaigned against pollution. In 1974, at the height of Watergate, a disillusioned Captain America gave up his shield. Nor is feminism new to comics. Indeed, Wonder Woman — who debuted in 1941 — is a living embodiment of female aspiration and power.

But all those characters were created — and mostly written — by men. Increasingly, however, women are showing up as creators or participators in what has been a male-dominated world. And some men have no idea how to handle it. One of the totems of geek culture, observes Bay, has been a sense of male ostracization. Even Stan Lee, during his heyday at Marvel, cannily played on the nerd herd’s sense of itself as an outsider culture. As he told The Los Angeles Times in 2003, “I wanted the reader to feel we were ... sharing some private fun that the outside world wasn’t aware of.”

But if being an outsider is a core part of your identity, what happens when that goes away? We live in a world where geek culture dominates pop culture, with Marvel Studios leading the way, delivering one billion-dollar franchise after another. What happens to that sense of exclusivity when the whole world — even women — knows the secret catch phrase or handshake?

“So the community is changing,” says Bay, “and I think what you’re seeing is just a general reflection of the same thing that’s happening across the world, in terms of white male privilege being challenged. White males are resisting this, resisting the challenge to their dominant status.”

University of Baltimore professor Dr. Bridget Blodgett. who, with Dr. Anastasia Salter of the University of Central Florida, analyzed the Gamergate phenomenon in their book, “Toxic Geek Masculinity and Media,” has reached much the same conclusion. We live now, she says, in an age where “everybody’s mom can play a video game and be a gamer.”

”But when everybody can do it, you kind of have simultaneously, geek culture is ascendant, everybody wants in because it’s this big thing with the Marvel movies and stuff, but at the same time” those who got there first no longer get to think of themselves as special.

An argument can also be made that Marvel, in particular, brought much of this on itself. A few years ago, in an obvious effort to diversify and revivify its aging lineup of largely white, male characters, it began swapping many of them out for women and people of color. Suddenly, the Hulk was a Korean-American teenager. Thor and Wolverine were women. Captain America was an African-American man. Iron Man was a black teenage girl and Ms. Marvel was a Muslim teenager.

As if that were not enough raw red meat to throw down before the right wing, there was also a now-notorious 2017 interview by David Gabriel, a Marvel executive, in which he addressed the issue of declining sales: “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”

Gabriel would quickly walk those words back, and CBR.com, an authoritative online industry publication, would debunk the claim decisively under the headline: “No, Diversity Didn’t Kill Marvel’s Comic Sales.”

But in a sense, the truth of it doesn’t matter. As veteran writer Mark Waid points out, the white male characters are almost all back now, as anyone who has read comic books longer than a year knew they would be. This, after all, isn’t the first time this has happened. Iron Man was a black man in the ‘80s. Bruce Wayne has occasionally stopped being Batman. Captain America has been dead at least five times.

“My feeling,” says Waid, “has always been, if the claim is, ‘That’s what we were really after, that’s what we were upset about,’ well, you won. So shut the hell up.”

“That’s the tell in their argument,” says writer Kwanza Osajyefo. “Any comics fan who had been a longtime reader is completely aware [that comics is cyclical]. Everything is temporary, and then you go back to the status quo.

“The argument that’s coming from Comicsgate … has nothing to do with going back to classic characters or ‘making comics great again.’ It has everything to do with stamping down other voices.” Osajyefo notes that he’s not even working with “classic characters” — his series, “Black,” published after a Kickstarter campaign, posits a world where only black people have super powers — yet he is still getting abuse.

Waid and Osajyefo are among a number of male creators — Mike Deodato, Jeff Lemire and Bill Sienkiewicz are others — who have spoken out in support of their female colleagues.

The outspokenness has not come without a price. Waid is being sued by Meyer, who claims the writer somehow influenced retailers not to sell Meyer’s work. “I shut down Facebook for a while right after the kerfuffle that sparked the lawsuit because, again, it became such a funnel for hate. I couldn’t go on there and say, ‘Happy birthday, Grandma,’ without a hundred, ‘Die! Die! Die!’ responses.”

Osajyefo says he has been called a thief, called the N-word and doxed. But he feels this was mild compared to what the women have endured.

“I think they absolutely are more vulnerable to a lot of this crap. ... I consider as a male that there are so many things that just aren’t in my purview, that I don’t even think about that women think about all day. Like, I can walk away from a bar and not have to put a coaster on my beer. Why would I give that a second thought? It’s cool, it’s my beer, I’ll be back. But for a woman, it’s like, that could be the difference between her and a really bad situation.”

Now that same fear comes to comics, previously a mellow nerd kingdom where the biggest disputes were along the lines of whether Wolverine could take Captain America in a fight. These days, the kingdom of nerds is, for some at least, a kingdom of fright.

Chelsea Cain, who was attacked by Comicsgate before it even had that name, admits she was initially traumatized by what happened to her. “The thing that really will always haunt me,” she told The Daily Beast, “is this illustration of Mockingbird — and this was somebody with talent, like, it was drawn and inked, it looked professional: Mockingbird brutalized and raped, dead. Her costume all torn off, bloody, really violent. And she’s laying there, horribly murdered and bruised and it said, ‘Ask me about my feminist agenda.’”

Cain kept quiet. Then Donald Trump was elected. She attended the Women’s March in Washington. And somewhere in there, as the Daily Beast puts it, “she got angry.”

The result of that anger was a new Image Comics series called Man-eaters, a ferociously funny and fiercely feminist allegory, described by The Hollywood Reporter as a combination of “’The Handmaid’s Tale” and “’Cat People.” In it, the world is terrorized by a virus that strikes girls after their first menstrual period, turning them into killer cats. The second issue features a faux ad that seems to lift a single digit salute on behalf of every woman ever terrorized by Comicsgate:

“Public Warning: This Comic May Attract Girls and Women. If you see a girl or woman in your area, remain calm. Girls and women may lash out if provoked.”