Sexual Harassment in Comics

I’ve only been dancing around the fringes of Ronée Garcia Bourgeois’ columns on sexual harassment in the comics industry. Her latest (link no longer available), though, puts it all on the table, as Colleen Doran and Lea Hernandez go on the record with some of the outrageous and atrocious sexism they’ve faced. These two women are incredibly talented, so no one can scream “sour grapes”. They’ve established long careers on their own terms, so no one can say “they’re just seeking attention by lying”.

That’s the kind of industry we’re talking about here. The superhero comic world is full of fans who don’t care what happens to real people so long as they keep getting their four-color fantasies. Those kinds of excuses (and worse) are often made by those who like blaming victims and who always believe the guys’ side of the story, even to the extent of making up extenuating circumstances.

(The superhero comic world also contains great guys who are very informed on gender issues and considerate guys who stay shy because they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing when it comes to women. I’m not talking about them here because my focus is on the negative things that can happen to women who don’t keep their mouths shut.)

(And sometimes, I think that the guys who think of women as a completely separate species, one they can’t understand or even resent for controlling whether or not they have sex with them, are as dangerous as the outright attackers. Because it’s a lot easier to demonize, even unconsciously, something you think of as Other, as not like you and never like you. But I’m not intending to talk about Dave Sim here.)

Colleen isn’t clear in the interview, but one of her attackers was fanboy icon Julie Schwartz. When that came out a couple of years ago, after his death, I saw her savagely attacked online for daring to besmirch his memory. He played his “kindly uncle who loves the ladies” persona for years if not decades, and few of the boys who grew up reading his comics wanted to hear about how devastating his inappropriate behavior could be to a teenage girl. The memory of someone few of them had ever met was more important than the truth of his harassment, and as she says, they assumed she was “asking for it” or lying about what happened.

There’s a third person interviewed as well, a pseudonymous “former employee of a major comics publisher” who doesn’t otherwise identify herself. I think running disguised comments will continue to muddy the waters, but it seems to allow her to be the most forthright:

I put up with this sh*t from one of my bosses for many months and it just about killed my health from the stress. Because if I told–I was not going to be a popular individual. The humiliation, worry, self-hatred…it takes a toll. These were my friends–I didn’t want to lose my friends. This was my career, my livelihood–and I didn’t want to lose that. But long story short–I told. And I lost my “friends”. And I lost my “livelihood”. And the damage to my body that had spiraled out from the stress was done, and I had nothing to do but heal. But I did heal. And I stood up for myself, and I am a much stronger person for the experience. But the sheer amount of misery and suffering that one immature person can cause by being unprofessional? Like the commercial says: priceless.

Women who complain are told they’re misunderstanding the situation or have no sense of humor or take things too seriously. It’s still a boys’ club. Telling doesn’t make things better. It should, because the superhero comics tell us that we are all supposed to try and do the right, heroic thing, and that makes the world better… but we’re talking about corporations who are only interested in protecting the entrenched. One of them responded to an official complaint of sexual harassment by trying to move the harasser into an office next door to the harassee. Idiots.

On the individual level, while it’s cute to see guys who seem to have rarely thought about this saying “it makes me so mad I want to punch something”, I’m waiting for the backlash as guys get tired of hearing about what women in comics face all the time. I give it another two weeks before the crowd wants to turn its attention elsewhere and start resenting the women who want their stories told and respected and acted on.

19 Responses to “Sexual Harassment in Comics”

  1. kalinara Says:

    I spent a while trying to think of something constructive to reply to this with, and all I can think of is that you’re probably right.

    Which is why we’ve got to make sure that this stuff isn’t forgotten or allowed to slide anymore. Make enough fuss, embarrass them enough, and then something might be done.

    We’re in “the crowd” too, which means that we can make sure that it stays in the spotlight until changes have been made.

  2. Rob Staeger Says:

    Thanks for linking to this, Johanna. I don’t read a lot of comics-industry blogs, and hadn’t heard of this interview. This is important to get out in the open.


  3. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    I give it another two weeks before the crowd wants to turn its attention elsewhere and start resenting the women who want their stories told and respected and acted on.

    Rest assured that, regardless of what “the crowd” does, this isn’t a story we’re going to back off of,or bury underneath announcements of Spider-Man’s new powers and another Wolverine series. Ronée has every intention of following this through to the end, and our full support in doing so.

    If there are other women out there willing to come forward and speak up (on or off the record), please contact her at roneegb( @ ) The only way this story dies is if, as happened to Colleen, people don’t step forward and speak out.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Kalinara, I have the often-troublesome skill of being able to easily and quickly see the weak points and problems in something. That’s why I’m a reviewer, and I try to use my abilities for constructive criticism. That’s my introduction to saying: I hope I’m wrong, and I hope that I don’t sound like a negative nelly, saying “it’ll never change.”

    I suspect age/experience also has a lot to do with it. I’ve been involved in the comic industry for a good while now, and enthusiasm and hope are always easier when you’re younger and fresher. Sometimes it takes new blood. The head of DC has been in no industry but comics for three decades. At other levels, you work your way up the ranks by being a good company soldier and not making waves. It’s an inherently conservative system with no real pressure to change.

    I would have thought that running their biggest event of the year around a rape would have caused more of an outcry, especially in the larger public, but (shrug).

    I’m very glad to hear, Guy, that your site is committed to continued coverage, and I hope that the facts that started all of this are able to be revealed soon. I understand and sympathize with the way it’s been handled so far, but it can’t continue that way in the long run if the issue is to be taken seriously.

  5. Mark Fossen Says:

    I would have thought that running their biggest event of the year around a rape would have caused more of an outcry, especially in the larger public, but (shrug).
    I tend to project my own gender/color blindness on everyone else. I don’t see a story with rape as inherently sexist or abusive .. it depends on pattern and intent. To me, it was godawful storytelling, but I often need a nudge to see these from a perspective that isn’t mine.

    On the individual level, while it’s cute to see guys who seem to have rarely thought about this saying “it makes me so mad I want to punch something”, I’m waiting for the backlash as guys get tired of hearing about what women in comics face all the time.

    I would hope there’s no backlash (apart from the usual quarters where it’s expected), but there may be a moving on. Fact is, there are so many problems in the industry it’s inevitable that the focus will go elsewhere.

    That might be part of the problem – we’re trying to fix so many problems at once, none of it gets really fixed.

  6. Ronée GB Says:

    Thanks for linking, and more importantly for noticing. Yes I will be continuing coverage of this, but not to the point of nauseum… to the point of awareness. I think this is one of the many things that needs to be addressed in comics and as long as there are people talking about it, then as far as I am concerned I have done my job.

  7. Johanna Says:

    Mark, I can imagine comic stories where rape is handled sensitively and well — but I haven’t seen one. In DC’s books, it’s all about the shock value and exploitation.

    In a world where parents complain about words like “hell” or the existence of gay characters in any superhero comic (because they think all comics are for kids, and superhero comics are the only kind they see, and they don’t want the little darlings exposed to anything outside of marital relationships), I would have guessed that the existence of a sex crime in a book prominently featuring Superman would have freaked them out.

    Your second point is well taken. I’m not sure what can be done about it, though.

    I just visited a message board where a professional artist was saying his criteria for visiting an online forum regularly was whether there were hot girls posting there. I hope he was joking, but … I don’t know.

  8. Chris Galdieri Says:

    What can those of us who just read comics and have silly blogs (as opposed to review blogs, etc.) do about this sort of thing? This is the kind of thing that, yes, makes me want to punch something. But what can I punch? I read so few monthly comics these days that I doubt even my local store would feel much economic impact if I dropped my entire pull list. And if I’m not reading books by people who are pulling this sort of crap, that’s just punishing the wrong people by association. Point me toward something to punch and I’ll punch it — but I want to know I’m punching in the right direction.

  9. Mark Fossen Says:

    Mark, I can imagine comic stories where rape is handled sensitively and well — but I haven’t seen one. In DC’s books, it’s all about the shock value and exploitation.
    In most comic stories … is anything handled sensitively and well?

    Politics, sex, rape, gender, religion … it’s all “shock value and exploitation”. At least from DC/Marvel.

    As counterpoint, I’m interested to see where the Young Avengers goes with it’s introduction of a rape as a major plot point. I think I already trust Heinberg well enough to handle it with compassion.

  10. Johanna Says:

    Chris, that’s an excellent question. I think you can support those who’ve been through these wrenching situations and, if opportunity arises, make it clear to publishers and others that you will back up your statements with action. You can tell the troglodytes blaming the women that their attitudes are inappropriate. You can contribute to a more welcoming atmosphere where these things don’t get swept under the rug.

    Mark, no, I don’t think most delicate subjects are handled sensitively in superhero books. That’s not what they’re there for, unless it’s a Very Special Issue in which Potato-Man Learns Child Abuse Is Bad or some such. (I haven’t read the latest Young Avengers yet.)

  11. Mark Fossen Says:

    I haven’t read the latest Young Avengers yet.

    Well … glad I didn’t go into spoileriffic detail, then :)

  12. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Laura Gjovaag has a powerful emotional response to recent stories of sexual harassment. She comes to the conclusion that Superheroes are constrained by their own success. And it’s a dubious success at that. As long as superheroes dominate the market, the stories will continue to pander to the fanboys… the lowest common denominator of the fanboys. They will continue to be the kind of stories that embarrass the casual reader and drive people away. And they will continue to be the type of stories that reinforce the twisted notions of power and physical control. And sales will continue to fall. […]

  13. James Schee Says:

    I wonder, do comic companies ever have sexual harrassment meetings? Every job I’ve ever worked at had meetings to educate and inform us on what acceptable behavior is and what will be done if someone violates that. (I currently work at a place that is 90% female, but we still have meetings.)

    I know it still doesn’t help the more extreme cases like those here, but it was just something I wondered.

    The third commentator being disguised is too bad, though understandable to a point. Though with sadly such a short list of names of people who could be in her position, those who would retaliate might be able to guess her identity.

    It really is a shame that this kind of stuff still goes on, especially when comics have finally found a real draw to young female readers with manga.

    The bulk of the industry is still based on these fictional personas of creators that has reached as mythic in status as the characters they work on. Just look at a certain comic company that based it’s creative process on the fictional Marvel Bullpen.

    So as you say some fans would rather hold onto that myth, than see the reality of who some of these people are.

  14. Lea Says:

    I’m gooing to admit I feel squicky about standing up and saying “I handled rape right!” but I want to point out that I did address it in both Cathedral Child and Rumble Girls.

    In CC, the perpetrator, Rose, sees it as perfectly okay to attack Glory, because her own father sees her as valueless, since she is dark-skinned and, worse, female. Glory, in turn, rescues herself, rather than being rescued.
    Stern, who stands by and does nothing to help Glory, says, “…I should have done something…I’m just as bad for doing nothing when [Stern] tried to take Glory…I j-just wanted to collect my pay and pretend I didn’t see anything.”

    In Rumble Girls, I dealt with it head on, from the beginning, as entertainment company EnTeCo wants their male star, Crimson, to have a female rival to eventually have a liason with. (“Liason” as in bodice-ripper sex, where the girl/woman doesn’t really want to, but is overwhelmed and estatic.)
    The “hint of rape” line that I turned into a joke in RG was actually said to me by an editor, in giving advice about cover art.

    In CC, it’s about devaluing a person because of their gender and their color. In RG, it’s about popular entertainment using rape for shock value (which gives a girl/woman or boy/man an okay motivation to go on a gory revenge rampage), or presenting rape as sexy and even okay if a female capitulates.

  15. Johanna Says:

    Oh, James, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the only time I recall the issue coming up while at DC was when a female executive dragged all her female employees into a room and told them that they needed to watch their behavior because guys were spreading rumors about how easy they were. It turned out that someone had made a joke in front of her that she misunderstood, but of course, the girls needed to be told to change how they behaved.

    Lea, that’s a really interesting analysis. Thanks for providing an example of the kind of thought that should go into this element of a storyline.

  16. James Schee Says:

    Wow, that just boggles my mind Johanna. I would think at least the fear of lawsuit(if sheer human decency isn’t enough) would get the suits involved, with DC being connected to Time Warner as they are.

    I can’t count the number of meetings and videos we watch each year about the subject. About things like the obvious aspects of continously asking someone out, for sexual favors or inappropriate humor. To the more subtle borderline cases like being too affectionate in the workplace, that it makes someone else uncomfortable.

    Which was two old friends who just see each other for the first time in a long time and hug, and the woman next to them is uncomfortable about it. Which led to us discussing the situation and whether we felt it qualified.

    It is an interesting experience, as I’ve always felt like I was a very respectful person towards everyone. Yet I learned how to be more aware of how things could be taken and made me better for it. (oddly, it make it easier to talk with others since I tended to be rather shy before)

    To think that major comic companies can’t even do a little of that is just very weird. I guess that while the material in the comics may have grown up, to some degree, some of the people behind them still haven’t.

  17. Rob Staeger Says:

    I don’t know; I work for a different division of TW. I’ve been there for three years and we haven’t had any meetings like that. It’s not just the comics division.

    We’re not in the same building as the HR department, though, and we’re left out of a lot of things. It might be the same for DC; they’re not in the Time Life building either.

  18. James Schee Says:

    In sort of a “Jinkies, what a coincidence!” moment. My 10 year old niece came home today talking about the assembly they had at school today on sexual harrassment and bullying.

  19. Harassment And Being The Superhero In Our Story Says:

    […] by her boyfriend’s editor in the foyer of a comic convention hotel. Colleen Doran’s experiences, especially with comics legend Julie Schwartz. Charles Brownstein and Taki Soma. And there was Valerie D’Orazio‘s experiences with a […]




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