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Violence and Sex

Celebrated writer and figurative Editor in Chief of Heavy Metal Magazine Grant Morrison may have been one of the first major voices to consider that the super-heroic genre so prevalent in western comic books today services the same ultimate needs as did the mythologies of old.

Using the medium of comics, writers, artists and editors use superheroes to convey four-colored variations of the many great responsibilities that come with great powers. They are predominately power fantasies, inviting readers to live vicariously through the adventuresome exploits of contrasting morality fables with the abilities to finitely deal with the ramifications of the world around them. Whether in ancient myths or these sequential arts of today, the heroes confront troublesome dilemmas, but with the power and generally self-governed authority to physically do something to resolve the problems. At their worst, mythical heroes and superheroes alike are throwaway escapism. But at their best, they attract the disenfranchised, giving those less endowed something to strive for with their lives.

Something so intrinsic as hero-worshiping is certainly possible in other creative mediums, although rarely can such predilections match the imaginations of the men and women who create and produce comic books. But I am not writing this to argue for or against the veracity of funny books as a valid medium. While other genres are far better explored by foreign comic book publishers, the dominant appeal of superheroes in North American comic books is undeniable. Though the comic book industry itself has arguably been no smaller since its earliest years in the 1930s, its crossover successes into other mediums is ironically generating billions in profits. The content of the two largest publishers, Marvel (owned by Disney) and DC (owned by Time Warner), is 99.999% superhero-related. Diversity being the exact opposite of monopoly, the next largest publishers are quite dramatically eclipsed by the resources, influence and market shares of “the big two”.

Mythic legends and folk tales endured for thousands of years, with many countries accepting them as cultural heritage, even origin points in the evolutions of theological belief structures. Superheroes, enabled by the technological marvels of the modern age, have managed to find acknowledgement by as many persons over a substantially briefer period of time. Yet despite their popularity, myths were never held accountable for actions of anti-social deviancy among the public. That was the case with comic books beginning in the early 1950s, as the publication of German psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s critical book Seduction of the Innocent hit at a time of epic juvenile delinquency in the United States, but also following the biggest war in recorded history. In those days, the comic book industry was grossing more than Hollywood, so his moralistic attack was quite the scandal, and in every way set the tone for McCarthyism.

Wertham, despite his flaws, must have been intelligent enough to see the true root cause for the spikes in crime rates. It would have been taken as offensively unpatriotic in that day and age however, to blame any crime on the side effects of war, of growing amidst the eggshells of divided homes, dealing with the return of fathers mentally and/or physically damaged, or of fathers not returning home at all. Every war is followed by increases in crimes committed by distraught teenagers and young adults. In more recent decades, the popularity of comic books themselves has steadily declined, so that other creative mediums have experienced shares of blame for surges in criminality, notably rock and rap music, violent movies and games, etc. Superheroes still dominate the comic books published in North America, despite the decline of the industry as a whole, but the steadiness of war only increases to nonstop activity spread out around the globe.

In their earliest incarnations, despite the publishers being founded by con-men and wannabe gangsters, the creative pools making comic books primarily consisted of minorities, females and homosexuals. The comic books themselves were always targeted at comparable societal outcasts, those too young to work but too old to play, too financially poor for more socially active interests but too psychologically rich for nothing at all. Newspaper strips were originally intended to appeal to ethnic minorities specifically, viewed by the editors as too illiterate to make use of the rest of the paper. And the industry has continued to draw to itself very colorful personalities, as fans and professionals alike. Any collective of persons anywhere will inevitably include its share of undesirables, but a collective comprised almost exclusively of black sheep unfortunately wants to prove itself even more concerning.

Against our cultural backdrop of these sadomasochistic decades of perpetual warfare, those persons drawn to comic books, the bastard stepchildren of the nine muses, are finding among their own number more and more occurrences of anti-social deviancy, particularly regarding grotesque incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The key attribute separating the old audiences for mythical heroes from the modern audiences for superheroes, is that the world today is far more uncertain, far more emasculating. Astronomically hopeless economic distresses, poisonously inhumane corporate practices, elected leaders who proudly lay claim to accepting monies from anyone for anything without consequence, major religions exerting bias to the most brutal ends, and an overwhelming cacophony of popular culture drivel that compels us to bury our heads in the sand at the fullest expense of every virtue our species might ever have known. All of this sets the stage for the vileness inhabiting the pocket dimension of comic books, trigger effects for the most juvenile of backlashes, but pardons positively none of the behavior. All syntax relative to the heroic ideal seems now to be completely lost among too many of the storytellers and too much of the fandom, with what has by now become systemic, institutionalized abuse being either openly enabled, or ignored for too long by all but a vocal minority. Shell-shocked children, proponents of misconduct seek only to attack the world around them, further empowered by a cult of personality easier to attain now than in any previous era of mankind.

Such personalities gather in largest numbers at comic book conventions, and sexual harassment at comic book conventions has become such a massive concern that many convention organizers are left with no choice but to proactively enforce zero tolerance policies. The issue is certainly not new, as evidenced by the events described in this blog post from 2008.

In recent years, DC Comics was finally obliged to play its hand, announcing their intentions to investigate allegations of attempted rape by an unnamed Senior Art Director. These allegations were brought to the public’s attention following separate accusations made against a long-time editor from DC Comics, Eddie Berganza. His shamefully continuous employment was called into question by discerning insiders and even fewer journalists after Shelly Bond, Executive Editor of the Vertigo division of DC Comics, was fired for grievances far lesser than the multiple incidents of sexual harassment apparently perpetrated by Berganza against multiple victims, often in front of multiple eyewitnesses, going back multiple years. By all appearances, Berganza seems to be protected by his employer, regardless of a brief demotion and counseling several years ago. Reportedly, female creators are forbidden from working in his offices, and he himself is forbidden from making convention appearances, all due to former incidents.

The late Julius Schwartz, long-time Editor and Publisher for DC Comics, had his own scandals of sexual harassment to contend with, so none of this is new territory for the company. DC Comics is not Bogarting all controversies, of course. Greg Brooks, a former artist for both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, was convicted in 1988 for the brutal murder by hammer of his young wife Elizabeth Kessler, who had also briefly worked for DC Comics as a colorist.

In 2005, there was an embarrassing incident wherein Charles Brownstein, Executive Director for the non-profit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, did something physically inappropriate towards artist Taki Soma. While he ultimately proved himself repentant, the many voices from industry insiders leaping to his defense had no more knowledge of what actually occurred than did the many voices from industry outsiders demanding his head on a spike. This inadvertently led to the short-lived Friends of Lulu Empowerment Fund, which aimed to move such cases “from nerd court to real court“. While that was a genuinely great idea, the empowerment fund was ancient history by the time I joined the Board of Directors for Friends of Lulu in early 2010.

In 2006, Valerie D’Orazio, a versatile writer and editor who would later serve as the final President of the Friends of Lulu charity, was the victim of massive waves of harassment and threats herself, guided in large part by a comics reviewer named Chris Sims. She was neither the first or the last to speak out, but she rattled cages the loudest by self-publishing her autobiographical Goodbye to Comics. Among other anecdotes, the articles detailed with altered names some of the misogynistic abuses she witnessed while previously working in editorial at DC Comics. Fans could not wrap their heads around the notion of such a big publisher being guilty of so many sins swept so easily under the proverbial rug. Her online abuses continued for years, but her backbone proved stronger than those of her detractors. Yet despite all of the sordid details existing in the public spotlight, Sims was later hooked up with serial work at Marvel Comics.

Since about 2009, Ethan Van Sciver, artist for Harris Comics, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, has spear-headed a circle jerk of goons in a variety of online attacks against fans they disapprove of. Utilizing rape threats and a fart joke mentality, they have cyber-stalked even the significant others of undesirable fans, obsessively creating bogus profiles on social media for vicious personal attacks in an unprovoked war which persists unabashedly to this day. Interestingly, Van Sciver’s one moment of creative originality was in the creation of his Cyberfrog character in the 1990s. Contrasted with today, where an obnoxious meme consisting of a frog called Pepe is widely used to propel the same far-right, holier than thou pathology exhibited by Van Sciver and his tactless cohorts.

In 2009, retired British artist Ron Smith faced accusations of five counts of rape, two counts of buggery, and two of indecent assault, all involving a preteen girl. He was ultimately cleared.

While attending a convention in 2011, artist Eric Basaldua got so drunk that he let himself into the hotel room of a female artist, literally crawling naked into bed with her. Eric is still getting jobs within the industry, even though he has since been banned from a different convention due entirely to his rampant public drunkenness.

In the spring of 2011, popular DC Comics artist Justiniano was arrested on charges of first-degree possession of child pornography.

Nancy Silberkleit, co-CEO of Archie Comics, was sued by her fellow co-CEO Jonathan Goldwater in 2011, for bullying and sexually harassing several of their employees. He sued her again in 2012 alleging bad business decisions and alienating of staff, with enough evidence for a judge to bar her from physically entering the Archie Comics headquarters. Still in charge though.

Ike Perlmutter, Vice Chairman and CEO of Marvel Comics, had not one or two but three separate legal cases settled in 2012, each one concerning long-standing formal complaints involving employment disputes and racially-based misconduct on the multi-billionaire’s part. Perlmutter remains one of the most powerful people in the comics industry.

In late 2012 Bob Kelly, production controller for Titan Comics in the UK, was arrested for hiding cameras in his company’s ladies rooms. He was tried in 2014, but the publisher ordered other employees to not speak out on the matter, and has since refused to issue even clarifying statements.

After learning that she was not the only person to have been harassed by a certain professional writer, in 2013 artist Tess Fowler chose to publicly call out the successful Brian Wood, who has written for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and Dark Horse Comics. She immediately faced a lot of criticism online, while Wood’s career has not been discernibly hampered in the time since, especially with a TV show currently in production.

Rick (brother of Eric) Basaldua, an artist who has also worked for a few different publishers, had a Domestic Violence restraining order filed against him in 2013. Having myself been an advocate for Domestic Violence Awareness, I know that such restraining orders normally can only be enacted following proof of physical violence already rendered.

Also in 2013, failed comedian and mainstream comics writer Scott Lobdell shamelessly dropped a number of highly inappropriate sexual innuendos against a female comics professional while onstage at a convention panel, in front of dozens, possibly hundreds of witnesses. He continues to be counted among the industry’s more popular writers.

In late 2013, DragonCon co-founder and co-owner Ed Kramer pled guilty to 3 counts of child molestation.

In 2014, John “Roc” Upchurch, co-creator and artist of an indie comic book published by Image Comics, was arrested for Domestic Violence for beating his ex-wife. He was only briefly removed from the comic book series, and has since returned to the business as though nothing ever happened.

Elsewhere in 2014, it came out that cartoonist Yale Stewart had quite the habit of sending unsolicited photographs of his genitals to female comic book professionals. It was blatant enough that he even posted a blog publicly apologizing. He’s still working, and his apology seems to have disappeared from the web, probably lost under the rug with all the rest.

In 2015, Nathan Edmondson, a writer for both Marvel Comics and Image Comics, was publicly called out on social media by several persons within the industry labeling him as a serial predator and calling for a boycott of his work. His employers refused to confirm any Human Resources complaints, and the blogosphere quickly moved on.

That same year, comics writer Joe Harris came forward about being attacked by Scott Allie, then Editor in Chief for Dark Horse Comics, a claim which was readily confirmed by other Dark Horse Comics staff. The publisher’s response was to create for Allie a new job title, Executive Senior Editor, as well as to hire comics “scholar” Hannah Means-Shannon as their Associate Editor, an obvious reward for her purposefully giving good press to the company during the scandal. Other editors left Dark Horse Comics over these actions.

In 2016, Blake Leibel, whose up and coming comic book writing career was likely eased by his dad being a millionaire property developer, was arrested for felony rape. Probably also because his dad is a millionaire, Blake was released, but soon was arrested again in a separate incident involving the torture, mutilation and murder of his girlfriend in Hollywood.

At the start of 2017, veteran writer Gerard Jones, who has worked for virtually every mid-range to major comics publisher of the last three decades, was booked into jail on suspicion of possession of child pornography. Also production of child pornography, sending harmful material to a minor and distribution of child pornography.

That same month Park Jung-hyun, an editor of acclaimed manga, was arrested for the murder of his wife in Japan.

Around that same time, a study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah which would have made Fredric Wertham proud affirmed that superheroes actually encourage violence, and not morality. The findings purported that kids especially who are exposed to these modernized variations of mythological heroes become more prone to violent conduct, and not for the sake of defending others. As though violent behavior could not possibly be based on anything other than monkey see, monkey do.

And these are just the more recent, publicly-known examples.

Wherefore now? The chances of the largest publishing companies ever honestly investigating incidents concerning staffers or freelancers, even ones they reportedly already possess human resources complaints on, are mighty laughable. Those opposed to this behavior also have a voice though. If measures along the lines of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions do nothing then why are so many different governments around the world passing laws prohibiting their use against Israel? Boycotts are the only non-violent means to effectively provoke a healthy response, and should be regarded as a natural extension of free speech. These companies are neither Congress or Parliament. They are expected to turn a buck, and if something undeniable is thwarting that then it must be settled. The only thing that talks louder than money is the lack thereof.

This may help weed out some of the troublemakers, making examples of them which ideally others will take heed of, but I fear there will only be more to come in the next exciting issue. Too damn many of the peoples of the mainstream and independent comic book community, the fans and the professionals and the staffers and the commentators following them all, affect their friends, their co-workers, their fellow black sheep, horridly. Each of the incidents I listed above includes thousands of related bits on the various social networking sites, and dozens upon dozens of venomous comment threads at assorted media blogs. Why would anybody want to work in or otherwise support a field where emotional, physical and sexual abuse can all be sampled daily? What sort of person can rationalize repeated rape threats, or death threats? And all for what, making overpriced products to fatten the billfolds of their parent companies, their corporate investors, who in turn have contributed absolutely nothing to advance the creativity of the medium in decades, if ever?

If people love the art-form, cherish the past. Maybe give a second look to self-publishers disconnected from the machinery if you really need to keep purchasing new materials. But by and large, to the persons working in whatever capacity at comic book publishing houses, the bloggers and journalists covering them, and the fans obsessing over any of it, just get out. Boycott the entire scene altogether. The bile is toxic and infectious and it is spreading, and there is a great big beautiful world out there with so many more meaningful experiences to offer you. At least until the nukes fall.

People exit abusive relationships for a reason. Old myths die out for a reason. Companies go bankrupt for a reason. Because time marches on whether we need it to or not, and because the universe is infinitely more vast than the enactment of petty little power fantasies.