However, to my sour amusement, the same week it appeared, so did this…
The beat goes on.
Honestly, despite the overwhelmingly positive response to what I wrote, seeing the furor over The Last Jedi continue to escalate, to say nothing of various authors grieving over the death of their friend Harlan Ellison forced to contend with fans lecturing them on the inappropriateness of grieving for such a jerk– yes, people really did that; a lot– I was nevertheless getting close to having my own It’s Chinatown, Jake moment of futility and resignation. These guys are relentless. They’re never going away. Maybe fandom really is a swamp, a poison garden, and to enjoy it at all you have to ignore most of it and be careful where you step.
Then I got a note from Matt.
Matt was one of my old moderating colleagues at the Comic Book Resources forums, back when I was young and foolish enough to sign on for that job. He was a Green Lantern guy and so was I, and as it happened that was when all this was going on…
Back in the early 1990s, the transformation of heroic Green Lantern Hal Jordan into the villain Parallax was a huge, HUGE controversy.
It split fandom down the middle– at least the part of it that cared about Green Lantern — and led to the creation of H.E.A.T., a vocal fan group that wanted the Parallax story undone and Hal Jordan back as a heroic Green Lantern. (The saner members of the organization allowed as how the new Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, could stay. Others advocated that the character should “die in a fire.” You know, the usual levelheaded internet discourse.) Probably the most famous thing H.E.A.T. did was take out a big ad in Wizard magazine, which wasn’t cheap.
As for me personally? A couple of months after Emerald Twilight came out, I had a chance at a local show to talk to Ron Marz, the author of record of this hugely divisive story, and we had a nice chat. I was impressed with him. He had been given the assignment after the previous writer had been fired so Marz pulled it together as best he could under incredibly tight deadlines, and– my opinion– now that he had his feet under him and was finding a groove, the new Kyle-as-Lantern stories were getting interesting (though I never did warm up to the redesigned outfit.)
I had to admit that Marz had gotten me to pick up the book for the first time since Steve Englehart was on it, which made him laugh. “That’s the thing,” he said. “Everybody loved Hal but they weren’t buying the book.”
So I was on board, provisionally. But I digress. The point is that Green Lantern fandom in the 1990s was a roiling soup of various factions all seething with entitlement and hostility, and the only thing that could unite them was the savage hatred they unleashed on anyone suggesting that it was just comics and maybe they could all calm down a little.
At CBR, Matt was tasked with somehow keeping the Green Lantern forum civil in the midst of all this. Later he also became the administrator of the Rumbles Board, a forum dedicated to logical extrapolations of who would win in various superhero matchups — you know, could Superman beat Thor, that kind of thing. (Kurt Busiek actually got to write this one for real in the Avengers/Justice League crossover.)
Superman won: creating, of course, a nasty fan controversy. Not quite up there with Hal vs. Kyle but it drew a fair amount of nerdrage. Busiek– and his children for God’s sake– actually got threats from fans over it.
When I heard about the threats I was not surprised. I’d done my time at CBR and I knew fans were easily that crazy. I’m not sure if any of us ever admitted this to Matt but I know it must have been obvious– privately, myself and the other moderators were all grateful he was willing to take those particular boards on because the rest of us frankly dreaded dealing with the deranged fans infesting them. He was the only one of us that could seem to get through to ‘those people’; he was one of their own, after all, a founding member of H.E.A.T.
I always liked Matt, I hasten to add, and certainly neither I nor the other admins ever counted him as one of the derange-os demanding everyone at DC be fired and hounded out of comics. But his fandom enthusiasms and experience were utterly alien to mine, so you could have knocked me over with a feather when the SJW piece came out and one of the first reactions I got was a nice note from Matt saying RIGHT ON! He even shared it over at CBR.
I haven’t spoken to Matt in years and was very pleasantly surprised to hear from him, especially in this context. Turned out he was working on a piece of his own condemning toxic fandom and I asked if we could put it up here as a follow-up to mine….and here it is.
This one’s nominally about “ComicsGate,” but it covers a lot of other stuff as well. I think it is well worth a read and, especially, it means something for a H.E.A.T. guy to go there… but let him tell you himself. Here’s Matt.
Comicsgate: Why they are wrong and why it matters
I will start this with a disclaimer and a confession; when I first joined the Internet community in the mid-1990s or so, I was an ass. I acted like an ass. I made statements that were uncivil. I said unkind things about comic book professionals. I was even a card-carrying member of H.E.A.T. (Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team – and while I am proud of the considerable charity work that group did, I look back with regret at the ethical foundations behind such movements. A nice analysis can be found here if you happen to be unfamiliar). I understand where such movements and desperate desire to protect what you know come from. I understand where and how the herd mentality manifests and grows in such groups. I recognise how such echo chambers feed upon themselves to the point where any constructive discussion simply dissolves into what can only be best described as ‘circle jerking’. I have been where these people currently are.
I also confess that I am not a fan of the works of William Shakespeare. More on that later.
Arguments and lack of evidence
ComicsGate has repeatedly attempted to argue that the higher sales of comics of the 1990s proves that the quality of those comics (with their supposed lesser emphasis on themes and messages) is greater than today’s titles. This argument, of course, is absurd for a number of reasons.
First, it is fallacious reasoning in terms of appeal to popularity. Just because a given thing is popular (as indicated by higher sales) does not mean that it is inherently good or superior. As an example, slavery was once not only very popular but expected in society, now we know better and the civilised world stands steadfastly against it. Popularity rises and falls as time progresses, just consider all the innumerable embarrassing fashion choices of previous decades. Popularity does not equal quality. As the speculator boom (and inevitable bust) of the 1990s showed us, high comic sales do not equate to a quality comic title.
The argument also fails to take into account the changing nature of the entertainment landscape. During the 90s, most Internet users accessed the wonder of the World Wide Web through glacially slow 56k modems and online entertainment options were rather limited. Now we have more powerful and more engaging gaming systems, we are inundated with online streaming services, and VR options that are like science fiction of old. The website Comichron tells us that Diamond’s top 300 books in 1997 sold a total of 100 million units, compared to 2017’s 80 million – the modern day where comic books are encountering an increasingly crowded entertainment sector. You then have to mix in the changes to the market such as digital sales, the replacement of single issues with TPBs, and comic book piracy. It should surprise no one at all that sales are not what they once were. That is not even touching on how the direct market works and how the changing mechanics of it distort figures.
The ComicsGate position also fails to address what is often cited by retailers as a notable source of sales drop-off; namely event fatigue and the seemingly constant renumbering and relaunching of titles. Are there any readers out there who enjoy the way that a title is renumbered just because the creative team changes? People can and do get burned out by having to buy a dozen titles just to follow the one crossover event storyline (looking at you ‘Fear Itself’).
In terms of positive evidence, ComicsGate simply has not provided any to support their conjecture that lowered sales are a result of so-called “SJW messages”. They have conjured an untested hypothesis and blindly run with it, labelling the loosest of correlations as fact while ignoring everything that does not fit their version of reality. They appealed to comments made by Marvel’s David Gabriel (VP of Sales and Marketing, who quickly wound his comments back) but the analysis performed by C.P. Hoffman concludes such a position is simply not supported by evidence. No matter how you choose to look at it, ComicsGate has failed its burden of proof.
The Nostalgia for the 90s
Comicsgate have, showcased by Richard Meyer’s attempted launch of his Jawbreakers title and various comments by his followers, proclaimed that the storytelling standards of the 1990s were somehow superior to what we have today. That the quality of that decade should somehow be the benchmark of good storytelling. Quality is not so much the concern, but the change in how comic book narratives are told that should be our focus. Change is and always has been a fundamental component of the entertainment industry; we no longer have VHS tapes, silent movies or Donny and Marie-esque family variety hours. Different genres have dominated comic books at various times; publishers no longer pump out the animal funnies, cowboys or romance titles that once dominated sales. Case in point; I am a fan of the Transformers franchise (specifically the Generation 1/1980s line that I grew up with) but the Transformers have (suitably enough given the name) changed over time; the target audiences have changed and different series are aimed at different demographics. I did not care for Rescue Bots or what is commonly referred to as ‘Bayformers’ but I am definitely not who those works were created for. Meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoy the IDW Transformers titles. The fear of losing touch with something that you once loved can indeed be a powerful thing but to deny change, to keep trying to live in the past, is nothing but a fool’s errand.
The comics of the 1990s were, with some exceptions, generally bland. Titles were tailored to the tail end of the grim and gritty trend that started in the late 1980s and then directly aimed to satisfy the speculator market – the endless events (The Death of Superman, Knightfall, Emerald Twilight), the foil covers, collector’s editions and so on.
Titles of the decade such as Marvel’s Force Works and DC’s Extreme Justice serve only as examples of artistically shallow works that vastly outweigh the rare but celebrated 90s gems such as Kingdom Come, Marvels and Sandman. Of course, with the above, everyone should keep in mind that the term quality is largely subjective in nature and different folks will appreciate different works, but that technical and artistic merit can objectively be assessed.
Some of the harassment centered on Heather Antos decried “social justice” but such contributions do nothing but reveal a profound ignorance regarding the history of comics. Look at Action Comics #1, arguably the single most important comic ever published, wherein Superman fights against corruption and stands up for the little man.
The 1940s were full of titles that were blatantly political where protagonists of all kinds fought against Nazis and proclaimed a pro-war message. Skip forward to the introduction of the X-Men, whose very concept centres around themes of pro-inclusion and anti-discrimination. Green Arrow/Green Lantern tackled racism, corruption and environmental topics constantly. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are both cynical deconstructions of not just comic books but society as a whole. Kingdom Come contains many messages on how humankind is self-destructive, and how politics and grabs for power assure nothing but mutual destruction. All stories have a message; otherwise they serve no purpose.
Related to the above is a claim that those in comicsgate do not wish their favourite characters replaced by newer heroes (in recent times Thor has been Jane Foster, Wolverine was replaced by his own clone daughter, Steve Rogers was replaced by Sam Wilson and so on). This claim, like previous claims, only evidences their ignorance of how comic book narratives work; for literally decades the roles of various heroes have been chopped and changed on a fairly regular basis, as demonstrated by the examples of: Captain America/U.S. Agent, Alan Scott/Hal Jordan/John Stewart/Guy Gardner/Kyle Rayner, Jay Garrick/Barry Allen/Wally West, Tony Stark/James Rhodes, Bruce Wayne/Jean Paul Valley/Dick Grayson, Dick Grayson/Jason Todd/Tim Drake/Damian Wayne, Barbara Gordon/Cassandra Cain/Stephanie Brown and so on.
False assumptions and a rampant sense of entitlement seem to be the stock-in-trade for much of ComicsGate’s assertions. Phrases such as “we” and “the fans” are loaded terminology that insinuate that it is only their perspective that counts, that only they are the true fans. Perhaps their position is based on a fear that their demographic in terms of the market is shrinking, that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is a natural fear and one that can be understood, but it in no way excuses their behaviour or even their philosophy. No market stays the same, especially over longer periods of time. Tactics and target demographics change as per business plans and conditions dictate; to even suggest that one demographic should remain the focus of an industry is nothing but base narcissism, of the type you find in young children who throw a tantrum when they stop being the centre of attention. Industries, including comic book publishers, have no obligations to any given demographic. They have every right in the world to publish any material they see fit, to appeal to any audience they wish. Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dark Horse could all decide tomorrow to print exclusively to tiny niche markets and that is entirely their prerogative. Self labelled fans do not control an industry, they merely choose to enjoy that industry’s products for as long as those products bring them a sense of enjoyment. Once again I present the example of Transformers; sometimes the franchise has given us the masterfully crafted War For/Fall of Cybertron games and other times the bizarre Zone series. To demand that an industry caters only to your interests and ideals is, at best, hopelessly naive. If you do not like what is being produced, simply move on as no one is forcing you to purchase anything.
The interactions between ComicsGaters and creators on social media further reveal their sense of entitlement; that they can harass and troll industry professionals but as soon as their opinions and actions are rebuked, then they cry foul. Richard Meyer openly boasted that he trolled a creator for weeks until such time as he was blocked, which he then presented as an apparent victory. This behaviour can only be accurately described as that of a classic internet troll; not the actions looking to have constructive discourse but instead one who wishes to pull down everything that he does not like, anything that he does not believe meets his ideals or suits what he wants to read. It is difficult to argue that this is not a truly selfish path. Creators have no obligation to interact with others online and if they choose to do so, the terms of that interaction are at their discretion just as they are for the rest of us. They do not have to respond to anyone else, they do not have to pander to or even acknowledge any ideas presented, and they certainly have the right to block you. Industry professionals are people, they have emotions and the freedom to act how they wish online.
Moral High Road and Lack Thereof
The elephant in the room is the abuse that the ComicsGate movement have directed towards various people involved in the Comic Book Industry. As detailed by The Daily Beast, the first notable major case of harassment targeted then-Marvel employee Heather Antos who, along with several female colleagues, decided to celebrate the career of comic book pioneer Flo Steinberg. Other female creators and commentators such as Chelsea Cain and Zainab Akhtar have experienced extremely similar abuse, leaving them little choice but to abandon social media.
That brings us again to Richard C. Meyer, who runs the YouTube channel ‘Diversity and Comics’. His videos and linked Twitter account often serve as a rallying point for the ComicsGate movement and his behaviour, in particular, have demonstrated the groups underlying lack of ethics in their approach to the industry. There is no better example of D&Cs immaturity and despicable behaviour than the ‘ dark roast’ video that was leaked to the general public. The video, as detailed by Bleeding Cool, revealed the real thoughts and opinions of D&C; labelling Mark Waid, Dan Slott and Brian Bendis as pedophiles, stating that a number of female comic creators ( such as Devin Grayson) only gained work in exchange for sexual favours, calling Heather Antos (yes, the same harassment target from earlier) as a “c** dumpster”. A considerable number of other creators were the target of similar comments but you have the gist of matters by now. This is the behaviour of one of the leaders of ComicsGate and speaks strongly of their immaturity and reprehensible lack of ethics; it does not matter one iota if the video was meant to be private or as a joke. That any person can not only find such attitudes acceptable, but then take the time and effort to create such content instantly erodes any possible claims to a moral high ground.
To rub proverbial salt into the wound, Meyer apparently became quite reactionary when he found that a number of stores would not be stocking his planned Jawbreakers title. Suddenly the names and phone numbers of the stores (along with those of many of their employees) were listed and they became targets for online harassment, from phone calls to fictional online reviews. Seeing this happen, industry veteran Mark Waid (yes, the same one that is a frequent target of ComicsGate) called the publisher at Antarctic Press to talk the matter over and evidence suggests that AP were already taking steps to cancel the deal. Nonetheless, Meyer and his followers continue to state that AP was intimidated and that Waid’s actions were somehow illegal, despite statements to the contrary from everyone involved. To further compound the ethical and intellectual mire, Waid shortly after deleted his social media presence (which he has done a number of times in the past) and Meyer furthered rumours that Marvel had forced him to do so. The source of this rumour? 4chan. Yes, Meyer regarded 4chan as reliable.
One of the roles I have in this world is being one of the two administrators of the Comic Book Resources Forums, with the primary responsibility of making sure that member interactions remain civil and of a quality befitting the Forums’ long history. The Moderator team discussed the matter of ComicsGate and associated groups, concluding that for the welfare of the community we would bar any discussion of the Diversity & Comics movement, ComicsGate, or any related projects. This follows our general rules which blocks racists, bullying and other anti-social behaviour. As you might imagine, there was blowback from the ComicsGate movement (I know I copped a fair bit of personal abuse) but all of the cries of censorship and unfairness missed the crucial, underlying point: We do not want people who act in an uncivil way or try to champion anti-social causes associated with our Forums. This philosophy is wonderfully summarised via a strip from the webcomic XKCD:
There have been attempts to suggest that conservative professionals have been discriminated against and forced out of the industry, such as ComicsGate supporter Ethan Van Sciver. There is, of course, a long history of calls for comic book brofessionals being called to be fired throughout the decades – Nazi sympathisers hassling Timely Comics (and Jack Kirby’s legendary response) being a notable example. Stan Lee was threatened for the anti-racist messages of X-Men. The response, of course, is obvious; companies have an obligation to defend the image of their brand and if one of their employees (contracted, freelance or whatever) engages in actions that may bring that brand into disrepute then they have every right to no longer engage their services. But in such cases, should the art created be treated as a separate entity than the artist? That’s a much trickier question but societal consensus seems to have concluded that the answer is no; look at the cases of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby, whose artworks and television shows respectively will most likely never be on public display again.
But why does any of this matter? The old adage “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” springs to mind. ComicsGate (along with similar groups such as Gamergate and the Sad Puppies) represent much of what is wrong with so-called fans; self entitlement, abuse of creators and stars, an utter failure to recognise that there are other fans out there who have just as much right to enjoy products. Over the past few days Star Wars actor Marie Tran and Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown were both forced to leave Twitter due to the abhorrent actions of ‘fandom’. No civil person can possibly defend these actions and if you do, then you are certainly not good for the franchise you supposedly support – you are part of the problem.
H.E.A.T. could be called a precursor of ComicsGate and I call that a fair comparison, I certainly see a lot of the same mistakes being made. You may no longer enjoy a product but the world does not centre around you, no person or company is obligated to cater to your wishes and desires – and the sooner this is recognised, the sooner you can join the adult world.
As for the starting comment regarding Shakespeare, this entire fiasco reminds of one quote from Macbeth (scene 5, if I recall)…
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And there you go. Thanks to Matt for letting us run this, and I’ll be back next week with something cool.