Transmyscira: For the Love of God

When my mother yells like this it’s because she loves me

-Tyra Banks

 

If I can live through this I can do anything.

-Fallout Boy, “Champion”

 

Last year, I wrote a fairly sprawling meditation on the state of comics criticism around Damien Hirst’s The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which is really just a tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde, called The Impossibility of 2017 in the Mind of Someone Living in 2016.

I was more prescient than I knew, much less wanted to be, in the choice of title, so it felt like I might as well continue the tradition by naming this year’s look back after what is apparently the most expensive piece of artwork in human history: Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull titled For the Love of God. Not because I see any grand metaphor for how the year elapsed in that cynical and tacky object, just that “For the Love of God” is one of the only rational responses to the last year in comics.

“For the Love of God” by Damien Hirst

In a sense, I predicted the wave of allegations of sexual harassment and assault that has finally hit the comics industry in earnest over two years ago when I declared Scott Allie’s outing an expression of the new norm. I don’t feel particularly prescient or proud of what I thought were foregone conclusions at the time, especially not when what’s actually played out over the last half of this year is just the resumption of the arguments that kicked up in 2015 and died down into embers when it became clear that there was no further momentum in flushing the predators out of the industry.

What brought us back to the tipping point of 2015 absolutely, positively was not any kind of change in attitude within the industry towards the men who have escaped accountability for harassing, groping, and assaulting women as well as their male peers. What happened is that Harvey Weinstein’s grip on Hollywood loosened just enough that Ronan Farrow could finally make public his investigation of the mogul’s reign of terror, which in turn opened the floodgates for reporting on similar predation throughout the entertainment sector.

This was a year of withdrawal and disaffection for me that I had hoped would peak when I went after Image for profiting from grotesque transmisogyny while flying pride flags on social media, in what is almost a yearly tradition at this point. So when the news hit that the longstanding allegations against Eddie Berganza were about to be revived by Buzzfeed, instead of sticking around to see whether he would actually be swept out of his office at DC Comics this time, I ran an application to wipe out my tweets, deleted the Twitter off my phone, and walked away from social media until the smoke cleared.

Art by Howard Chaykin

The question of when I first found out about The Berganza Problem is a difficult one to answer. When Shelly Bond was let go from Vertigo, igniting a retaliatory wave of resentment that revived the Berganza allegations, a close friend of mine mused that he didn’t know when he’d first heard them, it almost seemed like we’d always known something was wrong.

I remembered seeing the infamous Bizarro Stan Lee Twitter account opine that Berganza had “problems with women” before David Brothers issued the bounty on the account’s owner that silenced it for good and feeling like it rang a bell. I remembered following the breadcrumbs of mutuals’ cryptic tweets and Tumblr posts leading back to Berganza as the epicenter of very serious allegations and feeling like it rang a bell.

I don’t know when I first found out about Eddie Berganza’s behavior towards women, but I do know when I started beating the living shit out of myself for knowing about it.

That was, perversely, my thirty first birthday, when a now infamous Tumblr post went up, because by then I was in a position where my knowledge had an impact of some kind. It was up to me to decide, in tandem with my Editor-in-Chief and site owner, what DC titles The Rainbow Hub reviewed. I knew something was rotten in Denmark, but I didn’t take the step of issuing a site wide embargo on titles under Berganza until it was inescapable, and I wrote an exception into the policy for Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Starfire that became a source of guilt the minute I asserted it, despite the complete support I received for it.

Art by Emanuela Lupacchino

It’s a ludicrous burden to bear given my position in the industry, but it’s one I couldn’t let go of until DC let go of Berganza. Even before I wrote about the revelations of Scott Allie’s longstanding abusive behavior at Dark Horse, I read as much as I could about reporting on sexual harassment and rape allegations. In the tidal wave of writing on the topic since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America, I’ve come to understand just how common that feeling is and how immune the men who perpetrate this behavior and cover for it are from it.

There’s a very revealing piece at Paste about how the burden of cleaning up an industry’s sexual assault and harassment problems — as well as the question of redemption for the perpetrators — is placed on the victims, as written by a female comedian in light of the publication of allegations against Deadpool actor T.J. Miller. It’s an account that hits home for me despite not having been victimized in that way because I’ve been asked questions/participated in conversations about redemption for the named abusers in comics pretty regularly over the last two years. It’s also a question that’s hung heavily over my writing and overall experience in the comics industry over that same time span.

The memory at the center of Loftus’ piece is sitting in a yellow pickup truck with her boyfriend at the time, who asked her (as the victim of a similar rape) if he should book Miller for his comedy show in light of the allegations they’d both been aware of at the time. Loftus suggests that there’s a lot of yellow pickup trucks out there, that women are constantly being asked for permission to work with abusive men, not so much in service to actual rehabilitation, but to clear their own consciences.

My gut feeling is that there aren’t many yellow pickup trucks in comics, because the redemption and minimizing of the harm caused by abusive men in the industry begins immediately after their behavior is outed, sometimes in the piece that breaks the news of their behavior. When Chris Sims’ history of cyberbullying Valerie D’Orazio was revived, the immediate response from his then-current and former ComicsAlliance colleagues was to either stay quiet or focus on the fact that his history was being revived by Gamergate actors in a similar ploy to the one that Mike Cernovich used to temporarily cost Sam Seder his job.

The difference, of course, is that Sims wasn’t the victim of a deliberately misinterpreted joke being brought up at an awkward time. He was taking on more or less the same job that he drove D’Orazio out of. The divide between his campaigning against cyberbullying and his unspoken past, as well as the cynicism of his being hired as a writer for Marvel after being known internally for targeting D’Orazio while she wrote for the company were, and still are very serious issues. Yet the conversation revolved entirely around Sims’ rehabilitation, not the damage that his behavior had caused or that his rehabilitation had been earned at D’Orazio’s expense.

While Sims’ behavior is on the lower end of the spectrum of what’s been brought to light in the last few years, the biases that went into the discussion around it are consistent with the much more severe instances.

Art by David Nakayama

When CBR agreed to interview Rat Queens co-creator Roc Upchurch following his domestic violence arrest at his behest, it focused entirely on him and his journey back to making comics without acknowledging, referencing, or reaching out to his estranged wife. When she addressed an e-mail in response to the interview to CBR and several other prominent comic book news sites, asking for it to be run, it was effectively ignored until The Mary Sue got ahold of it and published an interview with her three months later.

It’s a bias that has been especially apparent in reporting on former Dark Horse Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie following his outing by Janelle Asselin for not just the infamous biting and groping of Joe Harris, but a longstanding pattern of abuse, given that only one victim has been named publicly to date. When Allie was eventually let go from the company this year, it was reported as a weekend piece, weeks after his imminent departure had become common knowledge in the Portland comics scene.

That piece drew fire not just for its placement, but also for the fact that yet again, it focused on the future prospects of the (admitted) abuser in absence of any discussion of the long term impact that his behavior had on the company or the unnamed victims. It even went so far as to name the Portland-based comic book companies that Allie could expect to find work at as a freelance editor.

It’s one of the prime examples of where my gut instinct — that there aren’t many yellow pickup trucks in comics — comes from. The piece read to me, and many others, as tacit permission to hire Allie, to offer him a clean slate despite the fact that the full scope of the damage from his tenure at Dark Horse is not (and probably never will be) known to the public.

It’s a permission slip that Image took seriously enough to briefly name him as part of the editorial team on a forthcoming charity anthology organized around the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. That is, before the blowback became so intense that he was dropped in a press release announcing his replacement that didn’t even mention him by name. His dismissal from the anthology was communicated through his absence.

The starkest recent example of how the industry treats the issue of potential rehabilitation and redemption of abusive figures is in the contrast between the Bleeding Cool article recapping the history of allegations against Berganza ahead of an expected report by Buzzfeed and the two reports on Berganza that Buzzfeed eventually issued. What struck me personally about the Bleeding Cool piece was its focus on Berganza’s career trajectory and how he was judged to have recently worked productively with a woman on the high profile Metal series.

It struck me firstly because, again, it was focused on telling a story of Berganza’s ostensible rehabilitation without reflection on the impact of his actions on his victims.

Secondly, the version of events around Berganza’s participation on Metal reported as part of that piece reached a very different conclusion from what a source with direct knowledge of it had related to me. I have no reason to believe that the source(s) on the Bleeding Cool article were anything less than honest or that their perspective was reported anything less than faithfully, but that perspective left a lot to be desired.

Art by Greg Capullo

Art by Greg Capullo

That chasm widened when the Buzzfeed reports dropped, noting, among other things that none of the women who reported Berganza to HR, including Janelle Asselin (the former DC editor who broke the story of the allegations against Scott Allie), still work for the company. Even if Berganza’s presence on Metal was universally welcomed and the results likewise praised, as the preceding Bleeding Cool article implied, it came at the expense of the careers of multiple women, the total number of which may never be known, but grew substantially when Buzzfeed went forward with a follow up piece naming more victims.

Between the two reports, the scope of just how viciously Berganza had sabotaged queer female representation throughout his career at DC as an extension of the violent, toxic presence that he maintained until his dismissal was drawn into sharp relief. The first piece described him saying that a character was “too dykey” and Sophie Campbell passing on doing a Supergirl comic out of a desire to avoid working with him.

The latter instance I’d been aware of since well before either the Buzzfeed or Bleeding Cool pieces because Campbell tweeted it publicly following Shelly Bond’s dismissal, but it bears repeating here both because the Bleeding Cool piece chose not to name it specifically and because Campbell is a personal hero of mine and a transgender icon in the industry.

A choice was made between producing a Supergirl comic by a trailblazing transgender writer-artist whose redesigns for the character are praised far and wide and keeping an abusive, misogynistic, homophobic figure in a position of power.

The scope of just what Berganza had stood in the way of became clearer than it ever has before when the second Buzzfeed article went up, featuring a gorgeous drawing of Starfire by Maya Nord, an artist who tolerated Berganza groping her in order to preserve her shot at working for DC — only to have her conception of the character disparaged as being “a little thick,” thus ending her aspirations. Along with rising star Amy Chu and Monstress co-creator Marjorie Liu, who reluctantly put up with Berganza and refused work because of him respectively, a portrait began to emerge of just how damaging to the company and industry at large Berganza has been beyond the most widely reported incident.

Art by Maya Nord

What has to be understood about this is that as damning as this selection of the carnage that Berganza has left behind is for DC and its leadership during his tenure, he’s a single example at a single company in an industry rife with similar behavior. How many more times we have to multiply the number of careers that were shortened or prevented by Berganza to account for the likes of Scott Allie, Brian Wood, Nathan Edmondson, and yet more unnamed perpetrators to achieve a realistic picture of the damage they’ve done and continue to do to comics is currently unknowable.

That reality is fundamental to why I empathize and agree with Jamie Loftus’ current perspective on redemption and rehabilitation: “Today, right now, I still think we should make them fucking leave.”

Even as cruel, vindictive, and bigoted as our criminal justice system is, it still rests on the idea that neither punishment nor opportunities for rehabilitation can be determined without a full accounting of the damage that the accused has done to the community in question.

In light of that observation, I think it’s fair to say that men like Chris Sims, Brian Wood, Scott Allie, and Eddie Berganza could be ethically rehire-able in comics at some point in the future, but at the very least it cannot happen without a full public accounting of the damage they’ve done to the lives of the people they’ve bullied, harassed, and groped or ahead of those same people.

The problem of course is that it would require both a comics press with the resources and willpower to track that damage, victims willing to come forward about what they’ve faced, and publishers with the self restraint to both let go the abusers in their midst and treat histories of the same in their applicants as disqualifying, especially for high profile positions.

Until those conditions are met, reform in the industry is going to continue to almost exclusively come from the disproportionate physical and emotional labor of women, people of color, and LBGTQIA people within the industry fighting for their own survival against not just predators and bigots, but the unthinking biases of the pros and reporters that shield them.

The emotional and physical labor that pursuing attempts at reform requires is a very under-discussed element of the collateral damage of harassment, abuse, and bigotry that leads to significant burnout, frustration, and in many cases departure from the industry. It’s a kind of secondary tier of trauma that disproportionately affects the same demographics most vulnerable to the harassment.

It’s not really coincidental or accidental either, because a lot of this stuff — whether it’s Howard Chaykin trying to shove a hate crime in the faces of everyone who walks into a comic book store, or Eddie Berganza trying to shove his tongue down an unsuspecting woman’s throat — is about dominance.

It’s about letting you know who’s in charge and making sure it stays that way.

There are distinctions to be made between semiotic violence and actual punch-you-in-the-face violence obviously, but at the same time, identifying that they’re both forms of violence does not conflate depicting an act of violence with committing the act. This is a fact that most people in comics are (and I can’t emphasize this enough) pathetically unable and unwilling to properly understand.

Art by Juan Gimenez

That’s why Claire Napier’s examination of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Metabarons is probably as much of a waste of time as it is engrossing. While she says she has no intellectual thesis, the piece points to an intersection of semiotic and physical violence in that Metabarons is a rape comic written by an admitted rapist.

There’s a lot of potential to unwind depictions of sexual violence and what happens when it enters the creative process, especially given that the rape Jodorowsky admitted to was shot for a film. Instead, Napier ends the piece with an exasperated observation about how futile any attempt to separate the art from the artist in Jodorowsky’s case is, because this is how truly far behind the rest of art and literary criticism comics is. Instead of progressing into the idea that multiple, simultaneous readings of a given work are possible, the field remains mired in partisan feuds over a false dichotomy.

If the industry, or at least critical circles, were capable of hosting a nuanced discourse about the intersections of simulated and physical violence, Napier’s exhaustion in the face of Jodorowsky’s rape comic by a rapist could have been a starting point for an examination of how sexual violence in comics is depicted and received as the author and audience change. A particularly notable example to contrast Napier’s perspective on Jodorowsky would be an examination of how Valerie D’Orazio was terrorized by male critics and readers, for, among other things, working through her own personal struggles in her Punisher MAX one shot.

Chris Sims made a point of saying he was refusing to review it as an excuse to get in a personal attack on D’Orazio, only to later, in the same blog post, declare it to be the worst Punisher story he’d ever read without offering a rationale for it. He did, however, take the time to review D’Orazio’s Punisher story in the Girl Comics anthology, which he says was the only comic he read that week good enough to say anything about.

What’s interesting about that statement is that he didn’t dedicate more than a single sentence to entries in the anthology that he liked, but he did dedicate four entire paragraphs to shredding D’Orazio’s contribution, which was about The Punisher catfishing and presumably murdering a pedophile.

Art by Laurence Campbell

As Heidi MacDonald noted, in the halcyon, pre-GamerGate days of 2010, identity politics weren’t a dividing partisan line in comics blogging circles, but anyone stalking D’Orazio as obsessively as Sims was would have certainly been exposed to the bitter feuds that she participated in over what it meant for female comics bloggers to call themselves feminists. And, if we’re being really real, Jesse Custer name dropped both Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin in Preacher over a decade earlier.

So the misogyny inherent in writing a review just to uplift the women Sims approved of so that he could tear down the ones he didn’t should have been readily apparent to him. You don’t exactly have to read Judith Butler to figure that one out. Especially not when the hyperbole used to describe one of the women who won his approval included a Holocaust-denial joke.

I think there’s something interesting worth remarking on in how gendered dynamics emerge in critical writing about comics that prominently feature sexual violence. I think there’s also something interesting in remarking on how gender dynamics emerge when the critic expresses disgust for the creator of the work in question. What also emerges in the contrast between Napier and Sims’ writing is examples of how men in comics grind women down either intentionally or incidentally.

I can only imagine what Jodorowsky’s intent was in slathering Metabarons in rape, but the weariness that Napier projects in her essay is an accelerated version of what many, many women in media go through emotionally in response to being bombarded with constant depictions of women being subjected to sexual violence.

I’ve felt it deep in my bones, most strikingly when i could still stand to watch Game of Thrones, eventually breaking under the weight of the constant degradation, humiliation, and rape it subjected its female characters to. I remember Jill Pantozzi issuing a site wide embargo on Game of Thrones coverage at The Mary Sue when she hit her own breaking point, and she lasted longer than I did. I got sick of rape in comics in general a decade earlier with Action Comics #821, written by Chuck Austen and unsurprisingly edited by Eddie Berganza.

Rape — the way that Game of Thrones, Jodorowsky, Austen, and many others treat it — forms a kind of semiotic violence that just continually tells you that women are instruments to be used, abused, and thrown away. Sometimes it’s animated by an intentional desire to wear women out and drive them away, sometimes it’s done out of sheer ignorance, but the alienating or traumatizing effect that it so often has remains the same.

In Berganza’s case, approving and publishing pointless, dehumanizing depictions of rape in an ostensibly all ages title was a single aspect of a much wider pattern of behavior aimed at wearing down and asserting power over women. As the Buzzfeed reporting lays out, Berganza not only assaulted and harassed women directly, but used homophobic and derogatory language to assert and maintain control over how women’s bodies were portrayed under his watch at DC.

Art by Art Adams

It’s part of a whole spectrum of violence employed against women and other marginalized populations in comics that ranges from the semiotic like Frank Cho’s attention-seeking antics drawing dehumanizing sketch covers of female characters aided and abetted by Bleeding Cool’s breathless reporting on it or Howard Chaykin’s withdrawn lynching cover, to naked, flat out bullying like what Sims subjected D’Orazio to, to harassing behavior like Brian Wood and Nathan Edmondson have been accused of, and of course ending at outright physical assault.

To acknowledge that all of these behaviors exist on a spectrum that share similar root causes, motivations, and effects on their targets is not to elide or conflate them, neither does it imply an inevitable or likely escalation. Instead it recognizes that there’s a pervasive misogyny with a massive range of expressions whose net effect is to alienate women who interact with comics at every level from reader to retailer, freelancer to executive editor, and all steps in between.

For me personally, 2017 felt like the most debilitating, alienating year to be a woman in comics in recent memory, amplified by the concurrent transmisogyny I experience as a trans woman. Some of it was fresh trauma, like Eric Stephenson standing firm in the decision to clothe the gruesome trans panic sequence in The Divided States of Hysteria #1 in a rainbow spangled pride variant. Some of it was the cumulative weight of everything I’ve endured since June 30th, 2015.

The net effect was to drive my engagement with comics to the margins, the deepest nadir I’d experienced since 2011, when I began a three year hiatus from writing about comics. But even as I began my transition into focusing on film and television criticism as many other comics critics, like Sean T. Collins or Noah Berlatsky, have before me, comics, and the most conspicuous among the forces that were alienating me, deeply colored my writing.

Sometimes, it was explicit, like choosing the lens of comic book logic to interpret The Good Fight through or using Tom of Finland to further a thesis born in a conversation with Trungles that I began exploring in earnest for The MNT.

Sometimes it was more subtle, Iike venting my rage at the damage that Eddie Berganza wrought during his tenure at DC between the lines of my report on Anthony Rapp coming forward about his experience with Kevin Spacey.

It even chased me into my junior editor role at Bleating Heart Press’ Bookmarked, processing my time living on the precipice of Gamergate through my review of Zoe Quinn’s Crash Override and tasking one of our contributors to examine extensive industry biases by tackling Publishers Weekly’s deplorable reporting on Charlyne Yi’s harassment by then Penguin Random House art director Giuseppe Castellano.

While I feel like I’ve made it pretty clear over the years that I’m ready to bleed for comics, I’m not ready to undergo a full body transfusion to get them purged from my bloodstream. Which is why I chose the quotes I did to open this piece with. (Trans)misogyny was a motivating factor in the personal reckoning that I underwent this year, but what hit me with almost equal intensity was the lack of solidarity and ability/willingness to organize among women in the face of overwhelming prejudice in comics.

But, like Tyra Banks, that observation comes from a place of love. I’m sure that I came into this year with outsized expectations of what feminist resistance would look like in comics at the outset of the Trump era. After all, the people in and around comics that radicalized me are labor activists and community organizers who sit much further to the left than the norm. Compounding that background is that the personal watershed moment I experienced during the formation of BDégalite in the whirlwind of 2015 was another extreme outlier despite how transfixed the entire comics world was when the collective ground the 2016 Angouleme Grand Prix to a halt.

If there’s anything I’ve learned studying French history from the reign of Louis XIV to the present, it’s that while there absolutely is a culture of protest and labor organizing in the United States, it’s nothing compared to the degree to which resistance and collective action are encoded in the DNA of the country that gifted us the Statue of Liberty. That gulf is also, if anything, widened between the comics industries on either side of the Atlantic.

A quietly persistent question in comics is why organizing, and unionizing in specific, hasn’t advanced significantly since the ill fated 1978 attempt, and like just about everything in the contemporary American political discourse, the answer is probably most likely neo-liberalism. Specifically the formation of Image Comics in 1992.

Now, this being 2017, me having previously alluded to identifying myself as a leftist, and also currently engaged in a very public boycott of the company, I can understand the temptation to accuse me of slurring Image, but I don’t mean to use “neo-liberalism” as a pejorative.

I mean that the founding of Image Comics adheres to the dictionary definition of the neo-liberalist ideology that permeates the western hemisphere. I don’t know how much more of a clean example of neo-liberalism you could find than a cadre of disaffected artists fed up with enriching Marvel and DC, but mostly Marvel, expressing themselves through the market by forming their own company where they could profit directly from their own mediocre, overly derivative ideas instead of executing someone else’s mediocre, overly derivative ideas.

While probably not on purpose, Image has, since its founding, acted as a bulwark against unionization and collective action by the comics industry’s creative class. They’ve done so through neo-liberalism’s siren song of achieving independence and self-worth by expressing one’s self through the market, coupled with the quintessentially American myth that the individual is simply a temporarily embarrassed millionaire (fed by the enrichment of extreme outliers like the company founders and The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman).

Art by Howard Chaykin

It’s a dynamic that’s been exacerbated by Marvel and DC exploiting the mere existence of Image by dangling the loophole of allowing creator-owned work at other publishers in the “exclusive” contracts that they offer top talents, using Image to sublimate the desire for greater agency and equity.

Image, for their part, have been more than willing to play along, prioritizing the recruitment of established talent who have already made names for themselves at the Big Two over genuine grassroots recruitment and empowerment, which has had the predictable effect of calcifying the industry’s gender and racial imbalances.

What the debacle surrounding The Divided States of Hysteria threw into sharp relief the contrast between Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson’s impressively progressive rhetoric shared in public and actively subverted in private — as illustrated by the fact that he brooked no resistance to the bigoted ramblings of Howard Chaykin, a writer-artist who, at present, ships fewer comics a month than I have Twitter followers. Image offers a level of creative freedom and creator equity that, in the current climate, isn’t just attractive. It’s so terrifying to contemplate losing that it can ensure the silence of creators who have been much louder over much less in the past.

With all that said, I don’t want to leave anyone with the nihilistic, defeatist idea that the comics industry is a Hieronymus Bosch worthy tableau of surrealist degradation and exploitation. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that people in the comics industry have not just inspired me, but kept me alive and out of homelessness over the last couple years so that I could make it into college. Instead, what I want to leave this year behind with is a much clearer and more robust framework from which to better plan and organize for the future from.

I absolutely believe in a better, stronger, more diverse future for comics. But at the same time, the path to achieving lasting structural change is going to be painful and the longer we cling to outdated myths and individual empowerment over collective action, the more painful the process will become.

So, for the love of God, put some serious thought into what you’re willing to do in order to achieve the 2018 we all deserve.

 

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