We are not at war. There is no enemy. This is a rescue operation.
– Mister Six, The Invisibles Volume 3 #12
The comic book industry is in the midst of a full blown crisis in the representation of transgender, non binary, and otherwise gender non-conforming people. The decision by Man-Eaters writer Chelsea Cain to publish the full text of tweets critiquing the series’ depiction of sex and gender against the backdrop of a concentration camp brought that crisis back to the forefront of the discourse, but it was hardly an isolated or singular event.
The deeply painful and divisive fracas that erupted on social media when the content of Man-Eaters #9 was widely shared seemed more or less inevitable given the concerning dynamics of the series itself that have been present almost all along, but it was also a flashpoint that the industry had been hurtling towards long before Chelsea Cain wrote her first comic script.
The fundamental problem with Man-Eaters #9 is twofold: the first is that Cain and her collaborators leveraged the imagery of concentration camps and gay conversion therapy in the context of a narrative that excludes the people subjected to those forms of violent repression in the real world.
The second is that the issue presented the text of reluctant, measured critiques in a way that could easily lead to targeted harassment and in a context that implied that they were oppressive and contribute towards the presented scenario.
Both of those issues are ones that the entire creative team on Man-Eaters bears responsibility for, but neither are unprecedented. It’s been barely a month since Uncanny X-Men #17 exploited the signifiers of a trans panic murder to kill of Rahne Sinclair. It’s been less than a year since Plastic Man #3 included a tasteless splash page of its eponymous hero impersonating Harley Quinn with an emphasized crotch bulge. A parade of carelessness and cruelty winding all the way back to Airboy in 2015.
The rapid increase of trans visibility in both pop culture and public life has resulted in an exploding interest on the part of cisgender comic creators to depict trans bodies and trans experiences, but it has not been accompanied by any kind of desire to understand their human dimensions. If it did, we wouldn’t be witnessing the proliferation of these incidents at the rate that they’re occurring.
It’s an aspect of the phenomenon that requires attention because these incidents are doing more than just exposing poor decision making, a lack of critical thinking skills, or casual cruelty. They’re causing breaches of trust between creators and their audience that makes it harder and harder to believe in a way forward and diminishes the incentives for investing in cisgender creators who say that they want to do better.
This was most widely and catastrophically felt when . Graham had positioned himself for years as a leading advocate for trans visibility and participation in comics, earning trust and respect for his willingness to both listen to critiques of the industry’s portrayal of trans lives and bodies as well as his efforts to publish a wide range of trans creators through the short lived Island magazine.
When his motives and behavior were called into question, he breached the trust that he’d established by creating and circulating a so-called “diss comic” of petty grievances and caricatures of his critics that were by turns racist, transphobic, and pornographic.
Gail Simone publicly apologized for the Harley Quinn splash page in Plastic Man, but it too represented a significant, yet far less grievous, breach of trust. The apology was by all accounts sincere, but it posed important unanswered questions about just what allyship constitutes. For over ten years, Simone has pledged to depict trans lives with care and sympathy, long before the introduction of Alysia Yeoh during her time on Batgirl. The results seem to indicate a commitment no deeper than sentiment and crowdsourcing nebulous desires from a trans readership through social media.
Matthew Rosenberg said that he was listening after coming under fire for applying the dynamics of a trans panic murder to Rahne Sinclair’s death in Uncanny X-Men #17. It’s hard to take a statement like that seriously given that similar statements of passive support have not yielded tangible benefits to date.
What makes it especially disappointing is that Rosenberg was published in the Love is Love anthology, expressing shock and helplessness at the mass murder at Pulse. He depicted the shock and horror of LBGTQIA death amplified into spectacle at the time, yet any understanding why it would be inappropriate to replicate it in the pages of an X-Men comic seems missing.
While these breaches of trust constitute a spectrum and are in no way equivalent in character or severity, they must be understood in any analysis of the events surrounding the publication of Man-Eaters #9 that seeks to create a pathway forward on the topic of transgender and gender non-conformity representation in comics.
Chelsea Cain, of course, earned a great deal of good will from a diverse readership for her work on Mockingbird, which steadily eroded as Man-Eaters went on, raising concerns that escalated into a full-on crisis when the content of the ninth issue was widely circulated online. Without even mentioning the tweets, the issue is a depiction of a system of concentration camps patterned after gay conversion therapy that was exclusively focused on cisgender white femininity.
Using that kind of an exclusivist perspective without doing justice to who these systems of social control have been deployed against in the past and are currently being subjected to was never going to win anyone over, but associating that imagery with the specific criticisms in those tweets crossed over into overt harm.
One of the tweets suggested that Man-Eaters’ rigid adherence to a binary conception of sex and gender could contribute to, rather than dismantle, the systems of oppression that it sought to combat. Placing it in the context of the camp suggested that this critique was emblematic of a viewpoint accelerating the oppression of cisgender white women — which is a key talking point of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) ideology, or as they typically prefer, “gender critical feminism.”
Non binary and/or transgender affirmative ideologies pose no material harm to the liberation of cisgender women. The normative conception of binary sex and gender is not rooted in empirical scientific fact and never has been. It’s a social construct that was violently imposed on colonized, indigenous peoples to force them into configurations that maximized European plunder of much of the world.
Numerous indigenous groups in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania recognized more than two genders prior to European contact and had them violently suppressed for centuries by the imposition of imperialist ideologies, which included programs of cultural genocide enacted through institutions like the Spanish Encomienda system or Canada’s notorious “Residential Schools.” Additionally, as black feminists have been theorizing for decades, the system of chattel slavery was created and maintained through the systematic ungendering of enslaved women that continues to have severe repercussions on racialization and gender to this day.
These histories of colonial violence carry a throughline into the medicalization of female coded bodies, sterilization, and access to reproductive healthcare that continues to exist as a third rail of feminist theory and praxis.
It’s a third rail that Cain and her collaborators stepped onto with both feet in Man-Eaters #9. It’s also the central focus of the real life political debates that served as the animus behind the series itself.
To wit, author Adam Cohen recently took to The Atlantic to refute the citation of his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in a recent decision by the court to uphold a block on a provision in an Indiana abortion bill signed into law by then Governor Mike Pence. Cohen charged that the conservative justice was manipulating history by attempting to tie the granting of access to abortions to eugenics, arguing that enabling unrestricted access to abortions would likewise open the door to the return of eugenics as a legitimized practice.
Cohen pinpoints Thomas’ misuse of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s racist, eugenicist views as the root of the misappropriation of his work. This episode serves to highlight the need to achieve and maintain clarity around the racialized history of medicalization and reproductive healthcare if there is to be any hope of defending and expanding access to it.
Building and maintaining the solidarity required to prevail in the current political climate requires a lot more than illustrating the oppression of the most privileged members of a given group, it requires a recognition of the roots and prior manifestations of the ideologies at work. Which is why critics of Man-Eaters have repeatedly pointed to how Cain and co’s usage of the pussy hat imagery suggested that the comic was heading right into the same problems that derailed the 2017 Women’s March.
Which is exactly what happened.
This was all incredibly frustrating and preventable, but while I wanted better from Cain and her creative team, I don’t really see the value in behaving as if anyone should have expected better from them.
What incentive was there for taking the criticism in stride and working to incorporate it into the work? What past precedent was there for creators de-centering their immediate emotional responses to head off or correct for unintentionally harmful depictions of marginalized groups?
Pretty much nothing. It’s easy enough to find apologies if you go looking, but the lead up to those apologies and the follow up to them, if it exists, are rarely if ever visible.
The fact of the matter is that most of the time that things go correctly and issues are handled before they hit the finished product, no trace is left. Rare exceptions to this exist like the radical transparency that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie apply to The Wicked + The Divine. Gillen captured the philosophy behind the prophylactic approach expertly in his notes on issue #17, delving into Sakhmet’s origins:
It’s an issue I was nervous around. It’s an issue which had the potential to be enormously offensive – I had a critic friend of mine who writes well on issues of race and gender look it over to see if there was anything which tripped her up particularly. It was fine, which I thought and hoped it was – but that’s why you get people to look over stuff. 9/10 fuck ups are things you literally weren’t thinking about in the slightest. When the story is one where a black woman has taken on the characteristics of an animal, it’s clearly got the potential to be an absolute racist clusterfuck.
The only reason that anyone outside of the creative team knows that a consultant was used for the issue is that Gillen disclosed it on Tumblr, and only the cohort of readers who follow him there are aware of it. A fraction of a fraction, and this is atypically transparent.
Most of my own work consulting on issues of trans representation has not been disclosed to the general public, and in some cases the creative teams were not aware of my involvement because I was hired by and worked exclusively with their editor.
This isn’t conspiracy or suppression. It’s the system working the way it should be. Which is why, when the offer was given, I agreed to have my name published in the credits of the Bitch Planet issues I consulted on. I wanted to help normalize and bring attention to an emerging industry practice that must remain opaque in order to function correctly.
I believe in carefully negotiated and managed use of consultants as one aspect of a larger inside-outside strategy for advancing the participation and representation of trans people in comics. It’s by far the most fun, rewarding, and productive aspect of the work. It’s also difficult to track the adoption and effectiveness of it, due to the opacity of the process and recruitment into it.
Opacity, whether intentional, accidental, or incidental, is one of the biggest barriers to achieving progress in trans representation and preventing incidents like the aftermath of Man-Eaters #9. The template for how to handle a more or less mutually agreed upon resolution to contested depiction of trans issues was introduced by DC Comics in the wake of Batgirl #37, which featured Batgirl being impersonated by a villainous drag queen. An apology by the creative team taking responsibility for how the issue was perceived was issued online and dialogue tweaks reflecting the critiques were made for the collected edition and Comixology master. Meaning that, any trace of the original dialogue was erased from all but the initial print run of the issue, visible only in the slight discrepancy in the collection of anyone who owns it across formats.
This strategy was followed by IDW to correct for critiques of the way that Blaze disclosed her trans status to the rest of the members of The Misfits in Jem and the Holograms and has likely been repeated elsewhere since.
The strategy works: it mitigates harm and demonstrates receptivity to critique, but it leaves no trace behind. Unless you were in a place to see the entire sequence of events unfold, which, in all of the above mentioned instances, was Twitter, then you would have absolutely no idea that any of it had happened at all.
Of course it would have been great if Chelsea Cain had been more receptive to critique from the beginning of Man-Eaters and adapted to those critiques much earlier, but practically speaking, there was no roadmap left behind for her to navigate this territory by the people who had gone through it before her. Which is an inexcusable lapse on the part of her publisher, Image Comics, who has been at the center of all of the industry’s most heated conflicts over the depiction of trans people since James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s infamous Airboy #2 in 2015.
At the time, coordinated disruption of the Twitter hashtag being used to promote the concurrent Image Expo pressured the publisher to confront the free flowing transmisogynist slurs and demeaning depiction of trans women in the issue. An issue that shipped while the company’s Twitter page was displaying pride rainbows and which its publisher, Eric Stephenson, appeared as a character in the preceding issue.
When it became clear that the comic wasn’t going to be pulled, two things happened: an apology by Robinson issued to GLAAD was negotiated and the pride rainbows were replaced by the generic logo. Both of those outcomes were negotiated victories on the part of everyone who participated in organizing against the publisher, but their impact never made it off Twitter into the comic shops where the issue proliferated, so it was an acceptable compromise for the publisher to make without losing face.
That confrontation set the stage for a much bigger incident two years later, almost to the day. In June of 2017, the first issue of Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States of Hysteria shipped with a rainbow colored pride variant benefiting Human Rights Campaign. Inside was a gruesome, eroticized depiction of transmisogynist violence. It touched off a controversy that caused Stephenson to intervene on Chaykin’s behalf and send the debut issue back for a second printing. Criticism intensified when the fourth issue was solicited depicting a violent hate crime and it was re-solicited under pressure with artwork originally intended for a later issue.
All of this, again, left no immediately visible trace on the industry. The cover depicting the hate crime was never shipped. The context and reception to the debut issue with the pride variant containing the transphobic violence never made it back to the comic book stores that stocked the variant or to the customers that circulated within them. Stephenson’s initial defense and the reports that the creative team of an LBGTQIA focused Image title arranged for diversity training at the Image offices quickly faded into the ether.
In these instances, opacity starts to take on a sinister quality and contributes to the escalation of harm rather than reducing or preventing it. The fact that Man-Eaters #9 shipped the way that it did suggests that there was no institutional memory or willpower at Image Comics to prevent a repeat of the situations around Airboy or The Divided States of Hysteria.
Instead, the pattern seems to be that whenever Image faces a significant challenge they retreat further away from accountability, outreach, and stewardship.
I consider it a significant victory that Image is not flying pride colors on its Twitter account or issuing pride variants in 2019 because I believe that using LBGTQIA activist imagery for branding is not a right, but an earned privilege with associated responsibilities.
That said, Image’s full scale retreat into divesting from its creators as anything more than clients of a bespoke printing service by tersely declaring “Reminder: Creators are not employees of Image. They are independent and speak for themselves” reveals the company’s founding mythology to be fugazi and cause to re-litigate what, if any role the mainline arm of the company ought to have in the industry. For all intents and purposes, Image’s current public image is the MV Lyubov Orlova of comics.
Just a reminder: Creators are not employees of Image. They are independent and speak for themselves.
— Image Comics (@ImageComics) March 29, 2018
Being a champion of “creators rights” has to mean more than waiving a share of media rights and running a business model that requires creators to make massive upfront investments into their work and hope against hope that their take from the sales after Image gets its cut keeps them afloat or gets them a Marvel gig.
Especially when Marvel and DC have been actively structuring their exclusive contracts to use Image as a bleed valve for pressure that could boil over into labor organizing by creating carve outs for creator owned comics. Which Image launders to its own benefit by using the doctrines of creator ownership and creative non-interference to distract from the inequities and pitfalls of its own model.
A significant aspect of the situation around Man-Eaters #9 that ought to be drawing more attention is that Image set Cain up to fail and is currently leaving her twisting in the wind because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that she was counseled against putting the tweets in the issue. And Eric Stephenson has yet to issue a public statement lauding the conversations that Man-Eaters is sparking.
Which is why, while Cain bears full responsibility for the choices she made, I have a great deal of sympathy for the fact that none of the frameworks that should have been in place to check her gut instinct were put in place, despite the fact that there has been overwhelming evidence pointing towards the need for those checks.
The most poisonous refrain that came out of the resistance to criticism of The Divided States of Hysteria is that Image having no editorial framework under its primary brand was a feature, rather than a bug. The lack of an editorial framework was framed as an exercise in pure creative non-intervention, effectively slandering editors as corporate shills or hall monitors as a profession.
Editors at companies like Marvel and DC are necessarily custodians of closely guarded intellectual property who are frequently called upon to act with the same level of caution as government bureaucrats, but the class of freelance editors who are hired by Image creators are there as incubators, coaches, and backstops not school marms or catholic school nuns. To suggest otherwise is childish and reckless, an attitude that has repeatedly lead the entire industry into embarrassing episodes exactly like this.
Of course, on the flip side, Joshua Luna’s recently publicized difficulties have illuminated the fact that Image Comics, despite all appearances to the contrary, is not an abandoned cruise ship lost at sea and theorized to be crewed by cannibal rats. It has legal counsel concerned with copyright issues and “an Image partner” willing to battle an established, longstanding Image creator over the tone he uses in challenging white supremacy. If Erik Larsen is correct in claiming that Luna is feuding directly with Stephenson, it raises even bigger questions around the publisher’s emphatic public defense of Chaykin and deafening silence on Cain’s woes, and if confirmed, should be cause for renewed calls for Stephenson’s ouster.
Which leads me to the online response to Man-Eaters #9 and the exchanges that lead to Cain leaving Twitter for the second time (the first being in the wake of attacks from Comicsgaters enraged by the “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda” variant cover to Mockingbird #8). When upsetting imagery goes viral and without a clear organizing strategy set up around it, it’s perfectly natural to react through venting and frustration.
Especially in a carefully constructed ecosystem like Twitter that is built for blind “engagement” and is set up to rapidly amplify “negative” emotion and interaction. Twitter is not now, nor will likely ever be a space conducive to de-escalation, compromise, or solidarity work because their converse is more easily manipulated, propagated, and ultimately monetized. That said, it’s also important to step back and consider what strategies are only good for providing the empty calories of momentary catharsis, and which ones are viable ways to achieve measurable goals.
Whenever something objectionable happens in a comic book or emerges in the public speech of an industry pro, there’s a class of pundit who immediately begin circulating a series of tweets either daring big names in the industry to speak up on the issue or loudly declaring that the self same pros won’t speak up out of fear, cowardice, or something else. You can set your watch to it, but it’s meaningless and counterproductive. It’s vaporware.
As I’ve said a few times already, none of the incidents that I’ve outlined up to and including Man-Eaters #9 have ever spilled out of the closed circuit of the dreaded “Comics Twitter,” and neither will a stray tweet backing up any given sentiment. Of course things can also go very wrong very quickly when pros get tagged into difficult situations on Twitter.
Having a prominent figure weigh in on your side seems like a cheap and easy way to bolster your cause, but doing the Twitter equivalent of lighting the bat signal runs the risk of turning the person being appealed to into an instrument. It also isn’t a great way to inspire a long term commitment to understanding the issues in play.
Hence the long shadow that Brandon Graham casts as someone who positioned himself as a vocal advocate for improving representation and participation for trans people in comics only to turn to outright malice when his own conduct and creative decisions as Island editor were scrutinized, leaving a long trail of cultural vandalism in his wake.
Of course what lies at the heart of this episode isn’t being called on to be an ally in the moment, it’s vanity searching, which is the other problem that lead directly to the current mess. Someone had to go out and find the tweets that were published in the issue, Cain nor any associated Man-Eaters accounts were tagged in them.
Just like the general contours of longstanding problems in trans representation, the vanity searching that lead to the tweets making it into the issue was already a major problem for the industry. Very recently, a vanity searching artist found a tweet from a prominent critic (who is themselves a cartoonist and editor) pointing out the ways in which the artist’s cover for a DC comic was contradicting the spirit of the issue itself.
The artist reacted by digging up the critic’s own work and mocking it, which spiraled out into a mosh pit of angry pros and critics that eventually escalated into violent threats. One of the most heated elements of the debate was whether it’s professional for cartoonists to critique each other. The arbitrary divide between “critic” and “creator” has superheated in ways that have enabled bad behavior up to and including posting the name and address of critic who writes under a pseudonym on social media, making the tweets’ appearance in Man-Eaters #9 seem inevitable.
As much as finding a way forward from this situation requires a rethinking of what constitutes allyship and supporting meaningful representation and participation of transgender people in comics, it also requires a serious rethinking about the nature of critique. Critique as a process and a discourse is vital, professional, and productive. It illuminates craft, opens up creative processes, and identifies flaws that can be honed into strengths. Critique can be difficult or even seem humiliating.
Sometimes it does come from a place of cruelty or pettiness, but those instances cannot be made to represent the whole. The ability to recognize, internalize, and learn from critique is something we should be challenging each other to develop because there is no pathway to de-escalation without it.
The unfortunate truth is that Cain, and Cain alone needed to be pressured via Twitter over the inclusion of the tweets in the comic and the other accumulating problems that were not making traction by other means. A broader lesson that I think Cain, and probably the majority of people in general, needed to learn and internalize is that we need to interrogate the sources of our discomfort and embarrassment before acting on them. Especially as white women, which Cain and myself most definitely are.
Where my frustration sets in could be interpreted as arcane or petty, but I think it’s worth examining and considering. I believe in pressure tactics, I believe that they work, and that they worked with Cain, but I also believe that they have to work towards something. Which was probably a lost cause in a Twitter fracas that caught fire over a couple tweets with no intentional organizing effort behind them, but is worth dissecting because something like this is going to happen again. And it will probably happen again very soon if past precedent is any indicator.
The time to ease back was when Cain solicited “sensitivity readers.” An important part of organizing is recognizing when you’ve gotten your target to the negotiating table so that you can actually get across the table from them instead of just kicking them all the way under it.
I get that people want everyone who does consulting work around issues of sex, gender, race, and disability to be compensated fairly for that work. I want that too as an outcome of furthering my belief that this kind of consulting work is a key tactic as part of a larger inside-outside strategy of improving transgender representation and participation in comics. But that was neither the time nor the place to agitate for monetary compensation as a precondition.
I’m very serious about consulting work, which is why I refuse to call it “sensitivity reading.” It’s become a ubiquitous term of art since I first started doing it, but it has connotations that I dislike and its implementation in the prose publishing world is deeply suspect.
There are situations where I believed that it was appropriate that I didn’t interface directly with the creators while consulting on trans issues for comics, but there have been pointed critiques of the sensitivity reader framework in prose publishing by people who have done it that need to be internalized before the comic book industry establishes a commonly used structure of its own.
The essential problem is that sensitivity reading in the prose publishing industry is effectively outsourced, compartmentalized, incentivized to be as minimally critical as possible, and exploited as insulation from formal criticism. This is a problem that I want to solve for prior to setting wage expectations, because I want consulting work to function as a pipeline into more traditionally professionalized roles like editing, production assistance, and writing.
Because I want a future where cisgender, white, straight creators and editors can be weaned off the need to rely on consultants from marginalized backgrounds to act as backstops, I also want one where those consultants can bring more than just a single dimension of their lived experience to bear on the industry. I want the people who are called on to do consulting work to be the editors of tomorrow so that they can shape storytelling as proactively and holistically as they do prophylactically.
Which means that consulting work should be a way of breaking people into the creative and professional processes behind comics the way it has been for me. I wasn’t paid for my consulting work on Bitch Planet, which would have amounted to a maximum of three billable hours because it played out almost exactly the way Kieron Gillen described the process for The Wicked + The Divine #17.
What it gave me was an inside look at how Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro assemble an issue of itch Planet from concept to execution that amounted to a miniature apprenticeship, whatever the going rate for a personally signed trade paperback is, and a credit for my resume. All of which have incredible value to me.
Consulting work for a different client that started out unpaid, but offered a similar look at the publishing process lead directly to similar paid consulting work, paid prose writing, and the invitation to contribute to the Love is Love anthology. It would have been great to get paid for all of those gigs, but if everyone who read one of my most circulated columns here dropped me a dollar via paypal or ko.fi, i would make far more money than my hourly rate on those short term consulting gigs would have brought in. It’s a trade off that I don’t regret in the slightest.
Again, I want as many consulting gigs to pay money as possible, but I haven’t even been able to begin the organizing work that will get us to that point yet. I haven’t drafted a survey to figure out how many consultants there are out there, who they’re working for, what publishers their work is contributing to, whether they’re being approached by creators or editors, what their career aspirations are, or what if anything they’re getting paid yet.
If I’m going to be doing any bargaining on this subject, I’m going to be doing it with facts in hand and so should you, which is why above the line creators have been gathering the equivalent kinds of data to what I just listed above but these things need to be done one step at a time.
What I do know is that I want Chelsea Cain to find and use consultants in a way that lets them into her creative process and opens her up to learn new ways of thinking from them that can build towards a more co-operative, empathetic future. I want her to utilize and advocate for a process that I know can be productive and sustainable. I also want whatever comes out of a reconsideration of the series to make its way into the comic book stores, to bring the dialogue out of esoteric industry circles and into the hands of everyone who ever believed in the potential of Man-Eaters.
Above all else I want to end the comic book forever war over my dignity as a human being.