Over the past couple years there have been several unfortunate incidents that have revealed the depth to which the comic book industry is contaminated by sexism and male privilege. Examples include Tess Fowler accusing Brian Wood of sexual harassment and Scott Lobdell sexually harassing MariNaomi on a panel. The latest such incident began this past Friday when Janelle Asselin posted a critique of Kenneth Rocafort’s cover for Teen Titans #1. In response, DC Comics artist Brett Booth posted a series of rude and insulting tweets attacking Asselin’s motives, and numerous other fans allegedly sent her sexist insults and rape threats.
This sort of behavior makes me ashamed to be a male comics fan. It stems from a perception that comics are a male-dominated medium, and that when women try to make comics into more of a female-friendly space, they are encroaching on men’s territory. This of course is a perception that’s fostered by the media (e.g. this scene from the Big Bang Theory) and that DC Comics, in particular, seems to be actively trying to encourage. It is accompanied by a belief that comics are somehow unattractive to anyone other than adult men. Brett Booth, for example, said this yesterday:
For Booth, the comic based on the Teen Titans TV show was cancelled because there was no audience for it, not because DC did a poor job of marketing it. He conveniently ignores that, as many people have observed, it lasted 55 issues — much longer than most current DC ongoing titles. (For that matter, I think DC’s highest-numbered current title is Looney Tunes). No, the reason Teen Titans didn’t sell is because only adult men buy comic books. Never mind that the My Little Pony comic had sold a million copies by last October, and that things like The Amulet and Diary of a Wimpy Kid probably sell more copies than all DC comic books combined, by a few orders of magnitude. For people like Booth, the failure of the Teen Titans comic supports their belief that comic books are an exclusively adult male domain, and that DC shouldn’t try to cater to anyone other than their base.
This is a poisonous attitude, and it is perhaps the single biggest reason why DC has fallen into a state of creative stagnation — because they only care about catering to their existing adult male fanbase, and they have no interest in reaching out to anyone else. DC’s sexist attitudes and policies even hurt them with fans who are adult men but who are uncomfortable with sexism and exploitation. The other day, I surveyed my Facebook friends to ask them whether they were buying any DC comics at all. The vast majority of them, whether adult men or not, said no.
And while this is a problem that is hardly limited to DC, it is DC Comics that is currently making the biggest contribution to the comics industry’s climate of sexism and rape culture. Other companies, including IDW, Image, and Boom, and even Marvel with titles like Ms. Marvel, are making a genuine effort to expand the reach of the comics medium. Image publisher Eric Stephenson even said that women were his company’s most important demographic. (Unfortunately, the reporting of that speech was dominated by complaints that he unfairly disparaged comics based on licensed properties. Which he did, but that wasn’t the most important point.) DC Comics is the only major publisher that is not only making no effort to attract women and new readers, but is even driving those readers away, seemingly on purpose. The best explanation I’ve heard for DC’s current sexist behavior is that Warner Bros. is trying to market DC Comics as a brand exclusively for boys and men — an explanation which is supported by Paul Dini’s comments in this interview from last year.
So what can we do to counter sexist attitudes in the comics industry and to try to make comics fandom more friendly to women? As Heidi McDonald argues, this task is the responsibility of men like me; it’s not fair to expect women to do all the work to make comics a less sexist place. I think there are a few easy things we as male fans can do. First, we can denounce sexism and sexual harassment when it occurs. Second, we can make efforts to educate our fellow fans about sexual harassment. This also needs to be done on an institutional level. For example, every comic book convention needs to have a harassment policy similar to the one that Emerald City Comic Con has instituted. And third, we can vote with our wallets. There is no room in our community for people like Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth, unless they show genuine contrition about their sexist behavior and resolve not to engage in such behavior again. We need to stop financially supporting such creators, and I think we should even demand that they be fired. This situation is different from the Orson Scott Card situation in degree but not in kind.
I honestly believe that the comics industry and comics fandom are becoming more female-friendly environments, but there is still a ton of residual sexism in comics, and we as adult male comics fans are the ones responsible for stamping it out.