Chelsea Cain and Mockingbird are two names that have been making waves in geekdom recently; the former because she may or may not have been bullied off of Twitter by misogynistic fanboys and the latter because the series featuring her has just been canceled. Depending on to whom you talk, Mockingbird was either a lackluster book with out-of-character and gimmicky writing that was intended to be genre-defying or an amazing work of unprecedented genius that neckbeards aren’t ready for because they’re sexist. Your stance on this book (or your lack of one) means you’re either a reasonable, enlightened comic fan who welcomes new voices or a deplorable bigot whose influence over the industry must be eliminated.
Does the comic book industry have a women problem? Of course, the problem of sexual harassment among comic professionals - a conversation that few of the comic book journalism outlets want to have in earnest. It seems that for every Karen Berger in the industry there’s a Valerie D’Orazio. But apart from that, the List of Female Comics Creators on Wikipedia contains names of women who were active as far back as the 1800s, so it’s not like women in comics is some new and revolutionary idea, no matter how some commentators choose to spin it. The way that some people make it sound, the first woman in comics was hired two years ago and male comic readers have been grabbing pitchforks and torches ever since. Just a cursory glance at the long, long list shows there have been at least twenty women associated with Marvel and DC titles in the modern age alone.
Some very loud voices have declared that fandom is broken, perhaps beyond repair. It is taken as a fact that privileged males hate women and will chase them from the medium if given even the slightest excuse. Even though there are and have always been successful women in the field who have not been harassed, we are told that women just aren’t welcome in comics or geekdom in general. #Gamergate is a movement that has become synonymous with online harassment; it was either created with the specific goal of targeting certain female video game designers and critics or was corrupted by bad apples from within and was originally focused on ethics in video games journalism. Whatever your personal views on the subject, it’s practically accepted everywhere that it is a hate movement, born of male entitlement and misogyny. It seems that some people are anxious for another easily-dismissed-as-sexist movement to take hold of comics fandom. The horrible abuses that definitely all women and minorities are totally experiencing all the time is “the new Gamergate.”
The narrative is that the recent increase of characters like the woman Thor and Muslim Ms. Marvel are seen as an attack on whiteness and maleness (and I suppose white-maleness) by ignorant fanboys. It’s a nice story to tell oneself, especially when it casts you as being a righteous crusader for equality. It turns liking a comic book into a political act. However, the criticism that many fans are leveling at these developments are being dismissed as the result of sexism and racism when a lot of these complaints are not about the characters themselves but the overall cynical attitude of the publishers involved. It’s very clear that they (Marvel moreso) are exploiting the current popularity of social justice issues to make headlines and earn media coverage. Rather than releasing good books with good stories, they rely on controversy and outrage to drive sales.
When commentators set out to generate clicks with the story about Mockingbird’s cancellation and subsequent “bullying off Twitter” of writer Chelsea Cain, it benefits them to make it seem like this book was a beacon of hope that someday female superheroes will be accepted by this cruel fanbase. Is it really outside the realm of possibility that this book wasn’t that great? Looking at the September sales charts, there are over ten female-led titles that sold more than Mockingbird, which came in at #144 out of over 300. Supergirl, Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, Superwoman, and Batgirl at DC all sold more copies and Marvel’s own Thor, Spider-Gwen, Ms. Marvel, Gwenpool, Captain Marvel, A-Force, Spider-Woman, and Scarlet Witch outsold Mockingbird. Several of these titles are written by women, so I guess those horrible comic fans aren’t entirely misogynists. It’s almost like there have been popular female characters and creators for decades! If a new Gamergate is brewing in comics, how could these titles be successful?
Before deleting her account, Cain tweeted on October 17th, “Please buy Mockingbird #8 this Wed. Send a message to @marvel that there’s room in comics for super hero stories about grown-up women.” Again, Marvel already has several titles starring females heroes and many others that feature them prominently. Perhaps to Cain, a self-admitted comics outsider whose true vocation is writing novels, books that star women are a revolutionary new idea… or perhaps she knew the sales of her book were low and it was in danger of being canceled and she wanted to gain readers by implying the purchase of that issue would be some feminist victory. The tweet was accompanied by the image of a variant cover featuring Mockingbird in a t-shirt that says “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” It’s a very transparent attempt to equate buying a comic book from a corporately owned publisher with a revolution for women. What’s really sad is with all of that baiting it didn’t even work; the book was still canceled.
Cain reported she had been bombarded with negative comments on Twitter. The blog post she made after leaving Twitter said, “The tweets that bothered me were never the ones concerned with content; they were the ones that questioned my right to write comics at all, and were disgusted by the idea of a female hero having her own series.” Were they really? Were comic fans actually that offended by the very notion of a woman as the lead of her own series when that’s been a thing since the 40s? In the same post she acknowledges that she did not leave Twitter because of trolling, but because she felt it was wasting her time. Well, maybe her words are open to interpretation. She wrote, “Let me be clear: I did not leave Twitter because I was trolled.” Very clear, indeed. Yet, the headline “Bestselling Author Chelsea Cain Driven Off Twitter by Harassment from Comics ‘Fans’” and others like it were still all over geek sites. Note the dismissive scare quotes around “fans,” a sentiment expressing that any true fan would never engage in Twitter rants (someone should tell Dan Slott). Some people are really invested in the idea that comic fans are a mob of backwards thinking monsters so they can feel better about themselves and their own fandom, which is “correct.”
Would it be unreasonable to say that maybe Cain overreacted? That maybe she deleted her account instead of making it private because account deletion, when viewed from the outside, supports the idea that she was a victim of horrible harassment? There are plenty of public figures who are hated much more than Cain and still keep their accounts. The Amazon.com sales of the first volume of her run reportedly skyrocketed after all of this coverage; does anyone think that would’ve happened if this whole anti-woman frenzy hadn’t happened? Cain’s own words again: “But know that I did not leave Twitter because of rape threats or because someone had posted my address, or any of the truly vile tactics you hear about. I left Twitter because of the ordinary daily abuse that I decided I didn’t want to live with anymore. The base level of casual crassness and sexism.” She’s very careful with her words here. No, she wasn’t threatened like other notable people have been; she was subject to casual crassness and sexism. I guess she’s never been online before. Could it be that she was just dealing with some harsh criticism that is automatically labeled as sexist because she’s a woman? The fact of the matter is, when you turn a superhero comic into an outlet for your political views, it should be expected that there will be some sort of response from the other side. Maybe anything less than glowing praise is considered abusive. Remember that if Milo Manara and Frank Cho filter out negative responses to their posts, it’s because they’re cowards who can’t handle criticism, but Chelsea Cain was abused.
So we have a minor title about a C-list character that was canceled due to poor sales and a writer who quit Twitter not because she was bullied but because she’d rather spend time with her family and somehow this equals a concentrated effort of zealots comparable to Gamergate. It doesn’t really add up. Titles about less popular characters often fail. They are announced as ongoing series but are really just glorified minis. Nobody expects a book about someone like Mockingbird to make it to thirty issues (especially because all the books are renumbered before reaching #12 these days!). The series didn’t die because of hatred of women, it died because Mockingbird is lame and was aimed at fans of Agents of SHIELD, a lame TV show. Neckbeards didn’t look at the first issue of Mockingbird and rage, “a WOMAN on the cover of a COMIC BOOK?!” But when they see an image that kowtows to feminism, they feel tired and frustrated that comics are pandering to a market that has proven to not really exist. The keyboard warriors who use hashtags to stand in support of all of these activist causes don’t actually buy books, as evidenced by the cancellation. Fans are not tired of women in comics; they’re tired of publishers catering to an audience that doesn’t actually support the medium.
There is no concentrated effort to abuse women in comics fandom like there is in video games. Gamers are often very competitive, since playing video games, unlike reading comics, is an actual skill that is honed over time. As a comic reader, I can’t go up to someone else who read the same issue I just finished and claim that I totally owned them at reading it. That mentality leads to thinking that there is some kind of competition among the fandom, that a victory for the other side equals a loss for your own. This is not the case for comics. Video games are also a relatively young medium but comics have been around since the 19th century. Women in comics is not new and it’s not why fans are upset. Being told they are scum for not being one hundred percent in favor of progressive politics makes fans upset. Watching characters they’ve cultivated interest in over years be altered to appeal to newcomers whose first Avengers experience was in a theater makes fans upset. But that doesn’t mean war is coming. There is no battle between Neckbeards and SJWs, but there is one between corporations and consumers and one side always wins. It’s the side that can turn your politics against you and make buying their products a revolutionary act.