In 2016, the comics writer Chelsea Cain found herself drowning in abusive tweets. She’d made the mistake of penning an issue of Marvel’s Mockingbird series that featured an image of its heroine wearing a shirt saying, “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” In the words in which one representative attack put it, she was “ruining my favorite character with your feminist crap.” As many others have in similar circumstances, Cain temporarily deleted her account.
Cain’s experience was one of the most important precursors of Comicsgate, the latest in reactionary movements and harassment campaigns centered on nerd fandoms. Like Gamergate in games and the Sad Puppies in literary science-fiction, Comicsgate claims to be fighting against censorship and the politicized groupthink of leftist social justice warriors (SJWs) — anti-racists, feminists and marginalized people whom the right characterizes as oppressors. But again, like those other movements, Comicsgate participants in fact work to silence opinions they dislike and voices they deem malignant. The left is often accused of intolerance and antipathy to the First Amendment. The most serious new threat to free speech, however, is the use of free speech as a cover for an ongoing online assault on the enemies of the right.
The hashtag Comicsgate started in June 2017. A group of female Marvel employees posted a group selfie in which they were celebrating the legacy of recently deceased comics publisher Flo Steinberg, one of Marvel’s earliest employees who had helped the company’s unique approach to fan outrage. Ironically, a group of comics fans online were enraged at the evidence that women worked for Marvel. They condemned the women as “fake geek girls” and “the creepiest collection of stereotypical SJWs anyone could possibly imagine,” in the words of one enraged tweeter. Another suggested that a woman in the picture looked like “the ‘false rape charge’ type."
Among those joining in the attacks was Richard C. Meyer, who uses the ironic twitter and YouTube handle Diversity & Comics. Meyer became a ringleader of Comicsgate, which rallied around the argument that female, POC and LGBT characters and creators were ruining comic books, and pushing out the views and voices of authentic fans. DC writer Magdalene Visaggio, a trans woman, was a special target; Meyer misgendered her and claimed she was mentally ill. In a private video posted in 2017 and obtained by the Daily Beast, Meyer railed against one female Marvel editor using gendered slurs and attacked others for supposedly exchanging sexual favors for career advancement. More recently, Comicsgate proponents have been arguing that celebrated poet and playwright Eve Ewing, who will be writing the new Ironheart series at Marvel, is unqualified or undeserving.
Comicsgaters and their sympathizers generally frame these attacks on industry professionals as a brave, contrarian fight against stifling conformity. An important forerunner of Comicsgate was a controversy over art by Frank Cho and Milo Manara, which showed comics characters in hyper-sexualized poses. He and Manara responded to criticism by drawing other controversial sketches, at least one featuring an underage character, in the name of free speech and baiting feminists. Cho later claimed he was censored when writer Greg Rucka asked editorial to remove him as Wonder Woman cover artist because of his sexualized drawings.
The idea that people are being censored because they face criticism or because in work-for-hire settings their bosses or collaborators aren’t happy with their work doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s a staple claim of right-wing nerd harassment, and it’s used to justify extreme claims about left-wing totalitarianism. The X-Men artist Jon Malin compared progressives to Hitler. “X-Men are closer to Jews in SJW Hitler’s Germany fighting for freedom because they see ideologues rising, silencing them, weaponizing hate, racism, and socialism,” he wrote Jan. 21.
Similarly, when Malin and Richard Meyer’s comic Jawbreakers was dropped by its distributor, Antarctic Press, the far-right conservative outlet the Federalist went all in on the censorship narrative. Many creators and fans urged Antarctic Press to drop Jawbreakers because of Meyer’s history of harassment and abuse. The Federalist, however, said Meyer was being silenced because of his brave conservative stances. “The industry stood firm against conservative creators because they are outspoken against the extreme politics in comics, and as the left is wont to do, mischaracterized them in an effort to delegitimize their product.” Attacking women for daring to post selfies while celebrating a deceased colleague is apparently important conservative political speech.
Reactionaries claim that the left is preventing them from saying all the sexual, important, insightful things they want to say. But right-wing nerd harassment campaigns themselves are aimed at policing and shutting down certain speech and certain speakers.
Darryl Ayo, an indie comic creator and critic, told me about one instance in which Comicsgate targeted him for speaking out. Ayo had criticized Malin’s claim that SJWs were Nazis. That night after midnight, popular comics penciler, outspoken right-winger and Comicsgate leader Ethan Van Sciver challenged him to appear on his podcast to debate Malin. “Darryl, come on my show right now and say what you have to say,” Van Sciver tweeted.
Ayo didn’t know Van Sciver and refused the offer. Van Sciver continued to demand that he appear on the show. For anyone who uses Twitter, the result was, predictably, months of insults and harassment. The day before we spoke, eight months after the original confrontation, someone had posted multiple messages on Ayo’s Facebook page to denigrate his art, referencing his conflict with Van Sciver.
Van Sciver framed himself as a proponent of debate and the healthy exchange of ideas. But in fact, he was demanding that Ayo deferentially follow his orders in the middle of the night or be labeled as unreasonable and a justifiable target for abuse. A free speech frame became a way to go after someone for saying things Van Sciver didn’t like — and for putting others on notice that their tweets or comments could make them the next target.
Van Sciver wasn't able to orchestrate enough abuse to force Ayo offline. But other reactionary nerd campaigns have had greater success in terrorizing their targets. Gamergate, motivated like Comicsgate by anger at the existence of women in nerd spaces, sent so many death threats to feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian that she was forced to flee her home.
This sort of harassment was not an isolated incident. Milo Yiannopoulos, a Gamergate leader who wrote for the reactionary website Breitbart, orchestrated a campaign of harassment against actor Leslie Jones for appearing in the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. The abuse led Jones to leave Twitter — which was such an embarrassment that Twitter banned Yiannopoulos from the platform. Even without him, though, a campaign of abuse in the same mode was launched against Kelly Marie Tran of the Star Wars franchise. Again, reactionary fans were angry that the movies had cast an actor who wasn’t white and male. Tran deleted her Instagram after she was sent waves of racist and sexist abuse.
Most of Comicsgate’s targets have been lower profile than Jones or Tran. But that doesn’t mean that the harassers have been ineffective. Meyer, Van Sciver and their followers have made it clear that black critics who question their friends, or female Marvel employees who post selfies online, will be bullied and attacked. Their goal has been to make comics less welcoming to people who aren’t white and male, and they’ve succeeded in that goal.
The right wing in our era has wrapped itself in the mantle of the First Amendment; even fascists claim to march in the name of free speech. But Comicsgate, and other geek culture reactionary campaigns, show that this is a lie. When you set yourself against diversity, you also set yourself against diverse voices. The effort to keep certain people out of comics, or games, or geek culture, is also an effort to silence certain perspectives, and to prevent certain people from speaking. Free speech for certain people isn’t free speech at all.
“I think they’ve successfully made the stakes of being a female or black or queer or trans comics creator feel a lot higher,” said Jay Edidin, a comics writer, editor and critic. Comicsgate put marginalized creators and fans on notice that some people in comics didn’t want them there and would come after them. It’s impossible to know how many people that discouraged, but there’s little doubt that the intent was to discourage. “I obviously can’t look at numbers and say, ‘Well, this many people would have been here making comics if it weren’t for Comicsgate,’ ” Edidin said. “But I absolutely believe it has had an effect.”
Part of the reason the effect may be hard to measure is that there are also people working, despite Comicsgate’s best efforts, to make comics more welcoming. Earlier this year, Edidin himself helped lead a successful campaign to get Dark Horse Comics to cover trans health care under its insurance policy. Many comics pros have also recently begun to speak out against Comicsgate, which may help to reduce the movement’s influence. Comics may yet become more open to different viewpoints, different experiences and different creators. If it does, though, it will be despite right-wing “free speech” warriors, not because of them.