Chelsea Cain used to be afraid—of the internet, of Marvel Comics, of what she might lose if she broke the unspoken rules of an industry-wide “culture of silence.” But she isn’t afraid anymore.
Two years ago, the bestselling novelist and first-time comic-book writer became the pet target of a wave of online harassment and misogyny sparked by a single image: artist Joëlle Jones’ cover to the final issue of Cain’s Marvel series Mockingbird. It had been Cain and her creative team’s farewell middle finger to the low-level din of trolls that had accompanied every issue: the heroine, S.H.I.E.L.D super-agent Bobbi Morse, holding a lemonade on a beach in a T-shirt that read, “Ask me about my feminist agenda.”
Within a week of the issue’s release, Cain deactivated her Twitter account. “I’m just done here,” she tweeted shortly before going dark. “I’m amazed at the cruelty comics brings out in people.” #IStandWithChelseaCain trended in her absence. Fans and fellow creators chimed in with support, while others hijacked the tag to crow about Mockingbird’s cancellation, claiming it as proof that women “don’t buy comics.” For a short time, Cain became a symbol of the erupting culture wars in geek spaces—the kind that have since yielded the amorphous, anti-diversity harassment campaign known as “Comicsgate.”
At the time, however, the campaign against Cain had no name. And deleting her Twitter only seemed to make it worse. “There’s this really interesting misconception that misogynists have about free speech,” Cain recalls now. “They really were mad that I had left the conversation, because apparently if I were a real feminist, if I were really a strong woman, I would have stayed and let them shout at me. So that’s when it really escalated.”
Cain stayed off Twitter for three months, only once checking in on the hysteria. “I’ve seen some really terrible things,” she remembers. “The thing that really will always haunt me is this illustration of Mockingbird—and this was somebody with talent, like, it was drawn and inked, it looked professional: Mockingbird brutalized and raped, dead. Her costume all torn off, bloody, really violent. And she’s laying there, horribly murdered and bruised and it said, ‘Ask me about my feminist agenda.’”
News crews showed up on Cain’s porch. She thought of photos she’d posted of her daughter over the years; how she’d tagged the name of her school, how easy it would be to find their address on the internet. “I was afraid in a very real way,” she says. “That sounds silly to say, I know. But the whole thing was very intense.”
It might have persuaded her to quit comics altogether and go back to writing thrillers; she’d written eight of those and had never endured such vitriol. For a while, she kept her head down, hoping to wait out the frenzy. Then she got angry.
Three weeks after Cain left Twitter, Donald Trump was elected president. She attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter, and resolved to reunite her Mockingbird creative team for a new, cheekily titled series called Man-Eaters, to publish independently through Image Comics.
She founded a company called The Ministry of Trouble to help facilitate more storytelling, and to “make trouble in spaces where women are usually told to be silent.” And she lined up another high-profile gig at Marvel, writing the follow-up to Tom King’s Eisner-winning run on The Vision.
Fans had rejoiced at the news of Cain’s return to Marvel. Her Mockingbird run had been nominated for two Eisner Awards, the highest honor in comics, and its first collected volume became the No. 1-bestselling Marvel comic on Amazon—a week ahead of its release date. Four of the limited Vision series’ six issues, Cain says, were already complete ahead of the title’s scheduled launch in November. But abruptly, Marvel canceled the series. The publisher declined to comment on why.
Sources told The Daily Beast that shifts in the publisher’s long-term plans for the characters of Vision and his teenage daughter Viv mandated the book’s cancellation, and that the decision was not made lightly.
Marvel officials declined to comment to The Daily Beast.
But for Cain, it isn’t the book’s cancellation that’s provoked a disquieting sense of déjà vu. It’s the pressure, spoken and unspoken, she says the company tried to exert to keep her quiet. “I am not a comic-book writer,” Cain says, emphasizing her footing as an outsider with less at stake in the industry than most of her peers. The position empowers her, she says, to speak out now against the ways that mainstream publishers fail the people who actually write and illustrate their product: freelancers.
Marvel canceled Mockingbird after just three issues, though it waited to announce the end of Bobbi Morse’s first-ever solo title until after its eighth. And when the publisher nixed two years’ worth of work on The Vision, cutting a chunk of expected income, “they wanted it to be clean and quiet, with the implication—not even—with the understanding that they had more projects for me in the future if we could keep this clean and not make anybody look bad.”
“When people say that they don’t want anybody to look bad, they always mean they don’t want themselves to look bad,” she says with a laugh. “I was totally like, do you guys remember me? Are you serious?”
Cain teases the father-daughter sci-fi tale she, her co-writer/husband Marc Mohan, and artist Aud Koch had started to tell in The Vision. “It was really good. This comic was really good. But that happens,” she says, pausing for a beat. “I really didn’t like being told to not talk about it. I didn’t like being told that they just kind of wanted to leak it [to the press] and then let it go and not have anybody make the story bigger by granting interviews or answering questions, even just online or anything.”
Our Skype interview, I note, voids Marvel’s wishes. “Yeah, I’m dead to them. Trust me,” Cain says brightly. “I guess there is that freedom of being like, well, I don’t have to worry about that anymore!”
“I have so many friends who work in comics who this kind of stuff happens to in one form or another, not uncommonly, and nobody can speak up,” she says. “They’re always told what messages they can share and the things that they’re supposed to lie about. And you have to do it because otherwise, you won’t have the next job. And it’s not just Marvel Comics, it’s a freelancer economy, in a way I think that most people do not understand.” Mainstream comic books, she points out, are largely written, drawn, inked, lettered, and colored by people “without health insurance.” The culture that creates “is really just toxic.”
She stresses how many “lovely” colleagues at Marvel, including her editor Wil Moss, expressed shock and compassion after both Mockingbird and Vision’s cancellations. “I don’t think that it was part of some kind of like, sexist conspiracy,” she says. “I think it was some really smart, funny, friendly boys in a room making a decision and it never occurred to them that this was important, or that these kinds of comics needed a place.”
“It’s just that kind of institutional complacency in the way that decisions get made and don’t get made,” she adds. “And that’s what we have to chip away at. It’s the only way to change it, to just keep calling them out.”
For two years, Chelsea Cain kept quiet, following company orders. She regrets that now. “I wasted that time when I could have been an advocate,” she says. But she’s no longer afraid to rock the boat.
“I feel really freed now,” she says, smiling broadly. “I have no censor function anymore.”
Man-Eaters is the kind of comic that only a team with something to prove creates.
A funny, viciously pointed parable of young girls who turn into murderous monster-cats at the onset of puberty, Man-Eaters (on sale next Wednesday) reunites Cain with her Mockingbird collaborators: artist Kate Niemczyk, colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, and letterer Joe Caramagna. As wryly assured and packed with visual jokes as their first book, Man-Eaters probes societal fears of the female body through the perspective of a 12-year-old girl at one of the most horrifically awkward times of her life: her first period.
The girl, named Maude, exists in a world where nearly everyone is infected with a parasite mutation called Toxoplasmosis X. Most never manifest any symptoms. But pubescent girls, if left unchecked—or if unaffected by the menstruation-blocking chemicals the U.S. government injects into cities’ water supplies—transform into feral, powerful cats prone to mauling their neighbors and families.
Maude launches an investigation into a series of deadly killings, though she suspects she may in fact be the were-panther responsible. “But that investigation will reveal that maybe what she’s been taught in school about what happens to women’s bodies because of Toxoplasmosis X is in fact all kind of bullshit, and that there is more going on,” Cain says.
Billed as “part Cat People, part The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s a bloody, yet thoroughly good-humored book about our fear of powerful women, inspired by the aftermath of Cain’s last comic and by her own 13-year-old daughter. “I felt really galvanized after Mockingbird to do more of what seemed to make people so angry,” Cain says with a cackle. “It just made me want, on behalf of the team to, I dunno, exact our revenge and dine on the blood of our enemies?”
“There is this cultural messaging about our body and this weird discomfort about periods that is so insidious,” she adds. “Like, the most woke men I know in my life still won’t buy a box of tampons. Which is like, what kind of message are we sending our girls? That this is something that happens to their bodies that is monstrous. And I really think we need to get over that.”
“I just wanted to be really clear about what we were doing,” Cain says of the book’s winking, confrontational tone—telegraphed clearly from its first page, in which Maude imagines a playful superhero-style showdown between two tampons. “The very first page has Tampon Woman and the line, ‘Not so fast, Mr. Misogyny!” she laughs.
It’s a small signal of Cain’s defiance against the crassly sexist deluge of Mockingbird’s aftermath: “Like, this is what you’re getting. I have not given in to your bullshit at all.”
It cracks her up to admit it now, but for a short while, Cain had actually been disappointed by the internet’s collective shrug at the final cover of Mockingbird.
“Because we knew that was the last issue, right, and so we put her in that T-shirt. That was our middle finger to all of these jackasses who had been trolling us in this mild and constant way about how there wasn’t space for that kind of story,” she recalls. “I was accused so many times of having a feminist agenda, which was just like, no shit! Yeah. Yes. I do. And so we put that on the shirt and then it hit and it was just, like, tumbleweeds.”
It took days for the “right haters” to take note and orchestrate reactions so cruelly celebratory of the book’s cancellation that Cain, overwhelmed, decided to disengage. “And it was that—it was the fact that I deleted my account that really made them angry.”
The specifics of Cain’s departure became a media game of telephone, with the mainspring, culprits, and severity of her initial harassment subject to speculation. “I was not being targeted,” Cain clarified in a post on her website days later. “It was just a lot of people being jerks, per usual, but in greater numbers […] Strangers, yelling at me because I wrote a comic book that they didn’t like, and because I’m a woman.”
There’s a sardonic twinge to her voice as she recounts the ensuing bedlam, correcting herself to echo the reigning narrative of the time: “I had all of these interview requests that afternoon from international media companies about how I had left Twitter—how I had been driven off Twitter,” she says, adding that the worst of the abuse came only after she had left the platform.
Still, when cameras and reporters descended on her home, she resolved to simply lay low. “Part of it was that I just wanted to avoid it all, and part of it was that I knew that if I spoke out at all it would make me a bigger target,” she says. “So I did not speak out then because everybody else was shouting so much.”
Little of the mayhem her Twitter exit sparked was even directly about her, she says. “Like the #IStandWithChelseaCain hashtag, that really didn’t have anything to do with me. I think it had to do with something I became a symbol for, for like a day, and I’m proud to have been a catalyst for that discussion. It’s super important. But I did realize, even as it was happening, that that Chelsea Cain is much more important than me. So I just kind of kept my head down and curled up in a fetal position.”
She laughs at the suggestion others have floated that she’s a “pioneer” of sorts in the young history of Comicsgate, one of the reactionary swarm’s first recognizable targets. “It’s a claim to fame,” she shrugs.
“Honestly, I think one of the reasons why the Mockingbird conversation exploded so much is because it followed the [Trump] Access Hollywood tape release pretty closely,” she says. “I think it was it was a way for people to talk about that, which is fair. About how women are treated and perceived and culpability. I think that timing was not accidental.”
But as targeted hate campaigns in comics become ever more common—and organized—Cain wishes publishers would do more to protect their creators. “There’s been a difficulty for the comic-book industry to wrap their heads around it,” she says. “I think institutionally, there might not be an entirely accurate understanding of the difference between being attacked for your story and being attacked for who you are and your right to tell a story.”
“Comics are edited by employees of Marvel. But all of the people who actually make the comic are freelancers, so they’re not employed, which creates kind of an HR curtain to hide behind,” she adds.
Marvel did little more than extend condolences for the abuse she endured over Mockingbird, she recalls. “Totally, like literally just, ‘Oh, that must be terrible for you!’” she laughs. “Again, they’re all such nice people but they authentically were like, ‘That’s too bad! Blah!’”
Measures as simple as educating freelancers on Twitter privacy settings or providing the email address of the company lawyer would help, Cain says. Jokingly, she points to a warning that Tom King, her predecessor on Marvel’s The Vision and now a star writer for DC Comics, once issued to “trolls and bullies” on Twitter: “1. If I see it happening, I’ll block your account. 2. I’ve been through two wars. I can take criticism.”
“Every single person at Marvel should just say that, like as a default,” Cain jokes. “Because we need to show as a unified group that we just don’t put up with that. It is unacceptable no matter who you are.[…] I think leaving it up to the people who are actually, like, dealing with rape threats or whatever to post that doesn’t really make sense.”
Her own behavior on Twitter, meanwhile, changed irrevocably after 2016. “I second-guess everything I say,” she says. “I’m not myself. I’m a version of myself. I’m a probably cooler Chelsea Cain who is also self-aware about the stakes. I know what can happen. It’s always there, like the Eye of Sauron.”
And yet, every day, back toward Mordor she goes. “I don’t want to just be in a hidey-hole,” she explains. “Because then they win.”
Cain’s first instinct after Marvel condemned her Vision to never see the light of day was, understandably, to break a few copyright laws.
“The first thing I said, I was like ‘Can I leak it?’” she laughs. “I didn’t ask Marvel, I asked my friends, like, I’m totally going to leak it! And they were like, ‘They will know it’s you. Don’t do it. Nobody else would have the guts to do that. They’re going to know it’s you.’”
Where King’s version of the story of a family of androids could feel operatic in its slow-motion heartbreak, Cain describes her planned arc as “an ordinary story, set in a spectacular environment”: Vision, “a synthetic man who is not very in touch with his emotions, trying to connect with his eternally teenage daughter.” And young Viv, meanwhile, “trying to figure out what kind of woman she’s going to be when she will always be a teenage girl.”
Characters from across Marvel history would have appeared—including Mockingbird and her pet corgi, Ka-Zar. (The nerd cruise from the last two issues of Mockingbird would also have been seen sailing down the River Thames.) “It was pretty fun,” Cain sighs.
“It’s really unusual that they didn’t just publish it and say it’s out of continuity. Or just published it quietly and kind of buried it. If I had been an editor at Marvel, that’s maybe what I would have done. But they chose to just not publish it at all, which was a big surprise to us and to my editor at Marvel,” she says. “And they were all like, ‘We’re really sorry, this is a decision that was made with a lot of thought, and the bosses decided that we have this whole other idea for Vision and Viv now, and what we want to have happen to them doesn’t line up with your father-daughter story.’ I think because they have some plan for something big.”
She reiterates her love of Marvel—“in a geeky, lifelong way.” But the comic-book industry’s treatment of its vast majority of artists and creators, she says, cannot continue.
“I have said this before and I will say it again, but it is a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen,” she says. “Like, I am just amazed that some lawyer or some union hasn’t come in, ’cause it’s crazy. It’s crazy. And they’re all such adorable comic geeks and have all been doing this since they were 17 and they’ve never had any other kind of job. And I think they really don’t realize how insane it is.”
“But that sense of, ‘We’re all family and you’re loyal to family and you stick with family and we take care of one another, but we don’t take care of you,’ I think that’s not a good way to be in the world,” she says. “And I think, again, it’s not going to change because there’s this culture of silence that is required based on the industry and the kind of hustle that is involved in it. I get so many emails or direct messages from friends in comics who are like, ‘Thank you for speaking out,’ because they can’t.”
“I’m just done being quiet for people who don’t want trouble,” she says. “I started a company called The Ministry of Trouble, to make it.”
And so she has.