TROLLS AT THE GATE
#Comicsgate: How an Anti-Diversity Harassment Campaign in Comics Got Ugly—and Profitable
An ugly new front in the online culture wars targets women, people of color, and LGBT folk in the comic book industry. And some have figured out how to cash in.
In some ways, it began with the milkshakes.
In July of 2017, five days after the death of groundbreaking comics publisher Flo Steinberg, a group of Marvel Comics’ female staff went out for milkshakes to celebrate her legacy. One of them, Heather Antos—at the time an assistant editor at the company working on The Unbelievable Gwenpool—snapped a selfie of the group holding their sweets and posted it on Twitter.
What followed was akin to a feeding frenzy. According to a vocal contingent online, Antos and the Marvel Milkshake Crew were “fake geek girls,” “social justice warriors,” and “tumblr-virtue signalers,” the sort of people who were ruining the comics industry by their very presence. “The creepiest collection of stereotypical SJWs [“social justice warriors”] anyone could possibly imagine,” one user tweeted. Musings on Antos’ sexual availability led another to write, “Better have her sign a consent form, she looks like the ‘false rape charge’ type.”
While staff and creators from across the comics industry rallied with a Twitter campaign to support Antos, the abuse continued. Much of it was driven by the goading of a single Twitter account: @DiversityAndCmx, run by Richard C. Meyer. The resulting swirl of recrimination from comics professionals caused a spike in Meyer’s followers, thus setting a pattern many would come to regret. It was the first many in the industry had heard of him, or of the amorphous harassment campaign that came to be known as “Comicsgate.”
Geek culture has been rocked over the past four years by repeated outbreaks of reactionary hatred toward women and people of color, and Comicsgate is the latest front in that ongoing battle. Much has been written about it in the online press, and mainstream publications like The Telegraph and BuzzFeed have covered it. But to understand this latest eruption in the internet culture wars—or why the comics internet is currently ripping itself apart—you have to understand its context and the things that fuel it: the brands of cultural panic it feeds on, and the fact that it’s pretty good at making people money.
Comicsgate likely wouldn’t exist without Gamergate, the ur-harrassment internet campaign, which in 2014 famously used a ginned-up sex scandal and the premise of “ethics in video games journalism” as an entry point for a sustained attack on women and “SJWs” that were held to be ruining the multimillion-dollar video game industry. Most of the women targeted were smaller critics or creators; much of the harassment was gendered. Opportunistic figures saw a chance to build their brands by covering and egging on the harassment. In the end, Gamergate never actually went away: It ascended, spread out, and lit a series of brush fires in pop culture spaces that are still smoldering. Few have been as successful, but all have drawn from the playbook that Gamergate perfected.
At this point, the rules of that playbook are widely and intuitively understood. Targeted harassment is hard to prove, because few are stupid enough to explicitly call for it in a public forum. Plausible deniability is the name of the game; so is playing the victim.
If targets respond to their baiting, trolls will often turn around and present screencaps of the encounters as examples of people who can’t take a joke, are hysterical, or are in fact harassing them. Sock-puppets—fake accounts created to inflate follower counts or set up fake attacks on their operators—are common. Everything drowns in a murk of confusion; those attacked, often struggling to describe their experiences, sound paranoid to people on the outside, precisely how troll campaigns like it. Everybody knows the score, but nobody can prove it.
As with Gamergate, says Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, much of the discussion around comics takes place in the tangled online ecosystems of social media, message boards, and blogs, where trolls increasingly ran rampant. Some of these spaces flared up during Gamergate, but never quite evolved into their own movement. But with Trump’s election and the resulting surge in alt-right and conservative boldness, Farago says, things changed. “More and more, my impression is that [Comicsgate] is made up of people who were into the Gamergate thing,” Farago said, “and when that ran out of steam they noticed that they hadn’t made comics miserable for enough people yet.”
One of the faces of that change is Richard C. Meyer, the owner of a YouTube channel (ironically) titled Diversity & Comics. Meyer has spent much of his past outside the comics industry: He served in the U.S Army from 2000 to 2012 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequently worked in IT, including at PayPal. His published work tends to have a military focus: In 2009 he published a black and white comic from overseas: No Enemy, But Peace, inspired by a fellow soldier in Iraq. In 2013 he wrote a comic commemorating the Korean War. He maintained a childhood interest in superheroes as well.
While working in the Bay Area, Meyer told The Daily Beast, he began noticing posters of Captain Marvel in the windows of comics retailers. He was annoyed by what he considered the “masculinization” of the character, and by the way he felt Marvel was pushing what he considered an unsuccessful book. “I started noticing a lot more weird stuff,” he said. “Feminization of men, masculinization of women, basically, all the classic heterosexual pairings being destroyed... you realize this is a trend, and you start wondering why they’re doing it. Why is Luke Cage, the quintessential blaxploitation tough guy, why is he pushing a baby carriage and he’s the wimpiest, most soft-spoken—this is not done on accident.”
In April of 2017, David Gabriel, Marvel’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, told an interviewer at a retailer summit that part of the reason for the company’s sales slump was “people were turning their nose up against” female or non-core Marvel characters. Gabriel rapidly walked the quote back, and subsequent reporting by industry outlet CBR showed that minority-led books weren’t doing significantly worse than those starring white male characters. But reactionary elements in fandom reacted with glee.
That month, Meyer jumped into the fray with his YouTube channel. His videos—rambling, unscripted, often 20 to 30 minutes long—are a hodgepodge of comics reviews, analysis, and gossip regarding endless online battles. He hammered his theme home in every entry: that the failures of the comics industry were the direct result of hiring diverse talent, and that they needed to be driven out. (These videos have drawn admiring comments from Latino, liberal, and trans viewers, Meyer said, and provided screenshots of them.)
“One of the things about SJWs is that they get a job because of surface qualities, being a woman, being black, being gay, being trans, and there’s no adjustment on the ground to negative fan reaction due to low sales,” he told The Daily Beast. The milkshake crew particularly raised his ire: “They obviously seemed to not be qualified. They can’t spot basic typos, they can’t notice major plot holes, they antagonize the fans... I talk to all these people, actual, legitimate talents, who can’t get a job to save their lives. Meanwhile some airhead who calls the fans Nazis and turns out laughably bad work is getting Eisner awards.”
Both Meyer’s YouTube and Twitter accounts rapidly became a repository for a constant stream of personal attacks and dog-whistles for his followers. He has publically labeled Ta-Nehisi Coates a “race hustler” and repeatedly mocked DC writer Magdalene Visaggio as a “man in a wig,” claiming that she is violent and mentally ill. He fixates on the the physical appearance of female creators he dislikes and retweeted memes mocking certain creators as “autistic retards,” along with images of himself slapping them.
In a private YouTube video called “The Dark Roast,” originally posted in November 2017 and obtained by The Daily Beast, Meyer called one Marvel editor a “cum-dumpster,” accused various female writers of “sucking their way into the industry,” and mused which famous creators were pedophiles or had psychological problems. “The Dark Roast is where I get to say stuff like ‘Dan Slott looks like a pedophile,’” he says in the recording. “I don’t have to dance around, I don’t have to say ‘parody’ or wink-wink.”
“That was a private, letting-off-steam video,” Meyer told The Daily Beast, confirming the video’s authenticity. “Which had a disclaimer on it that it was for close friends only. I’m very disappointed whoever shared that with you broke that disclaimer and broke faith.”
Meyer’s videos rapidly began attracting a following, some of which came from inside the industry itself. He often speaks of having “insiders” who funnel him information and rumors about “SJW creators.” Among his public fans are Ethan Van Sciver, a conservative artist who currently pencils Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps for DC Comics. Van Sciver began promoting Meyer’s channel on his Twitter account in June 2017, a month before the milkshake incident, and continued to do so while much of the industry was condemning the @diversityandcmx Twitter and YouTube accounts. Van Sciver has also defended Meyer in videos on his own YouTube channel. “He’s very practical, and he’s thinking about the things that need to get done to fix the situation that he’s talking about,” Van Sciver said in a video posted in January. “I think some people find him to be a little bit of, you know, a pitbull... he’s just not gonna let it go. People that think he’s gonna go away, I’ve seen no evidence [of it.]”
Van Sciver is no stranger to controversy himself. Somewhat infamously, he put together a 2007 sketchbook with Green Lantern villain Sinestro on the cover and called it My Struggle—a riff on Mein Kampf—brushing off warnings from friends that it was in poor taste. (His tendency to share memes sourced from subreddit /r/The_Donald is covered over at BuzzFeed.) He also acquired a public reputation for bullying behavior: In May of last year, he told another Facebook user objecting to his use of suicide jokes to “kill himself” before apologizing and vowing not to vent on social media. In February of this year, in a since-deleted tweet, Van Sciver remarked of comics critic Kieran Shiach’s request for a bit of breakfast money, “That bitch can starve.”
At the same time, he’s vocally denounced online toxicity. Asked by The Daily Beast whether he felt he’d contributed to such toxicity in the cases cited above, Van Sciver responded, “Of course not. When I was offering recommendations to those individuals you mention, it was solely in my capacity as a priest.”
DC Comics, meanwhile, pointed to their new social media policy, and otherwise, declined comment.
By August of 2017, multiple creators told The Daily Beast, it seemed like Van Sciver and Meyer had formed something of a double act, with Meyer taking the more outwardly aggressive role. In the aftermath of the milkshake incident, waves of attacks by Meyer’s followers erupted with some regularity. That summer, creators discovered that just about anything could set off a cascade of abuse: a political tweet, the announcement of an upcoming project, or—as with Antos—a selfie. But most coincided with either Meyer or Van Sciver bringing a creator to the attention of their followers, either by making a video about them or engaging with them online.
Creators who responded or complained—even without naming their harassers—found their tweets screencapped and disseminated into an endlessly regurgitating cycle of YouTube videos and articles on sites affiliated with Comicsgate, like Bounding Into Comics, which in turn drove more attention and abuse toward victims. The resulting feedback loops can rage for weeks at a time.
Take the case of Darryl Ayo. Ayo is a cartoonist and critic who works largely in the small-press comics scene—not a superhero guy, in other words, he told The Daily Beast, and certainly not a mover and shaker in the industry. When Marvel freelancer John Malin tweeted that “Nazis are SJWs” on Jan. 21, to widespread public confusion and scorn, Ayo condemned the post in a tweet and went on with his day.
At 12:36 a.m. that night, Van Sciver tweeted at Ayo and told him to come on his livestream to debate with Malin. (Van Sciver wrote to BuzzFeed that he hoped to “humanize” himself to Ayo, according to a response he leaked to Bounding Into Comics.)
Ayo was surprised; up to that point, he said, he’d had no reason to think Van Sciver knew who he was. Suspecting a trap, Ayo declined. From there, events took on a familiar character. Van Sciver continued to engage Ayo. Accounts following Van Sciver piled in, calling Ayo a “mediocre negro” and a “homeless crackhead,” while Van Sciver claimed that Ayo had been the one harassing him by calling him a Nazi, which he told BuzzFeed had made him and his family afraid to travel. (The tweets in question were from months before and referenced the infamous My Struggle sketchbook, Ayo said.)
From Ayo’s perspective, the whole thing had come out of nowhere. “I don’t particularly seek these people out. But I’m not raised in a way—and I’m not in a social position—where someone is going to publically lie to me, about me, and I don’t immediately point out every part of where they’re lying,” he told The Daily Beast. “For a few weeks, people would make accounts just to throw them at me. At least a week into it, maybe more, it became clear that [Meyer] had become involved and was driving a lot of the traffic. That was when I realized things weren’t going to die down.”
When asked about the behavior of his followers in instances like these, Van Sciver replied to The Daily Beast via email, “I think my fans are the best!!!! I always appreciate their support for me and for my art.”
Trans creators, including Visaggio and Tamra Bonvillain, a colorist on DC’s Doom Patrol, are also recurring targets. “[Meyer’s] the least subtle about his hatred of trans people, and that goes for many of his followers engaging in harassment. They misgender us and call us mentally ill in no uncertain terms,” Bonvillain told The Daily Beast. Worse, she says, they keep circling back, egged on by Meyer. “I tried to change my Twitter to private for a short while during one occurrence, but they just got screen-grabs from other people and bragged about it... At its worst, it would be all day, for several days at a time. I manually blocked several hundred people before I ran a blockchain.”
The physical addresses of people subjected to Meyer’s attention have also been doxxed in conjunction with specific death threats. (Meyer himself has a record in Travis County, Texas, of harassment, stalking, and assault, though he pled down to disorderly conduct. He told The Daily Beast that the charges, filed in 1999, were over a fight he had with another man over a girl.) Meyer says he tells fans in his videos not to contact people, and has characterized himself as primarily interested in analyses of the comics industry. “I don’t like it when people get into personal behaviors that aren’t germane to the books,” he told The Daily Beast.
“I remember making a lot of comments... sometimes I will point out physical qualities, but I can’t think of any examples,” Meyer said when asked about personal attacks in his videos, including moments where he mimics and mocks trans people’s voices. “A lot of the stuff is tongue in cheek, a lot of the stuff is in-jokes or references... but the issue with trans [people] is that I believe there’s people who have basically weaponized their status and they’ve been put to this gatekeeper position because they’re unassailable because of their trans status.”
More organized campaigns occasionally rise out of this amorphous stew of trolling. In September 2017, Meyer targeted Aubrey Sitterson, an openly leftist writer on IDW’s licensed G.I. JOE comics. Sitterson had previously drawn ire from fans for his cartoon-influenced approach to the franchise. The announcement that the character of Salvo—previously depicted as a white man with a big gun—would be reimagined as a Samoan woman added fuel to the anger of vocal right-wing fans.
But what really got Sitterson in trouble was a tweet on Sept. 11 that took aim at what he perceived as performative grief.
Meyer had his opening; he and other right-wing fans went on the offensive, complaining to IDW and Hasbro that Sitterson was disrespecting an American tragedy and demanding that he be taken off the book. Relatively well-known figures like journalist Kurt Eichenwald got involved as well, tweeting at Sitterson that he was a “scummy excuse 4 a human.”
The blowup came at an awkward time for IDW, which had recently relaunched G.I. Joe as a new series, Scarlett’s Strike Force, also written by Sitterson. Initially, the company stood by him. On Sept. 13, however, they released a statement distancing themselves from Sitterson, whom they left unnamed. The publisher essentially buried the book and canceled it, citing low sales. (Sitterson declined to comment to The Daily Beast, citing a desire to put the whole thing behind him. IDW did not respond to requests for comment.)
“My hope was to get Sitterson fired and for IDW to stop peddling SJW politics,” Meyer told PJ Media. “I'm happy with how he was removed.”
These days, Meyer avoids the term “Comicsgate,” which he told The Daily Beast he was never really affiliated with. He also said that he’s trying to move away from hurtful rhetoric, and is instead promoting #MovetheNeedle, an ostensibly positive campaign aimed to get his fans to buy books he gives good reviews to on his site. People need to buy books from “non-SJW” creators, he said, if the industry is to survive.
“I used to joke about every time I would go into a store I would see the wall of diversity, and it was all these books that nobody wanted, but the stores still felt compelled to order,” he said. “The deal is that the things that stuck, you used to get more of. Now the things that fail, you get more of. Captain Marvel gets canceled because of low sales, they’ll bring her back with two smaller cup sizes and thicker jaw.”
This is a common view amid a certain section of the internet. It’s true that retailers have been on somewhat shaky footing in some cases, operating on tight margins that leave them straining under an endless flood of event comics, retailer-incentive variant covers, and comics that are continually relaunched with new No. 1 issues to goose sales. (Such complaints were a common feature of Gabriel’s retailer conferences in April 2017.) Sales on superhero books that were previously dependable workhorses—the X-men franchise, for example—have shrunk, and blockbuster hits are rarer.
But there are structural reasons for this, and it has to do with comics’ growing audience and the wider diversity of companies and types of stories on offer. The days when everybody was reading a few different series from Marvel and DC are long done; now new comics readers have their pick of a flood of books from both the Big Two, in addition to a variety of other companies offering a variety of other sorts of comics.
What looks like a shrinking readership for superheroes is partially an illusion created by the breakup of a monoculture. As comics creator Scott McCloud commented on Twitter, “Saying ‘comics are bad now’ when all you’ve ever read is superheroes is like saying ‘movies are bad now’ while standing in a demolished Blockbuster Video.”
“When you point out the real issues of why the comics industry is changing as a demographic, there’s nothing these Comicsgaters can do about it,” said Richard Pace, a writer and artist with a long freelance career at both Marvel and DC, and a former friend of Ethan Van Sciver. “[Meyer] talks about his ‘insiders,’ but he’s clearly full of shit. He has no understanding of the industry at all... His notion is ‘We can just drive these SJWs out of comics, and then comics will be what we liked again.’ No, they won’t! Comics will just be as crappy as they often were before. But now they have a cause they can wrap themselves around.”
There’s also a certain amount of publicity—and money—to be gained from tilting at SJWs and firing up a reactionary base. Before his tumble last year, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos built a lucrative brand of paid speeches and television appearances out of his championing of Gamergate at Breitbart. A subsequent flare-up in the science-fiction and fantasy publishing world, masterminded by the alt-right personality Vox Day, helped Vox launch a comics crowdfunding project: Alt-Hero, scripted by professional comics writer Chuck Dixon and illustrated by a bevy of artists. The project made $235,900 out of a $25,000 goal, partly from an explicit invitation to “trigger” SJWs.
Meyer internalized a lot of Vox Day’s rhetoric early on in his YouTube career: He told The Daily Beast that he was a fan of Vox Day’s “rules for SJWs”—SJWs always lie, SJWs always double down, SJWs always project—though he says he eventually got a bad feeling about him and distanced himself, roasting him as a “carpetbagger” and a “fraud.”
While Meyer’s crowdfunding efforts don’t rival Vox Day’s successes, he does fairly well on Patreon, currently drawing in anywhere from $1,100 to $1,082 a month, with 299 patrons. His number of YouTube subscribers has also risen precipitously, from about 29,000 in the aftermath of July 2017 to 62,878 now. The Patreon income goes to a Spanish artist for his upcoming book Iron Sight, about a border war in Texas, and he’s launching another Kickstarter next month. “Before getting into this, I used to do one book every two years or so,” he said. “Now I’ve got more stuff ramped up.”
Meyer’s whole business model, like Milo and Vox Day before him, is predicated on outrage, Farago said. Like many independent comics people, Meyer uses crowdfunding to get his creative projects off the ground. Courting controversy and picking fights with convenient targets—say, with a shadowy cabal of assistant editors, comics critics, and early-career creators—raises his profile, which leads to more followers, which leads to more money for his projects.
“The comics industry is small enough to where it’s not that difficult to get yourself known,” Farago said. “I think Meyer saw a niche and realized he could fill it.”
Asked whether this was the case, Meyer replied via email, “I’m making videos to spotlight problems in the industry so it can stop its tailspin.”
Van Sciver’s case is a little bit more complicated. Rumors reported in Bleeding Cool suggest that Van Sciver may not be getting more work with DC after his current run on Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps; the company provided BuzzFeed with a statement reiterating that “comments that may be considered insulting, cruel, rude, crass and mean spirited” were against company guidelines. (DC declined further comment to The Daily Beast.) Van Sciver’s 5-month-old YouTube channel, which he characterized to BuzzFeed as “successful and growing,” has about 17,214 subscribers; his Patreon, where he has 117 followers, doesn’t make his crowdfunding income public.
There’s been persistent, unconfirmed talk that Van Sciver and other conservative comics professionals are planning to crowdfund their own comics label, Pace says. While he hasn’t heard it from anyone he considers a reliable source, the idea makes a certain amount of sense. If DC ever did publically fire him, or anyone, that would give Van Sciver the ability to make a big splash and launch an imprint.
“If I were someone who’s put myself into the kind of hot water that Ethan has, Kickstarter or really, really pushing Patreon would be the smartest move you can make,” Pace says. “Tribalism is great marketing.”
Beyond its role in helping Meyer occasionally produce a comic book, the broader question of Comicsgate’s impact on the industry itself is more difficult to parse. It’s certainly true that IDW set a bad precedent by distancing itself from Sitterson, an event that went largely unaddressed outside of the comics press and Twittersphere. What followed suggested that corporate attempts to appease a harassment campaign at a freelancer’s expense usually have the opposite effect: It only gives them further ammunition and encouragement, and makes them hungrier for new targets.
In December 2017, an alt-right mob using the same techniques went after MSNBC correspondent Sam Seder, misrepresenting a tweet in a (temporarily) successful attempt to get him fired. It seems that the comics industry has largely caught on to this trick, however; Meyer’s subsequent attempts to get people fired have largely come to nothing, and so he has taken to proclaiming victory when people like Heather Antos leave the industry for jobs elsewhere.
Meyer’s main achievement seems to be making life miserable for the trans creators and other marginalized figures who bear the brunt of the harrassment. “During the worst times, it was some of the nastiest sexist and/or transphobic remarks you could think of, harassment sent to my editors and publishers in an attempt to get me fired or blacklisted, trying to dig up personal info about me,” said Sophie Campbell, artist of Glory and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“Even when I was away from the computer, in the back of my mind I knew it was still going on and spreading to other people,” she added. “The people in my immediate circle tend to talk about it more since I’m acquainted with other trans people in comics, but outside of that I don’t see it come up that much. It seemed like hardly anyone cared when it was happening to me.”
“I think the [Comicsgate] group is much bigger than I expected, which is disheartening,” Ayo said. “But I think there’s limits to it... everyone on the inside of comics companies is aware of this, and nobody wants this. If they had a specific agenda to promote, this is the worst way to promote it.”
Ironically, all of this is happening as comics culture is flowering. While Marvel’s sales have been shaky, DC has been on the upswing, garnering fan excitement and mainstream attention with curated comics labels, including two aimed at children and young adults. But superheroes are only one part of a much larger industry. Raina Telgemeier’s YA graphic novels are perennials on bestseller lists; the small press and webcomics scene is a hotbed of experimentation and diverse, bold storytelling voices, in genres from romance to action adventure, much of it without a cape in sight.
Comics creators (including Meyer himself) are figuring out new forms of marketing and crowdfunding to produce books that the direct market wouldn’t be able to support. The digital revolution has made comics accessible to a wider audience than ever. Then there’s the ongoing juggernaut of Marvel Studios, whose Black Panther is now the highest-grossing superhero film in U.S. history. Appealing to wider audiences and diverse demographics sells, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
“It’s them seeing types of people they don’t like being successful, seeing superhero comics catering to other demographics and types of readers that aren’t them, and they’re throwing a tantrum,” Campbell said. “We just need to stick together and keep doing comics.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted the year in which charges of harassment, stalking, and assault were filed against Meyer and mistakenly referred to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco as the Cartoon Arts Museum.