Inside the Comic Book Industry’s Sexual Misconduct Crisis—and the Ugly, Exploitative History That Got It Here
The storm of allegations against writers including Warren Ellis and Jason Latour is not a sign that the comics industry is broken. It’s a sign it’s running precisely as designed.
In 2009, 16-year-old comics fan Aviva Maï met a thirtysomething artist, who flirted with her by text and took her out on a date. For a long time after that—a period when Maï thought they were friends—she received occasional texts from him expressing regret that he’d missed his chance of dating her. The texts made her uncomfortable. Slowly, she began to question the series of events. Slowly, she realized that they hadn’t been friends at all.
On June 15, amid nationwide protests around police violence and racism, Maï, now an artist and model, tweeted an oblique reference to that creator. Later that evening, she named him: “Hey. That post about being groomed as a teenager? I’m talking about Cameron Stewart. The comic book artist.”
Stewart, an artist and writer best known for his work on a critically acclaimed relaunch of Batgirl, had been a fixture in the industry for years; in some quarters, his tendency to date younger women was an open secret. After Maï laid the story out, several women in the comics industry—among them writer/artist Kate Leth—directly corroborated it. Within two days, Maï wrote on Twitter, 14 other women reached out to share similar accounts. The pattern described was clear: Stewart, they alleged, had used his status as a professional artist to win their trust, and had used that trust as a cover for sexual overtures.
In response to the ensuing uproar, Cameron Stewart locked his social media accounts and DC Comics quietly removed him from an unannounced project. But in the weeks that followed, the conversation sparked by Maï’s tweet spread far beyond Stewart.
The month of June saw the comics industry rocked by successive waves of predatory conduct allegations, amid similar reckonings around sexual harassment in the affiliated worlds of video games, twitch streaming, tabletop games, professional wrestling, and professional illustration. Some of the allegations, as with superstar writer Warren Ellis, were new. Others brought renewed scrutiny to lingering problems like the allegations against Dark Horse editor Scott Allie and DC writer Scott Lobdell. Most of the stories came from marginalized creators who’d previously been silent for fear of being blacklisted. In June, that wall of silence cracked, and what showed beneath was red and raw and deeply, viscerally angry.
“A huge reason why abusive, predatory, and discriminatory practices go unchecked in the comics industry is this: the impetus is always put on the victims to come forward,” Maï wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Victims are expected to speak out at great personal cost—at risk of losing jobs and damaging their financial livelihood, at detriment to their mental health and threats to their personal safety… For every story you hear, there is also an unimaginable amount more that are not heard.” (Stewart did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
There have been many conversations over the past month about how to change the culture of the comics industry. But June’s storm of allegations is not a sign that the comics industry is broken. It's a sign that it's running precisely as designed.
The comics industry has long been synonymous with exploitation. The early comics publishers were wheeler-dealers and back-room grifters, with their hands in everything from the pulps to softcore pornography. They cut vague handshake deals, crushed attempts to collectively organize and built their industry almost entirely on “work for hire” contracts and freelance labor. The result is a history of dirty dealing that has, over time, been reduced to a litany of names, a Mount Rushmore of the fucked: DC’s mistreatment and neglect of Superman creators Siegel and Shuster; Jack Kirby’s struggle for his original artwork and equal credit for his work with Stan Lee; Alan Moore being screwed out of the rights for Watchmen; Steve Gerber’s long-running battle with Marvel over Howard the Duck.
The modern industry is almost entirely made up of freelancers: writers, artists, colorists and letterers. “Freelancers and people trying to break in are incredibly vulnerable,” writer Devin Grayson (Nightwing, Black Widow, Gotham Nights) told The Daily Beast, particularly when it comes to people working for companies centered around the comics direct market—DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Oni, and the like. That senior editors hold the power to hire and fire is true across most industries, she said. “But then add in factors like freelancers having zero job security, no health insurance, no access to HR departments or higher-ups, no union. If we’re talking mainstream superhero comics, [there are] essentially two large companies—so two chances, period—to get their foot in the door. What happens to you if you piss off just one person in one of those companies, much less voice your concerns in a wider arena?”
Freelancer and staff positions are also undercut by a constant stream of new, willing talent. As editor, podcaster and writer Jay Edidin told The Daily Beast in 2018, the industry attracts many people for whom the primary reward is simply getting to work in comics, making everyone—especially those without deep social connections in the existing industry—that much more disposable. “So what we’ve got at this point is an industry full of people who are exquisitely financially vulnerable, and who generally feel extremely passionate about what they do... and can’t afford to lose their work or their jobs.”
Financially, this puts nearly everyone on desperately shaky ground. But there are social dimensions of this system as well. Unofficial patronage networks—where powerful members of an organization or social scene direct social and financial opportunities toward chosen peers, subordinates, and friends in return for loyalty and support—spread like spider-webs from large corporate offices like DC and Marvel to independent comics publishers, and people cross them at their peril. The resulting culture of silence, fueled by financial exploitation and reflected through an industry historically dominated by men, has long provided cover for other sorts of exploitation as well.
There are two tiers of power in the comics industry, and the first of them is interpersonal; this is soft power, social connections and clout. The interpersonal tier is where freelancers live. For many, the industry is a minefield of interpersonal predatory behavior, and that behavior often begins immediately when they attempt to enter it.
On June 17, artist Jason Latour (Southern Bastards, Spider-Gwen) posted a statement about Cameron Stewart reading, in part, “I think a lot of us are afraid to acknowledge there’s a power imbalance we all abuse in some way or another. We’re afraid if we talk about [Stewart], we make it about us. But it is about us.” Latour’s comments prompted artists Lauren Tracy, Bridgit Connell and others to share similar stories about Latour himself aggressively pursuing them at conventions, allegedly including multiple attempts to get Connell alone and an unwanted kiss. Latour did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“When I first arrived...I was bright eyed and excited to network with people in the industry,” Tracy wrote, describing why she gave up her dream of being a comics artist. “When I left, I felt thoroughly disillusioned with comics and decided it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It seemed to be a place where this type of behavior ran rampant, and everybody knew about it but you just had to deal with it.”
But Latour was not the only creator named on June 17. Writer and editor Katie West (The Killing Horizon) mentioned Warren Ellis as part of a larger pattern of successful men in the industry manipulating young women in their orbit. (West subsequently deleted the tweets.) The current showrunner of Netflix’s Castlevania and writer of acclaimed series like Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and the absurdist Marvel comic Nextwave, Ellis has long been a revered figure in comics, with a reputation for boosting young talent, including female and marginalized creators. But multiple other women, like musician Meredith Yayanos, artist Zoetica Ebb, and photographer Jhayne Holmes, expressed support for West and offered similar accounts.
By June 19, over 60 women had joined a group organized by Holmes, all of them accusing Ellis of a largely consistent pattern of behavior. Ellis, they allege, approached them when they were young or vulnerable, offering mentorship, collaboration, and friendship. These conversations inevitably turned sexual, with Ellis flirting, pushing boundaries, cyber-sexting or soliciting nudes. Some women entered into relationships with him; others turned him down. All ended the same way—at some point, Ellis abruptly ghosted them. “I have years of emails from Warren Ellis leading me to think we were friends, then leading into sex chat,” wrote one woman. “It was like a clang in my head when I joyously mentioned talking to other creators and he dropped me. Like hot garbage.”
Ellis’ previously rosy reputation had partially stemmed from his forums, most notably the Warren Ellis Forum, an oft-eulogized salon and talent incubator which acted as an informal patronage network and helped launch the careers of creators like Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals), Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Pretty Deadly) and Kieron Gillen (The Wicked and the Divine, Die).
Unusually, women’s voices were an active part of the forum. But there was an implicit catch: in an industry without clear pathways to entry, patronage by Ellis and men like him was often the only way in. “If you had any professional aspirations, you had to convince one of them to open their rolodex,” novelist and comics writer G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel) wrote on Twitter. “It was very clear there were 2 separate tracks: if you were a guy, all you had to do was be moderately talented and kiss the right ass. If you were a woman, it was different. There was a casting couch atmosphere.”
Take the case of Lea Seidman. A storyboarder and comics artist, Seidman met Ellis in 1998, and they corresponded regularly on the WEF and through chat apps. Ellis—whose Vertigo series Transmetropolitan was already a bona fide hit—often took a flirting tone with her, she says. “He was doing the testing thing, the talk: Let’s collaborate and be horribly sexy people,” Seidman told The Daily Beast. Seidman, who was only interested in collaboration, deflected. Ellis brought her on to do some art for Transmetropolitan, and talked about helping her find work; the forum remained a place where she was able to build close relationships and network with other people in the field.
Things changed in 2000, when Seidman invited Ellis to make a convention appearance in San Antonio, where she lived. After bringing him to her house to meet her husband and kids, Seidman took him back to his hotel room and hugged him goodnight. Abruptly, she recalled, the energy changed. “He sort of pulled me in and held me really long and close, and he was staring into my eyes and smiling, and the whole thing [felt] really inappropriate. The invitation was really clear.” Mortified, Seidman fled.
Afterward, she said, her relationship with Ellis seemed to change. “There was no more support. He stopped mentioning me when it would be relevant to mention me, he stopped including me in things.” Seidman eventually found herself erased from Ellis’ forum and all of her messages scrubbed. Rumors that she was unstable spread, she said, and work soon dried up.
“I went from being incredibly productive, and having a career, and having respect, to being on the outs,” Seidman said. “A big chunk of my social circle and network was on that forum, and being there—even if you weren’t an Ellis favorite—there were people there you could reach. The beginning of the end was when I turned Warren down.”
On June 18, Ellis issued a public statement. “I’ve never considered myself famous or powerful,” wrote the author of multiple bestselling comics, head of several influential forums, and showrunner of an acclaimed Netflix show. “It never occurred to me that other people didn’t see it the same way, that I was not engaging as an equal when gifted with attention, but acting from a position of power and privilege. While I’ve made many bad choices in my past, I have never knowingly coerced, manipulated or abused anyone, nor have I ever assaulted anybody... I have always tried to aid and support women in their lives and careers, but I have hurt many people that I had no intention of hurting. I am culpable.” Following the accusations, Ellis deleted his newsletter and DC dropped him from an upcoming comics project. Ellis could not be reached for comment for this piece.
Ellis’ statement was not well received. The reputation for boosting young talent Ellis enjoyed was, after all, a clear sign of his standing in the industry and an example of the sort of interpersonal patronage network that particularly successful freelancers can build. Even if the nature of the interpersonal power Ellis wielded over his younger, less established partners had genuinely eluded him, the damage from his manipulation lingered. And while the sheer number of people accusing Ellis of manipulation and misconduct is unusual, the problem of established creators—as in the repeated cases of writer Brian Wood (DMZ, Northlanders) as well as Latour and Stewart—viewing the young women around them primarily as sexual partners is not.
The answer to these problems, some have suggested, is for comics creators and editorial staff to start viewing events like conventions as professional workplace environments, not as singles bars. (While the standards of appropriate behavior at conventions can be contextual and ever-shifting, author Seanan McGuire noted, a wide consensus has emerged that “don’t try and hook up with people when you’re networking” is a pretty solid rule of thumb.) Still others have suggested rethinking “BarCon,” the tradition of afterparties many creators (incorrectly, some editors argue) cite as a necessary component of professional networking. In addition to these measures, there have been increased pleas for creators to intervene when their friends and colleagues behave inappropriately. Several cisgender male creators have issued a well-intentioned public pronouncement, the #ComicsPledge, encouraging men in comics to pledge to hold themselves accountable, and to “never abuse, harass, [or] groom women and all people of marginalized sexes.”
Some of these are good suggestions, as far as they go. But they generally focus on individual interpersonal behavior—largely by freelancers—and changing community standards. At the institutional tier of power, the rot goes considerably deeper.
Amid discussions of Ellis, Latour and Stewart, a separate scandal bubbled back up concerning the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit formed in 1986 to protect the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers and retailers. Public attention had returned to executive director Charles Brownstein, who kept his job for years following public and well-documented allegations of sexual assault of writer/artist Taki Soma.
Under Brownstein’s tenure, the CBLDF drew criticism for defending actual Nazi (and non-comics creator) Milo Yiannopoulos, while not intervening to defend 11 creators who were slapped with a defamation suit after accusing small-press comics creator Cody Pickrodt of rape and sexual harassment. After sustained pressure from comics creators on social media over the past few weeks, Brownstein finally resigned from the CBLDF on June 22. Despite further departures by board members, however, the loss of community confidence shows no sign of being assuaged.
The decay at the CBLDF is a potent reminder that if younger female creators have to navigate around their fellow freelancers at conventions and in online spaces, institutionalized settings—whether at companies or nonprofits—can be just as bad, if not worse. What’s remarkable about Brownstein’s story is not the protection he was afforded, but that he was ousted at all. His continued position at the head of a prominent (if increasingly less respected) nonprofit was a classic example of institutional patronage: the ability for powerful members of an organization to shield chosen peers and cronies from consequences of misconduct. Predators acting with the tacit blessing of an institution have considerably more direct power and are more deeply entrenched.
This is not remotely a new problem. Longtime DC editor Julius Schwartz—who held dominion over Superman, Batman and The Justice League from the ’60s to the ’80s and was referred to in some quarters by the affectionate nickname “Uncle Julie”—was accused of groping and sexually assaulting female creators and staffers for years. Those who complained internally at DC were ignored. Schwartz retired in 1986 and continued to appear at cons on behalf of the company as a kind of “goodwill ambassador” until his death in 2004. After he died, comics professionals like Jo Duffy and Jill Thompson spoke openly about their experiences with him; artist Colleen Doran related a story about Schwartz attempting to grope her in a limousine when she was an aspiring teenage artist.
Schwartz’ behavior was echoed in the case of Eddie Berganza, former executive editor and group editor of the Superman titles at DC Comics. According to an in-depth 2017 investigation by BuzzFeed, Berganza—who had worked as an editor at DC Comics since the 1980s and had a history of making offensive jokes at women’s expense—also acquired a reputation as a serial sexual harasser. Various female editors left DC Comics; Berganza stayed. At bar parties in the early 2000s, Berganza groped and attempted to forcibly kiss junior staffers at least twice. Unlike Schwartz, Berganza was eventually fired, though only in the immediate aftermath of the BuzzFeed article.
More notorious still is Scott Allie, former editor-in-chief at Dark Horse Comics and longtime editor (and occasional writer) for both Mike Mignola’s Hellboy line and Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy. “Scott’s lack of boundaries and the extent to which he used his position to manipulate and punish women in editorial who didn’t do exactly what he wanted were common knowledge while I was there,” Jay Edidin later wrote on Twitter (Edidin is a trans man who presented at the time as female). “It is impossible to exaggerate the amount of institutional power he had at Dark Horse, how systematically he undercut and in some cases destroyed the careers of the women around him, or how little [Dark Horse] cared… We were all very young—early 20s—felt super lucky and, critically, had very little experience in professional environments.”
At a 2015 party during San Diego Comic Con, a visibly intoxicated Allie sexually assaulted novelist and comics writer Joe Harris, grabbing his crotch and biting him on the ear. Writing about the incident in Graphic Policy, Janelle Assellin—a journalist and former editor at DC Comics who had helped spearhead a multi-staffer HR complaint against Berganza in 2010—gathered accounts from multiple sources at the company noting that he’d behaved that way for years, garnering the nickname “Bitey the Clown”; staffers attempting to go through internal channels invariably received cheerful assurances that the problem was being dealt with. (Dark Horse themselves famously ran a 2006 interview with him—since apparently deleted but archived here—that included the joke “Watch out, he bites.”)
Allie issued an apology and remained part of the official masthead until 2017, when he became a freelance editor. Nonetheless, he maintained close ties at Dark Horse, continuing to edit and write for Mignola’s Hellboy. While his behavior remained a topic of open discussion on the comics internet for years, Allie likewise continued to be a fixture at conventions and—sources speaking on background to The Daily Beast confirm—a mover and shaker in comics social circles. His behavior was often explained in those circles as substance abuse: since he was now sober, the standard line went, the issue had gone away.
It had not. On June 24, former Dark Horse editor Shawna Gore, now senior editor at Oni Press, publicly accused Allie of sexual assault. Over the course of 14 years, Gore wrote in a horrific account, Allie engaged in a pattern of “chronic, escalating, unchecked abuse that was not related to his alcohol use.” On one occasion in 1999, in the backseat of a minivan filled with their colleagues, Allie put his hands in Gore’s underwear. “For the next 10-15 minutes I had to quietly, physically wrestle against Scott to prevent him from forcibly penetrating me with his fingers,” Gore wrote. She alleges he repeatedly told her to relax as he groped her.
Abruptly, finally, the institutions that Allie had long sheltered under cut him loose. Mignola, one of Allie’s longest creative collaborators, released a statement that he would not work with Allie going forward; Dark Horse likewise pledged to fully sever connections with him. (Though in an unwittingly elegant display of their priorities, the company initially tweeted that they supported... Mignola.)
But according to BPRD writer John Arcudi, who’d worked for a time on the Hellboy line before a creative split, Mignola had learned of Allie’s assault on Gore in October 2017: Arcudi and another friend had directly told him as soon as they found out. Nonetheless, Allie continued to co-write the third and final arc of BPRD, the grand finale to the Hellboy story cycle that finished in April 2019. “The truth of course is that after a very long and very productive working relationship I did not want to believe there was anything more to these stories,” Mignola wrote in a longer statement that apologized directly to Gore. “I was blind because I wanted to be blind and that’s on me and it’s something I have to live with.”
In both Allie and Berganza’s cases, higher-ups at both Dark Horse and DC Comics had ample evidence of severe misconduct, and did as little as possible to deal with it. “We did not, and cannot, perform a public flogging, as some might wish,” Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson proclaimed in a response to Asselin’s 2015 piece. “I am extremely sensitive on this subject, being the father of three daughters and having experienced first hand the effects of sexual harassment and gender discrimination…[Asselin’s] assumption that my longevity somehow ‘embeds’ within me an attitude of inappropriate permissiveness is not only wrong, it is insulting.”
After Gore’s statement, however, Richardson struck a more conciliatory (though still martyred) tone. “I tend to think I can fix the behavior of people,” he wrote. “I thought this with Scott, that I could in some way fix him and change his behavior. A horrible mistake on my part that caused harm that can never be undone.” The set of reforms he proposed going forward—which included adopting an official No Tolerance policy for harassment and promises that there would be no retaliation for reporting abuse—were met with blanket scorn. As Graphic Policy incredulously noted, several of them may already have been legal requirements.
At DC Comics, attention has largely fallen on Bob Harras, the company’s editor-in-chief and vice president. Harras is a prime example of how patronage networks in the industry work. Previously an editor at Marvel on the X-Men line (before presiding over the company during its bankruptcy in the 1990s), Harras placed artist Jim Lee on X-Men and, as told in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, allowed him considerable freedom. Harras eventually went to work under Lee at his DC imprint, Wildstorm. After Lee was made co-publisher of DC in 2010, Harras was rapidly promoted to his current position.
Harras was Berganza’s superior throughout a healthy chunk of his tenure—yet, as BuzzFeed reported, took no action against him despite consistent reports to HR and female editors’ insistence they did not feel safe working in close proximity with him. After a multi-employment HR complaint led by then-editor Janelle Asselin in 2010, Harras promoted Berganza to the role of executive editor. Following a further incident at WonderCon in 2012, where Berganza yet again forced a kiss on a woman in public, Harras busted him down to Superman group editor, a position he held until the BuzzFeed investigation was released.
Nor was Berganza the only problem that Harras does not seem to have addressed. Scott Lobdell (Teen Titans, Superman, Red Hood and the Outlaws), who likewise worked with Harras on Marvel’s X-Men line in the 1990s, came to DC in 2011, a year after Harras’ arrival. Lobdell, who has worked as a freelancer at DC for 10 years, has been dogged by consistent reports of inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment, including during a live panel where he made repeated sexual jokes about creator MariNaomi. (Lobdell apologized.) On June 30, Lobdell publicly announced that he was retiring from freelance comics writing after a decade of writing Red Hood and the Outlaws.
His departure prompted new allegations. “I’ve witnessed Scott Lobdell saying disgusting remarks to female colleagues since I was 14,” former Marvel editor Sina Grace (Iceman) wrote on Twitter. Artist Tess Fowler (Rat Queens) confirmed that when she was younger, Lobdell—ostensibly trying to “help” her into the industry, echoing the old pattern—“told me I should go to a foreign con [with] him so he could tie me up & abuse me.”
It’s unclear whether Lobdell’s departure was voluntary, or whether DC was quietly moving to sweep away a potential problem. DC has historically declined to publicly comment on internal issues (and did not return comment for this story.) Their approach to public scrutiny by fans is best embodied by an incident on Jan. 12, 2018, when a young fan named Sarah Burry approached co-publisher Jim Lee during a signing at The Newseum’s Free Speech Week.
She had a list of printed questions regarding DC’s handling of the Berganza case she planned to give him, Burry told The Daily Beast, but security rapidly hustled her away. (Burry provided a video of this to The Daily Beast.)
According to Burry, Courtney Simmons, DC’s SVP of publicity, told her as part of an unrecorded conversation that Lee was “just an artist,” whose title was honorary, before offering her tickets to a sold-out event and a tour of the company’s Burbank headquarters. Burry told her she would welcome the chance to have a further conversation. Simmons never contacted her. A month later, Jim Lee was named chief creative officer. As of 2020, he is now sole publisher. Harras remains EiC at DC Comics.
The precarity and relentless nickel-and-diming of freelancers are notorious. So is the fact that some of that work, which pays so little in corporate settings like Marvel and DC, makes the parent companies billions. Generally, the only people able to object to this are those whose income streams are not financially dependent on the industry. The requirement that creators be silent about all of this doesn’t need to be specified through threats; it is implicit. The oft-repeated litany of screwed-over creators slams home the point—if they treated Jack Kirby and Alan Moore and Dwayne McDuffie that way, imagine what they’ll do to you.
“The companies see talent as disposable, because so many people want to break into comics,” Seidman said. While some individuals at a given company might fight for a creator, the corporate structure as a whole is completely unaccountable. “There’s no shortage of people to fill spaces. Once you get past the people they really want to keep because they mean sales, they don’t give a fuck.”
Economic exploitation creates the conditions for sexual exploitation to flourish, and the comics industry as it currently exists cannot address the one without tackling the other. Sexual harassment, in all its various forms, is not simply a social problem; it is theft—of a victim’s time, dignity, of their ability to create work in peace and pursue financial or social opportunities. Moreover, it is theft of a creator’s ability to pursue a livelihood in their chosen field. Harassers don’t simply prey on those made vulnerable by precarity: they actively make the spaces and institutions they inhabit more precarious, and keep workers disorganized and afraid to the company’s financial benefit. Think of it, if you like, as grooming on a grand scale: the cultivation of a workforce that can be trusted to go along with sexual and economic exploitation—to grin through clenched teeth, to say nothing out of fear—and drive out those who can’t.
That this is sexualized along largely patriarchal lines is no surprise: cis men still occupy most positions of power in the comics industry, while women and those seen as women are consistently marginalized. But women are equally capable of taking advantage of this as well. Suggested reforms—such as establishing actual HR departments at comics companies that don’t already have them (a worrying amount) or hiring a more diverse senior staff—can only go so far. HR departments exist to reduce liability to the company, not to protect workers: they have a long and ugly history of protecting problem supervisors at the expense of victims. And while hiring a more racially and sexually diverse staff is paramount and can certainly help create safer spaces for marginalized creators, doing so isn’t a panacea. One has only to glance over at the media and tech world to see that companies where women hold senior positions, in the absence of actual democratization of power, can end up reiterating the same cruelties.
The question now is one of accountability. On an interpersonal level, misbehaving freelancers are at least sometimes fired from gigs, though only after victims have risked their careers by speaking publicly. Such people are at least occasionally accountable to the community. On the matter of institutional accountability, however (and why editors like Allie and Berganza were protected for so long), there has not been the slightest movement. It took years of genuinely heroic behind-the-scenes work to finally pry both men out of their respective companies: no actual consequences have fallen on the people who protected them. That lack of accountability at the top inevitably poisons efforts to build a more equitable industry: comics companies rot from the head.
If a company offers an answer at all—a rare occurrence, which only ever seems to happen when public fury has reached a critical mass—it is inevitably: trust us. We’re working on it. After decades, it is difficult to take them at their word. The problems are clear: The companies prioritize their own power over the well-being of the freelancers and junior staff (mostly women!) who work there, and when they do recruit them, they take no special efforts to support or retain them. Friends hire friends and build up their patronage networks. People who try to fix the machine from the inside drip like blood from the gears. Still the machine runs.
Sexual harassment is a labor rights issue, and comics has historically been uninterested in addressing labor rights issues. To seriously challenge institutionalized abuse, you have to challenge what makes it flourish, and those are the same problems that are fundamental to comics business practices. Transparency over corporate initiatives to bring more women and marginalized into the industry would necessarily involve tackling stagnation and disparities in page rates, staff pay, and equities. It would open the door to conversations about how comics companies treat Black talent—very badly—a topic that even many open critics of sexual harassment have not been eager to address. It also would prompt discussions of how the industry offloads its moral responsibilities to its creators onto the Hero Initiative, a worthy organization that provides a private safety net for comics creators in need of health care or financial aid.
All that is left now are questions which have, thus far, gone conspicuously unanswered. How will people who clawed their way up the chain on the backs of people they drove out make material restitution to them? Will companies fire senior staff who took no action against predators? Will senior editors not only thank people that speak out, but hire them in positions of authority? Will companies make a public accounting of the myriad ways in which they have failed to keep staff and freelancers safe? Will they offer more security and greater benefits? Will they support union efforts, or attempts by freelancers to organize more democratic workplaces? Will they submit themselves to outside scrutiny, and stop leveraging access as a way to crush and starve out a genuinely independent comics press?
Not likely. Power concedes nothing without a demand, and comics companies, like all systems, have absolutely no incentive to be accountable to the people they exploit. Spend enough time in comics spaces, listen to enough horror stories, and it’s hard to escape the impression that—after the periodicals themselves—what the direct market industry primarily produces are furious and heartbroken people. For all that people are speaking out, the system of direct market comics production has not changed. Play ball on team comics, keep your mouth shut and you’ll get steady work—maybe—but no real security, not very much money, and—if you’re working in superhero comics—the things you create will likely be kicked upstairs and make a corporation a billion dollars. Maybe the company will decide, based on arbitrary rules, that you’ll get a crumb of that money. Maybe you’ll get a walk-on in the movie.
After Seidman was iced out by Ellis, she said, work fell through and she was unable to pay for occupational therapy for her autistic son. For years, she was unable to sit down at a drawing table without panic and loathing washing through her. “Every goddamn time. For 15 fucking years. They took something away from my son at the time it would have done him the most good. I’m crying now because I’m pissed because of how long it took to climb back out, process the damage and get appropriate therapy... You can’t give me back the years of my career. You fucked with my kids. Because of comics. You fucked me over for comics.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Seidman invited Ellis to make a convention appearance in San Antonio in 2002. It was in 2000.