In my previous post I took a close look at the controversy surrounding the Batgirl #41 variant cover that occurred in March. Now, it’s time to take a look at how that debate fits into the wider phenomenon of “Comicgate”, an outgrowth of Gamergate.
Gamergate began with details of game developer Zoe Quinn’s private life being posted online – even the Gamergate Wiki, which puts a positive gloss on the campaign, acknowledges the key role played by this incident. The vicious harassment campaign that targeted Quinn also went after Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, two feminist advocates from the world of video games who, like Quinn, have been subjected to ongoing anonymous threats of violence.
Apologists will argue that Gamergate cannot be blamed for this behaviour. They will say that every large group has a few bad apples, or that the harassment was carried out by trolls with no personal connection to Gamergate. According to many of its supporters, Gamergate is not a campaign against feminists but a campaign against corruption in games journalism – in particular, instances in which journalists use their positions to plug games made by their friends in the industry.
This practice can hardly be counted amongst the gravest journalistic scandals of our time, but is still worthy of criticism. However, even when fighting for a legitimate cause, the arguments of Gamergate’s supporters are tainted by prejudice.
The general immaturity of games fandom has resulted in “corrupt journalism” being frequently interpreted as meaning “journalism that takes wider social issues into account”. Consider the case of Carolyn Petit, who discussed matters such as sexism and the portrayal of torture in an otherwise positive review of Grand Theft Auto IV – prompting a backlash that included an online petition to get her fired. And that was before Gamergate: once the movement got started, it provided a rallying point for this kind of behaviour.
Popular targets of Gamergate are reviewers who are deemed to be “social justice warriors” or “SJWs”. While I dislike the term “SJW” (Christina H. of Cracked.com delivered an amusing deconstruction, for those who haven’t read it) I will admit that the stereotype has a grain of truth. Social media, particularly Tumblr and Twitter, are home to cliques of self-righteous and painfully self-assured twenty-year-olds, guided more by dogmatic groupthink than by experience or empathy. People who have taken it upon themselves to police popular fiction for anything they deem problematic, but who apparently have no issue with using such hashtags as #KillAllMen.
I won’t deny that such a phenomenon exists. What I will question is whether these online activists have as much sway over the entertainment industry as Gamergate and its spin-offs would like us to believe. And it is clearly ridiculous and utterly backward-looking for the entire discipline of feminist media criticism to be written off simply because of a few overzealous Tumblr users.
But enough about Gamergate. With this post, I will take a look at how the movement bled out to form Comicgate…
Comicgate #1: The Amazing Spider-Bum
With Batgirl fresh in our memories, it is worth remembering that Comicgate was kick-started by another controversial variant: Milo Manara’s cover for Spider-Woman #1.
Manara’s illustration was widely criticised for its sexualised and anatomically questionable portrayal of the heroine, and The Mary Sue was one of the sites leading the charge. After initially attacking the cover the day after it was first released, TMS posted a set of re-interpretations by artist Karine Charlebois, an attempt by two gymnasts to replicate Spider-Woman’s uncomfortable-looking pose, and a CGI recreation of the posture which demonstrated what she’d look like from a different angle (in short: a horrible mess). The debate even made it into the Guardian – twice.
In the wake of the more recent variant cover debate, all of this seems awfully quaint. The overwhelming tone of the criticism is not shock, as with the Batgirl cover, but humour: people found the Spider-Woman cover a bit silly and all joined together to poke fun at it.
Speaking personally, I didn’t find Manara’s cover all that bothersome. Sure, the illustration’s anatomy is a bit goofy, but no worse than countless other covers. One of the main concerns was the sexualised focus on her backside, but this was actually a moot point: when the comic was finally printed, her posterior was neatly obscured by the comic’s logo.
But still, these bloggers had every right to express their views, and they did so in a humorous way with no harm done. However, some people took the whole matter rather more seriously…
The Spider-Woman controversy began in August 2014, which was coincidentally also the month in which Gamergate arrived on the scene. Comicgate started the next month, kicked into action by the debate over the Milo Manara variant.
I scoured Twitter and found that the earliest surviving usage of the #Comicgate hashtag as a Gamergate derivative is this tweet, which attacks people who objected to an incident in which a comic shop employee made a joke about a “rape room”. This proto-Comicgate, however, never took off. And so we come to the next #Comicgate tweet, which was a link to a video mocking people who criticised the Spider-Woman cover:
The full splurge began on 24 September, one day after reports that Marvel had cancelled the Spider-Woman variant. Scores of protestors poured onto Twitter, outraged that “SJWs” had managed to get a comic cover censored – even though it later turned out that the cover in question had simply been delayed.
After the relatively short-lived Spider-Woman furore, Comicgate died down for several months. I was able to scroll through the #Comicgate tweets from October 2014 to January 2015 in a matter of minutes; I saw a lot of people talking about the idea of a Comicgate, but nobody pushing a movement forward.
A few Comicgate tweeters took aim at people who objected to perceived transphobia in Batgirl and a vampire rape storyline in Batwoman, but this was hardly a campaign – simply a thin stream of grumbling. It reached the point where multiple supporters of Gamergate began using Comicgate as an example of a movement that never got off the ground. Comicgate, it seemed, was dead in the water. Until…
Comicgate #2: Female Thor
On February 14, Milo Yiannopoulos wrote a shameless piece of tabloid hackwork for Breitbart with the succinct title “Female Thor is What Happens when Progressive Hand-Wringing and Misandry Ruin a Cherished Art Form”:
Thor a woman? It’s hard to believe the most macho, overtly masculine character in the comic canon could possibly be reimagined as a broad. But that’s almost certainly precisely the reason Thor was chosen: as a screw-you to so-called nerdbros from the achingly progressive staff of today’s comic book establishment.
This has led to some questions from comic book fans. Questions such as: will Wonder Woman turn out to be a tranny?
It goes on like this.
Yiannopoulos proceeds to take swipes at Miles Morales, the mixed-race Spider-Man; and Sam Wilson, the black Captain America. Such characters, he argues, constitute erasure of the Marvel canon in the name of petty identity politics:
We’re told “erasure,” whereby people’s pasts are scrubbed out by those in authority, is a social justice issue. Well, right now there’s erasure going in the basic, canonical biographies of some of Marvel’s most cherished superheroes.
But while superheroes often have their histories rewritten by retcons and reboots, none of the cases cited by Yiannopoulos are examples of this. The original Thor co-stars alongside his female counterpart, albeit under a new name. Miles Morales exists in a separate universe to Peter Parker. Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, serves as a mission coordinator to his protégé. No characters have been erased from canon by these stories.
Anybody familiar with superhero comics will know that it is hardly uncommon for multiple characters to share the same super-identity. By the 1990s readers had seen three Flashes, two Human Torches, two Supergirls, four Captain Americas, two Wildcats (both male and female), four human Green Lanterns (one of them black), four Robins (including a female Robin, created by Frank Miller – a writer seldom thought of as left-wing) and two Iron Men – and I am almost certainly missing a few here. Even Batman and Superman have temporarily handed their capes to successors.
That’s not to say that the new Thor is beyond criticism – our own Ed Cambro has some thoughts on the matter that are worth a look – but the fact remains that Yiannopoulos has taken a decades-old genre convention and tried to present it as a new-fangled process of erasure, one performed by an insidious outside element. Is he being disingenuous, or just sloppy in his research? Either way, it is hard to believe that he actually cares about the fiction which he is discussing: he is taking a swipe at progressive hand-wringers so he can get a rise out of the reactionary hand-wringers in his readership.
“Changes like this are designed to provoke readers,” states the article. Provoking readers, of course, is a practice with which the author has personal experience.
Yiannopoulos is one of the main cheerleaders of Gamergate, and he finds time to plug the movement while ranting about Thor. After lamenting how “comic books, fantasy and sci-fi were taken over years ago by ultra-progressive misandrists who basically hate their own core audiences” he states that
[T]he recent GamerGate controversy in video games happened because ordinary gamers, unlike comic book readers or fans of fantasy and sci-fi, stood up to the authoritarian moral panic brigade in the press and their feminist agitator icons and said: no. We don’t recognise the world you’re sketching out, and we don’t want your bizarre and outlandish politics to pollute our hobby. […] This, in a nutshell, is what GamerGate supporters are concerned about when they say social-justice warriors will ruin video games.
It is significant that Yiannopoulos barely touches upon journalistic reform, which is supposedly Gamergate’s aim, and instead characterises the movement as a reaction against “social justice warriors” and “feminist agitators”.
The #Comicgate hashtag saw a small but noticeable rise in activity shortly after the publication of Yiannopoulos’ article, with a number of Comicgaters using the female Thor as examples of how comics are going downhill. But more was waiting just around the corner…
Comicgate #3: Batgirl and the blow-out
Even as the #Comicgate tag was still being used to grumble about Thor, the loose movement finally found its calling when the Batgirl #41 variant cover was pulled – despite the fact that, as I have already argued, this did not actually constitute censorship.
In fact, the Batgirl controversy was one of several incidents that helped to re-ignite Comicgate. Two days after the Batgirl cover was pulled, Marvel published Loki: Agent of Asgard #12, in which writer Al Ewing has the title character rattle off a series of spoof story titles. One of them touches upon Gamergate’s oft-ridiculed claim to actually be about ethics in games journalism:
The joke prompted John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, another prominent supporter of Gamergate, to call Ewing “a goddamn idiot” – in the process misidentifying Ewing as the creator of the female Thor.
Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl was also caught up in the storm. Andrew Gleason, creator of the webcomic Jean Hyde, dismissed artist Erica Henderson as an “SJW”; during this discussion, he and his followers made the curious implication that there is such a thing as an SJW drawing style:
Meanwhile, Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen inadvertently added fuel to the fire with some Twitter comments attacking certain superheroines’ costumes. His statements were widely interpreted as criticism of feminist comic fans – although, in a self-deprecating interview with The Outhouse, he clarified that this was not his intention.
Larsen’s comments were spurred by Wonder Woman’s rather cluttered new costume. At least one Comicgate supporter seems to have interpreted this outfit to be the work of “SJWs” – presumably because, unlike her traditional costume, it covers her head to toe – and responded by photoshopping a burka and veil over her:
The cultural paranoia behind this image scarcely needs to be pointed out.
And it goes on…
We have now seen how the Comicgate movement first developed. In part three of this series, I will look at how Comicgate grew to envelope the likes of Rob Liefeld, Mark Waid and Joss Whedon.