#Comicsgate: How Anti-Speech Harassment Got Ugly and Profitable

Spider-Woman Milo Manara

In some ways, it began with Spider-Woman.

In August of 2014, Italian artist Milo Manara created a Spider-Woman variant cover that was expected to be available for purchase in November. The variant cover was released as part of Marvel Comic’s promotion for its upcoming “Spider-Verse” event and the new Spider-Woman series.

What followed was akin to a feeding frenzy. A number of prominent digital magazines condemned Marvel Comics for the Spider-Woman cover. Emma Gray at The Huffington Post described the cover, “No, that is not a line drawing of an apple perched atop a red-skinned thin woman’s body. That is apparently supposed to be Jessica Drew’s (a.k.a. Spider-Woman’s) a**.” Rob Bricken at i09 added his own commentary, “She looks like she’s wearing body-paint, and that’s a big no-no for an industry still trying to remember that women exist and may perhaps read comics and also don’t want to feel completely gross when they do so. As for the position she’s in… christ.” Smriti Sinha at Mic described the cover, “Marvel’s latest depiction of Spider-Woman is a blatant sexualization of a female superhero some hoped would bring a dose of female strength to a male-dominates genre.” Laura Sneddon told The Guardian, “this cover and the lack of thinking behind it is a prime example of why people continue to think superhero comics are for horny men only.”

Manara defended his art work, “Superheroes are like that: they are naked, some sort of painted. Superman is naked painted in blue, Spider-Man is naked in red and blue, and Spider-Woman is painted red. But these are sort of elements part of the ‘trick,’ so to speak, that publishers use to create these nude figures — on which I don’t find anything wrong. But there is no real nudity. If we look at them later in the inside stories, going beyond the cover, these are characters whose bodies are ‘in view.'”

Even Marvel Vice President Tom Brevoort defended Manara:

“Milo Manara has been working as a cartoonist since 1969, and what he does hasn’t materially changed in all that time. So when we say ‘Manara cover’, his body of work indicates what sort of thing he’s going to do.

It’s also, for a Manara piece, one of the less sexualized ones, at least to my eye. Maybe others feel differently. But given that the character is covered head-to-toe, and is crouched in a spider-like pose, it seems far less exploitative to me than other Manara pieces we’ve run in previous months and years.

But all that said, it’s the right of every reader not to like something.”

That didn’t stop the onslaught of attacks against Manara and Marvel, Eliana Dockterman in Time would write, “female fans are particularly disappointed in the company for overly-sexualizing what they hoped would be an empowering female character on the cover.” Graeme McMillan at The Hollywood Reporter would say, “A sexist Spider-Woman cover is just the latest snafu.”

Geek culture has been rocked over the past four years by repeated outbreaks of reactionary hatred towards creative expression and free speech, and Asher Elbein’s piece in the The Daily Beast is the latest example. We’ve covered plenty of it, from BuzzFeed’s hit piece on Ethan Van Sciver, the whole Batgirl Killing Joke variant cover, to the outright call to censor Image Comics’ Airboy comic. 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 grassroots internet campaign that demanded ethics in video games journalism. The campaign would expand. It ascended, spread out, and lit a series of brush fires in pop culture with mainstream media outlets attempting to marginalize critics of unethical behavior and shut their voices down.

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.

One of the main proponents of this stategy  is Kieran Shiach. Shiach is a reporter for Comic Book Resources and Polygon and was previously an assistant editor at Comics Alliance. He has spent much of the past year attempting to get DC Comics artist Ethan Van Sciver fired and has repeatedly labeled him a “Nazi.”

You can see he expertly deploys the victim card after his hypocrisy is exposed.

As you can see Shiach’s twitter account is a repository for a constant stream of personal attacks and dog-whistles for his followers. He has publicly labeled Ethan Van Sciver a “Nazi.” He’s also publicly called comic book veteran Howard Chaykin “racist and transphobic.” He appears to fixate on political issues not associated with actual comic books. If he disagrees with their politics or views, he targets their employers in an attempt to get them fired.

Among Shiach’s friends are The Daily Beast writer Asher Elbein. Elbein defended Shiach’s call for asking DC Comics to fire Ethan Van Sciver because Shiach is a “journalist.”

Shiach even implies Asher Elbein will be writing more about the backlash he received following his campaign to get Ethan Van Sciver fired.

And Asher Elbein is no stranger to controversy himself. Somewhat infamously, he put together the hit piece on Marvel’s new Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski for The Atlantic. C.B. Cebulski’s crime was using a pseudonym like thousands of other writers including Mark Twain, Stephen King, and Nora Roberts.

Elbein also acquired a public reputation for dishonest behavior. In January of this year, he claimed to be working on a piece regarding Ethan Van Sciver for The Atlantic. Ethan Van Sciver then asked The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief about Elbein. His response was illuminating. The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief revealed Elbein is not an employee of The Atlantic and was not on assignment.

This wasn’t the first time Elbein got called out for his dishonesty. He denied taking on the story about Ethan Van Sciver at the behest of Kieran Shiach.

With Asher Elbein’s new piece in The Daily Beast and given their past history together it became apparent Shiach and Elbein had formed something of a double act, with Shiach taking the more outwardly aggressive role. Comic book fans discovered that just about anything could set off a cascade of abuse: a political tweet, the announcement of an upcoming project, or—as with Van Sciver—an art book. But most coincided with either Shiach, Elbein, or their other friends writing pieces in BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast, or The Atlantic.

If creators responded or complained—even without naming their harassers—found their tweets screencapped and disseminated into an endlessly regurgitating cycle of articles on sites affiliated with anti-speech views, like Buzzfeed and Daily Beast.

More organized campaigns occasionally rise out of this amorphous stew of hit pieces. In July of 2015, Brett Schenker, Elana Levin, and Graphic Policy targeted Image Comics and demanded they pull Airboy #2 from the shelves, effectively trying to get Image to censor the book. While Image Comics refused to pull the book from the shelves, writer James Robinson did issue a formal apology through GLAAD.

Beyond its role in targeting comic book creators, the broader question of Comicsgate’s impact on the industry itself is more difficult to parse. It’s certainly true that Marvel cancelled Milo Manara’s Spider-Woman variant covers setting a bad precedent. 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 March of 2015, an anti-speech mob targeted DC Comics and Rafael Albuquerque’s Batgirl #41 variant cover which homaged Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic Batman: The Killing Joke story. DC Comics would pull that cover.

It would take a while, but it seems the comics industry finally caught on to the trick when they began seeing significantly declining sales despite wildly successful movie and TV franchises based off the comics. In fact, comics sales were still slumping in 2017 where the industry saw it’s “largest percentage drop since 1998.”

Now that their dog and pony show has been exposed the only thing Asher Elbein and company have to do it is to double down and continue writing hit piece after hit piece. Elbein’s main achievement seems to be making life miserable for comic book creators whose politics he disagrees with.

**This is a satire of Asher Elbein’s The Daily Beast article #ComicsGate: How an Anti-Diversity Harassment Campaign in Comics Got Ugly – and Profitable**

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