Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sexual Harassment in the Comics Industry, Part I

B: "Nice-lookin' dame there, eh? Guess I'll cut in!"
A: "Wait, Butch! Suppose her escort don't like it?"
B: "So what? If he gets nasty I'll push his face in!"

This dialogue occurs on the sixth page of the first-ever Superman story, in Action Comics #1. The "dame" mentioned is Lois Lane. Shortly thereafter, Clark Kent changes to Superman and smashes Butch's car in the most famous pose in all of superhero comics. While Superman otherwise fights against murderers and racketeers, and is soon fighting mad scientists and monster robots, his second and third adversaries (first, a domestic abuser, then the aforementioned Butch Matson) are not supervillains or big-time crooks, but small-time men who try to make themselves big by victimizing women with their hands and fists. This is how Superman began. These are the crimes that so reviled Siegel and Shuster that they chose them for two of the first three rogues that Superman fought against.

More recently, voices in the comics industry have called attention to behavior in their own ranks not so different from Butch Matson's. This time, the perpetrators aren't villains on the page, but highers-up in the comic book industry, including an editor of the Superman titles. There is not one accusation of one act of harassment, but a dizzying – and revolting – number of reports. Some are corroborated, some have led to censures or demotions. Others are rumored; still others, are still private. It is hard to collate and organize all of the reports, and I won't try to become a secondhand source when so many firsthand sources exist and are speaking up.

What I will do is call the women – and in some cases, men – who have spoken up about harassment what they are – superheroes. It is an insidious fact of sexual harassment that the act itself is humiliating in a variety of ways for the victim and speaking up risks not only personal but professional danger. But, crimes that aren't unreported go unaddressed, and the perpetrator goes on to harass more and more victims. Sadly, many of the instances that are reported go unaddressed, sitting in a netherland somewhere below the law.

DC has recently moved many of its operations to California, which may have implications for the future of sexual harassment, as California has particularly strict laws regarding harassment. These are not mere cultural values or guidelines – they are laws, and what might be ignored in the backroom, often to the advantage of the harasser, will be taken quite seriously in the courts.

However, more allegations have been and will be located elsewhere, or will be hushed up no matter where they take place. As a fan of the industry, one may choose to boycott their product; one may choose to speak up; one may choose to amplify the voices of the powerless; one may simply ignore it.

Superman raced around the pages of Action #1 righting wrongs with his mighty strength. He acted never on his own behalf, but on the behalf of the powerless and the oppressed. It's truly sad that creators who bring people the stories of Superman and other heroes use their own power to take advantage of weaker individuals. It's insidious and twisted that a boys' club culture protects the harassers, which makes villains of far more individuals than simply the ones doing the harassing. My blog is not a court of law where the guilty can be charged, but it's a small part of the places where comics are discussed, and the gravity of this issue compels me to speak up. It is not with muscle and superpowers that we will address harassment but by casting a light on it, not the light of a Green Lantern ring, but by ending silence and acknowledging it. Together, all of us as a community can do far more to address this wrong, so that the victims know that they are not alone, and to help ensure that the victims and the perpetrators see something that superhero comics are supposed to be about – justice.


  1. Well said Rikdad! I have read about this lately and find it sad and a bit distressing that this type of behavior still flourishes