November was an interesting time for me - I attended Thought Bubble for the first time, caught a fair amount of flack for publishing Grant Morrison's thoughts on Alan Moore over at The Beat, and had to take a short break from Twitter due to the aggressive reaction to a piece on the issues of gender bias and privilege within the UK small press comics scene.
The reaction, and to a much smaller extent the personal attacks following on from the The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, As Told By Grant Morrison was not unexpected. From past experience alone I knew that writing anything that even remotely fell under a pro-Morrison banner would get me in trouble in certain circles. Some don't seem to appreciate he is a normal bloke rather than an anti-establishment demi-punk-god. The flack from the pro-Moore camp was a little more unexpected given that I spend a large percentage of my comics discussion time talking with the biggest Alan Moore fans around, all of whom have proved over the months to be lovely and gracious without feeling the need to fling their poo at me. But all in all, that was pretty much par for the course.
The next part I was hoping to have sink into oblivion. I've been asked for quotes on the matter enough now, and it keeps being rehashed on Twitter, that I'd like to write the following, and then have done with it.
A piece I wrote for the New Statesman, entitled Where were all the women at the British Comic Awards?, inspired such a reaction that I came very close to breaking down entirely. I was approached to write the piece by a journalist at the New Statesman who writes some pretty fabulous work, and has an interest in discussing issues of sexism and misogyny within geek culture. An artist, Philippa Rice of the brilliant My Cardboard Life, had been interviewed over at Forbidden Planet recently, and one question was on "people’s concerns about gender disparity in the British Comic Awards". You can read her answer both there and in my piece. Essentially, she thought that the nominations did not accurately represent the number of women in UK comics (which in my experience seems to be around 50/50, far higher than in US superhero comics for example) and that several notable works had seemingly been ignored. The reaction on Twitter to her words, from members of the committee that had set up the awards, drew even more attention to the issue. The fact that the UK small press industry is small - although perhaps not so small as it is being made out to be - complicated matters, with committee members perhaps forgetting that whenever you are part of a body (or a publication) you are always on the job when you speak publicly, even amongst friends. What is evident to you is not evident to the larger viewing audience - a matter that I've been caught out on myself in the past, but an important side to our age of social networking.
The BCAs are a new set of awards, and this was their first year. As such, niggles and points of contention were bound to come up, along with praise for the hard working individuals who made them happen. I decided that any piece written about Rice's treatment - and such a piece was going to appear either way - should be as fair and balanced as possible. I focused on the reaction to Rice's interview as my original thoughts were that there was no actual bias, only a perceived bias, and that a lack of transparency coupled with the overly defensive reaction to her words were the actual point of contention. I sought statements from as many people as I could, and avoided those that would potentially inflame the situation even further; the actual article was much edited from my original which was far too long, and many of those quoted were sent a copy before publication. I also did not ask overlooked women creators to contribute as it was pretty lengthy already. But I was hopeful that this would be the beginning of a discussion for the industry to have amongst itself, openly, and that others would have the opportunity now to feel comfortable in speaking out. Because obviously, an awards organisation that focuses specifically on the vast talent out there in the UK comics community is a Good Thing, and all the more so if that same community can help shape it into the best that it can be.
My regular readers will know that while I am a strong supporter of discussing sexism within the comics industry, I always seek to do so in a manner that is fair and balanced. I do not believe that editors and publishers (or at least most of them!) are sitting around thinking up ways to screw over women and other non-privileged groups, rubbing their hands together with evil glee. Indeed in the past, the discussion I have had with editors, publishers and creators within the larger comics industry has been very receptive and friendly. I also often write for the mainstream press in the UK, and when I do so I always try and raise the profile of comics. It's still very much a disparaged medium at times, and showing the best side of it is always preferable to showing the worst to an audience that is inclined to accept the latter without thought.
Despite my good intentions I have been accused of bringing the industry into disrepute. The headline chosen by the editor (who did a great job overall), mentioning the idea of sexism having played any part in the issues, informed the lens through which many involved seemed to read the piece (unlike the majority of people both outside the industry, and those within that have felt distanced). While I went out of my way to state that there were women on both the committee and judging panel, and that the issues was one of perceived rather than actual bias and the reactions to that, while focusing only on placing quotes rather than editorialising, many involved took my words as a personal attack on them. While I talked about a perceived bias, skirting around the subject of the larger comics industry having an issue with inherent sexism, others were drawing their battlelines, standing on their hills, and shouting out about how non-sexist or unprivileged they were. It's much the same reaction I get when talking about sexism within the comics fan community - people are shouting "is not!" so loudly that actual discussion about the people feeling isolated is impossible. While Rice and I were chastised for speaking out, men who said similar things were congratulated for their sensible and fair words - which is no slight on them at all.
In my deliberate effort to not accuse the committee and judging panel of sexism or bias, and to focus instead on the reaction and a plea for greater transparency and discussion to avoid such issues in the future, I have been blamed for accusing them of sexism and bias. So far I've had threats, the bulk of them childish passive aggression, seen members of the committee favourite tweets that disparage me, been personally and professionally insulted, had the Blank Slate publisher visit my site to find an article that celebrated more men than women(!), been aggressively grilled quite publicly on Facebook by the editor of a winning book, and had a large number of private messages of support from women saying that they are sorry for not speaking out publicly on the issue due to their careers or to avoid criticism. I've been accused of having an agenda, despite my obvious focus on positive coverage and promoting women in comics and comics in general, and of trying to further my career - my career of course is not in journalism at all, but in academia. I am fortunate enough to be able to write for the mainstream press about comics and other subjects, purely because I enjoy doing so. Worst of all, I have been criticized for mentioning any of the above, or for not outing more of those who have personally attacked me despite my overall feeling still being that I do not want to show an ugly side of the British small press comics industry.
I have also heard from many that a) there is a real problem with sexism and other discrimination in the community that I was unaware of, b) classism is most certainly an issue as well, and c) that the perceived group mentality of some has put off many creators from interacting with the larger UK "scene". However, I shall leave those matters to others to discuss and hope that any authors of such escape my fate of being seen as some kind of aggressive (and yes, some even said "hysterical" just to hit the bingo card I guess) trouble maker who is personally attacking specific people, or accusing individuals of being sexists, even though I went to pains to do no such thing. While I originally focused on "perceived" bias, since then I have felt too intimidated to even touch the issues that others have brought to my door, while others despair that some continue to march on the defensive, effectively silencing those who feel ignored.
Whether or not people feel sexism or any other bias plays a part in such things, and my original thoughts were of course that they didn't, silencing has certainly occurred since then. And whether or not sexism played any part, I certainly have felt bullied for even raising the fact that some are worried over perceived sexism to such an extent that I feel uncomfortable addressing further concerns that people are discussing with me. And I apologise for that, sincerely, but the stress is too much for it to be something I want to spend my time on.
As a result of that and all of the above, and as much as I dislike being bullied into silence - and I have felt bullied, enough to make me physically ill over it all - I'm making the decision not to cover the UK small press in the future. Thankfully this was something I had only just started to move into, away from the big names, so it is not a huge adjustment for me - just a bit of a shame as I'd been looking forward to some upcoming pieces. I have cancelled my plans for the next few smaller conventions, with apologies to the editors that I was going to provide coverage to. As an aside, the editors I have spoken with have been quite understanding, and completely horrified at the spectacle they watched unfold. (Large comics industry pieces are still underway, and coming to a stand near you soon!)
I will continue to champion books that I love, but due to my academic career (focusing on women and feminism in the history of comics - funnily enough!), which is my priority after all, I will go back to covering the larger industry and on a more casual basis even for that.
On the plus side, the words of encouragement I received from women and men within the comics industry both large and small (and international) has been wonderfully reassuring. I don't want to mention names as some spoke publicly and others privately, but I thank everyone hugely for their emails, PMs and DMs - I will respond to everyone at some point once my rubbish neck has calmed back down after all the stress. And I do feel a real sense of loss that a small handful of people I thought I knew well have gone silent on me, while others that I barely knew before have sent me messages of support and offers of chocolate.
After months of hard work promoting women in comics, tackling issues of sexism and misogyny that women still face, holding comics up within the mainstream, and shining a light on the forgotten history of women in comics, this has been like a knife through my heart. Some of the people who have had a go at me or dismissed any concerns raised... well, it has been a real shock, and an eye opener to say the least. I very much wish that I had not taken on this piece. At no point did I dismiss the hard work that had gone into the BCAs or wished them ill, my intentions were in fact to defend them and the community as a whole, but the treatment I have received has been so troubling that I walk away perhaps not as heavily as I otherwise would have.
It saddens me that the real reason I have put this here, and not on the other platforms available to me, is that if I publish it here I know that I can remove it if the aggression becomes too much. I hope to return to Twitter soon as I miss many of my fabulous friends there, but it really depends on whether this again gets exactly the same reaction as I experience the very real problem of having my health suffer as a result.