An online harassment campaign and culture war called #Comicsgate is underway against people pushing to diversify the comic book industry, with trolls and their influential enablers targeting those calling for increased representation for women, different races, and the LGBT community.
Several comics superfans and creators are calling it a dark evolution of the Gamergate controversy that targeted women participating in video game culture with abuse.
Comicsgate trolls use racist, sexist, and sometimes threatening language to intimidate people they call “SJWs” — or “social justice warriors,” essentially anyone they believe is advocating for diversity in the industry. Some of the messages are overt, while most are cloaked in innuendo or make inside references to the comics world that outsiders would find confusing.
Most of the trolls are anonymous, living on Twitter — some use “#Comicsgate” in their bios — YouTube, private Discord channels, and message boards used by far-right supporters of Donald Trump. They swarm people who publicly support initiatives from large publishers, such as Marvel and DC, to diversify. The trolls say diversity weakens the quality of comics.
When asked about Comicsgate, a Marvel spokesman said, “Marvel has and will always promote an industry of inclusion and respect.” DC comics didn’t return a request for comment.
A Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that “if there is a violation of Twitter rules, we will take action.” YouTube didn’t reply to a request for comment on Comicsgate.
For their part, some of the most influential and visible Comicsgate boosters say they’re the ones under attack. They point to legitimately threatening tweets and other social media posts from people they call SJWs. They say they are quickly and incorrectly painted as Nazis, white supremacists, and/or far-right figures by people obsessed with political correctness.
The whole debate is fueled by the fever-swamp mentality that currently plagues politically polarizing topics, with each side trapped in their own filter bubbles of messages that only reinforce their points of view.
Still, victims of Comicsgate trolls told BuzzFeed News they’ve suffered months of sustained hatred and harassment in their mentions and attempts to hack their personal information. Many victims didn’t want to be named by BuzzFeed News for fear of further retribution; two said they’ve had to seek counseling after being targeted.
“Dealing with [Comicsgate] for the past months has been one of the most stressful experiences I've ever been through. I have a weird sort of internet PTSD now because of it all,” one victim, who does not want to be identified, told BuzzFeed News.
It’s hard to determine when Comicsgate started, but many in the industry point to the October 2016 cancellation of writer Chelsea Cain’s Marvel comic Mockingbird — a series defined by unabashed feminism that attracted the attention of online trolls. While the trolls didn’t play a role in the series’ cancellation, when they heard the news they were elated and hounded Cain off Twitter.
Bryan Aulick for BuzzFeed News
Mockingbird’s final issue was dragged on the popular message board Funny Junk: “Maybe they'll begin to realize that feminists and SJWs STILL don't read comic books, no matter how much they try to pander.” A now-suspended Twitter account tweeted, “No one wants feminism preached at them for $3.99 an issue.”
“I’m not talking about constructive criticism,” Cain told BuzzFeed News. “This was more along the lines of ‘women already have novels, you can’t have comics, too.’”
“Mockingbird was ‘too feminist.’ ‘No one cares about a female hero.’ ‘I don’t buy comics written by women,’” Cain said. “When Marvel announced that the series had been canceled, I was tagged in a lot of celebratory tweets… My trolls had been vindicated.”
Mockingbird’s final cover — which included the phrase, “ask me about my feminist agenda” — has since become a Comicsgate meme and continues to be ridiculed.
Comicsgate really broke through several months later, in July 2017. Five days after the death of trailblazing comic book publisher and Marvel employee Flo Steinberg, a group of women who were then working for Marvel went to get a milkshake in her honor. The group posed for a photo afterward, all smiling at the camera, displaying their milkshakes with pride, and shared the picture to Twitter.
The women quickly became the targets of Twitter trolling. One Comicsgate supporter asked, “Can we just get off of feminism and social justice and actually print stories?” Months later, it’s still going.
Comicsgate supporters have had some success affecting the industry. Writer Aubrey Sitterson told BuzzFeed News he was trolled for variant covers of GI Joe to celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month in June 2o17 and another of the character Salvo. Then, he said, Comicsgate trolls pounced on his poorly worded tweet about this past 9/11 anniversary.
The trolls stoked fierce outrage, repeatedly using the publisher’s @ handle.
Sitterson’s comic then came to the end of its run — and he said his upcoming work on the comic Strike Force for IDW was canceled.
IDW told other outlets that Sitterson “expressed opinions on his personal social media account that many find insensitive, divisive, and inflammatory. IDW in no way condones or supports these personal opinions whatsoever, and recognizes the pain they may cause our readers.”
Sitterson said he thinks the true reason he was on the radar in the first place was the content of his comic. “If you look at any of their actual critiques of me or the book, they always come down to Salvo” — a main GI Joe character who was traditionally a male, but who Sitterson wrote as a “woman of color who isn't built like a fitness model.”
Courtesy Ilias Kyriazis
Comicsgaters rejoiced last year when Marvel executive David Gabriel told a retailer summit that “people don’t want diversity” and blamed declining sales. “Everyone's mad at them for admitting it, but Marvel is correct that forced diversity & SJW crap has drove their sales into the ground,” tweeted one pro-Comicsgate account. “Marvel finally realises that forced diversity doesn't sell,” said another “anti-SJW” account.
Comicsgaters recently turned to blacklists and hashtag campaigns in an attempt to show their power within the industry. In early February, several members of the group made a “blacklist” including creators and other industry members who spoke out against Comicsgate trolls — such as Sitterson and Jamal Igle — and people who openly pushed for diversity. The latter includes Kelly Sue DeConnick — creator of Bitch Planet, a comic set in a dystopian future in which “noncompliant” women are sent to prisons — and Heather Antos, one of the women in the milkshake photo.
Perhaps the most contentious part of Comicsgate is between victims and notable figures in the industry who many victims say walk the line between outright support and wink-and-nod enabling of the harassment. The trolls, the victims said, are emboldened by the attention and amplification.
Ethan Van Sciver, 43, is at the center of this tension.
Van Sciver has worked in comics for decades, for both Marvel and DC, on prominent titles such as Green Lantern: Rebirth, New X-Men, and Wolverine. Industry insiders have called him out for playing a role in the harassment, specifically saying that his troll followers will swarm anyone he disagrees with on Twitter. Van Sciver told BuzzFeed News he is the victim in all this.
Ethan Van Sciver at Wizard World Comic Con on April 24, 2015
Gabe Ginsberg / FilmMagic
Van Sciver isn't one of the faceless accounts who lead the abuse. But he will often interact with men who advocate for diversity or who engage him, rather than women. From there, some of his followers attack. Van Sciver claims he’s trying to use his platform — which often leads to harassment —“to bring peace through conversation.” Ultimately, trying to separate what’s ironic, what’s genuine, and what’s merely a motif in Van Sciver’s art is emblematic of the ongoing chaos of Comicsgate.
Van Sciver denies any affiliation with Comicsgate and he has denied that his posts on social media are meant to dog-whistle Comicsgate supporters. He said he’s “in the middle of an enormous culture war.” He added, “I am trying to protect myself and my family from further victimization and targeting by radicals.”
But Van Sciver often promotes far-right messages. He’s shared memes from the far-right pro-Trump subreddit /r/The_Donald, used imagery of Pepe the Frog dressed as an armed stormtrooper — saying in the comments “we’re cleaning up your queer globalist mess” — and hosted a former Gamergate activist and white nationalist on his YouTube show.
Comics fans have have repeatedly called Van Sciver a “Nazi” because of a sketchbook he released in 2007 titled My Struggle. Its title is a direct translation of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf — and features the character Sinestro, modeled to resemble him.
“My Struggle was a play on the fictional evil fascist dictator Sinestro — who is known as a Space Hitler [in the Green Lantern universe]. A villain. The sketchbook is also representative of my struggle in art,” Van Sciver told BuzzFeed News. “I also did one called Manifesto made to look like communist propaganda.” He also wrote a lengthy defense on Facebook.
In a series of emails to BuzzFeed News — which he apparently leaked to comics website Bounding Into Comics — Van Sciver denied allegations that he was working with anyone aligned with far-right ideologies, or that he shares these beliefs. “I find racism deplorable,” he said. “I find bigotry disgusting, and I have never engaged in racial politics or ‘Naziism.’ My children are Jewish!”
Van Sciver is also an admirer of Jordan Peterson, a self-described “classical liberal” Canadian academic who has recently become a popular figure among both far-right internet communities and the men’s rights movement for his conservative views on diversity, gender, and free speech. Van Sciver illustrated the cover of Peterson’s latest book, 12 Rules for Life, which the New York Review of Books described as “right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.”
Van Sciver didn’t respond to a request for comment about his work with Peterson.
A representative for Marvel told BuzzFeed News that they had no statement on Van Sciver because he hasn’t worked with the publisher since 2003.
DC responded by providing a statement regarding the company’s new social media policy. “DC expects that its employees and freelance talent community maintain a high level of professionalism as well as reasonable and respectful behavior when engaging in online activities,” the statement read. “Comments that may be considered defamatory, libelous, discriminatory, harassing, hateful, or that incite violence are unacceptable and may result in civil or criminal action. In addition, comments that may be considered insulting, cruel, rude, crass and mean spirited are against company policy and guidelines. We ask, and expect, that you will help to create an online environment that is inclusive, supportive and safe.”
Chelsea Cain, the author of Mockingbird, in her home
Bryan Aulick for BuzzFeed News
Van Sciver seems aware his interactions could lead to hostile attention from his followers. In December 2017, comics podcaster Dexter Buschetelli pointed out on Twitter that a lot of Comicsgate accounts follow Van Sciver — who then responded by quote-tweeting Buschetelli’s podcast’s account, saying, “You’re on my radar now, guys. Continue spreading this filth about me, and I’ll do what I can to make you all famous.” Buschetelli took preventative measures and blocked scores of troll accounts to keep abuse to a minimum. But he read Van Sciver’s words as a thinly veiled threat of harassment.
Darryl Ayo, the creator of the comic Little Garden, believes his own run-in with Van Sciver in January is a textbook example of how Comicsgate harassment and amplification works.
It began when Ayo tweeted about Jon Malin, a Marvel comic book artist, criticizing him for claiming “social justice warriors” are politically similar to Nazis.
Malin told BuzzFeed News, “Nazis are racist authoritarians, Social Justice Warriors are a loser group of racist and sexist authoritarians working its way further into positions of power and influence.”
Usually, a fight like this catches the eye of a bigger personality in the Comicsgate universe — like Van Sciver. Once it does, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. It doesn’t always take a public disagreement for the trolling to start – the announcement of a new comic by a blacklisted or disliked creator, or simply a regular target tweeting, can kick off an altercation.
When Ayo pushed back against Malin, Van Sciver tweeted to his followers, asking if they’d want to see Ayo and Malin debate each other on Van Sciver’s YouTube channel.
Then Van Sciver replied directly to Ayo’s tweet, inviting him to come on his show — ComicArtistPro Secrets — and “say what you have to say” to Malin.
Ayo declined his invite and instead posted a thread of tweets saying he believed Van Sciver was luring him into an “obvious set-up.” As soon as Van Sciver engaged Ayo, a wave of abuse from Comicsgate Twitter trolls began.