It’s widely known that the comics industry is an extremely insular, rarified space where people’s careers are made or broken based on their interpersonal, social connections to those (typically older, white men) who have a seat at the table. A seat that affords them a distinct institutional power. All too often this power ends up being abused, hurting the most vulnerable people within the community.
Last week, multiple women began coming forward with stories alleging that they’d been coerced into sexual relationships or otherwise preyed upon by comics giant Warren Ellis. Even though Ellis is only the latest in a long line of people (overwhelmingly men) within the comics industry to be accused of sexual impropriety, the conversations about his actions have led to a larger discussion about how the culture of comics itself is going to have to change in order to deal with institutionalized abuse.
Ellis’ reckoning began with a now-deleted Twitter thread from writer/editor Katie West (The Killing Horizon) who detailed her alleged personal experiences dealing with Ellis saying he’d “done some fucked up things to young women” despite being a cause for good in the industry but that she’d befriended a “troop of young artistic women who’d all been used and discarded by him.” (Disclosure: I contributed to West’s 2020 Better Than IRL anthology of essays about online communities.)
West followed up her initial thread by making the important point that while she didn’t feel like her personal experiences with Ellis and other men working in comics were categorically abusive, they all embodied the kind of abuse of one’s power that’s rampant within the industry — something she wishes would change.
I cited three men in particular, two of whom I had personal experience with. However, I didn't say my personal experience with these men was abusive, I said they were all men who abused their power.
— Katie West (@katiewest) June 17, 2020
Following West’s initial tweets, more and more women including artist Zoetica Ebb, photographer Jhayne Holmes, and musician Meredith Yayanos came forward with stories of their own that all fleshed out a larger picture of Ellis routinely involving himself with women from within the sizable community of genre fans that’s grown around him for decades.
Specifically, Ebb described Ellis’ behaviour as “sexual coersion [sic] under the guise of mentorship,” while Yayanos said, “If you honestly think that sustained compulsive emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, or that a powerful prestigious man soliciting nudes from teenage fans isn’t sexual misconduct… You are heartily welcome to eat the corn directly out of my shit.” As of July 19, Holmes described a group of individuals coming together to discuss their own experiences with Ellis as “60 people strong.”
A big reason why the accusations against Ellis have generated enough light and heat to draw so much attention stems from the fact that, as a creator, he’s a power player whose previous work speaks to the ways in which he’s been afforded opportunities and given eminence by some of the biggest brand names in the game. In the past, Ellis has worked for the Big Two publishers several times over but is perhaps best known for his original comics Transmetropolitan and Red, the latter of which was developed into two feature films. Up until very recently, the writer was penning The Batman’s Grave for DC Comics and working on Netflix’s Castlevania series. Neither DC nor Netflix has commented about the allegations about Ellis, but DC did quietly pull a two-page story written by Ellis from its upcoming Dark Nights: Death Metal Legends of the Dark Knights anthology.
Though the exact details of every accusation thus far have been somewhat different, they all fit within an alleged general pattern of Ellis first befriending much younger women before purposefully steering their friendship into more sexual territory. In response to the accusations being levelled at him by, Ellis took to his newsletter (which he’s closed in response to the news) and Twitter to post a statement two days after the discussions began. He expressed that while he acknowledges what people are saying that he did (read: use his power to coerce less powerful women to engage with him sexually), he “never consciously coerced, manipulated, or abused anyone, nor [has he] ever assaulted anyone.”
“I have never considered myself famous or powerful, to the point where I’ve made a lot of bad jokes about it for twenty-odd years,” Ellis wrote. “It had never really occurred to me that other people didn’t see it the same way — that I was not engaging as an equal when gifted with attention, but acting from a position of power and privilege. I did not take that into account in a number of my personal interactions and this was a mistake and I own it.”
— Wᴀʀʀᴇɴ Eʟʟɪs (@warrenellis) June 19, 2020
While Ellis’ statement is rare sort from an accused abuser that actually owns up to wrongdoing and features an actual apology (though many have taken issue with its un-Ellis-like language), it’s exceedingly difficult to reconcile it with the reality that Ellis is the kind of comics fixture whose prominence is impossible to deny. One need only to look back at the very existence of the Warren Ellis Forum, an early aughts forum where comics professionals, aspiring creators, and fans all congregated, to recognise the position of authority he enjoyed.
Beyond Ellis’ personal actions, places like the Warren Ellis Forum were textbook examples of the kind of toxic culture that exists within nearly all comics spaces, be they within publisher’s offices, on convention floors, or at the countless parties that buttress industry events where attendees are encouraged to socialise as part of the overall networking nature of conventions.
This is the same culture that, in part, made it possible for Batgirl writer and Motor Crush co-creator Cameron Stewart to allegedly groom younger people (in Stewart’s case, allegedly at least one underaged girl) with the intention of pursuing them sexually. Stewart locked all of his social media profiles and he’s yet to comment on the allegations. (We’ve reached out to Stewart directly, but have not heard back.) It’s the same culture that made it possible for Charles Brownstein to work his way up the ranks to become executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defence fund despite the widely known and well-reported story of his allegedly harassing and sexually assaulting a woman in 2005. At the time, Brownstein issued a statement to the Comics Journal in which he apologised for his “indiscretion,” but denied having sexually assaulted his accuser.
But the current conversations about Stewart and Ellis have led to a renewed social media interest in the accusations against Brownstein, and by Monday evening, the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund board announced that Brownstein was resigning from his position within the organisation immediately. Now, the board explained in a public statement, their focus is on finding a replacement who embodies their ideals.
“Our organisation exists to serve the comics community and the First Amendment, and we can’t do that without an open and honest discourse,” the statement read. “We believe our organisation’s management and staff should be representative of and responsive to the community they serve. As we move forward, it will be with a renewed focus on accountability and transparency.”
While the varying degrees of what Ellis, Brownstein, and Stewart have been accused of are all reprehensible, and as important as it is that they all be held accountable for their actions, the much larger issue at hand is what it is about comics culture that makes their actions possible and all-too-uncommon within the space. Easy as it is to single out individual bad actors for their behaviour, eventually they’ll only end up being replaced (if they’re even ousted in the first place) by others who are encouraged to keep the cycle going if said cycle isn’t disrupted by a proper examination and dismantling of the current power structures.
The onus falls not only on the publishers who have the responsibility and ability to listen to people when they speak out about abuse within any particular company, but it also falls on each and every single person who counts themselves as part of the comics community be they a fan or a creator. Predators don’t just pop out of the ether in a vacuum — they’re our friends, family, and sometimes ourselves, which is all the more reason why folks should feel more than comfortable calling out their abusive behaviour if and when they recognise it.
io9 has also reached out to DC and Frederator Studios (who make Castlevania) and will update if we hear back.