Comics has long been an industry rife with abuse, exploitation, and seriously problematic behavior from creators and publishers alike. But despite the apparently inevitable, many of us strive to make the space better, to excommunicate those who harm others, and to create authentic work that speaks to our lived experience whilst navigating the often racist, misogynist, and homophobic minefield that is the comics industry.
Taneka Stotts is a writer, creator, and editor who constantly works to generate spaces for marginalized people in comics. Her work includes putting together anthologies like Elements and the Beyond series to give platform to marginalized creators who are often ignored in the white straight world of mainstream comics. She also makes fantastic books in her own right, including the Eisner-nominated Déjà Brew. This year, whilst at San Diego Comic-Con to attend the Eisner Awards, Stotts was assaulted at the Prism Comics booth. After months of trying to get an answer from the non-profit organization and asking her attacker to be held accountable, Stotts sat down with me to talk more about the devastating incident and the depressing attempts the group made to ignore and normalize the assault until they were alerted to this article.
Stotts reached out to me after being stunned by the lack of response from Prism Comics, following her assault by one of their volunteers at SDCC 2017. The resounding silence from the company was a complete surprise to Stotts, who has spent four years at the head of a non-profit herself and only had good experiences with Prism in the past.
“Prior to this, my history with Prism was pretty nice. Ted [Abenheim, Prism Comics president and events chair] had contacted me in the past, originally to get Beyond books to sell at a San Diego Comic-Con back in 2016. I gave them permission to buy our books and sell them. We weren’t going to be at SDCC, so this is just another wholesale sale for us. I deal with people that wholesale us, like bookstores and comic book shops, and even our contributors. So it’s not a big deal. We had just won the Lambda Literary award and they sent us congratulations, which was really nice. So, to be honest, it’d always been a nice and pleasant relationship. They’d offered us help to sell more books, but we’d declined because we don’t want to distribute books through anyone except ourselves. So it was very simple,” Stotts informed me.
However, her experiences with the person who assaulted her hadn’t always been as cordial as her interactions with Prism. Her relationship with Charles “Zan” Christensen of Northwest Press had soured after he attempted to acquire Beyond and put it in the Northwest Press catalog.
“He was actively courting the book, through Sfé only and not me, even though we were in business together, and me and Sfé always shared emails regarding business. Unfortunately, the first and only offer we received was not one we felt comfortable with, and so we declined, but as soon as that exchange was over, I could tell something had changed,” Stotts stated honestly.
Stotts was further alerted to Christensen’s problematic tendencies when he reached out a year later asking Stotts to curate a Black comics anthology in which she’d have little to no creative, financial, or editorial control over.
“I wouldn’t be the editor of it, and the finances, distribution, and everything would be through them. He was just looking for ‘curation and creative direction.’ I responded to them saying, ‘Hey this sounds like a well intentioned project. Unfortunately, I’ll take a personal pass. My projects lined up for 2016-2017 are already set in stone and they’re geared towards showcasing minority and LGBTQ voices. Good luck facilitating a curator for your project.’ I sent that to everyone who was also CC’ed on the email. It was me being as nice as possible whilst saying, ‘Don’t ever send me this racist request again because it’s super rude,'” Stotts said, expanding on her appalled reaction.
Stotts was nominated for an Eisner Award at this year’s SDCC for her comic Déjà Brew, with collaborators Sara Duvall and Melanie Ujimori. In Stotts own words, it was “awesome.” What should’ve been a week of celebration quickly turned into an ordeal that ended up stretching months past the end of the con itself after her friend and regular collaborator Sfé R. Monster noticed something strange on Northwest Press’ Twitter account. During her journey to San Diego, Taneka started getting messages from Sfé about the publisher who had tried to acquire them.
“The thing is I don’t follow Northwest Press or Prism Comics online. They’re just not in my main feeds. I was in the middle of my flight from PDX to SD when I received tweets from Sfé saying, ‘Our image–Beyond Press, the book–is all over this Northwest Press booth. And the next thing I know I go to this link to the Northwest Press Twitter and lo and behold it’s still up, and it’s this big booth. As you can see from the get go, Beyond is present. And this is on the Northwest Press Twitter, so at first we assume it’s their booth. So I see this tweet and I’m like, ‘Okay…’ Sfé is messaging me, but the internet is super slow. So Sfé says ‘Hey, should I email Zan?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, it’s on the NWP Twitter so message him,'” Stotts recalled.
— Northwest Press (@northwestpress) July 20, 2017
Struggling with the hazardously bad connections of inflight WiFi, Taneka eventually reached out to a friend who she’d seen sitting at the booth in the video that Zan posted. It turned out it wasn’t Zan’s booth even though he’d posted the video to the Northwest Press Twitter. The booth actually belonged to Prism Comics who didn’t have any rights or reason to be using Beyond’s cover as an advertisement when they’d never reached out to the creators, and the book had sold out a full year ago. Stotts knew just who she should reach out to: Ted Abenheim. It didn’t seem like a big deal, as they’d had numerous acceptable and friendly interactions in the past, and hey it was just a mistake, right? She decided to deal with it in the morning.
It was clear to Stotts from early on that this shouldn’t be an issue, and it was a simple matter of taking down the artwork. Christensen, on the other hand, was already gearing up for a fight.
“As you can see from the video, it’s in more than one spot. So I’m like, why is this here? Why did no one ever contact us? There’s no animosity. It’s just a fact, and it’s something we’re going to take care of cos they just don’t have the rights to use our book cover. During the night, we received a reply from Zan saying, ‘I believe it’s fair use to use the image to promote it if you’re selling it.’ And I’m like, ‘We’ve been sold out of the book since 2016,'” Stotts sighed.
When it comes to why Prism decided to use the book image on their booth this year, the company seemed to imply that they were doing Taneka a favor due to her reason for being at the show.
“They tried to say it was because I was up for an Eisner, which is hilarious because my name isn’t even on the cover image. Also, why didn’t they contact me about Déjà Brew then? The work I was actually nominated for? So they didn’t really have an excuse except they printed it up and didn’t have anything else to replace it with,” Stotts told me with exasperation.
On the morning of the assault, Stotts woke up, got ready, and ate breakfast as normal. To her, it was a small matter that would be easily resolved. After a chilled out morning, she took her partner and walked over to the Prism Comics booth.
“I get down and I head over. And I see three older gentlemen behind the booth, and I don’t step into their booth area. I say, ‘Excuse me, can I speak to whoever is in charge of this booth?’ One of the older gentlemen sees me and comes over and says, ‘Sorry, I didn’t hear you.’ So just as I’m literally repeating myself Zan sees me and he’s on the other side of the booth. He crosses over the entire thing and is like, ‘It’s okay, honey. I’ll handle her.’ So I’m already like, ‘Great, I get to deal with Zan,” Stotts explained, detailing her frustration with Christensen’s unprofessional attitude surfacing once again as soon as she showed her face at the booth.
Sadly for Taneka, Christensen never managed to get that under control.
“He’s like, ‘What are you here for?’ I point up at the sign and say, ‘I’m here for this to be removed.’ He says, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s our book cover and you don’t have any rights to it in any way, shape, or form.’ He says, ‘Well this isn’t my booth.’ And I say, ‘Well okay, give me who’s in charge.’ And then he’s like, ‘Well, they’re not here right now, and they’ll change it out when they get here.’ So I say ‘Okay, but for right now I’d like it to be taken down.'” Taneka and Christensen continued this exchange until a steadily more aggressive Christensen agreed to take down the sign.
It was then that Christensen began to taunt Taneka as he prepared to take down the sign. He implied that she was only at the booth for personal reasons, due to their previous interactions as well as his close friendship with another comics creator who’d publicly attacked Stotts and the Beyond anthology.
Put in this untenable position, Stotts did what any of us would and stood up for herself.
“So I stand up to Zan and I say, ‘Okay Zan, if you want to take it there. No, I do not like you, and I do not like [your friend]. She hurt my friends, and you’re doing no better. I’m not here for your racist abuse, so if you want to remove the sign then remove the sign. And if it’s personal for you, than it’s for YOU,” Stotts told me.
The pair weren’t alone during this exchange, with the conversation being interrupted twice by a man filming at the booth. Throughout this entire interaction, Stotts was just waiting for Christensen to take the banner down.
“I have nothing to say to him. Just take the sign down. It’s not hard. He gets on the stepladder, then he pulls the sign down, and he starts rattling off stuff. ‘I don’t hate you, I don’t even dislike you. But this is very unprofessional of you.’ That’s what he tells me. That it’s very unprofessional of me to be there asking him to take the sign down, and I say, ‘Well, we emailed you. You already knew we had an issue with it, but you decided not to take care of it immediately. And if you’re already talking to Ted because you’re working at his booth, wouldn’t you relay that information?'” Stotts wondered.
And that’s when it happened–after having to put up with his microaggressions and anger–Christensen assaulted Stotts on the show floor at San Diego Comic-Con, at the Prism Comics booth, by taking the Beyond signs and shoving them violently into Taneka’s chest. She was understandably stunned.
“I look at him and say, ‘First off, take ’em out of my chest. And second of all, don’t ever come in my space like that ever again. It’ll be the last time.’ And that’s when he knew he was in trouble cos [sic] he stepped back and he said (and these are his words), ‘I let my anger get the best of me.’ Thanks for letting me know that you let your anger get the better of you. Good job. Then he stands there and tries to chat his way out of the situation, knowing how deep into it he is, and I listen. My brain is just taking it all in and slowly recording everything. I’m quietly just going through the motions of, ‘What am I going to do to this person? Am I going to hit them? Am I going to call them names?’ Of course not. So I say, ‘I’m going to go now, and you? I’ll see you later,'” Stotts shared with me.
One of the saddest parts of Stotts’ experience is that she was in a booth for a company that prides itself on being a safe space. In all the email correspondence I shared with Abenheim and the emails Stotts shared with me, it was mentioned that Prism is a positive, safe space for queer creators and fans. But for Stotts, it was anything but.
“I didn’t wanna make it worse. I didn’t wanna escalate it in any way. But I did want to find someone to help. But there was no one there to help. So here I am in a queer inclusive space, I’ve just been assaulted, and there’s no one near to help. And it was just like, did that really just happen?! Did I really just get assaulted in a queer-friendly space?” Stotts exclaimed.
Stotts immediately went to her room and wrote a full incident report of what happened. She knew that she wanted to contact Abenheim and make sure she had a full account of what had just happened at his booth. She said, “So that was what it came down to. And then immediately after that I emailed Ted, it happened within that day. And then I had to go sit and lose an Eisner. I was okay with that. The fact of the matter is that it should’ve never in a million years happened. Somebody’s anger should not be allowed to get the best of them. And then I’m being told I’m unprofessional? And I’m being told that I’m the one who’s taking it personal?”
Sadly, the ordeal didn’t end with Stotts sending her first email on the same day of the con. Not only did she have to interrupt her day to relive the incident, she now had to email it to the non-profit organization’s president with a full account of the incident. The worst thing, though, was that the pair emailed each other for almost a month until August 24th, when Abenheim stopped replying all together.
“So first off it was supremely annoying from beginning to end. The fact that I had to interrupt my day to write an abuse report was not how I wanted to spend my day, not how I wanted to do anything preceding going to an award ceremony. Had they not had our cover up, I wouldn’t have gone to their booth in the first place. I never feel welcome there, so why would I have gone in the first place? We do tons of conventions together where I 100% avoid Prism Comics and the Northwest Press booth every time. So why would this have changed? It wouldn’t have. I still would’ve walked by and not given this an iota of care. So I’m emailing them and I’m feeling like everything is coming at a pretty constant response at the beginning. And then nothing! I got ghosted. My favorite part was that as an abuse victim, I’m supposed to solve your problems. As a queer woman of color I’m supposed to provide solutions,” Stotts said.
I’ve seen the emails between Abenheim and Stotts, and can confirm that as of August 24, 2017, she received no reply to her continued queries about what the publisher was doing to deal with the incident at SDCC. It was only when I reached out to both Abenheim and Christensen in late October that Stotts finally began to receive correspondence again, with Prism creating a code of conduct for their volunteers and telling Stotts that Christensen would no longer be representing them at conventions. Christensen also finally reached out to Taneka with an apology, which he also supplied to us when I asked him for comment. Both can be found under this article. There’s something incredibly disappointing about an LGBTQ organization that ignores the emails of a queer creator of color for months, but responds almost immediately when contacted by a white journalist.
As for Stotts, she was understandably dismayed by all of it, especially as in their email correspondence Abenheim asked Stotts for advice about what the organization should do to rectify the situation.
“It happened in their space. It happened in their purview. I wasn’t alone. I had someone behind me who witnessed the whole thing. So I don’t really understand why they thought it was okay to then treat the situation as they did, which was, ‘Alright, you solve all our problems for us and just don’t tell anybody,'” Stotts told me.
This experience made a huge impact on Stotts and she chose to speak out about what happened for one main reason. “I feel like talking to other queer creators or trans creators or any creator in general is very important, and letting them know what they can do and where they can go,” Taneka said with resolve.
I want to update you on Prism Comics continued response to the incident with Taneka Stotts and Zan Christensen that occurred at the Prism Comics Booth at Comic-Con International San Diego 2017. On further discussion with the Prism Board we have asked Zan Christensen not to appear with or visit the Prism Comics booth at either Comic-Con International San Diego in July 2018 or CCI’s sister show WonderCon Anaheim in March 2018. Zan has agreed to this request, and I have let Taneka know.
This action is in addition to establishing a Code of Conduct to be given to all staff, creators, volunteers, panelist and anyone else associated with Prism Comics. This code, which I forwarded to you in my previous email and is published on the Prism website, will be enforced to prevent incidents like the one which happened from occurring in the future.
Prism has had a longstanding 13 year record of providing a safe, welcoming space for everyone regardless of race, gender, orientation, age, religion, background and appearance. For years we have taken special care to reach out to women and people of color and diverse orientation to be part of our Prism booths and panels at conventions. We championed creators of color, and bisexual, transgender, asexual creators years before the current national trend towards rights for people of these groups. Our Board is made up of people from these groups. And we had more women, people of color and people of diverse orientation at our Prism Comics booth and on our panels at San Diego Comic Con in 2017 than ever before. It is our to sincere commitment to continue providing a safe, welcoming and discrimination free community to everyone.
Ted Abenheim –President of Prism Comics
I want to apologize for my conduct towards you [Taneka] at the Prism Comics booth at Comic-Con this year.
The original reason for your appearance at the booth was to have artwork under your control removed from display, which was your right to do. After we argued about other matters, I offered you the artwork in a rough manner to try and end the discussion. I made a bad call in a tense moment. I apologize.
I’ve maintained, both publicly and privately, that the comics work you’ve done and are doing is valuable and necessary for the queer comics community. I regret that my actions made you feel unwelcome or unsafe, especially at Prism Comics, which has strived to be a safe haven for LGBTQ comics creators and readers at Comic-Con every year.
In keeping with that goal, Prism Comics has asked me personally to not appear as part of their booths at Comic-Con events in 2018, and I’ve agreed. I regret behaving in a way that could compromise their booth’s welcoming spirit, and hope that this action can repair that damage.
–Charles ‘Zan’ Christensen