I Guess We Still Need to Talk About Chris

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This is a late, technical rebuttal: Chris Sims was never accused of sexual harassment by Valerie D’Orazio.

I wrote the bulk of this piece soon after this Mary Sue piece re-lit the fuse on the old Catherine wheel and then forgot about it under the pressure of the season. Emma Houxbois, contacting me prior to her 2017 retrospective, which referred to a piece of my own as pointless (she’s not really wrong, but I needed to do it; we live in hope or we die without it), kindly read over this draft once I remembered it. Her suggestion that I publish after all seemed fair enough.

Do I need some disclaimers? Here you go: I was published for between seven and fifty dollars a piece on Comics Alliance a few times during Sims’ column’s tenure. I interviewed him about his comic Down Set Fight once. He tweeted a link to a comic of my own. I have had friends who have been his friends. I maintained a determined peer relationship with Sims over Twitter until February 2015, and I first/last wrote about his rivalry with D’Orazio in March of that year. He’s not my friend, we don’t gel, and here I am trying to function in a field in which the state of his name has the ability to send reverb through the ground we all share while the walls and the roof somehow stay solid.

So what’s the deal with Chris Sims? The whole, unedited, unbiased truth is unknowable, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t facts out there to be known. But where are they? It’s difficult to parse out from Twitter back-and-forths and generalised accusations of heresy. What’s easy to pinpoint is that he was not accused of sexual harassment by Valerie D’Orazio, or as far as we know by anyone else.

Harassment with a gendered aspect, yes. That’s inescapable. But the Mary Sue’s recent timeline of sexual assault and sexual harassment in comics should not have featured Sims. Including it was irresponsible, as it is hard for any given reader to stay calm enough to parse the difference in the detail when one is reading about a century of one industry’s known instances of sexual victimisation. It is not kind to make a reader navigating violence do unnecessary emotional labour.

In the name of rigor, here are the basics: After being hired on a freelancer’s contract by Marvel Comics to script the series X-Men ‘92, Sims met the dismay and disapproval of this hiring from old foe D’Orazio with the public admittance that his conduct towards her during the younger days of online comics criticism had been needlessly aggressive and pointlessly negative, and acknowledged that his behaviour had negatively impacted her health. He did not step down from his position at the then-authoritative Comics Alliance, and a statement was issued from the then-editorial team of that same website (Andrew Wheeler and Janelle Assellin) to the tune of “but he’s good now, and we like him.” Sims continued on in his bombastic role at Comics Alliance until it shuttered in 2017, and continues with his popular podcast, as well as writing several further scripts for Marvel and a variety of current and previous titles at Dynamite. Chris Sims is still a man about comics.

Since the matter of Sims versus D’Orazio became public knowledge on the modern, social-media oriented internet, there’s been a nigh-constant mosh pit devoted to the weighing of Sims’ soul. Some say he’s a definite problem now. Some say he’s a precious angel who learnt his lesson. Some say he’s a symptom gone unfairly unchecked. The point is, people keep saying somethings. And, fair enough, he’s still in comics, so he’s still relevant. Comics are still a very troubled industry. So the memory of his troubles stays stuck.

Often—and largely from Sims’ personal friends or those to whom he was a “nerd” hero—one will hear that’s just what things were like back then. The websites and message boards and LiveJournal communities for monthly-periodical comics fans about monthly-periodical comics were shitty places full of shitty people acting the shit, so who would be surprised that Sims went too hard against someone who was no-one real to him? Sure, let’s allow for a moment that it’s true, that “everyone” was an asshole in the era we’re discussing. Are you picturing it? Good. But “it was the style of the time, so I did it too” isn’t an excuse. It’s a reason, and a reason can be bad. A reason is a responsibility.

Chris Sims, like everyone else who has been mean online, for too long or too directly, is responsible for how he treated the people he did that to. That’s why he said sorry. He accepted his responsibility because it existed. You don’t have to forgive him. You can love him through his culpability. You can think he’s matured and grown since then and still find it sits wrongly that this is a guy who can transition smoothly from Big Name Fan to professional X-Men writer. There are a billion options. This is adult nuance. So is recognising that Sims isn’t just Sims, in the full context of this problem. He’s white male privilege in the comic book industry, and its surrounding social landscape.

Marvel Comics themselves, as a company, a corporate brand shooting subliminal messages out into the universe, also catch a lot of flack for hiring Sims, both before he was re-accused by D’Orazio (Doesn’t HR Google new contractors?) and after (He admitted it). The Mary Sue article mentioned above contained definitively incorrect information about when Sims was hired at Marvel and under whose paid management he was at the time he was engaging D’Orazio. He was not hired by Marvel until he was well into his woke period. However, Marvel editorial did or should have had record of his conduct as D’Orazio had reported her treatment during her own tenure at the company. And if institutional memory is that short that there was no record left, then that’s Marvel’s house responsibility. There should be marks left when a marginalised creator experiences dangerous backlash. This is protecting the workforce. It’s corporate responsibility.

Let’s allow another hypothetical: say whoever D’Orazio mentioned her ordeal to didn’t write it down and doesn’t work there anymore. Let’s say Sims came to Marvel with his history under a cloak. Asking for a retroactive answer from Marvel for the behaviour of its eventual employee is quite exactly just: Marvel has plenty of responsibility to bear for the behaviour of its fans and the messages it has, as I say, been putting out into its readers’ minds. When I say “answer for” I mean address the root of; Axel Alonso, Marvel’s EiC in March 2015 when this was breaking news, released a statement at that time regarding Sims’ hiring and culpability. This statement below created the implicit separation of Marvel and Sims prior to the signing of contracts. Their relationship was not first-person professional, before 2015, but it was emotional and social and part of the same professional ecosystem. Sims was a retailer and fan, writing about Marvel comics, and D’Orazio was a scripter writing Marvel comics.

“We had no knowledge of what transpired on the Internet between Chris and Valerie. We have since come to understand that several years ago both were active voices in the comics community—both were bloggers and Valerie wrote a couple of stories for Marvel, including a “Punisher” one-shot that I edited—that some sort of bad blood developed between them, and that Chris crossed lines in his treatment of Valerie that were indefensible, as he himself acknowledged. In his formal public apology, Chris took full responsibility for his actions. Some believe Chris is sincere—Comics Alliance wrote an editorial supporting him—and some don’t. While we condemn Chris’ past actions, we see his strongly worded apology as evidence that he now understands that verbal bullying and harassment of anyone is totally, unequivocally wrong.”

Let’s observe that Alonso was D’Orazio’s editor. Lets recall that D’Orazio, in 2015, stated that Marvel called her to warn her about the online reception to her book. Let’s not pretend that Marvel came to hiring Sims a blameless babycorp. Let’s move on, nevertheless.

Marvel has modeled a lot of poor behaviour. Marvel has led a pack—it calls them true believers—and it has led that pack up the garden path, so far as reasonable and acceptable forms of textual contact with others is concerned. Chris Sims has been part of that pack, and though his responsibility isn’t less for having been led, even if he were to vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow the responsibility for his past aggression would still be something for which the people and organisation that did the leading would be liable.

This is a parallel circuit: you’re responsible for what you do, and the people who led you to it are responsible for what they did through you. Marvel, not alone among publishers, has spent decades putting an authoritative weight on flippant disrespect for people who have done nothing except nudge the nerd cart just slightly the “wrong way.” Marvel editorial statements in Marvel comic books have been making fetish sex jokes about woman editorial employees (Ann Nocenti and Anita Duncan, above) and tangibly bitter statements about the outsize popularity of the “wrong” books, and have belittled their own creatives for their “progressive” creative drives (“And the main characters—is there any reason he can’t be a woman?”) since at least 1982 (Marvel Fanfare #2, below). How do you think of Marvel editorial statements today?

Chris Sims is one negative mark on a long and streaky chronology of pissing. Today’s hyper-regressive trolls are practically a lab result of 1980s-2010s editorial letters-page attitude having festered away in the minds of the easily encouraged. Which, by mob rule, is all of us. Institutional irresponsibility is a problem in comics: personal responsibility is the only tool we all absolutely have to combat it. Do your best.

Grunewald's editorial cartoon, marvel Fanfare, 1982

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money

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