A week ago, I was presenting original research at the first annual Comics Studies Society Conference. My paper, “The Blue Age of Comic Books,” was about the digitization of comic books and comic book culture (you can read an early version here). [Update: you can read the full, peer-reviewed “The Blue Age of Comic Books” in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society.]
“Blue Age” is a theoretical framework because it draws from my personal experience as a college-educated woman that started reading superhero comics digitally in the early 2010s and extrapolates from that experience to argue that we are in a new age of comic books. It’s blue because blue is the color of social media (think Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter). Social media allows comics creators and fans to communicate with each other. I use Twitter, principally, to communicate with other comics scholars, especially other graduate students. Sometimes I use it to think through my work.
“When is putting J. Scott Campbell’s artwork on a cover going to be understood as the wrong thing to do when you’re trying to sell comic books to women.”
I was asked if they were trying to sell these books to women. The covers that inspired my tweet, those of Emma Frost and Mystique, are for issues being written by women: Leah Williams and Seanan McGuire. Increasingly, and encouragingly but not altruistically, we are seeing the Big Two publish comic books about women that are written by women. So the answer to that question is: yes, I do think that Marvel is trying to sell those comics to women.
I am a woman, and I am a theorist. I extrapolated from my own experience to speak about women as a demographic. I wouldn’t buy a comic with Campbell’s artwork on it. Campbell’s grotesque pin-up style renderings of women with impossible waists and broken feet aren’t made for women or nonbinary people: they’re made for cisgender, heterosexual men. I am not going to buy something that isn’t made for me.
I didn’t expect the tweet to go beyond my (at the time) 150 followers, a third of whom had followed me after tweets about “Blue Age” circulated during the conference. I didn’t tag J. Scott Campbell. And then he quote tweeted me.
I know there’s some confusion over this: no one had tagged him before he quote tweeted my tweet, asking his more than 70,000 followers if any women liked his art. J. Scott Campbell searched for his own name, saw my tweet, and decided to quote tweet it, tagging me. Regardless of his intentions, which at best were to affirm his own skill and at worst, well, you’ve probably seen the tweets. I haven’t. My original tweet and Campbell’s quote tweet (which, as far as I understand, no longer exists) have been muted since Monday night. As a precaution, I changed a number of my security settings before going to bed. I’ve read about Chelsea Cain and the infamous “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda” Mockingbird cover (that she didn’t draw). I haven’t seen most of the replies, and I haven’t responded to any of them. At least, not until now.
And I don’t necessarily want to talk about their content, which is largely misogynistic, because I’m more interested in the phenomenon. In an age of digital media, especially social media, how have interactions between comics creators and fans changed? And I’m not talking about myself as a fan, I am talking about the more than 70,000 people that follow Campbell on Twitter. Why did some of them—any of them really—react to his question as a call to harass me?
When I last checked, my tweet had been replied to more than 70 times. That’s not a statistically significant sample. I don’t know how many replies Campbell got before his tweet came down (I don’t know if he took it down or if Twitter did). Some of those replies on my tweet are from people who care about my well-being, most are not; however, since Tuesday morning, I’ve gotten dozens of messages in support and dozens more likes on my tweet (which, as I write this, has more than twice as many likes as it does replies) and another that I posted on Tuesday about DC Super Hero Girls and Marvel Rising, transmedia properties that are meant to attract new readers in a demographic younger than mine to comic books and comic book culture. Is this what they can expect when they sign onto whichever social media platform we’ve all migrated to in ten years? Twenty? Thirty?
J. Scott Campbell’s quote tweet didn’t explicitly direct his followers to harass me. It didn’t have to, and I’m reticent to think that he didn’t understand the possible consequences of quote tweeting me to more than 70,000 people. I’m not some anonymous troll on the Internet: a quick peek at my profile is enough for you to guess that I’m younger than Campbell and that I am a woman. It also tells you where I go to school and what I study: comics and culture. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time thinking about digital culture, I think about the consequences of my social media presence at least as often as I post on Facebook or Twitter. If I had wanted Campbell’s attention, I would have tagged him.
So why did some of Campbell’s fans decide that his question was a call to harass me? Is it simply because I’m a woman? That’s at least part of why they chose to harass me and not any one of the number of men that came to my defense or those that explicitly tweeted J. Scott Campbell’s name in the hopes that he would find their tweets during his next vanity search. And I’m not making up the term “vanity search.” I did make up “Blue Age.”
“Blue Age” gives us an answer beyond my gender. These fans feel as if they have to defend a man that ostensibly will never care about them as much as they care about him from an attack that, well, wasn’t an attack. I didn’t say Campbell’s art was bad (I did say he couldn’t draw feet, but neither can Rob Liefeld and that’s never stopped him). I didn’t ask that he be fired (I’m pretty sure he’s a freelancer anyway). I didn’t ask Marvel to commission another cover artist (although I do have some thoughts on artists whose work is more appealing to women).
We’re in an unprecedented age of access. As often as fans can use social media to praise the work of comic creators that they “love,” they can use it as a vehicle for harassment: both of creators they hate and of fans with which they disagree. I’m not sure they got what they wanted, because I have not taken my original tweet down (nor do I plan on doing so). I’m not going to quit Twitter. I’m not going to stop studying this phenomenon. And, maybe most importantly, I’m not going to stop reading comics.