The House That Silence Built: Harassment in the Comics Industry
On October 1, Graphic Policy published a story by Janelle Asselin that alleged a history of harassment and inappropriate behavior committed by Dark Horse executive senior editor (formerly editor-in-chief) Scott Allie. In it, Joe Harris, who writes The X-Files comics, claimed that at the Hilton Bayfront hotel bar during Comic-Con in San Diego this year, Allie grabbed his crotch and bit him on the ear.
Speaking to ComicsAlliance, Harris explains why he went public about his experience. “I was outraged that it happened, and because people rarely feel comfortable coming forward, and I'm sick of hearing about this cr--, generally,” he said. “I've experienced a range of emotions since the incident, from embarrassment to anger to pity for the perpetrator and anger at the company that had him out there, swimming around like a shark in the aquarium when this was not an isolated incident, as I'd later learn.”
Harris says the incident made what is regarded as a widespread, unspoken problem in the industry very real to him.
“To actually have someone of his stature and standing do that, to me, in public, in a setting of our mutual industry business — and a hotel bar at a show like SDCC certainly is that — to freeze in that moment, like I did, and not know what to do or if what was happening was actually happening? I felt both justifiably p---ed off and more empathetic toward people I've known who'd been harassed, assaulted and abused before. I felt obligated, morally, to come forward,” Harris says.
After Asselin’s story broke, Allie issued an apology to “family, friends, co-workers and to the industry” for his behavior at Comic-Con. (The apology does not address the history of harassment that has been alleged against him.). Dark Horse issued a statement that said its executives are “committed to ensuring and maintaining a positive, safe, and respectful environment for its employees, creators, and fans and we expect all who represent our company to behave in a professional manner,” but the company refused to comment on any disciplinary actions that were taken. Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson wrote his own lengthy response, in which he said, “Under no circumstance is any individual ‘harbored’” in the event of "inexcusable incidents."
At the time of this writing, Allie still holds his senior role at the company.
Harassment and assault have long been a specter in the comics industry. Reports of groping, inappropriate emails, aggressive drunks, sexual propositions, unsolicited pornographic text messages, meetings held in strip clubs, and abuses by management are shared by word of mouth or in private forums and groups. Sometimes dependent on hearsay and short on specifics, anecdotal warnings are still very much necessary to help newcomers and veterans alike navigate an industry in which personal and professional lines often blur, and networking often takes place in hotel bars at the end of convention days.
But these messages to “watch out” don’t reach everyone, and an unspoken code of silence fosters a climate in which known harassers continue to get jobs writing, drawing, editing and managing. Inevitably, some who didn’t hear the messages run headlong into danger. Such was the case for Harris, who, unaware of Allie's reputation, attempted to shake his hand and was shocked when the Dark Horse editor molested him.
But Allie’s history of — and let’s not mince words here — assault was known to Dark Horse. As Asselin notes in her report, the company joked in a 2006 interview with Allie that “he bites.” Unfortunately, the publisher’s apparent refusal to levy real consequences against the editor in the face of gross misconduct is part of a systemic problem in the comics industry.
Mariah Huehner, who writes Emily the Strange for Dark Horse, alleged in 2013 that she was harassed during her tenure at Vertigo. In a blog post, Huehner revealed that in 2003 a freelancer sent her a lewd email requesting a pair of her panties and a sexual recording of her voice. Though Huehner reported the email to her superior at Vertigo, the publisher took no action, to her knowledge, and the freelancer in question has since been hired for other projects within the company.
In 2012, a blind item appeared on Bleeding Cool alleging that an editor for a prominent comics publisher “attempt[ed] to make out” with a woman against her will during a WonderCon event. The victim told ComicsAlliance that a witness reported it to the perpetrator’s employer. The incident was reportedly one in a string of similar problems involving the editor. Shortly thereafter he was moved to a new position, but not fired.
If the encounters above don’t qualify as fireable offenses, then what does?
The lack of significant action to rid the industry of repeat offenders is tacit tolerance of this behavior. To borrow Dark Horse head Richardson’s words, it is harboring someone who is not just acting unprofessionally, but criminally.
Comics, an industry that values the status quo over change, suffers from prestige fragility. The insularity fed by the storytelling and fan culture of superhero comics has the side effect of creating a stigma around comics reading. Now, the industry has goals that are at odds with each other: fight to erase the exclusionary stigma, and maintain exclusivity for its most devoted fans. The industry doesn’t want to look like the fanboys’ club of old, but it also won’t stop being that fanboys’ club. And thus the industry’s veterans and gatekeepers get to keep their jobs even with multiple reports of harassment over their heads (and in their personnel files).
Dark Horse boasts that when it was founded, “Writers and artists were treated as partners, an unheard-of generosity in the comic-publishing field at that time.” That may have been the case in 1986, but it certainly is not now, as writers and artists shoulder harassment by one of Dark Horse’s editors.
Another prominent publisher is attempting to woo young readers, especially young girls, even as it employs an editor who has a history of being accused of sexual harassment.
This is decay at the foundation. If multiple reports of harassment and even assault aren’t enough for a publisher to take meaningful action (and I do mean firing here; the consequence for assaulting someone at an industry event should be losing your job, and that should not be a controversial stance) we can only imagine what smaller indignities and attitudes women and men face in this industry.
In a scathing essay written in 2013 in response to cartoonist Tess Fowler outing a harasser, former Dark Horse editor Jay Rachel Edidin spoke of “missing stairs.” Those who know where the missing stairs are can step over them. Those who don’t, fall in.
It’s time to let everyone know where the missing stairs are — and to build new stairs.
Standards of professional behavior should be enforced for everyone who works in this industry, no matter how established their careers. Comics, fix your damn house.
Full disclosure: Joe Harris is the writer of Great Pacific, which was published by Image Comics during the time when the author was an employee at the publisher in 2012-2015.