Why Are (Some) Comics Pros So Damn Abrasive?
In which I offer a theory to account for the not-really recent phenomenon.
So there are some comics professionals who are cranky, abrasive, and downright insulting to their own fans, and lately they’ve been standing out, making even more than the usual spectacle of themselves. Many articles in the comics press and their cousins in the YouTube video game have documented the trend in these past few days.
I have a theory, backed up by only anecdotal evidence, mind you, as to why this is happening and why it seems to be happening so much more in recent days, months, and years.
I’ve been in this business more than 40 years, enough to have some perspective, and there have been cranky comics pros that whole time. I don’t intend to name (too many) names, because it isn’t my intension here to take them to task, either collectively or as individuals. It is my intension to offer an insider’s perspective on one of the possible reasons this may be.
It’s the law of fecal gravity. Put in a more earthy way, it is now and always has been the case that shit rolls downhill.
Since the dawn of modern comic books the publishers and their editor representatives have made it their business to keep the freelancers under their thumb — to keep us in our place, which is the state of being cringingly subservient to them. The examples are legion, but let me offer one or two well known ones to support my claim.
The (highly truncated) Jim Shooter Story
As he often tells the tale, Jim Shooter got his start writing comics for DC way back in 1965, at the tender age of 13 — yes, 13. Or perhaps he was 14 when he finally started selling his scripts to the DC editors Julius Schwartz and Murray Boltinoff. He primarily wrote for the Legion of Superheroes ongoing series. And, according to Shooter, those two editors took full advantage of his young age to treat him like crap. In fact, the story goes they would brag around the DC offices of how completely they have this kid under their heels, and he can’t do anything about it, because he’s so young.
More Thrilling Tales of Office Terror
There are reputable tales of how Stan Lee used to make his artists grovel and bow (as a joke, of course — seriously, he was just busting their chops, as men do) when Stan handed out the checks on payday.
From my own experience, during the days I would often visit the Marvel offices, looking to break in to that august House of Ideas, I was seriously told by one editor, “The reason I know you’re not ready to work for Marvel is, if you were ready you’d already be working here.” That truism wasn’t exclusive to me. By the time I’d heard it said directly to me, I’d heard it often spoken of as something akin to a company mantra.
Then there was the time I was finally getting my break into drawing Marvel Comics. After many false starts and almost assignments, I was hand picked by the writers of the Wild Card shared world prose series to draw the Wild Card series in its “coming soon” Marvel Comics adaptation (I was living in Austin, Texas at the time, as were many of the Wild Card authors). I got all of one cover drawn by the time I received a phone call from the new editor on the project (it had quickly become something of a hot potato assignment by that time, handed off from one editor to another). At this point I would tell you the editor’s name if I could remember it, because he deserves to be called out by name, but I simply don’t recall who he was. In any case the fellow called me out of the blue, having tracked me down to a local junior high school, at which I was participating in their library book sale day. He started the conversation like this (I paraphrase here, but it’s a pretty accurate one): “Listen here! I’m the new editor on Wild Cards and I want you to know from the beginning that I’m not going to take any shit from any goddam arrogant freelancer who came out of goddam gaming and thinks he knows a goddam thing. Let’s get that straight right away.” Having never spoken to this fellow before then, I told him (I remember it as politely said, but who knows?), “No thanks. I won’t be spoken to like that from anyone.” And that ended my run on the Wild Cards project, and any chance at working at Marvel for many years.
Of course there were editors who treated me well, and they no doubt outnumbered the terrors, but the bad ones stood out.
And some of them still act like that.
In DC Comics it became obvious over time that, unless you were the rare 300 pound gorilla (you can guess who they were) who could dictate terms to the editors, you fell into the camp of those the editors could keep under their thumbs. I was never in the 300 pound gorilla camp, but I might have come close to it at the height of Fables, as I began to notice the real dicks in the company started treating me just a wee bit more deferentially.
As a general rule, we learn to act as we’re taught to act, and the hallowed halls of the comic publishing game were places rife with spoiled children in positions of authority.
And the bullied often become bullies.
It’s a lesson taught to me in high school by one of my teachers, Mr. Longwell. On the last day of my freshman year he said to the class, “Next year you’ll be sophomores and not have to endure the hazing and abuse from upperclassmen. But do you know who always dishes out the most hazing to the freshmen? It’s the sophomores, getting revenge for how they were treated.” The context was, “Please keep that in mind and maybe consider acting better than that.”
But of course some of the bullied became bullies. It’s an inalterable part of human nature.
Let’s have an example. In one of those odd Marvel behind-the-scenes specials on the Disney Channel, we saw long time comics scribe Dan Slott absolutely humiliated on camera by his editor, whose name I believe is Anonymous Nobody (I’m not willing to rewatch the thing in order to get the fellow’s name).
And of course Dan Slott is notorious for how badly he treats his readers, because those who are trained to be bullies don’t abuse the ones who bullied (or bully, since it seems to still be ongoing) them. They bully the next ones down the line.
It’s all about the law of fecal gravity.
That’s my theory. It doesn’t encompass everyone, because not everyone becomes a bully, no matter how badly they were treated and continue to be. Most have more character than that. But some do. And in an environment of stunted children ruling by fiat and tantrum, it’s little wonder some continue to be stunted children who lash out by fiat and tantrum.
But why does it seem more prominent now? I can think of two reasons. First, those who can leave the screaming halls of grown child terrors now have ways to do so, without sacrificing their careers to do it. Think of Substack, crowdfunding, and a more healthy pantheon of independent publishing houses. There are actually those scrappy young contender outfits out there who try treating freelancers well as an inducement to leaving the Big Two to come over to their shop. That leaves the two big publishing houses more firmly composed of the stunted tantrum monsters, without the leavening influence of the still sane and modestly mature.
And the second reason is social media. In the past the child terrors among the writers and artist in comics could only take out their ire on readers in small doses, at conventions and store signings and such. Now one can reach thousands at a time, day in and day out. And one thing bullies will always do, is bully, whenever they can.
But the same social media is also the mechanism that allows those now the set-upon readers, critics, and until-now-they-were-innocent bystanders, to fight back. And that drives the bullies ape-shit, over the top, even more into uncontrollable rage-land.
The rot is deep. This has been the culture in comics for decades. So it won’t end soon. Remember, even after the rot had long set in, it still took Rome 500 years to fall. This will be with us for some time to come.
Of course that’s assuming my theory and observations are correct. I could be way off the mark.