Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 1 – Context

Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 1 - Context

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

This notion is a kind of unofficial mantra for Retcon Punch. We fully embrace that our perspectives are limited, which is why virtually everything we publish features at least two writers and an open comment section. It’s an attitude that serves us very well when discussing works of art, where interpretation is paramount, but makes us decidedly less good at journalism, which aims to transcend interpretations in pursuit of facts.

We’ve largely shied away from reporting news (honestly, there are so many sites for comic news out there already), and while we will wade in every once in a while, our cross-talk format results in longer gestation times than the twitter-assisted news cycle tends to have patience for. We’re happy to focus on discussing comics and leaving the news to other sites, but we felt like we needed to speak up about the Janelle Asselin Controversy and fallout. This story is obviously bigger than the facts in question — something that might warrant the kind of longer, slower conversations we do here — and more importantly, it addresses issues that matter to us personally.

First, a brief overview: last Friday, Asselin posted a critique of Kenneth Rocafort’s cover for Teen Titans 1 on CBR. The piece gathered traction in part thanks to artist Brett Booth taking exception to it on Twitter, in an exchange chronicled by the Outhousers. On their own, Asselin’s piece and Booth’s response aren’t particularly notable — the kind of exchange that happens on twitter daily — but then Asselin posted a follow-up on Tumblr disclosing that she’d been receiving rape threats in response to her criticisms. Yikes.

Outcry was immediate and support for Asselin — in the form of tweets and op-eds — came pouring in, along with calls to action, and renewed interest in addressing how women are treated in the comics community. Amidst all of these discussions, several creators and fans disclosed that they, too, have received threats of sexual violence.

Indeed, many expressed that these types of threats are entirely commonplace.

Many male creators and fans were stunned at this revelation. We all understood that comics had a long way to go towards equality, but rape threats? An isolated incident might be written off, but that these threats are so common as to perhaps not even warrant mentioning makes it clear that this is a problem. It’s shocking that things had ever gotten this bad, let alone in 2014. The situation is more dire than many members of the community had ever realized, and bringing these issues into the open makes that clear as day.

So how do we change? The comics community is far from monolithic, making it difficult to address any community-wide problems, especially those that have happened in secret for so long. But that doesn’t leave us without hope. We believe that keeping the spotlight on the issue — in all corners of comicdom — is the only way to eradicate it everywhere. Twitter will do it Twitter’s way (presumably, lot’s of hashtags), CBR will do it CBR’s way, and we will do it our way. Our way will take the form of several pieces over the next week deconstructing the facets of the problem as we see it: the representation of female characters in comics, the marginalization of women in the comics community, and the tone of internet discussion within the community. What are the problems? What are their causes? What solutions would we like to see? As always, these will take the form discussions we hope to carry on with our readers. We’ve been blessed with incredibly civil and thoughtful comments sections, and we would love to hear your thoughts on the other kind. We hope you’ll join us as we explore these issues plaguing the community at large.

Drew Baumgartner, Patrick Ehlers and Shelby Peterson
Retcon Punch

34 comments on “Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 1 – Context

  1. The most important thing, in my opinion, that people can do is make it unacceptable for this behavior to happen.

    Men who have a problem with this behavior (which I hope is a vast majority) should say so. Loudly and at length, both in person and online. both with anonymous internet asshats and with people who work in the industry. Speaking up is sometimes intimidating, especially when you don’t have a platform to speak from, but we need to make it clear there aren’t a silent majority of men who agree with this behavior.

    We need to make the space a safe space for women to come forward when shit like this happens. If every time someone pulls this shit it turns into victim blaming, violent language against women, rape threats, threats against their careers no one will come forward. If instead of fearing what will happen if they come forward, it should be clear that there aren’t repercussions for speaking up.

    And maybe, just maybe, we (comics fans) need to stop reacting to every criticism of any bit of comics like it’s an affront to the very medium. Ms. Asselin had, in my mind, pretty mild criticism of a cover and pointed out the missed opportunities. This wasn’t exactly wikileaks. She wasn’t destroying the very foundation of comics. A lot of people need to relax.

    And we need to stop pretending like this is an issue that WOMEN need to fix. This is a problem that comics fandom needs to fix and really, it’s an issue that the men in the comics industry need to deal with. If we continue to act like women need to “get better” but do nothing to change the behavior of guys in this space then nothing is going to get better.

    /end rant

    • Amen. The toughest part for me about calling out this behavior is that until now, I had no idea it was going on. I think a lot of fans and creators absolutely would speak up about this kind of thing, but the story from all over (and for me personally) is that I’d honestly never seen it before. We’ll get a questionable comment here from time to time (which we’re pretty quick to call out), but nothing even CLOSE to threats of violence.

      I get the impression that these things often happen in private (Asselin reported that hers were coming in through the survey that she was running), and maybe purposely out of sight of the larger community. The good news is that these fans might realize how unacceptable their behavior is, and how quickly it would be rejected by the community at large. The bad news is that we can only address specific instances when the victims chose to step forward (potentially opening themselves up to more threats).

      We may only be able to drive this type of thing further underground, but hopefully deeper conversations about why these problems exist (and why they’re viewed as problems in the first place) can work to change that underground climate, too.

      • It has been happening in private, that’s part of how these things work. Hell, that’s usually a good sign that it’s being used as a scare tactic and that the people doing it know that it’s wrong. But recently we’ve had stories come out (I’m thinking specifically about the Brian Wood story), where there’s a lot of strong backlash against the woman and a lot of victim blaming (or victim not-believing).

        When that’s the reaction, I completely understand why other women don’t want to come forward. And I hope that the community as a whole starts responding to knee-jerk victim blaming with “shut up and let her talk.”

        I agree that there are people who are going to do this no matter what. Some percentage of people are just assholes. But we need to make this sort of behavior as unacceptable as racism. If we found out that a comic creator was dropping n-bombs all over cons, it would have a serious impact on their life. Misogyny should have the same repercussions.

        (as an aside, I’m not pointing any fingers here, the “we” is the community as a whole, not retcon punch in particular. You guys are great. Especially shelby.)

        • Hahaha. “You guys are great. Especially Shelby.” is for sure going on all future marketing materials.

          To your point about making misogyny as unacceptable as racism, I actually make a similar comparison to the civil rights movement a few threads down. I absolutely agree that we’re talking about a cultural change here — one that may take a long time (we’re 50 years and counting since the civil rights act), but that makes it all the more important that we address these issues as quickly and as fully as we can.

    • I second your opinion Daniel , what was said to Ms Asselin is Disgusting and shameful.And it’s sad to read that this happen’s and it even occurs in the gaming community and needs to stop and be punished…It’s sad and pathetic

  2. I think it really is a problem with the way female characters have been depicted by male creators over a long period of time that led to this culture. And yeah, that is a huge problem, but I’m maybe a little more cynical on a workable solution. The only way I see towards fixing it is for publishers to really push realistic female characters in fantastic situations and policies that can create a shift away from beefcake art at the big 2. My thing is that these kind of dirtbags already exist, the comics industry isn’t creating them, but it’s really telling of the comics community that we’ve attracted a notably abnormal amount of these creeps as fans.

      • You know, I’ve seen the fact that the men in comics are just as beefcake as the women are cheesecake used as an argument that comics DON’T have a problem with the way they draw women. “But EVERYONE is drawn this way; it’s FANTASY,” is approximately how it goes.

        The difference, I think, is that women in comics are drawn as male fantasy for men to ogle, and men are drawn as … male fantasy for men to, I guess, aspire to. I bet if men in comics were drawn as female fantasy, you’d have a lot more gangly, hauntingly pretty super heroes, a la Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston.

        • That’s a good point. There as been a historical lack of female writers, which I think is symptomatic of the issue we’re already discussing. A healthy dose of female perspective in comics could do wonders. I think male writers should look to Whedon’s X-Men and aspire to its efforts on the matter. It’s just so; the characters are believable and have depth, but an amount of tradition is preserved with, say White Queen being a notoriously oversexed character. He sells it in a way that is not offensive to anyone, I think.

        • Yeah, character agency comes into play at that point. It’s ok for a character to choose to be sexy. Or, better stated: there’s a difference between a character being sexy and a character being sexually objectified.

        • This is really a sticky subject — who’s to say if the character is manifesting the creator’s fantasies (or what they imagine the reader’s fantasies to be) or if the character is CHOOSING to act that way? These questions get even more confusing when considering the collaborative nature of comics (maybe the writer intended one way and the artist another). For me, it’s entirely a gut thing. If it seems like it’s in poor taste, it’ll bother me. If not, I’m usually okay with it.

          Now that I’m thinking about it more objectively, the real question should be: does this enhance the story in any way? Sexiness, nudity, the male gaze, etc. can be used to tell us how a character is feeling about themselves or the situation they’re in, but they can also just be slapped on a page for the heck of it. As with anything in storytelling, if it doesn’t have a purpose, it shouldn’t be there.

        • It is a sticky subject, you’re not wrong. The important thing is that we don’t swing too far in the opposite direction and insist female characters be depicted as unsexy and dowdy as possible. It’s walking the line between objectifying and slut shaming.

        • I think part of the difference is a much larger cultural one — where women are told that their value lies in how they look, and are bombarded with all kinds of unrealistic standards of beauty. Male comic book fans are famously unlike the beefcake heroes they admire, and feel no apparent desire to look more like them, but they benefit from very different cultural expectations. I think few male fans appreciate that women may feel very different when presented with cheesecake then men do when presented with beefcake.

          But let’s be realistic: they aren’t all drawn the same way. Spider-man wear’s a skin-suit, sure, but it doesn’t cup each facet of his anatomy the same way it would on, say Medusa. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge the difference is straight-up lying.

    • I totally get what the cynicism — this is a cultural change we’re talking about, which means it will be very slow in coming. The abolition of slavery didn’t instantly bring about equality. Nor did the civil rights act. Nor, unfortunately, has the 50 years since then. But things are better, and I think the policy changes and discussions that accompanied them very much started the ball rolling in the right direction.

      This is obviously a very different issue, but I suspect we may be working on a similar time-scale. For all of the minds we hope to change, we may not change the minds of the most steadfast, the most far-gone, and so they may persist for the next several decades. Their ranks will shrink and they may be forced into hiding, but some people’s minds simply can’t be changed.

      Our goal can’t be perfect behavior from everyone, but hopefully we can bring about more openness and transparency. Comic book culture was once a safe haven for the most awkward and uncomfortable of us. Hopefully, it can be just as welcoming to the rest of the world.

    • I always try to vote with my money – if there’s a comic coming out that is doing something I don’t like, I don’t buy it. But the problem with someone like Rocafort is that he is a very good artist, who creates these unique pages that often elevates the stories he’s illustrating. So, like, I don’t want to miss out on that good story stuff just because I’m making a tiny statement about women in comics. I recognize that that’s a shitty decision to make — basically I’m refusing to sacrifice my enjoyment for taking a stand for equality. I’m currently toying with the idea of making up a list of artists I can’t buy, knowing their methods of depicting the female form, but I’m also probably going to chicken out on that (especially if someone like Brett Booth draws an issue that’s “important” and i think we should cover it).

      • To Rocafort’s credit, the problem is more with Wonder Girl’s New 52 design than his treatment of her here. Her appearance on that cover is very much in keeping with how she’s been drawn since the relaunch. I realize this doesn’t make the problem smaller (indeed, it makes it much, much bigger), but Rocafort’s only crime here is not refusing to draw her the way DC says she’s supposed to be drawn. Maybe we should be asking more of our creators, but in my mind, the problem lies much more heavily on the shoulders of DC editorial who curate those character designs, commissioned the cover and approved it for publication. (Not to absolve Rocafort of veering into cheesecake elsewhere — in my opinion, he definitely does — but as far as this cover goes, I don’t think he is guilty of doing anything other than being loyal to the character design.)

        Booth’s role in this is a little harder to parse, but I genuinely believe that he is not prone to cheesecake or defending cheesecake, and I don’t think his objections to Asselin’s article had anything to do with Wonder Girl’s breasts. Still, he comes off as totally dismissive of Asselin’s opinions, and stood idly by as his defenders attacked and dismissed her. I don’t know how much responsibility we can reasonably expect creators to take for their fans, but he was copied on a number of ugly tweets and didn’t step in. He’s by no means blameless, but he’s also not the paragon of misogyny people are painting him as. I won’t feel any conflict picking up a comic he’s worked on.

        • Yeah, I try to overlook it for the merits like Patrick tends to, and that’s why I think it needs to be a policy change at the editorial level. Some part of me worries that a blanket policy will end up censoring the work of people like Amanda Conner, who has a gift for tiptoeing the line of decency, but I still think it’s the right move. At least for the two most influential and visible publishers. Of course I believe in the basic right to freedom of expression, so I wouldn’t presume to tell niche publishers what to do even when I think it’s gross, but a few smart policy changes at the big companies could really clear up a lot of the controversy and invite in a largely untapped female readership. They could even get a lot of positive press coverage by really playing up the proactive initiative through public relations.

        • Right? Like a tiny minority of male readers might make a stink, but a symbolic gesture like that would MORE than make up for it by acknowledging to ALL OF FEMALEDOM that they are respected and valued. Seems like a no-brainer (though it may throw any number of past [or even current] editors and artists under the bus).

        • “Rocafort’s only crime here is not refusing to draw her the way DC says she’s supposed to be drawn”

          Really, I see comments like that as part of the problem. In the history of comics we’ve had work horse artists who crank out product for money because, well, it’s a job. Rocafort is under no obligation to anyone to do anything other than what his employers ask. Jobs are hard enough for artists to come by in this economy without also having to answer to fan rage on both sides of the issue and tell an employer “NO, I will NOT draw this cover because it is wrong. It’s WRONG!” That’s just ridiculous. Is this the best cover in the history of comic book covers? No. Was there any serious thought put into this cover other than making a deadline? No. But so what? Rocafort has done some great stuff and subpar stuff. Just like every artist ever. I’m sure when he feels passionate about a piece of art he gives it his all. When he doesn’t, then he doesn’t. This is just another job. It’s okay to look at a job as a job and not wonder to one’s self “gee, what would all the activists say about what I’m drawing right at this moment?” Obviously, he isn’t exempt from criticism but the language that people use in discussions of this sort really need to be examined. The default setting seems to be hostile and accusatory, even if it is unintentional. Like it’s at a subconscious level or something. Frankly, I was just as offended by the twitter rage that cast Rocafort as a borderline pedophile who intentionally drew implants on a teenage girl as I was at the hateful comments directed at Asselin for writing the review. And to be honest, Asselin took part in those discussions, going so far as to say on twitter, in vague language of course, that drawing implants on a teenager is “creepy”. As if that was ever Rocafort’s intention.

          I was pretty much with Asselin’s critique in general until she went off the rails about how this one cover will drive away all potential Teen Titan fans in droves. There are just too many bad comic book covers that drew people in to comics to begin with and far too many people who don’t know great art from bad(because, you know, it’s subjective!) for something like that to ever be true on any level. Her odd assumption that all potential readers will interpret that cover in the exact same way she did just seems like a pretentious position to take but one that I’ve seen taken plenty of times by people in the industry who are painfully out of touch with the average reader. Personally, I find most comic critiques to be pretentious. Very few know what they’re talking about yet they all seem to think they’re Robert Hughes.

          Look, we need to weed out the misogyny in comics and we can’t stand for threats of rape against someone writing a critique of cover art. On the other hand, we can’t keep going to extremes in our language when having this discussion. Now I see people getting angry when a guy says “hey, I’m not like that” and calling it a “derailing tactic”. That’s right. Saying “I’m not a misogynist” is a derailing tactic. It’s funny because I can go to my local comic shop and have this discussion with a group of customers and employees, male and female, and not worry at all about anyone flying off the handle. Why is it so hard on the internet? Because most people just want to say something and defend it at all costs rather than just, you know, talk.

        • I think we’re actually in total agreement. I really did mean that “only crime” bit to suggest that Rocafort really isn’t in a position to change the bigger problem of editorial expectations. Rocafort is a popular artist, but I think there are very few artists out there to make demands of any publishing house’s character designs. Like, if DC wants big breasts, any one artist refusing to draw them just ensures that they’ll be passed over in favor of one who will give DC what they want. Ideology is great, but the fact is that artists need work. If this change is going to happen, it’s going to need to be a top-down decision from editorial.

          That said, character designs are nebulous, moving targets, and artists have a (little) bit of leeway with exactly how to draw their characters. Would DC have asked for a redraw if Rocafort had drawn Wonder Girl’s breasts significantly smaller? It’s very possible, but I’d much rather artists were pushing the envelope in that direction than the opposite.

          To your point about Asselin’s critique, I agree that it isn’t beyond reproach. I’m fully on board with her larger points, but take issue with how she handles some of the details. I didn’t see it as pretentious, though. If anything, the flippant sense of humor (which I think weakens her argument) comes off as immature. For me, though, it honestly doesn’t matter how right or wrong or well-written her piece was — the reaction to it is really the story here.

  3. I think maybe a petition to the big 2 could stand on the back of this debate. Addressing both companies and getting their attention might actually force them to make policy changes, since neither would seek to have appeared outdone by the other on an important issue in the public spotlight.

    • This is a great idea! Loath as I am to become an activist within the community (I just want to write comic reviews, dammit!), I might go ahead and start this petition myself. Any other Retcon Punchers want to help?

      • I’ll of course help in any way I can, but you are a lot more eloquent than me so I’d of course be happy if you really put the presentation together.

      • Any time you want to have an opinion about something, you’re an activist for what you think is “good”. It’s only a matter of how loud you want to be and how much you want to see things change.

  4. Can’t believe there are still so-called “fans” who would do something like this. As readers, we really need to kill the boys-club mentality that comics have had for decades. More and more fans are female, genderqueer, gender neutral, etc. and the shift in portrayals of those kinds of people in comics to a more positive light is highly indicative of that.

    You’re always going to have the old fogeys or relentless fanboys (I hate to use the word autistic but they may have some form of maladjusted social anxiety that causes them to act this way) attacking those who are feminists or just plain against misogyny. Usually they’re easy to ignore, but every so often they come out of the wood works. That’s when you have to do more than just put them down. You have to sit them down and educate them on why their lifestyle is inherently regressive and self-destructive not just to the individual, but to the society as a whole. But then again, these are probably the same assholes who think Rand’s writing is good and that she was some sort of philosopher.

    • Also wanted to say, Comic book writers and artists are so bad at taking criticism because they think they’re entitled to a free pass just because they got as far as they did. Movies and films aren’t exempt, so why should comics be? Most notable for not taking criticism very well is Rob Liefeld, Rick Remender, John Layman (whose writing I adore, but he gets upset if someone gives him a low grade review), and now Brett Booth

    • I hesitate to identify any disorders, but I don’t think your wrong to suggest that these attitudes may be pathological. The comics community has long been a safe haven for social misfits, so there may be a higher percentage of resentment towards or anxiety around women than you would expect in the general population. I don’t mean to excuse this behavior by any means, but it strikes me as possible that at least a few of these threats may have been left by people who don’t fully appreciate what impact those words might have.

  5. Wow. I just went through what I could stomach of those links you posted and I’m just disgusted. Not so much by the cover, probably only because I’m so used to those, and Asselin does make some very valid points about what’s wrong with it if you take the time to analyse it (and not just Wonder Girl’s anatomy mind you), but the backlash from fans and Brett Booth, trying to pigeonhole her as some raging ex-DC employee/feminist maniac just for pointing out some shit which is TRUE. She even says in her article that she doesn’t really blame Rocafort since the cover is basically DC standard, and people are still laying into her like her article was nothing but “ROCAFORT IS A MISOGYNIST FUCK AND DC COMICS ARE ALL ASS HOLES”.

    I’m sickened that anyone, and even worse anyone who identifies with the same characters and hobbies that I do, could think and act like this.

    • While Rocafort may indeed, be a nice guy and great artist (which i’m quite willing to accept, based on comments all over the place – including by Ms Asselin – whenever this sort of thing blows up on the horizon, i think about something my wife once said: “Most young males would try to cover up the fact that they’ve never seen a nude girl – some comic artists seem to like to boast about it.”

  6. Anyone who is surprised by this hasn’t really looked at the darker corners of comic fandom.

    “Rule 34*” images of female comics characters trend heavily to sadistic rape and general degradation.

    The ones (also a large part of the whole) portraying Supergirl and Batgirl (or other girl/girl pairings) as lovers are positively refreshing by contrast.


    * Rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it.

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