Chuck Wendig, Chelsea Cain, and Marvel’s Latest Missteps

Sometimes it seems like comics never change. Batman always has a Robin, Deadpool always appears in more books than anyone actually asked for, and one of the Big Two is always walking face first into another PR disaster.

This time it’s Marvel, with a one-two punch of firing fan-favorite writers in truly baffling ways. First there was Chelsea Cain, whose Vision miniseries with Marc Mohan and Aud Koch was cancelled on September 13th, two months before the first issue was supposed to publish, even though the first four (of only six) issues were already completed.

Then there was Chuck Wendig. Almost exactly one month later, he tweeted that he’d been abruptly fired from the Star Wars books he’d been writing for Marvel:

In the ensuing thread, he explained that after including LGBT characters in his Star Wars: Aftermath novels, he became the target of a sustained harassment campaign from the right-wing troll side of fandom, dealing with attempts ranging from nasty tweets to SWATing attempts. Chuck, who has cultivated a lovably foulmouthed ALL CAPS brand online, responded the way he always has. Lucasfilm, who owns the Star Wars brand, assured him that they were happy with his work (all three novels in the Aftermath trilogy hit the NYT Bestseller list) and to keep doing what he was doing.

And then he was fired (by Marvel, not LFL). In his words: “Because of the negativity and vulgarity that my tweets bring. Seriously, that’s what Mark, the editor said.”

This is troubling for…hoo boy, any number of reasons. Let’s start with the fact that Marvel has historically had a completely hands-off approach towards the social media presence of its freelancers, at least to the best of my knowledge. Just a few years ago, Rick Remender responded to marginalized fans uncomfortable with the implications of his Uncanny Avengers by telling them to drown themselves in hobo piss. Multiple Marvel writers have cultivated such a reputation for vanity searching Twitter and then publicly arguing with anyone tweeting negatively about them that critics are reduced to referring to “That Marvel Writer” or filling names with asterisks so that they won’t turn up in searches; Nick Spencer and Dan Slott are particularly well known for this. Given that these writers tend to have much higher follower counts than the critics they’re disagreeing with, publicly putting those critics on blast is a great way of silencing them, as their fans tend to take this as encouragement to attack said critics. Aside from the mild “Tweet less, write more!” mentioned in the Dan Slott article linked above, there’s never been any indication that Marvel has reprimanded these creators for aggressive, bullying behavior.

Their laissez-faire attitude towards social media encompasses not just letting most of their (white, male) creators do whatever they want, but hanging their (marginalized) creators and staff out to dry when they’re the harassees. As Chuck mentioned in his tweet thread and subsequent blog post, editor Heather Antos received far worse harassment than he has for the crime of…being a woman who works at Marvel? In fact, her innocuous selfie with her female coworkers is generally cited as the kickoff for the ludicrous, hate-fueled Comicsgate “movement.” While creators quickly came to her defense, it was hard to see what kind of support Heather (a full-time employee, and not a freelancer) received from Marvel aside from one official tweet.

Oh, and remember how I mentioned Chelsea Cain at the start of this article? You might recall her last outing with Marvel, when her Mockingbird series was canceled before the first trade came out (and subsequently skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon graphic novels bestseller list, not to mention being nominated for an Eisner), and the cover of the last issue, featuring the heroine in a T-shirt that said “Ask me about my feminist agenda,” led to such virulent harassment it (temporarily) drove Chelsea off of Twitter. Marvel didn’t do anything at all to visibly support their writer—but Brian Michael Bendis did pop into the conversation long enough to “helpfully” assure Chelsea that comics didn’t have a harassment problem.

In other words, it’s always been the Wild Wild Web for Marvel staff and freelancers—no visible support or restraint. I asked Chuck if he’d ever been given any formal or informal guidelines or warnings from Marvel about his Twitter, or if they had a social media policy for freelancers that they knew of. “I never received any kind of warning or prohibition,” he told me. “My Twitter has been like this for a long time, as has my blog, as have my other books. Further, the thread that got the attention was just a reiteration of some earlier viral threads of mine. It wasn’t even new.”

With all that said, it’s hard not to notice the major difference between who, exactly, is involved in these online interactions. Marvel freelancers tell marginalized fans and critics to drown in hobo piss or use their larger platforms to direct harassment towards them? No problem! Marginalized creators and staff are targeted by trolls? Not a big deal!

Creator defends himself against organized hate campaign by Comicsgaters and similar right-wing aggressors? Well, we can’t have that kind of “negativity and vulgarity.”

This knuckling under to the right isn’t unprecedented. Back in 2010, for example, Marvel apologized to the Tea Party for portraying them, um, accurately in a Captain America comic. But the growing scope speaks to a larger trend at Marvel (whose chairman and former CEO Ike Perlmutter, it should be noted, is a Trump donor) and Disney of silencing outspoken liberals and letting alt-right campaigns influence their hiring and firing. The recent firing of James Gunn is another example; though he was fired for truly hateful, disgusting jokes and I don’t personally feel a whole lot of sympathy that a powerful white man won’t make millions more dollars directing one specific blockbuster, the fact that the firing was driven by conservative trolls and media outlets looking to take him down for his current liberal tweets is troubling.

Marvel clearly expected both Chelsea and Chuck to be quiet about what happened to them. When I asked if he’d been pressured not to talk about his firing, Chuck told me that Marvel “suggested I simply say that I discovered I was simply too busy to complete the work, which would’ve been not only a lie, but one that required me to appear, as a freelancer, like I just couldn’t hack it. I told them that I’d speak out about this, and the editor’s response was that they could not control my narrative. So I went wide with it.”

Similarly, Chelsea told the Daily Beast that Marvel “they wanted it to be clean and quiet, with the implication—not even—with the understanding that they had more projects for me in the future if we could keep this clean and not make anybody look bad.”

But neither Chuck Wendig nor Chelsea Cain is primarily a comic book writer. Both are, in fact, New York Times bestselling novelists. Unlike Marvel’s usual freelancers, they have the financial and reputational independence to speak out about their treatment. They can discuss being treated unfairly and—perhaps more importantly—being silenced.

Maybe two big names in a month shining a light on Marvel’s problematic hiring and firing policies will be an impetus for them to change their ways. Or, more worryingly, maybe it will be a reason for them to steer away from hiring well-known creatives—to stick with the underpaid, underemployed comics-only freelancers with no union and no healthcare, the ones who don’t have the standing to risk rocking the boat. Such a decision would the a blow to the industry as a whole—to the diversity of perspectives we as readers get to see in our comics, and to the literal physical health and finances of the people making those comics.

Neither Chuck nor Chelsea needs Marvel. But Marvel—and the comic book industry as a whole—needs them, and creators like them. It needs fresh blood and new perspectives, so that it’s not stuck recycling the same stories over and over again. It needs creators willing to stand up for themselves and for others, and to put that courage on the page as well as in their tweets and other public statements. (I should note that the official reason from Marvel for the cancellation of Vision had to do with their plans for the Vision family of characters and not Chelsea’s politics or reputation. Given her history with Marvel, though, it’s hard not to see those as a factor. At the very least, they’ve made it blatantly clear that they see absolutely no need to support a woman who was harassed off of Twitter for being explicitly feminist about the work she did with them, which implies that they don’t support the underlying view that, uh, women are people.)

I mean, for Odin’s sake. If someone can get fired from the company that publishes freaking Captain America and the X-Men for fighting too vocally for social justice, what the hell are any of us doing here?

I don’t know if Marvel’s recent choices are the result of a conservative agenda or simply a company owned by a massive corporation doing their best to not offend anyone and failing to understand that colorful language is less offensive than death threats and this administration’s rapid erosion of human rights. What I do know is that if Marvel wants to look like its own behavior reflects the values of the heroes it publishes, it has some apologies to make—and some serious thinking to do about who it stands behind and who it doesn’t.

In the meantime, there’s always Chuck’s Aftermath novels and Chelsea’s new Man Eaters comic from Image. Happy reading, true believers.

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