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Warren Ellis, Cameron Stewart, and the Storm of Sexual Misconduct Allegations Roiling the Comic Book Industry

Warren Ellis, Cameron Stewart, and the Storm of Sexual Misconduct Allegations Roiling the Comic Book Industry

In 2009, 16-year-old comics fan Aviva Maï met a thirtysomething artist, who flirted with her by text and took her out on a date. For a long time after that—a period when Maï thought they were friends—she received occasional texts from him expressing regret that he’d missed his chance of dating her. The texts made her uncomfortable. Slowly, she began to question the series of events. Slowly, she realized that they hadn’t been friends at all.

On June 15, amid nationwide protests around police violence and racism, Maï, now an artist and model, tweeted an oblique reference to that creator. Later that evening, she named him: “Hey. That post about being groomed as a teenager? I’m talking about Cameron Stewart. The comic book artist.” 

Stewart, an artist and writer best known for his work on a critically acclaimed relaunch of Batgirl, had been a fixture in the industry for years; in some quarters, his tendency to date younger women was an open secret. After Maï laid the story out, several women in the comics industry—among them writer/artist Kate Lethdirectly corroborated it. Within two days, Maï wrote on Twitter, 14 other women reached out to share similar accounts. The pattern described was clear: Stewart, they alleged, had used his status as a professional artist to win their trust, and had used that trust as a cover for sexual overtures.

In response to the ensuing uproar, Cameron Stewart locked his social media accounts and DC Comics quietly removed him from an unannounced project. But in the weeks that followed, the conversation sparked by Maï’s tweet spread far beyond Stewart.

The month of June saw the comics industry rocked by successive waves of predatory conduct allegations, amid similar reckonings around sexual harassment in the affiliated worlds of video games, twitch streaming, tabletop games, professional wrestling, and professional illustration. Some of the allegations, as with superstar writer Warren Ellis, were new. Others brought renewed scrutiny to lingering problems like the allegations against Dark Horse editor Scott Allie and DC writer Scott Lobdell. Most of the stories came from marginalized creators who’d previously been silent for fear of being blacklisted. In June, that wall of silence cracked, and what showed beneath was red and raw and deeply, viscerally angry.

“A huge reason why abusive, predatory, and discriminatory practices go unchecked in the comics industry is this: the impetus is always put on the victims to come forward,” Maï wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Victims are expected to speak out at great personal cost—at risk of losing jobs and damaging their financial livelihood, at detriment to their mental health and threats to their personal safety… For every story you hear, there is also an unimaginable amount more that are not heard.” (Stewart did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)

There have been many conversations over the past month about how to change the culture of the comics industry. But June’s storm of allegations is not a sign that the comics industry is broken. It’s a sign that it’s running precisely as designed. 

The comics industry has long been synonymous with exploitation. The early comics publishers were wheeler-dealers and back-room grifters, with their hands in everything from the pulps to softcore pornography. They cut vague handshake deals, crushed attempts to collectively organize and built their industry almost entirely on “work for hire” contracts and freelance labor. The result is a history of dirty dealing that has, over time, been reduced to a litany of names, a Mount Rushmore of the fucked: DC’s mistreatment and neglect of Superman creators Siegel and Shuster; Jack Kirby’s struggle for his original artwork and equal credit for his work with Stan Lee; Alan Moore being screwed out of the rights for Watchmen; Steve Gerber’s long-running battle with Marvel over Howard the Duck.

The modern industry is almost entirely made up of freelancers: writers, artists, colorists and letterers. “Freelancers and people trying to break in are incredibly vulnerable,” writer Devin Grayson (Nightwing, Black Widow, Gotham Nights) told The Daily Beast, particularly when it comes to people working for companies centered around the comics direct market—DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Oni, and the like. That senior editors hold the power to hire and fire is true across most industries, she said. “But then add in factors like freelancers having zero job security, no health insurance, no access to HR departments or higher-ups, no union. If we’re talking mainstream superhero comics, [there are] essentially two large companies—so two chances, period—to get their foot in the door. What happens to you if you piss off just one person in one of those companies, much less voice your concerns in a wider arena?”

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