After several weeks of increasing discussion about sexism in the comics industry, comic writer Brian Wood (X-Men published by Marvel, Star Wars published by Dark Horse) admitted on his website that he “did make a pass at” artist Tess Fowler at San Diego Comic-Con a number of years ago. Fowler responded with a detailed presentation of her perspective on the events. I encourage you to read both statements, as well as Beccatoria’s accounting of how the situation initially was brought to light on social media and her analysis of the ongoing media coverage, which has been far from even-handed.
Following this news, reactions have ranged from defending Wood based on his statement to calling for his firing. I am writing this post for several reasons. Like Club Jade’s Dunc, I believe this situation is important to bring to the attention of my readers. I also want to share how I am responding to the issue as a fan. And above all, I believe it’s necessary to emphasize, as clearly as I possibly can, that Wood, based on his own version of events, was completely in the wrong. The truth of his behavior, as reported by Fowler and others, may be worse – but until the comics industry, and the fandom more broadly, understands that even something like “making a pass” is not a trivial slight, but rather a serious affront, change will be far too slow to occur.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that a Star Wars storyteller who has pontificated on social media or in interviews about women’s rights, gender equality, and feminism ultimately proved unable to back up their words with actions. From Paul Kemp’s all-male Crosscurrent to Troy Denning’s entire body of work in the Expanded Universe and Christie Golden’s repeated undermining of female characters in her Fate of the Jedi books, the Star Wars EU was suffering from a troublesome pattern of storytelling that resulted in a continuous loss of female fans. In the past couple of years, fans have seen some recognition from the Powers That Be about the white-male-ness of Star Wars stories. Brian Wood was brought in to the Star Wars fold around the time the team overseeing the Expanded Universe was trying to diversify their storytelling offerings. It seems undeniable that, at least in some part, he earned his spot in Star Wars and at Marvel by presenting an opportunity to appeal to the fanbase hoping for more truly feminist-minded creators.
Wood, who is also well-known for his work on independent, creator-owned comics with female leads, like Local, Channel Zero and Mara, sees this book as an opportunity to write a high-profile group of female characters in a way that addresses a lot of the cultural criticism about how superheroines are often presented as eye-candy, often in the guise of “empowerment.”
“There’s too much cheesecake out there that is sold, or at least marketed, as a ‘strong female’ character or book when it’s anything but, it just reinforces the worst opinions of the most sexist fans, and we gain no new ground. We probably lose ground. I’m not approaching this new X-Men as a ‘female book,’ but I’m writing it as a high action X-Men comic, and with some luck that will nullify some of these poisonous critics who go looking for something to feel angry/uncomfortable/threatened by.”
The key to writing good female characters, says Wood, is simply to try to understand them on a human level first, and then consider the character from the perspective of gender.
From January 15, 2013, Underwire article on Marvel’s X-Men all-female relaunch written by Brian Wood
Harassment at a convention is wrong no matter who the perpetrator is. When it is engaged in by someone, like Brian Wood, who considers himself a feminist – and earns work, acclaim, and sales based on his supposed feminist beliefs and values – the hypocrisy is all the more offensive. The betrayal is real, and profound.
I want to be perfectly clear: even on Wood’s version of the events, “making a pass” at Fowler at SDCC was not some innocuous failed flirtation, but an incident of harassment. Wood was working as a professional at a convention; so was Fowler. Even if he had been single, that wouldn’t have made it acceptable to hit on her. Conventions exist to allow professionals to make new connections, to bring in new work or to sell existing work to clients. Wood was not at a club or a bar on his own time; he was at a professional convention doing a job. And in the execution of that job, he is obligated to see the other attendees as human beings, not eye-candy. Women who attend conventions to promote their careers should not have to wonder which men they’re talking to are interacting in good faith, and which ones are just trying to fulfill a sexual desire.
Nor would it have mattered if Wood were himself an emerging professional like Fowler. Lack of fame or notoriety isn’t a green light to hit on fellow convention attendees, whether they have pro badges on their lanyards or they’re simply fans. In her analysis, Beccatoria also gives context to Wood’s professional standing at the time the events happened, which he downplays in his statement. For me, it’s clear that Wood absolutely was in a position of power when he made the admitted pass at Fowler. By feigning interest in her work, he cost her valuable time where she might have made a connection that propelled her career forward on a different path. Actions like his also create numerous other insidious side effects from experiencing an event like that, and these are things I am intimately familiar with.
You see, I too have been sexually harassed at a convention. Sadly, that wasn’t the first time in my life I had been treated not as a human being, but as a person defined by my gender. In high school, a math teacher told me no girl would ever get an A in his class, a physics teacher always wrote the exam word problems involving women to result in the woman’s failure to achieve her goal, and I was groped in a stairwell by a male classmate. In college, where I was one of four female civil engineering majors, several of the professors who were from foreign countries would ignore the women in class, and I was “sold” by a group of male friends to a fraternity pledge (in exchange for a case of beer) to complete his pledge harem. With an engineering degree in hand, one of my earliest employers, a major utility company, mandated that all female employees wear skirts to work; the first day the rule was implemented, I was sent to a power plant to provide engineering assistance on a pipe hangar – several flights of stairs up on a level with open grating. Over the course of my career, I have been spit at and called gendered slurs at work sites. Of all those events, the sexual harassment at a convention has been the most destructive to me.
It occurred at an engineering convention. Professionals go to them for the same reasons participants in the comic industry attend SDCC; social hours exist at both, as well. The first time I was harassed, I didn’t understand his interest was only in me as a woman until the man slipped his room key onto the bar and said he “hoped to see [me] upstairs.” I had been to many conventions at that point; I had met numerous people after hours, had dinner, maybe a drink or two, just like all the other convention attendees. I distinctly recall staring at the room key and wondering what I had done wrong – and what the ramifications would be when I didn’t show up in his room. The harasser held many lucrative contracts that several firms, including my own, were chasing. I remember in the moment feeling ashamed, even though I had done nothing wrong. I also felt very isolated. Who could I turn to? Down the road, if we lost the job opportunity, would it be because of my refusal to comply with his request? Reporting the incident might cost us the job, too, and would that be held against me? Years later it came to light that the District that man represented was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal that resulted in the firing of several key employees. The harasser obviously came from a culture that had fostered that type of behavior. Over the course of my two-decade career, I had to deal with inappropriate sexual advances at conventions twice more. Eventually I was wary enough of putting myself in those types of situations that I avoided them altogether – which isn’t exactly a benefit for a person’s career advancement.
Even the thought of going to a Star Wars fan convention like Celebration intimidated me because of my experience. I would never have gone to any of those conventions without friends there who served as back-up, much as Tess Fowler explained the way her friends functioned at San Diego Comic-Con. GeekGirlCon’s culture and anti-harassment policy has made it one of the few times in the past several years that I felt truly safe at a convention. At Celebration VI, ironically while I was sitting in attendance at the Brian Wood panel, a male VIP left me a voicemail to invite me to dinner with a group including other VIPs and friends. I almost turned it down, partly because the previous harassment made me lack confidence in myself, and also because I have enough history to be suspicious of any outreach by men in a professional setting. This bothers me because it’s not fair to the many generous and considerate men in the industry who have treated me as an equal and helped me in numerous positive ways. If I had turned down that invitation last year, I would have missed making some of my important connections in the Star Wars community.
These are the intangibles of Wood’s betrayal in thinking that there was any set of circumstances in which it was acceptable for him to make a pass at a woman at a professional convention. While Wood’s statement shows concern for his colleagues and his family, to me his response lacks any true empathy for Fowler as a human being or any understanding that his actions have longstanding ripple effects. Worst of all, it shows the hypocrisy in his professed feminism. The harms experienced by women like Fowler with Wood at SDCC, or me with that District employee at the engineering convention, are gendered harms. Heterosexual men invited out for drinks by other heterosexual men at the end of a long convention day don’t have to wonder if it’s just prelude to being propositioned for sexual favors in exchange for potential career advantage. They don’t have to guess whether someone expressing interest in their talent is only trying to start a lame seduction attempt rather than participating in good faith networking. They don’t face the prospect of doubting the motives – or at least, the sexual intentions – of every man they interact with at the con. For women like Fowler and me, and countless others, that is our convention reality.
A man with real feminist values would have deeply internalized the gendered nature of the harms caused by this kind of harassment. And the last thing he would ever want to do is create those harms himself. For all of Wood’s words, his actions speak louder.
At the time Wood’s Star Wars comic was announced, I researched his résumé and found myself happy to discover a writer touted as an advocate for women and female characters. I was eager to promote his story. His comic has portrayed a new side to Leia’s character, placing her in an X-wing cockpit during the movie era. This decision has also brought the story and the writer criticism from some fans. Among friends I have addressed the criticism, which I feel is totally misplaced and based upon ingrained double-standards for male characters versus female characters. For a while now I have felt guilty for not having made time to write and post FANgirl’s review, where I intend to defend Wood’s storytelling choices for Leia’s characterization. Sometimes life throws you a few curveballs and a blogger just can’t get to everything on her list. Suffice it to say, guilt about not defending Wood isn’t an emotion I feel anymore.
On the matter of how his actions may have a negative impact on the future of stories, whether books or comics, my thoughts are conflicted for the same reasons expressed by Beccatoria:
On a level I don’t really think holds as much weight, but is certainly dear to my heart, he currently writes Star Wars (that’s the comic’s title, it’s just called “Star Wars”), which has been an unexpected runaway success, selling double or triple the numbers of any other Star Wars title. This matters to me because Dark Horse currently holds the license for Star Wars but with the Disney sale, I think it’s likely that absorbing it into Marvel is being considered. I’m invested in that not happening as I don’t think Marvel’s track record lends itself to licensed comics so I’m invested in Dark Horse proving itself the better steward. Obviously that isn’t as socially important as the representation of women, but on a lesser scale it demonstrates the same principle – boycotting Wood isn’t without wider and potentially damaging effect. Whether it hurts the women who work on his titles, the representation his books offer, or a publication house’s ability to do interesting things with a franchise I adore…
Everyone has to find their own response to these types of developments in a franchise they love. Especially in entertainment, each person has to decide where they want to come down on the matter. In this case, I believe raising awareness is important. With this story covered from sources like The Mary Sue, Comics Alliance, Bleeding Cool, Doctor NerdLove, and The Outhousers, and spreading across Tumblr like wildfire, I doubt Wood will get much more promotion as a feminist writer. In the future, the advantage he held among a pool of potential writers for new titles won’t be falling his way.
Beyond that, for now, I’m personally inclined to take a measured response. Do I think Wood should be fired? Not based on what we know at this point, although additional information, including another incident related by Anne Scherbina, could change my outlook. Will I continue to read and buy his Star Wars series? Yes, but I won’t be buying any of his non-Star Wars work that I’d previously included on my read list. Do I want to see Star Wars hire Wood again? No. For the same reason I don’t want to see Troy Denning or Christie Golden writing Star Wars again, Wood goes on that list, as well. Star Wars, and the Expanded Universe in particular, very much needs to regain confidence from the fanbase, and Wood, like Denning and Golden, isn’t in a position to do that anymore. What do I think Dark Horse and Marvel should do about Wood? At a minimum, he should be required to complete training on sexual harassment, and both companies need to publicly recommit to their stance on sexual harassment at conventions, trade shows, and public engagements.
Finally, I couldn’t help but notice Wood’s admission that “[a]s a father to a young daughter showing an interest in making her own comics, I do really care about this stuff.” Unfortunately, he isn’t the first creator or fan to see things in a new light only after having a daughter, when they’re abruptly confronted with the realization that someday, inevitably, some dick is going to treat their daughter like a gender to be lusted after rather than a human being who deserves respect. It’s sad that it takes fatherhood to change some men. It’s equally sad that sometimes it takes getting publicly called out by a fellow professional who is rightfully angry to get others to change their tune. While I’m sure he never wishes his daughter to be in Fowler’s shoes, Wood has used his advocacy for women to leverage jobs and prestige despite putting a woman in a casting couch scenario.
As a woman I see many obstacles to changing the status quo. The only way Brian Wood will convince me that he is part of the solution will be if he works as hard now to advocate for change in the industry as he did to promote his “male feminist writer” brand in the first place.
To the entertainment news sites who have hedged on covering the topic, or left the “Brian Wood” tag off their post on the news so the coverage will be buried in the future, I leave you with the wisdom of Kate or Die, an original comic from Kate Leth presented by Comics Alliance:
Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog Suvudu.com and Star Wars Insider magazine and is a contributor for Her Universe’s Year of the Fangirl. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Assembly of Geeks and RebelForce Radio Presents Fangirls Going Rogue.
Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.