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Darth Vader menaces the reader, lit only by the crimson glow of his lightsaber, on the cover of the first issue of Marvel’s cancelled Star Wars: Shadow of Vader series (2018).

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In the realm of social media, comics companies are failing their creators

Leaving artists vulnerable, fans wounded, and publishers bearing the cost

Greg Smallwood/Marvel Comics

Comic creators and their readers appear to have a pretty healthy relationship at conventions: Fans happily line up for hours for a chance at getting a signature, while creators get to hear how loved their work is. Trolls on both sides hide quietly in broad daylight, move on about their day, and avoid the people that they don’t want to see.

As we’ve seen in so many walks of life, the industry’s relationship to comic buyers becomes more complicated online. While most of the internet interactions between comic creators and the audience are complementary and cordial, the past few months have proven again that it’s not only fans that can stir the pot, but creators and publishers as well.

The influx of TV and movie adaptations, and the return of massively successful comics aimed at young readers, has brought a huge uptick in visibility to American comics. Concurrently, it has brought a rise in the community’s social media growing pains. However, while the folks behind big-budget comic book films often get standardized media training for both social media and the press, those responsible for the comics are usually freelance contractors. Many comics creators are dependent on social media to boost their work, but receive little to no social media guidelines from their employers, let alone proper training.

Proof of this comes in a wealth of social media stumbles from creatives just within this year alone. We’ve seen Image Comics resorting to social media silence after cancelling Joshua Luna’s Asian-American focused Americanizasian, writer Frank Tieri aggressively lashing out against a critic of artist Dan Panosian’s cover for DC’s Female Furies #2, and Chelsea Cain printing tweets critiquing the trans politics of her feminist-forward Maneaters series within its pages, shining a potentially hostile spotlight on the readers who tweeted them, without notice or permission.

The tweet reads “I appreciate any comic on menstruation and the literal violent eating of men — I super do — but #ManEaters further cements the toxicity of a gender binary in a heavy handed, sad way.” Maneaters #9, Image Comics (2019).
Women line up to drink medicated water at a reeducation center in Maneaters #9.
Chelsea Cain, Lia Miternique, Elise McCall/Image Comics

Aside from alienating fans, vitriolic outbursts and acts of petty aggression from professionals look wildly unprofessional. But in these instances it’s also important to ask where the presence of publishers seems to be. With clear guidelines, a publisher can protect themselves from the blowback of a creator’s toxic social media presence, and creators run less risk of unknowingly giving their employer grounds to terminate their employment. At what point do publishers realize that social media presence is more than likes and snappy 240-character responses?

Multiple comics publishers are cloak and dagger about their social media policies. Of the companies contacted for this story, only Dark Horse Comics was willing to go on the record, with Image Comics declining to comment entirely and others — including Marvel and DC — not responding to a request for content.

“Dark Horse Comics has a general social media policy for staff members,” a representative of the publisher said. “We provide a best practices document to help creators with their own social media promotion strategy for their comics, but adherence to the company policy is not a requirement of their contractor agreements. If there is a need to offer input or advice to a creator, we will do so on a case-by-case basis.”

It’s as easy as that: offering advice as-needed. And though DC Comics did not respond to requests for comment, in early 2018, an email sent to DC creators containing social media guidelines was leaked to the press. (While DC has not officially commented on the email’s veracity, sources within DC were willing to confirm to me that these guidelines are factual and still in place.)

“You may want to refrain from engaging with individuals who may be speaking negatively about you,” the email reads at one point. “If there has been a personal threat to you or those around you then in addition to alerting DC, please involve the proper law enforcement authorities.” Elsewhere, it adds, “Under all circumstances, please indicate that you do work for DC, but that your comments are your own and do not reflect those of the company.”

These guidelines are obviously nothing surprising or unreasonable either: Don’t feed the trolls, don’t post spoilers or break news, don’t take private interviews with press, and use good judgement on what you decide to post is the short version. But one thing stuck out to me the most — the clear wording shows the company’s willingness to back its people up if they face harassment on social media, while still allowing the freedom to speak on their own private platform.

This last part in particular speaks volumes to the trust built between publisher and creator, as well as an unwillingness to completely limit free speech and interactions with fans. The flip-side of that kind of relationship can be found in what happened last year with writer Chuck Wendig and Marvel Entertainment.

Darth Vader stands at the head of a reflective table in Cloud City, on the cover of Shadow of Vader #2, which would have been written by Chuch Wendig. Marvel Comics (never released).
The putative cover of Star Wars: Shadow of Vader #2.
Lucasfilm, Marvel Comics

In late 2018, Wendig was fired from his upcoming book, Star Wars: Shadow of Vader after tweeting a series of bold statements during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings on his personal Twitter account. Wendig had a history of being vocally progressive in his political views, and had no problem defending them even after countless harassment from Star Wars reactionaries. Wendig stated openly that he was let go, and the book later scrapped completely, because of his tweets and their strong political nature.

Officially, Marvel has flip-flopped on whether they have a social media policy in place, but if they didn’t, why would Wendig have been fired for “being too openly political”?

Other forms of entertainment follow similar guidelines, a we can see from the example of James Gunn’s experience last year. After #MeToo developments across mainstream entertainment, far-right internet trolls unearthed a batch of old tweets made by Gunn, joking about the subjects of pedophelia and rape. Disney was quick to fire the Guardians of the Galaxy director despite the tweets predating his involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Gunn clearly having grown much more outspoken in his stances politically-centered jokes requiring more nuance. He was later rehired.

Both Gunn and Wendig’s experiences beg the question of whether the creators involved were even aware of policies in the first place — or if the guidelines were moved without warning.

At the moment, comics publishers’ secrecy around social media guidelines, however, follows the example of larger entertainment companies. But that wasn’t always the case; a simple Google search quickly uncovered a Time Warner document detailing — somewhat outdated, of course — social media policies from 2012.

The wider entertainment industry, then, seems happy enough to leave it at, “Hey, we understand that you’re people, you have social media accounts, that you want to be yourself, but you also want to market yourself as our employee. Here’s the middle ground.” And with guidelines so simple and seemingly unrestrictive, why should social media guidelines be something that are shied away from?

In the current day of existing as a creative entity, social media is necessary as a marketing strategy and way to be closer to fans. But navigating impersonal and professional relationships is it’s own skillset — and one that is not always instinctual. With the help of solid, trust-based boundaries set by publishers, creators can still feel free to use social media as a handy marketing tool by being themselves while still promoting healthy alliances with both their fans and employers.

What would creatives be if they didn’t have freedom to be themselves? But when creativity is part of a business venture, it’s only reasonable to ask that the responsibility fall on the shoulders of editors, publishers, and their executives to maintain a delicate balance between professionalism and personality. It’s not asking for more restrictions, it’s asking for more accountability, oversight, and clearer lines.

Chloe Maveal is a freelance pop culture journalist in Portland, Oregon who specializes in fandom culture, superheroes, and comics history. You can find her on twitter @PunkRokMomJeans where she is probably cursing too much and yelling at nothing.

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