The Justice League
The Justice League (Photo: Getty Images)

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The comics industry is fighting sexism on screen, but is it a different story behind the scenes?

As Justice League is released in cinemas, DC Comics is dealing with the recent firing of a group editor over sexual harassment claims. It doesn’t stop there, says David Barnett

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By David Barnett on

The sacking by entertainment giant DC comics of its group editor Eddie Berganza will leave a question on the lips of many women working in the industry: What took them so long?

Berganza, 53, who has worked at DC since the 1990s, was dismissed on Monday following press reports of his harassment of female employees and creators. But allegations of his inappropriate behaviour have been circulating publicly on the internet for at least three years.

It’s certainly not the sort of publicity DC would be seeking at any time, but perhaps even less so this week when their movie Justice League is launched. The Justice League is DC’s long-running super-team comic, featuring its headline characters Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Characters who embody truth, justice, the American way, and, in the case of Wonder Woman – who has already been feted in her own solo movie starring Gal Gadot – female empowerment.

It’s undoubtedly the high-profile nature of the reporting of the offences, in this case on BuzzFeed last Friday, that has prompted DC Comics to take action. That, and the rapidly plummeting tolerance for men in power behaving appallingly to women that has emerged in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein and Westminster scandals.

DC’s official statement on the Berganza affair is fairly straightforward: “Warner Bros and DC Entertainment have terminated the employment of DC Comics Group Editor Eddie Berganza. We are committed to eradicating harassment and ensuring that all employees, as well as our freelance community, are aware of our policies, are comfortable reporting any concerns and feel supported by our Company.” And it might have been fine if Berganza was an isolated case. But according to the testimony of many women, he’s not. Not at DC, and not in the wider comics industry. One artist told me privately that DC in particular was “a cesspool” for harassment. Another former employee said that the company’s owners, Warner Bros, had in their HR department huge files bursting with complaints against various men, none of which had been acted upon.

Eddie Berganza (Getty Images)
 

The comics industry likes to put on a front-facing image of progressive equality. Superheroes were once the preserve of teenage boy power fantasies, a largely male readership consuming entertainment put together by largely male creative teams and largely male editorial systems. That’s changed in recent years; more women than ever read comics, and the products themselves cater to a wider, more diverse audience with both their characters and their artists and writers. Nobody would, these days, consider comics a “boy’s game”.

However, the top end of the hierarchy mainly remains a man’s world, which is something that dates all the way back to the early days of modern comics in the 1950s and 1960s. Another creator likened it to a Mad Men-style environment, a testosterone-charged boys’ club that never really embraced the equality and progressiveness they were pushing with their titles. “No one ever made them change,” she tells me. “They were outside normal parameters. So they just got worse.”

In Berganza’s case, the harassment allegations tend to date back around a decade, with no recent claims that he has committed any wrongdoing prior to his sacking. But that’s sort of the point; women have been complaining about him and others across the industry for years, but post-Weinstein the employers of serial harassers are finally taking things more seriously, and more women feel able to come forward.

Liz Gehrlein Marsham, who started working at DC in 2006, told BuzzFeed she was targeted by Berganza at a social event just three weeks after she’d started what was to her a dream job. He asked her to pose for a selfie, and kissed her twice, once forcing his tongue into her mouth. Then, she says, he tried to grope her later in the evening.

Joan Hilty, an editor and artist for DC, alleges that she had a similar experience at the same venue with Berganza in the early 2000s. In 2014 she wrote a piece for the Guardian in which she described the “drunk superior at an offsite office party who locked his arm around my shoulders, trying to pull me towards him for a kiss”. Hilty named the superior to Buzzfeed as Berganza, recounting how she told him that if he didn’t take his arm off her “right now I’ll break it”. She didn’t go public at the time of the alleged assualt, but by 2010 another female DC editor, Janelle Asselin, was organising a complaint to DC’s HR department with testimonies from several women.

More women than ever read comics, and the products themselves cater to a wider, more diverse audience with both their characters and their artists and writers

Marsham, Hilty and Asselin no longer work at DC, though Berganza remained there until this week. Others, across the many companies publishing comics who have been complained about, both privately and publicly, remain in post though.

Perhaps the first notable outing of harassment came from the artist Tess Fowler back in 2013, when she described in a series of tweets how she had been approached by a respected comics figure at the massive San Diego Comic-Con and invited to his hotel room to discuss her career. Recognising the approach for what it was, Fowler described how she ignored the invitation, only for the next morning to have him screaming at her in public and sending her messages via social media to say he thought her art wasn’t up to scratch anyway.

In a way, that was the leak that had sprung in the dam of silence, enablement and glossing over that the big comic companies seemed to have put up around those men accused of harassment. More social media and blog posts followed. The former DC editor Janelle Asselin wrote on the Graphic Policy website in 2015: “We all know at this point that there is a pervasive sexual harassment problem in comics. This isn’t just about one or two people who behave badly, but about an industry-wide problem where harassers and abusers are protected by their employers.” In the same piece, Asselin details how a male comic book writer, Joe Harris, had his crotch grabbed by a male editor, who later bit the writer’s ear. Creatives who had suffered abuse at the hands of senior figures began to take often bold steps detailing their harassment and often naming names on social media.

The reason for many women simply putting their heads down and trying to ignore the harassment in comics is obvious, as it is in so many other industries; they fear for their jobs, or for their ability to get work as writers or artists in a highly competitive freelance world.

The sacking of Berganza is obviously the right move, but it’s taken years for DC to act, even with formal complaints on file. And many, many more men accused of predatory behaviour are still in their jobs. But perhaps, after Weinstein, the tide is changing, and failure to act, and act quickly, is likely to have damaging consequences to the big companies.

While the comics industry is an all-ages entertainment juggernaut, it is still true that children and young readers take great inspiration from the likes of Superman and especially Wonder Woman, as more and more girls and women embrace the medium as readers and fans. The grimy, shadowy world of harassment and abuse of power lurking behind the brightly-costumed champions of justice is an unwelcome dichotomy, a secret identity that has had its time in the world of comics.

@davidmbarnett

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The Justice League (Photo: Getty Images)
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