In our current moment, when many of us think of Twitter, we think of it as a space of broadcasting, unproductive argument, or even, for some, of violence. In comics fandom, Twitter has been the primary space of Comicsgate, a hate group against the diversification and what they term politicization, of primarily superhero comics. Comicsgaters on Twitter became so violent and persistent at one point that creator Chelsea Cain famously left the platform. It is a space where toxic masculinity can flourish, as seen in reactions to the Captain Marvel movie trailer, which announced the first major movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe led by a female superhero. In the ramp up to release, threats from Comicsgaters to “review bomb” the movie on sites like Rotten Tomatoes led to that site blocking anyone associated with the movement. But Twitter is also a space for connecting, providing support, and forming community that has been essential for marginalized individuals, including marginalized scholars and marginalized fans. We see this in the various ways women comics creators have used Twitter to build communities of support. In one such moment, spurred on by the Captain Marvel movie release, Gail Simone rallied women and nonbinary comics fans around the following tweet:
Okay, little experiment. If you identify as female (or non-binary), raise your hand if you have ever been accused of or questioned as being a 'fake nerd girl.'#Fakenerdgirl
— GAIL SIMONE (@GailSimone) February 28, 2019
The moments people shared as the thread grew point out the misogynist and erroneous assumption of Comicsgate that only straight white men read comics or participate in particular fandoms. Both of these aspects of fandom—the toxic masculinity and the celebration of an increasingly diverse comics audience—permeate comics studies as an academic field, and its digital presence becomes shaped accordingly. Rather than mirroring the many articles and views that highlight the negative affordances of Twitter, I want to discuss the supportive community it can provide, and to suggest that the platform can be an intersectional feminist space for solidarity building. In light of the vitriol that some women and other marginalized individuals experience on Twitter, it is vital that we recognize its community building potential.
I’ve been teaching digital connectivity through social media for a long time, and recently, I got to practice it myself. On February 24th I posted the following tweet as part of a thread to start the #womenonpanels event.
The idea is to tweet a description of the work you do and then tag other women whose work you are in dialogue with or whose work you admire. Since this is meant to create a network of women talking abt comics, signal boost, follow, connect. #womenonpanels #scholarsunday
— Leah Misemer (@lsmisemer) February 24, 2019
Suggested by my colleague Andréa Gilroy and named by my colleague Adrienne Resha, the hashtag was an attempt on my part to counteract the misogyny of the scholarly field of comics studies. It was also an example of me, as a scholar and teacher, using the electronic mode for activist purposes. I aimed to open up the conversations in the field to be more inclusive, and while my efforts started with inclusivity related to gender, the hashtag, enabled by the connective affordances of the digital realm that I teach my students, accomplished so much more than that. In retweets, replies, and new threads, the diversity it revealed was transdisciplinary and international. This potential for transdisciplinarity (a term I borrow from Adam Kern, a fellow organizer of comics programming I worked closely with at UW-Madison), or the ability to speak not just across disciplinary boundaries, but also beyond the ivory tower to people in the surrounding community, including comics fans, is what draws me to comics studies in the first place. The #womenonpanels event used digital affordances to capture the best of what comics studies scholarship is.
Repairing the Blind Spots
The hashtag began in response to Resha calling out the misogyny of comics studies, a subject that comics scholar Brenna Gray wrote about in 2016.
Comics studies has a misogyny problem and male scholars absolutely need to recognize it. It's clear on Twitter, on our listserv, and at our conferences. It's not just (inter)personal, it's systemic.
— Adrienne Resha (@AdrienneResha) February 21, 2019
Insidious and systemic, misogyny in comics studies often takes the form of blind spots, rather than outright, intentional hostility. It manifests as edited collections with a low percentage of women, failing to cite women who have expertise on a subject, or deploying methodologies that automatically exclude the genres and forms most women cartoonists have created. It might take the form of writing a history of underground comics focused on men or of choosing your corpus for distant reading through the lens of the mass market, which has famously been an unwelcoming place for women cartoonists. In a recent celebrated edited collection from Cambridge, of the 40 contributors, six are women. Occasionally, it manifests, as it also does in fandom, as a claim that there are proper comics (superheroes) or proper histories (those centering white men), and if you aren’t analyzing or discussing those histories, you aren’t a “serious” comics scholar. These oversights may seem like isolated events, but they accumulate to reveal an ongoing erasure and diminishment of women in comics and comics studies. In these moments of misogyny, back channel conversations with my fellow comics studies colleagues, also facilitated by digital affordances, provide much needed support. But these conversations, important as they are, don’t raise visibility about the issues because they aren’t public, and therefore are unlikely to lead to action.
Gilroy’s suggestion to run a hashtag came out of an initiative that took advantage of the public nature of Twitter. #Visiblewomen is an event run by Kelly Sue DeConnick, creator of comics like Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly and a huge advocate for female fandom at least since her work on the Captain Marvel comics in 2012, to raise the visibility of women comics creators. Creators post sample images of their work using the hashtag and DeConnick retweets them to boost their signal and reach. I wanted this event to similarly feature the work of women scholars, and I wanted it to take advantage of the connectivity of those supportive back channel conversations. I wanted it to be an opportunity for women to connect with one another, as well as an opportunity to recognize each other’s work. The ability of the internet to connect people, an affordance that has been vitally important for allowing marginalized audiences to create a space for themselves, is a theme that has run throughout my teaching of electronic affordances, including the class on webcomics I am currently teaching. And here I was, using those affordances as a scholar and an activist.
As you might be able to tell, my goals were gender-focused, though I will point out that my own perspective on gender is intersectional, and many of my women colleagues in comics studies share this view. I also, in my own tweet recognizing the women who inspire me, included Ebony Flowers and Dawn Wing, two scholar creators who are also women of color. As is evident throughout this discussion, this move falls in line with the ways comics studies blurs the lines both between academic scholar and critical fan and between analysis and practice. I live these blurred lines everyday when I have students create comics in my classes as a way of raising awareness about civic issues like mental health resources or urban development. I, too, am a creative practitioner and have published comics on my research. It was vital that my activism speak to this reciprocity and champion the visibility of these overlapping spaces. The reposting ability of Twitter allows for an openness that complements the boundary crossing nature of comics studies, raising visibility of women across many different networks.
In toxic spaces, the lack of control you have over your writing can be frightening, as people misinterpret one another or use you as the straw woman upon which to broadcast their opinions. In the case of #womenonpanels, where the goal was to build a supportive community, it was exciting and generative. The hashtag took off with more that 500 tweets over three days and the participation of scholars from Denmark, New Zealand, India, Turkey, the UK, Spain, and Mexico, to a name a few. What surprised me was the diversity of the academic fields the conversation represented, from library sciences to history and education to biology. Some participants occupy liminal spaces between the academy and the public. Jennifer DeRoss participated and then wrote about the event in Sirens of Sequentials and Kate Tanski, the editor of Women Write about Comics (WWAC), also participated. Even academics like my co-organizers operate in nonacademic realms: Resha is a frequent contributor to WWAC and Gilroy runs the video series “Comics Crash Course.”
My favorite exchange was between Candida Rifkind, the Canada-based current VP of the Comics Studies Society, and Rikke Cortsen, a Scandinavian studies scholar who has published a comic about the iconography of black metal in Nordic comics in a musicology journal. Rifkind found and tweeted about how she planned to incorporate Cortsen’s work into her teaching
— Candida Rifkind (@CandidaRifkind) February 26, 2019
Adding Rikke Cortsen's comic, "Aesthetics of Black Metal in Nordic Comics," to my Intro to Comics reading list for lessons in style, form, intermediality, subcultural aesthetics #womenonpanels @rpcortsen https://t.co/qpWdCDUWY9
— Candida Rifkind (@CandidaRifkind) February 26, 2019
This example connects scholars across international borders, across disciplinary boundaries, and demonstrates the permeable boundaries between scholarship and activism, between creation and scholarship, and between research and teaching. It uses the connectivity of public digital writing to capture the transdisciplinary potential of comics and harnesses that potential for feminist goals.
From Digital to IRL
The movement crystallized when Carol Tilley, current President of the Comics Studies Society, designed a t-shirt based on the calls to read women, cite women, and invite women to be on panels that had emerged during the event.
Let's try this again! Here's a first pass – could be transparent so shirt color would come through for the panels (not the balloons), tag could go on back, yadda yadda. One or two colors would be pretty inexpensive. Thoughts? #womenonpanels pic.twitter.com/cb6Fw4JMGT
— Dr. Carol Tilley 🏳️🌈 (@AnUncivilPhD) February 24, 2019
While plans to sell the shirt at the annual Comics Studies Society conference could be seen as commercializing feminism, I prefer to think of it as continuing the project started by the hashtag. Those wearing the shirts will be able to identify each other as part of the same community, and thus, will be able to continue their connecting and solidarity building “in real life” beyond the digital realm.
The trandisciplinary global reach of the hashtag emphasized the public nature of the digital realm. This sometimes instantaneous expansiveness always shocks my students. Especially when they post on Twitter, there is inevitably at least one student whose work gets retweeted or who gets replies, and that always brings us back to the public nature, and thus, the lack of control over, digital writing. The current use of the hashtag by a women in STEM group also demonstrates that lack of control, as well as highlights how attempts to use Twitter to raise the visibility of women and to build communities of support are not unique to comics studies.
On the following Monday, Resha created a Twitter moment—a way to gather shared tweets into an easily accessible archive—meant to document #womenonpanels. It captures people sharing short descriptions of their own and each other’s work, of allies lending their support, and of people connecting to one another. The ephemeral nature of Twitter makes this newly created database of women working in comics even more vital. Resha and I plan to share this newly minted database of scholars, creators, and fans in the future whenever someone posts a CFP for a comics conference. The Twitter moment capitalizes on the public nature of the digital realm that made the event work in the first place. It also gives us a moment to reflect on the range and variety of participation, to see our conversation as a multifaceted, transdisciplinary correspondence, and to work to turn our act of protest into action, repairing some of the blind spots that currently mar our field.
Bibliography for teaching digital solidarity building:
BBC Two. How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring. (2011).
Bruce Etling, Robert Faris, and John Palfrey. “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing.” SAIS Review 30.2 (2010) 37-49.
Nami Kitsune Hatfield. “TRANSforming Spaces: Transgender Webcomics as a Model for Transgender Empowerment and Representation within Library and Archive Spaces.” Queer Cats Journal of LGBTQ Studies 1.1 (2015) 57-73.
Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely M. Zimmerman. By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. New York: New York University P, 2016.
KJ Rawson. “Transgender Worldmaking in Cyberspace: Historical Activism on the Internet.” QED 1.2 (2014) 38-60.
Howard Rheingold. NetSmart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.