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Punching Down: Chelsea Cain's reaction to fair criticism is unacceptable
Image Comics

Comic Books

Punching Down: Chelsea Cain’s reaction to fair criticism is unacceptable

Fan criticism, creator reactions, and Chelsea Cain.

Gone are the days when comic book readers’ primary means of reaching out to industry professionals was to write letters, hopeful that their words might be among the lucky few to make it into print. Though letters columns haven’t gone totally extinct, they now contend with an easier, more direct means of contact between fans and creators: social media. The main platform of note in this week’s developments is, as it often is, Twitter. Chelsea Cain has found herself the subject of much controversy, the likes of which she’s already faced as the writer of Marvel’s Mockingbird (2016) and Image’s Man-Eaters. The backlash this time, however, is on a whole new level as this last week’s Man-Eaters #9 reaches new heights in terms of, shall we say questionable, creator response to criticism.

The core of the discussion stems from two panels that lift, word for word, tweets from a Twitter thread discussing the series’ issues with regards to bio-essentialism and trans exclusion. Though creators reacting to critics is nothing new, enshrining critics’ words within the very text they were critiquing is an extreme level of response the comics community is largely unaccustomed to seeing, and that has raised concerns both legal and moral.

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Punching Down: Chelsea Cain's reaction to fair criticism is unacceptable

Image Comics

From a copyright and good faith perspective, it’s worth noting that Cain chose to include the aforementioned tweets in Man-Eaters #9 without asking their original writer for permission. This has naturally resulted in questions being asked about what does and doesn’t constitute fair use, but for purposes of this article I’ll be focusing more on how Cain’s actions constitute punching down to a degree that’s seldom seen, even in fandom communities on Twitter.

Comic book fans are no strangers to the concept of creators sending droves of followers after critics who dared to not love their work. The examples that immediately come to mind are Comicsgate bigots retweeting fans who belong to minority groups and have comparatively minuscule follower counts and power, resulting in the targets receiving waves of online harassment just for voicing that they didn’t like a book, or for pointing out the ways in which a book furthered racist/sexist/transphobic/etc. bile. It’s difficult to fathom an explanation of this behavior by creators that doesn’t just come down to them abusing their comparatively higher social status for the purpose of getting back at critics. With that said, while this isn’t a new phenomenon, Man-Eaters #9 is a rather unique case.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that the original tweets didn’t tag Chelsea Cain or any other member of the Man-Eaters creative team. In order to even find them in the first place, Cain would have either had to conduct a vanity search or had the tweets sent to her by someone else. Neither scenario erases the fact that the tweets’ writer did nothing to engage with Cain directly. They simply voiced their opinions about a book without ever contacting the creators. In other words, the tweets’ writers shared opinions (and rather tamely, to boot) about a piece of media without making any attempt to harass Cain or any of her co-creators, or even to start a discussion with them. It’s also worth pointing out that, while I’ve referenced creators’ tense relationships with critics, that’s not what transpired here. The tweets aren’t even excerpts from a review, but rather just a reader sharing their reactions casually.

And how did Cain respond in what never even needed to become a conversation? By reproducing said tweets for the world to see in a comic book with an audience far, far larger than the other party’s. True, American comic books are a relatively niche interest, but we’re talking about a book with enough eyes on it to get an Eisner nomination, for Christ’s sake. The power and fame imbalance can’t be overstated. Why, then, did Cain choose to act as she did? Pettiness, cruelty, revenge? In one of her tweets responding to backlash, she made her reasoning out to be some sort of coping mechanism:

“I just wanted to acknowledge the really painful criticisms of the work,” Cain said. Why one would need to reprint something verbatim in order to acknowledge it, who knows. The wording of the tweet, which focused on Cain’s own pain and sense of victimhood, is reflective of Cain’s apparent modus operandi for dealing with the situation as a whole: take criticisms of Man-Eaters and Cain’s actions with regards to how they could potentially be harmful to trans people, and twist them so that it seems Cain is the one being hurt.

Cain’s explanatory tweet is also notable in how logically unsound it is. The “I didn’t know that” is in response to another user asking Cain if she realized that readers would be able to find the tweets’ writer online after seeing the tweets reprinted in the issue. Cain claims to have not known this was possible, despite she herself having found the tweets without the aid of being tagged or having their complete text reprinted in an Eisner-nominated comic book for thousands of readers to see.

This is perhaps the first instance of fans’ criticisms being lifted wholesale into print so shamelessly (or at least the first that I’m aware of), but it’s not altogether dissimilar from other recent events. Take for example Marvel’s Not Brand Ecch #14 from 2017, with its calling out of Twitter user Colin Spacetwinks’s comics criticism essays while referring to said essays as “gibberish” in a montage of angry fan reactions to the Secret Empire event.

All in all, if there’s one thing this past week has highlighted, it’s the ease and apparent shamelessness with which those with fame can bring unwanted attention to fans, critics, and readers simply for not thinking that every comic is perfect. While we’re talking about the ease with which these actions are taken, let’s acknowledge that Cain’s not alone in terms of responsibility for Man-Eaters #9. What about the rest of the creative team? What about Image Comics’ higher-ups, who are more than willing to accept the monetary benefits they gain from publishing their books but are less willing to acknowledge responsibility for their publications’ merits when they face backlash?

Will anything more of note come forth from all this controversy? Will Chelsea Cain grow into the fiercest trans rights advocate of a generation? Will portions of this article be lifted word for word in Man-Eaters #12? Only time, and Twitter, will tell.

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