Comic conventions have a reputation for having reputations. Some of them are good: A convention is a place where thousands of people who have been picked on and bullied their whole lives for being nerds can come together to celebrate their fandoms openly. Some of them are bad: If you’re a woman or a minority, you’re probably still going to encounter at least some bullying or harassment. This is not to say that being a geek is still the same tired, old boys club it used to be, but women and minorities still often have to prove themselves before being taken seriously as a “real” geek, and representation is still something we have to fight for. This is why seeing panel discussions about diversity and representation in comics, movies, gaming, etc. at a convention has such a deep meaning. Recently, however, one such panel at the well-respected Gen Con in Indianapolis (you may remember earlier this year when the convention threatened to leave Indiana over their ‘Religious Freedom Bill’) has received quite a bit of controversy.
From the moment it was announced, the Writing Women Friendly Comics panel at Gen Con was getting press. While the panel sounded both interesting and compelling, it lacked a pretty essential component – women. The panel moderator, Bill Willingham, author of Fables comics (a series praised for its inclusiveness and popularity with female readers), and every other panelist were male. Thankfully, after The Mary Sue brought this issue to light, female writers Delilah Dawson and Alina Pete were added to the panel. It felt a lot like a win. Rejoicing occurred. At least, that is, until the panel actually happened.
Apparently, Willingham took issue with the panel being modified, and was not at all shy about voicing his contempt. From the moment he opened the panel, Willingham set the tone by making his feelings about The Mary Sue’s article crystal clear:
From there, he moderated the panel with an iron fist: repeatedly interrupting any woman who spoke, refusing to call on women or people of color for audience questions, and defensively rebutted any mention of male, white privilege. Several first-hand accounts of the panel from shocked audience members immediately began popping up online. One in particular, a blog post by Candice Huber, has not only been shared repeatedly, but has caught the attention of journalists and internet trolls alike. In addition to being a woman and a geek, Huber also happens to be the owner of the popular, geek-centric bookstore, Tubby & Coo’s in New Orleans (you can read more about the bookstore in the article I wrote when they opened). She was so upset by Willingham’s behavior at the panel that she has made the decision as a small business owner to pull his books off her shelves. I spoke with Huber to get a bit of clarification on her decision and how it’s been received:
Why did you decision to remove Fables from T&C’s?
“The decision was twofold: first of all, during the panel with Willingham, I was not allowed a voice, so I decided to create one by writing this blog post and removing Fables from the shelves in the bookstore. By doing this, I can hopefully spark discussion on a serious societal issue and on diversity in comics. Secondly, I see the bookstore as an extension of myself, and the way I decide to curate my collection is a reflection on me. In the spirit of upholding my mission and vision of being all-inclusive and accepting and supporting of diversity, I have decided not to sell Fables anymore.”
If someone came into the store looking for Fables, would you tell them where they could go to find it?
“Of course! The statement I’m making isn’t about censorship or telling people what they should or shouldn’t read. There are many other places to purchase Fables if it’s something that someone wants to get into. In the blog post and in all of my social media posts, I never called for people to boycott Fables or Willingham. All I did was tell my own personal story in the hopes that it would spark discussion. And I feel that’s been fairly successful.”
Have you received any bullying or harassment because of this?
“I’ve gotten everything from being called a “PC Nazi” and a “hysterical online activist” to my two favorite insults: “irritable chick with a grrrl power posse” and “intolerant of intolerance.” I’ve seen it everywhere, from Facebook and Twitter to blog comments. I fully expected to get trolled, and honestly, it made me hesitate to post the story. However, I decided that standing up and doing what I think is right is more important. And if just one person feels empowered by it, I’m willing to take every horrible insult anyone can fling at me.”
In addition to the (sadly all too common) harassing comments, there are also articles on popular websites like Bleeding Cool throwing around words like ‘boycott’, and wondering aloud about other titles she may decide to pull “to remain consistent”. Here is where it is important to remember that Huber has not called for a ban of Willingham’s books, or even encouraged others to avoid them; she’s simply decided to stop carrying those titles in her store (a decision, by the way, that every bookstore owner must constantly make). Bookstores cannot carry every title ever written, and the decision of which titles to carry (and which not to) is an essential part of owning a bookstore. Independent storeowners will often curate their selection based on the profitability of a title as well as how well it fits with the feel of their shop.
We are constantly being told to “vote with your dollar” when we disagree with the practices of a store or vendor; and that is exactly what Huber is doing. Bookstores aren't gifted the products they sell. They purchase their product in the same way any other retailer does. She isn’t refusing to sell to anyone; she’s just refusing to buy his product anymore.
*Disclaimer* I first wrote about Tubby & Coo's a little over a year ago when they first opened. Since then, Huber and I have become friends. I initially found out about this issue through a post she made on her Facebook page and decided to reach out to her for permission to write this article.