Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Sep 22, 2018

Never meet your (super) heroes

Co-produced with PRX Logo

There’s a new battlefield in the culture wars: comic books. The alt-right now has gotten in the business, led by a buxom, Confederate flag-waving superhero named Rebel and a white vigilante who turns immigrants over to ICE.

Our Partner

Credits

The Investigative Fund was our partner on this story; editor Esther Kaplan and reporter Amanda Robb are producing a story on alt right comics that will appear soon in Rolling Stone magazine.This show was produced by Michael Schiller, with help from Fernanda Camarena. This show was edited by our executive producer, Kevin Sullivan.  Production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score, sound design and engineering was from Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Katherine Rae Mondo and Vanessa Lowe.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:19:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al letson: Hey, hey, hey. Before we start this week's show off, I want to tell you about another podcast I think you might like from the CBC, Uncover: Escaping NXIVM. It takes you into this bizarre self-help group that attracted actors, politicians, the super wealthy, even a visit from the Dalai Lama. The series tells the story of one woman who went from being their star recruiter to leading the fight to take it down. Subscribe to Uncover: Escaping NXIVM on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.
Speaker 1: Reveal is supported by Last Seen, a true crime podcast about the largest unsolved art heist in history. A year of investigative reporting from award-winning journalists at WBUR and the Boston Globe has resulted in new insight and asks "Was it an inside job? Did the FBI let the art slip away? Was Whitey Bulger or the Boston Mafia involved? Where is the stolen art?" Stick around for an exclusive preview of Last Seen at the end of this show. Last Seen, wherever you get your podcasts.
Al letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Every hero has an origin story, a tale that's fraught with drama and heartbreak. It's the fire that tempers their steel and turns them into the hero we all know and love. For Superman, it's the destruction of Krypton.
Speaker 2: If he remains here with us, he will die as surely as we will.
Al letson: For Batman, it's his parents' death.
Speaker 3: You ever dance with the [inaudible 00:01:41] by the pale moonlight?
Al letson: For Spiderman, failing to save his uncle, Ben.
Speaker 4: Uncle Ben.
Al letson: But it's not just heroes. All of us have that pivotal moment in our lives that, as small or as large as it may seem, sets us on a journey. For me, it was in a classroom. As a child, I was struggling with dyslexia and could barely read. I was teased by my classmates and generally felt like I was a big dummy. I'd work every weekend with my aunt who was a teacher to help me learn, but the Dick and Jane books they gave me weren't really cutting it. Then one day, my uncle bought me a stack of comic books, and like Superman being found by the Kents, everything changed.
Al letson: I fell in love with stories, with artwork, with reading. I don't think I'd be talking to you today if I hadn't got those comic books. They upped my reading comprehension, activated my imagination, and gave me a love for storytelling. I am and always will be a comic book nerd which is why my spidey sense started tingling when I heard about a new independent comic book titled Alt-Hero.
Speaker 5: I've been trailing him for weeks.
Al letson: The Alt in Alt-hero of course is a reference to the alt-right, the white nationalist movement.
Speaker 5: He could just be another vigilante.
Al letson: So this was a promotional video for Alt-Hero. There's some comic book art of a little white girl cowering in an alley. A large brown-skinned man with a mustache menaces her. Then a white vigilante appears out of nowhere and knocks the brown-skinned guy out and drops him off at Immigration. Yeah.
Speaker 5: Cleaning up the streets one illegal at a time.
Al letson: The so-called alt-right is moving into comics. On today's show, we're going to look at that movement and how comic books, toxic fans, and social media have become a part of the culture war and one of the soldiers in that war-

 

Vox Day: It's a big step in the culture wars because it's the first time that the right is actually taking back ground that the left had previously claimed.

 

Al letson: ... is a man who has a name like a super villain, Vox Day. Vox Day is the creator of Alt-hero.

 

Vox Day: Anything the left tells us is off-limits, we're going to be going for that and we're going to go for it hard.

 

Al letson: The characters in his comics have secret identities. So does he, sort of. His birth name is-

 

Amanda Rob: Theodore Beale, and he's from Minnesota.

 

Al letson: That's Amanda Rob. Amanda's a reporter with the nonprofit newsroom, The Investigative Fund. She's writing a story on alt-right comics for Rolling Stone Magazine. She interviewed Vox Day for this story.

 

Amanda Rob: And even though he's an American white nationalist, he lives in Europe and he is what you would call an influencer or even a thought leader of the alt-right.

 

Al letson: What else do you know about Vox Day besides that he's writing and publishing Alt-Hero?

 

Amanda Rob: He runs an independent publishing house that puts out books by other extreme conservatives. He's a prolific blogger. He wrote an influential manifesto on the alt-right. By his early 30s, he was calling himself Vox Day which means the voice of God, roughly, but sometimes he also calls himself the Supreme Dark Lord.

 

Al letson: So he calls himself the Supreme Dark Lord and then he wonders why people make him out to be evil?

 

Amanda Rob: Yeah. It's hard to understand.

 

Al letson: Okay. So when did the Alt-Hero comic book get started?

 

Amanda Rob: Well Vox launched a crowdfunding campaign after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. That was in August 2017, and he started crowdfunding in September. If you remember, the Unite the Right rally was when neo-Nazis and the KKK and other groups took to the streets in Charlottesville and they were shouting things like "Jews will not replace us" and waving around Confederate flags.

 

Speaker 6: Jews will not replace us.

 

Al letson: And Confederate flags seem to be a thing for Vox Day. I'm on his crowdfunding page and there's a superhero named Rebel. She's a curvy redhead squeezed into a skimpy costume that's got the design of a Confederate flag. She also waves one around.

 

Vox Day: As you can see, we're not afraid to fly the Confederate flag despite the fact that the left has come out so hard against it.

 

Al letson: This is from a May 2018 interview with Vox Day on Infowars. That's the far-right website and radio show that's so extreme Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube banned it. In this interview, Vox Day is talking to Infowars host Alex Jones.

 

Alex Jones: I realize that this is information warfare and comics are paramount right now because they're [archetypal 00:06:38] and it's something the enemy completely controls. I like the Marilyn Monroe shaped redhead. Who's she?

 

Vox Day: Oh, that's [inaudible 00:06:46], and she's the newest recruit to the Global Justice Initiative.

 

Al letson: He's talking about the cover of Alt-Hero.

 

Alex Jones: Well I got to tell you, it's awesome because notice she doesn't look like a heroin-head. She hasn't been drinking soy. She looks like a woman.

 

Vox Day: Yeah. It's actually a lot of fun to go in and violate pretty much all of the SJW imperatives.

 

Al letson: When Vox Day says SJW, that's short for social justice warriors which sounds good, right? Because fighting for justice is a good thing. But apparently it's not. It's a diss that's become a buzzword for the alt-right.

 

Vox Day: Yeah. They're chopping the hair off women. They're making all the women fat.

 

Alex Jones: Because they either want fat and looking like a man or like an emaciated little boy, not the goddess look.

 

Vox Day: Oh, exactly. That's intentional. If you look at what they're doing, they keep introducing more and more gay characters, more and more transgender characters, and this is very, very intentional.

 

Al letson: Vox Day is trying to make the argument that social justice warriors are on a mission to ruin comics with a leftist, feminist diversity agenda. The marketing of Alt-Hero is all about stoking those fears. Remember, this is the first comic Vox Day has ever written.

 

Vox Day: The comics industry is not nearly in decline but is rapidly approaching a state of complete collapse.

 

Al letson: So you actually met with Vox Day and interviewed him. What was it like?

 

Amanda Rob: So I got in touch with him, and at first, he said no. He doesn't talk to the mainstream media because we're all fake news and we lie, but then he rethought. He finally agreed to meet me so I said "Great. Where are you?" He was like "I'm not telling you." I'm like "All right. Well I'll come to your office in Finland." He's like "No, you can't come there." So I'm like "Okay. So where can we meet?" He picked the Geneva Airport.

 

Al letson: Geneva, Switzerland?

 

Amanda Rob: Yeah. I was in Europe for a different story so I went to meet him.

 

Al letson: What happened?

 

Amanda Rob: I went to a restaurant in the airport and I look around and there's a white guy in a gray tee-shirt and he has thinning hair. Just a regular looking white guy like I went to high school with. Then we ordered like the world's most expensive hamburgers and I want to say we talked for three hours, but really I listened to him for three hours.

 

Vox Day: Vox's first law, any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from insanity.

 

Amanda Rob: What's that a play on?

 

Vox Day: Arthur C. Clarke's first law of science and magic.

 

Amanda Rob: Which is?

 

Vox Day: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

 

Amanda Rob: Okay. What does it mean?

 

Amanda Rob: He was the hardest interview I've ever done and the worst interview I've ever done. It was Austrian philosophers and war theory and genetic information and it was all tangled and knotted.

 

Amanda Rob: Do you not think women should vote?

 

Vox Day: I think it depends. In a representative democracy, no.

 

Amanda Rob: Me? I'm so smart.

 

Vox Day: I've lived for years in a place where I couldn't vote so I just don't quite understand what the-

 

Amanda Rob: But not because of your gender. Because you're not a citizen.

 

Vox Day: Yeah, but I mean the main problem-

 

Al letson: So after you met him that one time and had expensive hamburgers, did you talk to him again?

 

Amanda Rob: Yeah, we've talked on the phone. We've talked by Skype. He was actually very nice to me and forthcoming in his own very intellectual convoluted way until he got mad at me.

 

Al letson: Why did he get mad at you? Because you wanted to vote or ...?

 

Al letson: So Vox Day claims to have gotten money to produce these comic books through a crowdfunding website. I'm on that site and it says he started off trying to raise $25000, but he raised close to $236000. That just amazes me.

 

Amanda Rob: It's actually pretty unbelievable.

 

Al letson: Where is that money coming from?

 

Amanda Rob: Well that's the $236000 question. It's very hard to tell. Most of it's from a anonymous donors and a lot of it comes in very large increments, some up to $5000 each which is weird because the average donation to a crowdfunding project is about $66.

 

Al letson: But we don't know if he actually raised that money. It looks like it, but we don't know that for a fact.

 

Amanda Rob: I think that's a really good point because Alt-Hero was raising money on a crowdfunding site called [FreeStarter 00:11:43], and apparently Vox Day helped create it. It's a private site. It's totally black box. There's no way to find out who made most of the donations, where the money came from, where it went, if it actually existed. I did find out that the company that processed the credit card payments decided to stop working with FreeStarter a few months back, and I tried to get in touch with the company to find out why and they wouldn't talk to me. Then Alt-Hero had already way surpassed its fundraising goal and is publishing now a series of comic books.

 

Al letson: So who's distributing Alt-Hero?

 

Amanda Rob: Amazon.

 

Al letson: Why is Amazon distributing this book?

 

Amanda Rob: Well I asked Amazon, and someone from their PR department got back to me. He said it falls within their guidelines. He helpfully sent me a link to their guidelines so I click on them and it says their definition of offensive material is, and I'm quoting, "What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect."

 

Al letson: That doesn't make sense because I find this offensive and they don't find it offensive.

 

Amanda Rob: Well it's a very moveable goalpost, it turns out. Amazon changes what it thinks is offensive all the time.

 

Al letson: I don't know. That rule seems pretty flimsy.

 

Amanda Rob: Not only is Amazon distributing the digital version, it's number one in its category on Amazon.

 

Al letson: So how does this book become a bestseller?

 

Amanda Rob: Well it's possible that a lot of people are really reading it, and it's possible that Vox is taking advantage of something that Amazon does which is called micro-categorizing. So right now, one of the issues of Alt-Hero is the number one new release in Superhero Graphic Novels. That's a pretty small category, but it is number one in that category.

 

Al letson: Is there a way to game the system?

 

Amanda Rob: Sure. There's a way to game the system. You have your fans and followers click on the book. If you have Kindle Unlimited, it's free.

 

Al letson: So why would he do this?

 

Amanda Rob: Well it's called astroturfing, and what that means is to make something that's a fake grassroots campaign. What it does is it makes somebody seem more popular, more powerful, more successful than they are, and sometimes fake success can lead to real success.

 

Al letson: So what is real success? The ideas being fought over in the streets of Charlottesville are now being fought in the pages of comic books because what better way to normalize their ideas than something as innocent as a comic book?

 

Amanda Rob: So talk to me about Alt-Hero.

 

Al letson: This is from a Skype call that Amanda and Vox had before he ghosted us.

 

Vox Day: Well a lot of people came up, have been telling me that they wanted me to get into comics.

 

Amanda Rob: Okay.

 

Vox Day: I had written the dialogue for-

 

Amanda Rob: He says he just felt there was a crying need for this, that the superhero universe had become diverse for diversity's sake, they weren't heroic anymore.

 

Vox Day: It's more because of what was happening with Marvel. They were starting to introduce their heavily SJW characters, their female Thor, their fat Samoan GI Joe soldier, all these ridiculous characters that nobody liked.

 

Amanda Rob: But he thought "Okay. I'll give it a whirl and see if there's an audience up for that." And he did a fundraising campaign, crowdfunding.

 

Vox Day: Then what happened was a guy named Chuck Dixon backed the project.

 

Al letson: Chuck Dixon. Chuck Dixon is one of my all-time favorite comic book writers.

 

Vox Day: All these people got excited because they're like "Oh, Chuck Dixon is back again." I called them up and said "Thank him for backing it," and he said "Yeah, no problem. He's happy to do so." Then I said "Well I hear that you're not writing much for Marvel or DC anymore. Do you want to work with us?" And he said "Sure." I actually turned over an entire line to him. Basically, he's creating our Gotham.

 

Al letson: Chuck and I have something in common. Last fall, I published my first story with DC Comics. I got to write Nightwing, Batman's former sidekick which is one of the characters Chuck Dixon wrote all those years ago. Now, in my opinion, he didn't just write Nightwing. He defined him, and now, this legend in the comics community is writing in the Alt-Hero universe.

 

Al letson: When we come back, I meet up with Chuck Dixon in a comic book shop and ask him why because with great power ... Well you know the rest. That's coming up on Reveal.

 

Al letson: Hey, hey, hey. All right. Now, for the last few weeks, I've been telling you about our annual listener survey. For those of you who have done it, thank you very much. It's all about making Reveal as good as it can be. In order to do that, we need your feedback. We need about 500 more listeners to fill out the survey. If you're a fan of the show, please pull out your phone right now. No, listen. You can pause the episode and come right back. It only takes five minutes. Bonus, the first 75 people to finish will get a Reveal tote bag. I know that's the most public radio thing ever, but it just is what it is. Text the word 'survey' to 63735. Again, that's 'survey' to 63735.

 

Al letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Chuck Dixon: We're at Yancy Street Comics in Port Richey, Florida. This is just an awesome shop as you can see.

 

Al letson: Yancy Street Comics is an old-school comic shop in a strip mall. It looks exactly like the image that pops up in your head: spacious with rows and rows and rows of comic books and toys. I fell in love with this place the minute I walked in. I was there a few months ago to meet with the man who was once my comic book idol, Chuck Dixon.

 

Al letson: How long have you been writing comics?

 

Chuck Dixon: Over 30 years.

 

Al letson: Chuck has metal-framed glasses and these days, his goatee is a little more white than gray. Back in the day, Chuck wrote a bunch of comic classics that I grew up on: The Fantastic Four, The Punisher, Batman. Chuck also wrote for a lesser-known comic book startup called CrossGen.

 

Al letson: I remember CrossGen. I had several of their titles. They had the sigil, right? They had the-

 

Chuck Dixon: The sigil, yeah.

 

Al letson: ... yin and yang sigil?

 

Chuck Dixon: Yeah.

 

Al letson: To be quite honest, I probably started buying CrossGen because your name was on it. If your name is on the book, I'm going to pick it up.

 

Chuck Dixon: Well I appreciate that.

 

Al letson: He tells me that, over the years, his personal politics haven't always lined up with what he's assigned to write in the comics.

 

Chuck Dixon: I've written impassioned anti-gun speeches for Batman. I mean I've laid out in reasonable, passionate terms why Batman doesn't like guns and why they're bad. I don't believe anything of what I put in his mouth, but I wrote

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:19:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:19:00 - 00:38:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Chuck Dixon: ... I don't believe anything of what I put in his mouth but I wrote it.

 

Al letson: Chuck is a supporter of gun rights. He's described himself as a Genghis Khan far right conservative. He says he hasn't worked for Marvel Comics since 2002. That's when Marvel brought back an Old West cowboy character named Rawhide Kid.

 

Chuck Dixon: The Rawhide Kid. They brought the Rawhide Kid back as gay. I said a few things online, like, "Why don't you create a new character who is gay?" They wrote Rawhide Kid as a sissy and that was the joke of the series. I'm like, "How is this a pro-gay comic book? How are you presenting this guy as a gay hero in any kind of serious attempt at what you think you're trying to do?"

 

Al letson: If you're a gay kid and you like comic books and you've never seen yourself represented in comics, I don't know. I just feel like shouldn't they be able to come into a comic shop and see themselves?

 

Chuck Dixon: I don't have a problem with it as long as you create a new character.

 

Al letson: Right, but creating ... You and I both know how hard it is to launch a new character.

 

Chuck Dixon: See, that's the problem. That's where the agenda, putting the agenda ... I'm not saying you have an agenda. There's nothing wrong with you wanting to see a character that you can relate to more closely, but, when you put the agenda before the story, that's where the problem lies because then you come up with uninteresting characters for the sake of diversity.

 

Al letson: Then, I asked the question that brought me all the way down to Florida. Why work with Vox Day?

 

Chuck Dixon: Well, there's ... He approached me. I didn't know much about him, I still don't know a whole lot about him, but this is the first time in my experience that I've gone to work on a job and everybody's concerned with who is publishing it and their background, their beliefs, and everything else because this guy is ... Man, is this guy a lightning rod. I don't agree with a whole lot of what he says but he was offering me an opportunity to create our own work. He had a funding thing and he had a distribution deal set up. He admitted that he didn't know what he didn't know, so he wasn't telling me what to do, he was asking me what I should do or what would be best for me and all the rest of it.

 

Chuck Dixon: Offering me an opportunity and didn't tell me what to write, and still has not told me what to write, so, to me, it was just an opportunity to be free of the kind of constraints that are put on you at the major companies, the political correctness constraints. I wasn't interested in doing a book that was political. I wasn't interested in doing a message book.

 

Al letson: So he's not asking you to write anything political, but you understand how just working with him is political?

 

Chuck Dixon: I've read the "Alt-Hero" thing and I've rejected parts of it I didn't want to do, that I don't agree with. I don't write for that.

 

Al letson: I understand that it's an opportunity to write and to do all of this other stuff, but what it means for me is that you are lending him your credibility.

 

Chuck Dixon: Yeah. I don't know. I don't know how much credibility I lend him, seriously.

 

Al letson: Earlier, I told you that I started reading CrossGen because your name was on it.

 

Chuck Dixon: Right.

 

Al letson: The only reason why I went with them is because you, in essence, gave it its credibility for me.

 

Chuck Dixon: It's ...

 

Al letson: And to other people who may not know what Vox Day is about, who may be just on the outside of all of this, they see a comic book in the store and it's got Chuck Dixon's name on it and they pick it up.

 

Chuck Dixon: Right.

 

Al letson: Then, they see, "Oh, this is that universe," and then they pick up Vox Day's stuff. You are giving him credibility.

 

Chuck Dixon: Yeah. I don't even know how to deal with that because I don't believe that I lend that much credibility to anybody.

 

Al letson: Yeah. But I'm ...

 

Chuck Dixon: Certainly the majority of the people in this industry who do hiring, the gatekeepers don't see me.

 

Al letson: Yeah, but those are different people.

 

Chuck Dixon: All my work is for outsiders.

 

Al letson: Right.

 

Chuck Dixon: I'm doing a lot of work for guys that I'd never heard of six months ago and now I'm working for them.

 

Al letson: Can you understand how you writing for them feels like to the people that grew up reading your books who are Black, who are Jewish, who ... You know.

 

Chuck Dixon: Yeah. Yeah, okay, I ... Yeah. I can see your point of view on it. I don't really have a ready answer for you. I don't have a [pad 00:23:36] answer for you. It's ... I'm doing my work from my point of view and it doesn't really share everything.

 

Al letson: A few weeks after I talked to Chuck in Florida, the first issue of "Alt-Hero" launched and Vox Day is definitely using Chuck's name to promote the project.

 

Vox Day: We've got the best writer in comics who is doing a separate series for us called "Avalon." His name is Chuck Dixon. He's the man. It's only going to get better from here.

 

Al letson: Amanda Robb at the Investigative Fund is here to tell us what happened since "Alt-Hero" launched back in the spring. Amanda, what are Chuck Dixon and Vox Day up to now?

 

Amanda Rob: Well, they're still working on "Alt-Hero." They're on their fourth issue right now. They're both crowdfunding for new comic books on IndieGoGo. Vox's comic, which Chuck is writing with him, is another "Alt-Hero." It's about QAnon. Q is sort of the conspiracy theory about pedophile Democrats and Trump's secret plans to defeat the globalist. They raised $62,000 in the first week.

 

Al letson: $62,000. Is this a profitable venture for them?

 

Amanda Rob: Well, there's no paper trail so it's really hard to know how much profit there is.

 

Al letson: Obviously, "Alt-Hero" is an independent project on the fringes. Is there anything else out there like it?

 

Amanda Rob: Oh, yeah. It's a burgeoning genre. "Alt-Hero" is just one of a handful of crowdfunded far right comic books that have cropped up recently.

 

Al letson: Wow. Thanks, Amanda.

 

Amanda Rob: Thank you, Al.

 

Al letson: That was Amanda Robb, a reporter with the Investigative Fund. They're our partners on this story.

 

Al letson: The alt-right already has radio shows, rallies, and literature. Why dip into the world of comic books? Well, if you think about it, it makes sense because there's a dark corner of fandom that's a fertile recruiting ground for the alt-right. It's made up of a small but vocal group of toxic fans who are angry that comic books have been changing to become more diverse for writers, artists, and the superheroes they create. They're fixated on keeping women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community out of comics. When something happens they don't like, they go on the attack.

 

Chelsea Cain: My phone started buzzing. People I knew from all over the country were suddenly like, "I'm seeing all these threats to you on Twitter," and then there's this big story. It was incredibly intense.

 

Al letson: That's Chelsea Cain. She wrote a comic book series for the Marvel character Mockingbird. As a woman writing a female superhero, Chelsea took a lot of flack, so much so it became a media spectacle back in 2016.

 

Al letson: I loved this book. I've got a Mockingbird poster on my wall. I have a lot of superhero posters around my house. What? I'm a nerd. In this one, Mockingbird is wearing a standard issue superhero utility belt and a T-shirt that says, "Ask me about my feminist agenda."

 

Al letson: What issue was it where Mockingbird has the T-shirt that said, "Ask me about my feminist agenda?"

 

Chelsea Cain: That was #8. That was our last issue. We knew. We knew it was going to be our last issue, and that is why I put her in that shirt.

 

Al letson: Is that when the real heavy stuff started happening, or was it happening all along?

 

Chelsea Cain: It was a week after that cover came out. I had this sort of unusual number of just people on Twitter who seemed to kind of want to weigh in about how feminists shouldn't write comics. Literally, people would tweet that. My daughter Eliza, my 13-year-old, 12 at the time, daughter Eliza, and my husband Mark were waiting to watch an episode of "Buffy."

 

Al letson: She, of course, is talking about one of the greatest TV shows ever, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

 

Speaker 7: Buffy. Buffy.

 

Speaker 8: No.

 

Chelsea Cain: We had gotten back from dinner, and then I had gotten kind of hijacked into responding to all of this sort of Twitter stuff that was happening. It was 12 people or whatever, but It was enough that I was needing to sort of address it. They were saying really stupid things and I was just kind of done. I really wanted to watch "Buffy" and I kind of, in a moment of clarity, posted, "You know, Twitter, this is misogynist. I am going to start blocking people who post misogynist comments on my Twitter feed." It was that tweet that really started the blow-back.

 

Chelsea Cain: I went and watched "Buffy." We had a great time, it was a very good episode. We went to bed.

 

Chelsea Cain: The next morning, I waited a couple hours to kind of check my Twitter feed because I'm not crazy. When I did, it was just kind of like ... It was just blowing up. It was scrolling by. You know when you're reading a word document and you accidentally click on the side bar and suddenly it starts to scroll? It was like that. That's how fast the tweets were coming in. I didn't even know what had really happened. I saw the first several and I realized that there was a lot of people who were angry at me for threatening to limit their free speech, I guess because they have a First Amendment right to post misogynist comments on my Twitter feed and for me to read them.

 

Chelsea Cain: That had been apparently picked up and put in some other spaces, other ... I saw one tweet that had 250,000 followers, or Twitter account. That account started directing people at me. Again, it was more about if I call myself a feminist, then I need to take it like a man, that it was unfair to leave Twitter or to block people just for sharing their opinion about the fact that I didn't have a right to write comics. I saw that. I had a couple thousand fewer followers. This whole thing ... Something clearly had happened in the 14 hours I had been away from my computer.

 

Chelsea Cain: "You know, this is ... I'm done." I deleted my account and I walked the dogs. I had a TV crew on my porch the next morning. BBC and CNN and all these huge media companies were trying to get in touch to get my statement, were trying to get my side of the story. I'm against misogyny, that's my side. I just was like, "I'm just not going to feed it," because I was terrified at that point.

 

Al letson: How did your fans and people who were rallying around you, how did they respond?

 

Chelsea Cain: The hashtag #IStandWithChelseaCain started trending on Twitter and Facebook within a couple of hours of when I left Twitter. I started ... I got so many messages from real icons of the comics world, reaching out personally to me in support. I felt like, "This is great and it has nothing to do with me in the best way. This is about women in comics and it's about misogyny on Twitter and it's about how we talk to one another and about one another."

 

Chelsea Cain: I went to my social networking pages, really expecting to see a lot of hate. Instead, I had all of these messages, hundreds and hundreds of messages from strangers on Facebook who had found me and wanted to reach out and to say that ... To say, "We're not all like that and we're sorry that that happened to you." It reminded me so much of why I wanted to be part of this community in the first place, because those are the people, those are the people that I write comics for.

 

Al letson: We reached out to a lot of women in comics around this story and nobody really wanted to talk to us, and I think mostly because they were scared to kind of get the trolls riled up again. I'm wondering if you had any thoughts about that?

 

Chelsea Cain: Yeah. I'm scared, too. That's why I'm here. That's why I'm talking to you, because it scares me, and that is how you give them power. Comics, it is a unique industry because it is also an industry made of freelancers. That puts creators of all stripes in a really tense position where you don't want to make waves. You don't want to piss off your editor and you don't want the publisher to think that you are too loud or that you're going to distract from the project, or even draw attention to yourself at all sometimes. I think that pressure of the next project and placing the next project and how vulnerable everybody is to just being shut out of the process because there are 3,000 other people who would love your job, I think it's a lot easier to be quiet and to kind of go along with it.

 

Al letson: I think a lot of them also were scared, though, that the trolls would come after them.

 

Chelsea Cain: Yeah.

 

Al letson: I think what you're identifying is sort of like the institutional fear of losing work.

 

Chelsea Cain: Yeah.

 

Al letson: I think a lot of them were really just petrified that they were going to have to deal with these trolls. I'm just curious, are you scared of them, as well, or is it ...

 

Chelsea Cain: No, and I should be clear. That's what I'm scared of. I think it's important to talk about the larger kind of freelancer issue because I think it plays into that, but yeah, for sure, that is absolutely the thing that I am scared of. I am scared of that every time I post anything, every time I talk publicly about this. It is something I have not spoken publicly about very often. I turned all of the interview requests down, so I totally get that. Because they will take you down. They are the Eye of Sauron. When it lands on you, there is nothing but fire and rage and wrath. They absolutely have the ability to make your life a living hell, and we can't live in that tyranny.

 

Al letson: Do you feel like Marvel did enough to help you battle these online trolls during the Mockingbird incident?

 

Chelsea Cain: No. I think they were really nice to me personally, a few of them, and I know that they have the best of intentions, but did they fail me totally? Yeah. Axel, the editor-in-chief, reached out in an e-mail just to say that he was sorry that this was happening, that he had just heard about it, and that Marvel, in his opinion, can't police the internet, which is fair. He also said that, if I were to receive death threats, that he would put the Marvel security team on that, which I liked the idea that it was a security team, like some kind of Mossad, elite taskforce. In fact, I think it's just a lawyer sitting in a cube sending cease and desist letters, but still.

 

Chelsea Cain: I, at the time, had left Twitter. I was not about to go on and read all of the death threats that I was getting. I would have loved if they had had that elite Mossad team maybe just search the hashtag and maybe just proactively send a couple of cease and desist letters. That would have been great, and that could have been done in a way that they could have direct messaged people so it wasn't inflaming what was going on but might have at least demonstrated a response to some of the real bad actors.

 

Al letson: What do you think these comic book companies can do to help creators who are being attacked by these trolls, both online, some people are getting doxxed? There's a lot of really horrible things that people are saying to each other, so what can these big companies do to stop that?

 

Chelsea Cain: I think having some policies in place that are communicated to freelancers, that communicate how to be online and some strategies, in terms of privacy settings and engaging with public. I think Marvel should share a banned list that should be shared to all of their freelancers. I think that, if these companies supported more voices in their stories, that some of this would be moot.

 

Al letson: After Mockingbird, Chelsea started working with Marvel on another mini-series. She'd been writing it for the past two years but, right around the time when we did this interview, Marvel canceled it. The series was never published. Chelsea told us the cancellation didn't have anything to do with the trolls, but the decision upset her and she's been vocal about it.

 

Chelsea Cain: I am certain that they will never ask me to work for them again. They were very clear that we should keep this clean and quiet and, that if we could do that, that they had lots of ideas for future projects. I have not kept this clean and I have not kept it quiet.

 

Al letson: With all that being said, why didn't you just keep quiet?

 

Chelsea Cain: Do you like the silence that I met that question with? Why didn't I just keep quiet? I was outraged, not at the comic being killed, but at being asked to be quiet because ... Maybe it is the moment in time where we find ourselves in history, but I feel like we shouldn't ask people for their silence.

 

Al letson: That was best-selling author Chelsea Cain. She may not be writing for Marvel anymore but she does have a new comic series with Image Comics.

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:19:00 - 00:38:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:38:00 - 00:54:33]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al letson: ... Marvel anymore. She does have a new comic series with Image Comics, it's called Man-Eaters. Here's how Chelsea described it:

 

Chelsea: The Handmaid's Tale meets Cat People. It's about teenage girls who turn into killer wild cats when they have their periods, just like in real life.

 

Al letson: Seems like Chelsea has decided to stand up to the trolls. Their claim is that diversity is ruining comic books, but that's not how Marvel Comics sees it. Next we go inside the mothership. This is Reveal.

 

Al letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. I've been into comic book since I was a kid, and I have this vivid memory of going into my local comic shop and arguing with people about my favorite books. I'm not going to lie, sometimes it got heated on both sides because well we were passionate about it.

 

Al letson: It doesn't surprise me that people are arguing over comics online, what does surprise me is the vitriol.

 

Speaker 9: Today's video is going to be about Captain Marvel and how I hate her.

 

Al letson: All that anger has been rolled up into a hash tag, ComicsGate.

 

Speaker 9: A woman somewhere at some point in a lab coat in every one of their books.

 

Al letson: This isn't just about comics, who gets to tell stories and who doesn't, it's also about money. One of the leaders behind ComicsGate has over 80,000 YouTube followers, and he's raised nearly $400,000 for a graphic novel. This is war profiteering in the culture war, and fighting these battles has elevated him from an angry fanboy to a paid provocateur.

 

Speaker 9: I will say it's a shame.

 

Speaker 10: These ideologues will not rest until that character is either gay, transracial, or somehow identifies as something other than a straight white male.

 

Al letson: If you've never been a target of a trolling campaign, it may be hard to understand how it feels. It starts with one tweet or a comment, and even if you don't know these people, you feel it. Then others join in and you get this steady stream of hate. Your phone buzzes or chirps every few minutes, they misrepresent your work, your life, the things you love. It feels like the whole world is joining in.

 

Al letson: Then come the threats. It's a cloud that can wrap itself around you and you feel like there's no way out. For some of the women targeted by ComicsGate, it got so bad they wouldn't go on the record with us. One woman told me she received death threats and rape threats. She was worried about even talking about it, that it could lead to a whole new cycle of harassment.

 

Al letson: What's the comic industry doing to stand up to this hate? To find out I met this woman:

 

Sana Amanat: Sana Amanat, and I'm VP of Content and Character Development at Marvel.

 

Al letson: We sat down together at Marvel headquarters in New York City. Sana has also been a target for haters. Before she was a VP of Marvel, she co-created Ms, Marvel. Not the blonde haired Captain Marvel who's getting her own movie, but an American Muslim superhero by the name of Kamala Khan.

 

Sana Amanat: She came really out of conversations about my childhood, and the idea that we needed a character for the young Sanas of the world, as my old boss Steven Wacker said. The bigger idea was about creating a character who was yes Muslim, yes South Asian, yes of course, a girl, woman, or teenager. Really someone who was relatable and that any fan would fall in love with.

 

Al letson: I was surprised at how well the book did.

 

Sana Amanat: Us too, trust me.

 

Al letson: Tell me about that, how did it happen?

 

Sana Amanat: When we first announced Ms. Marvel, huge flurry of press came about it, it was the top trending topic on the internet. People I think actually showed up, they showed up in comic shops. They understood what it meant for this to be successful, not only to have this kind of hero out there, but specifically to have Marvel carrying this character within their entire pantheon of superheroes.

 

Al letson: Marvel also launched a female Thor, a Korean American Hulk, and a black Captain America.

 

Sana Amanat: That's what's really exciting about telling different kinds of stories, is about the fact that you can go and decide one day that someone else is going to be Captain America. What does that look like? What does that ideal of Captain America represent? What happens when you take someone else like an African American man and give him that mantle?

 

Al letson: What have been some of the challenges with evolving the line?

 

Sana Amanat: I think the only real challenge is just making sure that people are open to our newer characters,

 

Al letson: I'm curious as to, why do you think there aren't more women and headliners of color that are prominent in this 80-year history? We're just now starting to introduce these characters.

 

Sana Amanat: You know you're talking about the 40s, and 50s, and 60s, where white men controlled everything. The natural predilection for men creating everything is creating content for themselves. The focus was specifically on a lot of white male heroes.

 

Sana Amanat: I think after the movies came out in the last 10 years, and I want to give credit to the studios, it's become this really big global mainstream phenomenon. People always knew who Peter Parker was, the cartoons existed. Marvel was really you know at the back of people's minds, but the movies allowed the Marvel brand and the Marvel roster of characters to literally go global.

 

Sana Amanat: Because of that, because audiences were opened up, we were able to interact with them in a bigger way and take more risks. Also at the same time, while we're creating all of these sort of newer characters or experimenting with sort of the wider female roster of heroes that we've been able to do in the last 10 years, we knew that more people were waking up to seeing themselves in our comics. Also realizing, "Oh wait, if that's for me too, if I can see myself in a comic, maybe I can actually be a part of the creative process."

 

Al letson: I met with Sana a few days before writer Chelsea Kane went public criticizing Marvel, claiming the company didn't have her back when she was attacked online. I couldn't ask Sana directly about those claims, but I did ask her this; when we bring up these great names of women working in Marvel Comics and doing all this great work, you got to reflect on the trolls that are trying to pull them down.

 

Al letson: There's a there's a lot, I mean they have hashtag right, ComicsGate. They're attacking that. I think that some of the critiques that I've heard from creators say that Marvel kind of stays on the sidelines of this instead of engaging and actually taking these people on.

 

Sana Amanat: The way that I look at it is, I am a Muslim American woman who is a Vice President at one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, and have been able to make a lot of big strides. That's how I take them on because I'm here and they're there.

 

Sana Amanat: They can be as upset as they want, but we're not trying to take away anything from them.

 

Al letson: I'm speaking specifically though more about the victims than them. If they're working for Marvel, or for one of the big two, and those companies are kind of silent on the treatment that they're getting, they feel kind of left out to sea with nobody to help them.

 

Sana Amanat: I don't know if that's true. A lot of the way that we deal with those kinds of situations, and I'm not HR, is specifically internal. I have had conversations with the women who have been victims of this, I'm a victim of it. I've been dealing with it since I joined Marvel.

 

Sana Amanat: I think it's really more about making sure that we create a safe space for them to be able to feel like they can talk about the issues that they have. We're not trying to further their public face on this, because I think it's important that they have privacy and that their name isn't smeared and continue to be smeared. The more that we repeat it, the more that people will pay more attention and have a bigger target on their backs. We want to make sure that they're safe.

 

Al letson: It's one of the things that I've learned in working on this story, is that it's difficult to get a lot of women creators on record because they don't want the harassment to start again.

 

Sana Amanat: In terms of how the industry responded, we knew that the best way for Marvel to respond to something like this was having the legacy of Marvel, Stan Lee, actually say something. He did.

 

Stan Lee: Hi heroes, this is Stan Lee coming at you. Want you to know, Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window.

 

Al letson: If you don't know who Stan Lee is, well he's an icon; A co-creator of many of the superheroes you know and love. He also has a cameo in every Marvel movie.

 

Sana Amanat: His soap boxes, his letters columns were all about the concept of equality, and being good to one another, and caring for one another, and the importance of these values and inserting those in our heroes.

 

Stan Lee: That world may change and evolve, but the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism. Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin.

 

Sana Amanat: He realized the importance of responding to it and we had a really great video of him trying to encourage our fans to be positive and to stop saying hateful things.

 

Stan Lee: The only things we don't have room for are hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.

 

Al letson: Now social media has given everybody a voice. Is that where we are? Do we just have to keep riding these tides?

 

Sana Amanat: I don't have the answer to that, I think it's too big of a question to say, "How do we deal with anonymous hate?" That's a question I think for the times and I think social media has shed a very strange light on it. Yes, you have handles and you have little pictures of people, but you don't know who they actually are.

 

Sana Amanat: It's a little scary. I'm at a point now where I'm like, "Oh, what's going to be sent to the mail to me? Who knows who's going to be coming at me at a comics convention." We have to be very, very mindful of that.

 

Al letson: Critics of the diversification of the line would say that Marvel financially took a hit when it started diversifying.

 

Sana Amanat: I saw rats to that, that's not true at all. It's like the 50s version of cursing, right? Rats to that.

 

Sana Amanat: I don't think that's true at all. I think that yes, some books succeed and some books fail. If that happens, it has nothing to do with the fact that it's a brown character. It has to do with the fact that we have to make sure that one, our audiences get excited about the stories. We know that these characters can have a further impact because we are telling our audiences, our readers that, "Look, there is every kind of hero out there. You are reflected in our pantheon of heroes."

 

Al letson: That's Sana Amanat, Vice President of Content and Character Development at Marvel. She also told me the company hasn't let up with expanding their superhero universe with new characters that reflect the diversity of America.

 

Al letson: We also reached out to DC Comics, but they declined to talk to us for this show.

 

Al letson: In the years I've been working as a journalist, I have never encountered a story like this, where so many people refuse to talk on record because they're scared that it would just stir the trolls up and harassment would start all over. Their reaction tells me everything about the world we live in today.

 

Al letson: We are swift to anger and slow to listen. When that rage is focused in the wrong direction, people get hurt. I think it's a beautiful thing to be passionate about a character or story, and it's totally appropriate to disagree with a writer or artist's take.

 

Al letson: That's one thing, but when you attack a person because of who they are; you're no fan, you're a troll. No one should be scared for doing their job. The companies that publish the books, the platforms that promote them, and the fans who love them have to learn to wield the power they hold the same way as the heroes in their favorite books.

 

Al letson: Thanks again to the Investigative Fund, our partner on today's show. Keep an eye out for an upcoming article on alt-right comics in Rolling Stone Magazine by Amanda Robb.

 

Al letson: Never Meet Your Superheroes was produced by Michael Schiller and Fernanda Camarena. The show was edited by Executive Producer Kevin Sullivan. Our Production Manager Mwende Hinojosa. Original score, sound design, and engineering was from the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, mister Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They had help from Katherine Raymundo and Vanessa Lowe.

 

Al letson: Christa Scharfenberg is our CEO. Taki Telonidis is our Senior Supervising Editor. Aaron Sankin provided additional reporting. Thanks to the rest of our super friends, editor Esther Kaplan and researcher Jaime Longoria of the Investigative Fund.

 

Al letson: Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal's provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Al letson: Reveal is a co-production from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 11: Now a preview of Last Seen, a podcast from WBUR and the Boston Globe.

 

Speaker 12: If you look closely here, you can see the cut into the stretcher. Can you see that?

 

Speaker 13: Oh yes, so they were pressing hard.

 

Speaker 12: Yes.

 

Speaker 13: With something extremely sharp, because it's a very clean cut.

 

Speaker 12: Right.

 

Speaker 13: Well, that's a crime scene really.

 

Speaker 12: It is a crime scene.

 

Speaker 13: It's like the chalk line of the body at a murder scene.

 

Speaker 12: Exactly, it's a victim.

 

Speaker 13: It is, it's a victim. I don't know why, but it makes me feel very queasy to look at it.

 

Speaker 12: It does, I get the same feeling every time I look at it. There's so much to it, it's Rembrandt, so you're in the presence of greatness. You're in the presence of history too. This is a stretcher that held one of the most valuable things that was ever stolen. Why am I think close to something Rembrandt had?

 

Speaker 12: I'm from Providence, there's not Rembrandt stuff like this. It's just an awe inspiring thing. I got to get it back because this is torture. You almost feel like, "Why did I get stuck with this? Why?" Look at it, you understand. I can never walk away from this.

 

Al letson: The best way to get all of our stories without anything in between is just an email in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure, we like to say it, the world.

 

Al letson: Be among the first to read them. To sign up, just text "newsletter" to 63735. Again, text the word "newsletter" to 63735. I'll see you in your inbox.

 

Speaker 14: From PRX.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:38:00 - 00:54:33]