The notion of separating the art from the artist has long plagued reviewers/critics/fans – this post is not attempting to answer that question; see plenty of essays and opinion pieces around the internet – but it seems that it is becoming even more acute lately. As a film fan, it used to be that all I had to think about was whether I could enjoy Woody Allen’s early funny films after the allegations against him, or whether I can enjoy Chinatown after Roman Polanski entered a guilty plea of unlawful intercourse with a minor (in exchange for dropping the other, more heinous accusations involved) before fleeing the USA and remaining a fugitive since. Now, this problem rises its head more regularly – should we enjoy Miramax films after the Harvey Weinstein revelations? Can I watch Kevin Spacey movies?
I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter of series of books and films (see the category on this blog), so how I do take into account JK Rowling’s transphobic stance? Can I enjoy watching Father Ted and The IT Crowd now that Graham Linehan has become such an activist against the transgender community? Can I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer knowing that Joss Whedon was a bully who enjoyed making writers on his staff cry, having multiple affairs while married (all while talking about feminism) and his horrible treatment of Charisma Carpenter (not to mention his treatment of Ray Fisher)? This is just the tip of the iceberg but the issue becomes more specific the closer the subject comes to one’s fandom, which is the reason for today’s post.
The comic book industry is relatively small, but has had more than its fair share of sexual misconduct allegations (writer Brian Wood, DC editor Eddie Berganza, Dark Horse editor Scott Allie, artist Cameron Stewart, writer Scott Lobdell, former executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Charles Brownstein). This is horrific, particularly in an industry which is based on the notional idea of heroes standing for justice and stopping wrongdoing, and it is hoped that the women involved are able to survive these traumas and have productive lives in the industry they love.
The incident that shook me the most was last year when more than 60 young women and non-binary individuals publicly revealed the nature of the abusive relationships that Warren Ellis had maintained with them. The women published a website, So Many of Us, chronicling the sexual coercion and emotional abuse and the manipulative types of behaviour Ellis used against them, and his abuse of power. I have tried to formulate my thoughts on this for a year but couldn’t because it shook my relationship with the work that had meant so much to me.
I’m a big fan of Ellis’ work – the ‘Warren Ellis’ tag is the largest for a single author on this blog – and I’ve subscribed to his newsletters, attended an author appearance he did, got a letter published in Transmetropolitan and even got his autograph. His work and voice have influenced me since I discovered it and I was a lurker on the Warren Ellis Forum while it existed. His influence on the comic book industry is significant, having changed the visual style with Widescreen Comics with Bryan Hitch on The Authority; his Iron Man: Extremis with Adi Granov being the blueprint for the first Iron Man film (his own work, Red, was turned into a film with Bruce Willis); he led the way for comic book creators creating an online presence to promote their work as well as being vocal in developing creator-owned work; the creators who developed on the WEF have had a significant impact on the industry (the likes of Kieron Gillen, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, G Willow Wilson); and he was always providing avenues for new creators, particularly new female creators in an industry that is still mostly white men. However, all the while, he was maintaining secret relationships with young women who were fans or trying to get into the industry (most often simultaneously without any of them knowing, sometimes up to 20 during the peak years of 2006–2012), and then ghosting them when they showed any indication of independence from his control.
The authors behind So Many Of Us state that while Ellis did nothing illegal, what he did was morally wrong, and he used manipulative behaviour to create and control relationships with vulnerable people, emotional abuse that some are still suffering from; they don’t want to cancel him or see him punished – they want the systems that exist that allow this behaviour to be dismantled and for Ellis to acknowledge his behaviour and contribute to progressing positive effect within the system.
I believe these women and agree with them – I’m not going to cancel Ellis, but I am going to channel my awareness and try to cope with the shock, confusion and anger these revelations created. I’m not going to boycott the TV shows he was writing (I didn’t particularly enjoy Castlevania) but I won’t be buying any new comic books he might be writing. This was brought into sharp relief this week when Ben Templesmith revealed that he and Ellis would be finishing Fell, the comic book they co-created more than a decade ago, and that it would be published by Image. This caused quite a reaction on Twitter, because it seemed that Ellis was quietly returning to comic books without doing any of the work to show that he was sorry and was trying to make amends to the people he wronged. Image first said that it would be publishing but then backtracked and said it wouldn’t work with Ellis until he makes amends; Ellis then issued a statement to say that the announcement was premature and he had now reached out to the people at So Many of Us and was working towards making amends.
The intellectual problem I have to wrangle with regards his old work that I’ve enjoyed so much: what do I do about it now? Do I throw away his comic books from my collection? Not all of it, but some; the enjoyment of the work (created with artistic collaborators) is real and Ellis’ behaviour shouldn’t detract from it. Do I remove the many posts about him and his work from my blog? No – what I wrote is a product of its time and a reflection of my attitude then; I’m not going to deny it because of what has happened, although I know that it’s now viewed differently. Can I call myself a fan now? I can’t deny that I was a huge proponent of his work – that would be a lie – but I won’t be cheering him on now, especially as he hasn’t shown any real acknowledgment or contrition in his sole public statement in response to this (he switched off this newsletter and Twitter account). If Fell (or new work by Ellis) were published, would I buy it? No. I can’t in good conscience buy his work until he makes amends and tangible results from the work he has to do.
I don’t know if it’s to do with the smallness of the comic book industry and thus the closer connection the work can have on a fan, or in part due to the connection Ellis maintained with audience with the forum and the newsletters (Ellis was always ahead of the curve in online presence and connection), but it has meant this betrayal is much more intense, which has had a much stronger effect. However, I thought I should try to talk about it – I’m not sure I’ve achieved what I set out to do, but I couldn’t ignore my quiet on the subject on the matter.