Gatekeeping and Comics — A Personal Essay
Don’t tell anyone this: I’m a huge comics fan.
Don’t tell anyone this: when I was nine, there were a million and a half reasons why no one wanted me to be one.
I grew up during what is known as the comics boom: a period in the 90s when people deluded themselves into thinking that comics were worth money. Old comics from the 40s-70s were being sold for thousands — even millions — of dollars.
The reason for this was that the comics featured important events in the industry — Action Comics issue 1, for example, introduced the world to Superman. While this issue is culturally significant now, it wasn’t upon its initial release. Comics were traded or tossed out after being read, so many iconic issues’s first editions were rare.
But in the 90s, these rare issues were being sold for a lot of money, so people bought more comics thinking that they’d be valuable in about ten or fifteen years. And comic companies catered to this new market of readers. Special event issues that surely would be valuable in several years glutted the market. Special covers. New characters.
Long-time fans who grew up with comics felt validated because, as they saw it, their hobby and interest had gone mainstream.
Of course, the problem with the boom is that, if someone buys a million issues of X-Men issue 1, then that means there are a million issues out there and they aren’t really worth all that much. Same with event comics like The Death of Superman.
Also, creatively, the comics that were being pumped out in mass were seldom very good. Yes, this is the era that brought us Venom, Carnage, Spawn, Bane, Deadpool, and Cable, but it also brought us edge lords Doomsday, Kane, Bloodstrike, Youngblood, and Onslaught. It brought us events like Death of Superman, Reign of the Supermen, The Clone Saga, the Onslaught Saga, and way too many bad Image comics. It brought us Superman Red and Blue. It brought us Superman’s mullet. It brought us Lex Luthor with HAIR!
Oh, and even beloved characters like Deadpool were lousy. The Merc with the Mouth didn’t really stand out as a character until after celebrity artist Rob Liefeld stopped working on him. Only once other writers started working on him did he develop his idiosyncratic personality and iconic charm. Before then, he was just another edgy mercenary. Generic and boring. I know because I read 90s Deadpool comics as a kid, and didn’t get why so many of my friends called him their favorite character until high school.
My point is that this was a bad time to be buying modern comics, and most comic book fans without nostalgia glasses tend to view the 90s as something of a hodgepodge of bad ideas and bad marketing decisions.
I’m just setting the stage for young baby me, but it’s important that stage is set, because the people who were gate keeping me thought the 90s cheese was the future of comics.
The Gatekeeping Problem
the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.
Gatekeeping is one of the worst practices of modern nerd culture. Yes, it’s always existed in some form in every culture, but there’s a particularly vitriolic type in most modern nerd culture.
I believe it has to do with really insecure people needing to feel a sense of validation. Society at large has spent the majority of its time dismissing entire cultures, which has left many feeling insecure in their interests. They feel the need to defend themselves and their interests which, by their account, has defined their identity up until now.
In other words, they become bullies after being bullied. Or sometimes they just become bullies because in some small way they feel they should be bullied when they aren’t being bullied. Or maybe they’re just assholes. I don’t know.
I’m more concerned with how gatekeeping manifests than how a gatekeeper is born. I care about their asshole actions rather than the road that led them to asshole-dom.
Gatekeeping in comics tends to take two key forms: knowledge and culture.
With knowledge, the comic book gatekeepers feel the need to quiz your knowledge of comic books, as if somehow knowing things about comics is equivalent to stats in a video game, and, by acquiring a “higher level” you are somehow a better fan than someone who has a lower level. Except, in this theory, rather than those with knowledge explaining things to a less knowledgeable fan, they take the role of a villain beating down on the lower-level player.
In regards to culture, a subset of comic fans believe that anyone unlike themselves can’t be true comic fans. When I was a kid, I primarily saw this in the form of people buying tons of issues and merchandise, which my parents (maybe thankfully) refused to buy me. I’ll get into that more in detail later, however.
But nowadays, this culture gatekeeping has an extra tinge of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism added in. White cishet male fans, for the most part, are fine. Most fans, I believe, do not care what gender, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity you have. We’re all part of a shrinking niche community and we need each other’s support.
But there is a sizable, loud, obnoxious, mean-spirited, and downright cruel subset of comics fans who act like comics were great back in the 90s, that the era they grew up in needs to be maintained, complete with its edgelord characters, bad writing, awful art, and, of course, lack of diverse characters.
And let me tell you, as someone who got into comics at the tail end of the 90s, these people were just as shitty then as they are now.
I was a fan of superheroes before I picked up my first comic book. I grew up with the Tim Burton Batman films and the animated series inspired by them. I grew up with Christopher Reeve’s Superman. I distinctly remember feeling excited when I went to the video rental store and found a new Batman film hiding in the corner (that film ended up being Batman and Robin, which I struggled to convince myself was cool despite the fact I kept falling asleep watching it).
But for years I didn’t pick up any comic books because of gatekeeping. I wasn’t directly exposed to the hardcore gatekeeping I’d see years later, mind you, but I did see some of it even as a kid with kids my age (who, unsurprisingly, you’d see years later posting alt-right memes on Facebook).
At this point in my life, the primary sort of gatekeeping I encountered was the “knowledge” kind. It would often go something like this:
Me: I really love Batman!
Them: Oh really? If you love Batman, then who’s your favorite Robin?
Me: Dick Gray — wait, there’s more than one?
As you can imagine, this made me want to read the comics so I could figure out who the other Robins are (btw, Dick Grayson is still my favorite Robin, in case you’re curious).
There was an old comic book store in one of the malls in town that eventually closed down shortly following the comic collapse of the late 90s. I wanted to go in to buy a comic, but every time I drew nearer I got looks from the staff behind the counter. Looks of contempt that a six year old boy was wondering off from his mom just to look at the comics on the stands.
It told me “The fuck you looking at, kid?”
And let me tell you this: when a 260 lb man with a Rob Zombie beard and Bruce Willis hair looks at you, a scrawny baby with social anxiety, that way, you go. Fast.
So years passed. I felt content watching the cartoons and movies, but always wanted to read the comics. But the only store in town was that creepy place, so I wasn’t gonna go in.
If the people behind that counter welcomed me in, I probably would’ve gotten into comics years before I ended up doing so. I don’t know if that would’ve necessarily been a good thing (remember, this was an era where dark and edgy comics like Spawn were all the rage), but I would’ve felt welcomed.
So baby-me was really into the DC superheroes(and by that I mean Batman, Superman, and no one else), but it wasn’t until I got the PS1 game Spider-Man that I discovered my true love: Marvel.
To this day, I regard the PS1 Spider-Man game as one of the best superhero games ever, especially if you’re new to comic books. It’s linear, unlike many later Spidey games where you can swing around NYC, but it introduces tons of comic lore in a way that’s both familiar to old fans and digestible to new ones.
But for me, what stood out was Venom.
Maybe moreso than Spider-Man himself, I have to thank Venom for getting me into comics. I found this character simultaniously so cool, so tragic, so bad-ass, and so slightly-scary that 9 or 8 year old me (I forget how old I was exactly) HAD to learn more.
So I went to the comic store, armed with a list of early Venom comics I assembled after spending thirty minutes on America Online (I would’ve gotten the list together sooner, but my parents kept needing the line). With enough money to buy one comic, I buy a copy of Amazing Spider-Man issue 362, walk up to the counter, and —
The guy at the counter snorts.
I don’t pay it any mind, and I read the comic, love it, but realize it leads into the next issue. So I end up buying issue 363, this time at a different comic book shop somewhere in central Jersey. I get to the store, find the comic, and —
Same thing. Comic shop guy looks at the issue, and mumbles “Of course. Another Venom fanboy.”
Now, I had only bought one other comic at this point. While I would argue that, over the years, that yes I have reinforced the fact that I adore Venom, at the time this man had no right to judge my entire outlook on comics just by me buying a comic with Venom on the cover.
And even if I was a Venom fanboy, so what? Did that make my money less valuable? Did it make me less of a comic fan for wanting to read about specific characters?
This was my first introduction to gatekeeping, one that, as I got older and diversified my interest in comics, got less and less intense. I eventually learned which comic shops around me had assholes working there and which ones had open minded, chill people behind the counters. I gave my money to the businesses that weren’t openly hostile toward a pre-pubescent boy reading comics.
Though I would occasionally hear them recommend titles which, lo and behold, I ended up loving — classics that I might not have discovered for years if I remained blissfully focused on Spider-Man’s corner of the universe.
Look, I grew up as a fan. My tastes diversified. I read more. I opened myself up to different sorts of stories. I am still a Spider-Man and Venom fan, but my tastes naturally expanded through exposure to new and different comics.
However, around 11 or 12, I discovered manga. Manga are, in essence, just comics from another country. That’s it.
But oh my God did I encounter people in both the Western and Eastern comics fandom that refused to admit they were at all remotely associated with one another. Ironically, they behaved pretty similarly.
You go to a comic store and buy a manga? They snort and shake their heads.
You walk into the manga isle in Borders, holding a comic? They snort and shake their heads.
That’s just the nonverbal stuff. You had to hear the fans in their own separate circle, talking crap about the other side. To say nothing of the fact that both mediums have given me some of my personal favorite narratives of all time and have shaped my life both as a geek and a writer — hell, even as a person.
Basically, throughout my adolescence, I was assured by every party that, for some reason or another, I wasn’t a “real fan.”
So obviously, after awhile, you just sort of give up looking for acceptance. You stop caring if other people like you or approve of your interests. You grow thick skin and just like the things you like.
Personally, being dismissed by the comic fandoms only made me more passionate about my interests. More eager to share. I believe I am lucky in that being dismissed by adult fans helped keep me out of that toxic echo chamber of the “real fans.” I avoided the toxic mold that makes people angry, intolerant man-children. I found a niche for me.
And, as I grew up, I found that there were many others who had been dismissed by the “real fans.” I found that my experience, of not fitting into the clique in the back of the comic shop, was not unusual. In fact, it was bizarrely common. I never thought it strange that they experienced something similar to what I did.
But I did hear their stories.
And I realized that I honestly had it easy.
The Elephant in the Room
Let’s address the elephant in the room. I’m a white cis male. I have never dated a member of the same sex. I have had it easy.
There are fans — countless fans — who have been made to feel ostracized in the comic community. Today we’re only exposed to it thanks to the internet, where there remains a paper trail of any online interaction. People have learned to hold onto the receipts, to show off “Hey, this shitty thing happened to me, and I can prove it.”
This wasn’t the case twenty years ago. I can’t show you real proof of the gate keeping I experienced, but, then again, it’s worse that those who are already marginalized can’t talk about their mistreatment, either.
As I grew up and heard what other people went through, however, I realized that people say a lot of awful things when they think — when they know — they’ll never face the consequences of their actions.
You become your true self when you’re in the dark.
You reveal your real colors when you’re alone.
I will not share the stories I heard, since I neither have permission nor asked for it. I want to share my story. They can share theirs when they are ready if they want to.
But I will say this: you gatekeepers? You’re trash people.
But it’s okay, right? All that gatekeeping? That’s in the past, right?
A few years ago, artist Ethan van Scriver called a fan a queer as an insult. Ethan van Scriver is a pretty notorious bully with a long history of bullying those around him. But this incident gained attention, as well as a similar incident where he told a fan to kill himself. Arguably, this led to Scriver being fired from DC.
I am not here to rant about Scriver or even this incident, but rather what it represents in the scheme of gatekeeping. It continues to establish that culture. You’re either a part of this culture or you’re an outsider. You’re either a “normal fan” like Scriver or you’re something dirty, something wrong.
We wouldn’t really hear about this incident without the internet. Imagine how many other interactions like this have gone unrecorded. And how many people who would have grown up to be huge comic fans aren’t because of a few cruel comments.
Scriver has become a figurehead in the alt-right group ComicsGate, which, quite fairly, has demonstrated that comic fans can be deeply misogynistic, homophobic, and racist, and that the presence of fans and creators of different backgrounds proof that, in their eyes, they’re not doing a good enough job of gatekeeping, of keeping the “fake fans” out.
And what they’re doing is ugly and despicable.
We as fans with the privilege to avoid this hateful behavior need to speak out. We need to show this gatekeeping behavior is intolerable, but, more importantly, we need to tell those fans who are the targets of harassment, cruelty, and bigotry that they are valuable, wanted, and, most of all, fantastic people.