Warren Ellis is someone who could be credibly referred to as a genius. Transmetropolitan — a futuristic riff on Hunter S. Thompson — has never felt more relevant than in the era of Trump and the nationwide Black Lives Matters protests. The Marvel cinematic universe exists in no small part because of his Iron Man comic Extremis. His books have accurately predicted the rise and adoption of smartphones, micro-drones, facial recognition software and how the police would turn consumer security cameras into a de-facto surveillance network.
He also created the Warren Ellis Forum — an online community that would become a haven for creators, intellectuals and artists. From 1998 to 2002, The Warren Ellis Forum was, in its way, the CBGBs of comics; established comic book professionals, up-and-coming amateurs, and fans who simply wanted to be in the room where it happened all mixed and mingled freely. The WEF became a talent incubator, churning out creators who would go on to transform not just comics but television, film and more. Some of the creators that had been part of the WEF included G. Willow Wilson, Ed Brubaker, Brian Wood, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Kieron Gillen, Chip Zdarsky, Sam Humphries, Andy Khouri, Justin Jordan, Alex de Campi, Jeremy Love, Carla Speed McNeil, Colleen Doran, Lea Hernandez, Gail Simone, Antony Johnston and…er… me.
DeConnick and Jamie McKelvie transformed Captain Marvel into the version we see in movies. Atomic Blonde was adapted from Johnston’s book The Coldest City. WEF alumni went on to become editors at Oni, Image, Dark Horse, Marvel and DC, show-runners at the CW network, famous podcasters and more.
As it says on the WEF’s epitaph: “Couples met and even got married here, people found homes and aid here, companies were started and saved here. It was good.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Warren Ellis single-handedly changed the face of pop culture.
Warren Ellis is also accused of manipulating and sexually coercing many young women.
Writer and editor Katie West opened the dam with a thread on Twitter (since deleted) talking about her relationship with Ellis. Musician Meredith Yayanos, photographer Jayne Holmes and Denver Primrose also came forward with their own stories about Ellis, including screenshots of Twitter DMs from him. As of this writing, over 35 people have come forward to talk about their experiences with Ellis.
I believe them. I know that Ellis was capable of this because I was there. I saw it happen. And I did nothing about it.
Wrestling With Stalin
The Warren Ellis Forum was a magical place, for those who took part in it. It was a rollicking, chaotic scene; at its height, there were over 2500 members, writing thousands of posts daily. The atmosphere of the forum was an absurd mix of intellectual salon, underground punk club and frat house. At any one time, you could have a high-minded discussion about philosophy in one thread, how to read and negotiate a publishing contract in another, wonder at cutting edge physics in a third, and argue about cult movies in yet another thread. Artists and writers would find each other and collaborate on projects, zines were proposed, published and died, conventions were organized, drink-ups were coordinated. Relationships started and ended there; so did bitter rivalries, both personal and professional.
And at the center of it all was Warren Ellis — alternately “Uncle Warren” or “Stalin”, a moniker he adopted in tribute to his iron-handed moderation philosophy.
Ellis deliberately cultivated a larger-than-life persona, a mix of intellectualism and punk “IDGAF” ethos. He was famous for his wit and his wordplay as well as his varied interests. He was as much an explorer of art — his book Available Light featured avant garde photography — and science as pop culture. He was a libertine and futurist, a book in one hand and a scotch in another, who could be cutting or supportive — often within the same thread — and he deliberately crafted a space where much of the usual Internet fuckery was not allowed. Trolls weren’t given oxygen; anyone who caused trouble was kicked out, without ceremony or second chances. His moderation team — his Filthy Assistants, a reference to Spider Jerusalem’s aides-de-camp in Transmetropolitan — were all women, and helped enforce a rule of “no dickheads in the clubhouse” that made the WEF a welcome refuge from the greater Internet.
And indeed, he made a point of making sure that women were welcome. At the time, the WEF was a place where women could participate freely and openly, without dealing with the usual abuse that came from being a woman with opinions on the Internet. Men who were too overtly thirsty over a female poster would get shut down in short order, often with a side of stinging barbed words.
But this didn’t mean that the WEF was a paradise. The frat house atmosphere was dominant; we were all would-be rock stars, with all that entailed. Rock out with your cock out, drink like a fish, smoke like a chimney and fail to give a fuck because regrets were for other people. The culture trended towards the ironic and iconoclastic. Sacred cows made the best hamburger after all, and the darker the humor, the better. People were expected to be in on the joke or at least not object. One common response to people being stupid or killjoys was to post a picture of Steve McQueen slapping Ali McGraw in The Getaway.
People who pointed out that this photo was, oh, a little fucked up would be shouted down. It was all in good fun. It was all ironic, laddish games; it didn’t mean anything and nobody was really bothered by it. That same sense of irony, that “hey, it’s all fun and games here, nobody’s really bothered” applied to equally ironic sexism, homophobic jokes and more. Everything and everyone was fair game, fuck your idols, destroy your heroes.
And this same attitude applied as much to Ellis as it did to everyone else. Part of Ellis’ persona was Uncle Warren, the dirty old man; “Hello sinners, sit in my lap and tell Daddy you’re sorry.” It was notable how often Ellis would start a thread for people to post photos; as others noted, he would ignore most of the men, make a comment or two on the photos of some of the more prominent male posters, and then have long discussions with women who posted theirs. At the time, we — the men at least — thought of it as all rakish humor, part of the big-swinging dick energy of the culture. Women in particular were encouraged to play along; the pressure to be One of the Cool Ones was incredibly high.
Which, in turn, made it so damn easy to ignore or dismiss what we saw.
It was an open secret just how little of “Uncle Warren’s” lecherous act was actually an act. The running gag at the time was that Ellis had two obsessions: futurephones and alt-model cam-girls… and many of the women in the WEF fit the bill. Warren was also known for not being terribly concerned with whether or not some of the women he was flirting with — or in some cases, hooking up with or having affairs with — had partners. In one instance, a jilted boyfriend found and posted a transcript of a cybersex session between his girlfriend and Ellis. While the discussion was shut down, many had read it already, and mentions of its contents became a source of jokes; who would’ve thought Stalin’s sex chats were so banal?
But that same sense of irony and iconoclasm, the same willingness to roll our eyes at Ellis’ horndog behavior made it so easy to overlook just how fucked up some of this was. The weird flirting-yet-not with young women, the inappropriate behavior with so many, the culture of pushing back against the “funwreckers” (mostly, but not exclusively, women) who said “hey, this shit isn’t cool”… we took that in stride as being part of the Cool Club.
We were too busy being rock stars and the future kings and queens of comics. And besides… look at how many women Warren was introducing to the industry. That had to mean everything was on the up and up, right?
It wasn’t. And most of us, frankly, weren’t willing to listen to the people trying to tell us otherwise.
And to make things more confusing, it’s unquestionable that Ellis made profound positive changes, both to pop culture and to people. The fact that he also has left a trail of so many people who feel used or coerced and manipulated by him makes it all the more confusing and more difficult to know how to feel.
But, to quote Katie West:
I deleted that thread. I don’t want this to ruin my life, and I don’t want it to ruin anyone else’s. This is not about one person. The people who are making it that way are missing the point. This is about a pattern of behaviour and our collective complicity in that behaviour.
— Katie West (@katiewest) June 16, 2020
Ellis is a symptom, not the disease. We need to talk about the culture that leads up to this and makes it possible.
Culture Wars (Or: All Those Blurred Lines)
One of the reasons why it was so easy to go with the flow and overlook the warning signs or pass off glaringly bad behavior was — and is — the culture of networking in the entertainment industry in general and the comics industry in particular. The Warren Ellis Forum was, in many ways, a microcosm of the comic industry as a whole. Success here meant success in the comic industry… provided that you were a fit for the culture. It was understood that membership in the WEF was always under consideration; if you weren’t funny enough, smart enough, creative enough for Uncle Warren, you were out. And for a forum that prided itself on its Yappy Bastards… if you weren’t willing to shut up about some things, you would be shown the door.
But it was very much (& openly so) run as a dictatorship. His salon, his rules. Deal or leave. This also created an inner cabal & the rest of us … which explains why so many people are flabbergasted at the allegations & saw nothing at the time 2/
— Katherine Keller (@sequentialkady) June 17, 2020
As I said: Ellis took pride in the “Stalin” nickname and made it clear that the rules were what he decided they were. If he or the mods decided that you were out, you were out. Pushing back got you kicked out of the forum. And while this can seem like such a small thing — a forum run by a comic writer in the 90s and early 00’s — being part of the WEF had real-world benefits.
Comics, after all, was — and still is — a notoriously difficult industry to get into. The running joke was that every time someone broke into the industry, everyone would immediately rush to plug the hole you used to get in. And — like many of the jokes and nods that permeated the WEF — there was an element of “joking but not really” to it. As author G. Willow Wilson said:
If you had any professional aspirations, you had to convince one of them to open their rolodex. And it was very clear there were 2 separate tracks: if you were a guy, all you had to do was be moderately talented and kiss the right ass. If you were a woman, it was different.
— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) June 17, 2020
It could be hard to look at some of the people who had Ellis’ favor and not be envious. While there is absolutely no question that they were incredibly talented and deserve every ounce of success that they’ve received, there’s also no question at just how much having a heavyweight like Ellis on your side would give you a leg up. Comics has always been about who you know as much as what you can do; this made networking a vitally important skill. Knowing the right people could open doors for you… if they liked you. And part of being liked meant fitting into the culture. And the culture of the comic industry can be difficult under the best of circumstances and completely toxic at worst.
And there is no place where the culture was more distilled into its purest form than at conventions.
Conventions in general are odd beasts, liminal spaces where the traditional rules seem to go out the window. They are at the same time professional development and parties; a place where deals are negotiated, networks are developed… and mistakes are made. They are the time when you are surrounded by your industry peers… many of whom are ready to cut loose at the first available opportunity. This is true of conventions and conferences for any industry you can think of. Academic conferences, for example, seem as though they should be the most staid, buttoned up events in history. But once cocktail hour rolls around, they can transform into Hedonism II.
The same holds true for various geek conventions. Comic, anime, gaming and sci-fi cons exist as both professional events and vacations, where the line between professional networking and personal relationships blur to the point of being almost non-existent. And at every con is — inevitably — Bar Con. It’s at Bar Con — held at the hotel bar — that much of the business of the geek industry goes down. But Bar Con is, in many ways, part and parcel of the same “live fast, party hard” culture of the WEF and elsewhere; the drinking culture of conventions can’t be overstated. In fact, it’s one that people often feel compelled to be a part of; that need to fit into the culture in order to be accepted. As such, there’s an almost performative aspect to it, the urge to prove that you can party like the rock star you feel like being or to get completely goddamn hammered because fuck it, why not? Small wonder that so many of the worst stories in comics start at the con bar…
But in that same crowd, you have people who are looking for their way into the industry. Talented amateurs, up-and-comers, even people who never thought they might be good enough to go pro who are getting a chance to meet their heroes. In some cases they’re star struck. In others, they may have a crush — intellectual, creative or otherwise — on their favorite creators. And for many… that’s an incredibly heady, even intoxicating feeling. For many folks in the industry, cons are a time when they feel like rock stars… and meet their fans who treat them the same way.
And what’s a rock star without his groupies?
Meanwhile, for the up-and-comer, there’s that same pressure of “you need to fit in”. You want to be smart enough, creative enough, talented enough or funny enough to hang. You want to be accepted by people you hope to be your peers. But as Wilson observed: it’s easy for a man to make the right connections through basic networking practices. For a woman, the options can often be far more limited… and that makes them uniquely vulnerable to someone leveraging their position in the industry. Adding to the effect is the transition from online to in-person. The Internet has given us greater access to our heroes and to the pillars of fame; it’s easier than ever to connect with the people whose work you admire. Starting a conversation online and then having the possibility of meeting in person can add to that excitement and lead to people letting their guard down. And when your hero and (hopefully) future peer shows interest in you and your work… that mix of validation, meeting your idol and possibly even a little bit of infatuation makes it very easy to feel like a dream come true. And at a con, where the line between professional event and party blur, then professional ethics can also blur and many people will start to blur boundaries as well.
Part of what is so fucked about all of this is the general attitude of “well, this is just how it is”. The mix of the personal and professional becomes just part of the business.
And that attitude persists, even in the face of habitual offenders.
Why It’s So Hard To Change The Culture
One of the common reactions to the accusations against Ellis is often “…so?” After all, the majority of the people who he interacted with were of legal age. As of this writing, nobody has accused Ellis of sexual assault and frankly, I haven’t heard or seen anything to make me believe he has. What he did do was take starry-eyed young women under his wing, push the boundaries of a mentor/mentee relationship to the breaking point and — in many cases — drop people once someone new came along or his current target gave hints that she was forming connections with someone else.
You are not alone. I have years of emails from Warren Ellis leading me to think we were friends, then leading into sex chat. It was like a clang in my head when I joyously mentioned talking to other creators and he dropped me. Like hot garbage.
— Denver Primrose (@essbizarress) June 16, 2020
By even the least charitable interpretation, no laws were broken. Legally speaking, he seems to be in the clear. Even West has said: this wasn’t them being abusive, it was a man abusing his power. But the fact that it was legal doesn’t mean that harm wasn’t done. It doesn’t mean that people weren’t taken advantage of, had their trust abused by someone they respected or — in many cases — idolized and who leveraged their trust against them. The fact that no laws were broken doesn’t remove the abuse of trust, nor does it mitigate the consequences of those action.
While people can — and do — have relationships with people where there is a power difference, whether in age, status, wealth, or position, there is a wide difference between a relationship between two individuals developing despite the difference in power and someone leveraging their power in order to charm someone into a relationship.
And yes, we can argue that these women had agency. They could have rejected Ellis (or Cameron Stewart or other predators within the industry)… and many have. But that doesn’t make those actions OK, ethically or morally, nor does it mean that they aren’t harmful. Their victims may have had agency, but they were also fans who were excited to meet someone famous, be mentored by them and made to feel special.
4. He said I was his world/we were best friends/he was my thrilling secret/he supported my career so I didn’t feel like I could say no.
5. He dropped me. I blamed myself.
— Jhayne Holmes (@Foxtongue) June 17, 2020
It’s understandable that they were willing to believe the best in someone that, up until now, they had a reason to believe was sincere. Motivated reasoning is a thing. And that same motivated reasoning is part of why it can be so hard for many of us — myself most certainly included — to miss what, in retrospect should have been glaring warning signs. With regard to the WEF in particular, it was a space that felt unique in the Internet at the time. We were the hot young things, we were sex-positive, pro-indie, pro-women and encouraging our friends to push the boundaries of what they thought were allowed. If it were occasionally (or frequently) sexist or dodgy… well, we were all friends who were in on the joke, yes? It’s hard to look at the man who made it all happen and see him as someone leveraging his presence and position on people who might otherwise not be up for a relationship with him. It’s all too easy to assume that everything is fine and if we had evidence that Ellis was a little too interested in some of the women in the group… well, it was a little pathetic but otherwise harmless. Rakish behavior at worst, innit?
And that same reasoning can be part of why it’s so easy for people to dismiss what he did — or Stewart, or others — as harmful. Nobody likes to think of their heroes as being villains. Nobody likes to think that the industry they love — one that they often hope to be part of — is so imbalanced that bad actors can prey on the young and hopeful. Easier to think that it’s a meritocracy that anyone can thrive in as long as they have the talent. Easier to dismiss the harm as being minor, the victims as being all too-willing and the consequences as negligible. Easier to see your friend biting and licking random people as clownish antics than the acts of someone who shouldn’t be allowed in a professional setting. Or, for that matter, better to just try to isolate a known predator by not allowing women to talk to him than to upset the order at the company… even if that effectively cuts women out of the running to work on the books under his purview.
It’s also worth noting just how hard it is to face up to past mistakes. When you discover things that, in retrospect, you should have known or realize that you dismissed someone’s warnings as “being a funwrecker” or not being that bad, you’re going to feel guilt. You’re going to feel shame. You’re going to ask why you didn’t step in and say something… even when speaking up may have gotten you kicked from the community you loved. It’s hard to face that shame. It’s painful to confront that guilt. Easier, then, to continue to dismiss things or to diminish them than to do the work of processing your part in it.
And frankly, it’s hard to talk about processing those feelings because… well, it can also feel performative. If I can be real for a moment: I hesitated to write this column in no small part because part of me feels like it is taking the attention away from the victims, performing regret with breast-beating and public proclamations of sorrow.
But if we want to shift the culture, we need to do more than out the predators and listen to the victims. We need to examine why it’s possible for the malefactors to operate so openly and why so many of us were blind and willing to be blind. And we need to do so in a way that we can understand why we did so in the past so that we can be sure not to make the same mistake in the future.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Normally when I write these columns, I like to have some sort of call to action. An exhortation to be better, something that can be done to start the process of making things better. But unfortunately, there aren’t any clear cut, simple answers here.
Is the answer to “cancel” Warren Ellis? Maybe; it’s an understandable impulse. But at the same time, it’s difficult to also throw out the good he’s done; the WEF was not just a force that advanced comics and pop culture to where we are today but a place that many of us loved and still love. It was a place where we made friendships that have lasted to this day, where careers were launched — including mine. It’s painful to look back and have the shadow of his behavior taint everything. Was THIS event or THAT behavior something innocent, or was it a clue that we should have seen? Was this person kicked from the group because they were a troublemaker and a creep, or were they calling attention to something that Ellis would’ve preferred remain unremarked on? Or, worse, were they a threat to Uncle Warren’s desire to bring some new young woman under his influence?
It’s also a question of whether we want to prioritize punishment or change, revenge or redemption. Making space for people to make amends, grow and change is important, and even some of those who’ve been the worst have shown growth and taken responsibility for their actions.
Brian Wood has since reached out to me to apologise and acknowledge his past behaviour. He’s proven growth and reconciliation are possible. We have had a really good conversation and I believe Brian is listening and learning and taking responsibility for his actions in the past.
— Katie West (@katiewest) June 17, 2020
At the same time, we have to confront not just the culture that enables this behavior, but our complicity in it. Examining the drinking culture of Bar Con, the old-boys networking and how it excludes talents who aren’t comfortable (or welcome) in that atmosphere is equally vital. This isn’t to say that cons can’t be parties or that professionals can’t hang with their friends at the bar, but to take a long, hard look at not just the atmosphere that it creates but the behaviors that it condones and even encourages.
It’s also important to bring more women, people of color and LGBTQ people into positions that allow them to hire creators, greenlight projects and incubate talent, so that folks like Ellis, Stewart, et. al can’t use their power and position in the industry to coerce and mistreat the young and hopeful.
And we have to take a long and unflinching look at our own behaviors — the things that we’ve actively participated in and the things that we’ve looked away from. How often have we examined our own behavior and where we’ve gone wrong? How often have we prioritized in-group membership and comfort over confronting the behavior of others? How often we’ve dismissed other people’s complaints because they made us uncomfortable or were inconvenient to us? How often we’ve contributed to an atmosphere where people felt they couldn’t come to us with their concerns.
But we have to also acknowledge that none of this can happen quickly or cleanly. The Titanic can’t turn on a dime and reshaping an industry that is already beset with change and chaos is a daunting task under even the best of circumstances. Changing the culture is hard, a process that takes time and sustained effort, and there’re reactionaries who prefer the men’s locker room atmosphere. They prefer an industry that caters exclusively to them, their fantasies and their frequently shitty behavior.
However, the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it anyway. The fact that it takes time doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start now. And the fact that changing an industry — and other industries that face the same problems and bad actors — is an almost Sisyphean task doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grit our teeth and start rolling the rock up that hill.
If we’re going to start, we should start with ourselves. Look around. Examine the people in your life, in your communities. Are there warning signs that you’ve missed? Is there a “missing stair” in your community that has thus far been allowed to remain? The sooner we do the work within ourselves and our own communities, the sooner we change geek culture… and make it the place we’ve always pretended it was.