Comic-Con 2014: Outcry, action against harassment grows

July 24, 2014 | 5:00 a.m.
Anna Kegler, left, Rochelle Keyhan and Erin Filson, representing a group called geeksforCONsent at Comic-Con. The trio will be handing out anti-harassment paraphernalia at the convention. (Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times)

Anna Kegler, left, Rochelle Keyhan and Erin Filson, representing a group called geeksforCONsent at Comic-Con. The trio will be handing out anti-harassment paraphernalia at the convention. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

SAN DIEGO — Mariah Huehner attended her first Comic-Con as a newly minted comic book editor a few years ago, looking to network with artists. But at a nighttime party in a hotel by the bay, she realized that others had a different kind of connection in mind.

“One of the guys suddenly had his hand on my butt,” said Huehner, 35, who is best known as the author of the “True Blood” and “Emily and the Strangers” comics. “It’s a shocking reminder that you’re seen differently.”

FULL COVERAGE: Comic-Con 2014

Comic-Con International’s dense crowds, Bacchanalian atmosphere and mask-wearing anonymity make it prime territory for misbehavior, according to both men and women who have attended the event many times. Here, and at other similar events around the country, convention-goers have been known to grope, stalk and take “upskirt” photos with impunity. The behavior is so common that there is even a term for it: Creeping at a con.

But as San Diego’s annual convention opens Thursday, a backlash is brewing. One prominent science fiction author is holding his event away from the official Convention Center site to protest what he calls lax anti-harassment policies. And a group calling itself Geeks for CONsent submitted a petition with 2,500 signatures calling on organizers to post signs in the convention halls detailing its anti-harassment policies. It also wants convention volunteers to get training on how to respond to harassment reports.

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Christopher Maracha, of San Francisco, salutes on his way up a convention hall escalator. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Elias Meraz, left, poses with cosplayer Alicia Bellamy, dressed as the "Scarlet Witch." (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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The Gonzalez family of Santa Ana takes a rest on the convention hall floor. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans pass by BBC America's "Orphan Black" ad on a convention hall wall. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Chris Beasley as the Hobbit's Gandalf makes his way through the crowd. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Kevin Uribe, of Red Bank, NJ, stands quietly, dressed as "Silent Bob." (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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John Whitt of Minneapolis spreads his wings as "Batman." (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Chris Vick of Los Angeles touches up his makeup during a break from his role as "The Spoon Killer." (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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"Orphan Black" fan Cynthia Perez walks away with a cardboard cutout of the show's character, Cal Morrison. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans pack an elevator to the convention center sky bridge. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Elisa Teague walks the convention center floor in an unconventional gown. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Bugs Mitchell of Westminster finds a quiet cove to check his email during Comic-Con. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Keeleigh West of Reno, Nev. spreads her homemade wings on the convention hall floor. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Chopper the dog moves through the Gaslamp Quarter with his owner Mark Shaffer. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Chris Clarke of San Diego reaches out to touch a macabre mannequin to see if it might be a real human in front of the Zombie Apocalypse Store in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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A cosplay group entertains passersby in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter during Comic-Con. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Andrew Knighton, under the gigantic eyeball, heads into the Comic-Con convention center. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Convention attendees gather around a scale model of Star Trek starship USS Reliant. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Convention-goers stop at nothing, even if it means waiting in long lines, to buy Marvel merchandise. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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A woman in a period gown takes the stairs after realizing it would be a tight squeeze into the elevator. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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The face of fictitious mascot and cover boy Alfred E. Neuman shines through in a compilation of Mad magazine covers. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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A pair of Supermen give onlookers a double take as they check out "Star Wars" merchandise at the convention. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Josh Roemele, 10, marvels at "Transformers" merchandise, just one item among a bevy of goodies. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans, dressed up and dressed down, take an escalator to the convention floor. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Cosplayers David Schoelen, left, and Paul Baum work up the right attitude. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Thomas Willeford of Harrisburg, Pa., appears in costume at Comic-Con 2014 as Steampunk Iron Man (circa 1889). (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Attendees enter the San Diego Convention Center as Comic-Con 2014 officially opens its doors for preview night Wednesday at 6 p.m. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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The Marvel booth at Comic-Con 2014 gives away free posters to the early arrivals during preview night Wednesday. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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A.J. Peplinski, 6, and his father, Allen Peplinski, of Las Vegas look up at a Bumbleblee figure from the "Transformers" movies at Comic-Con 2014. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Hannah Collier, right, explains the new video game "The Crew" to Robert Atwater at Comic-Con 2014. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Josh Buonocore of Orlando, Fla., takes a selfie with a zombie at "The Walking Dead" Terminus wall. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Children construct Lego projects during a contest at the Lego booth. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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San Diego friends Elizabeth Walsh, left, and Traci Haze clown around for a photo with a model of "The Hobbit's" Gollum. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Crys Harm of Langhorne, Pa., sports bright green contact lenses. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Zak Skelly rides on dad David's shoulders through a packed San Diego Convention Center. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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A Thorin Oakenshield figurine, part of the Hobbit collection at the Weta booth. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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A Han Solo in Carbonite. The life-size figure is part of a giveaway at the Sideshow Collectables booth. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Men are reflected in a glass case as they look over a Superman figure. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Adult Swim's master of ceremonies Randall Byers, center, supervises the Wheel of Wonder, which fans spin for prizes. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Kris Keyes as Dive Bomber, right, checks his email as passersby take his photo. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Renee White of Melbourne, Australia, snaps a photo of a giant Godzilla at Comic-Con in San Diego. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Comic-Con 2014 in San Diego officially opens Thursday but fans arrive early to pickup credentials on Wednesday. Travis Jackson with 1540 production helps with the construction of Warner Bros.' 24-foot tall sculpture of Godzilla behind Hall H. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Lauren Moyer assembles flowers and billboards for the Interactive Zone at Petco Park as part of Comic-Con. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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SAN DIEGO- July 23 2014: Emily Graham, of Vancouver Canada waits in line for a preview event at Comic Con July 23, 2014 in San Diego. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Arriving early at Comic-Con, para-olympic runner Blake Leeper of San Diego is the first double leg amputee in America in the Olympic games. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Anna Kegler, left, Rochelle Keyhan and Erin Filson, representing a group called geeksforCONsent at Comic-Con. The trio will be handing out anti-harassment paraphernalia at the convention. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Docy Elliott of Ottawa, Canada, is already in costume (Goku from "Dragonball Z") as he arrives early to pick up credentials. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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A worker helps assemble a giant billboard for the new NBC show "Constantine" near Petco Park as part of Comic-Con preparation. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Passersby look at a re-branded Hard Rock Cafe -- now the Ascension Cafe -- which is a Comic-Con placeholder touting the Syfy show "Ascension" in San Diego. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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The city of San Diego gets into Comic-Con as trolley cars are wrapped in ads from the CW's new "Gotham" television show. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“San Diego Comic-Con is the mecca of conventions,” said Rochelle Keyhan of Geeks for CONsent, who plans to hand out literature about what constitutes harassment while dressed as a steampunk Disney princess. “They should be leading by example. Instead they think they’re the only convention that has no harassment.”

Organizers point out that Comic-Con already posts its policy, that “harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated,” on its website and in a printed events guide.

“Anyone being made to feel uncomfortable at our show is obviously a concern for us,” Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer said in an email. “The safety of our attendees is a primary concern of ours. For this reason we have more staff and security than other events of our type. In addition we also have a command post in the lobby of our event that is staffed with members of the San Diego Police Department, fire and other emergency services.”

With about 130,000 attendees, Comic-Con is a place where fans celebrate superheroes and science fiction and Hollywood studios promote their upcoming geek-friendly fare. As comic book characters have broadened, so too has their fan base. More women have begun attending Comic-Con in recent years, and now comprise about 40% of convention-goers, according to Glanzer.

Women who attend these conventions say some of the men present still seem to think it’s a boys club.

Janelle Asselin, who has edited comics for DC and Disney, said she has been groped at half a dozen conventions. She said a male comic book artist once told her he would like to eat her “like a pie,” and she received rape threats in comments posted online after she had written a critique of a comic on her blog.

“It seems worse in the last five years or so,” Asselin said. “But I think a big part of that is that there are more women here, and more women saying, ‘I’m not gonna shut up about how women are treated in comics or how they’re treated at cons.'”

"Games of Thrones" actor Jason Momoa makes a comment during the show's Comic-Con panel in 2013. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

“Games of Thrones” actor Jason Momoa makes a comment during the show’s 2011 Comic-Con panel. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The uncomfortable moments aren’t limited to after-parties and encounters on the crowded convention floor. At a “Game of Thrones” panel at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, a mix of cheers and groans rose up in the audience when actor Jason Momoa said his favorite part of his role on the HBO show is that he gets to “rape beautiful women and have them fall in love with me.” At a panel last year featuring female action stars called “Women Who Kick Ass,” audience members waiting for other speakers grew restless and complained audibly in the convention hall that the panel should be called “Women Who Talk too Much.”

The atmosphere persists at conventions even as the comics world itself is becoming more inclusive. In the last week, Marvel Comics introduced a female Thor and a black Captain America, and a new “Archie” comic saw its red-headed hero take a bullet for an openly gay character.

There are signs Comic-Con is heeding some of the criticism — a last-minute email sent to badge-holders late Tuesday prominently highlighted its anti-harassment policy, and encouraged attendees to enlist security if they feel unsafe. Glanzer said it was the first time organizers had taken that step, saying “it seemed like a good idea to add to that with the email distribution.”

For some would-be attendees, including sci-fi author John Scalzi, organizers haven’t done enough. Last summer, Scalzi wrote a blog post titled “My New Convention Harassment Policy,” saying he would only be a panelist or guest of honor at a convention that has a clear, visible and enforced harassment policy. More than 1,100 people, including several other authors, co-signed his post.

“Every section of culture and society goes through this, where a group who has put up with a lot of harassment says, ‘No, we don’t want that anymore,'” Scalzi said recently. “There’s always that moment where the world shifts. Nerd culture is in the middle of that now.”

Though Scalzi’s publisher, Tor Books, had already booked him to attend Comic-Con this year, he decided to hold his event, a reading and signing, at a location outside the convention center.

“I found Comic-Con’s policy to be deficient,” Scalzi said. “It didn’t state clearly and unambiguously what they believe harassment to be.”

Renee White of Melbourne Australia snaps a photo of a giant Godzilla, part of the 2014 Comic-Con.

Renee White of Melbourne, Australia snaps a photo of a giant Godzilla, part of Comic-Con International 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

The culture of caddishness at fan and genre conventions is a long one — in a piece of correspondence from a 1962 science fiction convention in Chicago, an organizer suggested that writer Isaac Asimov deliver a talk on the “Positive Power of Posterior Pinching” and offered to supply some posteriors. Asimov declined, but asked to be pointed to a “girlie show” while in town.

In 2006, while accepting a Hugo Award at a convention in Anaheim, author Harlan Ellison grabbed the breast of the presenter, author Connie Willis. In the world of science fiction literature, it was the equivalent of the lead actor winner grabbing the lead actress winner’s breast at the Oscars.

“It was a slap in the face to me to see a successful, powerful and respected writer treated that way at the genre’s biggest award ceremony,” said science fiction author Kameron Hurley, who was sitting in the audience. “I didn’t go to many cons for a few years after that.”

Changing a culture where even minor tweaks to a character’s suit can be treated as blasphemy will be slow going, many in the genre world say.

“We have a saying, ‘If something’s done once, it’s a tradition. If something’s done twice, it’s a hallowed tradition,'” Scalzi said. “Not everything is gonna be solved immediately, but when people are becoming much more willing to publicly say, ‘This is a problem. This guy has done this thing and we want it addressed,’ I do think change is coming.”

– Rebecca Keegan | @LATHeroComplex

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