Without a knowing the bigger picture, you could think he was delusional. But with the whole story, there is no other way of looking at it than he is a manipulator.
Did you insert yourself into someone’s trauma for personal reasons? Are you being a supportive person or just an angry one?
Was that an “innocent flirtation” that you just made, or are your comments actually harassment?
These questions are important. Actions have consequences. Even online actions can lead to real damage.
The world we live in is changing all the time. Sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better. One of the ways that our society has been changing for the better over the last couple of years is that there is greater accountability required by people who have preyed upon the vulnerable and engaged in inappropriate personal behavior. The #MeToo movement has made it more difficult for everything from unwanted overly familiar innuendo to sexual assault to be brushed away or excused.
There are two types of goals for exposing unacceptable behavior publicly. The first is punishment. Punishment for the offender. Unfortunately, even though the victims are justified in their desire for some level of retribution, that doesn’t always work out.
An example of that is the public declaration of Chris Hardwick‘s behavior in a past relationship by Chloe Dykstra. He laid low for a short time and made some public statements without admitting guilt, and now he is back on TV and getting paid.
Sometimes, people are cast out from their positions of celebrity. Truly, it should be a privilege to be a public figure and be celebrated. That includes comic book writers and artists. Companies are free to employ whom they chose, and consumers are free to support who they want, but people have a right know when someone is behaving badly, especially if that person is in the public arena.
We saw, last year, that Eric Esquivel was fired following revelations of abusive behavior, and recently Dark Horse Comics stated that they would no longer work with Brian Wood because of multiple allegations of unacceptable actions. In the case of Jai Nitz, comic writer and college guest lecturer, it took the reaction of the University of Kansas banning him from the campus for the comics community to take notice of what had been a pattern of terrible acts.
The second goal for exposing inappropriate behavior is awareness. Awareness that the actions are wrong, and that the perpetrator is engaging in this behavior. We mentioned awareness that the behavior is wrong, and that is the meat of this post.
There are people who prey on the vulnerable and the abused by portraying themselves as an ally. Some people use the trauma of others for their own benefit. They frame the other people’s injuries with their own feelings.
One such person is comic writer C.W. Cooke. He is a pretty well known in the indie comic circuit, especially online. Until very recently, he has been quick to comment and insert himself in the raging at bad actors in the comic community.
There is a difference between being a predator that breaks laws and someone who crosses the barriers of acceptable social interactions. The latter can cause personal pain and often result in very real trauma.
Discovering Shared Experience
I have had discussions with the victims of Cooke’s behavior. Nine people agreed to speak with the promise of anonymity. I have been told that there were others that declined to join the conversation for this article, but I do not know how many. As a whole, I have been told that they are afraid that their careers or personal lives may be further hurt by revealing their identities. Cooke has portrayed himself as fairly influential figure in the industry. He highlights and inflates the relationships that he has with comic pros and his publisher contacts, in order to perpetuate the myth of his influence.
Recently, in August, there was a vague social media post about “someone” who was being told that their performative allyship was inappropriate, and the “someone” was not modifying their behavior. This was a watershed moment. The author of that post was quickly inundated with private messages asking if the “someone” was C.W. Cooke. This formed a kinship, and soon private confessions of feeling harassed by Cooke began to emerge.
A private online chat group was created, and soon the people in the group realized that they all had feelings of being made to feel uncomfortable and worse by Cooke through both online and personal interactions. The victims of Cooke’s behavior began to unfriend him on Facebook and block him on all social media platforms.
A document was created that detailed Cooke’s actions, and it was shared on Facebook in an effort to let both Cooke and the rest of the world know that his behavior was wrong.
One of people that I spoke with about Cooke’s behavior stated that, “Without a knowing the bigger picture, you could think he was delusional. But with the whole story, there is no other way of looking at it than he is a manipulator.” C.W. Cooke’s offensive behavior fell into two main categories: performative allyship, and inappropriate online harassment.
Being an ally is supporting a cause and standing up for those who need or want assistance or protection. The idea is that being an ally is meant to be selfless. When someone uses the idea of being an ally to bring attention to themselves, or, even worse, to improve their situation at the expense of the abused or injured, that person is engaging in “Performative Allyship”. They are performing as an ally to a cause for personal gain rather than altruistic reasons.
Cooke has inserted himself into the trauma of others and engages in over-the-top outrage at the injuries suffered by victims of abuse. His reactions, however, are definitely odd. His outrage has been described as including threats of violence. He has commented on social media platforms about the misdeeds of abusers by tagging the offender’s victims and calling them into a discussion that they usually want no part of. This is not necessarily abusive behavior. It is rude and self-serving. It puts the emphasis on Cooke by his desperate desire to show that he is supportive of the abused. It is alarming and cause for a second look.
In my discussions with the victims, I heard multiple examples of Cooke reaching out to victims of abuse once they go public with their accounts. He inserted himself into the online presence of people that he had had no contact with prior to their revelations. Initially his presence seemed benign in the victims lives, but his behavior has been described as “collecting [relationships with] abuse victims and emotionally vulnerable people like they are trophies.”
His insertion into people’s lives included:
- Offering collaborations to people whom he had never mentioned working with before. This made the victims feel as if they were being used as a charity piece to make him feel good about himself.
- Sending Facebook friend requests to friends of victims, both in and out of the industry. The requests within the industry were used to get access to people for work. He was essentially using another person’s sexual abuse as a way to network.
- Exaggerated outrage to support victims of abuse. He has tagged multiple victims of abuse and harassment in social media posts and brought additional unwanted attention to them in order to justify his public stance.
Inappropriate Online Harassment
People may feel a little less inhibited online. There is, among some people, a tendency to be a little more flirtatious than they would be in-person. The women who were the victims of Cooke’s behavior felt that he had stepped over the line of familiar banter to sexual suggestiveness. His comments on selfies were consistently beyond flirtatious.
Comments ranged from the somewhat vague “Damn!” to the more explicit “Fucking gorgeous!” His heart-eye emoji comment was ubiquitous. These comments were beyond what should have been understood to be acceptable, particularly for a married man commenting on a post of a married woman. One of the victims commented felt that it was “aggressively complimenting to where it made me very uncomfortable.”
The public comments and private messages from Cooke made their way into the territory of unwanted sexual suggestions. His comments consistently mentioned the breasts of his targets in either a complimentary or inquisitive tone. One victim noted, “Twice, through private messages, he implied I should send him pictures of my chest when I had posted selfies from the collarbone area up.”
The group that I spoke with felt very strongly that Cooke had to have set up alerts in order to be notified when they posted anything, because of the speed of his replies. He continually was one of, if not the, first people to respond or comment on their posts. This level of stalking is what initially raised suspicion amongst the individuals. Eventually, those individuals shared notes and realized that he was doing this to a lot of people.
I also spoke with a former male friend of Cooke. Cooke had commented to him that he had “flirted” with some people, but it was inconsequential, and that he would stop if he was asked to. When that friend was made aware of the extent of the “flirting”, he said, “Yeah, he was telling me the flirting was just compliments not constantly stalking women to the point of insanity. Obviously, he left out that distinction.”
Reactions to Criticism
All of these actions as a whole paint a dark picture, but on an individual basis, maybe each act is not so bad? Maybe he didn’t realize he was casting such a wide net of inappropriate behavior? The problem is that he did know and was told to change and did not.
One of the people I spoke with noted, “Without a knowing the bigger picture, you could think he was delusional. But with the whole story, there is no other way of looking at it than he is a manipulator.”
I heard multiple accounts of Cooke being told explicitly to “back off” in terms of his inappropriate and invasive commentary and his performative allyship. He had had several people talk to him about his issues.
This did not stop the behaviors. He would say that he would change and then resisted it.
I spoke to a comic book pro who had been planning a comic project with Cooke. This was his account:
I broke off a potential project (before his harassment came to light) because of his extremely aggressive social media stance and anger, which increasingly seemed to be disingenuous. I sent him a message telling him he needed to cool off, because I had been told various publishers refused to work with him for the same reasons. He apologized and promised to take a break and reassess but within a week he was right back at it.
When Cooke realized that people where unfollowing, unfriending, and blocking him on social media platforms, his reactions were frantic. He messaged the members of the group that I spoke with, and others, over multiple platforms to try to get information about why he was being blocked. He had his wife reach out to those people as well. He even recruited other friends to try to get information with false claims.
He also reacted by requesting more “friends”. In the time that “the unfollowing” began, I received a Facebook friend request from Cooke. I have over a hundred friends in common with him. Someone in the group commented, “While people were blocking him, he kept adding more and more people. The amount of “mutuals” kept going down but the “friends” list kept going up.”
I was hoping against hope that my friend wasn’t a monster.
The former friend I spoke with told me that Cooke “had figured this [“the unfollowing”] might be about flirting. Although, his version of the story has him complimenting women and then stopping if told to.” However, when it became clear that he had seen the document after it became public, he posted a “friends only” apology on Facebook that did not address the inappropriate sexual creepiness at all.
His apology made the topic about “how he gets angry and passionate about bad guys in the comic industry, while completely glossing over all the sexual harassment that was mentioned.” Somehow, according to multiples sources, he felt that people were upset with him because of how mad he was about the behavior of Jai Nitz?
Where do we go from here?
The purpose of this post is not to punish or harm anyone. It is to inform. The comics community is filled with vibrant and amazingly creative people. Another characteristic of a decent portion of comic book creatives and industry professionals is some level of social awkwardness. There is an inherent vulnerability that is easily preyed upon when trust of “normal” social interactions is given.
The victims of his behavior that I spoke with are not looking for vengeance. They are a group of people who are wary of future social interaction and concerned about friendly posting on the internet. Words they used to describe their feelings about Cooke include: “betrayed”, “used”, “exploited”, “manipulated”. They are nervous to be in his presence.
I asked them what they hope for Cooke in the future. In general, they wish that he recognizes his behavior and the harm it does to others, but have little hope that it will. One person said, “I like to think people could change. I like to hope that he has his wife and friends holding him accountable now. But he may be that delusional that he’s not going to.”
The most important thing that the victims hope happens from this piece is that there is a greater awareness that this type of behavior is unacceptable, both to other victims dealing with it and to those who are engaging in it. They are not convinced that they are the entire universe of Cooke’s victims. They would like others to be able to recognize that the uncomfortable feeling they have when they see his “heart-eyes” emoji comment is not normal, and that they are not alone.
One person in the group stated that their hope for this article is “that anyone who’s also been a victim, who we might not even know about, gets a little ‘closure’ from this being brought more into the light, or that they at least know that they have real allies looking out for them.”
Cooke is not unique. We would be foolish to think that there is no one else out there engaging in this behavior. His actions are self-serving while attempting to masquerade as being helpful. He showed a need to be a part of the story that had nothing to do with, and then took advantage of general friendliness.
They are also hopeful that there are people out there who will check their own behavior. That they will question themselves. “Is my outrage justified and appropriately directed?” “Is this banter appropriate, or am I overstepping?”
One of the themes that ran through my conversation with the victims is the feeling that even though the original anonymous complaint document was public, people felt that Cooke was not a “big enough” name in comics for this to be news. It’s possible that his lack of true star power could have been part of his motivation to expand his brand through his performative allyship. However, in the end, he was hurting peers in the field, and his behavior is reflective of bigger issues in the industry.
This is not meant to be a witch hunt. It is meant to call attention the treatment of others. Cooke might learn and change and become a better person. We hope for that. However, I will end this with a quote from a person that I spoke with that encapsulates all of this.
He has used us, all of us. Just in very different, underhanded and specific ways. He is a master of tailoring his tactics to each individual, which is why it is harder for people to really see what he has been doing. A lot of people have gotten defensive about Jai Nitz and said things like, “Well, nobody took him seriously. We all thought he was a joke. So. we never thought he could be capable of what he did.” Nobody really takes CW seriously either, and yet, look where we are.
The people who came forward and spoke with me did so with the promise of anonymity. They are nervous of retaliation. I have seen verifiable evidence to back up every claim in this article. It is not hearsay. I am grateful for the trust that the victims placed in me and will honor that.
Above, we linked to other news sites coverage of reprehensible behavior for the specific reason that this behavior needs to be exposed to as many as possible. Awareness is a major step toward prevention.
The original document can be found here.