Briefly, in follow-up to my post of June 30:
Further reporting by Michael Dean for The Comics Journal reveals a long history of administrative neglect, failed oversight, and abusive workplace practices at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. In particular, the testimony of former CBLDF Development Manager Cheyenne (Shy) Allott reveals a pattern of harassment by now-departed Executive Director Charles Brownstein back in 2010, and other disturbing details have come to light, including Brownstein's arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct (2003) and Brownstein's harassment of sometime CBLDF Deputy Director Mike Scigliano (circa 2008-2009). Allott's testimony, reported in detail by Dean, has only now become public, due to a binding non-disclosure agreement she was strong-armed into signing when she left her job at the Fund. The CBLDF has released Allott from that agreement.
Current CBLDF Board President Christina Merkler officially responds to some pointed questions from The Comics Journal here.
I want to support the CBLDF, and take some comfort from Merkler's promise of "a top-to-bottom rebuilding of Fund management, which includes modernizing our Board governance and communicating in a transparent style more representative of the people working for the Fund." Further, she has declared:
We must better understand and explain why the Fund did or did not support previous causes important to our members, update our choices of imagery used in our publications and add deeper pre-hire background checks for prospective employees of the Fund. Finally, there will be a new infusion of Board members that reflects all that comics have to offer, with more representatives of our constituents, particularly creators and retailers.
All that sounds promising. But the history of breach of trust here is profound. The Fund needs to shed daylight on every aspect of its workings. For too long, it has run on a shoestring, with an Executive Director unaccountable to anyone, a dispersed, out-of-touch Board that has let things slide, and a lack of due process in its own ranks. I have lost faith in the organization and hope for serious change.
Frankly, this issue has gotten me all tangled up. I consider myself a free-speech liberal, for whom the protection of freedom of speech is key. To me, freedom of expression is the fountainhead from which other freedoms flow. So I believe in the mission of the CBLDF. It's disheartening to see what strikes me as a spirit of illiberalism growing among progressives who consider First Amendment activism to be simply a marker of privilege, or at odds with the fight for social justice. I tend to think that such critics value freedom of expression too lightly. Yet it is hard to argue with them when institutions like the CBLDF operate in shadows, neglectfully, unjustly, and jeopardize, through their inaction or complicity in wrongdoing, the very cause they are supposed to be fighting for. The CBLDF must align its First Amendment mission with a broader fight for civil rights and social justice.
UPDATE, JULY 12: Over at The Daily Beast, Asher Elbein provides a thoughtful, tenaciously argued overview of the US comics industry's sexual harassment and abuse crisis, pointing out that "sexual harassment is a labor rights issue" and placing the crisis in the context of the industry's long history of abusive practices. Elbein's perspective usefully counters the misleadingly upbeat metaphor of weeding out a few "bad apples" from the industry; he shows how the system has been rotten in so many ways from the start, and requires systemic change. Recommended reading.
My posts to KinderComics usually focus on the pleasure of reading, and usually contain at least one image. The following post does neither. I trust my reasons will be clear:
Over roughly the past two weeks, the US comic book and graphic novel community has been roiled by revelations of sexual harassment, abuse, and predation committed by prominent and admired creators (see here, here, and here for starters). Implicit in the coverage of these outrages is the understanding that habits and presumptions in the field at large have to change, that too much of the field has been complicit in covering up or downplaying, or simply nodding toward and tolerating, these outrages for too long. Even known instances of harassment and abuse, as in the case of Scott Allie at Dark Horse, were let slide, or palmed off with inadequate in-house reprisals that don’t seem to have changed anything.
Comics in the US is dealing, belatedly, with the same injustices that have marked other cultural fields, including children’s publishing (recall the sexual harassment crisis of 2018: see here, here, and here). This is not the first #MeToo moment that the US comic book field has had, but it may be the loudest, most impactful, and most propitious of those moments — one that, I hope, will spark not only short-term outrage and equally short-term promises of change, but real, sustained, systemic change: to editorial and personnel practices, mentoring and networking practices, comic-con culture, and the things that all of us stakeholders in comics say (or fail to say) to one another. Quick bursts of performative outrage won’t matter in the long run; what will matter is recognition of the field’s general complicity in these matters, and taking practical steps to propel the field out of complacent gear-lock and into active attention, to alert status. This will be a matter of more than pledges; it will have to be a practical matter of who gets hired, whose voices will get amplified and believed, whose words will reverberate in the proverbial room where it happens, and what comicdom’s gathering spaces do to set policy and expectations. Fan spaces such as cons have been pushing for stronger anti-harrassment policies and new etiquettes and safeguards (see for example here, here, and here); professional spaces both inside and outside of cons must do the same.
I have no special wisdom when it comes to addressing these issues. In fact, I’m troubled by my own record of bland complicity in the unthinking sexism of our society — and of comics culture. Despite recoiling from the more obviously sexist and misogynistic content of many comics, I’ve often been blinded by complacency. I will have to work proactively to expand the scope of my empathy and recognize the scope of what I just don’t know. What I do know is that I’m a participant in this culture and share in its problems, and that concrete, deliberate policies will mean more than vague affirmations. A proactive commitment to anti-sexism is needed, and that’s an ongoing thing, not just a matter of signing a pledge.
Of special concern to KinderComics is the news out of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a long-lived nonprofit that works to protect freedom of expression in the comics field. The CBLDF, I believe, has a crucial mission — but its reputation has been damaged, its future jeopardized, by its failure to address sexist, and sexual, wrongdoing within its own organization. This week, longtime executive director Charles Brownstein has resigned under pressure, due to renewed and intense public outcry over his sexual assault of a comics creator at a convention in 2005 (and other charges that have come to light once more). The convention incident became known in 2006, thanks in part to investigative journalism by Michael Dean of The Comics Journal. The CBLDF, however, kept Brownstein on, despite damning coverage. Though the Fund reportedly took punitive and rehabilitative measures with Brownstein, the shadow cast by his misconduct has dogged the organization. This past couple of weeks, the Fund drew severe criticism on social media, Twitter particularly, with prominent industry voices pledging to withdraw or withhold support from the Fund unless Brownstein were removed (and, some added, the CBLDF board took steps toward serious internal reform). Brownstein’s resignation was reported by the CBLDF on Monday, June 22.
This was long overdue — and now the Fund is being called to answer publicly for its years of supporting Brownstein.
Again, I believe that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund does essential work on behalf of comics creators, publishers, retailers, librarians, educators, and readers. Formed in 1986, incorporated in 1990, the Fund “provides legal referrals, representation, advice, assistance and education to cases affecting the First Amendment right to read, create, publish, sell, and distribute comics and graphic novels.” More simply (I’m quoting the CBLDF website here), the Fund “help[s] individuals and businesses who are being criminally prosecuted because of the comic books they read, make, buy, or sell.” Further, it “help[s] libraries gather resources to defend graphic novel challenges.” This is a mission that matters to me greatly — and I believe it matters to the future of comics for young readers. Some organization needs to carry on that mission.
As children’s and young adult graphic novels have become a staple in libraries across the US, comics have repeatedly appeared on the lists of “most challenged” books, and the kinds of cases the CBLDF has worked on have changed, as has the Fund’s promotional literature. Much of the CBLDF’s outreach these days goes beyond the diehard comic book hobbyists who were its main public at first, and the Fund now organizes convention panels and produces resources aimed at librarians, teachers, and parents. CBLDF staff have sought to promote inclusivity, spotlighting women, queer, and trans creators of comics, celebrating anti-racist comics, and putting on progressive convention events. They have, most definitely, defended young people’s right to read freely. So it’s disconcerting to hear stakeholders in the comics community declare the organization obsolete or hopelessly rearguard or corrupt. Yet the CBLDF brought this on itself — which is why the voices of its severest critics should be heard, regarded, and discussed.
We’re going to need a new model CBLDF, or a new organization that does the same sort of work. The injustices in the Fund’s own history, though, cannot be ignored.
The challenge here is to get beyond regretful mea culpas and into the active position of doing something substantial. I believe there needs to be a public accounting by the CBLDF board, and revision of its charter to address issues of sexual harassment in comics culture and within its own ranks. I hope the organization will exhibit the will and courage to address this problem — a great deal depends on what they do next (the most recent statements from the Fund give me some hope). I also believe that a legal empowerment fund, comparable to that once attempted by the now-defunct nonprofit Friends of Lulu, is desperately needed for women, and for queer, trans, nonbinary, racialized, and disabled persons, working in the comics field. If the CBLDF can’t or won’t participate in civil suits, then another mechanism is needed to help support the victims of harassment, stalking, manipulation, exclusion, and bigotry in our community.
These are alarming times, for so many reasons — but, again, they are also propitious times. Things can be done, concretely, spiritedly, vocally, forcefully. I hope they will — but of course hope has to be an active, doing thing, not a matter of waiting for the ship to right itself.