The Sounds of Silence: CBLDF and Systemic Toxicity in Comics
by Duna Haller and Travis Hedge Coke
Comics writer and critic Steven Grant called the last few weeks in comics (as well as pro-wrestling) a “#metoo apocalypse.” Someone responded if he was talking about DC dropping their longtime distributor.
Fifteen years after sexual harassment allegations, the longtime Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Charles Brownstein, has resigned.
As a field, a fandom, as overlapping communities, comics has been exceptionally good at not noticing, and definitely not collectively remembering sexual – or, really, any – abuse. Even when we identify an abuser, even so far as child rape or decades of emotional and financial abuse, we hope they are not destroyed. Presumably, too, we wish the victims are not destroyed but we do not speak of that too loudly.
DC Comics, when they finally had to deal with Eddie Berganza’s serial abuses, mostly of a sexual nature, mostly with women, made some pro forma therapeutic gestures and then made sure he would not have to work with any women. He was still in charge of some of the biggest trademarked superheroes in the world, still controlling all comics prominently featuring those characters on a monthly basis, denying women those characters, those comics, regardless of talent, ability, or interest, but no women, to DC, equaled no problems.
When editor Valerie D’Orazio published her essay Goodbye to Comics, and later the revised version, Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine, calling out sexual harassment by longtime DC executive director Mike Carlin — protected by the use of pseudonyms at the time–, many people thought these actions were also about Berganza. Silence still reigned.
Dark Horse Comics has had editors and staff who sexually grabbed colleagues, who kissed them unwanted, or, like Scott Allie, who bit them. In 2006, in seeming response to Allie’s reputation, Dark Horse placed in promotional text, “Watch out, he’s a biter.” In 2015, in the words of writer, Joe Harris, “I noticed Scott Allie at the bar and thought to go say hi. I walked up to him and I extended my hand expecting to shake his… when, instead, he reached down and grabbed my crotch. Just went for it and squeezed. I was stunned, I guess? Not what I was expecting, obviously. Not what’s ever happened to me at this or any other convention over many years. So I try to back away a little, still shocked, when he leans in and bites my right ear.” Dark Horse changed Allie’s title from Editor in Chief to Executive Senior Editor, and nothing more.
The collision of factors in 2020– the COVID-19 pandemic, the Diamond draught, and many others– amplified the silence as we found ourselves with more time to process traumas, both old and new. It may be unsurprising to see so many people in comics being called out as abusive, as the list that is now over a dozen names of people with accusations levied at them publicly continues to grow. From Warren Ellis’ record of serial sexually predatory behaviour to Cameron Stewart’s grooming of teenagers as young as 16; from the new allegations against Jason Latour to former Dark Horse editor, Brendan Wright, who was only just removed from working on a charity anthology, Shots Fired– this list is backed up by voices of multiple survivors over decades that have tried and often failed to bring the truth of these abuses to light and bring about consequences.
We are finally seeing some changes because of the work of countless survivors and allies on changing the face in comics. Jennie Gyllblad, in helping establish the Association of Comic Creators– the most recent in a line of such necessary organizations that includes Friends of Lulu and others– is doing more to ensure safety and change than any of the major publishers have in twenty… forty… let us be clear… more than eighty years.
The Association of Comic Creators have released our first Mission Statement and Code of Conduct! Thank you to the Admins, Advisors and amazing members who have all helped us get this far in just a few days!
?Join us?? https://t.co/FrfFnr2AMZ pic.twitter.com/wYrFFpgwmy
— Jennie Gyllblad ?????? (@JennieGyllblad) June 22, 2020
Another example of such change comes from Dark Horse Comics which just recently cut ties with Scott Allie due to abuses coming to light.
We believe Shawna Gore. Effective immediately, Dark Horse Comics will not be working with Scott Allie now or in the future. We apologize to fans, creators and employees for all the damage and hurt Scott has caused. More: pic.twitter.com/kFWEqZUj6J
— Dark Horse Comics (@DarkHorseComics) June 25, 2020
Which brings us back to the fifteen year old news that the recently-resigned Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Charles Brownstein, is a sexual abuser. He abused Taki Soma, sexually harassing her at a convention in 2005, at which time she filed charges and which she later made public. He abused Mike Scigliano for the ten plus years he was Deputy Director of the CBLDF, until Scigliano quit, detailing his complaints to the organization, with the organization doing nothing. Public, by-name stories, and privately told anecdotes regarding Brownstein’s abuses are thick throughout the comics community. They have been told, confirmed, sometimes in front of multiple eyewitnesses, for many years.
We, collectively, chose to ignore them. Some of us assumed he would be removed after the news of Soma became widely public. Some of us had assumed he was. Support for the CBLDF continued. Some, because stories were not always clear as to the name of the perpetrator, pinned blame on the wrong person, or invented a person to alleviate concern it was Brownstein. But, the CBLDF did not, and essentially, so, too, the comics industry and community. This letter we are seeing today is the work of years of internal and external struggle and pressure to eliminate the presence of a source of serial abuse in one of the organizations that swears to defend creators rights in the industry. But is also the result of years of work from some part of that same organization to just cover it up and move on.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has accepted the resignation of Charles Brownstein as Executive Director, effective immediately.
Our organization exists to serve the comics community and the First Amendment, and we can’t do that without an open and honest discourse. We believe our organization’s management and staff should be representative of and responsive to the community they serve. As we move forward, it will be with a renewed focus on accountability and transparency. And as we plan for the future with new leadership in place, we will work with our staff and human resources experts to continue developing policies that will make us a stronger organization.
We hear and understand the concerns of our community and recognize that this is only a first step in building greater trust and understanding regarding our mission and how it is carried out.
-The CBLDF Board
The victim, after years, has come forward once again, alongside the multiple voices that search for a better comic industry to move towards:
Totally agreed. I was just a singular person of no importance, but I attempted to ensure a safer path for others 14 yrs ago.@CBLDF, a group of many, with education and influence made sure my attempt was in vain. https://t.co/ufuxLdto9n
— Taki Soma (@takisoma) June 24, 2020
And others have come forward against how Charles Brownstein was unprofessional and of extreme pressure to women specifically:
Dear @CBLDF board, I would like to be legally released from the conditions of my NDA. It was issued to me by Charles Brownstein and was done so with immense pressure. I look forward to your response. pic.twitter.com/Eu0RGsfB4F
— Shy Allott (@1horseshy) June 23, 2020
Other members of the CBLDF board have gone mostly unpronounced, but Frank Miller stated this after 15 years of noticeable silence on his part:
I stand with the victims of Charles Brownstein. I’m heartbroken to hear about his actions. I will no longer be supporting CBLDF.
— Frank Miller (@FrankMillerInk) June 22, 2020
There are multiple people that have sat on that board a long time and these are not new stories. And, after all this fight, Charles Brownstein is not being fired but being allowed to resign which could quietly yield some sort of financial severance that, of course, will be silent. This comes 15 years later, after taking part in all the decision-making in that decade and a half.
Most of these stories are always too old, and we want to close this piece by sharing three of our own.
“In my late teens, my girlfriend worked at our comics shop, a happening downtown store with game days and the occasional midnight madness sale. We had no financial stake, but it felt like our place, a home away from home. We did not particularly like the owner, less so, the manager, some of the other employees, or that they called the storage room with a single bed and mini fridge, “the rape room.” But, we liked feeling we belonged, until my girlfriend’s younger sister, early teens, spotted her off on the counter for a couple hours while she ran errands, and one of the employees tried to show her the rape room.
Anyone who took umbrage at that found themselves having mysterious charges on their tab and being generally unwelcome. My girlfriend quit before they could fire her and they asked that she send her sister back to replace her.
Today, we are seeing grown adults around comics their whole lives, surprised or let down for the first time, that it is tradition in comics, that women, especially young women, working at shops, go hide in the back when problem regulars come in. And, that problem regulars are kept as regulars, in this way.”
“When I was 17, I was excited of entering the literary world, I had just crafted a zine and I was assisting a poetry seminary with one of my best friends. This was extremely new and exciting for me. We went invited to one of her friends’ house someday to see Kenneth Goldsmith recite poetry. In Madrid, Spain. Can you imagine that? That was the kind of vibe we got from literally just another everyday, in that house, around well known poets, zine and comics creators, and people that came from places all over the world. Mostly old men. I overheard some icky stories, but never anything that seemed consequential, so I ignored them.
That same new year, I attended a party. I was 18, and I got a little drunk. Everyone chatted poetry and literature and zines and comics, and the general vibe around was that I was getting some things published. Can you imagine? My own poetry book at 18. Everyone loved the gifted child. That night, however, a 30-something year old woman that was talking about publishing me introduced me to a friend of hers, and then proposed that me and her friend kissed. We both refused to, and then the woman put her tongue into my mouth and grabbed me by my waist. And, after her friend just left leaving her do her thing, touched me under my clothes almost everywhere she could do, grazing my genitals, after me repeatedly saying no various times. I was grabbed and pulled around and touched in the middle of a party, even while I actively turned around and refused physically and verbally. I used the excuse of going to the bathroom and, when I went out, I reached for a girl that I met that night and asked her to go to the subway, crying. She rescued me. The next day, the woman that tried to rape me sent me an email asking me to send her the art I was doing, and put a note at the end saying “if I was like that drunk imagine with MDMA”.
This is not the only story I have, just the one I’m more comfortable with sharing right now. And this has something in common with what women (and not only women) are surviving in informal literary industry parties, publishing events, Hollywood auditions, and, obviously, the comic industry. And just everywhere around us. Especially when you rely on chit-chat talk, friendship, and the same exact places where this kind of stuff happens to hire people, to publish them books. Literally putting the pressure on people to either deal with this kind of behaviour and keep it cool, or be ostracized and give up their dreams. I kept going to places with that woman around till I couldn’t anymore and just disappeared, and I lost a lot of opportunities by doing that. When I finally decided to come forward to our once mutual friends and former colleagues, nobody did a thing or took me seriously. Mostly cause it took me too long, but also cause this was their friend and a great feminist writer.”
“I only just, talking to a friend, realized my boss at a comics and books shop, when I was seventeen or eighteen, invited me to a New Year’s party that turned out to be just him, car-less me, and crates of booze. I had to use his landline and deliver a fake conversation to get friends to come and pick me up.
He was angry every day after until he fired me.”
When survivors ask that these people are held accountable, they are asking that everything about the industry climate changes, and that’s not unfair or exaggerated. We have shared these three stories with full permission of the victims (two of whom authored this article) knowing that we might not have the power to influence how things get managed in all comic shops, or all poetry events, or all cons, or all places where we know these things happen — not rarely but usually— but that we, as reporters in this industry, do have the duty of putting survivors first in the areas where we’re able to make voices heard.
We, at Comic Watch, want to change how these stories are reported by standing as a platform against abuse in the industry. It’s absolutely terrible that something which has been known and denounced for 15 years took these 15 years to see actual consequences but this concrete span of time is just a symptom of much greater disease. The comic industry is visibly relying on its networking style of business to shield these powerful (mostly) men with other powerful (mostly) men that consent to all the red flags leading to these kinds of situations, as is shown by the fact that the Warren Ellis accusations were well known for years by people who were active in the Warren Ellis Forum.
Let’s challenge those shields; let’s make it our goal to break them and replace them with new shields that maintain the integrity and career of survivors. Let’s demand that survivors are given more space to grow and thrive than the powerful people that go around sexually harassing them because they hold power and preference over them. It does not matter if that power comes from having worked on your favorite comic in the world. That is not important. Change is.
*Featured image from Female Furies #1 by Cecil Castellucci, Adriana Melo, Hi-Fi and Carlos M. Mangual