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December 12, 2012


CR Newsmaker Interview: Charles Brownstein Of The CBLDF On The Fund's New Advisory Board

I was confused by yesterday's announcement of an advisory board for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Luckily, Executive Director Charles Brownstein was willing to unpack things a bit for me. The Fund remains a foundational comics institution, and you should bookmark their site for this week's release of their annual report and digital copies of their latest comic. -- Tom Spurgeon

imageTOM SPURGEON: Charles, I'm a little unclear as to what distinguishes the advisory board from the actual board, at least in terms of seeing the mission fulfilled. Can you make that distinction for me?

CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: The Board of Directors is responsible for the day-to-day governance of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They vote on matters pertaining to the work we do, and meet quarterly to oversee our activities in pursuit of our mission. The advisory board will offer perspective, counsel, and guidance on specific project areas pertaining to the Fund's growing mission, but will not be engaged in day to day governance. It's a group that broadens our capacity by deepening our knowledge base. For example, we're more frequently called upon to help by providing expert knowledge in support of a challenged book, like identifying a literary scholar who can testify that Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is connected to the Victorian heroic tradition, or that manga is a cultural form of expression. The advisory board formalizes the relationship with some of the folks on my speed dial to recognize how they help in these situations.

SPURGEON: I'm also a bit hazy as to where you'll be drawing your talent -- if it's people that have provided service in the past, how does this broaden your capacity and outreach?

BROWNSTEIN: It's people who've distinguished themselves with service to the organization, which is a way of saying that it's people who are personally invested in our important work. Some folks will have done board service -- such as Denis and Neil have both done. I think there's a tremendous value to having past board members on the advisory group, because it helps maintain a deep institutional memory, which is a good thing. Others will be experts in the areas where we're broadening our mission, and will offer their perspectives and talent to help us serve those areas better. This is a group that will help us look ahead, without losing sight of where we've been.

SPURGEON: I take it from the press release that this move has more to do with your renewed on proactive aspects of what the fund does, as opposed to reactive. Like I don't see this board getting phone calls the same day that the board of directors does in terms of someone being prosecuted, say. Is that a fair assessment? Can you talk about how they're going to help with your renwed focus on education, for example?

BROWNSTEIN: This will all be easier to discuss once we're able to announce the names of the folks who accept the call to serve on the advisory board after the next board meeting in January. In broad strokes, you're right, this group will receive regular reporting on the activities of the Fund, but they won't be on the emergency hotline when a case comes up that the Board of Directors needs to vote on. They'll be there when we need advice about how to perform a certain program, or to help develop specific strategies on an aspect of our work, or when we're looking for feedback on how to best engage with certain constituent communities, or just to be connectors to folks who can help us do our work better.

Advisory boards tend to be groups that are additive to an organization's strengths, without asking people to make deep time commitments. This one is already adding to our strengths. There is nothing but upside to having the ability to call Denis Kitchen or Neil Gaiman and solicit their perspective on an aspect of our work. That only gets better when we engage the advisory group that comes aboard. There's a lot of smart, talented people in this field willing to serve the Fund, and this is a mechanism to connect them with our mission, our board, our office team and each other in a more meaningful way.

SPURGEON: Do you feel like there's an opportunity right now to lock in some of these aspects of the fund's mission due to the small-p political reality the country faces right now? Someone making a name for themselves by prosecuting a funnybook store feels very 1998 or 2002 as opposed to 2012. I know you have to stay ever-vigilant, but haven't you seen a change in the time you've been on board as Executive Director?

BROWNSTEIN: Yesterday I was at art spiegelman's studio while he personalized the books for the donors to our Spirit of Giving campaign, and we were talking about the Fund's current work. He observed that much of that work seems to have less to do with defending material merely because its comics, and more to do with defending work because it intersects with a particular battle zone in the culture wars. And I think that's a good observation.

In the ten years I've been managing the Fund, we've seen big strides in the public appreciation and acceptance of comics. At the same time we've seen the Fund become a lot more proactive about challenging laws before they become cases, and making tools that are preventative in nature. I think the net result is that the challenges we face have changed from defending challenging work in a stigmatized medium to working towards greater understanding of the contours of a medium that's gained popular acceptance, and wider awareness of the rights its readers and producers are guaranteed. We still get the challenges stemming from a notion that a book with pictures is intrinsically for kids, but it's not the default challenge anymore.

That said, it only takes one official to create a malicious prosecution. If comics are more recognized as valid, we still live in a time of great political divide over many social issues reflected in our medium's content, and there are still many people who would prefer certain subjects be taboo. You read our blog, so you know that we still see frequent challenges to our content in a variety of spaces, and so we continue to be vigilant.

The CBLDF will always invest in maintaining the best legal team possible to counter First Amendment emergencies when they occur. But we'd vastly prefer that folks don't need to go to court at all. That's why we're invested in expanding our education mission -- to create tools that encourage greater understanding of comics in all its forms. So whether we're helping libraries and parents navigate issues that center on kids' right to read, or arming manga fans with the facts they need to protect themselves against unjust prosecutions, or speaking to groups of lawyers about recent case trends, or talking to students and new fans about the historical censorship challenges comics have faced, our goal is to empower the current comics reading world with proactive knowledge that protects their freedom to read.

SPURGEON: Why a one-year term? Why a term at all? Do you see a lot of turnover in the cards?

BROWNSTEIN: One year is a reasonable commitment to ask someone to make. I expect that we'll have some very busy folks working at very high levels in their fields participating in this group, so a one year commitment creates an opportunity for them to jump on or off as their circumstances change. As with any group, I expect we'll see some people who are happy to contribute for years, and others who have a more finite window during which they can serve. The term helps in both situations, and more importantly, helps us engage with the advisory talent in a way that is designed to be accommodating and mutually beneficial.

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