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June 13, 2010


CR Newsmaker Interview: Charles Brownstein Of The CBLDF

imageThe Comic Book Legal Defense Fund recently announced it was moving into new office in a different part of New York City than that to which they originally re-located in 2005. I thought this was a good chance to have one of CR's occasional conversations with Executive Director Charles Brownstein about why they felt the move was necessary, what advantages they hope to gain, and the current landscape for the kind of free speech issues in which they're involved. This means I also got to ask Brownstein about comics more generally, and that question concludes the interview. My thanks to Brownstein for quickly getting his answers back to me -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: How long has the CBLDF's move been in the planning stages? At what point did you know that it was going to happen -- were there any particular hurdles in terms of the previous lease or financing that you had to leap before this could happen?

CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: Anytime a long term real estate lease is coming to an end, be it one's living or working quarters, you have to make an assessment and decide if it makes sense to stay or go. We knew for the entire run of the lease that it would expire at the end of May in 2010. We also knew that in the year that CBLDF had the option on that space that our day-to-day needs had outgrown its limitations.

To put it bluntly, our last office was, charitably, 675 sq ft. We were squeezing three full-time employees into a very small area. My desk and phone were in the corner of our stock room where we also did mailings and order fulfillment. The front space accommodated two tiny desks, back to back, and floor to ceiling storage. In a crunch we could squeeze another volunteer in there for a mailing, but that was about it.

The Fund's challenge was to find the biggest space with the lowest rent for our needs, and that required an energetic and aggressive search. The Fund's new space is 1400 square feet, and is being immediately used to increase our fund-raising and program capabilities through the generosity of volunteer workers.

SPURGEON: Is the necessity of the move something that reflects the growth and direction of the organization since moving to New York? In other words, I know that you've increased the scope of what the Fund does and the number of ways it can accomplish its goals. Are there things about the new space that facilitate this?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. It reflects the growth and direction of the Fund. We increased our office staff to three full -- time employees, including myself, in 2008. As I said before, we had three people crammed into a space where it was impossible to bring in volunteers to help.

Probably the biggest frustration we've had since moving to New York is not being able to accommodate as many of the people who offer to volunteer in the office because we just didn't have the physical space to do that. There are a lot of small but time consuming daily operational details could just as easily be accomplished by volunteers as paid staff. Volunteering for CBLDF can be a great experience building opportunity for New York's vast community of students. For instance, volunteering to help us with our premium and membership fulfillment operations can help someone develop skills applicable to a variety of office, and retail environments. We also have need for people who can assist us on the digital archiving of case files and art donations, which has application to both legal and art education.

The true measure of a not-for-profit organization is in how it gives back to the community that supports it. The Fund has done a good job fulfilling its mission with our program services, and assistance in cases and near-cases. But now we have the opportunity to make a positive impact on people who want to learn more about comics or law or non0profit administration, while they can help us improve our daily work. It contributes to the win-win-win balance we're always trying to achieve.

We will be able to work in a more meaningful fashion with the various legal, art, and education communities here in New York on program oriented volunteer projects. Having space in the Fund's office where a volunteer can propose and execute a research or archiving project involving our work can make a real difference to our mission, while contributing to the professional development of the folks reaching out to work with us

SPURGEON: Was the move entirely at your discretion or did you run it by the board and its president? Was there anything in the way of a dissenting opinion in the organization?

BROWNSTEIN: The move was overseen by a board task force that included Chris Powell, our President, Milton Griepp, our Treasurer, and Paul Levitz. Paul, as the local New Yorker, was incredibly hands on. Paul personally came with us to a lot of space visits, offering his extensive insight and experience into the process. Quite simply we were looking for the most bang for our buck. We respect that our donors expect us to be frugal with their resources. We believe we've been able to accomplish that. There was no dissent.

SPURGEON: How much is the use of the space a reflection of what you want to do with your expansion in staff? In other words, how might your new people employ the space?

BROWNSTEIN: The biggest change in the recent staff expansion was to make a commitment to developing defined departments within the organization. So Brady Bonney oversees our operations, Cheyenne Allott oversees our development work. They will each have dedicated space where they can do that work, and where they can recruit their own interns and volunteers to help them do that work. I'll be able to do more work on the program side, and recruit volunteers to aid us in that area. The new space will reward the commitment to a department driven org chart by creating the room for each department to behave as a department.

SPURGEON: Is there anything about the move in terms of neighborhood in addition to the change in space that benefits the CBLDF? I know that when you moved to New York, one of the reasons was to gain the benefits of being in New York. Are there benefits to being on West 36th?

BROWNSTEIN: Midtown West, in addition to having the most affordable vacancies of the many neighborhoods we looked in (and we looked all over Manhattan and in transit accessible Brooklyn), is also the location of a variety of transit hubs. We're two blocks from Penn Station, two blocks from Herald Square, and six blocks from Times Square, which means that anyone coming in from practically anywhere on the NYC Subway system, or to Manhattan via the New Jersey Transit PATH system can get to our office with relative ease. That's important to us, because if we're going to make a commitment to recruiting volunteers, we want to make it as easy as possible for those folks to get to us.

SPURGEON: What would you say to that grumpy comics person who sees money spent on new staff, new web site, new office, new logo but isn't quite convinced that all of this new stuff improves the way the Fund acts on his behalf? How conscious are you of returning value to your core mission?

BROWNSTEIN: First I'd point out that not everything you list had a monetary cost, nor were these unplanned costs. We committed to a 3 person headcount in 2008, but revised the organization structure in 2009 to facilitate the current staff construction. The office relocation is a planned expense that will allow us to make smarter use of staff and volunteer efforts. As I've indicated elsewhere, we believe that will make us far more efficient in serving our donors.

On the branding and internet side, the logo and website design labor were donated by Charles Orr. The photos were donated by Seth Kushner. The website back-end was done by Christine Hart, our webmaster. She offered her site building labor at her lowest rate, and is donating her webmaster services beyond that.

Bringing the website up to contemporary standards was a necessary step. The old website was quite outdated and didn't facilitate the education mission we needed it to. We're in the beginning steps of adapting it for those purposes. Regular visitors have already seen that we're creating a more vital content channel.

The new staff construction and the commitment to three full timers means that as Executive Director, I can spend more time working with people to develop program initiatives that fulfill our mission. The next major step in that process will be announced before the beginning of July. The commitment to an operations department means our donors will receive their premiums and acknowledgments in a more timely and professional fashion. The commitment to a development department means we can maintain and expand the fund-raising we need to do to perform our program work. For most of its existence the CBLDF functioned with an Executive Director and a Deputy Director or Office Manager. A two-person shop simply can't respond to the program work and the fund-raising work that needs to get done without sacrificing efficiency or growth. It's all part of the Fund approaching its 25th year and developing itself as a larger pillar for the community.

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SPURGEON: How has the new web site gone? I can't read it in Firefox, but it seems like it's a more active place than it used to be. What do you get out of a new logo?

BROWNSTEIN: I've asked Christine to look in to your Firefox issue. That's the first complaint I've heard of that kind, and I use Firefox on my office machine and netbook. But she's the expert there. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

It's important to the CBLDF to use its website to perform our education work better, and to create a hub for our community of supporters to interact with our mission and each other. To that end, we're always on the lookout for writers who'd like to volunteer their services, which can be done by emailing our me, or our editor, Alex.Goldman@cbldf.org.

The goal of the new website is to establish a vital channel for educational content, as well as content profiling the community that CBLDF is comprised of. It's reflected in the use of Seth Kushner's photography, and will be further reflected by an upcoming, recurring profile feature. Upon launch we added all new, revised case files and FAQ. We started running regular news features on First Amendment news that is of interest to our constituents. In the future, we hope to be able to add a digital archive of the source documents, but that's going to happen with the aid of volunteer labor in New York.

The logo and site designs were donated by Charles Orr, to reflect both the community dynamic we're hoping to promote, and the solidity of the CBLDF as an institution. I know the logo didn't please you, but we've gotten a lot of positive feedback about it, and that it looks more at home in the context of the current media environment, and in the context of other not-for-profit organization branding.

SPURGEON: You're using Seth Kushner's photos; you partnered recently with DC and Image in a BEA-related event. Do you guys feel like you're specifically a part of comics in New York? Where do you guys fit in to your local comics community?

BROWNSTEIN: We strive to be a meaningful participant in the comics culture of New York, to be sure. I think one of the Fund's core strengths is that we're a community of people who care about comics and the First Amendment. We try to create as many opportunities for that community to interact as we can, here in New York, and across the country. Because we're based in New York, we want to make a positive impact on our local community, so you'll see us do member appreciation events, and other social and educational functions.

Yes, the CBLDF is good at throwing parties and social mixers, like that BEA event you mention, and we'll continue to do that. But I'd also like us to do more frequent, substantive, education or culture driven events. To that end, we've teamed with Bill Kartalopoulos for a second season of Conversational Comics in Brooklyn that we'll be releasing the schedule for shortly. I'd like to see us do more things like that with some of the many great commentators and creators of comics here in New York. I think once the dust of the move clears and we're past the summer conventions that we'll be able to key that program up much more aggressively.

SPURGEON: This probably should have been my first question, but what's the free speech landscape look like right now. Is there anything you've red-flagged in terms of important legislative tussles?

BROWNSTEIN: I think there's a lot riding on the Supreme Court's upcoming decision in EMA v. Schwarzenegger, in which the Court will review a California case that will determine whether the government can prohibit the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, and require age determinate labeling on the covers of such games, at the risk of criminal penalty. I think there are two issues here that effect comics. One, of course, is the overarching issue of the government creating a new category of unprotected speech. The slippery slope if the Court decides that violence is unprotected and that States can regulate the sale or rental of violent content with respect to minors is severe. Considering just how much we take violence as a given in modern storytelling -- video games, comics, film or otherwise -- that would be an earth shaking shift. The other is whether States can require age determinate labeling. I think it's healthy for individual publishers or industries to voluntarily self-label, but allowing a government mandate to label with respect to violence and to attach civil penalties to it seems like another dangerous shift with a slippery slope. We're watching the case closely and will very likely participate in an amicus brief in support of the EMA.

With the aid of Media Coalition, of which we're a member, we're also paying attention to recent laws passed in Alaska and Massachusetts that contain unconstitutional restrictions of online speech.

On May 14 Alaska signed S.B. 222 into law. This is a harmful to minors and anti-child pornography law that contains significant constitutional defects. Media Coalition's work substantially ratcheted the law back from its original, far more constitutionally defective construction, under which booksellers and librarians could face felony charges for selling or loaning a book, magazine, or DVD with even mild or educational sexual content to a person under the age of 16. The new bill lists harmful to minors material as being criminalized, but includes material disseminated online, which will require online content providers and retailers to either not offer speech protected as to adults but harmful as to minors to not offer that material or risk prosecution.

On April 12, Massachusetts signed S.B. 997 into law, which contains two late addition amendments that expand the state's definition of "harmful to minors" to include all electronic communication. I'll take the liberty of lifting Media Coalition's concise explanation, and strongly urge your readers who are interested in the original documents on this and other cases we're involved with to refer to their archive at www.mediacoalition.org. Media Coalition writes, "The amendments, added late in the legislative process, expand the state's 'harmful to minors' law to encompass not just traditional media but any sort of electronic communication, expanding the definition of material deemed 'harmful to minors' to include Internet speech and data stored on phones and other similar electronic devices. Significantly, the Massachusetts law applies not just to imagery deemed 'harmful to minors' but also to textual descriptions. In short, content posted on generally accessible web sites, listservs, chatrooms, and social networking sites or transmitted through any other electronic means -- whether or not the content is intended for minors' access -- is criminalized."

This law poses a danger to web cartoonists and online retailers who provide access to content or products that may be considered "harmful to minors." This would have an adverse affect on internet retailers who do not have the opportunity to assess the age of its customers in the same way that brick & mortar store does. The effect of the law on internet retailers and content providers in Massachusetts would be to restrict access to "harmful" material to both minors and adults, or risk prosecution.

Ongoing cases that we're tracking include an Powell's Books, Inc. v. Kroger, an appeal to an Oregon law that does not use the Miller/Ginsberg definition of "harmful to minors." Instead, it prohibits the distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors under 13 under any circumstances and to older minors (those under 18) for the purposes of arousing or satisfying sexual desires. We are a plaintiff on this case, as is Dark Horse Comics. This appeal had oral arguments on June 8. We're also tracking Florence v. Shurtleff, a case we joined in 2005 that would require the Utah Attorney General to create a blacklist of websites containing harmful to minors materials and require Utah based ISPs to block those sites.

SPURGEON: Has the weakened economy had any effect at all on what you do? Does a downturn in the economy either limited to comics or the wider one that includes comics make comics more vulnerable to unfair prosecution? Are you seeing any signs of a ramping-up before the mid-terms?

BROWNSTEIN: As we've discussed in the past, the weaker economy has had a recognizable, but not crippling effect on our fund-raising. We're not receiving as many larger donations as we were before the downturn, but because our donor base has always been on a grassroots level, this hasn't been a major setback. But it has been an area where we've had to adjust our fund-raising strategies.

It's too soon to tell what impact, if any, the economy will have on prosecution of comics or comic stores. To one degree, the fact that there's less money in many prosecution budgets suggests that perhaps we're not seeing as many cases brought against issues pertaining to speech because those cases are a lower priority or a less sure win. Look at how much money Rome, Georgia must have spent to lose their case against Gordon Lee, and factor that in if you're a hypothetical prosecutor thinking of bringing a case against a comics retailer. On the other hand, we don't know whether prosecutors are going to look at the Chris Handley plea bargain as an invitation to bring similar cases. We never know what tomorrow's battles are going to be, all we can do is be prepared to meet them.

Midterms are similarly an area that will involve preparation for the worst but hope for the best. We just saw the laws I referenced above in Massachusetts and Alaska come into play -- will we see similar laws drawn up or prosecutions under those laws? All we can do is be prepared, which is what the CBLDF does best.

SPURGEON: I love hearing you talk about comics. What's the best comic you've read this year from a creator that's never worked with the Fund?

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks, Tom. As usual, I'm going to thank you for giving me the platform by mercilessly abusing this question. I don't really have a single comic by a non -- supporter that stands out as the best, but there is a trend in comics that's been developing that I'm very interested in by folks we haven't done hands -- on work with (yet).

imageI'm most excited by what I think of as a new school of Heavy Metal-style comics coming out of Brandon Graham, James Stokoe, and Johnny Ryan. King City, Orc Stain (my favorite new series), and Prison Pit, to me, pack the same thrilling juxtaposition of vast imagination, high artistic energy and lowbrow sensibility into their stories as some of the coolest stuff to come out of Heavy Metal magazine in the late 70s and early 80s. All three artists have built wholly realized worlds in their respective books that are visually compelling and invite re-reading.

I think Graham's storytelling in King City is very charming. His work reminds me a lot of the Paul Pope who drew the really early issues of THB. He has a similar, seemingly fast, and economical drawing style, and a strong aptitude for whimsical flourishes that, when taken as a whole, serve to develop a develop a very rich, complex world. In this, like his Multiple Warheads project, he blends a really potent stew of international influences that's a lot of fun to decipher.

imageIf Graham's work is defined by its economy, I think Stokoe's Orc Stain stands as a direct contrast . I love his work for its complex line work and highly imaginative details, and think the devil that Slayer sings about is in them. Stokoe's approach to color is fresh in contrast with other periodical comics coming out right now. While lacking the subtlety, what he does with his palette and color saturation reminds me a lot of Ronin-era Lynn Varley -- back when she was arriving at her own response to what was coming from Europe as imports and in Heavy Metal. His world of dense woodland, tribal aesthetics, odd creatures and odder logic is a really compelling place.

imageRyan in Prison Pit proves to be a master of precise composition and pacing. Though there's nothing redeeming about any of the characters in Ryan's hellish world, I still want to follow them for the artist's drawing virtuosity. There isn't a misplaced line, or a poorly chosen composition in this book, and it leads to a visually compelling, well-paced piece of work. I always liked Ryan's work on Angry Youth Comix, but could understand how one could write him off because they were personally offended or bored by the shock value of his humor. There's shock value and bleak humor in Prison Pit, but there's also atmospheric moments that remind me of a Leone western.

My girlfriend calls all of these books "boy comics," for their lowbrow, rock n roll attitude, and she's right. But they do it so well that I think they're as transcendent of that genre as the greatest bits from Heavy Metal's glory days.

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CBLDF

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editor's note: we're still working on the fact that my computer seems to hate free speech

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