Home > CR Interviews
CR Holiday Interview #10 -- Charles Brownstein And Larry Marder
posted March 22, 2012
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
, the organization devoted to fighting for the free speech and First Amendment rights of cartoonists and others in the comics industries. Charles Brownstein
is the current executive director; Larry Marder
is the current president of its board. Both are comics industry veterans, albeit from different generations. Brownstein first came to the attention of the comics community as a journalist specializing in news and features on the art form. Marder was a independent comics artist of great renown (Tales Of The Beanworld
) and hundreds of connections within the comic book industry; he later worked for Image
(during its early '90s heyday) and eventually the various companies owned by Todd McFarlane
. He has since returned full-time to his drawing board.
The Fund remains a vital force by continuing to fight its battles with ferocity while at the same time reaching out to different elements under the big tent of comic books, both in active fashion and more quietly, sometimes in ways that takes years to bear fruit. It is my great honor to devote an interview in this series to this important institution. I urge you to bookmark the Fund's site and consider a late-in-the-year, tax-deductible donation
. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Can each of you recall when you first heard about the Fund, and what your initial reaction to it was?
I'm pretty sure I heard about it directly from Frank Managaracina
, either face to face or over the phone. I was talking to Frank a lot at that time because I was doing freelance advertising work for him creating trade ads for his comics distribution business. It was a small account and I got paid in comics. I remember him saying "Denis Kitchen
is putting together a portfolio to raise money to help out with the legal bills." It seemed like a heroic and responsible thing to do. But my personal interaction with the Fund didn't come until much later.
For me it would have been in the back pages of Cerebus
, circa 1992, 1993 that I first heard of it. I was aware that the Fund protected the First Amendment rights of edgier comics, and as a precocious teenager with an interest in those comics, Lenny Bruce
, and heavy metal
, the cause was one I felt an abstract affinity for.
But I didn't really understand the Fund until 1995 or so when I was minding Larry's Beanworld Press table and selling copies of Feature
, the interview magazine I published back then. It was at a San Diego
, and someone must have been flogging a CBLDF party or something, and being a wise-ass teenager I think I asked Larry, "What the hell do those guys do that they always need so much money?" And in that extremely patient, no-bullshit manner that he has, he took me to school. He told me about how Mike Correa and Frank Mangiaracina were violently jerked around by the legal system, and how retailers all over the country were being horrifically intimidated by these awful, backwoods prosecutors who were targeting them because they were small time marks selling art that the community didn't understand. And basically that targeting these guys was a way for electioneering prosecutors to rack up easy wins. His explanation made a big impression on me, because I immediately got the injustice that so many were facing by selling comics. It kept the Fund on my radar as a really important institution.
SPURGEON: What factor or factors led each of you to become more actively involved? Charles, since this is your full-time job, I'm particularly interested in your answer: you took on the directorship at a point when you seemed to be the kind of guy that might become ensconced at one company or another.
I'd already been involved with CBLDF projects for a couple of years by doing the interviews for their SPX
anthology series, and doing a little bit of volunteering at tables in my local area. At the time I was extremely interested in the changing mechanics of the business of comics. I was writing business news for Rick Veitch's SPLASH page
, and Calvin Reid
's quarterly PW Comics
section, along with doing a part-time publishing gig at Last Gasp
, and anything else I could hustle.
In the Fall of 2001, Denis Kitchen called me out of the blue and asked me if I'd be interested in going out to Northampton
to interview for the job. I'd previously worked with Denis & Bob Chapman
in trying to set up a marketing trade association that was designed to combat the cultural stigma against comics that folks felt was holding us back circa 2000 or so. That never got off the ground, but I did a lot of foundational business writing that I suppose made an impression on Denis, and gave him the idea that I'd be capable of doing some good for CBLDF. That, and he correctly surmised that I'd be willing to work for just about nothing if the work was interesting enough.
For me it ultimately came down to: do I want to report on the art and commerce of comics, or do I want to take advantage of this opportunity to help affect positive change for that art and commerce? I already believed in the Fund, and was pretty die-hard in my feelings about the First Amendment. So it was a matter of determining whether I could do more vocational good by writing, or by redirecting the energy I was putting into writing towards building up the CBLDF.
I was really lucky. Denis offered me a shot that very few people get. I was 23 years old and didn't know much about anything, but he convinced the board to take a chance on me,and he gave me the opportunity to direct my energy into building something that I could sincerely believe in. Ultimately, I'm religious about comics, and care deeply about the people who make them and their power as expression, so the ability to invest in that belief with a vocation-facing job like this has been tremendous. I'm still grateful every day.
There is no one instance I can look at and remember deciding "Oh yes, I'm going to get more active with CBLDF." It all unfolded gradually and over a span of time. During the eight years I spent at McFarlane Toys
, I barely paid attention to the ins and outs of the comic book industry including the Fund. I was totally immersed in the business of making and selling toys.
In the fall of 2007, after almost a decade and a half of being on the business side of comics it was time to get back into the creative side of the business. When I first went to Image, people would say "I can't believe the Beanworld dude is running that insane asylum." By the time I returned to creator status perceptions of me had gone a full 180. Now it was "I didn't know the McFarlane Toys guy draws this comic book called Beanworld
Because my books were out of print and my previous publisher had gone out of business almost 15 years before, I needed to start my reentry as a cartoonist somewhere. A few weeks after deciding that I was staking everything on reinventing Beanworld
, Charles urged me to attend SPX. He offered me a spot to squat at the CBLDF. I whipped up a handful of hand-colored, matted Beanworld
drawings. On my blog I tagged the drawing "Beanworld Orphans
." For a donation you could adopt the drawing and give it a good home. The name has stuck.
I also helped out behind the table. I got to know some of the crew over the weekend. It was a pivotal moment for me to just feel so free and unburdened of all of the business pressures. I remember writing what turned out to be page 18 of Beanworld Book Three
while sitting at the table during a Jeff Smith
signing. My creative juices really started flowing being immersed in the energy of the indie press.
From that point on Charles and I were in a constant dialogue. He was very helpful as a sounding board for Beanworld. And I returned the favor by listening to Charles talk about the Fund and offering advice when he asked for it. As I was drawing "Here There!" most of my Cintiq screen would have a Beanworld page on it but there was always an open iChat window in the lower right hand corner where Charles and I would bounce things off of each other all day.
I didn't set up much at cons on my own until I had new Dark Horse
product in 2009. I went to a lot of shows and helped out the Fund at their table and events. I lugged boxes, hand numbered prints, went to Kinko's
and pitched in helping with whatever needed to be done. In the process I got a real feel not only for the lofty goals of CBLDF's mission but also the small details of everyday nuts and bolts operations.
After a few years of that, what seemed to me as coming from out of the blue, I got a call from Chris Staros
asking me if I'd be interested in taking his seat on the Board. What an honor! I guess some of the members of the Board had noticed me hanging around and doing stuff and they decided to see if I'd formally come on board.
A year later, as I was in the middle of editing CBLDF Liberty Annual 2012
, I was elected President of the Board. Not too long after that, I plunged right into managing [the] CBLDF Liberty Trading Cards
. It was a huge project. And it had incredible side benefits that we didn't expect. With the 72 base cards of the set we set out to tell the history of comic book censorship and the birth of CBLDF with illustrations and chunks of copy that were pretty much 100 words or so. Charles wrote the copy. The limitations of space, quite frankly drove him a bit batty during the editing process. But it forced him to be sharp and concise in his storytelling.
For a few months we were immersed telling our story. In addition to our handsome card set, a really useful presentation evolved out of it. I've seen Charles give several variations of the presentation now and I know that we both came out of the project with a sharper focus about the First Amendment work of CBLDF.
SPURGEON: I'm sure both of you have had a chance at some point this year to take a look back at the Fund's history, either formally or informally. What stands out to you? Is there a case or a development that you think was crucial to how the fund developed that might not be one of the big cases or splashy moves? Is there any case or moment in the Fund's history that you have a different perspective on now than folks maybe did at the time?
For the Fund's first 20 years, police were targeting retailers for the adult comics on the high shelves or back room of their stores and prosecuting them on obscenity or harmful to minors content laws. I think the CBLDF had a win-some/lose-some record on defending those cases in the 80s and 90s, primarily because our budget was so incredibly small, and we had to choose counsel based as much on what we could afford as litigation effectiveness.
When I started at the CBLDF, after studying our history, and presiding over the last unsuccessful moments of the Jesus Castillo case
, I determined that the only way for us to advance our mission and rack up real litigation successes was to grow our budget to pay for the best counsel from the start of a case. You saw this strategy come into play during the Gordon Lee case
, where we were extremely aggressive in fighting local prosecutors whose case grew flimsier and flimsier as time went by, and ultimately resulted in a win. I think if we were less aggressive there would have been a higher likelihood of Gordon needing to cave. Certainly there was a lot of public opinion against him and us in the beginning, but that turned around as we held our ground and revealed the bogus charges for what they were. That simply wouldn't have happened if we didn't invest so firmly in fighting for a win.
That was a really expensive case -- it ultimately cost over $100,000. But I think it sent a message that the comic book industry is not going to back down when one of our own is threatened. We will fight back relentlessly with serious legal bulldogs every single step of the way. Thankfully we haven't seen one of those comic store cases for a few years, so hopefully law enforcement priorities have moved on, and hopefully our message was heard. But we're ready if they decide to go down that road again.
MARDER: The Mike Diana case
in Florida disturbed me then and it still disturbs me now. The idea that an American court of law could stop an artist from creating his own expressive comics work, within the walls of his own home, with absolutely no intention to publish or distribute still makes my jaw drop in total disbelief. Maybe I was a bit naïve but until that point, I really believed things like that only happened somewhere else but not to an American citizen. The additional fact that the Supreme Court of the United States chose to not review the case and let the lower court verdict stand is still unacceptable to me as a citizen and as a comic book creator.
Early on in the creative process of the Liberty Trading Cards I thought I saw a trend regarding governmental attempts at censoring comic books: the targets over time seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.
The first to suffer outrageous attempts at censorship of comics were made against the publishers in the 1940s and 1950s. In the1970s the focus narrowed and the battle lines moved away from prosecuting national publishers who now knew how to defend themselves. The new objects of harassment and arrest started to be small business owners of local comics shops. Additionally in the '90s there were attempts to go after creators like Mike Diana & Paul Mavrides
. The Fund did its part to fight back against those injustices. Lately the governmental harassment seems to be aimed increasingly at the readers themselves.
Sure, all those lines are fluid, and retailers have been under constant threat in every moment from the 1970s onwards, but just seeing those chains move further and further down the field over time is extremely chilling.
Yeah, that's exactly right. And right now I spend a lot of my time thinking about that observation. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means for prosecutors to go after readers, and my attention keeps coming around to young people, and the vulnerabilities they face as a result of the content they're interested in, and the technology they use to access it.
I'm extremely concerned about college and high school students who live in a 21st Century technology environment that's governed by 20th Century content laws. The kids who download huge batches of manga because Borders went under
and that's the easiest way to get the stuff they're into. The kids who might know that it's legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex, but don't realize they can be prosecuted for drawing or reading a comic book depicting that same act. Or who have the naive belief that because it's easily found on the internet, it's not vulnerable. I'm not picking on Warren Ellis
when I point out one of the central observations of his novel Crooked Little Vein
was that if it's on the Internet, it's mainstream -- I think a lot of people under 25 think that's true, but the law doesn't. I'm starting to see the age of defendants in child pornography cases skew younger and younger, and it has me concerned that this generation who's grown up on comics, and manga, and Adult Swim
, and cheap access to communications technology, not to mention casual access to sexual content, is in serious danger of getting tangled up in some very ugly prosecutions.
So that's where I want to spend a lot of 2012 -- having a dialogue with those folks about the risks they're facing, and being a force to promote discussion about what we can all do to protect readers, artists and expressive speech in the face of bad laws and brutal prosecutions.
SPURGEON: How was 2011 as a year for the Fund? Where do things stand right now in an institutional sense?
We're doing what we've always done: act as first responders for anyone in the comic book community that finds themselves between a rock and a hard place in a freedom of speech emergency.
It was a tough year. The lousy economy hit us really hard, and it's taken all of our resourcefulness to keep on top of our obligations. Fortunately we've been able to do that, but it's involved a lot of juggling, and some honest, "hey, we need help right now" appeals like the Be Counted membership drive
In 2009 and 2010 you heard people talking about the "Fantasy Economy" at comics conventions because people were still spending money in those places. But late in 2010, and certainly in 2011, that bubble popped, and we saw that the "Fantasy Economy" people were talking about was really just a delay prompted by the fact that people save their money all year to go to conventions. It takes a year or two, but you eventually get to a place where people move from saving their money all year to go in and buy everything that's cool to saving their money all year to buy a badge to get in the door. Because so much of our fundraising happens in those environments, that's been a hard hit.
But that's fundraising, and we've worked to adjust to this climate, and made some changes in our approach that should lead to greater stability in 2012.
To the larger part of your question, where are we on an institutional level -- I think stronger than we've ever been. We've got a good office team right now, and we've got a very good, hardworking board that's really invested in the mission. With Alex [Cox] getting promoted to Deputy Director
and taking on more leadership of the office and fundraising program, I'm going to be doing more to advance our ability to do meaningful program, communications, and education work, which I think helps us serve our mission better, and more broadly.
I'm confident that the Fund is changing at a pace consistent with how comics is changing, and that we're going to be able to do good work protecting the field for a long time to come.
SPURGEON: You guys come from different comics generation, and each of you has I think special insight to at least one other group of cartoonists -- if you break them down by age. Can each of you talk about how the comics folks in your general age group has taken to supporting the fund over the years. Larry, how much did the Image guys and comics makers from the '90s take to the Fund over the years? Charles, do you have any insight on how the emerging cartoonists and comics people might view the fund different than people roughly your age?
I think for both of us, it's kinda hard to look back on our careers and think coherently about our peer groups by age. When Larry came in everyone he was hanging out with was 10 years younger than him. I came in and had the opposite situation, everyone I hung out with was at least 10 or 20 years older than me. So my comics peer group has, until recently, been more rooted in when and where they are within the field, and less in when they were born.
A lot of the comics generational peer group that I came up with is made up of the folks from the mid-90s self-publishing movement, the turn of the century beautiful object art comics revolution, and the business community that pushed graphic novels into mainstream focus. Those folks who were working in comics in the '90s and early 2000s were already pretty well on-board with CBLDF. Mike Diana was a fresh memory, retailers were being prosecuted, and then Bush
was in office, so there was all kinds of concern about what the Justice Department was gonna be cracking down on. And rightfully so -- it was Ashcroft
who gave us the PROTECT Act
, which is the basis of a lot of the casework we're fighting today.
I think it may be that the generation of folks starting to enter comics may be more inclined towards taking an activist stance on CBLDF issues than the folks in my chronological peer group have been to date, but that remains to be seen. Most folks my age got into the business over the past five to 10 years, so they didn't witness the '90s assaults on the free speech rights of artists and retailers in a first-hand visceral way. I think a lot of the material they were making, whether it was in the alternative or mainstream spaces wasn't as likely to be at risk as the stuff that was being made in the '80s and '90s. I think there's a lot of reasons for this: cultural acceptability of comics was higher, law enforcement wasn't going after speech as aggressively as it once did, and, for the most part, creators weren't really aggressively pursuing button-pushing content. Today we're seeing a lot more explicitly sexual content developing (and some pretty smart stuff at that) and a generation coming in that's been heavily influenced by manga which has much different content values. We're also in a far more divisive environment where speech is vulnerable, which you saw pretty shockingly in Susie Cagle's situation
. And, most chillingly, we're seeing a law enforcement environment that's starting to go after people for possession of content, and as that gets deeper into the digital space, artists and readers are both at risk.
I don't know, Tom. I don't find age to be a very meaningful line of demarcation in artistically inclined communities. I think people band together on common interests and common threats. I think that the threats to speech -- sexual, political, violent, and religious speech -- are potentially higher now than they've been in a very long time. I hope that will galvanize people in my generation, Larry's generation, and the generation that's coming up who probably see both of us as old guys to become more involved in the CBLDF's work.
Other than discussion between the Image partners about Dave Sim donating his entire check for Spawn #10 to CBLDF
, I don't recall any sort of dialogue about the Fund in the context of the Image partners as a group. Maybe we did but I don't remember any. My job was to run the Image Comics manufacturing and distribution efforts of the central office as efficiently as possible. If the partners that wanted to contribute or participate in charitable work they did so as individuals and not as a collective. I believe Image Comics' institutional partnership with CBLDF was something that happened after I moved on starting with Jim Valentino
& Erik Larsen
and now flourishing under the leadership of Eric Stephenson
In my experience, since I came onboard, when I tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to pitch in to a project to help the CBLDF almost everyone agrees. It seems to me that when a freelancer breaks into his or her schedule and donates time and talent to CBLDF; that's the best endorsement one can get from any creator.
That's the truth. I'm still humbled by how amenable people are to helping us perform for our work. It's amazing to see that creators from living icons like art spiegelman
, Neil Gaiman
and Frank Miller
to newer voices like Becky Cloonan
, Chris Burnham
and Tom Neely
will put their hearts into supporting our efforts.
I want to step back to what you were saying about Image, though, because it raises a larger point about how corporate participation has become a lot stronger in recent years. They may not have talked about it in your day to day, but clearly something made a big impression, because a lot of the Image guys individually and institutionally went on to do a great deal for the CBLDF when I got here. Jim Valentino immediately called me up and said, "What can we do?" and that got the ball rolling. Jim supported a lot of my early fundraising efforts, and did a lot of work helping us develop auctions and other important fundraising program work. Marc Silvestri
contributed art to those efforts. Erik Larsen continued that, and got involved in sponsoring our events, like the Comic-Con parties. And Eric Stephenson really deepened the relationship by continuing all of those things, and green-lighting the Liberty Annual
. Through their corporate contributions and business activities like the Liberty Annual
, Image has contributed well over $100,000 institutionally over the past four years alone.
Image isn't the only corporate contributor to make a measurable difference. Diamond
, and Dark Horse have all made substantial contributions to our work in recent years, particularly since Paul Levitz
started the Corporate Membership program. During the past five years we've seen a real sea change from the days when it took Dave Sim to contribute his Spawn
royalty to keep the Fund alive during existentially important cases, to the current era where we're treated as a significant industry institution by the major companies.
Probably the biggest change in the supporter environment that occurred during my tenure is that mainstream creators and companies became much more meaningfully involved in supporting the Fund. Jim Lee
was a hugely galvanizing force in this. He became active in 2003, 2004 and did a lot of work to engage his peers in the creative and business communities with our mission. In the '80s and '90s, the CBLDF was largely regarded as an organization that protected fringe content and its publishers. Jim worked really hard to change that, both in his personal giving, and in his work as a spokesman. Jim showed a strong belief in the need to vigorously defend all kinds of content, even if it didn't look like your taste in content was at risk. (As an aside, it's interesting to look at the edgier subject matter that he and Dan DiDio
are publishing in light of this. You don't give creators the freedom to create superhero comics that would air at 10 PM if you don't build a bedrock of support for the notion that comics can speak to all audiences.)
I think Jim's work alongside the rising overall prominence (and general audience sales) for people like Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, and Alan Moore
, who'd always supported us, helped overwrite the earlier perceptions of CBLDF serving fringe interests. And I think those advances and the rising viability for content diversity in the graphic novel space created the circumstances where it made sense for people like Paul Levitz and Steve Geppi
to join our board and get their organizations more meaningfully involved. Paul has always been especially active in that area. And that made a big impact towards getting us to the space where we could really meaningfully raise the funds necessary for the kind of defense that we deployed for the Gordon Lee case.
We're still small, and we still have to work really hard to pull in the cash we need to meet our obligations. But we're no longer that fringe group that stands up for that hard to sell weirdo content that Denis Kitchen and Gary Groth
and Tim Vigil
like to publish, and makes money passing a coffee can around in a basement while a local metal band plays. The generation of creators and business folks who came up during the Direct Market era decided in the last decade that it was time to get behind our work, and take the Fund seriously, because what we do ensures that they can continue to make a really broad range of content. And that's great, because it helped us face down the ugly challenge that hit Gordon, and I think we'll really need it for the even uglier challenges that I think are coming.
SPURGEON: If you don't see age as a useful demarcation for supporting what it is you do and the issues you believe in, what might be some useful demarcations? How much work is there to do in getting as many factions of the community on board, and where are the holdouts?
It's not my direct experience than anyone is "holding out" per se
. There will always be folks who find the people and work we defend to be vile and repulsive to their personal tastes, beliefs, and ethics. The battles of free speech are always fought on the boundaries of good taste. Age doesn't seem to be a primary indicator of what one thinks about First Amendment freedoms or their suppression.
Right. And, like I said before, I think common interests and common threats tend to be the rallying points that draw people together in the service of advocacy work. I think people who find common cause with ensuring that the industry is protected against bullying prosecutions that affect our field's First Amendment rights will show up to support our work.
For the most part, I think we enjoy a strong range of support from most facets of the American comics business. I think there's room to bring more communities interacting with comics more meaningfully into our work, and I want to take steps in 2012 to facilitate that. I think we can do better in the manga, library and college spaces, and would like to get more mainstream book publishers involved. So, there's work to be done, but I think it's less a matter of converting holdouts and more a matter of building meaningful bonds with new stakeholders.
A non-profit organization like CBLDF can never have too many members. The more help we get from volunteers and the more donations we receive the easier it is to do the work that needs to be done. The more communities interacting with comics that support the cause, the better we're able to serve their needs.
SPURGEON: This may be a rudimentary question, but it's one that for whatever reason springs to mind this morning: how much has the explosion of social media opportunities had an effect on the Fund? Are there things you'd like to do with the communication possibilities that are out there that you haven't been able to yet?
It's been mixed, with a tilt towards the positive. I think when we have an urgent need there's no better tool than Twitter. The money we were able to raise during the Be Counted campaign had a lot to do with the ability to spread the word through Twitter -- specifically using it to update people on our fundraising progress in real time and to thank people as their donations came in.
Facebook used to be a lot more meaningful, particularly for populating events, and disseminating information, but people are changing how they interact with that channel, and that channel seems to be changing how it interacts with its users every single week. We still use it, but it's not as easily measurable as Twitter. Google Plus remains to be seen. I started our G+ page, but haven't gotten my head around that channel yet.
I find Twitter to be the best way to communicate to the most people when you're in a hurry. Of course, that depends on who decides to retweet you and how many followers they might have. Neil Gaiman's reach on Twitter has been an invaluable resource for CBLDF.
I think it's even more than in a hurry. I think Twitter is about communicating messages with a sense of urgency in real time. Sure, you can use it to rapidly spread information, but I've learned that for fundraising and message outreach purposes you can also accomplish campaign dialogue that almost behaves like pledge breaks, except that it's two-way. Then that's boosted when you get people like Neil broadcasting to his followers. It's the only social media channel that I can measure in terms of fundraising effectiveness, and that's worth a lot.
Kickstarter is a channel that I'm paying attention to, but I think it needs to be used really deliberately. We had a volunteer-driven effort make the Transmetropolitan
book happen and learned a lot about the mechanism from that. My feeling is that going forward we should use it if we have the right program-oriented project. There is a project I want to do that may wind up being funded through that channel -- we'll see.
I'm constantly frustrated by our lack of manpower to expand our communications reach in general. I think our website is fine, but I'd like to improve the architecture so it works better in mobile environments. I'd also like to bulk up the resources area. That's mostly a cash and human bandwidth problem.
On the editorial side, I think Betsy Gomez
does a great job editing cbldf.org
and populating it with daily content, but I'm not sure how many folks actually read it. So we're rethinking how to best present the blog to increase our readership. I'd also like to be able to get more folks involved in writing different beats for the blog. I'd really like to have a manga reporter, and a library reporter, and a legal reporter, but we don't have the money to pay people, which is the largest part of the problem.
Manpower is always a critical factor in anything we set out to do. At the beginning of 2011 things were relatively quiet on the legal front and we wanted to get a library best practices program built and running this year. The Canada case came out of left field, as all cases do, and it had an incredible sense of immediate urgency that forced us to table the library project. It's still a program that I very much want us to pursue but with our small staff we can only accomplish so much and do it well.
I guess to wrap up the answer to your question about our communications approach, I'd also like us to have a better online newsletter, and we're working on that now, hopefully to launch late winter. We have the platform, now it's just a matter of making the time to launch it.
I also think about whether it makes sense to revert to having a print newsletter of some kind. The web is definitely the cheapest method for disseminating information, but I wonder how effective it is for us in reaching people who aren't already coming to us as a destination. Between the at-risk manga and college communities, and the new people coming into the comic store and library spaces, I wonder whether it wouldn't be a good idea for us to repurpose material from the website in a print outlet of some kind designed to reach potential supporters that aren't coming to our website or social media channels. If folks have an opinion on that, I'd appreciate it if they sent me an email.
SPURGEON: Are there any classic approaches the Fund has used that might be out of date at this point? Charles you don't sound so positive about a central role for smaller benefits -- I'm kidding, but I do wonder if there's anything the Fund used to do that it just doesn't do anymore. In fact, I'm sort of interested if you see a shelf life for the comics anthologies, at least in print form.
Comics anthologies still work in print, which the Liberty Annual certainly showcases. That's raised well over $50k for the Fund since Eric and Scott Dunbier started it four years ago. I think there's probably some room to grow that model in the digital space. But the tricky part is that these things are always volunteer driven, so you can't ask people all the time, and you can't ask the same people.
We stopped doing the SPX anthology several years ago because it no longer made sense for us to take on the expense of printing, warehousing, and fulfilling a publishing project like that. It also served less of a need because there was an influx of projects like MOME
and Kramer's Ergot
and several themed anthologies like Stuck in the Middle
that attracted a lot of the same kinds of folks who previously put energy into the SPX anthology.
I think there's still life in anthologies, both as benefits and as useful venues to promote art, but I think they need to be executed with a very high level of quality to be competitive.
I edited one of the four CBLDF Liberty Annual
s and I was the project manager for CBLDF Liberty trading cards. I was very pleased with the end products but they are very labor intensive.
I'm still optimistic about small benefits, but more as things that are coordinated in an ad-hoc way outside of the home office. You've been here, we're two full-timers, one part-timer and a lot of volunteers. It makes sense for us to help promote and send tools out for folks to do smaller fundraisers in their communities, and we do that. But it doesn't make sense for us to spend too much time planning small yield fundraisers with our office staff, because the time cost doesn't tend to square with the funds raised. The more efficient use of our time, and hence our donors' contributions is in doing program work and projects that will raise meaningful money for that work.
I very much like the idea of expanding our reach by doing small regional fundraisers with a local reach. It can be in a local comic book shop, a public library, or even someone's home. But we're still figuring out how to make that happen properly. One thing I've learned is that the Fund is only as strong as the people supporting us, so if people would like to help take hold of doing something in their community, we'd like to work with them to make it happen.
SPURGEON: Are there specific challenges to on-line media that we maybe haven't seen in terms of a major prosecution?
I think the current threats have a lot to do with digital delivery of media in ways that are still being figured out. I knew we'd be seeing cases like Handley and Canada Customs
when PROTECT was passed, I just didn't know where or when.
I think one of the threats we're dealing with now is how laws passed pre-Internet, or in the Internet's popular infancy are being applied to the more dynamic communications environment we live in today. No one would have conceived of the notion that laws designed to stop the sexual exploitation of minors would be used against actual minors sending racy messages to each other. These laws are blunt instruments that are veering off from their intended purpose. They were designed to prevent and prosecute the abuse of real people, and are instead moving into terrain where they're targeting folks who are consuming art. So, I don't know that there's a big specific challenge to online media that's in the wings, so much as we're starting to see lots of new, previously unconsidered threats to content in digital environments in ways that there's potential for vulnerability to online publishing, social media, and file sharing on one hand, and physically crossing borders on the other.
Totally agree. Ever since PROTECT passed I've worried about the blurring of things that aren't real, like cartoon drawings allowed under the the law to be equated with things that are real, like photographs of real life. Young people are growing up in a mash-up world where every kind of media is smooshed up together and put up on something like Tumblr. They may not even have the slightest bit of awareness that what they are doing while having fun on their iPhone or laptop could put them at risk. It's the kind of risk that could affect them for the rest of rest of their life.
The thing that's scary about the Customs case is that a customs agent determined that a small number of image files containing line art on the defendant's computer constituted possession of criminal material. So someone who isn't trained to understand art, but is trained to suss out counterfeit goods, undeclared cash and bad fruit is making life-altering decisions about the disposition of art that people are traveling with.
I think this prosecution has precedent not just for folks reading material in digital environments, but for artists, editors and creators of all stripes who work in digital environments. Which is everyone.
People have gone to jail for sharing files of pornographic Simpsons cartoons, you know, and they were targeted because those file names set off flags for the FBI's child pornography hunters. The fact that they actually prosecuted and convicted people under child pornography laws for possession of those drawings is scary for anyone who wants to read Potential
, or Lost Girls
, or Diary of a Teenage Girl
, or The Playboy
in a digital environment, and even scarier for an artist whose drawings include any degree of nudity or sexuality. You know those books are art, I know those books are art, but to the wrong Customs agent who's having a bad day, those books may look like criminal material, or they may think that you must be hiding the real stuff somewhere since you've got this drawn stuff. This isn't meant to be a scare tactic, it's just a blunt description of what's actually happening right now.
SPURGEON: Larry, I've seen you out on the convention circuit a bit more, so I definitely want to rope your opinion in on this at least in terms of the culture change. It seems to me that in a pretty obvious way that the con and festival circuit has been growing, or that at least there are more sizable and important comics shows now in North America. Has that been a positive for outreach and convention activities? What's different now as opposed to 15 years ago in terms of how the community uses these opportunities to meet, both for the fund and generally?
Although I've been an avid comics reader since the late 1950s, I didn't stumble upon fandom until the mid-'70s when I was in my mid-20s. This was before the start of the direct sales, non-returnable comic book marketplace. There were hardly any specialty shops outside of the big cities. All comics were still sold off of the newsstand. Comic book conventions were just starting to find their footing. The first con I went to was a one-day mini-con in the Hartford, CT area in 1975. I had pretty much already decided that I wasn't a comics collector but a comics accumulator. All the guys talking about their scores and finds just didn't attract my interest the way it clearly did that of other fans.
After I moved back to Chicago in 1976 I attended the very first Chicago Comicon
held in a ballroom in the Playboy building on Michigan Avenue. This was something new to me. There were panels. Comics professionals talking about the history and making of comics. This was something I could wrap my head around. At about the same time I discovered fanzines. The Comic Reader
was the first I started reading regularly. Not too long after I started subscribing to the Comics Journal
, while it was still the New Nostalgia Journal
. I was a three-day pass-holder to every Chicago Con after that. I only bought hard-to-find new stuff. Mostly I sat in the audience for panel after panel; listening and learning. I learned an incredible amount about the history of the comics and the personalities of the people who had made them and were still making them. The rest of the con had little interest to me.
After I turned pro in '85, the entire convention experience changed for me. I was no longer a fan comics accumulator but a Beanworld
comics disseminator. Because I was the creator of a oddball, low distribution, small press alternative comic and not a darling of Comics Buyer's Guide
, The Comics Journal
or Amazing Heroes
, I really had only one way to get my name out to the fans -- comic book conventions. Almost from the get-go I was giving away Free Beanworld Action Figures, real lima beans with eyes drawn on them, as an attention getter. I found if I was doing something unique and different, I could get fans to stop and talk and maybe get them to buy an issue. Then I went one step further, I was one of the first people to give away an entire issue of a comic book as a free sample in like '87 or '88. Some fans treated me like I was a crazy man "This comic book is so bad he has to give it away!" But it worked very well for me. So many of today's adult Beanworld fans report that the first issue they read they received from me when they are a kid.
This is all a very long way of saying that I believe the outreach opportunities presented in the convention environment are as rich with potential today as they have always been. Particularly as the convention economy has been growing in leaps and bounds for the last few years. You just have to try to be more clever than your competition for attendee attention.
Regional conventions have had the greatest growth. Conventions are becoming a tradition like the circus -- it rolls into town once or twice a year and the whole family gets together and spends the day enjoying pop culture together. It's a great opportunity for everyone in the business to meet new people and sell them your wares including CBLDF. People wander by our booth and see our banner. Often the immediate response to our name is "I didn't know comic books needed defending." It's a great launching pad for a serious conversation about freedom of speech with people who are interested in their constitutional rights. Many will drop some cash into the donation cans and boxes. Sometimes someone will join on the spot. They always seem to take our literature. Hopefully they take a look at cbldf.org when they get home and empty their swag bags to look at their haul of the day.
As far as 15 years ago goes, from my point of view the convention environment was already well on its course of change in 1996. The publisher booths were already gargantuan auto-show type extravaganzas. Female fans were starting to arrive. Before that it had often been that a woman at a con was a wife or a girlfriend but it began to change around the time Comic-Con moved into the new expo center. Clearly something new was in the air.
I've been a pretty serious road warrior for a dozen years, and was steeped in the convention culture in different capacities before that and, from where I stand, I think that the difference between comic book conventions as recently as the turn of the century and today is night and day.
There are at least four basic convention categories that I interact with: the big tent massive national pop-culture show like San Diego and New York
; the regional comics show like HeroesCon
and Emerald City
; the regional art comics festival like SPX and Stumptown
; and the anime fan convention like Anime Expo
and Anime Detour
. Within each category of the current climate I find the audience is remarkably gender balanced, and within each category there's a very high level of professionalism across the board.
I think a lot of credit for this needs to go to Comic-Con International, who set the gold standard for what a comic convention can be in the USA. They do an incredible job serving their mission to elevate awareness and appreciation of comics and popular arts. Although people like to criticize the Hollywood participation at their shows, they parlayed that revenue into supporting a diversity of guests and programming that advances appreciation of comics at all three of their conventions. They also used that revenue to create a high level of professional presentation, and have managed it in such a way that their summer show has captivated the popular imagination. I think before Comic-Con blew up, the standard for a comics show was a lot less polished. I think they showed a model for a kind of comics show that was more of an event that anyone could come to and have a positive experience. And I think that's really raised the bar across the board, and it's reflected in the increased interest in comics conventions across the country, and in the more professional presentation of those conventions.
I could not agree more. The complainers and grumblers always crack me up. I like to think that there could have been fans walking around the late '70s floor with t-shirts saying "Star Wars
ruined Comic-Con!" Popular culture doesn't stand still, it's a reflection of the people. We are all better off from the swarms of fandom that have come out of Star Wars
, Harry Potter
, and Twilight
Well, it's all part of the same cultural conversation. Twenty years ago, comics really felt, and economically existed, apart from mass pop culture. Now we're at the heart of mass pop culture. Part of it is that Comic-Con helped establish a space where that mingling could occur, on both a behind the scenes business level and on a fan level. There are pros and cons that you can argue in hindsight, but the fact is we're here. Comic-Con is one of those tastemaking things like Sundance
, but unlike Sundance and E3, there really is space for sincere discussion of the art form, and there really is space for truly DIY creativity to find a berth. And the organizers of that show make it a point of pride to make that space exist. So I think that excitement that developed from Comic-Con's explosion definitely inspired interest in comic book shows all over the country, and it developed a rising tide that raised all of our vessels.
Unquestionably, conventions are a vital component of the CBLDF's fundraising and program activities. The community of convention organizers is very generous to us and donates the space that lets us fundraise, and give us programming time to perform education work. And it's good, because at every event there's a new burst of people that have no idea that we exist, and that we get to make contact with. If I'm being optimistic, I think that's because more and more new people are coming into the comics culture as serious fans at these events, where they started as casual consumers. If I'm being pessimistic, I think that's because we need to do a better job reaching these folks where they live with our messaging. The truth is in the middle, I'm sure.
But I also think that speaks to the heart of your question, Tom. Fifteen years ago the conventions I went to were predominantly male affairs where there was a feeling of marginalized tribalism that permeated the proceedings. Conventions today are bright, enjoyable popular events that people come to because it's cool, as opposed to being the only place that you'll find others of your own kind. That's good for our fundraising, and I think good for the overall culture of comics.
SPURGEON: Given the fact that the economy has been such a nettlesome thing for the Fund and monies are tight, how would you currently answer the criticism that the Fund should focus solely on coordinating the legal cases that come to its attention, as opposed to its education and support-of-free-speech-litigation-generally activities? What would you point to as specific, solid successes for comics fan in your work with general free speech and anti-censorship litigation, something that has an effect on the comics fan?
Our mission has always been to defend cases and provide education about First Amendment rights, so I haven't heard much criticism about that particular element of our work. But from my experience, I'd say that it's not possible to maintain a mechanism that can defend and win cases like the Gordon Lee case if it's allowed to go dormant in between cases. Maintaining a full-time office that is constantly fundraising and constantly active in the programmatic environment means we have a knowledgeable team that can leap immediately into managing cases when they arise. We have a team that knows how to identify legal talent, how to manage the messaging, and how to raise funds to support the case. If you're building that from scratch every time, I think you lose a lot of program effectiveness.
In terms of wins that have directly helped the comics fan -- sure. This year our arguments were cited in the Supreme Court in a case that sought to make violence an unprotected area of speech, and Justice Scalia cited our industry's history as part of the reason that content prohibitions of this type are harmful to Free Expression. If that case had gone the other way, it would have been open season not just on violent video games, but violent content of all stripes. Last year we knocked out an Oregon harmful to minors law that had provisions that were over broad would have made it very easy to entrap retailers who sold constitutionally protected speech to minors. Maintaining a profile in the First Amendment community and doing coalition work of this type helps prevent cases, and helps get rid of laws that can affect fans' access to the material they enjoy.
SPURGEON: Larry, when you take on an assignment like the position you have now, do you have specific goals in mind? What would ideally you like to see happen before you might feel like moving on. Now that you've had some experience there, what do you think your unique contribution might be in terms of the Fund's history?
Generally when you get hired for a job, whoever employs you gives a set of goals to pursue. That hasn't been so true for me. I've pretty much set my own agendas after arriving by looking around to see what I can contribute. No one really told me at Image Comics or the McFarlane Companies exactly what I was there for. A big part of why I'd been hired was to take my skills and apply them to the current situation and see what I could come up with to make the various parts of the organizations mesh and communicate with each other better and more efficiently.
By nature, I'm a marketing and advertising guy. When I came on board CBLDF I can't claim to have had an specific agenda beyond protecting the First Amendment rights of the comic book community. Well, that's not exactly true, one of my direct observations that came from hanging around the Fund for a few years and constant dialogue with Charles was that people weren't particularly well informed about the specifics of the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech was something that was talked about a lot on TV and the like but barely ever explained. People didn't seem to get the idea that freedom of the press is about being able to own and print on your own press. That when an editor changes the work you were hired to do for the company that hired you; that that is editing and not censorship. You are free to create, own, and self publish your own comics elsewhere.
I've said at more than one meeting that I though we ought to go back to basics in our outreach. I'm always reminded of Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers
. They might have been the most dominant team in football, winning championships year after year, but the first meeting at training camp every year started with Lombardi lifting the pigskin and saying "Gentlemen, this is a football." My goal with the Fund is to make sure that everyone understands where the First Amendment starts and stops. That everyone in the creative community understands that the freedoms of the First Amendment are our rights guaranteed by the constitution and not a privilege granted by the powers that be.
Like all the jobs and positions I've undertaken over the last two decades. When I'm done, I'll know. When I don't believe I have anything more to contribute I'll make way for someone who does.
SPURGEON: The fund is in New York, the home -- as much as there is a single home -- of the Occupy movement. Have either of you paid any attention to that and see connections to the kind of work you do, or the spirit behind the kind of advocacy you support?
I'm not going to voice my personal opinion, beyond saying that I empathize with the points of view for and against the protests, and think, fundamentally, that they represent an important display of the First Amendment right to assembly. I don't think it's appropriate for the Fund to take a political stand beyond the one that says we protect the rights of speech and press affecting work in the comics medium.
When Susie Cagle was arrested I reached out to see if she needed help, and fortunately she had already secured good counsel. So in that case we weren't needed, but I would have certainly have been willing to do what was needed to ensure that her First Amendment rights as a cartoonist-reporter were upheld. But that's less about Occupy, and more about the rights of reporters using the comics medium, and the CBLDF's moral and functional obligation to protect their rights.
SPURGEON: Has there been any difference or any special challenges in working with the manga fan communities and those publishers? How is your support amongst the North American manga publishers and those fans?
We're really at the ground level in that environment. In the early days of the corporate membership program, the First Amendment challenges didn't track with the Japanese parent companies. I think that's starting to change. But for the most part we're largely a new quantity in that climate and we're working with some good people to try to make better inroads. And the goal is to create a dialogue where we can learn about the concerns people in that environment have regarding Free Expression, and to educate them about the current issues we're dealing with affecting manga, and the work we're doing to help protect the field.
I think, to tie back to Larry's earlier point, we're at that Lombardi "This is a football" moment in that community. We're the CBLDF, we protect the First Amendment. Here's what we're doing right now to help this community, and we'd like to find ways to work with you, we want to learn what your concerns are, and we want to develop mutual goals that serve our mission in this community.
SPURGEON: How big a deal is it for the Fund to have international support or have like-minded organizations with which to work on cases that involve material being shipped from outside of the country?
Allies are important, and there's two pieces of your question -- international allies and like-minded organizations. The CLLDF
, who came out of dormancy to fundraise for the Customs Case, is doing important work by taking possession of the issue for their fellow citizens. Working with them I think is a lot better than being the Americans coming in and visiting our agenda on the Canadian system.
Like-minded organizations are vital to the information sharing that helps win cases, and helps advance missions. Our association with ALA
helped us combat the challenge against Stuck in the Middle in Maine this month
. Our association with Media Coalition
led to our relationship with ABFFE
and ALA, which led to us becoming sponsors of Banned Books Week
. All of these associations, and the CBLDF's standing as an important member of the First Amendment community mean we're not just a strange organization off to the side, but are a vital organization working as part of a community that defends Free Expression.
SPURGEON: If I'm seated next to you on an airplane, and I'm actually pretty aware of the Fund, that you can have a membership or buy items, say, what is one thing that you would convince me is worth doing in support of what you do, perhaps something that most people don't think about as a possibility? Are you able to accept estate bequests, for an overly dramatic example? What tools in your tool box maybe don't get used as much as others?
I won't kid you, if you're sitting next to me on an airline, I'm going to talk up Beanworld
before I ever get around to the Fund. [laughter] It's not my nature to sell until I know who I'm selling to. I'd listen to you and your ideas about comics, the constitution, and the Fund first. Then depending on your interest and talents and an eagerness to help the cause we could find a way that best suits both our interests.
We actually have worked out bequests on a case-by-case basis, and would like to establish that as a mechanism. The truth is that our small staffing has probably limited our ability to pursue more traditional fundraising avenues like that, but we would like to pursue them. So I guess the way that I'd say you, or anyone, can help is if you see opportunities that we're missing that you're able to help us open up, we'd love to work with you. We're a small staff, but we're always happy to work with people who can lend their expertise to making this organization even better.
SPURGEON: Is there anyone in the Fund's history, from either of your perspective, whose contributions have yet to be properly assessed?
I don't know that anyone in the Fund's history has had their contributions property assessed. Certainly Denis, as founder, is due a wealth of recognition for his 18 years of labor making the organization a reality, and I think that's happened. I think Frank Mangiaracina is appropriately recognized for standing by Michael Correa, his employee and our first defendant . But I'm not sure that anyone else really gets their full due, because so many of the important people who make the Fund a reality are doing it with a volunteer spirit while they're being recognized for the other things that they do in life.
I don't want to make a laundry list of people who deserve a full appraisal because those things invariably lead to accidentally omitting someone who worked hard. But we've had some incredibly important rainmaking donors over the years, some of whom sought public recognition, and some who actively shunned it. I think the contributions of past Executive Directors brought us to where we are. I think the board has always been a working board and put in more sweat than comparable boards of directors.
I think a really cool comic could be made about the communities of volunteers who have kept us advancing, from our earliest roots to our current work. Over the years there have been so many smart, hard working people who have stepped up to help us spread the word about what we do, and take us to the next level. They truly are our real life's blood. We currently try to acknowledge those folks in our Good Fighters series on CBLDF.org, and did a bit of that in our old Busted print newsletter too. I can tell you it's a privilege to work with all of them.
Freedom of speech is our guaranteed right but it seems to always be under assault somewhere. I know it sounds corny but I'm grateful to everyone who donated a bit of their time, their energy, their income to CBLDF in the past, the present, and the future.
* The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
* Charles Brownstein
* Larry Marder
* photo of Brownstein
* photo of Marder
* cover image for Feature
* Beanworld Orphans
* Mike Diana
* Dave Sim's issue of Spawn
* classic CBLDF logo
* classic logo
* from the Transmetropolitan
* Larry Marder at a convention
* the CBLDF at a convention
* storage room at the CBLDF offices
* from Marder's Beanworld
* the Fund's current logo (below)