Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 20, 2007

CR Sunday Interview: Charles Brownstein



I've known Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Charles Brownstein for a dozen years now. So when he announced some changes on the Fund's board of directors and I wrote a reaction piece about an aspect of the board's current overall make-up, the resulting back-and-forth pretty quickly became a short interview. I like how it turned out, so I moved it here from its original Friday afternoon berth in the hope that more people will get a a chance to read it. We touch on several different issues in a short time, including the board, the Gordon Lee case, and the Fund's move to New York a couple of years back.

I appreciate Charles doing this, particularly in that he spent the first part of the week coming back from the Small Press Expo (SPX), one of the year's many important fund-raising stops for the organization, and that his time in the days to come is going to be dominated by the trial facing Georgia retailer Gordon Lee. It should go without saying that the CBLDF is a vitally important industry organization for its advocacy on the behalf of free speech issues affecting the comics medium. Please consider visiting their site and please consider donating to their cause.


imageTOM SPURGEON: I wrote a post on Monday noting that the CBLDF board now includes people with links to what many believe were the not-exactly-CBLDF side on some comics issues with free speech elements. Is the fact that we have people like this serving on the board a sign of how comics has changed or how the Fund has changed? Do you feel it's fair to make note of this?

CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: It's always fair to comment on the governance of a public trust. And I think that the changes to the make up of the CBLDF board in recent years are an indication of both the Fund and the industry changing.

In the Fund's early days, I think it's fair to say that there were more pronounced and heated divisions in the field over matters of content diversity that no longer exist today. On Monday, referring to Chris Powell's Lone Star connection, and to Paul Levitz and Steve Geppi's positions on our board, you said, "But if you had told me in 1991 that 16 years later the CBLDF Board would count 1/3 of its members among people linked in some fashion to such contentious positions, and not on the side you'd think, I would never have believed you." Well, what if in that same hypothetical 1991 exchange you were told that today DC would be publishing American Splendor and the New York Times would be publishing Megan Kelso and Dan Clowes? The sort of material that was edgy and underground 16 years ago is mainstream today. Consequently, people who may have held opinions about those types of comics being problematic 16 years ago now earn a substantial portion of their revenue from those same sorts of comics.

The industry has changed to embrace a much broader diversity of content and audiences, and is reaching those audiences. I think the changes in the Fund's board reflect that. There's a larger vested interest for the business at large in protecting the First Amendment rights of the edgier frontiers of our content.

imageI also think that 16 years ago the Fund was a very young organization whose work tended to be regarded as controversial. But as the content we defend has become more mainstream, so has the organization's perception. Today I think most members of the field recognize that it's not just philosophically important to protect the First Amendment rights of the medium, it's also a necessity for doing business. I think that the inclusion of the captains of our industry on our board reflects the Fund's importance to this industry, and a maturation of the organization from being an earnest grassroots task force to being a serious, long-running institution.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about the new board members and what they bring to the CBLDF?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, Joe Ferrara isn't new to the Board, he joined in 2005, but I'm very pleased at his appointment to the role of Vice President.

SPURGEON: Sorry; of course he has been. What does Joe bring to that position?

BROWNSTEIN: Joe is one of the most experienced retailers in the country. His store, Atlantis Fantasyworld, is a Northern California institution, with over 30 years in business. His passion for the industry and its continued growth is evidenced by his work administrating the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing award, and in the countless hours he's spent sharing his knowledge at formal and informal industry functions. It's his presence on the board that brought us to create a membership program exclusively for retailers, and to establish our information publication The Best Defense: The CBLDF Retailer Resource Guide. I think he is a strong representative for sole-proprietor retailers and an asset to the Fund.

Likewise, I'm very excited to be working with Chris Powell, who has proved himself to be one of the smartest and most charismatic advocates for doing better business in the Direct Market. As President Pro Tem of ComicsPro, he's proved himself as a great organizational mind who can mobilize and motivate the retail community to put aside their differences and work towards common goals. I think he will be able to help us improve our communications to the retail community and motivate that community to become more involved in the Fund.

SPURGEON: What are a board member's responsibilities? Do they all vote on dispersal of funds and what cases the organization supports? Are they expected to contribute in other ways, say by fund-raising, in the manner of a board for an arts organization? How much of what you do and what Chris does is working with these board members to best make use of their skills?

BROWNSTEIN: The Board of Directors governs the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They vote on all cases the Fund supports -- both the ones that require direct monetary support, such as the Gordon Lee case, and the advocacy cases we sign onto under the umbrella of our Media Coalition membership.

The Board also supervises the management of the CBLDF. They work with the office to set the strategic agenda of the organization, and contribute time and expertise to our fund-raising and education programs. To that end, a good deal of what the office does involves interfacing with individual board members and board committees to execute the work that emerges from the very good ideas that they bring to the table.


SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about what you like about the current make up of the Fund's board? I know we've spoken before in terms of balance in terms of industry representation, and also of the range of skills you have on hand.

BROWNSTEIN: The Fund has always strived to have a Board of Directors that reflects the makeup of the business at large, and I think the current Board accomplishes that goal very well. I think more than any other board in the organization's history, this one does a great job of representing the full scope of the industry's many facets. The interests of both the large and small publisher communities are well represented by Paul Levitz and Fund President Chris Staros, respectively. Joe Ferrara represents the perspective of sole proprietor retailers, while Chris Powell represents the perspective of a chain. Neil Gaiman and Peter David represent a wide range of creator concerns. Steve Geppi brings the perspective of the industry's most substantial distributor as well as an understanding of the workings of the political process that informs so many of our cases. Treasurer Milton Griepp brings a wealth of experience and an understanding of a broad range of business issues to the Board, and a knowledgeable, detail-oriented financial expertise to the position. Levitz, Geppi, and Griepp are also very active corporate citizens, and bring that perspective to the work that we do. Secretary Louise Nemschoff brings knowledge of intellectual property issues to the Board, and as an IP lawyer, does a lot of work to help artists who come to us seeking legal referrals and advice.

I also like that our board carries a wide range of geographical perspectives. Staros is in the South, Ferrara Northern California, Griepp and Gaiman the Midwest, Nemschoff L.A., David and Levitz New York, Geppi Baltimore, and Powell Texas. Each of them carry the pulse of their regions into the Fund and help us decide upon our work with an understanding of a wide range of local issues, rather than operating from within a Blue State bubble mentality, which I think is a strength.

Overall, I think the current board does a good job covering the range of stations that the CBLDF represents as the industry's longest running non-profit organization, and helps us achieve the goal of performing our work under a big umbrella that covers a full range of the American comics industry.

imageSPURGEON: I understand what you're saying, but let me play small press Devil's Advocate. For instance, what is it about Peter David and Neil Gaiman, two writers who have done the bulk of their work for big publishing companies during the course of their careers, that allows them insight into what a Gilbert Hernandez does or, say, what a Mike Diana does, people who have done a lot more work for smaller publishers or for themselves? Should anyone be concerned that 90 percent of your cases arise from a portion of comics whose sole representative on the Board is Chris Staros?

BROWNSTEIN: I don't think it's the case that 90 percent of our case load comes from the part of comics that you say is solely represented by Chris Staros.

The current case in Georgia involves content from a book published by St. Martins Press, which, economically speaking, is a lot closer to DC Vertigo than it is to Top Shelf. And speaking from a content level, well, there's not much difference between the subject matters of graphic novels published by DC Vertigo, St. Martins, or Top Shelf. They all cater to similar audiences.

Demon Beast Invasion, the comic at issue in the Jesus Castillo case, was published by CPM, which, at the time, was a large-ish manga/anime house that was closer to DC's CMX than it was to Top Shelf. The material at issue in the Mike Diana case was mini-comics, so for all practical business purposes, it had little in common with any of the publishers on our board. But I can't imagine any right thinking person not seeing the precedent dangers posed a case of that nature, were it to happen again today.

The material at issue in Planet Comics was pretty clear-cut adult horror, the likes of which no one on our Board publishes, but which I think everyone on the Board would agree retailers have a right to responsibly sell.

It's true that Staros has the most "street cred" as regards art comics, but I think the business and constitutional issues are such that they affect everyone on the board in a way that is pretty clearly understood.

As to what allows Peter David and Neil Gaiman insight into what a Gilbert Hernandez or a Mike Diana do, it's the fact that they're all professional authors who depend on the First Amendment to make a living. Peter and Neil have worked for a variety of publishers large and small, as has Gilbert, and to a lesser degree, Mike. While their subject matter may be in some respects more commercial than the authors you mention, I don't think that their understandings of and sympathies towards the professional and constitutional issues the Fund manages are any more or less valid than the authors you cite.

imageSPURGEON: Has adding retailers been important to you? Because to be honest, the retailer support in the Gordon Lee case seems to have been pretty weak. What can you and your retailer Board members do to better win over retailer support and confidence?

BROWNSTEIN: I agree that the initial reaction to the Gordon Lee case was less than sympathetic from the retailer community. Although now, as the case has developed, I think most people see that the case carries severe precedent dangers, and that the prosecution has deliberately run up charges in a way that would sink any small retailer, demonstrating, in part, why the Fund matters.

I think that the Fund needs to do a better job interacting with the retailer community and demonstrating how the work we do, we do on their behalf. We've taken steps to start that, notably publishing our Retailer Resource Guide. But it's something we need to expand, and these are issues that Joe and Chris have already begun working on. With their expertise going into the matter, we anticipate rolling out some new programs in this area early next year.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an example of this coming around by retailers in the Gordon Lee case? Can you provide the name of a retailer whose come over to your side, or cite an instance of support that backs your notion that general support has increased?

BROWNSTEIN: I'm not going to single anyone who switched sides out by name, no. But I have seen the overall level of message board invective against Gordon that was present at the case's start, and which you responded to in the "Why We Must Support Gordon Lee" essay, radically decline. Once retailers understood the details of the case, and how easily something like that could happen to them, they started to support the case in increasing numbers. For instance, I've seen grass roots support for the case increase, such as an unsolicited drive to spur donations for the case on the CBIA started by David Wheeler of Dragon's Lair Comics in Texas and spurred on by retailers around the last time the case was on the docket for trial. Likewise, our retailer membership ranks continue to grow, which I think reflects an overall approval for our work in general, and on this case in particular.

SPURGEON: As retailers diversify, does your decision not to financially support Fantagraphics in their dispute with Harlan Ellison preclude your support of a retailer under fire for an item not actually comics?

BROWNSTEIN: We haven't faced that situation, but, yes, I expect that is correct. The Fund has never paid for case[s] without relation to defending works within the comics medium, and I don't expect that to change.

SPURGEON: Do you have a relationship to the manga companies and manga-interested businesses like the bookstores?

BROWNSTEIN: That's something we're working on growing going into 2007.

SPURGEON: I think what may worry some folks is that at least on the surface the board's make-up might lack the kind of fevered free speech advocates it may have boasted in the past. Let me put it to you like this -- when the board discusses things, are there members that tend more towards free speech absolutism than others? Who has free speech's back, Charles? Is there any worry that the board might become too conservative?

BROWNSTEIN: I'm not worried about the Board becoming too conservative, because I don't think we've ever been too liberal. Defending the First Amendment isn't the province of a liberal ideology, it's the province of a patriotic one.

Although we regard them as allies, we're not the ACLU. We operate within a very narrow mandate to defend the First Amendment rights of work within the comics medium, and we do it because the industry depends upon those rights to do business. Naturally, the politics of some Board Members may be more left leaning and others more right leaning, but each member has a commitment to the First Amendment and a belief that Free Speech is the lifeblood of our business and our society. When it comes to deciding about taking a case, personal politics are put aside in favor of doing what is right for the First Amendment within the comics medium. I think our case history bears that out.

SPURGEON: I'm not sure I follow... Are you saying that there hasn't been a more conservative ideology at work in many of the cases the Fund has faced throughout its history? No one should be worried by the political make-up of the Board no matter what that political make-up might be? When an issue faces the board are the people that vote against an issue less patriotic than those who vote for it?

BROWNSTEIN: I'm saying that the Fund isn't conservative or liberal, and that defending the First Amendment isn't something that either side can claim exclusively as their own. If one must assign a political value to defending the First Amendment, I think the only one that's valid is patriotism -- specifically by upholding the spirit and practical applications of that law to provide for robust civic and intellectual discourse.

Sure, much of the Fund's casework has emerged in more socially conservative communities, but social conservatives aren't the only people engaged in instigating censorship. One needn't look much further than the calls for content restrictive legislation directed at the video game industry spurred on by the likes of Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton to see that the urge to censor is just as healthy on the left as it is on the right. There are advocates and opponents of the First Amendment on both sides of the political divide, and neither side can claim the First Amendment as their own.

The CBLDF works to achieve its narrow mandate of providing legal counsel, advocacy and education pursuant to protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics medium. Doing that work isn't about whether you wear an elephant or a donkey pin on your lapel. It's about valuing the First Amendment and recognizing its central importance to the continued health and vitality of our profession. It's about assuming the responsibility of protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics medium by looking at the big picture and doing what's best to ensure those freedoms stay intact for this and future generations. That is something that each member of this and the previous Boards I've served under have done in the time that I've been privileged to work at the CBLDF.


SPURGEON: Just to take things into a more informational area -- what's the status of cases currently under CBLDF purview?

BROWNSTEIN: We await a firm court date in the Gordon Lee case. It will either be on the docket for November 5 or November 12, and we should know in a matter of days.

On the advocacy front, our challenge to Utah's unconstitutional Internet law is still in the pre-trial stage. This is a challenge to House Bill 260, passed by the Utah legislature, that: 1) Apparently expands existing Utah law with respect to distribution to minors of harmful to minors material and pornographic material to include Internet content and Internet service providers ("ISPs"). 2) Requires the Attorney General to create a public registry of websites that he has unilaterally declared to include constitutionally-protected harmful to minors material, without any judicial review. 3) Requires ISPs either to block access to websites included in the registry and other constitutionally-protected content or to provide filtering software to users. 4) Requires Utah-connected content providers to self-evaluate and label the content of their speech, at the risk of criminal punishment.

The complaint was filed on June 9th 2005. We join The King's English, Inc.; Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore; Nathan Florence; W. Andrew McCullough; Computer Solutions International, Inc.; Mountain Wireless Utah, LLC; the Sexual Health Network, Inc., Utah Progressive Network Education Fund, Inc.; the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah; the Association of American Publishers; the Freedom to Read Foundation; and the Publishers Marketing Association in the suit.

We also just signed onto an amicus brief in the case of USA v. Williams, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. This brief supports the 11th Circuit's finding that the "pandering" provision of the PROTECT Act is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.

In a nutshell, the "pandering" provision treats any material that "leads the viewer to believe" that material contains child pornography can be prosecuted as actual child pornography. The problem with this is that the pandering doctrine can be expanded so that marketing can be found illegal even if the product is not illegal, but solely because the marketing may suggest to some that the product is illegal. So consider the marketing for a hypothetical collection of underground comics that includes R. Crumb's controversial classic "Joe Blow." The story itself is protected by the First Amendment, but if the book's dust jacket describes the story as "R. Crumb's controversial incest satire," the book can be treated as pandering child pornography. The brief also argues that the law only applies to material with sexual content and therefore this is a restriction based on content.

While the defendant in this case was found guilty of one count of possessing child pornography and one count of pandering, the child pornography conviction is not being appealed. If the perspective advocated in our brief prevails, he will still spend his full prison term, but retailers and manufacturers of content needn't worry that the marketing of a work will have a lower degree of First Amendment protection than the work itself.

There are other advocacy cases currently developing, but that's the docket at the moment. Right now our energies are dedicated to finally going to trial in the Gordon Lee case. I know that Gordon is ready to get on with his life without having this case hanging over him, and we're more than ready to take this case to the jury.


SPURGEON: Charles, we talked a long time ago about what the Fund could be expected to achieve in New York, with the idea that some feel the added cost of being in New York might not be worth any advantages you see from it. Now that you've been there for a long while, can you point to ways the New York office has made it better for what the Board does?

BROWNSTEIN: New York was definitely the right move for the organization.

On a mission level, in the time that we've been here, we've been able to increase our involvement in the Free Speech community through our proximity to the activities of Media Coalition and Free Expression Network here and in Washington, DC.

On a personnel level, it's a lot easier to find and retain good paid and volunteer staff in New York than it was in Northampton, through the virtues of increased general population, a larger number of educational and legal institutions present in the city, and a larger number per capita of comics and Free Speech enthusiasts.

On a local fund-raising level, we've been able to establish an event program by taking advantage of supportive venues and the content community. We're able to interface more frequently and directly with the creative and publisher communities in New York, which has led to increased support, both in terms of financial and in-kind donations. We're able to better interface with the retailer community, and enjoy particularly strong support from Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics in fulfilling our fund-raising goals.

On a national fund-raising level, everyone comes to New York. So, we're able to have access to a wide range of creators and professionals who come to town and assist us in our fund-raising work, whether its signing premiums that we offer at conventions, or participating in our events. Likewise, going out into the country to do convention and event fund-raising is cheaper to do out of New York's airports than it is out of New England's.

New York is still at the center of the publishing, legal, and business universes. The CBLDF's presence here allows us better access to those spheres in a way that has helped us grow our work, and that will help us continue to grow as we move ahead.

SPURGEON: What was the last good comic you read?

BROWNSTEIN: Lord, Tom, no one ever asks me that question, so I'm gonna have to abuse it.

The very last comic I read was the current draft of the next Beanworld graphic novel, which I got to read after SPX last Monday. It's quite something. If you like Beanworld, I can assure you that [Larry] Marder hasn't lost it in the 15 or so years since he last published. I really wish I could say more, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone. But, it's awesome, and I really enjoyed it.

imageOther than that, the series I'm following religiously right now is Rick Veitch's Army@Love. I read the collection of the first six issues on the train down to SPX, and enjoyed it even more as a collection than I did in the single issues. Army really reads like a 21st Century update on Dr. Strangelove, except as an acidly funny, cutting satire of the current war and the information consumption that characterizes American culture. That's one I can't wait for between issues, and when I get them, that I can't even wait to get home to read. I've gotten lots of odd looks on the subway for laughing aloud at this comic.

At SPX I was able to pick up a couple of great new things. The first, which is the closest thing to an actual comic book that I picked up, was Kripa Joshi's Miss Moti comics. I really enjoyed Miss Moti and Cotton Candy, which is a terrific blend of charming color illustrations, formally inventive page design, and whimsical storytelling that uses comics to illuminate the inner life of its title character. I also picked up the last good mini-comic I read, which is Matt Wiegle's Ayaje's Wives. I've always really liked Wiegle's art and storytelling, but this one feels like a real cut above for its ability to interpret what feels like an authentic folk tale, but infused with an eeriness and illustrative sophistication that gives it a mark of genuine authorship.

I really wish I had the time and money to follow everything that's going on creatively in comics right now. The fact that I don't, however, is comforting, because it tells me that there's so much good work out there that the field is creatively quite healthy. When I started working for the Fund, I said that comics, as a medium, displays the purest range of free expression of any medium out there, and I think that's truer now than it was when I started five and a half years ago. It's the fact that comics keeps growing, and doing interesting new things in a way that nothing else does, that keeps me getting on the subway every morning and going into the office. It's a really fantastic field that we have here, and it's better than ever. And that makes it worth fighting for.


* CBLDF logo
* photo of Charles Brownstein by Whit Spurgeon
* photo of birthday boy and still sort of newer-ish board member Paul Levitz by Whit Spurgeon
* cbldf-related art by James Kochalka
* art by Mike Diana
* cbldf-related art by George Perez
* cbldf-related art by Will Eisner
* four panels from The Salon, work at the heart of the Gordon Lee case
* cbldf-related art by Frank Miller
* Gary Erskine cover art to Army@Love #3
* cbldf-related art by Mark Schultz (below)


editor's notes: (1) I know that Gilbert Hernandez is about the world's stupidest example up there. Gilbert's roughly a same-age peer of Peter's and Neil's, is friendly with Neil, and is someone who's worked at a multitude of publishers just like they have. I was casting about for an artist who works with imagery I could see coming under fire, but it would have been nice if I could have thought of someone who worked solely for small publishers, and was maybe younger. Josh Simmons would have been perfect. Also, in case there's any question, I in no way intended that question as anything even resembling a shot at Mssrs. David or Gaiman; I simply wanted to present a point of view where someone who works in a certain kind of comics might look at those writers and not necessarily feel as if they were on the same page. (2) Disclosure: books written by me were at issue in the Harlan Ellison/Fantagraphics dispute referenced.


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