Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Attempts to Rebuild After Chief's Exit

CBLDF Logo - Charles Brownstein - Publicity - Split - H 2020
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Brownstein: Joshin Yamada
After ousting its executive director accused of assault, questions remain about the non-profit's ability to regain trust from the comics industry.

On June 22, Charles Brownstein resigned from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund after serving as executive director for 18 years. The exit came following pressure from comic industry professionals as details of his alleged assault of creator Taki Soma 15 years earlier re-emerged online. More than a month after his departure, the CBLDF is attempting to rebuild both itself and trust from the comic book community.

In 2005, Soma reported to police that Brownstein assaulted her during the Mid-Ohio Con convention, with details becoming public the following year. In 2006, Brownstein admitted to the assault, calling it “a stupid, drunken prank, of which I’m ashamed” in a public statement, although he kept his position inside the CBLDF following an independent third party investigation.

The organization has historically had no trouble garnering support from high-profile creators such as Sandman writer Neil Gaiman, Sin City creator Frank Miller and DC publisher Jim Lee, who are members of the advisory board. But now questions remain over how the CBLDF plans to reform, and if the changes will be enough to retain support from the comic book industry it depends on.

“Honestly, I don't think I've seen a response from the fund that would make me feel comfortable supporting them after Brownstein's departure,” Batman writer James Tynion IV told The Hollywood Reporter. “I want to see who they put forward as the voice of the fund, and see what kind of work they're open to doing to make a better community. Until they do that, I'll be a skeptical observer, and my money will keep going to the [another comic book non-profit] Hero Initiative, where I can see measurably good work being done.”

Harrow County artist Tyler Crook is also skeptical about the continued viability of the organization.

“I'm very glad to see Brownstein gone, but I won't be supporting them until after we see what changes they make to reform the organization,” said Crook, adding that Brownstein remaining with the organization for so many years despite his alleged behavior identified structural problems that need to be addressed. “Right now, I'm feeling pretty pessimistic about the CBLDF's ability to change. I think our industry might be better served with a new, organization built on stronger foundations and with a stronger moral compass.”

The CBLDF launched in 1986 to raise funds for the legal defense of Michael Correa, manager of comic book store Friendly Frank’s, who was facing charges of distributing obscenity for selling issues of comic book series including Omaha the Cat Dancer and Weirdo; since then, it has offered financial and legal assistance in a number of First Amendment cases both inside and outside of comics. Brownstein joined the organization in 2002 and served as executive director, handling day-to-day operations until his departure in June.

CBLDF president Christina Merkler is among those trying to rehabilitate the organization and its public image, and in a written exchange with THR addressed some of the concerns of the comics community.

“The current board was not aware of the details of Taki Soma’s allegations, nor the recent accusations by previous employees,” Merkler said. “It’s sometimes easy to overestimate how a volunteer board like the CBLDF operates. We meet a handful of times a year to discuss projects, assign subcommittees, oversee fundraising and provide advice and consent on budgets. The 2005 incident was investigated and handled as a human resources issue [in 2016]. Does that mean that in the 14 years since, the nature of our board’s operations created some gaps in oversight? I think that’s obvious and it’s at the heart of what we’re addressing now.”

Soma's assault was reported to police and investigated by a third party on behalf of the CBLDF, although details of that investigation have never been released publicly released.

“The current board was not involved in the investigation and was recently provided a copy of the censure,” Merkler explained. “When I recently read the investigation’s details, I was personally appalled, and emphatically disagreed with its conclusion and the steps that were taken.”

Merkler said the results of that 2016 investigation would not be publicly released, but added, "missteps of the past will fully inform the organization’s future and we’ve been encouraging public and private discourse with those affected."

Soma’s assault was just one of a number of accusations leveled at Brownstein specifically and the CBLDF more generally; after Soma started publicly discussing her experience, former CBLDF employee Cheyenne Allott tweeted a request to be released from a non-disclosure agreement so that she could talk about her own experiences with Brownstein, in which she says she was forced to share hotel rooms with him when she was his employee and they were traveling for work. Another comics professional, Kris Simon, also shared a story about Brownstein, in which he allegedly kissed her without consent.

“The board was not aware of the latest allegations until recently,” Merkler said. “We reached out to those involved and released the NDA so [Allott] could tell her story. This was an important step towards CBLDF’s transformation, and we will uphold this level of transparency from now on.”

When asked about what that would mean in practice, she said, “It means that everything from the past 14 years — incidents and allegations publicly stated or perhaps stories that we have not heard yet, but have encouraged in recent statements to be brought forward, if they exist — is on the table to help inform how this organization operates in the future.”

Asked whether anyone on the board had been aware of NDAs signed by former CBLDF employees like Allott, Merkler said, “The full board was not aware of NDAs for former employees or the topics in which they covered. I was not on the board at the time that [Allott] was asked to sign a NDA, and wasn’t provided the information when I became a member or President.” Merkler became President in August 2018. With specific reference to Allott’s agreement, she added, “In 2010, the NDA was discussed and administered by a subcommittee in a separate meeting. It was not, however, communicated to the full board.”

Such situations were possible because Brownstein faced little oversight from the board when he was executive director of the organization. 

The CBLDF's attempt at reform will include the appointment of an interim executive director, who will speak with employees and board members about trouble areas, and also help hire the permanent executive director to replace Brownstein. New board members will also be named to replace those who have left the board in the wake of Brownstein’s departure. 

Leading up to Brownstein’s departure from the organization, a number of creators publicly distanced themselves from the organization on social media, increasing the pressure to replace him as executive director. Beyond individual creator support, the CBLDF may also face a withdrawal of publisher and corporate support. In December, it was announced that Boom! Studios would be releasing a special issue titles Help The CBLDF Defend Comics as part of this year’s planned Free Comic Book Day celebration. Following both Brownstein’s resignation and the transformation of Free Comic Book Day into a staggered nine-week event due to COVID-19, Boom! requested that the issue not be distributed. The publisher told Newsarama that the request was made “in light of recent events surrounding the CBLDF,” and that it was asking retailers to destroy copies that had already been distributed ahead of release date.

Boom! Studios has also disappeared from the CBLDF’s Corporate Members page on its official website. Additionally, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Dark Horse Comics, Rebellion, and ReedPOP have disappeared from the page. Each of the five companies last appeared on the page in mid-June.

For Merkler, the future is about trying to create a transparent future for the organization.

"It’s about continuous dialogue followed by decisive action, all in public view," Merkler said.