Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's Charles Brownstein Resigns Amid Scandal

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(Photo: Russ Burlingame)

Charles Brownstein has resigned his position as Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the organization announced tonight. Brownstein, who has held the position for 18 years, was ultimately pressured to step down after renewed pressure surrounding a 2005 sexual assault by Brownstein, of cartoonist Taki Soma. First reported in 2006, the story flew under the radar of most fans, but a great many people in the industry knew about it. At the time, it was reported to police, but no charges were brought. Brownstein confessed to it, calling it a "stupid, drunken prank," and was allowed to stay on with the CBLDF after an internal investigation.

Comics professionals who have worked with the CBLDF, some of whom were blindsided by the news, began calling for Brownstein's resignation over the past week, as this story re-emerged and brought out stories from other accusers. The organization, which provides legal assistance to comic book professionals and retailers being unfairly targeted for censorship, relies heavily on contributions of art and comics, as well as signatures and appearances, by comics writers and artists. After what some said was years of the CBLDF assuring them that they had handled the situation and Brownstein was a better man, a number of high-profile creators pledged over the weekend to withhold support for the CBLDF until Browstein was no longer a part of the organization.

"I find the stuff coming out about Charles Brownstein and the CBLDF troubling, and it makes me feel guilty, because I’ve supported the CBLF for years," veteran writer Kurt Busiek said on Twitter today. "Over and over, I was told it was just one incident, he was drunk (which is not an excuse anyway), and that he’d worked very hard to redeem himself. And so I listened to the people who said they knew more than I did, and kept supporting the Fund. And now I’m hearing that there was more than that, that there’s been more incidents, and I feel like I’m in no place to speak up because I was a supporter for so long, so I don’t have firm ground to stand on. But either way, I’m not supporting the CBLDF further, not until we hear something official from them that isn’t just sweeping things under the rug. We need better than this."

The assault was brought to new attention when writer Jennifer de Guzman and film editor Steve Flack called out Brownstein and the CBLDF in the wake of sexual coercion allegations against comics writer Warren Ellis. de Guzman responded to earlier reports that Brownstein was finally being pushed out.

"If this is true, it is fantastic news!" de Guzman said on Twitter. "It comes WAY TOO LATE, though. The CBLDF has permanently damaged its reputation not only by keeping Brownstein in his position for so long but in failing in their mission, as when they failed to defend the artists sued by Cody Pickrodt."

That case was one of a number of recent black eyes for the CBLDF. In 2017, cartoonist Whitney Taylor accused cartoonist and Ray Ray Books publisher Cody Pickrodt of sexual misconduct. She and a number of other cartoonists and publishers shared their experiences with Pickrodt in a Google document and on social media. and others shared alleged negative experiences with him on a Google document and social media. Pickrodt, claiming innoence, filed a suit against Taylor and 10 others in 2018. Taylor countersued Pickrodt under the Gender-Motivated Violence Act. In 2019, 8 of the 11 defendants were removed from the lawsuit by the court. In 2019, Pickrodt and the remaining three settled out of court, each making a statement that maintained their side of the story was true but essentially said that the cost and stress of litigation was greater than anything they could ultimately get out of it.

In the early days of the suit, the CBLDF had refused to help the creators Pickrodt sued. While the Fund claimed they were trying not to choose sides, the perception by many in the comics community was that their inaction was, de facto, choosing Pickrodt's side. Those in the know drew connections between Pickrodt's alleged abusive behavior and Brownstein's own.

Ultimately the Small Press Expo launched a fundraising vehicle to assist Taylor and the others, and the CBLDF was pressured to contribute to it.

Earlier, in 2017, the CBLDF joined a statement in support of alt-right blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, whose planned memoir was cancelled by Simon and Schuster. Yiannopoulos rallied activists to cry "censorship," and ultimately self-published the book. While Brownstein is also chair of the Banned Books Week Coalition, so it makes sense that he personally would be part of any mass movement to support an author who felt he was being censored, many fans and creators wondered why CBLDF resources were being directed to aid something that had nothing to do with the comic book industry, given that the Fund often admits it does not have the resources to help all the comics retailers and creators who need it.

You can read more details about Brownstein's assault of Soma here. Following the assault, the CBLDF helped co-found the Friends of Lulu Empowerment Fund, ostensibly aimed at helping women in the comics industry fight sexual harassment. It folded in 2007.

Following Brownstein's departure, some creators who had pulled their support of the organization are waiting to find out what they will do to address their internal issues before jumping back on board. As pressure mounted to remove Brownstein, Mike Scigliano, who served as CBLDF deputy director in 2008-09, came forward to say that he too had been harassed by Brownstein due to Sciglian's Crohn's Disease diagnosis during his time with the organization. He said that after being pressured to resign, he did so with a detailed letter to the Board of Directors, and nobody replied. As the CBLDF pledges more accountability and transparency going forward, some are wondering what the board -- which includes Reginald Hudlin, Paul Levitz and Gene Luen Yang (with an advisory board including Neil Gaiman, Jim Lee, and Frank Miller) -- knew and when.

You can see the full statement from the CBLDF below.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has accepted the resignation of Charles Brownstein as Executive Director, effective immediately.

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Our organization exists to serve the comics community and the First Amendment, and we can’t do that without an open and honest discourse. We believe our organization’s management and staff should be representative of and responsive to the community they serve. As we move forward, it will be with a renewed focus on accountability and transparency. And as we plan for the future with new leadership in place, we will work with our staff and human resources experts to continue developing policies that will make us a stronger organization.

We hear and understand the concerns of our community and recognize that this is only a first step in building greater trust and understanding regarding our mission and how it is carried out.

Disclosure: ComicBook is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.