Politics and Publishing

We live in a world where politics seems to have invaded everything. It’s not healthy to have contentious debates about the direction we want our society to take dominate everything from sports and entertainment to religion and philosophy. There needs to be venues where people can come together and appreciate the common human experience without refighting the political battles of the day. At the same time, the places best suited to providing these neutral forums also has the greatest potential to impact the political arena.

Entertainment and religion can powerfully shape the way we view the world, especially with undiscerning audiences, and that makes them a big target for people who want to gain political power beginning in arenas outside the political. Most people’s political beliefs are shaped by their sense of what’s moral or beneficial after all. And, particularly in the case of religion or philosophy, one almost expects political beliefs to be influenced by other parts of life.

Thus entertainment has most commonly been regarded as the appropriate apolitical arena. Sports teams gave people a cause to rally around and a forum for camaraderie which had nothing to do with the intricacies of public policy, novels and movies created a shared mythos where politics could play a part but were often kept as distant metaphors or subtle themes by the best writers. Unfortunately, beginning sometime in the 1950s, ideology began to gain traction in entertainment as well. For the purposes of this forum, the influence of politics on publishing is what interests us most.

Some political publishing was inevitable, but most of it focused on news and commentary, not entertainment. And, until recently, there was still a wide offering of apolitical entertainment if you desired it. But that offering has grown slimmer and less accessible for some time, until we’ve reached a point where it’s almost nonexistent in some mediums or genres.

Enter Comicsgate.

Like most mediums, American comics had enjoyed a low political presence for a long time. But the thumbscrews were building through the early 2000s and apolitical content got pushed out. Soon any contributors who disagreed with the prevailing political ideology in comics was under pressure to keep quiet or conform. By about 2015 artists and writers were starting to loose work just because of their views. Come 2017 Comicsgate, a strange backlash against political purity testing and storytelling in the comics industry, had arisen and was enraging the old guard with their irreverence towards the people running the mainstream and their willingness to throw down shibboleths.

Comicsgate spends most of their time condemning political maneuvering in the industry and tsking over subpar product that has resulted from what they view as an overemphasis on political correctness and an underemphasis on good storytelling and art. The mainstream accuses them of bigotry and envy.

The conflict between old guard and rebels came to a head in May of 2018 when one of the figureheads of Comicsgate, one Richard C. Meyer, wrapped up an Indegogo campaign to create his own independent comic and announced that it would be published through a company called Antarctic Press. Upset, comic book veteran Mark Waid announced his disappointment on his public social media platforms and contacted Antarctic Press directly. What followed were a couple of harrowing days for the owners of Antarctic Press as they state they were contacted repeatedly, not just via the Antarctic offices but at their day jobs, by people angry at their collaboration with Meyer. Eventually Antarctic canceled their contract with Meyer and forced him to find his own methods of printing and distributing the book.

Now Meyer is suing Waid for tortuous interference with his contract.

Full disclosure. I’ve praised the work of Mark Waid on this blog in several places, including here, here and here. I think he can be a great writer, capable of writing great stories that bring people together with the power of the shared human experience. I also rather like Richard Meyer’s work as a comic book critic and I backed one of his Indegogo projects (although not the one that was through Antarctic Press). I also find Waid’s behavior in this case thuggish and egotistical. So what now?

There was an interesting article by another independent comic creator, Jon del Arroz, who addressed this exact question on his own blog. You can read it here. He makes several great points in this. Both sides are appealing to their fans to raise money for their legal defense funds. The money spent in this way isn’t really helping anyone but the lawyers, and it’s certainly not helping the comic industry, which is struggling. (And before you bring up the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s important to point out that the Marvel film studio and comic line are administratively and – more importantly – financially independent.) And Comicsgate has spent a lot of time talking about this lawsuit like it’s a great victory, which it clearly isn’t.

At the same time, Arroz make’s one major mistake in his analysis of this situation.

See, he seems to think that this lawsuit has somehow made Comicsgate political, and ruined its ability to say it’s a movement about apolitical entertainment. I disagree.

First, Comicsgate does have a majority of what Americans would consider moderate to far right wing figures in it, including Meyer himself, as well as figures like Ethan Van Sciver, Doug Ernst and Doug TenNapel. However, it has a lot of moderate left wingers as well, like Nasser Rabadi and Donal DeLay. But all these people are committed to apolitical storytelling. That lets them put their differences aside and help each other with the craft of comics while still enjoying their policy disagreements.

At the same time, getting a comic published is a business. Business is not entertainment, it is very political and it has to be. If Waid is, in fact, guilty of interfering in business in an illegal fashion then it is not only appropriate but, from the business perspective, necessary to respond in a legal fashion. Any good business lawyer will tell you that every time you pass on your business rights your ability to stand up for them in the future is diminished. Further, if Comicsgate or some part thereof does intend to transform from a loose collection of critics to a new part of their industry they have to make it clear to the old guard that they cannot be harassed out of the business. Meyer seems to understand this, as he made clearish in his long but rambling explanation of why he sued Waid in the first place (at the time of this writing the video where Meyer explains his reasoning is no longer available, perhaps because he has removed it at the advice of his legal team). For Meyer’s business ambitions to play out, he has to take part in the legal/political side of business or basically admit he’s been run out of the industry.

All this being true… I’m not enamored of the idea of this suit being funded by the fans of an industry – on either side – much less the amount of haymaking and fundraising that’s gone on around it. (For this reason I’m not linking to the fundraising pages for either side of the suit.) It only fuels the kind of division that entertainment was originally supposed to help us bridge.

Long time readers of this blog know I like to examine the publishing industry from time to time and try and draw lessons for myself and other aspiring writers from it. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can glean from this other than the obvious: Straighten up and prepare for a long slog. Even if you have a good product others want, it seems that might not be enough. There’s a lot of opportunities out there for us, but in changing times the old guard might not give way easily.

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