The Arkansas Times interviewed Mitch and Elizabeth Breitweiser about their venture into independent publishing in their current residence in Little Rock, with a company called Allegiance Arts:
In a year in which supply-chain breakdowns changed the fate of the country, comic books wouldn’t seem to rise to the level of news. But you have to admire that at its May launch Mitch and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s Allegiance Arts, the country’s youngest indie comic publisher, was the only one shipping books for a couple of weeks. The industry had to stop and stare.
Consider what it took for the Little Rock couple to launch a company that began its life as the only business in town — any town, pick your town.
If they set up a separate distribution service from Diamond, they did the right thing. And then, why did they decide to get into their own private business?
Second: They got tired of working on other people’s stuff. This happens. You wake up one day and realize working on other people’s stuff is a double bummer: They tell you what to do, and then they keep most of the money and credit. Even if the stuff you’re working on is the likes of Captain America, the Young Avengers and the Sub-Mariner (Mitch); and the Hulk, Batman and Outcast (Elizabeth), at some point, you gotta do you.
At the time he may have begun working on Cap in the early 2000s, Marvel under Joe Quesada was wasting no time turning Steve Rogers’ solo stories into anti-American propaganda, and I wouldn’t want anybody lecturing me about how awful stuff like that is supposedly a positive route to take. And all the while, they keep the lion’s share of the royalties for stuff that’s insulting to Kirby’s memory. This is exactly why the Breitweisers’ shift would be understandable.
It’s too early to call Allegiance Arts a runaway success or to declare that it has changed the fundamentals of an ailing industry. In films and video games, comic characters have taken over the world. Comic books are literally a different story. They’re a much smaller group these days, and its creators tend to be a tight tribe. The benefits are obvious when a group of entrepreneurs successfully launch a new venture with so much upside, especially for Arkansas.
See, that’s the problem. Insularity, right down to political strife, is exactly what’s bringing down comicdom. To the point where the Breitweisers suffered indignation, all because of their willingness to associate with Comicsgate supporters, though that part’s mentioned a litter further down:
Meanwhile, one subplot remains a bit more ticklish. The Breitweisers worry some people in the comics world because of their friendliness with comics creators who have fostered a toxic subculture within comics. In a shrinking industry where most creators publicly cheer new ventures, some of their peers are so wary of the culture fight, they declined to comment for this story.
The Breitweisers are adamant that they’re building an inclusive, nonpolitical platform, and that they don’t support those who would pick on others in the comics community. To examine that tension requires asking the sneakily heavy question of who comics are for. Allegiance Arts is decidedly widening that audience. But the whole picture is more complicated.
See, this is why they came under attack a few years ago – they don’t want to politicize their business the way far-leftists in comicdom have, to the point where the leftists have picked on others, to say nothing of other-izing conservatives. But before we get to more of that, an explanation comes up what went wrong with marketing and distribution:
The O.G. comics expert in Little Rock is Michael Tierney, who since the 1980s has run two comics specialty shops: Collectors Edition, in North Little Rock, and the Comic Book Store, in Little Rock. He’s weathered changing tastes and business models, and as a brick-and-mortar guy till the end (or, rather, till the pandemic shut his doors for him in June, chasing him onto online-only) he can answer the question of why comic books have all but cratered in America. It boils down, essentially, to changing customer tastes and industry missteps.
The former is easy to see. Comics were a dominant pop art before they had to compete with the likes of MTV, Super Mario Bros. and AOL Instant Messenger, let alone Instagram, TikTok, Minecraft and Fortnite. The movies and television series are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they’re better now than ever, and bigger. The 23 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grossed, on average, a billion dollars apiece. DC’s eight films have grossed another $5.5 billion. The dozen X-Men films have added $6 billion. Then: all the dang video games, Halloween costumes, amusement park rides, knickknacks. The business of comics characters is bigger than ever without a kid needing to pester a parent for a single thin comic book.
As readers became viewers and players, the publishing industry did itself no favors. Publishers sell comics mostly through hobby or specialty stores. Like so many bookstores, Amazon et al. have put the hurt on them over the years. Tierney says an industry that used to be 15,000 stores strong a generation ago is probably down to a thousand or so, maybe double that if you count gas stations and bait shops that still stock a spinner rack. In the mid-’90s, Marvel and then DC bought their own comics distributors, hoping to cut out the companies that served as middlemen to retailers. Starving other distributors into oblivion led to an effective duopoly that prevented indie comics from even making it to market. When those distributors (Heroes World for Marvel, Diamond for DC) faltered in their deliveries, in Tierney’s view, it landed on the retailers, who had no options for better service. “Retailers got caught in the crunch,” he says. “The industry has been constantly shrinking. Used to be if a Marvel print run got below 90,000 copies, they’d cancel it. Now print runs are 10,000. They’re down to some 5,000 runs. We used to call those ‘limited editions.’ ”
The refusal to change to graphic novel formats has got to be another serious fault. Even independents should’ve considered at the time. And of course, there’s also the decline of story merit to ponder:
As the print industry shrank, it also started turning out less kid-friendly fare. The phrase “gritty reboot” is almost a punchline among comics films, but the trend started years before as the PG heroes of days past matured, not always in a good way. The crossover success of the dystopia-tinged “Watchmen” and of Frank Miller’s oeuvre — the “Dark Knight” Batman storyline, “Sin City,” “300” — helped steer comics into a darker, more explicit period that brought the lurid stories and images of pulp paperbacks into a medium that had long belonged to kids.
If you were a certain kind of kid, the turn toward R-rated fare was and probably still is totally awesome. If you are a certain kind of parent, not so much. Tierney felt a 2001 Nick Fury comic jumped the shark when it depicted the one-eyed Marvel spy smoking a stogie and carrying a glass, robe half-open, surrounded by a half-dozen nude women begging him “please … no more” with smiles on their faces. He had to fight on two fronts. Over the years he tried to explain to publishers that gratuitous sex and violence weren’t growing their readership, while also railing against Act 858, a proposed 2003 law that would’ve given practically anyone in Arkansas the authority to declare a comic book or magazine obscene, and unlawful to display. “Comics got trashy,” he says. “You don’t want to freak out the parents. ‘Oh my god, what are you showing my kid? Punching somebody’s kidney out with an I-beam?’ ”
The skirmishes continue over who, exactly, is the audience for comics. Behold the 2018 Vox headline, “Batman’s penis is in a comic book for the first time ever — but not for long,” about a single panel in DC’s Black Label storyline that gives new meaning to the phrase comic strip. The parents, they freak out. So do the aunties and uncles, including the Breitweisers. It says something when a former color artist on Batman would feel uncomfortable leaving a comic out for their five nieces and two nephews to browse.
I get the feeling that, if a scene involving female frontal nudity had been proposed, it never would’ve made it off the drawing board. But male frontal nudity is otherwise, OK, because men somehow make a potentially easier target. They’re right about the long term damage Dark Knight Returns’ influence brought along, but if Marvel’s MAX imprint is any suggestion, they really took things to a sleazy level, the books being aimed at adults notwithstanding. As for Bruce Wayne’s private parts being on display in Black Label, it was already done in Watchmen with Dr. Manhattan, so apart from the apparent shock value of a recognizable star seen in the nude, it’s nothing new. And now, speaking of politics, here’s where the article takes a most unfortunate turn into bias:
So here’s the condensed version of how a rift came between these stories and so many of the writers, artists and readers who would otherwise be cheering their success. In November 2016, Mitch Breitweiser sent what in another era might be considered a benign tweet, complete with illustration, of the U.S. president-elect standing with a sword and a halo, evoking a medieval knight, with a message: “Congratulations President-elect @realDonaldTrump. I wish you the very best in your effort to Make America Great Again for ALL Americans.” (The original tweet exists only in screenshots; Mitch has since deleted his account.)
You could read it as ironic or you could read it as flattering, but either way, he rolled that into a Twittersphere still sore from Election Night and, more broadly, always itching to scrap over the broader questions of inclusivity in the comics industry. You can guess what happened next. “Captain America Artist Wonders Why He Is Losing Friends Over His Patriotism,” a Bleeding Cool headline read.
Mitch’s tweet activated two factions. Some people lobbed at them the sort of insults they’d like to send to the president; meanwhile, people inclined to support the president stood up for him. Acrimony simmered. Then, the following summer, some in the more conservative faction tagged harassing tweets aimed at feminists and trans people and young women in the industry with #Comicsgate. Some fans and creators lumped the Breitweisers in with the faction that was hurling abuses at people. Things came to a head in 2018, when the Breitweisers canceled a scheduled appearance at a comic convention over what they said were safety concerns.
Like other internet movements marked by harassment, Comicsgate thrives on vagueness. One of its proponents, a comics artist named Ethan Van Sciver, described it on a YouTube channel called Comics Artist Pro in 2018 as “a community for dispossessed right-wing and moderate comic book professionals who can no longer get work in this blacklisted, disgusting, politically oppressed industry, as it’s become.” A rational person would prefer to steer clear of its blast zone. Irrational people, trying to understand comics in 2020, instead might open dozens of browser tabs, watch hours of YouTube, and reach out to comics creators who reply by saying they don’t want their names in a story that touches on Comicsgate. (As a for-instance, from one writer: “I would rather not furnish a quote because [Comicsgate] people just destroy people’s lives and I wouldn’t go near them with a barge pole.”)
But a deep dive turns up little to impugn the Breitweisers. The perception that they’re aligned with Comicsgate seems to rest largely on their being polite to creators other people find abhorrent. It’s not hard to see why they’d try to be diplomatic. For one, they’re not publicly political, a certain tweet notwithstanding. For another, they’ve been running crowdfunding campaigns and trying to draw broad support from fans and investors, and they’ve tried not to take sides. It’s a tightrope they’ve been walking.
Oh, it’s not just because they’re suspected of supporting Comicsgate. It’s also because of Mitch’s support for Trump 4 years back, and the leftist backlash was clearly part of the reason Mitch got rid of his Twitter account, which was decidedly a good thing to do regardless. I’d highly prefer he write his opinions on life and the world on a blog anyway, and it’s time those working in prominent projects start learning to run their business without Twitter.
In July of this year, on the online show “Live From the Bunker,” Mitch was asked about how he navigated “cancel culture” on the way to his successful crowdfunding and the Walmart launch. He said he was hopeful that other creators would find room at the table, even if they weren’t ideologically aligned with the industry mainstream, which tends to tilt left.
“Nobody should have to go through what we went through,” he said. “It sucks, it’s horrible. But it also hardened us to a degree. We probably wouldn’t be here doing what we’re doing now if we weren’t sharpened on a hard stone.”
There’s some fightin’ words. And I’ll credit the paper for their willingness to acknowledge the liberal position in much of the wider industry. However, the reporter takes a fishy turn when he later says:
As for who comics are by, the answer is, the best ones have always been by marginalized artists, even outcasts. They’re an American art form that resonates with American audiences because Americans don’t know how to square two perpendicular wants: to be a world power, and to be a scrappy underdog. That paradox absolutely stokes modern conservatism, which can’t decide whether America is unassailably mighty or whether people who reject a gender binary might just collapse society; whether we’re a shining light on a hill or whether we’re being quicksanded into the dark ages by desperate immigrants who believe our hype; whether we’re a nation of Christian values or one that can be ably led by a lifelong financial and sexual predator who has never been able to recall a single Bible verse when asked to cite one near to his alleged heart.
It’s hugely regrettable the reporter’s atrociously alluding to a leftist smear against Donald Trump regarding the Bible, and worse, perpetuating the smear of misogyny leveled against him 4 years ago, all without admitting Joe Biden’s got a pretty sordid record of his own, and his claim conservatives can’t decide whether the US is one thing or another is also decidedly galling. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something the Breitweisers told him that he omitted from the interview, like a defense of artists backing Comicsgate as far from being “hatemongers”. Surprisingly, they also got quotes from an artist who came from France, who said:
“Our industry was created by a bunch of Jews who had nothing in front of them but starving,” says Fabrice Sapolsky, a French Jewish immigrant and comics creator whose brainchild Spider-Man Noir you might recognize as the black-and-white Spidey from “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” “It was like, ‘We have to do something because we can’t pay for study — we can’t be doctors, we can’t be lawyers. We have to eat.’ To me, hate groups as a whole are a betrayal of who we are as an industry. We are the children of Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who were Jews who came from nowhere.” […]
Asked to play an expert in a conversation about where the culture and industry of comics is going, and how Allegiance Arts fits into it, he takes an aerial view. America has always been split, so controversy shouldn’t surprise anyone. Immigrants like him sympathize with launching your own company if you feel isolated. Talent eventually wins out. And the future belongs to people who can find an audience because audiences don’t lie. They either buy your stuff, or they don’t.
“One of the beautiful things in this industry,” he says, “is 99 percent of creators support other creators. We may have lost a bit of the community because politics are gangrene on our industry. We’re still a fraternity. We’re still a place of good.”
While I appreciate the reminder of the industry founding fathers’ backgrounds, and I’m glad if the guy wisely avoided damning the Breitweisers or Comicsgate, it’s naive to suggest the vast majority of creators back each other, because there are backstabbers everywhere, including the recent Whisper Network activists, an example of liberals turning against liberals when they see fit. In fact, what about hatemongers within the industry, like the anti-conservative crowd who’re ramming their far-left politics down everyone’s throats at the expense of entertainment value, all without providing anything genuine to make a reader think?
The Breitweisers see potential for their nascent operation to expand beyond the colorful pages of a book and into movies, video games, television series and animation.
But it all starts with characters drawn and written in a comic and the connection a reader can find with the right combination of timing, story and images.