22 November 2006

Blood and Thunder

Harlan Ellison is suing Fantagraphics.

The lawsuit came down in late September. I just found out about it a week ago when I visited the Comics Journal web site. Ellison’s suit alleges that Fantagraphics defamed him in the upcoming book Comics As Art: We Told You So and that they violated a California “rights of fair trade” law by, in a nutshell, printing Ellison’s name on the cover of The Comics Journal Library 6: The Writers without using the little ® symbol (Ellison has trademarked his name), and that they committed libel by referring to Ellison as a "famous comics dilettante" on the cover of same (see for yourself).

Where to begin?

I like Harlan Ellison’s writing quite a bit. The school library at good old Dexter Elementary had a paperback copy of Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which I read for the first time when I was in the sixth grade. I didn’t understand some of the material, but I kept at it through the years -- Bosse had several Ellison titles in its library, and the Evansville public library system had even more – and eventually I caught up. Ellison is a science fiction writer whose output consists of primarily short stories and critical essays. Often times, the introductions he pens for his story collections are more entertaining than the stories themselves. Personally, I think the stuff he produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s is his most rewarding and that arguably the quality and most assuredly the quantity of Ellison stories has tapered off since then.

Ellison is also (in)famous for his strongly held beliefs and opinions, and his willingness to share them. He is also known for kicking ass (figuratively and literally) and taking names, and he is known for more than a few feuds with any number of folks who have deservedly or not incurred his wrath. Throughout much of his career, Ellison gives lectures and speeches, and although I have never attended one myself, they are legendary for their sheer entertainment value, but also because Ellison is only too happy to rehash stories of conflicts he’s had with various writers, fans, ex-wives, actors, movie studios, whathaveyou. Consequently, over the course of his career, he has developed a reputation for being a cantankerous fellow who does not shy away from a fight when he believes he has been wronged. This makes him a highly divisive figure in the inbred SF community. Many people love Ellison unconditionally; many people loathe him.

I also like Fantagraphics quite a bit. As comics publishers, they are unequalled, as they have given the world such titles as Hate, Eightball, Love & Rockets and The Acme Novelty Library. More significantly, and more germane to this whole kerfuffle, is that Fantagraphics also publishes The Comics Journal, which is the only serious source for comics industry news and information. The Journal, not unlike Ellison, takes an uncompromising stance: when they like something, they will praise it accordingly, and when they dislike something, which has been known to happen from time to time, they will not hesitate to excoriate it.

In other words, Ellison and Fantagraphics (which, accurately or not, has become synonymous with Gary Groth and vice versa) are peas in a pod, whether or not they care to admit it.

Problem is, Ellison and Fantagraphics kind of sort of have a long history of mutual loathing and distrust after the Fleischer lawsuit. You can read about that whole debacle here, but in a nutshell: Ellison and Groth were at one time friends; Ellison gave an interview in the Journal wherein he called comics scribe Michael Fleischer “bugfuck” – in a complementary manner. Fleischer didn’t like it and sued. Fleischer lost, but in the years leading up to the suit, Groth, Thompson and the Journal appeared to goad Fleischer in print, which cause the defense lawyers several unwanted headaches, which led to the deterioration of Groth and Ellison’s friendship.

So the current suit. I am not a lawyer, but I have read a few court filings in my day, and most of them are written in wordy legalese (“Wherefore on the eighteenth day of April of the year 2004, claimant alleges the defendant did commit a blatant act of libel, thereby irrevocably harming plaintiff’s good standing et cetera.” Ellison’s complaint is far from dry. It’s downright breezy and amusing. In fact, it reads as if he himself wrote it and then had his lawyers sign off on it. Don’t know if this is standard or not, but I would let the attorneys draft my court documents just to err on the side of caution.

I understand you have to make your case, but I feel Ellison is just a little too glib and self-congratulatory in his introduction (“countless awards?” Like if you asked him he couldn’t tell you exactly how many Hugos he has won).

Elsewhere, Ellison practically libels Groth and Thompson in his complaint. He makes them sound like a gay couple that print comics as a front for some nefarious criminal enterprise – running drugs and funneling the profits to al Qaida, perhaps.

Now, whoever came up with the “famous comics dilettante” descriptor on the cover of The Writers had to have known that it would not go unnoticed. They were poking the bear, in other words, and now the bear is all riled up, baring his claws and fangs. Furthermore, every other writer listed on the cover of The Writers is credited with comics titles the wrote. As far as I know, Ellison was never the regular scripter on any comics series (That Dream Corridor thing doesn't count, as those were adaptations of already published stories), but would it have killed Groth to take the high road and just credit Ellison as "author" or something innocuous?

Regardless, Groth and Thompson have been much more circumspect about this lawsuit than they were during the Fleischer suit, but message boards all across the interwebs have been humming with speculation and analysis from anybody with internet connectivity. Obviously, The Journal’s message boards are pro-Fantagraphics. Elsewhere, some people are hoping that Ellison’s suit puts Fantagraphics out of business.

A guy named Kevin Greenlee – who says he actually is a real, live attorney, BTW -- weighed in on Heidi MacDonald's Beat blog, pointing out that while Ellison may very well have been pleased with the terms of his settlement with AOL, the fact that he did indeed settle and not go to court means that, in strictly legal terms, he really shouldn’t classify that suit’s outcome as a win.

Unsurprisingly, this sent Ellison into a rage, prompting him to respond by belittling Greenlee while completely, and perhaps deliberately, missing the point of Greenlee’s entirely lucid observations. Not wanting to miss any chance to suck Ellison’s cock (I speak figuratively here), fanboy-made-good Peter David chimed in with his own two cents, also completely missing the point in Greenlee’s observations in a nauseating display of sycophantic buffoonery. You can read the whole exchange here, but I’ll boil down the gist of David’s posts if you don’t have the time (or stomach) to read them in all their purple prolixity: “My close friend Harlan won that AOL suit, even though he settled it, because HE SAYS HE WON IT, so shut up! Love, PAD. PS: I am a close friend of Harlan Ellison.”

A more accurate way to describe Ellison’s AOL adventure would be to say he didn’t lose, which allows him to save face. Because no matter how loudly and/or frequently he proclaims that he won that suit, he did not.

Anecdote: Ray Bradbury spoke in Evansville eight or nine years ago. I attended, as did a friend of mine who ran into his English professor from college. They talked about SF and its place in serious literature. The professor was effusive in his praise for Bradbury. My friend asked about other SF writers. When he mentioned Ellison, the professor said, “Never heard of him.” I mention this because as much as I enjoy Ellison’s work, he does seem to think he’s more famous and renowned than he actually is. Sure, all the sci-fi nerds and comic book geeks know who Harlan is, as do some TV folk, but a household name he isn’t. This is not to say that his suit is meritless, or to take away from his successes, but it points out the egos involved.

And Ellison is no spring chicken -- he's 72, and 10 years ago, he had a heart attack. I'm sure that all the stress and aggravation Fantagraphics caused him is nothing compared to the stress and aggravation litigation will cause, but it's his life. I've read quotes from Ellison in which he states that pursuing legal action is indeed costly and time-consuming, and his time could be better spent elsewhere, but there ya go.

(He's also currently suing Paramount over characters in a Star Trek tie-in novel. So it goes.)

My own humble opinion is that this Ellison/Groth pissing match has gone on long enough, and to varying degrees, all camps have demonstrated that they are, or at least have been, assholes.

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