From Hell's Heart, I Litigate at Thee!

A sci-fi legend declares war on scrappy local publisher Fantagraphics. But in the battle of comix versus futurists, who's the bigger bully?

Here's a line you're unlikely to hear the next time Dan Clowes does a signing at the Fantagraphics store in Georgetown: "Hey, dude, didn't you pitch your tent next to mine outside the Cinerama before Revenge of the Sith?"

There's a reason their books aren't shelved together, often aren't even stocked in the same stores and newsstands: You see, comic dorks and sci-fi geeks just don't get along; they're two different breeds. It's like cats and dogs, Vulcans and Klingons, DC versus Marvel, Chris Ware against Stan Lee. Some people doodle in their unlined black journals; others play massive multiuser games online. I collect vintage issues of Plastic Man; you religiously TiVo every episode of the new Battlestar Galactica. There's ComiCon (this weekend at Paul Allen's QwestField) and the Star Trek 40th Anniversary Gala Celebration & Conference (last September at Paul Allen's Science Fiction Museum), and the laminated pass from one won't get you into the other.

So it's perhaps no surprise that the divided fan camps burst into a mad froth last September, after Los Angeles sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison sued Seattle publisher Fantagraphics for defamation, demanding a punitive award that could threaten the indie company's very survival. The parties' respective Web bulletin boards have played host to thousands of enraged comments—the Fanta fans calling Ellison a greedy, washed-up loon; the Ellison acolytes saying Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth is a spiteful ingrate. I used to think the Internet was 99 percent porn and 1 percent everything else. Well, the ongoing matter of Ellison v. Fantagraphics probably now occupies 50 percent of the bandwidth not currently devoted to discussing the latest twist on Lost.

Yet the rancor among the fan base pales next to the level of animus between the two men themselves. Groth and Ellison had a falling-out more than 20 years ago—ironically, when they were both on the same side in another defamation suit—and that bad blood has only gotten worse in the interim. In Ellison's complaint, which doesn't exactly read like your typical sober legal pleading, he labels Fantagraphics' Groth "a scheming pathological liar and little more than an obsessively vindictive and petty man trying to be a mover and shaker."

Groth, in turn, is coolly dismissive of his nemesis, Ellison. He recently told me, "He's not part of our world. He's really entirely irrelevant. I wish I could be sued by somebody relevant."

Groth wasn't quite so flip, however, in a blast e-mail sent out last month to Fantagraphics supporters, which pleaded for donations, auction items, and "guerilla fundraising ideas." "Already...the suit has cost us in the mid–five figures, and a quality defense will require considerably more money than that," Groth and Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson wrote. "Without additional financial assistance, we will have to reconsider many of our commercially marginal books (approximately half of them); the money that would make those books possible will instead be spent on legal fees."

By choosing to fight Ellison's lawsuit, rather than settle or alter the content of a not-yet-published book that's at the center of the case, Groth is embracing a huge risk, he acknowledges. Fantagraphics already lost the first legal round last month, when a federal court declined to toss out the complaint. Now Groth is seemingly committed to a courtroom marathon that could stretch on for years. Isn't he taking a chance that might destroy his own company? "An adverse judgment could, sure," he says. "But any publisher with any courage takes that chance every day. Whether it's The New York Times or The Nation...any journalistic enterprises that seek to exercise their rights do take that chance, and I think they're obligated to take that chance."

All of which sounds perfectly noble and admirable—until you look further into the story, and realize that this suit is but phase three of a 27-year grudge match that seems to be at least as much petty and personal as it is principled.

"Bugfuck"

Who is Harlan Ellison, and why is the comix contingent saying such terrible things about him? Not quite as famous as Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, or Philip K. Dick, the ultraprolific 72-year-old author has won Hugo and Nebula awards for short stories (including "I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream") whose aggregate number well exceeds 1,000. His TV credits run back to the '50s: He wrote for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek. (An occasional actor, he even showed up on Babylon 5 during the '90s.) A Boy and His Dog (1975) remains the most successful movie adaptation of his work. He was a famous writer and gadfly, a regular guest on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, a celebrity with a ready opinion on every aspect of pop culture. More recently he turned up on Bill Maher's former ABC series, Politically Incorrect.

He has a reputation, among friends and detractors alike, for being extremely ornery, completely uncensored in his gripes, and fierce in righting perceived wrongs—especially when it comes to his name and intellectual property. He recently sued and settled with AOL over his stories being posted to an electronic forum. Before that, he successfully sued James Cameron for plagiarizing his material in The Terminator. (To repeat: He beat the Terminator!) He told Publishers Weekly last September that he was 16-0 in legal actions (including settlements), with ABC, Paramount, and Universal among the notches on his belt. On a fan-run Web site, he boasts: "When it comes to litigation, I am neither capricious nor greedy; I am, however, dogged and unrelenting."

Ellison has always loved comics as well as sci-fi. Back in his heyday, he was an antediluvian creature—and now possibly a dinosaur—during that fleeting moment when progressive politics, campus radicals, the drug culture, the New Hollywood, rock and roll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Crumb, and Philip K. Dick could all get along. Appropriately, Ellison's most famous, award-winning Star Trek episode was 1967's "The City on the Edge of Forever," in which Bones' drug overdose leads to a time-travel plot where correcting one historical wrong (the death of Capt. Kirk's beloved) would result in Hitler getting the A-bomb and conquering the world. It was a trip, a mindblower, a meeting of disparate streams briefly braided together, a transistor-era artifact when pulp fiction was still hammered out on electric typewriters at pennies per word. And it was the product of a period that was already in decline by the '70s, as alternative comics (including Fantagraphics) began to rise and snipe at all the old allegiances and know-it-alls who were maybe a little too old for their bell-bottoms, open-to-the-navel paisley shirts, and dangling coke spoons, the poseurs and the dilettantes who needed to be ejected from class before the snickering would stop and the serious business of cartooning begin.

All these forces came to a head in a New York City courtroom in 1980, where battle lines were drawn—and extend to this day's current litigation. On the one hand, old-guard futurists with their cautionary fables of perfection and its unintended consequences; on the other, new-school line artists disdainful of anything so corny as a sweeping manifesto or the dread suggestion—how lame! how weak! how Star Trek!—that history repeats itself.

In 1980, with Groth (then 26) and Thompson publishing out of a Connecticut home office, Ellison was by far the more renowned and successful figure. He had fame and status to lend, and at that point Groth came to New York City to interview the author for Fantagraphics' semi-academic Comics Journal. Then and since, the Journal has been criticized as something of a house-controlled annals of opinion that favors Fantagraphics-brand artists, creating a conflict of interest for Groth and his contributors; it would be as if HarperCollins owned The New York Times Book Review.

As Ellison now recalls it, "Gary kept trying to ask me questions that would lead me to say unpleasant things about people." (A challenge that, given Ellison's personality, probably wasn't hard to meet.) Eventually the discussion turned to Michael Fleisher, a violently imaginative cartoon writer laboring for DC Comics. "I didn't know Michael Fleisher from a hole in the wall," Ellison says. "But I had been reading his comic The Spectre, and I just fucking loved it! It was crazy. You hear me saying 'crazy,' and you know what I mean. It was amazing. I used my fondest term of approbation, which was a word I made up called 'bugfuck.' I said, 'This guy is bugfuck. He's certifiable.' I never had a moment's animus for Fleisher, not a second."

Fleisher didn't see it that way. He immediately sued Ellison, Groth, and Fantagraphics in a New York court for $2 million—enough to put them all into bankruptcy if he won. The defendants ultimately prevailed after much costly litigation, but Groth calls the period "seven years of horror."

"We had a very tumultuous time together...basically a lot of bad blood," he says. And in the courtroom salvos and squabbles over attorneys' bills, the current conflict has its roots. Ellison says the Fleisher suit could've been settled were it not for Groth and partner Thompson baiting Fleisher—and protracting the libel suit—in the pages of The Comics Journal. He recalls telling Groth, "'Leave him alone!' Gary's first remark is, 'My First Amendment rights are being trampled on!' He cannot admit he's wrong. He cannot say he's sorry. Everybody else is at fault. He's the victim."

The First Amend-athon

Not that Ellison isn't more than capable of playing that card, too. In his current court documents, he says he suffered a heart attack in the mid-'90s that required a quadruple bypass, and asserts: "The organized character assassination, perpetrated in large part by Groth, Thompson, and Fantagraphics, was a major contributing factor to my ill health."

What caused him such pain in the '90s? Fantagraphics' main offense was digging up a decade-old, anti-Ellison tract that first appeared in England and publishing it in the U.S. The book didn't even have comics (save for a new cover portrait of Ellison by Fantagraphics artist Drew Friedman). Its windy title: The Book on the Edge of Forever: An Enquiry Into the Non-Appearance of Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions.

For readers of a certain age and proclivity (live long and prosper, fellow space travelers), Dangerous Visions may ring a bell: It was a sci-fi anthology series Ellison edited to some acclaim in 1967 and 1972. Having apparently succumbed to what might be called editor's block, Ellison never brought a third installment to market. In the '80s, some people cared about the delay. By the '90s, however, it was hard to see why anyone would.

"Gary published this thing, even though he was going to lose money on it, because he would geek me," says Ellison. "I had warned Gary many times...'Don't do this, leave me alone, get the fuck out of my face.'...I sent him a postcard saying, 'Go away and stop bothering me,' that's 15 years ago....He published it [in The Comics Journal]! He published the photo of an original manuscript [i.e., the postcard] and made fun of me."

"Ellison did send a letter to our printers and our distributors, prior to the book's printing, threatening to sue them," says Groth, but no suit was ever filed.

OK, I ask Groth, but you're a comic book publisher. Why bother? Especially by the mid-'90s—when Fantagraphics was taking off in its new home in the grunge capital, when it was building a prestigious roster of artists that today includes Robert Crumb, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Seattle's own Peter Bagge, Ellen Forney, and the Hernandez brothers—why not just leave the old grump alone?

"I think it was important in the science-fiction community, because [Ellison] was literally holding these works hostage," Groth says of the third Dangerous Visions anthology. "This purportedly brilliant work was not seeing the light of day. I'm a science-fiction dilettante. But my understanding was this was the cutting-edge science-fiction prose of its time. And this work was essentially sitting under a box under Ellison's desk, and it was not being published or disseminated. That strikes me as a pretty egregious injustice....I thought it was an incredibly illuminating book about Ellison's behavior."

Ellison subsequently tried to suppress the sale of the book at two comic conventions, according to Groth. "And here's a guy who claims to have the moral high ground, to be a First Amendment advocate." The whole contentious affair was documented in an exhaustive, 30,000-word history in the now-defunct journal Gauntlet; it still has an extensive Internet life, including on Ellison's fan site.

Then, mercifully, perhaps letting bypasses be bygones, a relative truce—or at least mutual silence and exhaustion—lasted for a decade. That is, until a recent Fantagraphics one-two publishing punch.

Cheapskates and Dilettantes

Perhaps not surprisingly, what fired hostilities back up was the original 27-year-old encounter. Early last year, Fantagraphics decided to reprint that 1980 Groth interview with Ellison in a new compilation, The Comics Journal Library: The Writers. The book's 10 interview subjects were all listed on the cover, along with the name of their most famous comic creation (such as The X-Men next to writer Chris Claremont). Not Ellison. Next to his name, Fantagraphics wrote "famous comics dilettante"—"which truly annoyed the hell out of me," Ellison says.

"He did not really have any writing credits in comics, or at least any that anybody would remember," says Groth. "He didn't have a character attached to his name. The only thing he ever did was have some stories adapted from his prose. It was Kim who came up with the masterful idea of calling him 'famous comics dilettante.' We thought that was accurate and appropriate."

Over the phone, Ellison fumes to me, "My track record of what I have done in comics is even more extensive than Gary's. Gary has published a lot of things about comics. But Gary has never written any comics—or not any that I know of. I've loved comics since when I was a kid. I've written many comics. When I was in high school, I sold something to Bill Gaines at DC Comics." This year, he notes proudly, Oregon's Dark Horse Comics is planning another edition of Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor.

Though he wasn't happy about it, Ellison concedes that Groth "had every right" to publish the essay. "I had my attorney call and say, 'Could we please have a contributor's copy?' [Groth] wouldn't even give me a copy of the goddamned book on which my name appeared! And he was using my name to sell his book!"

To which Groth replies, "I do remember that his lawyer called up, and he asked to get copies of the book. Now, whenever Harlan Ellison's lawyer calls, I'm immediately suspicious. And he assured us Ellison wasn't going to sue us....I just wanted as little to do with him or his lawyer as possible."

Then last July, Fantagraphics posted on its Web site advance galleys of a second new book, a history of the company called Comics as Art: We Told You So. The oral history includes a discussion of the dreaded Fleisher defamation suit from 1980, with Groth's version of events. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of shots at Ellison. And this time, they prompted him to sue.

In particular, Ellison's lawsuit cites this quote from Groth as defamatory. "Being a co-defendant with Ellison made me feel like I was in the Alamo: surrounded on all sides....He was always coming up with schemes to wheedle out of paying his bills. One was so brilliantly Machievelian [sic] that it included both stiffing his lawyers and screwing me—at the same time!" (The misspelling and the "sic" are in the complaint.)

Now let's assume for the sake of argument that Groth's assertions are 100 percent accurate. Just because something is true, does it always need to be said? On a relatively minor point, one paragraph in a 200-page book, wouldn't it be wiser to avoid putting the match to kindling? "There was no reason to refrain from speaking truthfully," says Groth. "That's what the First Amendment is there for. My commitment as a publisher and a journalist is to speak truthfully and not assuage Harlan Ellison's ego."

Ellison filed suit last September, claiming the passage in Comics as Art defamed him, and that the Comics Journal anthology abused his "right to publicity." He's also seeking to stop publication of the Fantagraphics history, which the company currently has scheduled for November.

Slobbering Hordes vs. Patch Adams

Wizened litigator though he is, Ellison says this is the first time he's ever sued for defamation or libel. And he bemoans a perceived imbalance of resources and publicity, since Fantagraphics is defended by media-law giant Davis Wright Tremaine and, in the court of public opinion, has a larger share of supportive bloggers and chat-room commentators. "When Gary is attacked, hell hath no fury," Ellison says. "Anybody who evinces any defense of me, or who finds my 50 years of work at all viable, Gary and Kim enlist the slobbering hordes of Internet puppies to attack...." (Ellison claims to still compose on a manual typewriter.)

The volume of chat-room verbiage is certainly impressive. From the Fantagraphics/Comics Journal side: "You should claim that Ellison's suit is just a rip-off of an old Outer Limits episode." "I really feel for Fanta, being held hostage in suit by, in my opinion, a truly pathetic person and his baseless claims."

And from the futurists who log on to "Unca Harlan's Art Deco Dining Pavilion" (a fan site): "This has nothing to do with superheroes and everything to do with ethics, a value system Groth's poor parents failed to instill in their sorry runt. It's all business to Groth; he believes controversy sells and bile is attractive." "It's not a First Amendment issue, it's a profit motive."

Even Tycho and Gabe, the two Seattle slackers who appear in the popular gamer-comic Penny Arcade, have piled onto Ellison in the recent past, calling him "a fucking coot" and "a ridiculous man, a little goblin who pokes his head out of dark holes and scowls at all the Earth." (This, after the two men behind Penny Arcade—Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik—had a run-in with the author at a 2005 sci-fi/fantasy convention in Bellevue.)

Not that Ellison doesn't have his own armada—his ego. The man is not shy about vaunting his accomplishments. On the Web site that bears his name, there are 15 different posted biographies. Says Ellison: "Groth's minions are like, 'Ellison—who the hell is he?' Well, I'm the guy who was a clue on Jeopardy last week, motherfucker, that's who I am. I'm entitled, if not to respect, then at least to peace and quiet. And I can't get it with Gary Groth out there constantly sniping."

A fuller portrait of the autumnal artist emerges in a forthcoming documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, in which the author vividly recalls, 60 years later, being bullied as the tiny Jewish kid on an Ohio playground. He still uses those bullies' names for the villains in his stories. "I cannot bear it when people laugh at me," Ellison says, "when people dismiss me."

Watching the doc, with its touchy, thick-skinned, hyperintelligent, outsider protagonist, one can't help thinking of Harvey Pekar in the film version of American Splendor, another put-upon Jew from Ohio—only one who was big enough to resolve fights with his fists. And if you can't prevail on the playground, there's always the courtroom. After all, when it comes to one's deepest personal self-expression, some people blog and others sue.

Both parties admit that Ellison may not live long enough to see a trial.

Is this what Groth or Ellison wanted all the way back in 1980? Surely not. Both men are public figures, meaning it's pretty hard for either to win a libel suit. The only realistic way for Ellison to prevail, according to Jessica Goldman, a media attorney at Summit Law Group in Seattle, is to prove in court that Groth knowingly misrepresented the facts of Ellison's alleged misbehavior during the Fleisher case—meeting the very high legal standard of "actual malice." Groth stands by his words, telling me, "I've been through three libel suits, and we've won every one of them. I have a pretty acute idea of what is libel and what isn't. I firmly believe we're going to win this lawsuit. And I think all the documents...prove that what I say is fundamentally accurate."

Enemy Mine

Two spacemen crash on a barren asteroid, both representatives of rival galaxies that have fought to this final pair of warriors. If they now battled to the death, would anyone notice? If they shook hands and lay down arms, would anyone applaud? After 27 years, can either antagonist remember the original cause for conflict?

It could be a sci-fi story, maybe even a comic. But Ellison says he'd never adapt these bitter life experiences into a story. And the plot probably wouldn't appeal to Fantagraphics' readers. Meanwhile, sympathetic supporters of both camps wish they'd let the matter drop.

Groth calls Ellison a publicity hound, yet it's hard to see the benefit. Certainly the suit—seemingly relished by both parties—won't help him reach new, younger readers. And Fantagraphics is growing and stable (for now), thanks in part to recent deluxe hardcover collections of Peanuts and Dennis the Menace. But comics, too, are coveted most assiduously by the graying boomers of Groth's generation. Wii and Xbox 360 and TiVo and MySpace and YouTube and iPods are where the current generation's attention is focused. It's hard to imagine those kids caring about, much less reading, a collection of old-geezer interviews in The Comics Journal Library or the corporate chest-thumping of Comics as Art. Besides, if it's already up on the Web, what's with all this First Amendment stuff? What's done is done, bra. Let it go.

And so the asteroid just keeps getting farther and father away, growing smaller and smaller in the void of space, until it finally disappears from view.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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