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Bleeding Cool’s Ethics Are A Only Part Of The Problem

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Full disclosure: Nothing But Comics currently receives or in the past has recieved free review copies and promotional material from comics publishers Dark Horse Comics, Valiant Comics, Black Mask, Humanoids, Hic & Hoc and Image comics titles directly from series creators Mark Millar, Ales Kot, Sloane Leong & Brian Bucceletto.  In the past, website Bleeding Cool has covered NBC content, some of it was content that NBC writers sent directly to Bleeding Cool of their own accord. We have also interviewed Brett Schenker of Graphic Policy directly and prior to having published her article at Graphic Policy,  Nothing But Comics did inquire with writer Jane Asellin about publishing what would end up being her report on allegations of harassment against Dark Horse Comics editor Scott Allie, although we had no prior knowledge of the stories actual content at the time and Asellin did not reply to our inquiries at the time or at any point afterwards.

“Who dares not offend cannot be honest”- Thomas Paine

During New York Comic Con in 2014, I met another comics media writer for a much larger site. The media outlet he wrote for was founded by a former employee from one of the two largest comics publishers in the industry whose site had grown exponentially within the time of it’s creation. Writer Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool had gone out of his way to mention that the site’s founder was a former employee of said company and went so far as to accuse the site of publishing “PR” for the founders former employer. When I brought this up to the writer, we both laughed at the hypocrisy of it. He rightly pointed out what was already clear to me, that once Dynamite Comics had started to advertise directly on Bleeding Cool a few months prior, Johnston and co’s coverage of the company’s work increased significantly and was almost uniformly positive. Anybody that was paying attention already knew the score, if you advertised with Bleeding Cool, you got positive coverage independent of the actual advertising while benefiting from the page views the site get’s from from running unauthorized news items about Marvel and DC Comics. This has never been revealed from hard evidence and I can’t give you any definitive proof, but it feels pretty clear from the most casual of observations. In light of the recent controversy with former Bleeding Cool editor Hannah Means-Shannon taking an editorial position at Dark Horse Comics after providing them with favorable coverage both within weeks prior to the allegations of harassment by Dark Horse editor Scott Allie and immediately afterwards as well, what was once perceived now appeared brazen. Clearly it’s  a sketchy situation but in reality, Hannah and Bleeding Cool aren’t anymore guilty of then their competitors, they are just less sophisticated.

For those that don’t know the full details, former Bleeding Cool writer/editor Hannah Means-Shannon did an interview with Scott Allie about his stepping down from the editor in chief role. The Rainbow Hub now reports that her resume was submitted to Dark Horse about two weeks prior to her conducting that interview for an editor position with the publisher. After the interview, allegations about Scott Allie’s pattern of harassment were published at Graphic Policy. Immediately following the article, Means-Shannon wrote a post on Bleeding Cool about the allegations that was perceived to be deferential to Dark Horse by both readers and those in the comics media. On Friday, Means-Shannon was announced as being hired as a new editor at Dark Horse Comics. In reaction to these allegations, Rich Johnston chose to publish a private online conversation between writers from Rainbow Hub & Graphic Policy about the situation. This brings up several potential implications for breach of basic journalistic ethics. Was Hannah interviewing Allie about his stepping down from Editor in Chief at Dark Horse unethical if she was being considered for a job at the publisher? Was it even more unethical for her to report on the allegations which Scott admitted to, knowing she was applying for a job? How much did Hannah and Bleeding Cool know as a whole about the Allie allegations considering Allesin had been circulating the article to different sites for a period of four months? How much of Allie stepping down was because of that and how much was that interview an attempt at damage control against the possibilities of those accusations becoming public? Rich often writes that he get’s scoops by hanging out at bars with pro’s during comics conventions, how much and for how long did Bleeding Cool as a whole know about this and if they did, why wouldn’t they report it? What was the purpose of Johnston publishing the private conversation? Why did he publish that as opposed to any general content about the allegations in and of themselves? Was any part of it motivated by retaliation?

These are questions and allegations that Bleeding Cool was inevitably going to answer for based on their own hubris. Like the shared observation I had during New York Comic Con, Bleeding Cool has appeared to have been providing favorable coverage for publishers that advertise with them for awhile now. This isn’t unique to Dark Horse or Dynamite either, Bleeding Cool often gives favorable coverage to companies like Aspen, Boom, Valiant Comics, Top Cow and Image, all publishers that consistently advertise with the website. This is to say nothing of the site’s owner, Avatar Press, which Bleeding Cool has almost no transparency whatsoever in basically acting as their unofficial public relations arm. Bleeding Cools’ obvious deference to advertisers is borderline comical once you start noticing it but it’s only funny because unlike their competitors, they’re just really bad at hiding it.

“All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”-Bruce Lee

Bleeding Cool isn’t really all that different from other sites, they get advertising, review copies and access from large publishers and in consequence, tend to give those publishers favorable coverage. Bleeding Cool is just foolish and less polished about it then Comic Book Resources, Newsarama, Coomicbook.com, Comics Alliance, Comics Vine, Comicosity or any number of long running and successful comics websites that traffic in large page views by working directly with the big publishers. Bleeding Cool basically works backwards from all those other sites business models, they publish rumors and speculation about Marvel or DC Comics that no matter how off base, outlandish or devoid of context, get high page views. They can then sell advertising to those publishers smaller competitors based on those page view numbers while giving them favorable coverage from the access they’re provided. For the above mentioned sites, Hedi MacDonald provided more context here. Basically, they get advertising from Marvel & DC Comics, which they then leverage those relationships to get exclusive access with the publishers for news, review materials, access to creative talent and more, which in turn they can then leverage again for the same access from Marvel & DC’s competitors like Dark Horse or Valiant because of the number of page views they get from the material they are publishing about Marvel & DC. That access clearly comes with a cost to those sites critical integrity as is readily apparent when Marvel executive’s are given free reign to say whatever they feel in a weekly column devoid of any questions that would challenge the subject, or when a comics professional whose work is published across several major comic book companies is basically given an open platform to discount allegations of sexual harassment made against him in spite of it being considered an open secret across the industry, or when a site is posting a retrospective of a popular series from the same publisher that published comics by your senior editor and most popular writer, or when DC Comics cancels a series seven issues in after promising twelve and writers from major comics sites go on social media to tell readers that they should buy more comics from the publisher even though they just betrayed their consumers, when a site runs a weekly column by a contributor that is also paid as a freelancer by one of the major publishers to write promotional content on their website, or when a comics writer is given a weekly comics criticism column on a website where he consistently props up the work of friends and companies he’s had relationships with all the while using the final paragraph almost strictly as promotion for his own work, or like when I asked that same writer from the major comics site who I had just shared an observation with on Bleeding Cool’s own hypocrisy how his site handled writing negative reviews for publishers that they had a relationship with and he told me that they simply had a no negative review policy to avoid any issues.

Bleeding Cool is a product of Rich Johnston, whatever his actual title is at the site, it’s his voice that rings loudest and his style that set’s the tone of it’s content. Rich Johnston has proven over and over again to be a writer devoid of any emotional intelligence, empathy or self awareness with an over inflated sense of self importance and no ethical compass beyond serving his own self interests. Because of that, combined with extremely poor editorial control on the most basic of grammatical errors and a Single White Female obsession with Fantastic Four/X-Men movie rights, Bleeding Cool is an easy target. Most readers and pro’s see the site as a joke that doesn’t realize it’s the punch line. But Bleeding Cool isn’t an aberration, it’s a symptom of a larger problem in comics criticism, an ugly mutation of the same virus. When a website accepts something for free from a publisher or creator they risk compromising their efforts and the more they accept, the greater the risk.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” -Marcus Aurelius

Nothing But Comics is not immune or at least, I’m not. I’ve already wrote about how Marvel made me change a creators quote from “America is still deeply racist”; at the time, I was new, didn’t really know how these things worked and wanted to make a good impression. Knowing what I know now, I don’t even bother interviewing creators about their Marvel or DC Comics work, I’m not interested in the erasure of hard truths for the bottom line of some corporate subsidiary’s intellectual property and I don’t give a shit what Marvel & DC Comics thinks of me or Nothing But Comics anyway, which to be fair, is probably not a whole lot. But it’s deeper then that and not nearly as simple as I’d like to think it is. Ales Kot is someone that I’ve had the good fortune to have a professional relationship with going back almost to this sites inception. I’ve interviewed him right before his debut at Marvel Comics, he gave me a bunch of product free of charge for my Pibbles & More Charity, he’ll often reply to my e-mails no matter how aimless they may be and he’s provided me with review copies of single issues for multiple creator owned series he’s done with Image Comics; one of those being the debut issue of his Wolf ongoing. I inquired with him about the book after seeing him post about review opportunities on Twitter, he provided me the review copy and I immediately felt a deep anxiety and worry over the possibility that I might not like it. Ales is great writer but he’s not infallible. Moreover, Kot wanted to hold off advanced reviews for the book until the Tuesday prior to it’s release but was allowing readers of the advanced copy to talk about it on social media a month ahead of it’s scheduled debut in comic shops and digital platforms. Kot’s a smart dude who is usually thinking next level so I can’t speculate on his intent but I can express my own anxiety over the implication, that being, I’m getting this opportunity so I can tweet about it and as such, I should tweet about it. And if I didn’t like the book, would I tweet about that? Or would I not tweet about it and in turn, not fulfill what I perceived to be my end of the bargain? I want to reiterate again, none of this was ever communicated directly to me from Ales Kot whatsoever, I was never given the implicit expectation that anything I said would have to be positive and in retrospect, I’m confident that Kot would be totally understanding had I reacted negatively towards the book in an online public space or completely ignored it. But Kot’s not in my head, he’s not me, Editor in Chief of Nothing But Comics looking at all the bigger comics sites I’m competing with for a limited number of readers. And no, I don’t have any immediate financial incentive to increase page views and I don’t write what I write to get as many readers as possible but I am writing content online so if I, or anybody that does this, told you that getting a lot of readers for my work wasn’t important to me, I’d be as fake as Rich Johnston.

Thankfully, I did like the first issue of Wolf and it seems that my initial reaction to the book has bared out over time in the similar reactions from fellow critics and the high quality of the series as it’s continued past it’s debut. Or at least I think I liked Wolf, just like I think I like Kot, or think I like Valiant, or Black Mask, or Dark Horse Comics, or From Under Mountains or any number of other companies and creators that have provided NBC with material of theirs for the purpose of reviewing without asking any compensation from myself or this website. But I can’t tell you with any real authority that having those relationships hasn’t altered my perception of the companies or creators because how could I possibly say that with any certainty? Positive interaction with others creates positive perception no matter how conscious you are of that fact. None of that is stopping me either, I was reading comics from all the aforementioned parties before I was writing about them and I was writing about them before they gave me any free comics.  Those people and organizations are only producing a small fraction of the content that Marvel or DC Comics releases on a weekly basis. What if those companies were giving me free comics for review? What if they gave me access to  their creative talent that in turned drove web traffic to my site which was in direct correlation to my own livelihood? What if on top of all that, they paid money to advertise on my site? How much cognitive dissonance could anybody possibly have about that? How much would they even be aware of their own biases? What if my employer denied me the opportunity to write a negative review by policy?

“If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people – including me – would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”-Hunter S. Thompson

I can’t answer that question for them but I can answer it for myself and my team here at Nothing But Comics. In the wake of the recent controversy at Bleeding Cool, combined with similar questionable ethical content from other websites covering the comics medium, we as a collective group have decided to create our own policy of disclosure conflicts that Reed Beebe has published in the sites main feed and I have added to our about page. We are hoping to partner with other comics websites to adopt a similar policy and create a network of like minded outlets where comics criticism can be transparent for the readers. I don’t expect Bleeding Cool to adopt the policy as they cashed in their integrity long before this latest instance and have proven to be too incompetent to properly implement these changes anyway, nor do I expect similar websites which have ingrained themselves far too deeply in a business model built around serving the industries larger publishing arm to pivot now. But not every site has to be that way. We at Nothing But Comics pride ourselves on creating thoughtful writing and criticism of comics as a medium and we know there are many other sites that are doing the same thing. Our policy isn’t perfect, it’s won’t work for everybody and it’s going to evolve with changes in the site and culture at large but it’s something we stand by as writers and as readers, you can count on that from us implicitly. In art truth is subjective and as a writer about art, I can only give you my subjective truth on what I experience from consuming it. But as a reader, you deserve to know what my relationship is with the art I’m writing about and you should make your own judgement based on that accordingly. Despite my moments of self doubt, I’m confident in the quality of my writing, the power of my objectivity and the strength of my integrity and I feel the same way about every writer that I share this site with. As a reader you should expect nothing less and if that becomes the minimum for all our expectations, the quality of content can only get better.

“Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.”-Warren Ellis