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Journey Into Mystery

Comics, FYI
Journey Into Mystery
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #50 • View online
No matter how bad your week was, Oni Press had a worse one.

Oni Press is having, to put it mildly, having quite a week.
As if the news that the Portland, Or. based indie publisher is being sued – alongside creator Maia Kobabe – by Virginia Beach attorney and State Delegate Tim Anderson on behalf of former Republican congressional candidate Tommy Altmann over the issue of whether or not the Oni release Gender Queer is obscene* wasn’t enough, Wednesday afternoon saw the surprising news that both James Lucas Jones and Charlie Chu were no longer with the company, effective immediately. A day later, the company was accused of failing to pay creators royalties – and its publicity director announced her departure from the company on social media.
Let’s go in reverse order, shall we? Especially as Tara Lehmann’s departure is easily the controversial of this week’s developments. Lehmann, who’s been at Oni for close to three years at this point, had worked as a publicist before getting promoted to publicity director earlier this year; her leaving Oni is something that the company has known about for a few weeks now – she’s moving on to a new opportunity elsewhere in the industry, apparently – and has nothing to do with everything else that’s going on with Oni.
The issue of unpaid royalties, meanwhile, was raised in relation to the Gender Queer lawsuit by Heart of the City cartoonist Steenz, whose Archival Quality was published by Oni in 2018. “Speaking as an Oni creator I can say with confidence that many people are owed money,” they wrote in a tweet thread posted on Thursday. “With the leadership being fired, creators are NOT in a good spot. Please protect yourselves with a paper trail.” In a later tweet in the same thread, they added, “We can support Maia and Gender Queer but we can’t look past the fact that Oni Press isn’t paying their royalties.” 
Others chimed in agreement. Writer Matthew Erman shared, “I’ve had two books trapped in purgatory at ONI for four+ years now, and after they just fired their publisher after giving me my 3rd batch of editors, I’m done with them. If a publisher is looking for a written OGN & a good pitch for a five issue, email me & let’s talk.” Wendy Xu added, “Having the backing of an agent/agency has been absolutely essential to getting paid what I’m owed.”
The idea of Oni failing to live up to financial obligations is at odds with the upbeat profile on the company that ran in Publisher’s Weekly just two weeks ago. Titled “Oni-Lion Forge Pushes Past the Pandemic,” the piece boasted about the ways in which Oni – which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – has thrived since it was purchased by Lion Forge owners Polarity back in 2019. Quoting extensively from the now-gone Jones, it hints at expansion for the company with mention of potential new hires and potential licensing deals to be announced**. The overall impression the piece is aiming for is unmistakably that Oni was in a very good place, ideally placed in a number of key markets – the piece makes a point of calling out Oni’s YA and middle grade releases, as well as its queer comics – with a growing team and, ironically in light of Steenz’s comments, a good relationship with creators.
So what happened in the ten or so days between that profile’s publication and the date that Jones and Chu were first discovered to no longer be with the company? 
That’s a question that is proving particularly difficult to answer as of yet. Jones declined to comment when contacted, while Polarity hasn’t responded to my request for a statement***. I’ve spoken to a number of people inside and outside Oni, all on the condition of anonymity, and there’s a great deal of confusion even internally about just what’s going on there right now, and what direction the company is going to be moving in. (More than one person has admitted being uncertain about the stability of their own position, in the wake of Jones and Chu’s dismissal.)
There are, outside of Oni, two rumors that I have heard repeatedly in the last few days as to the reasons behind Jones and Chu’s dismissal. The first – that their sudden departure is, in some way, related to the Gender Queer lawsuit – is one that’s been roundly dismissed by a couple of people who’d have knowledge on the matter, speaking on background; the timing of the two matters is coincidental, according to them. However, the second theory is one that no-one feels comfortable rejecting entirely: namely, that Polarity is prepping Oni for sale, and getting rid of two of the company’s more senior executives – Jones, whose last position at the company was Publisher and interim Editor-in-Chief, had been there for 18 years; Chu, the VP of Business Development, had been there 12 – would make the deal more attractive for any potential buyers****.
Again, just because no-one was willing to outright reject that idea doesn’t mean that it’s true, as much as it’s simply not entirely outside the realm of possibility. I’m neither confirming anything nor breaking any news here; it’s simply something that’s not impossible at this point.
And then, there’s the lawsuit that we started with. In this day and age, it’s impossible to make any forecasts for how things are likely to turn out without being prepared to watch them utterly blow up in your face, but still: I suspect that this might not go particularly far, in the grand scheme of things. One of the reasons why Anderson and Altmann had been forced to go to a retired judge to rule on whether or not Gender Queer was obscene prior to this was that all the non-retired judges had recused themselves, according to Anderson, perhaps signaling a lack of desire to deal with the matter on the part of the courts. (Additionally, I simply don’t believe that Anderson and Altmann could demonstrate that the book fulfills all the legal requirements to “prove” obscenity.) As I said, though: if there’s one thing that we’ve seen over the last few years, it’s to expect the unexpected, especially when that unexpected trends towards the depressing and upsetting.
There’s a tendency to close out stories like with “Developing…” to suggest that there’s more to come; in this case, there’s so much more to come (Where will James Lucas Jones and Charlie Chu go next? Where is Tara Lehmann off to? Who will take over at Oni in their absence? Will more people be let go from the company? Will Polarity sell Oni? What’s going to happen with the lawsuit?) that that single word feels entirely unable to carry the load. Expect this one to unfold over the next few weeks and months, as more becomes known – and don’t be surprised if a lot happens quickly, either.
* The lawsuit continues the pair’s attempts to force the book to be withdrawn from sale in the state of Virginia, following an earlier request to have it be declared obscene by a retired judge. Oni is pushing back against this new lawsuit, with a response to the initial filing arguing in part, “Considered as a whole, and further considered in the context of other literary works, Gender Queer, A Memoir cannot, as a matter of law, be deemed obscene in accordance with free speech principles and pursuant to any clear standards… The petition in this matter grossly mischaracterizes the nature of the subject literary work, and all of the opinions stated in the petition are both irrelevant and contradicted by the content of the book taken as a whole and put into proper context.” 
** At least one of those licensing deals might be in doubt in the wake of Jones and Chu’s sudden departure from the company, according to people close to the matter.
*** It did, however, provide this statement to a number of outlets earlier in the week: “Oni-Lion Forge Publishing Group, LLC, recently made personnel changes and will continue in its mission of publishing groundbreaking stories by the best creators in the industry, with a focus on diverse, inclusive, and unique stories.”
**** I’m genuinely not sure what Oni actually is without its staff – the majority of its books, if not all, are creator owned or licensed material from others, outside of the Lion Forge material that was around before the two companies merged  – and the loss of Jones and Chu in particular leaves a publisher that will be significantly different from the one that arguably built the reputation it currently has. While firing two of the company’s most expensive employees might make sense in terms of a dollars-in, dollars-out mindset, it feels as if it’s sacrificing what makes Oni actually valuable in the process. Then again, I’m not a publishing executive, so what do I know?
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Graeme McMillan

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