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The San Diego Comic-Con Gossip About Oni Press and Lion Forge

"You do realise that Oni Press firing everyone is all your fault, right?" That's what a prominent comic book figure told me that's what people were saying at the CBLDF/ComiXology Party on Thursday night at the Westgate Hotel, blaming Bleeding Cool for recent dismissals at the comic book publisher. There was a smile in his voice, but he was serious that this is what was being said by numerous people over the gin and popcorn.

Oni Press/Lion Forge had been hitting the headlines (not just Bleeding Cool's) recently, with former owners James Lucas Jones and Charlie Chu pushed out by parent company Polarity, others departing voluntarily, and their newly reprinted Gender Queer: A Memoir graphic novel landing them, and its writer/artist Maia Kobabe, with obscenity criminal lawsuits in the state of Virginia. as well as Oni Press receiving allegations of non-payment to comic book creators.

Staff members have been reduced to what has been referred to as a skeleton staff, after the departure/firings of Sarah Gaydos, Robert Meyers, Tara Lehmann, Alex Segura, Henry Barajas, Amanda Meadows, Jasmine Amiri and, more recently, leaving Associate Publisher Michelle Nguyen and Senior VP of Games & Operations, Steve Ellis.. Their San Diego booth was cancelled, as were their panels. And, at the Westgate Hotel, the gossip was that there have been even more resignations since.

Lion Forge and Oni Press to Merge, Set Up in Portland

So what led to this? Two reasons have been given by multiple people at San Diego Comic-Con, and both involve the owner/publisher of Lion Forge and Oni Press, David Steward II and his billionaire investor parents, David L. Steward founder of World Wide Technology, and Thelma Steward. Both are seen as the real money behind Polarity, the umbrella company that now owns Lion Forge, Oni Press, and other associated companies.

The Stewards are known as a politically conservative family. And David L Steward has notably donated money to Republican political causes and campaigns. Last year Bleeding Cool began reporting on challenges being made to public libraries and school libraries over the stocking of Gender Queer, which have spread across the country. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's current Interim Director, Jeff Trexler stated that challenges to this comic had become a hot point and were being weaponised for political gain. He told ICV2; "I mentioned the parent in Virginia who went viral after talking about this. Then, that became the heart of the Youngkin campaign. One could say that the protest of Gender Queer became the hub or the foundation of a movement that ended up getting the Republican Governor of Virginia elected". Since then, lawsuits against Oni press and Maia Kobabe have been filed by lawyer Republican Virginia assembly delegate Tim Anderson on behalf of himself and Republican congressional candidate Tommy Altman citing an obscure state obscenity law.

How aware the Stewards were that they were the publisher of the comic book making all this fuss is what is at issue. I have been told that Bleeding Cool seems to have been cited for doing that. I am told that, until that point, the Stewards were simply unaware that they were the publishers of this book that made all the headlines –  and is currently being reprinted through Oni Press to fill increased demand – until Bleeding Cool published headlines that linked the book to the publisher and started popping up on Google News. And that this was a driving force for Oni Press being… downsized. They are wise enough not to cancel the book and generate a Streisand effect. But with fewer staff to promote it, maybe it won't get as much attention.

However, I am given another version of events from other sources at San Diego Comic-Con, which may serve to salve any guilt I may have for this. It looks to the major success that Lion Forge Animation has been having recently. They just announced they will be adapting the Dark Horse Comics/YouNeek Studios graphic novel series Iyanu: Child of Wonder for HBO Max and Cartoon Network, with Brandon Easton heading up the writers' room on the show. And that animation is just more exciting for the Stewards. Comic books are hard work, are not as glamourous, and the novelty of owning a comic book publisher or two may now be wearing off. I am told that Steward's parents have demanded Steward II manage Polarity finances better, which is what led directly to the Oni Press cuts, in favour of his current favourite strand, animation. It also may be worth noting that Steward's sister Kimberly Steward has been doing rather well with her TV and film production company K Period Media, which led to her being nominated for an Oscar, and putting her on the board of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Comic books might just not cut it anymore. I guess we'll see where we are, come the next CBLDF/ComiXology Party at the Westgate in San Diego. Maybe I can be there next year to hear it said to my face.

The only comment that Oni Press has made to Bleeding Cool is "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."

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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