‘IT WAS INSANE’
Oni Press Promised Inclusive Comics. Then, Amid ‘Chaos,’ It Shut Out Marginalized Employees.
Even before a merger led to the firings of queer women and women of color, ex-employees describe a “chaotic,” at times hostile work environment at Oni Press.
On May 8th, editors and creators in the comics industry awoke to an announcement in The New York Times that Oni Press—publisher of Scott Pilgrim, among other beloved indie books—would be merging with Lion Forge, a publisher largely built by black creators, and its parent company Polarity.
It was the kind of business maneuvering that rarely makes headlines outside of the comics industry. But inside the industry, layoffs from the merger kicked up a stir that has yet to die down: several of those jettisoned in the merger were queer women and women of color. Among others, the casualties from Lion Forge included their editor-in-chief Andrea Colvin and associate editor (and Eisner award-winning cartoonist) Christina “Steenz” Stewart. Those laid off from Oni Press included its one black editor, Desiree Wilson, while executive editor Ari Yarwood resigned a week later.
At a time when indie comics companies like Oni have publicly committed to inclusivity, the fallout from the merger has been particularly ugly, and has provoked greater scrutiny of the Portland-based companies’ workplace practices. Interviews with former Oni staff members allege a startlingly unprofessional office environment, with an editorial arm that seemed reluctant to support its marginalized employees.
Desiree Wilson came to the comics industry via an unusual route; starting out in the military before taking jobs that included Emergency Medical Technician and 911 dispatcher. After working as an editorial intern at Dark Horse Comics, she applied for an assistant editor position at Oni Press as a long shot—and got hired.
Oni Press was in flux when Wilson came on board, with EiC James Lucas Jones taking over as publisher, and Ari Yarwood moving into the executive editor position. (Yarwood declined to comment on the record for this piece, citing mental health.) Wilson took over for editor Charlie Chu, who had been moved to another position in the company. She was offered a starting pay of just $30,000 a year, and a slate of 30 comics titles to manage, which included much of Chu’s backlog. For reference, Wilson said, an editor position at a publisher like Simon and Schuster has a slate of eight to 10 titles a year.
There were few systems in place of any kind at Oni, Wilson said. The office was chronically understaffed, with heavy turnover and massive workloads falling on the remaining editorial and marketing employees. There was no HR department when she joined, and no onboarding—in order to get trained, Wilson said, she eventually had to go over to Chu’s house three times a week, and eventually asked Yarwood if she could proceed herself.
Morale issues abounded. Recognition for accomplishments—such as an Eisner win for Tea Dragon Society, which Yarwood edited—was thin, Wilson said, and the extra work of keeping the office clean fell on female employees while male executives got themselves pulled off the cleaning rotation. Women including “Ari and [Melissa Meszaros, director of publicity] and I were doing the overwhelming work of keeping the office clean, making sure things were where they needed to be when they needed to be there, of planning, of celebrations,” Wilson said. “I don’t think one time we celebrated as a group something that wasn’t someone leaving.”
“It was kind of insane to me how chaotic it was,” said Rachel Reed, former Oni Press marketing manager. When she came on board in October 2015, the company didn’t even have an official website. “There were no systems in place. Nothing was archived. They never had marketing budgets... When I entered, I was thinking it was an entry level job where I’m going to be learning comic book marketing, and I had to start figuring it out on my own.”
Things went particularly downhill in March 2018, Wilson said. Her relationship with one of the creators she managed soured, with the writer shouting at her over the phone and refusing to communicate via email, before finally telling her at a convention that he couldn’t tell her apart from the other bi-racial black person in the office. Wilson made a complaint to Yarwood, who passed it up the chain. Both women also pushed Oni to hire an HR consultant. But Wilson said that the company sat on the complaint for over a year—when trying to address the issue with publisher James Jones, she said, he avoided taking action, insisting that the creator had just been joking and didn’t mean it.
In the aftermath of these events, Wilson said, she felt ostracized from the office. She also began getting official feedback questioning her work performance. A month before the merger announcement, Wilson said, she was told that her HR complaint had been addressed and that the writer she’d been having issues with would not have his contract renewed. “I suspect the only reason they closed my HR case... is because they knew I would have it over them if I tried to sue,” Wilson said, in view of what happened later. “They were tying up loose ends.”
“We do not comment on personnel matters, as we are legally and ethically bound by an obligation to privacy,” Oni Press told The Daily Beast in a statement. “We can confirm that as a result of the recent merger, we eliminated several positions as part of consolidating our two entities into a stronger organization going forward. This is an unfortunate but necessary part of that process, and we have heard the conversation by those affected and from the wider community as well. We disagree strongly with the unsubstantiated claims and inaccurate portrayals appearing online and in the questions you’ve asked us to comment on, but because of the aforementioned privacy boundaries, we cannot comment further.”
Internal communications reviewed by The Daily Beast including texts, emails, and chat transcripts provided written records of Wilson’s and other ex-employees’ complaints to and exchanges with Oni at the time.
The rumblings of a merger began a while before the official announcement, Wilson said. There had been interest in some sort of deal from Lion Forge, a company founded in 2011 by two black men: animator Carl Reed and marketer David Steward II. The company’s comics catchphrase was “Comics for Everyone,” and diversity of both characters and creative staff was its primary selling point. When the merger was formally announced, it came with news that Oni’s James Lucas Jones would be taking over as president and publisher of the new company, with the Oni editorial team leading “creative and business operations.” Polarity, Lion Forge’s parent company, would hold the majority stake.
Reporting by comics industry website The Beat (an editorially independent site also owned by Polarity) suggested that the goal of the merger was “to create a more robust line of comics and graphic novels, as well as to help both companies leverage their characters to other media platforms, including animation and film.” Polarity already had plans to launch an animation studio.
The news was another step in the consolidation of smaller media companies in the face of IP-mining juggernauts like Disney (owner of the smash hit Star Wars and Marvel films) and Time Warner (owner of the somewhat less successful DC films.) “In a good month, these two companies combined make up just one percent market share at comic book shops,” Shawna Kidman, Assistant Professor of Communication at UC San Diego, told Forbes, estimating that they “might have a better chance at survival together than apart, particularly if they consolidate overhead, or in other words, layoff redundant employees.”
All told, nine people were laid off from Lion Forge and Oni Press, largely without apparent warning. At Oni, Wilson, the one black editor at the company, was the sole editor fired. Scott Sharkey, who worked part time in the Oni warehouse and is Wilson’s partner, was also let go, as was Melissa Meszaros, Oni’s director of publicity, who had suffered a brain injury from a car accident in 2018 and was left to crowdfund money for medical and rehab costs. At least two of those laid off—including Wilson—had accessibility requests or accommodations with Oni under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “It feels very targeted,” Desiree said. “You trim staff in a merger because it’s harder to prove that you were discriminating when you fire people. And I believe that's what’s happening.”
In the merger’s press release, executive staff at Oni put out several statements underscoring their commitment to diversity and inclusion. But news of the layoffs provoked public shock and anger online, with many pointing out that the layoffs at both Oni and Lion Forge had disproportionately fallen on women and POC staff. Reports that the combined company would be run out of Portland—and that staff at Lion Forge, which had previously had the option to work remotely, would have to move—also raised serious concerns. Portland is not only “severely unaffordable,” it’s got a well-earned reputation for racism. “I’ve been called things on the subway,” Wilson told the Daily Beast. “I’ve seen my black friends get attacked, I’ve seen them called the n-word while they’re walking into their studio minding their business...You’re not gonna find [a person of color] who hasn’t had an experience of being called something bad.”
Lion Forge co-founder Reed responded to the criticism in an interview with Syfy.com: “The narrative of our entire mission is focused on new perspectives, different voices, and expanding what comics are and who reads them. Not only are we personally comics creators, but we're African-American comics creators. When you’re a leader in diversity and you let somebody go, and the majority of your employees are minorities and women, no matter what happens, it can be perceived in a certain way.”
“Oni Press’s core values and the contributions that our creators and staffers who are people of color, disabled or queer have made over the past 20 years speak for themselves,” Oni told The Daily Beast. “Every day, we live our commitment to a culture of diversity, inclusion and equity for all members of our team and our creative community.”
The corporate culture that Reed and Wilson describe exemplifies the freewheeling, largely unstructured business model that comics companies have long defaulted to and which can lead to unclear or seemingly arbitrary HR decisions. Without clear procedures for onboarding or dealing with HR complaints, there’s nothing to prevent serious miscommunications—especially when dealing with serious and thorny issues around race and disability. In such an environment, problems with relatively easy fixes are often allowed to fester. Now that the combined Oni/Lion Forge is attempting to position itself as a larger player in the comics industry, helmed by many of those who were in charge at Oni during its chaotic early 20 years, a certain amount of scrutiny around its internal culture—including who it decides to fire and how it decides to fire them—is to be expected. And when those let go include the company’s sole black editor, as well as a woman with a brain injury who was seeking medical accommodations, amid a wider round of layoffs and departures that have largely affected marginalized creators, it’s no surprise that people are angry.
While Marvel’s firing of Chuck Wendig in 2018 emphasized the essential disposability of freelancers, the Oni/Lion Forge merger has underscored how precarious editorial jobs can be as well—and how little recourse exists. One result of the merger has been an increased amount of discussion around an organized labor push in the comics industry, which Reed is actively helping to research.
“A lot of these indie publishers started as a group of friends who made their own company,” Reed said. “But you can be an amazing comic writer or an amazing comics artist and not know how business works. If you had an HR complaint at Oni, you had nobody to tell but the bosses, which isn’t very ethical… The industry likes to present itself like a family, but they don’t take care of their people like a family.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the publisher Lion Forge and Christina Steenz’s title. She was an associate editor, not assistant editor.