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Rape, Sexual Harassment Allegations Prompt Defamation Suit from Small-Press Comics Publisher Cody Pickrodt

Cody Pickrodt, a small-press comics publisher and cartoonist — who has been accused of rape, sexual harassment, anti-Semitic remarks, and withholding payment of royalties to artists whose work he’s printed — has filed a defamation lawsuit against 11 individuals who either made those allegations or denounced Pickrodt while commenting on them.

The defendants include the cartoonists Whit Taylor, Laura Knetzger, Emma Louthan, Emi Gennis, Ben Passmore, Hazel Newlevant, Tom Kaczynski, Jordan Shiveley, and Morgan Pielli, as well as writer, editor, and publisher Josh O’Neill, and comics critic Rob Clough. The complaint also lists Kaczynski’s business, Uncivilized Books.

“These are false claims,” says Pickrodt's attorney, Joe Carbonaro of Carbonaro Law in New York City. “He’s really suffered as a result of this. He’s lost clients. He can’t really network within the comic book community, as you can see.”

Pickrodt demands damages be reimbursed at an amount of no less than $2.5 million for cause of emotional and mental distress. According to the summons, the defendants have under a month to mount a legal response or they forfeit.

Most of the defendants did not return a request from the Journal for comment. Those who did simply said they cannot speak on the matter until legal representation is obtained. Pickrodt did not respond to an email for comment.

Pickrodt's filing, made in Nassau County of Long Island, New York, states that from October 12, 2017 to present the 11 defendants have “published false, misleading, and defamatory comments” of him on various social media platforms. At the core of it is a Google Document shared by Taylor on that date, in which she alleges that Pickrodt raped her in December 2013, a few months after she met him at the Small Press Expo.

According to Taylor’s account, she and Pickrodt spent a day exploring comic book stores in New York City. Afterward they grabbed drinks at a nearby bar and carried on conversation; Pickrodt offered to publish Taylor through his company, Ray Ray Books. As she had not yet published a major comic, she found the offer exciting. In retrospect, however, she writes, there were “red flags” she wishes she’d taken more notice of, such as a disparaging remark she alleges Pickrodt made about women in the comics scene.

“As I was getting ready to leave, I found out that my friend who I was supposed to stay with that night in the city, ended up going out of town and had forgotten to tell me,” Taylor writes. “He [Pickrodt] offered to let me stay over and I agreed, assuming it was in good faith.”

Pickrodt brought Taylor to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, where he claimed to be house sitting, and she alleges he “made a move” soon after. She did not say no initially, Taylor writes, but she soon felt sick and repeatedly told him to stop. She says that he did not listen.

“I froze for a while, and then suddenly snapped out of it,” Taylor writes.

She describes quickly collecting her things, texting a friend, leaving the apartment, and visiting a hospital, where her mother met her the next morning.

“After [he approached] me at a show months later, like nothing had happened,” Taylor writes, “I told him not to speak to me ever again.”

Knetzger, Louthan, and Gennis also contributed to this Google Document. Knetzger claims he saw her as a “piece of meat,” made anti-Semitic comments toward a friend, and reprinted her work without compensation. Louthan alleges Pickrodt uses comic book conventions as “hunting grounds” to meet women. Gennis alleges he attempted to kiss her and held her in a headlock.

“The claims that were made by Whitney Taylor are false. The other defendants more or less jumped on the bandwagon,” Carbonaro argues. “I mean, no one else was there. None of these other defendants were present when whatever happened between Whitney Taylor and Cody Pickrodt happened. By what she describes there she’s really describing a consensual interlude which involved an enormous amount of alcohol, and where they have consensual sex. I mean, if she ended up regretting it, you know, we can’t really help that.”

The document went public in October 2017, and it gained traction within the online comics community. The remaining defendants made their remarks on Twitter and Facebook (Clough also wrote on his blog). Some of them referred directly to the allegations made by Taylor, Knetzger, Louthan, and Gennis, and others issued general support of the presented victims while condemning Pickrodt.

“We feel it necessary to say that we stand in solidarity with the victims, we believe you and we will do what it is within our power to support you,” a statement on Uncivilized Books’ Twitter says. “Predators like Pickrodt should have no place in our industry, festivals or spaces.”

Pickrodt found Ray Ray Books in 2012. As well as publishing much of his own work, the company’s website lists Knetzger’s Flowering Vine as one of its offerings. A short biography published on his website says Pickrodt has worked for clients such as VICE, Condé Nast, Vanity Fair, and Vogue (among others). The complaint states that both he and his business are “well-known in the comic book industry.”

“A key question in defamation suits is whether the plaintiff is a public figure,” Benjamin Zipursky, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City, says. “If the plaintiff is a public figure, he or she cannot win without proving that the defendants had actual malice.”

Actual malice assumes either the defendants knew what they were saying to be false, or they said it with total disregard for the truth, according to the Digital Media Law Project. In terms of what defines a public figure, there are two types: all-purpose and limited-purpose. All-purpose public figures include celebrities, while limited-purpose public figures cover those who have placed themselves within certain public discussion or controversy.

Zipursky says the defendants’ representation in this case will argue Pickrodt and Ray Ray Books are public figures within the comic book industry. He says if a judge were to accept this, there would be a good chance the case could be dismissed in a pretrial motion.

“Even if he doesn’t count as a public figure, I think there are various features of the law that a good defense lawyer would use to try to get this case dismissed,” Zipursky adds. “They’re going to argue either he’s a public figure, or that these statements were made so other women in similar situations would be protected, and that therefore there are still good policy reasons why a court should not even let this lawsuit move forward without real proof that they were lying.

“In the midst of the #MeToo movement, we hope that the law is not disincentivizing people from reporting their actual experiences.”

Carbonaro argues Pickrodt’s status as a public figure. He believes his client would not qualify by the definition of law. He instead views him as someone who works in the comics community, and he claims the circulated Google Document and social media posts exist beyond the confines of that community because they are publicly available to anyone who may find them.

Though Pickrodt’s suit may appear as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), in which the filer intends to intimidate and silence critics, and where the goal is to not “actually win the lawsuit, but to drag their critics to court and bury them under a pile of attorney’s fees,” according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Zipursky says New York’s anti-SLAPP statute is too narrow in its reach to really do anything here.

He believes it would be an unlikely basis for an early dismissal, as much of it is concerned with discharging complaints by public permittees against individuals who report on or challenge a government application.

“He wants to have the right to engage in discovery and the right to clear his name,” Zipursky adds, describing Pickrodt’s possible perspective and motivation.

Defamation laws offer such opportunity.

Carbonaro says terms such as rapist and predator are “quasi-criminal or criminal in nature.” He says they represent unfounded behavior regarding his client.

“If this isn’t malicious, then what is?” he asks.

So far, most of the defendants have stayed quiet about this lawsuit, opting not to share reactions via social media. The only substantial mention of it has been a GoFundMe effort by Jordan Shiveley, as well as several tweets on one of Shiveley’s Twitter accounts, @hottestsingles. (There are reportedly plans for a group crowdfunding effort underway as well.) The amount of money sought on the crowdfunding platform says a lot about the financial toll this could have on the defendants. Shiveley’s asking for $100,000 for his own legal representation, and “it might not even end up being the total amount needed!”

“Some initial lawyer conversations have said that this most likely will drag out over a year and end up being incredibly expensive,” he writes. “Just an INITIAL retainer with 10 hours of work involved is being quoted around $10k.”

Ultimately, as Zipursky suggests, this matter may never see trial due to dismissal or a settlement. But to reach such a point will require legal representation of some sort.

Shiveley writes that he intends to “stand up” to Pickrodt, so long as the funding to do so is available.

“I don't want to let this abuser get away with silencing his victims and detractors,” he states.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: For information on recent developments, go here.]

*In interest of full disclosure, Alec Berry is a former employee of Uncivilized Books. The defendants Taylor, Kaczynski, and Clough have contributed writing to this website.

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6 Responses to Rape, Sexual Harassment Allegations Prompt Defamation Suit from Small-Press Comics Publisher Cody Pickrodt

  1. Erik Aucoin says:

    My understanding is that the individuals named in the suit were caught off guard and are curremtly working on a response and a potential GoFundMe to raise money for what could wind up being incredible legal costs. I’m sure that they will let TCJ know when both are available.

  2. JORDAN SHIVELEY says:

    Please reserve your support and bandwidth for the group’s fundraising efforts not mine!

  3. Mike says:

    I guess all it takes is a 2.5 million dollar lawsuit for the TCJ to take a break from sucking up to Image comics and cover #MeToo. I’ll wait with baited breath for the deeply contextual report about the CBLDF’s assistance on this case.

  4. MikeP says:

    What a mess. My heart and hope goes out to the victims (on whichever side). What is NOT mentioned, but should be, is what exactly happens if the plaintiff “wins by default”? From my own legal experiences (I once had to sue a client for non-payment and won), winning a judgment and collecting are two completely different things!

    In most such lawsuits–including famous ones like those of defrauded investors (see most episodes of American Greed), millions of dollars that are “won” NEVER get paid. (Can you say, “Madoff”?) If the defendants don’t have $2.5 million, where exactly does the plaintiff think they’re going to get it? They can’t go to prison for a civil suit, and if they’re freelancers, they don’t have paychecks that can be garnished.
    Good luck either way!

  5. MITCHELL BERGER says:

    Can you provide a little more detail about the case? Was it filed in state or federal court? Do you have a case or docket number?

  6. tYung says:

    Accuse someone of a crime of this nature? Better have PROOF!
    Good for this guy, sue them ALL!!

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