BIG STORIES: The Breitweisers’ title “Bass Reeves” follows the legendary ex-slave-turned-U.S.-marshal who Fort Smith’s “Hanging” Judge Isaac Parker hired in 1889 to collect fugitives in the territory that would later become Oklahoma.

For a hot minute this spring, a couple of Harding University art-school grads and their Arkansas-based publishing startup were the only company in America distributing comic books. And as a twist: Those comics were going to Walmart stores, which hadn’t carried comic books in more than 20 years. A total of 3,384 Walmarts, to be exact.

In a year in which supply-chain breakdowns changed the fate of the country, comic books wouldn’t seem to rise to the level of news. But you have to admire that at its May launch Mitch and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s Allegiance Arts, the country’s youngest indie comic publisher, was the only one shipping books for a couple of weeks. The industry had to stop and stare.

Consider what it took for the Little Rock couple to launch a company that began its life as the only business in town — any town, pick your town.

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First: They enjoyed long careers illustrating (Mitch) and coloring (Elizabeth) for the biggest publishers and titles in the industry. He grew up in Benton; she, in Beebe. When he graduated from Harding in 2000, he moved to New Jersey and had a view of the Twin Towers (for a few months), painting signs for banks and industrial parks and knocking on doors till he got his break at Marvel Comics, with a contract to redesign Drax the Destroyer. He met Elizabeth the old-fashioned way, through MySpace, when he later logged on to see how his old art department was doing. “I had a good feeling,” he says now. “She had a quote from my favorite professor — and he wasn’t exactly the most liked guy. I figured if she also liked this professor who made other people cry, there might be something there.”

Because it’s a small state, Mitch naturally already had met her family; he’d once given her brother a ride to a comics convention in Chicago after meeting their mom in a pottery class. After Elizabeth graduated from Harding in 2005 she taught art at Central Arkansas Christian in North Little Rock. When she and Mitch met, he was illustrating a Captain America title, and she got into digital coloring. “I colored up a few pages to show them and get feedback for a portfolio,” she says now. The feedback came back: a job offer. Mitch and Elizabeth got married in 2007 and today live in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock.

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Brandon Markin
ALLEGIANCE ARTS FOUNDERS: Elizabeth and Mitch Breitweiser launched their comic book line at the world’s largest retailer, during a pandemic, amid a wave of social unrest.

Second: They got tired of working on other people’s stuff. This happens. You wake up one day and realize working on other people’s stuff is a double bummer: They tell you what to do, and then they keep most of the money and credit. Even if the stuff you’re working on is the likes of Captain America, the Young Avengers and the Sub-Mariner (Mitch); and the Hulk, Batman and Outcast (Elizabeth), at some point, you gotta do you.

Third: They crowdfunded almost $200,000 to prove an audience existed for a title called “Red Rooster,” a title Mitch likens to Batman in a barn. They connected with Little Rock lawyer and businessman David Martin, whose Rolodex led them to a corporate recruiter in Bentonville named Cameron Smith, who knows approximately everyone in Northwest Arkansas.

Fourth: They made a killer “Shark Tank”-style pitch to Smith and then again when he assembled some Walmart-fluent folks. They got in front of Walmart, a company that hadn’t carried comic books in a generation, and made the sell there, too. “Nobody,” Smith says, “gets to start out with Walmart. The presentations blew me away and blew away the people I brought into that meeting. It was show-and-tell — it wasn’t just a bunch of words. They had these characters outlined and drawn and colorful and bigger than life.”

Fifth: They recruited talent to write and draw and letter their original titles: “Norah’s Saga,” “The Futurists,” “Red Rooster” and, notably for Arkansans, “Bass Reeves.” It follows the legendary ex-slave-turned-U.S.-marshal whom Fort Smith’s “Hanging” Judge Isaac Parker hired in 1889 to collect fugitives from Indian Country in what would later become Oklahoma. The writer, Kevin Grevioux, is known for gothic pulp-horror titles like “Underworld” and “I, Frankenstein.” 

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That real-life tall tale convinced Hunter Haynes, a Fayetteville commercial real estate maven, to invest in Allegiance Arts. “The right hand of the guy dealing out this justice is this badass Black guy?” Haynes says now. “He’s ‘Django Unchained’? This is awesome.” 

Blake Northcott, the Toronto-based writer on “Norah’s Saga,” says the diversity of the whole portfolio enticed her into the fold. That, and freedom for her to really own the story: “Mitch and Elizabeth were both so generous creatively,” she says. “Anytime someone is willing to hand over the reins and give you creative freedom, it makes a project infinitely more fun.”

And finally, as one does: The Breitweisers launched in the world’s largest retailer, during a pandemic, amid a wave of social unrest.

The moment felt wrong for an ad blitz, but they’re printing and distributing 140,000 combined copies of the books across the four titles, says Patrick Stiles, Allegiance Arts’ COO and an art department classmate of Mitch’s at Harding. They pushed it on Facebook and YouTube and held their breath. To date, about 100,000 copies have been sold at Walmart at $4.98 per comic. Audiences had spoken. The gambles worked. Pandemic or no, Allegiance Arts is a thing.

“Walmart shoots a lot of bottle rockets in the air and only a few stay up,” Smith says. “Just because they launch it doesn’t mean you’ll be one of the few that stay up. But it was a good start. It looks like it’s really got some traction.”

It’s too early to call Allegiance Arts a runaway success or to declare that it has changed the fundamentals of an ailing industry. In films and video games, comic characters have taken over the world. Comic books are literally a different story. They’re a much smaller group these days, and its creators tend to be a tight tribe. The benefits are obvious when a group of entrepreneurs successfully launch a new venture with so much upside, especially for Arkansas.

Meanwhile, one subplot remains a bit more ticklish. The Breitweisers worry some people in the comics world because of their friendliness with comics creators who have fostered a toxic subculture within comics. In a shrinking industry where most creators publicly cheer new ventures, some of their peers are so wary of the culture fight, they declined to comment for this story. 

The Breitweisers are adamant that they’re building an inclusive, nonpolitical platform, and that they don’t support those who would pick on others in the comics community. To examine that tension requires asking the sneakily heavy question of who comics are for. Allegiance Arts is decidedly widening that audience. But the whole picture is more complicated.

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The O.G. comics expert in Little Rock is Michael Tierney, who since the 1980s has run two comics specialty shops: Collectors Edition, in North Little Rock, and the Comic Book Store, in Little Rock. He’s weathered changing tastes and business models, and as a brick-and-mortar guy till the end (or, rather, till the pandemic shut his doors for him in June, chasing him onto online-only) he can answer the question of why comic books have all but cratered in America. It boils down, essentially, to changing customer tastes and industry missteps.

The former is easy to see. Comics were a dominant pop art before they had to compete with the likes of MTV, Super Mario Bros. and AOL Instant Messenger, let alone Instagram, TikTok, Minecraft and Fortnite. The movies and television series are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they’re better now than ever, and bigger. The 23 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grossed, on average, a billion dollars apiece. DC’s eight films have grossed another $5.5 billion. The dozen X-Men films have added $6 billion. Then: all the dang video games, Halloween costumes, amusement park rides, knickknacks. The business of comics characters is bigger than ever without a kid needing to pester a parent for a single thin comic book.

As readers became viewers and players, the publishing industry did itself no favors. Publishers sell comics mostly through hobby or specialty stores. Like so many bookstores, Amazon et al. have put the hurt on them over the years. Tierney says an industry that used to be 15,000 stores strong a generation ago is probably down to a thousand or so, maybe double that if you count gas stations and bait shops that still stock a spinner rack. In the mid-’90s, Marvel and then DC bought their own comics distributors, hoping to cut out the companies that served as middlemen to retailers. Starving other distributors into oblivion led to an effective duopoly that prevented indie comics from even making it to market. When those distributors (Heroes World for Marvel, Diamond for DC) faltered in their deliveries, in Tierney’s view, it landed on the retailers, who had no options for better service. “Retailers got caught in the crunch,” he says. “The industry has been constantly shrinking. Used to be if a Marvel print run got below 90,000 copies, they’d cancel it. Now print runs are 10,000. They’re down to some 5,000 runs. We used to call those ‘limited editions.’ ” 

As the print industry shrank, it also started turning out less kid-friendly fare. The phrase “gritty reboot” is almost a punchline among comics films, but the trend started years before as the PG heroes of days past matured, not always in a good way. The crossover success of the dystopia-tinged “Watchmen” and of Frank Miller’s oeuvre — the “Dark Knight” Batman storyline, “Sin City,” “300” — helped steer comics into a darker, more explicit period that brought the lurid stories and images of pulp paperbacks into a medium that had long belonged to kids.

If you were a certain kind of kid, the turn toward R-rated fare was and probably still is totally awesome. If you are a certain kind of parent, not so much. Tierney felt a 2001 Nick Fury comic jumped the shark when it depicted the one-eyed Marvel spy smoking a stogie and carrying a glass, robe half-open, surrounded by a half-dozen nude women begging him “please … no more” with smiles on their faces. He had to fight on two fronts. Over the years he tried to explain to publishers that gratuitous sex and violence weren’t growing their readership, while also railing against Act 858, a proposed 2003 law that would’ve given practically anyone in Arkansas the authority to declare a comic book or magazine obscene, and unlawful to display. “Comics got trashy,” he says. “You don’t want to freak out the parents. ‘Oh my god, what are you showing my kid? Punching somebody’s kidney out with an I-beam?’ ”

***

The skirmishes continue over who, exactly, is the audience for comics. Behold the 2018 Vox headline, “Batman’s penis is in a comic book for the first time ever — but not for long,” about a single panel in DC’s Black Label storyline that gives new meaning to the phrase comic strip. The parents, they freak out. So do the aunties and uncles, including the Breitweisers. It says something when a former color artist on Batman would feel uncomfortable leaving a comic out for their five nieces and two nephews to browse.

“The stories were not what we were necessarily into,” Elizabeth Breitweiser says of her and her husband’s time at big publishers. “We wanted to work on something universal and family-friendly.”

Allegiance Arts, at least at launch, is mindful of these deeper trends, good and bad. Working with a single printer and a single distributor to stock thousands of comics at a single massive retailer seems, for the moment, to eliminate a bevy of headaches. Overnight they’re being sold in more physical stores than probably any other title in America, reaching readers who’ve never even seen a hobby store. “For some kid in Lufton, Texas, there’s no way he’s going to discover comic books randomly,” Mitch Breitweiser says. “You may enjoy the movies, but the experience of picking up that four-color paper product that has that magic to it is just not available.”

The themes and action in the books are intense without veering into the grotesque or lurid, perfect for that film-and-TV-ready PG-13 sweet spot. Whereas other comics are serialized by volume and issue, Allegiance titles arrive as 24-page “episodes” in six-book “seasons.” They’re laying the groundwork to be adapted, expanded, universed. Comics are a natural segue into other visual media. More than novels or even screenplays, they make natural storyboards. As you read issues of “Bass Reeves,” it plays like a Western in your head. “Norah’s Saga” plunges an angsty Canadian teen back to the time of the Vikings. “Red Rooster,” Mitch’s baby, feels like a “Rocketeer”-sized Depression-era blockbuster on the page. They’re big, mythical stories, built for big audiences.

So here’s the condensed version of how a rift came between these stories and so many of the writers, artists and readers who would otherwise be cheering their success. In November 2016, Mitch Breitweiser sent what in another era might be considered a benign tweet, complete with illustration, of the U.S. president-elect standing with a sword and a halo, evoking a medieval knight, with a message: “Congratulations President-elect @realDonaldTrump. I wish you the very best in your effort to Make America Great Again for ALL Americans.” (The original tweet exists only in screenshots; Mitch has since deleted his account.)

You could read it as ironic or you could read it as flattering, but either way, he rolled that into a Twittersphere still sore from Election Night and, more broadly, always itching to scrap over the broader questions of inclusivity in the comics industry. You can guess what happened next. “Captain America Artist Wonders Why He Is Losing Friends Over His Patriotism,” a Bleeding Cool headline read.

Mitch’s tweet activated two factions. Some people lobbed at them the sort of insults they’d like to send to the president; meanwhile, people inclined to support the president stood up for him. Acrimony simmered. Then, the following summer, some in the more conservative faction tagged harassing tweets aimed at feminists and trans people and young women in the industry with #Comicsgate. Some fans and creators lumped the Breitweisers in with the faction that was hurling abuses at people. Things came to a head in 2018, when the Breitweisers canceled a scheduled appearance at a comic convention over what they said were safety concerns.

Like other internet movements marked by harassment, Comicsgate thrives on vagueness. One of its proponents, a comics artist named Ethan Van Sciver, described it on a YouTube channel called Comics Artist Pro in 2018 as “a community for dispossessed right-wing and moderate comic book professionals who can no longer get work in this blacklisted, disgusting, politically oppressed industry, as it’s become.” A rational person would prefer to steer clear of its blast zone. Irrational people, trying to understand comics in 2020, instead might open dozens of browser tabs, watch hours of YouTube, and reach out to comics creators who reply by saying they don’t want their names in a story that touches on Comicsgate. (As a for-instance, from one writer: “I would rather not furnish a quote because [Comicsgate] people just destroy people’s lives and I wouldn’t go near them with a barge pole.”)

But a deep dive turns up little to impugn the Breitweisers. The perception that they’re aligned with Comicsgate seems to rest largely on their being polite to creators other people find abhorrent. It’s not hard to see why they’d try to be diplomatic. For one, they’re not publicly political, a certain tweet notwithstanding. For another, they’ve been running crowdfunding campaigns and trying to draw broad support from fans and investors, and they’ve tried not to take sides. It’s a tightrope they’ve been walking.

Today, they would very much prefer to focus on a business they say will give writers and artists the freedom and resources to do eclectic, ambitious, best-in-class work. And so far they’ve backed that up.

Says Mitch: “I want to think we took bad energy and turned it into good energy. It’s not fun to transmute bad energy into good energy, but sometimes that’s the only way forward.”

Says Elizabeth: “We want to make a safe haven for creators. It’s been my worst nightmare to be labeled all of these things that have nothing to do with me.” 

In July of this year, on the online show “Live From the Bunker” [on SciFi4Me TV], Mitch was asked about how he navigated “cancel culture” on the way to his successful crowdfunding and the Walmart launch. He said he was hopeful that other creators would find room at the table, even if they weren’t ideologically aligned with the industry mainstream, which tends to tilt left.

“Nobody should have to go through what we went through,” he said. “It sucks, it’s horrible. But it also hardened us to a degree. We probably wouldn’t be here doing what we’re doing now if we weren’t sharpened on a hard stone.”

And perhaps there’s one Easter egg folks can find on the stands at the end of a Walmart book aisle. At the end of the first “Red Rooster” episode, you’ll find tucked away a little note setting up the world of the hero: “Motion pictures and radio plays catapulted the once secretive Order of the Dawn into the spotlight of celebrity, potentially to catastrophic effect — a risk we all navigate in the era of social media.” 

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For what it’s worth, anyone you talk to who meets the Breitweisers tends to really like them. They’re friendly and soft-spoken and genuine and hard-working. It’s not for nothing they wowed multiple successful investors — Martin, Smith, Haynes — who hadn’t exactly been sitting around waiting for a comic book opportunity, of all ideas, to come waltzing into their offices.

“It’s not only investing in this business idea,” Haynes says. “Ultimately you’re investing in Mitch and Elizabeth. What I’ve been able to experience is, they’re in it to win it. This isn’t a game. They’re heart and soul.”

They’re betting that comics can be for everyone, which it turns out is pretty close to the truth. That question of who comics are for is and always has been readers. Readers may be considered an endangered species, but they walk among the rest of society, blending in only for as long as they need to get hold of the next book or magazine or graphic novel or zine. They’re discerning and yet ravenous. They can be young or old, Black or white, possessed of rainbows’ worth of sexual identities, broke or loaded, jazzed to see Bruce Wayne drop trou or perfectly satisfied to see heroes keep their tights on. Readers are a big tent, and it’s a pity that screens are trying to capture them all. 

As for who comics are by, the answer is, the best ones have always been by marginalized artists, even outcasts. They’re an American art form that resonates with American audiences because Americans don’t know how to square two perpendicular wants: to be a world power, and to be a scrappy underdog. That paradox absolutely stokes modern conservatism, which can’t decide whether America is unassailably mighty or whether people who reject a gender binary might just collapse society; whether we’re a shining light on a hill or whether we’re being quicksanded into the dark ages by desperate immigrants who believe our hype; whether we’re a nation of Christian values or one that can be ably led by a lifelong financial and sexual predator who has never been able to recall a single Bible verse when asked to cite one near to his alleged heart. 

We all live amid that confusion this year. Wedge that conflicted ideology into a supposed underdog art and of course you get trench warfare.

And yet there’s also got to be room for vivid stories that kids and their parents can enjoy on the same couch together. Never mind launching a new company during a pandemic, as millions of ordinary Americans stand toe-to-toe and tell police to quit their jobs. When the history of this 2020 culture moment is written, it will marvel (ha) at the idea of trying to engage America writ large when the country can’t decide whether to be hero or heel.

Comics, at least, have historically helped offer clarity on this point. It helped that they were the invention of genuine outsiders. 

“Our industry was created by a bunch of Jews who had nothing in front of them but starving,” says Fabrice Sapolsky, a French Jewish immigrant and comics creator whose brainchild Spider-Man Noir you might recognize as the black-and-white Spidey from “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” “It was like, ‘We have to do something because we can’t pay for study — we can’t be doctors, we can’t be lawyers. We have to eat.’ To me, hate groups as a whole are a betrayal of who we are as an industry. We are the children of Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who were Jews who came from nowhere.” 

Sapolsky moved to New York and later to Los Angeles because he loves comics and because he wanted to make them in America. He spent a decade and five figures getting a visa and a green card. He’s in the States because he loves this American art form; he gets to close this story because he doesn’t really have a dog in this fight but cares deeply nonetheless that the art stays strong.

Asked to play an expert in a conversation about where the culture and industry of comics is going, and how Allegiance Arts fits into it, he takes an aerial view. America has always been split, so controversy shouldn’t surprise anyone. Immigrants like him sympathize with launching your own company if you feel isolated. Talent eventually wins out. And the future belongs to people who can find an audience because audiences don’t lie. They either buy your stuff, or they don’t.

“One of the beautiful things in this industry,” he says, “is 99 percent of creators support other creators. We may have lost a bit of the community because politics are gangrene on our industry. We’re still a fraternity. We’re still a place of good.”