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Censorship In Comics: Is This the United States?

Susan Alston of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund describes the shocking state of the nation.

When the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is mentioned, two questions almost always immediately follow. Many people ask what the CBLDF is. Well, we are a non-profit, charitable organization that protects the First Amendment of comic book professionals in the United States of America. However, our Articles of Incorporation specifically state it to be as follows:

"The purposes shall be for charitable, educational and literary purposes, specifically defense of constitutional rights relating to speech and press, and from relief from arbitrary discrimination by authorities concerning the literary subject matter."

The other popular question is, 'Is there really a need for the CBLDF?" As you will read, the answer is most definitely, "Yes, there is." Censors, mostly in the form of parental concern groups, specific right-wing religious organizations, police detectives, and the 'politically correct,' tend to pick on the comic book industry because they still view comics as solely products for children. Thus adult/mature comics are deemed inappropriate, or even illegal, to be made available in the same establishment as children's comics. It is our goal to protect all comics from censors.

A Short History Of Censorship In Comics And The CBLDF

In the 1950's, Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book purporting that comic book reading causes juvenile delinquency. In true McCarthy-era fashion, the U.S. Senate held hearings to investigate Wertham's claims. A new Comics Code Authority was formed prohibiting any controversial comics. As a result, the most innovative company of the decade, EC Comics, was forced to cancel most of its line. This includes titles like Vault of Horror and Tales From the Crypt, which years later are judged as classics.

Beginning in the late '60s, the underground comix movement shirked the constraints of mainstream publishing. Heavily influenced by the EC line, especially MAD Magazine, underground cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Robert Williams produced an acclaimed body of adult work. In New York, one of their titles, Zap #4, was prosecuted for obscenity. The trial lasted several years and went through numerous appeals. In 1973, the comic was finally ruled obscene and banned. (Since then, Zap #4 has been sold in New York without prosecution and the work of its creators has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art and other galleries.)

In the 1980's as an outgrowth of the underground, alternative comics flourished with publications like RAW, Love & Rockets, and American Splendor. Cartoonists Art Spiegelman, Dave Sim, Will Eisner, and others won widespread recognition for their ambitious work. At the same time, creators such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore pushed the boundaries of super-hero comics into more mature territory. Various religious and conservative leaders decry these developments claiming that "comics are for kids."

In 1986, Friendly Frank's, a comics store in Lansing, Illinois was busted for selling "obscene" comics. The titles in question are Omaha the Cat Dancer, The Bodyssey, Weirdo, and Bizarre Sex. The CBLDF was founded to support the defense. The case moved to the Appellate Court where the store manager was acquitted of all charges.

The Need Continues

Following the Friendly Frank's case, the CBLDF became active as a watchdog organization. The 1990's have seen prosecutions of comic shops escalate. Two shops in Florida have been busted. One was accused of selling the adult collection Cherry Anthology #1 to an undercover officer. The charges were later dropped. The other store went to court for selling a "mature" title, The Score, published by Piranha, an imprint of DC Comics, to a 14-year-old accompanied by his mother. The judge ruled in favor of store owner Bill Hatfield. In 1992, police raided Amazing Comics outside of San Diego, seizing 45 titles. No charges were filed. But these are not three isolated events. In other cities around the United States similar situations have happened.

Sarasota, Florida: On May 13, 1992, police arrested the store manager Timothy Parks of Comic Book Heaven, on seven counts of displaying material harmful to minors. The titles seized by police included The Survivors, The Heir, and Dark Tales, published by the now defunct Catalan Communications, Detectives Inc., published by Eclipse, and an issue of the British fanzine Speakeasy. In most states, the statute under which he was being charged doesn't exist, however, on November 24, 1993, he was found guilty on two counts of displaying obscene materials to minors and sentenced to two years in jail. The appeal bond was denied and he remained incarcerated in the Sarasota County Jail for fourteen months. Legal fees exceeded $26,500.

Rome, Georgia: On February 18, 1993, the Floyd County court found the owner of the Legends comic shop guilty of "distributing obscene materials." The verdict implicated two Aircel comics, Debbie Does Dallas and Final Tabu, as being harmful to adults. All appeals were denied, and the guilty verdict stands as a precedent against the display of comic books. Legal fees exceeded $13,500.

San Francisco, California: In 1991, the California State Board of Equalization (BOE) decided that comic book original pages did not have the literary status of an author's manuscript and were instead merely commercial illustrations. Consequently, the BOE claimed that cartoonist Paul Mavrides (co-creator of The Fabulous Freak Brothers) owed back taxes for several years worth of publishing royalties. If the BOE had prevailed, all California cartoonists would have eventually been responsible for this tax. This economic handicap would have effectively muzzled an untold number of creators. Mavrides paid the assessed $1400 in disputed sales tax and fines for comic books he sold in 1990 but challenged the validity of the assessment through a lengthy -- and costly -- appeal process. "The money consistently has been the least important matter to me. I was more in fear of the domino effect it would have had both on comic publishers and my colleagues in the comics field." The CBLDF employed literary and tax attorneys to reverse the BOE's ruling.

In a 3-2 vote, the California State Board of Equalization finally agreed with Paul Mavrides' five year long crusade to have comic book artwork qualified (in the state of California) as 'intangible ideas presented in manuscript form' and that, as such, comic art should be exempt from sales tax regardless of the form in which it is delivered to the publisher. Mavrides had been contesting the BOE's erroneous interpretation of a sales tax law -- that only prose manuscripts qualified for the exemption -- since 1991. Shortly after the decision was announced on January 11,1996, Mavrides commented, "It's gratifying that, after five years of struggle, the State of California, through the decision of the Board of Equalization, has officially and rightfully recognized that what cartoonists and comic creators trade in are ideas, not pieces of paper." Board of Equalization members proposed changes in the current regulations to clarify that comics are an expression of ideas and thus should be considered as part of an author's manuscript.

"Without the help of literally thousands of individuals along the way, it would have been impossible for me to persevere. Monetary aid, donations to the CBLDF, legal assistance, public statements of protest, press coverage, organizing work, and moral support -- each action, large and small, contributed to this victory for free speech. My appreciation and thanks to everyone whose steadfast efforts contributed to this significant and precedent-setting victory," added Mavrides.

The legal bills involved in overturning the BOE's initial interpretation of the law that kept Mavrides embattled with bureaucratic hassles were paid for by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. To date Mavrides legal bills have totaled over $70,000, of which $9,500 is still due. It may take another 12 months of aggressive fund raising to finish paying the legal bills for this one case.

The Mike Diana Case

Largo, Florida: Mike Diana, a controversial comic artist, was convicted in March of 1994 for violating Florida's obscenity laws. Mr. Diana was actually convicted for "distribution of obscenity" after a local Florida undercover detective, posing as a contributing artist, enticed Diana to send him two copies of his popular 'zine Boiled Angel. The 'zine "movement," a modern descendent of the underground comics of the `60's and `70's, and present-day forum for international artistic collaboration and experimentation, recognizes Diana as a type of cult hero. His popularity was largely attributed to his reluctance to be intimidated from drawing shocking, graphic and raw depictions of society's most serious problems: child abuse, date rape, inhumanity and intolerance brought about by the abuse of religion.

After hearing that the images drawn and created by artist Diana could appeal to or inspire serial murderers, Diana's original Florida jury found him guilty of producing obscenity. They agreed his work "lacked serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value" because it did not compare to such work as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath or Picasso's "Guernica," as suggested by the prosecution.

Illustration by Mike Diana.

As a result, Diana was ordered to spend 4 days in jail while the judge considered his sentence. The terms of his probation require him to pay a $3,000 fine, undergo psychological evaluation at his own expense, maintain full-time employment, perform eight hours of community service every week, have no contact with children under 18 years of age, take a course in journalism ethics at his own expense and not to draw any "obscene" material while on probation, even for personal use. The last dictum is to be monitored by unannounced inspections of his living premises during which his residence could be inspected at any time, without warning or warrant, to determine if Diana was in possession of, or was creating, "obscene material".

The only count of Diana's convictions that was determined incorrect by the Appeals Court was his conviction for "advertising obscene material." This decision was based on the fact that Diana requested donations in his Boiled Angel #7 to help him create the next Boiled Angel. The Appeal Court agreed with Diana's attorney that it was improper to convict someone for advertising material that had not been created yet, since the artist could not, at the time, have "known the nature or character" of his work. Diana's attorney, Luke Lirot, stressed that this is a critical case because, "It was the first time an artist had been convicted and sentenced to punishment for ideas and images created from his own imagination. This case is important because it will have a dramatic effect on the concept of artistic freedom in our contemporary society."

Diana's reaction to the appeal was, "I continue to be disappointed by my home state of Florida. I am also still very confused about the definition of obscenity and community standards, and how they might suppress my artistic endeavors, especially if I am forced to continue living in Florida during my probation period." Based on the important First Amendment issues involved in the case, Diana and his lawyer appealed his remaining convictions to a higher court. All appeals were denied and the CBLDF, in conjunction with the ACLU of Miami, filed a petitioned in May of 1997 to the United States Supreme Court to consider an appeal of Mike's conviction based on the judgment violating the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The costs to defend Mike thus far have exceeded $50,000.

The Planet Comics Case

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: In March of 1996, Michael Kennedy and John Hunter closed their embattled comic book store, Planet Comics, after months of trials and tribulations resulting from a police raid in September of 1995. Eight weeks after the raid, eight assorted obscenity charges were filed against the owners, stemming from a complaint about Verotika #4 from a member of the Christian Coalition. The unidentified woman was referred to Oklahomans for Children and Families (OCaF), a non-profit obscenity watch-dog group, who pursue enforcement of local obscenity laws. They turned Verotika #4 over to Oklahoma City Police.

Following the raid, Kennedy and Hunter were arraigned in handcuffs and charged with trafficking, keeping for sale and display of obscene material deemed to be harmful to adults, as well as one charge of child pornography for drawings in the book Devil's Angel by Frank Thorne. Kennedy and Hunter were then evicted from their six year location and forced to take a less convenient and visible location across town. The financial hardship of the move was further compounded when the first landlord would not permit a forwarding sign on the door and a local Christian organization gloated on local radio stations at their success in closing Planet Comics down.

Busted!, the official newsletter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

During the next few months sales dropped dramatically as many customers assumed Planet Comics had closed, and many parents would not permit their children to patronize the store. According to Michael Hunter, "sales at Christmas were off 65% ." To further add to the demise of Planet Comics, police again organized a raid, this time on the home of John Hunter, confiscating over 250 personal and business computer discs as well as the store computer. A cinder brick was thrown through the front glass door of the store the following week. Michael Kennedy indicated that "in good conscience I cannot continue to incur bills if the sales aren't there. I've lost my wife, my house and my store over all of this, I need to step back and rebuild my life. Luckily, thanks to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), I don't have legal bills to contend with on top of everything else."

On Friday, April 12,1996 Judge Larry Jones of the District Court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma presided over the preliminary hearing for State v. Kennedy and Hunter, commonly known as "The Planet Comics Case." After listening to testimony and hearing oral argument on several motions, Judge Jones announced that the materials seized during the Planet Comics store raid did not warrant felony charges. Judge Jones subsequently ruled that the felony charges against Kennedy and Hunter were not proper, and reduced three of the previous felony counts to misdemeanors. The three misdemeanor charges of displaying material harmful to minors remained intact. The felony charges of possession of child pornography were dropped by the State moments before the Defense's motion to dismiss the charge was to be heard. In short, the charges against Kennedy and Hunter were reduced from four felonies and three misdemeanors to six misdemeanor counts. Three of those counts do not call for imprisonment.

Defense Attorney, Chuck Thornton, commented after the hearing, "It should come as no surprise to anyone that the charges of possession of child pornography against Mr. Hunter and Mr. Kennedy have been dropped. It should be unthinkable to any competent lawyer that such a charge could have been leveled in the first place." The child pornography statute in question clearly states that to convict someone for the offense of possession of child pornography the artist must use a human being under the age of 18 as a subject. Thornton further commented "If those in the employ of the State of Oklahoma had taken the time to look at Devil's Angel, they might have noticed something quite remarkable -- not even a fictional child was portrayed. The entity portrayed in Devil's Angel was a demon which exhibited few attributes, if any, of a newborn child."

However, on Monday, April 15, 1996, the State filed its "Notice of Intention to Appeal." In doing this, the State was seeking to reinstate three of the felony charges contained within the State's amended information. Hunter and Kennedy had previously been charged with two counts of trafficking in obscenity and one count of keeping for sale obscene material, all three counts being felonies. An evidentiary hearing was held in the April of 1997 in which the two trafficking charges remained as felonies, but the one count of 'keeping for sale obscene material' was reduced, once again, to a misdemeanor. The trial date is set for September 8, 1997.

In the final analysis, when all the fear-mongering and personal prejudices are stripped away, what are "We the People" so afraid of? Do "We the People" truly believe that someone left alone to write, draw and publish will be able to bring this Great Republic of ideas, and ideals, crashing to ruin here at the outset of its third century of existence? The incidents that you have just read about are real, and they happened here in the United States of America, creators of the Bill of Rights. Let me remind you of Amendment 1, The Constitution of the United States of America: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances." What part of this do some people not understand?

If the details of the above incidents and cases alarm you, you can send for more information or make a donation to help cover the still outstanding $25,000 in legal bills for these defendants. You can reach the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund at P.O. Box 693, Northampton, MA 01061. Please also check the CBLDF web site for more information and merchandise that supports their mission:

Editors Note: The CBLDF site does contain content that is very graphic in nature and is not necessarily for everyone. However, it is important to note that this material has just the same right to exist as any other. Even more importantly when viewing the artwork it is crucial to put it into its proper context. This is not artwork that is shocking just to be shocking. It is an individual artist's reaction to his world. For instance, Mike Diana's caustic artwork is his reaction to a current social injustice that he finds so vile he was compelled to depict it as thus in order to bring attention to the problem. These pieces have social relevance and their addition continues to keep our society questioning itself.

Susan Alston is the Executive Director of The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.