Saturday morning at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco, Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, went over, in shocking detail, the history of comics censorship in the United States and why the CBLDF — a non-profit organization dedicated to the first amendment rights of the comics art form, including retailers, artists, writers, publishers, librarians and readers — was created to combat it.
“When a retailer is busted because a police officer comes in and says, ‘We think that this comic book you’re selling is obscene because there’s sexuality and nudity in it,’ we’re the people the retailers calls,” said Brownstein.
The CBLDF provides assistance, advice and, if need be, sends lawyers in to court of behalf of anyone who is being persecuted against for their love of comic books.
“Everything we do is in defense of the first amendment. You have to allow for a fullness and richness of free speech to let the population develop its intellect.”
Comics first drew fire in the 1930s, when comic book burnings were a common occurrence. This led to the creation of the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948. “It was designed to ban the publication of ‘sexy, wanton comics,'” Brownstein explained, though it didn’t work because there wasn’t uniform participation in the group by all publishers. “They tried to push comics down in to a medium that was strictly for kids. It was unimaginable that there would be comics in 50 years. It was unimaginable that there would be an organization like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund protecting the first amendment rights of comics.”
The ACMP didn’t work to educate the public, however, opening the door for Dr. Fredric Wertham’s infamous crusade against comics. Wertham’s seminal work “The Seduction of the Innocent” was based on his observations while working in a home for at-risk juveniles.
“They all read comic books, because that’s what all kids read [back then], and [Wertham] made the bogus connection that these kids are all reading comic books and they are all criminals,” said Brownstein. “Therefore, the comic books must be making them criminals. This was in an era when the United States was trying to suppress any reminders of the horrors we had dealt with in World War II and the Great Depression.”
Brownstein briefly discussed Wertham’s obsession with his theory of a homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin. In reality, the reason many comics featured young sidekicks was because so many of the young readers had fathers off fighting in World War II, so it was a way they could pretend to help their fathers. “[That he saw homosexuality there] says way more about Wertham’s brain than it says about Batman and Robin,” Brownstein declared.
William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, also took the stand during Senate hearings about the comics industry. Brownstein described Gaines as “a young man, a real smart-ass with something to prove. He decided he was going to take the stand and tell these Senators what was what. He was a portly man and he was taking diet pills, what we would now refer to as speed.”
The drugs wore off part-way through his testimony and Gaines lost his composure, telling the Senate that comics with cover images of severed heads were perfectly good material for children. This one statement started the chain reaction that would lead to the Comics Code Authority being instituted by the industry.
However, the comics industry went overboard and overly clamped down on any behaviors that were deemed anti-social. “If you wanted to be distributed through news stands, you had to have the Code’s seal of approval on your cover,” explained Brownstein. “We were left with Beppo the Super-monkey.”
The Code put Gaines’ EC Comics out of business and it could be seen as a vindictive act by the rest of the industry against him for his testimony. “It solved the problem by setting comics back. It took about 15 years for comics to get back to its roots of saying interesting things for all audiences and then you saw the underground return.”
Brownstein then went over the Underground Comix movement of the 1960s, with R. Crumb as its icon and leader. These creators grew up with horror and crime comics and decided they wanted to be able to have their say, with or without the Code’s approval, when they were older. “Zap Comix” #4 was designed to draw controversy, especially the strip “Joe Blow” which featured the titular character as the patriarch in an incestuous nuclear family. In New York, “Zap Comix” #4 was eventually banned, the first comic ever banned in the state. This also saw a shift of the government’s focus from publishers to the retailers who carried the books.
The collapse of head shops and the newsstands in the 1970s led to the rise of the direct market we see today. “They borrowed the business of non-returnability from the head shop marketplace,” said Brownstein. “This gave comics the ability to work outside the Comics Code. Comics grew up.”
This was the period of time works like Swamp Thing, Cerebus and Love & Rockets flourished, continued Brownstein. “It all came to this glorious head in 1986 when you saw the accidental simultaneous release of “Maus,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen.””
This rise in mature subject matter made law enforcement take notice, however, and crack downs on comic shops for selling obscene material began.
“25 years ago, a store in Lansing, IL had its manager arrested for the sale of comic books that the local police alleged were obscene and designed to warp the minds of the kids of the community. These obscene, satanic comics included things we see today as classics. Things like Crumb, ‘Elfquest,’ ‘Omaha the Cat Dancer’ and ‘Cherry Poptart.'”
As a response to this case, Kitchen Sink publisher Dennis Kitchen got people together to raise money for the retailer to defend himself in court. The appeal was a success and the CBLDF was born. “With the money left over from that case, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund emerged to continue watching these issues.”
In the 1990s, law enforcement switched their attention from retailers to the artists. Mike Diana, creator of the comic “Boiled Angel,” was arrested in Florida for distributing obscenity through the mail. “We spent three years defending him,” Brownstein stated, “but we were not able to overcome in court the idea that this martial was not wanted in their community. The real obscenity in the Diana case was that the conviction prohibited him from drawing in his own home.”
Brownstein described how the current legal target is readers. Right now, a case is ongoing involving an American being arrested at the Canadian border for having obscene material on his laptop. Canadian officials looked through files on the computer without the wner’s knowledge or consent in order to find the material. Digital horror and fantasy manga were considered to be child pornography by the Canadian government. The CBLDF has taken up the cause and is paying for his defense. If found guilty, Brandon X, whose real name is being withheld, faces up to a year in Canadian prison and having to register as a sex offender in both Canada and the United States.
“The purpose of these laws is to protect real people from being harmed,” Brownstein explained. “[The authorities] are perverting the function of these to go after somebody for art.”
The CBLDF is currently holding a fundraiser to get $100,000 to fund both this and other ongoing cases. Comic book fans interested in helping can find out more at CBLDF.org.
“We’ve been grassroots for our entire 25 year history,” Brownstein concluded. “Right now, we have an important [case] that affects everyone, and we can’t do it without you.”
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