This year marks the 25th year of the CBLDF, and the 13th year of its active membershipprogram.
That means the comic book community, including fans, stores, creators, and publishers have collectively decided to fight for free speech for a quarter of a century. It means that for more than a decade, those who support this fight for free speech have gotten a card to prove it. And that card comes with a world of importance.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was founded when a store was targeted by local authorities for carrying adult material and selling it to adults. An influential and well-loved publisher circled the proverbial wagons and raised the funds to overturn a conviction. In 1986, comics were still facing the same bias and inequitable scrutiny they faced in 1948 , when groups decrying indecency in comics held public book burnings.
Since 1986 comics have faced library challenges, bannings, self-censorship, and media vilification. Even as recently as January 2012, local news reports banged the drum that dangerous and obscene illustrated fiction could fall into our children’s hands and warp their minds forever. We are still dealing with the same ludicrous trends and accusations that started in the 1940s and peaked in the 1950s, when Senate hearings almost destroyed the comics industry after a best-selling book of pop psychology laid a nations’ fears of juvenile delinquency out, putting comics entirely at fault.
It’s easy to assume that things will never be that bad again, but as of this writing, a fan is awaiting trial to see whether or not he will go to prison for the comics he owned. In many ways, things are worse than ever. The biases and the witch hunts still remain, but the penalties can be far, far worse.
The fact is that in 2012 we are still fighting for Free Speech in comics. The consequences for obscenity charges range from fines to public outrage and character assassination to jail time here in the U.S. and even in a foreign country. This is terrifying. This should not be a problem that anyone has to face just because they buy, sell, own, create, or distribute comics. This art form does not enjoy the same freedoms of expression as film, music, or prose, and this should infuriate everyone who loves comics.
Look at your collection right now. Do you have copies of SANDMAN, or BONE? Then you own books that have been contested in libraries nationwide. Does your local comics shop carry anything with explicit adult content? Keep in mind that the adult content label is vague and ranges from LOST GIRLS to BONDAGE FAIRIES and from BLANKETS to R. CRUMB'S BOOK OF GENESIS. All of those books have suffered the scrutiny of censorship or self-censorship. The variety of comics that could bring an outraged local authority down on a retailer (and has, in some cases) is alarmingly wide.
This is not an abstract hypothetical, and it is not a slippery slope. These attacks happen regularly, and the consequences are real. For 25 years, the fight to keep comics free and uncensored has been constant and difficult. And as a fan, or a creator, or even just a passing reader with an interest in our Constitutional rights, the best way to be part of this struggle is by becoming a member of the CBLDF.
When you join the CBLDF, you become part of the fight. You have put your money down and made a stand. You join creators from all parts of the industry and fans from all over the world. You join some of the greatest stores in the world and some of the most vital comics publishers. You are telling the world, “I may not want to read this comic, but no one should go to jail for making, selling, or owning it.”
In 2011 alone, CBLDF members saw their donations at work in an incredibly diverse assortment of ways:
We were quoted in a Supreme Court opinion knocking out an unconstitutional censorship law. In BROWN v. EMA, an amicus brief filed by the CBLDF and written by General Counsel Robert Corn-Revere was quoted in the majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia. Comparing government mandated videogame labels to the Comics Scare of the 1950s, the history of censorship in comics was referenced as a mistake -- a mistake that should not be repeated in other areas of pop culture.
We sponsored Banned Books Week. Aside from membership in the Media Coalition, the CBLDF expanded its active presence in the wider Free Expression community. We sponsored Banned Books Week, spoke about comics censorship at several library events, and exhibited at the American Library Association meeting, taking our mission to librarians, both educational and public.
We contributed the first installment of the $150,000 in legal fees needed to defend Brandon X. This terrifying case involves an American citizen who faces a minimum sentence of one year in Canadian prison and registration as a sex offender because Canada Customs alleges that the Japanese horror and fantasy comics on his laptop are child pornography. This case is vital because it raises precedent questions about the artistic merit of comics and the rights of readers and artists traveling with comics on their electronic devices. It challenges how child pornography is defined, particularly in relation to Japanese manga and the inherent xenophobia of judging the artistic merits of another culture's pop entertainment from afar.
We saw a banner year for Retail Memberships. Working with Diamond Comic Distributors, our Retail Membership program saw the highest numbers since its inception. This means that there are more stores than ever participating in the protection of the medium, all of them part of a coalition that defends the rights of fans and creators. As the retail community grows tighter and more cohesive, with initiatives like Free Comic Book Day and growing membership in ComicsPRO, we are also seeing greater bonds with our retail partners.
Aside from these accomplishments, we attended more than 20 conventions and conferences throughout the United States, raising awareness of our important work. We also began expanding our reach onto college campuses and into libraries. We hosted educational events and started work on two separate resource guides for librarians and booksellers. All this and much, much more happened due to the generosity of our donors and our Members. The work of the CBLDF is vital, and it can’t continue without you.
Throughout the week, Comics Should Be Good will be spotlighting the various levels of CBLDF membership (you can see them now here). Please check these daily updates to see what level works for you, and please consider joining the fight.
Free Speech is worth fighting for.
Alex Cox is the Deputy Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and a co-founder of CSBG.