Drawing the Line

After a brief post-Bush cease-fire, the U.S. culture wars seem to be heating up again, as politicians blame rap and hip-hop (again) for inner-city violence and First Amendment skirmishes flare up on the new battlefield of the Internet. Meanwhile, a much quieter campaign is being waged on a much older front: the world of comic books.

According to a report in The Comics Journal (March 1995), the past few years have seen a surge in the number of obscenity challenges directed at comic books and zines in the United States. Many of the cases have gone after comic shop owners. Timothy Parks, co-owner of Comic Book Heaven in Sarasota, Florida, was convicted on two counts of retail display of material harmful to minors in November 1993 after police seized copies of The Survivors, The Heir, Dark Tales, Detectives Inc., and Speakeasy from the store. He wound up serving 14 months in jail. Gordon Lee, the owner of the Legends comic store in Rome, Georgia, was convicted in 1993 of displaying comic books (Debbie Does Dallas and Final Tabu) that were deemed harmful to adults. More recently, comic shop owners in Texas and California have been cited for display of material deemed “obscene” or “indecent.” And in Bellingham, Washington, Ira Stohl and Kristina Hjelsand were arrested and taken out of their Newsstand International shop in handcuffs for refusing to remove a copy of the rant zine Answer Me! from their store–despite the fact that it was under lock and key in a display case.

The most notorious comic censorship case, however, is that of artist Mike Diana, who was convicted last year in Pinellas County, Florida, on three counts of producing and distributing obscenity involving his self-published comic zine Boiled Angel. As Mother Jones noted in a recent portrait (November-December 1994), the conditions of Diana’s three-year probation are extraordinary. In addition to a fine of $3,000 and a mandate to serve 1,248 hours of unpaid “community service,” Diana–who has made his living mainly from clerking in his father’s convenience store–was required to undergo psychiatric counseling and attend a journalistic ethics course, both at his own expense. The shocker, however, was that Diana was prohibited from drawing anything that might be considered obscene–even for his own amusement–and the Pinellas County police had an open warrant to search his house at any time to make sure he complied. In theory, a penis doodled on a telephone message pad could land him in jail.

Comics are a likely target for censorship attacks for obvious reasons. First, their audience is often presumed to be exclusively children and teens. Politicians who want to promote a law-and-order image see an easy mark in adult-oriented comics. And unlike million-selling recording artists like 2 Live Crew, who have deep pockets for legal defense (the rap group beat a much-publicized obscenity challenge in Florida in 1990), comic artists and independently run comic shops usually have limited financial resources. The comics world also commands less automatic media attention than pop music or other forms of mainstream culture–another reason why First Amendment challengers may feel emboldened.

This state of affairs moved a group of comic book retailers and publishers to set up the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF). The CBLDF has picked up the tab for Diana’s defense (over $40,000 to date), and he has managed to get the conditions of his probation stayed until after his appeal. The group also helped fight the Parks and Lee cases and worked on a legislative case in California that would tax comic books as “commercial illustrations” rather than creative manuscripts. The latter effort has received almost no notice in the press, according to CBLDF executive director Susan Alston, but its ramifications for comic artists are significant in that taxes would be applied retroactively–an action that could bankrupt or otherwise drive many small-time comic artists out of business. 

It must be said that many of the comics in question in the obscenity cases are extremely explicit. Boiled Angel, with its depictions of bestiality, sexual dismemberment, and priests sodomizing children, is–by any standards–an extraordinarily horrific vision. Any merchant who wants to stay in business, however, knows enough to keep titles like this out of the hands of minors: Adult-only comics are generally sealed in plastic or kept in out-of-reach display cases. The question is whether adults should be allowed to make, sell, or purchase them at all.

The question might not be asked if there was a stronger tradition of adult comics in the United States. In Japan, adult-oriented manga comics have been widely read for years, and in various Latin American countries it’s not uncommon to see 40- and 50-year-olds enjoying comic-strip books on the bus home from work. The success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic-strip memoir about a family living through the Holocaust and its psychic aftermath, proved that Americans could grasp the idea of adult-oriented illustrated literature. But until the medium can shake its image as an artless corrupter of youth–an image held over from the puritanical crusades of Dr. Frederic Wertham in the 1950s–it’s a fair bet that some will continue to view it as another acceptable exception to First Amendment rights.

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