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Comics Relief

CBLDF Comes to Legal Aid of Comic-Book Artists, Publishers, and Sellers

By James A. Morrisard | Posted 3/4/1998

Frank Mangiaracina, owner of Friendly Frank's Comics Store in Lansing, Ill., was in a bind. Michael Correa, manager of the suburban Chicago store, had been arrested and charged with possession and sale of obscene materials. All of the materials in question were comic books.

Correa was convicted in 1986. One of the comic books he was arrested for was Omaha the Cat Dancer, published by Kitchen Sink Press. Mangiaracina turned to Kitchen Sink founder Denis Kitchen for help.

"Frank called me because I was one of the publishers who got him busted," Kitchen says. "He was pretty distraught. . . . His store manager had been charged with some very serious offenses. What frustrated me was that Frank was struggling to take care of this himself and it didn't seem fair."

Kitchen asked artists to donate work to help raise money to cover Mangiaracina's legal costs. The case turned out well (Correa's conviction was overturned on appeal), and so did the fund-raising--Kitchen had a surplus of $20,000. He used that money to establish the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of people in the comic-book industry.

Since Correa's watershed case, the Massachusetts-based CBLDF has successfully defended the rights of others in the world of comic books. In a case that received national attention, it helped Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' cocreator Paul Mavrides win his dispute with California tax officials who had imposed the state's 7.25 percent sales tax on editorial cartoons and comic books, treating them as commercial items rather than works of art or ideas (such as written manuscripts, which were not taxed). The state tax agency, the Board of Equalization, voted in 1996 to exempt cartoons and comics from the tax.

But CBLDF's primary activity has been free-speech cases involving comics, which Kitchen says have become more frequent since the Friendly Frank's bust. On average the organization handles about seven cases a year.

"Most local prosecutors aren't aware of the laws that protect [comic-book] creators and publishers. Usually they're just acting on the complaints of an irate mother, a fundamentalist group, or maybe someone who was just offended," Kitchen says. "To them it's someone selling a dirty comic to a kid. But nine times out of 10 it is a responsible retailer and an overzealous cop or prosecutor."

In the past 20 years there has been a rapid growth of independent and self-published comics, and it's from this group that the comics that prompt obscenity prosecutions spring. Usually labeled "Suggested for Mature Readers," they don't feature flashy superheroes, and they often deal with controversial or taboo subjects such as homosexuality, rape, drug abuse, and incest. Some contain graphic scenes of sex and violence, and most comic-book retailers and publishers make it their policy not to sell "mature" comics to minors.

John Hunter and Michael Kennedy, for example, say they kept such comics in a box behind the counter at their Planet Comics and Science Fiction Store; customers wishing to see or buy one had to ask a store employee to retrieve it. But that didn't stop Oklahoma City police from raiding the store in September 1995, seizing more than 100 comics and charging Hunter and Kennedy with keeping and trafficking obscene materials and displaying harmful materials to minors.

CBLDF got involved with the case, but after a two-year ordeal--during which Hunter and Kennedy were forced to move and ultimately close their store--the defendants, fearing possible jail time, pleaded guilty last September in exchange for suspended sentences and $1,500 in fines.

"We felt it was probably the best deal," Kennedy says. "We were kind of leery of a jury trial because any type of obscenity cases that happen here [in Oklahoma] do not go well for the defendants."

The case was widely viewed as a blow to the independent-comics industry--as the group that helped instigate the prosecution intended. "I'm hoping that what happened to Planet Comics will alert the [comics] industry that there are some legal restrictions on what they can and cannot publish," says Bob Anderson, president of Oklahomans for Children and Families. The nonprofit watchdog group showed local police issue #4 of Verotika, a comic book sold at Planet that featured a story in which a teenage girl--who later turns out to be a demon--is kidnapped, gang raped, and killed.

Anderson says his group is "opposed to censorship," but he adds, "There is also material that is not illegal which is not suitable for children under [Oklahoma's] harmful-to-minors law. And who buys comic books but younger children?"

The case generated some criticism of CBLDF within the comic-book industry, particularly from Verotika publisher Verotik, which blasted the fund for not working more aggressively to change obscenity laws and for limiting its efforts for Hunter and Kennedy to legal help rather than assisting them directly. "This retailer was evicted from their location and they had to move, and they've incurred a lot of expenses that weren't legal [costs] that the CBLDF aren't going to help them with," Steven Wardlaw, Verotik managing editor, told The Comics Journal. (Verotik donated money to the store owners.)

Kitchen dismisses such criticism. "I think where being aggressive would pay off is in educational programs and making sure that retailers, artists, and publishers all know what their rights are," he says.

The question of how far those rights go was brought to light by the case of Mike Diana, the first American comic-book artist to be convicted of obscenity for his work. Diana was arrested in 1993 when an undercover Florida cop posing as a contributing artist obtained copies of Diana's zine Boiled Angel. A Florida jury determined in 1994 that Diana's work--which contained graphic images of a children nailed to crosses, child abuse, and cannibalism--"lacked serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value," and thus met the state's criteria for determining that graphic material is obscene, according to Stuart Baggish, who prosecuted the case. The artist was placed on three years of probation, fined $3,000, and ordered to undergo psychological testing and perform community service. Under the sentence's terms, according to Luke Lirot, Diana's attorney and a board member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, Diana's home could be searched without a warrant to determine if he has or is creating any more "obscene material." (No searches were conducted. Diana has since moved to New York.) With CBLDF's help Diana appealed the conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

"I think it's the manifestation that the country is becoming more conservative," Lirot says of the increased pressure on comics creators and sellers. "There are better funded groups backed by religious organizations. . . . The big money machines these religious organizations have are trying to impose their viewpoints on a lot of the people, and I think that they have contaminated the system."

That puts small independent comics publishers, artists, and retailers at a disadvantage, says Jeff Mason, publisher of Alternative Press, editor of indy Magazine, and a lawyer.

"I don't think the CBLDF has been able to generate enough money, nor power, which is what you need, in terms of fighting legal battles," Mason says. "Honestly, if you have $100,000 for any case you could probably do very well. Unfortunately the CBLDF doesn't have $100,000 for any case. And that right there is a problem."

Like most small nonprofits, CBLDF has its share of money problems. At least half of its budget must come from donations, the bulk of which are from small presses and private donors. The organization currently has about $36,000 in assets, but owes $20,000 in legal costs. Of the two largest comics companies, DC Comics has donated merchandise and other items (which CBLDF raffles or auctions off to raise money), but no cash; the other big company, Marvel, is rebuilding after filing for bankruptcy last year so isn't likely to make any contributions.

Mason and others in the industry hope with the recent appointment of Chris Oarr as CBLDF's new executive director, there will be a financial boom. As organizer of the annual Small Press Expo in Maryland, Oarr has worked with and raised money for CBLDF, and for the past three years he's worked in the Washington area as an independent fund-raising consultant.

The time might be right for CBLDF to work on building its coffers--at the moment it isn't handling any cases. But Kitchen knows, as he knew 10 years ago in the wake of the Friendly Frank's case, that the hiatus won't last long.

"Everything gets slammed, television is constantly slammed, and there are aspects of the movie industry and the book industry that get slammed," he says. "But I think that comics are probably the only one of those mediums that, as an entire medium, is slammed. I think what we want is just the recognition that we can stand alongside film, music, and any other creative fields and say that Robert Crumb is on the same level as Norman Mailer."

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