BUT I DIGRESS

By: Peter David


Reprinted from the Comics Buyer's Guide #1147, 11/10/1995

That loud jangling you should be hearing about now is the sound of a wake-up call to the comics industry.

John Earl Hunter, 27, and Michael Allen Kennedy, 33, of Planet Comics in Oklahoma City, Okla., were charged with eight counts of distributing obscene materials "on or about the 30th day of August, 1995." Their store was raided (while they were out of town) with no prior notice given, no advance warning.

"There was a citizen who supposedly had made a complaint a day or two before all this happened," Planet Comics' attorney Jim Calloway told me. "We don't know the identity of that person and with what groups he or she might be affiliated. There was no official warning, no community-based policing."

The local authorities raided the store and confiscated an assortment of titles. These included Screamers, Sex Wad, Nefarismo, Beatrix Dominatrix, Mighty Morphin Rump Rangers (I can't wait to see the district attorney get through that one with a straight face), Devil's Angel, and -- by fascinating coincidence to anyone who's been reading this column lately -- Verotika #4.

Hunter and Kennedy are now out on $25,000 bond.

It is believed to be Oklahoma's first prosecution of comic books -- possibly because, until now, Oklahoma had better things to do with its time. But ADA Lori Nettleton successfully prosecuted the state's first computer pornography case last year and may be feeling her oats.

Specifically, Hunter and Kennedy were charged with two counts of distribution of obscene materials; three counts of keeping for sale obscene materials; one count of displaying materials harmful to minors (not that any indication was made that minors purchased the titles); one count of trafficking in obscene materials; and, insanely, one count of child pornography (Devil's Angel).

Calloway said he considers the child pornography to be the most bizarre, and legally one of the most serious, of the charges. "Child pornography normally involves the photographing of children engaged in sexual acts. Because child pornography includes abuse of children, it has very stringent penalties. I'm not sure the child pornography laws were ever intended to apply to imaginary and fictitious situations."

Well, apparently in this day and age, anything goes. And those who have been sitting complacently in the belief that comics were somehow immune from a recurrence of the 1950's mentality had best get their minds in gear.

The Planet Comics staff is already a casualty, in that their landlord threw them out of their location and they had to reopen elsewhere.

But relocation would seem to be the least of their difficulties at the moment. If convicted on all counts, they're looking at fines of more than $100,000 and possible jail time totalling 86 years.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) was immediately enlisted for aid on the case. And the call has also gone out to the respective publishers seeking help and support.

Glenn Danzig, publisher of Verotik comics, told me in a phone interview, "What gives people the right to tell us what not to print? Immorality is in the eye of the beholder." Danzig describes himself as a radical, a revolutionary, and a direct descendant of renowned abolitionist John Brown. (That's not an impossibility; Brown's two marriages produced 20 children.)

"I don't like the government very much," said Danzig, adding, "The government needs to step back and say, 'Why are we [messing] with people?'"

Yet, despite these sentiments, Danzig made it clear that he's taking absolutely no steps to aid in the defense of Planet Comics, even though Danzig's publications were named in four of the eight counts. He said Verotik has no intention of donating money to the CBLDF in support, nor will Danzig appear in court to defend his publication--although he allowed for the possibility that he might contribute some sort of affidavit.

"The problem is that the [CBLDF] doesn't represent the industry at large," said Danzig. "It should be called the Comic Book Store Legal Defense Fund. What they do is commendable, but it's not going to solve the problems. Everything they do is reactive. They should be proactive. They should be lobbying for changes in the laws.

"I want to see the publishers deal with these laws before they get popped by the government. Because once you get popped, you're going to lose."

Danzig said he would like to see an activist organization formed in which such entities as Verotik, the ACLU, major comics companies, such high-profile individuals as Todd McFarlane (whose own Spawn is under siege in Grand Forks, N.D.), and the CBLDF "work together to take on the laws...This should be attacked on a national, not a local level."

CBLDF Executive Director Susan Alston said she felt it was unreasonable for Danzig to expect that, because the CBLDF is prohibited by law from lobbying. If it were to lobby, it would risk losing its tax-exempt status, and donations to the organization would no longer be tax-deductible. One of the ways that the CBLDF has of encouraging donations is that tax-deductible status.

Furthermore, Alston disputed Danzig's characterization of the CBLDF by pointing out numerous educational seminars that the CBLDF has sponsored in an endeavor to educate the public. (The organization is trying to convince the San Diego Comic-Con to make "Free Expression" the theme of next year's show--particularly appropriate for a July 4th convention.)

Not to mention that the CBLDF has defended such creators as Mike Diana and Paul Mavrides, which Alston held up as evidence that the CBLDF's purview goes beyond the retailer base.

CBLDF Treasurer Brian Hibbs of the San Francisco-based Comix Experience store was more strident in his criticism of Danzig. "Whether or not he's willing to support the CBLDF, he should still be supporting the retailers," Hibbs said. "Speaking as a retailer, I'm not going to be able to keep carrying his comic books. This is supposed to be a partnership. If his attitude is that we're on our own, then that's a pretty one-sided partnership."

Nor was Dave Sim, Cerebus creator and major CBLDF contributor, sanguine over Danzig's stance. "When you take the position of outlaw publisher, challenging the status quo and fighting for free expression, you have to be willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk," said Sim.

Danzig said he felt that the mature content of his titles was well enough known and advertised that Planet Comics should have known whether they were exposing themselves to legal difficulties. "The retailers should be aware of local advisories," said Danzig.

Lawyer Calloway, on the other hand, said he felt that Danzig himself should, likewise, be aware of local advisories--specifically Oklahoma statute, Sec. 1021, which I quote in part (emphasized parts are mine):

"Every person who willfully...writes, composes, stereotypes, prints, photographs, designs, copies, draws, engraves, paints, molds, cuts, or otherwise prepares, publishes, sells, distributes, keeps for sale, or exhibits any obscene or indecent writing, paper, book, picture, photograph, motion picture, figure, or form of any description...shall be guilty, upon conviction, of a felony and shall be punished by the imposition of a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for not less than 30 days nor more than 10 years, or by both such fine and imprisonment."

Does that mean that Danzig's writers, artists, and Danzig himself could eventually face felony charges, if Planet Comics is convicted.

"It's a possibility," said Calloway. "Generally, the states only prosecute for acts that occur within their borders, but, if you read the very broadly drawn law, there is that possibility. If I were a publisher, I would be very concerned, even if none of my magazines were involved at this time."

At the opposite end of the reaction spectrum is Fantagraphics Books Inc., publishers of -- among other things -- Devil's Angel by Frank Thorne. My initial queries to FBI President Gary Groth as to his intentions in the matter prompted the following not especially useful fax:

"Fantagraphics Books does not respond to queries from Peter David because we consider him a dishonorable and scurrilous journalist. A joint press release from Eros Comics and Frank Thorne will be issued by Oct. 20 and a statement of support by Gary Groth will appear in the CBLDF's press release. For further information, do not contact Gary Groth."

The Oct. 20th date being past my deadline, I contacted Susan Alston, who decided that a straightforward question in such a serious matter merited something other than character slurs. She provided me a rough draft of FBI's position paper, which, as noted, is the polar opposite of Glenn Danzig's position:

"Fantagraphics Books (and its imprint, Eros Comics) is appalled by the arrest, incarceration and prosecution of Michael Kennedy and John Hunter. As the publisher of five of the titles under indictment, we take our responsibility to support these retailers seriously.

"We'll be working closely with the CBLDF to help them in whatever way we can; we'll be contributing money to the case and will provide any expert testimony of which we're capable. This is an outrageous affront to the right of American citizens to purchase and read what they freely choose without interference from their government, who, in this time of fiscal conservatism, should have better ways of spending the taxpayer's money."

FBI's comments go on to dispute the most damaging charge of all: the child pornography charge. "In addition, Devil's Angel creator Frank Thorne and I consider the state's allegation of child pornography against Devil's Angel absolutely false. Thorne's story is set in a naturalistic futuristic fantasy milieu that involves, among other characters, a demoness spawn of Satan, which is in no way represented as a human child. Such a misreading would have to be willfully opportunistic and politically motivated and one with which the author adamantly disagrees."

Calloway, sounding mildly amazed at the recent turn of events in public perception, said, "We thought the debate nowadays was to how much the government was going to fund controversial art--not how much time people were going to be going to jail over controversial art."

Calloway went on to say, "I think this is a serious threat to the industry as a whole. If one state can set this kind of standard to affect publications across the country, it will certainly have a chilling effect on all publications. I would encourage anybody who is in the industry to join with the CBLDF with helping us resist in this attack on First Amendment right and the free press."

Folks, I know what a lot of you are saying. Obscenity is not protected under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court said so. So Planet Comics deserves to go hang.

Of course, the Supreme Court ruling in Roe V. Wade hasn't stopped the freedom of choice opponents from challenging the right to legal abortion. It's a two-edged sword. Either we never challenge any ruling of the Supreme Court or we do. For that matter, I don't recall any chief justice going the papal route and declaring himself infallible.

The problem with people is that they tend not to react until something is directly threatening their personal interests--at which point it might be too late.

This case isn't just about whether some comics are showing characters engaged in sexual intercourse. It's about precedent--dangerous precedent--because a court ruling finding Verotika #4 obscene in Oklahoma is a precedent upon which a North Dakota court can endeavor to find Spawn obscene tomorrow. And the day after, another state goes after Omaha, and -- Who knows? -- maybe another state will look at the profanity and nudity in Sandman, and to hell with artistic merit, children might be exposed to this garbage!

You don't like books from Verotik or Eros? Fine. But sooner or later they'll get to something you do like, and, because you stood complacently by, you'll be able to do nothing to stop it.

And this applies equally to publishers. According to Susan Alston, publishers rank dead last in contributions to the CBLDF. Most have never contributed at all. Why? Because their comics have never been threatened.

Hot news flash, guys: If retailers are under attack, and the bounds of what is acceptable are being shrunk, and precedents are being set that can destroy you, your comics are being threatened.

There are eight counts against Planet Comics. Eight. That's an astounding number, perhaps even unprecedented. The legal bills will run somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000.

I want everyone reading this to consider something: If every single one of you--every single one--sends exactly $1 to the CBLDF, I figure that would pay for at least half the legal bills in this case.

If every single one of you--every single one--sends in $10 to the CBLDF: That will pay off all outstanding legal bills.
That will cover the entire defense.
That will pay for several more cases to come.
And they will come. The censors smell blood. The protectors of what you should and should not be allowed to read are zeroing in on an industry they perceive to be weak, defenseless, and disorganized. They're coming over the airwaves of A Current Affair and through the newspapers and in the courtrooms and in the Congress.

They're coming and, if you believe that you're safe from them, please step through the door to the right over there, because Elvis is waiting to escort you onto the UFO.

Ten bucks. From each of you. Ten stinking bucks.

A Supreme Court justice said that he can't define obscenity, but he knows it when he sees it. So do I. When I see comics and free expression under attack, I consider that an obscenity.

And letting it happen is the greatest obscenity of all.

You can send your tax-deductible donations to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, P.O. Box 693, Northampton, MA 01061. You can also query them for more information or ask to receive their newsletter by faxing to (413) 582-9046. Peter David, writer of stuff, has no connection with the CBLDF. He just wants fans to be able to buy whatever they want to at the retailer of their choice.

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