How A Cigarette is Like A Comic Book...
Though not viewed as such by society in general, comic books are one of the most pervasive and influential media forms of 20th-century popular culture. They serve as historical text, both for their artistic merit and their reflection of decades past, and are a highly undervalued art form. Being that they are easy to identify (and many read by children), comic book industry professionals are under attack for containing what many people believe to be obscene material, harmful to an audience. In this essay I hope to educate readers as to the real truth of censorship and the reality of “indecent exposure” found today in comic book stores. I will include a brief history of comic book censorship and the First Amendment obscenity statute, as well as the concepts of both parental & retailer responsibility and proactive education.

Most of the controversy surrounding comics began during the late 1940s and 1950's, when debates were raged over the sexual and moral influence of comic books. The fire was fueled by the publication of Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent in which Wertham blamed the rise of juvenile delinquency and sexual promiscuity on the bad influence of comic books. In perhaps one of the worst cases of the cause-and-effect reasoning fallacy, Wertham wrote, “A boy of thirteen committed a ‘lust murder’ of a girl of six. After his arrest, in jail, he asked for comic books” (Wertham 65). The U.S. Senate promptly began to hold hearings and decided comics were not a cause of juvenile delinquency. The Comic Book Industry then created the Comics Code Authority (or CCA); a rigid set of rules for industry self-censorship. As a result, industry giant EC Comics was all but driven out of business, canceling most of its ghoulish line including Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt; books considered classics today. Something that has always confused me: If the US Government vindicated comics from censure attack, then why would the comics industry go and create the Comics Code Authority? Why would a healthy industry selling comics by the trainload go and castrate itself? Upon further inspection of the Comics Code Authority, I found a startling fact that made me sick to my stomach. You see, comic publishers in the 1950s had a problem in EC Comics, which outsold competing titles by a long shot. The other publishers knew that they couldn't compete (not fairly anyway) so they banded together and used the free-floating fear of the time to shut the company down. If you read the Comics Code (and I have read the original), you'll see it was written with no purpose other than to drive EC Comics out of business. The Code cites, "The word 'crime' should never appear alone on a cover…no comic or magazine shall use the word 'horror' or 'terror' in its title." Being that most of EC Comic's best selling titles contained these words is proof enough of a conspiracy…and is an awful reality. It also makes me wonder who profits from and is really behind censorship in America and gives new meaning to the Czech proverb "The big thieves eat the little ones". Dodging the Comics Code Authority, the underground comics movement of the sixties and seventies swept across a hippie-era America. Led by edgy cartoonists like Robert Crumb, the comics scene produced an acclaimed body of adult work, many images now on display in the Museum of Modern Art. In the eighties, an outgrowth of "underground" comics like Love & Rockets become widely popular, leading to the skyrocketing popularity of small independent titles into the nineties.

Though popular to some, many of the aforementioned “small independent titles” were heavily unpopular with others. In 1986, Frank Mangiaracina’s Friendly Franks comic book store in Lansing, Illinois was busted for selling certain independent titles labeled “obscene” by a customer. The Friendly Frank’s case led to Mangiaracina’s creation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), an organization founded to support the First Amendment rights of industry professionals (writers, artists, retailers, distributors, etc). After the case was taken on by the CBLDF and moved to an Appellate Court, Mangiaracina was acquitted of all charges. Though uncommon, the Friendly Franks case was not an isolated one. In 1997, the CBLDF filed a petition to the United States Supreme Court in order to give recompense to a popular comic book writer/artist named Mike Diana, who became the first illustrator in the United States to get convicted for his illustrations. Diana was convicted for “distribution of obscenity” after a local undercover detective posed as a contributing artist and enticed Diana to sell him two copies of his popular book, Boiled Angel. The court agreed his work lacked artistic value because it did not compare to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, as suggested by the prosecution. Diana was required to pay a $3000 fine, sentenced to undergo psychiatric evaluation at his own expense, maintain full-time employment, enroll in a course on journalism ethics, have no contact with minors, and create no "obscene" material for three years, even for personal use. Following the Diana case, the CBLDF remains an active watchdog organization and has donating members spanning the globe in an effort to educate and assist those in need.

Part of the problem regarding comic books stems from our ignorant populace; many people feel that comics are for little boys and revolve around the lives of superheroes. To many people of this mentality, the very thought of a ratings system would seem ludicrous. However, noticing that many titles have grown with the times, an increasing group of citizens have been pushing for a standard of rules that regulate comics, similar to the rating system found in movies. They feel that there should be some type of rating label printed on comic book covers, so that they can judge at a glance what comics are suitable for their children. In his keynote speech at the Diamond Comic Distributors & Retailers Seminar in 1994, Frank Miller, a veteran comic book artist and intense advocate of free speech, had this to say about comic book advisories: "We have to stand up and stand together and give the bully a bloody nose. Apologies will only encourage [them] to come back for more….Every cover advisory is a signal to lazy parents and opportunistic politicians that we are theirs for the taking" (Rich 6). I feel that comic advisories have a corrosive effect, in that they cut away at the tether that connects comics to the larger book industry and its First Amendment protection. After all, bookstores don't apologize for selling books and writers don't submit their works to a pack of ratings system bureaucrats - they don't sit down and think, "Is this book an 'R'?" Writers are allowed to write anything and everything they want to; the way the art of writing should be. How is that different from the work that a comic book writer creates? A child could easily pick up a volume of erotica at Barnes and Noble, yet no one will dare challenge its CEO. The cold hard fact is that there is no difference- comics are targeted because they are seen as vulnerable, less serious because children read them, and each issue only sells for $2.50 a pop.

The modern Comics Code Authority (CCA) does not have a rating system in place, though it does state what should and should not be found within comics and does place its stamp of approval and logo on certain books…or at least titles that are printed by Marvel Comics and DC Comics (ironically enough the figureheads & founders behind the CCA). As I have mentioned, both companies formed the Comics Code in all appearances to measure up to its responsibilities to the American culture scene, but in reality did little more than squash the competition by reputation. In effect, all that a rating system does is put a spotlight onto certain comics. Currently, comics that are aimed at a more serious and adult audience declare "mature" somewhere on the front cover. Beyond this tactic, there are no other labels placed on covers and no range of ratings to detract from the artistry found on the exterior of a book. I feel that placing those labels and bowing to the opinion of a generally uniformed public does a LOT more damage than it helps. To circumvent this problem, I believe that the American public needs to become more educated in the ways of the law. I am embarrassed to say that before writing this report, I was one of those people that was outraged at the government, disgusted by what I thought it was suppressing. The idea that it is the government behind censorship, this concept of "us against the government", is a lie. The truth is that the government has done all it can to provide for free speech rights; practically every base has been covered for artistic license, other than the obscenity statute, under the wings of the law. Throughout every case of comic book censorship I have read, it is not the government that is the problem - it is the people and their increasingly ignorant moral indignation. When Wertham brought the matter of juvenile delinquency in comic books to the Supreme Court, the comic book industry was exonerated. The government followed the law, comparing it to the aspects of the case and found Wertham's hypothesis flawed…in short, it did its job! Our government did not find obscenity within comics, an area of the law that many are unclear about.

Allow me to clarify. According to the First Amendment, for material to be considered "obscene" in the eyes of the government, all three of the following elements must apply: “1) The material must appeal to a prurient interest in sex; 2) The material has to be patently offensive according to contemporary standards; 3) The material must lack any artistic, political, literary, or scientific value” (CBLDF). This third element is what should have cleared both Mike Diana and Robert Crumb. How many times have we seen inkblot images? Since they are considered to have scientific value, they are considered fully legal. Ditto for an artist splattering paint over a canvas and selling it for hundreds of dollars. How can we say what is and isn't art? The problem is that people who protest comic book material do not see value in images, feel that their opinion of art is superior, and are generally misinformed about the context of the law concerning free speech and artistic license. These people must be educated, told that comic books are an irrefutable art form….and this tutelage can start in our schools. Maybe teach a week or two of comic pop art in our school systems? Spend a few weeks discussing the topic of free speech and artistic licensing rights in Justice classes? Add more comic books and graphic novels onto library book shelves? I was sad to learn this semester that my Administration of Justice class did not even glance upon the topic of free speech, or the obscenity statutes. I believe that for the censorship movement to cease, the public must become informed about legal matters surrounding the First Amendment, and the inherent rights contained therein. Thomas Jefferson stated it best: "Wherever people are well-informed they can be trusted with their government." In keeping comics within the superheroes-in-spandex mentality, our moral society is only perpetuating the ignorant stereotype that the only comic readers are little boys. How can we break out of these stereotypes when we are not allowed to? Simple. We need to educate these ignorant objections, which (conveniently enough!) derive mostly from parents of little boys.

The majority of the cases taken to court regarding obscenity in comic books were brought forth by outraged parents who found that their children perused reading material deemed unsuitable for their age. These parents were under the false assumption that it was somehow illegal for retailers to sell the comics to minors, comparing the act of purchasing a comic to that of attaining a pack of cigarettes, and thus planted any responsibility (or supposed liability) squarely on the retailer’s lap. "Compared to most of the world, we live in an affluent society. We not only buy many things for our children, we also give our children their own money to spend. It makes little sense to morally condemn those who sell to children when we ourselves give children the means to buy" (Solveig 10). A parent cannot scapegoat comic book artists because they are ineffectual at parenting their own children; instead of blaming a faceless writer or artist I suggest that parents should learn to supervise their children, thus taking a more active role in their lives.

From working in a comic shop myself, I know firsthand the fallacy of the actions of a parent who dumps their child off to read comics then goes grocery shopping, leaving money behind….believe me, it happens more times than you may think. At many points throughout the day I was left behind as a baby sitter, silently told to oversee the children's behavior while their parent were absent. I was actually confronted once by a florid parent who was upset that their child viewed an inappropriate book while in my care. The title was appropriate for the youth (a detective comic) but the mother was still stuck in a superheroes-in-spandex mentality and was not aware that comics outside of capes existed. I simply told her that I worked in retail…I am paid to sell books and if the mother had wanted her child to purchase a title, then she should have left me a list. In short, I did not get paid to supervise browsing children while there are paying adults who need primary assistance. A parent should be ashamed to even bring up the subject, should feel embarrassed at being lax in his or her own supervision and should not take their misplaced sense of guilt into a courtroom. Politicians, mainly proponents of Ashcroft's ideas concerning obscenity, have also gotten into the midst of this controversy, also blaming comics on the deterioration of the family unit and corruption of youth. By detoxifying the filth of censorship, parents would be forced to take a more active role in their children's lives-- instead of scapegoating comic companies and artists. It is the parents that should be held responsible if they find material unsuitable for their children hidden beneath bed mattresses, not the companies and artists. The companies in question print comics for an adult-oriented audience and should not be blamed when children beyond their control view their work. They are not baby-sitters! For this same reason, I believe that retailers should not be held accountable for inappropriate viewing of merchandise. Adult comics are only available through mail-in orders or with a valid adult ID. I feel that adults should not have to feel like criminals, nor wait two to three weeks to get a comic just because some people feel it is wrong.

Bill Mifsud owns Bills Bullpen, the only comic book shop in Hollister, California. He feels that having an area designated for adult comics will scare potential customers in a small conservative community like Hollister. Mifsud’s professional area of interest is primarily in sports apparel and memorabilia and feels that any potential profit made from adult sales would not be enough to compensate an enraged parent that may come armed with a lawsuit. For his adult clientele, Mifsud relies on a mail-order catalog entitled Previews that contains a catalogue of all areas of titles distributed within the comic book industry. Unlike Mifsud, Bobby Gore sells comic books and graphic novels at his shop Current Comics in Salinas, California. Gore has a closed wooden cabinet located in the rear of his store, clearly designated as an adults only treasure trove. To open the cabinet, one would be in plain view of the cash register and must be granted permission to access the items displayed within. Gore stated that one option was to only display the spines of the titles, but comic books tend to be thin and very difficult to prop…and this latter display option was obviously much less eye-catching to a potential buyer. Gore does not need a specific license to sell adult merchandise, nor was he given any legal documents informing him of any possible hazards in selling explicit material. He does not, on principle, sell any adult-oriented comic books to anyone under 21 and feels that as long as the cabinet is clearly designated then he should be absolved of any responsibility. In a recent interview, Gore stated the following: “Some of my regular customers come in here and ask ‘Do people actually buy that stuff?’ And these people spend $30 or $40 a week on comics…They don’t understand why we have an adult section. But I have people come in just for the adult books”. And how! Gore believes that 15% of his comic sales revenue is accumulated via adult purchases…and only 25% of his customers purchase items through the Previews catalogue, of which Bill Mifsud relies. He mentioned that an associate (who previously owned a store in Salinas named ShadowWalkers) attributed 50% of his earnings to adult sales! Clearly, there seems to be a market in adult sales for an eager entrepreneur who is confident in his retail responsibilities. If the topic of comic book censorship and retailer responsibility was truly about keeping the American family intact and our youth wholesome, then I could see the proponents of censorship's point in the matter. But, as I hope I have demonstrated in this essay, there are a lot more subtle factors at work here than the mere topic of the keeping our youth wholesome and protected; factors such as greed, ignorance, denial and laziness. In my opinion, any taxpaying US citizen should be free to use limitless creative expression while creating a comic book. In banning a comic from the viewing public, those responsible also halt potential development of new artistic methods.

Elements such as increased parental responsibility and proactive education will go a long way toward insuring our civil liberty…as well as the future of the Comic Book Industry.

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Barker, Martin. Haunt of Fears. London, England: Pluto Press Limited, 1984. pp71+.
Barlow, Ron. Those Were the Terrible, Shocking, Sensational, Appalling, Forbidden...But Simply Wonderful HORROR COMICS of the 1950's. NY, NY: Nostalgia Press, 1971. 
"A Short History of Censorship in Comics". The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Jan 1990. 20 April 2002. . 
Decker, Dwight. "Fredric Wertham - Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate". The Art Bin. 1997. 25 April 2002. .
Duin, Steve and Mike Richardson. Comics: Between the Panels. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Comics, 1998. 25-30 70+.
"Good Guys, Bad Girls, Bondage and Spandex". About.Com. July 1999. 28 April 2002. .
Gore, Bobby. Personal Interview. 3 December 2003.
Kurtzman, Harvey. From Aargh! to Zap! Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the 
Comics. NY, NY: Prentice Hall Press,1991. Fiche # 3-MDY+ 02-7282.
Mifsud, Bill. Personal Interview. 18 November 2001.
Rich, Jamie and Bob Schreck. Free Speeches. Portland, Oregon: Oni Press Inc., 1998.
"Robert Crumb". Comic Art and Graffix Gallery. 1992. 1 June 2002. .
Solveig, Singleton. "Privacy As Censorship: A Skeptical View of Proposals to Regulate Privacy in the Private Sector- Policy Analysis No. 295". Cato Institute. January 22, 1998.
Waiter, Stanley and Stephen Bissette. Comic Book Rebels: Conversations With the Creators of the New Comics. NY, NY: Donald Fine, 1992. JFE  03-10824.
Wertham, Dr. Frederic. Seduction of the Innocent. NY, NY: Rinehart & Co, 1954.

Written Fall 2003. All writing (c) comicfairy. Please do NOT steal...Ask & ye shall receive. :)
PLEASE NOTE: This essay, while similar to my other essay here (on censorship) is different. ^_-

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