By William Weir
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Comics have gained a certain gravitas in recent years: Graphic novels are reviewed alongside conventional books, and universities offer courses on comic book theory. A glut of news stories tell us of comics' newfound maturity.
The courts, though, have not adapted so readily.
"We still have to deal with prosecutors who will look at a jury and say, 'Come on -- comics are for kids. Let's call a spade a spade,' " says Charles Brownstein of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
It's a stigma, he says, that still causes problems for the industry when it comes to obscenity charges or arguing fair use in copyright cases. That's why Brownstein's group has earned gratitude -- and often financial support -- from those in the comics world.
"Everyone's got to have his own advocate," says Frank Miller, who created the comic book "Sin City." "My comic book retailer down the street, he can't expect the ACLU to keep him in business over a fight over one comic book. This is a tribal thing; it's a familial thing, and every group has to take care of its own."
The 27-year-old Brownstein took over as executive director of the CBLDF three years ago. With a goatee and dark clothing, he looks like everyone's idea of a comic book aficionado, albeit one who rattles off case law at a dizzying clip. He previously was a journalist who started his own comics fanzine when he was 15. The law stuff he learned on the job.
With a three-person staff, the defense fund is run out of a small office on Madison Avenue in New York. The nonprofit organization was founded by comic book artist Dennis Kitchen in 1986, more than 30 years after the industry's first major run-in with the authorities -- a Senate hearing on the destructive influence of comics on children. Things didn't go comics' way that day, and a restrictive Comics Code Authority was soon established. Ever since, comics and the law have had a strained relationship.
The field of comics law is littered with weird details. One landmark case involved two villainous half-human, half-worm brothers named Johnny and Edgar Autumn who graced the pages of DC Comics. They happened to look a lot like the musicians Johnny and Edgar Winter. Less than flattered, the Winter brothers sued in 1996 on such grounds as defamation and invasion of privacy. DC Comics won the case in 2003, partly because the courts ruled that comics can be considered a significant form of expression.
The industry is now closely watching former hockey player Tony Twist's lawsuit against artist Todd McFarlane, who cast the athlete as a mob boss. A St. Louis jury awarded Twist $24.5 million, though that decision has been appealed.
There's been progress, Tom Batiuk says, but comics still struggle for the same acceptance as books and movies.
"It's just as important if [comic book artists] start losing their rights, or start getting censored -- I just think they're an underappreciated medium," says Batiuk, who draws the daily "Funky Winkerbean" comic strip.
The defense fund raises money through membership fees and with the help of comic-book artists; earlier this summer, artists auctioned off the right to name characters in their future comic books. Brian Bendis auctioned off the chance to be drawn as a corpse in his "Powers" comic, for which film director Kevin Smith offered the winning bid of $4,000. Writers such as Stephen King and Michael Chabon borrowed the idea recently and auctioned the right to name characters in their upcoming books to benefit the First Amendment Project.
The defense fund's efforts are important for an industry with few financial resources, Miller says. Book publishers and movie studios have plenty of resources to fight censorship attempts, but the comics industry mainly consists of artists with day jobs and mom-and-pop stores.
"We don't have the massive clout that Hollywood does," says Miller, whose "Sin City" was released as a movie this year. "These censorious creeps out there are less willing to go after Warner Brothers than Joe's Comics Shop."