Book Notes
Picasso unveiled. And the unexpected pleasures of being an animal.

Sunday, July 16, 2006; BW10

Pablo Picasso, Naked in Georgia

Alan Moore better be careful. The long-haired comix genius from England -- whose V for Vendetta was recently turned into a movie and whose Watchmen series Time magazine called one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century -- is about to release his most provocative book. Called Lost Girls , it's produced with the American cartoonist Melinda Gebbie, and it contains explicit depictions of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz engaging together in sex.

Comic book sellers may be reluctant to touch it once they consider the ongoing case of Georgia v. Gordon Lee , which revolves around a much tamer volume published by Alternative Comics.

On Halloween 2004, Lee's store, Legends, gave away some 2,100 comics at a street fair in Rome, Ga. Among them was the anthology Alternative Comics #2 which was accidentally passed to a minor. A few days later, Lee found himself under arrest because AC #2 contains a historically accurate depiction of Picasso's first meeting with the painter Georges Braque. In it, Picasso was pugnacious, potty-mouthed and nude.

District Attorney Leigh Patterson charged Lee with two counts of felony and five counts of misdemeanor. He had, she argued, violated two Georgia laws: the Distribution of Material Depicting Nudity or Sexual Conduct law and the Distribution of Material Harmful to Minors law.

The first makes it a felony to deliver printed materials that contain nudity with out enclosing said materials in a properly-labeled envelope. That means passing your neighbor an uncovered reproduction of Picasso's "Les Mademoiselles d'Avignon" could land you three years in jail.

The second, a misdemeanor, is being applied in a way that suggests that no retailer can give minors materials that contain nudity, even if the material isn't sexual. That means no sharing The Ultimate Picasso with anyone under 18.

The felony charges and three of the misdemeanor counts were dismissed in a pre-trial hearing in December 2005. By then, Lee's case had become the cause celebre of a comics world worried about the precedents that it could set. "all comics industry eyes should focus on Northwest Georgia," declared Tom Spurgeon on his popular online news outlet, the Comics Reporter.

Then on Sunday, April 3, 2006, 18 hours before Lee's jury trial, the case hit another kink. Patterson's team called the defense to say that they had made a mistake. The alleged victim wasn't a 9-year-old boy. It was his 6-year-old brother. Or maybe it was both. They still weren't sure. In any case, the prosecution was dropping all charges against Lee -- and filing new ones right away.

"We were all stunned by this new information," says Charles Brownstein of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), which has invested roughly $80,000 in Lee's defense. Among other things, the news meant false testimony had been presented under oath during the pre-trial.

The prosecution has not divulged how it made the mistake. Lee, for his part, still stands charged with two misdemeanors -- though a new victim is named in the accusation -- and he still faces the possibility of spending two years in jail.

The drama has already affected how A.J. Kocher, co-owner of Fantasy Factory in nearby Dalton, Ga., will handle Lost Girls when it's released in August. "We are a smaller community, very similar to the community that Gordon is in," Kocher says. "We will special order it for anybody, but we will not have it out on display." After all, you never know where those copies might wind up.

Fido Wants Fun, Too

Since the 1859 publication of Darwin's The Origin of the Species , scientists have indulged a rather Hobbesian view of animals: that they're selfish, brutish and bent on nothing but survival. But D.C.-based biologist Jonathan Balcombe takes issue with the Hobbesian view. On a recent Sunday, working the podium at Politics & Prose book store, the poised, almost balletic scientist argued for a full range of bestial motivations. Beyond hunger, reproduction, survival and pain, Balcombe posited pleasure. His animal-loving audience purred.

Balcombe first stumbled upon his idea in Assateague, Va., while spying on two fish crows happily grooming each other in a marsh.

Stepping back from his telescope, Balcombe thought, "What have I read about pleasure in animals?" By that point, he'd studied biology for 10 years in three different universities. He'd spent countless hours probing through scholarly journals and reading books about nature. "My jaw rather dropped," he said, "to realize that I hadn't read anything" on the subject.

Thus Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan, $24.95), the first survey of pleasure in animals, was born.

Going against his training, Balcombe prowled for other examples of pleasure, turning up more than enough for a book. The results contribute, he says, to "a revolution" in the field.

Balcombe baited his audience with tidbits of research -- lettuce-loving iguanas, bunnies who somersault in joy-induced flips. Lemurs and capuchin monkeys, he said, harvest millipedes for nibbling and rubbing on their lips, savoring the "very powerful defense chemicals" the millipedes produce. The monkeys "get floppy and drooly," he said. "They kind of hang out. And in parallel with certain human behavior that might be familiar to some, they pass [the millipede] around." The audience laughed.

Balcombe doesn't throw Darwin out with the bathwater. He's simply broadening the field of interpretation. Pleasure, he argues, is adaptive. "The way I like to put it," he said, "is: Just as pain is nature's way of punishing bad or dangerous behaviors, pleasure is nature's way of rewarding good or adaptive behaviors."

But he's quick to admit that, in the case of the aforementioned monkeys, pleasure could be "maladaptive" as well. A lemur under the influence "might be more vulnerable to predation," he said. "Or he might fall out of a tree."

-- Marcela Valdes

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