SPX Talks: Charles Brownstein, Executive Director, CBLDF / by Alex Jarvis

Full disclosure, though I am not sure it's required: I am a card-carrying member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. And I do mean that; I have a card featuring the Green Lantern, proudly proclaiming, "GUARDIAN OF FREE SPEECH!" I made a beeline for the CBLDF booth day one of SPX, and got some time with Charles Brownstein. I could immediately tell two things. One, this was a man who cared deeply about this medium. Two, he was as talkative as I was. Which was great. With many people, I am constantly mulling over my next line, trying to analyze and anticipiate what the next sentence should be. With Brownstein, I found myself actively listening to the stories and examples he had to give. I would normally advise you to read the interview here, but I am going to mix it up a little this time: Right now, and I mean right now, go to their website and give them the 25 bucks it takes to become a member. It's a tax-deductable donation, and it goes to a great cause. Spend the price of a graphic novel to make sure you'll get to read them in the future. Plus, you get a really cool card. After that is done, feel free to read about the work your money just went to support in this great interview with Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the CBLDF. -Alex

Alex: I don’t hate superhero comics. As I mentioned as Green Lantern is a big draw for me. But we’d like to shine a light on non-superhero comics because perhaps they are in the shadow of the genre. You know, you wouldn’t assume anything about a person because they read books, but if you say you read comics, people automatically think it’s junk. So that’s just us. So if you wouldn’t mind explaining yourself and your role in the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Charles Brownstein: Sure. I’m Charles Brownstein and I’m the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and we are a not-for-profit organization that protects the First Amendment rights of the comic book field. We started in 1986 in response to a case where a clerk at a comic book store in Lansing, Illinois was arrested for selling adult comics to an adult undercover police officer. Since then we have been fighting on behalf of the industry in legal defense actions involving comics' First Amendment rights. We've also been fighting against the stigma that comics are strictly for children and half-wits and should not be read by adults and that any comic that speaks to adults is in some way dangerous and so we’ve had to fight that stigma over time and most importantly we are at the front lines protecting readers, artists, and retailers anytime that their First Amendment rights are challenged.

A: The First Amendment is the big protection here. What is so scary about comic books do you think?

CB: I think that comic books come under fire both currently and historically because of the power of the static image. In the 1940s and 50s, censors went after the publishers of comic books because there was an allegation that the material somehow appealed to the baser impulses of children and that they should be outlawed and prohibited and the censors won. They put comics on the stand in a Senate subcommittee hearing (1954) and Bill Gaines, crashing on diet pills, voluntarily walked into their line of questioning to disastrous results. The industry had to clamp down with the comic book code to preserve itself and in doing so it also took out Gaines and other publishers that were doing work that appealed to a wide audience.

In the 1980s, when the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was started, the forces of censorship started going after retailers who were selling comics to adults and selling comics that spoke to what adults do in their lives. The comics that were targeted were R. Crumb, and ElfQuest, and Cherry Poptart and Richard Corben, you know, stuff we now look at and go, “Oh yeah, these are important artists.” But then, the attitude was, "Well this is a medium for kids and they are trying to warp kids by selling them this stuff,"again going back to that 1950s stigma. And so the fund had to come to be so that we could protect the medium and the retailers and point out that this is art that is protected by the First Amendment which says the government has no business prohibiting the exercise of free expression and the exchange of ideas.

And the struggle continues. In the 1990s they started to go after artists, famously Mike Diana was tried and convicted for drawing comics that the local police alleged were obscene and they just stung him. They created an operation were they gained his trust by corresponding with him through the mail and he sent them his comic, his mini-comic Boiled Angel, and they alleged this underground comic that depicted this kind of outrageous S. Clay Wilson-inspired art about taboo subject matter, they alleged was obscene and they put him on trial and when he was convicted he was not allowed to draw in his own home. And that was probably the worst miscarriage of justice that I’ve ever seen towards art, that an artist is told he can’t draw.

And today, the censorship forces are moving against readers. And no, there is no organized conspiracy of censors that sits around and goes, “We are going to target comic books,” but there are instances where the culture will attack art because they’re saying, “This is speaking to things we do not want to speak of.” So right now the CBLDF needs to raise $100,000 by the end of October to contribute to a case involving an American citizen who is facing a minimum sentence of one year in a Canadian prison because Japanese horror and fantasy comics that he was carrying with him were flagged by authorities in Canada that said this is child pornographic material. And one is a fantasy comic dōjinshi—dōjinshi is Japanese fan comic and there is a robust Japanese culture of it—depicting a 900-year-old forest creature having sexual congress with a young looking magic warrior girl. And the other involves chibis, which are this diminutive cartoon cutesy super-deformed style character, which is very popular in Japan. These chibi characters are in a wide variety of sexual positions. The customs officials looked at that and said well, these are clearly 4-year-olds having sex, you’re a pervert and we need to lock you up for this. And every time, to go back to your original question, comic books are targeted because I think the power of the static image just confronts you and it’s in front of you and it’s easy to take out of context. Film moves along, a book you need to put together in your own mind, a painting you need to pay a museum to get in to see, a comic book you can pull off a shelf and you can go, “Why is that man naked?”

A: You’re allowed to linger.

CB: Yeah. And we just have these moments where people in the culture say, “We just don’t want this to be explored and we’re going to fight it.” And there needs to be organizations like the CBLDF that are fighting back, because humans are curious and humans do a lot of different things and humans have a lot to say about being humans and to limit the art form that marries words and pictures as a reading form to that which is safe for children is to really impair this powerful medium.

A: Now I want to go back to the Comics Code. Does the CBLDF have any stance on the Comics Code? Because I believe, if memory serves, about a few years ago DC and Marvel recently threw off the Code.

CB: Well, the Comics Code Authority shut down this year after basically being toothless and ineffective for the last several years. Marvel walked out on it years ago, DC and Archie kept it going for years, but it really lost its effectiveness in the 1980s. Now that it’s dead, we can think about it in its totality.

I think that the Code started out of business necessity. You had comic books on trial on television with the Senate subcommittee hearing where Frederic Wertham was spouting his weird junk science about how, “I work at this home for disturbed juvenile delinquents and they all read comic books and therefore comic books cause juvenile delinquency,” which is not that different from the cause and effect arguments of what you hear about video games today. Then William Gaines voluntarily taking the stand and just making young man mistakes by saying things like, "Yes, I do think that the picture of a woman’s severed head in the hand of a man wielding an ax is in perfectly good taste for a horror comic cover," made it worse. Because the next day, of course, the media took it out of context and says, “Crime Comics Publisher Says Decapitated Corpse in Good Taste,” and this is what your kids are reading.

Well, with that kind of negative publicity reaching a fever pitch, the industry was, “Well, Jesus, they’re trying to pull us off the shelves, they’re trying to put us out of business, we got to do something drastic.” So they created the Code and I think part of it was self-preservation, I think, and this is my personal opinion, part of it was punitive. It’s like, what are the names of these Gaines kid’s comics? You cannot have the word crime on your cover, you cannot have the word fear on your cover, because you didn’t need to go up there jack-ass and you just screwed us. I think that was just part of it, I think the larger part was business self-preservation. It infantilized the medium for a generation. Over time the Comics Code became irrelevant, as it should have.

Does the Fund have a stance on that? I think the only thing that is important in any rating system is that it be voluntary and provide guidance for the consumer and for the retailer and for the parent. It shouldn’t be compulsory. It shouldn’t be the government is saying that you must label these things in this fashion. We just fought against the California law that was trying to do that with video games. And we wrote an amicus brief in Brown v EMA which was decided last June. We wrote a brief saying that a state should not have the right to regulate violent content and we explicitly cited the history of comics and how we’ve been censored and that was actually cited by Justice Scalia in his majority opinion. So if it’s voluntary, I see no issue. If it’s compulsory, then that’s the government violating the spirit of the First Amendment.

A: Do you feel the prevalence of superhero comics… is that in any way, do you think, because of the Comics Code and the idea that superheroes, in their digestibility, in their compactness, their theoretical wholesomeness, despite Batman and Robin, do you feel that they were the medium, the representation of the medium, that was allowed to survive or is their success a relative fluke or some sort of other phenomenon.

CB: Well, first of all, just to your Batman and Robin aside, just another aside, I think a lot of those characters were written for boys whose fathers were killed in the war and I don’t think there was anything perverse about Batman and Robin.

A: Oh, neither do I. I was simply referencing, of course, the famous attitude of the time.

CB: But I think it’s important, and a fact we don’t relate to that, because we haven’t seen a generation torn asunder by war. But if you look at these early comics, a lot of that was speaking to kids that were going off to fight in Europe and were read by kids going off to fight in Europe and they were also read by kids whose dad went off to fight in Europe and you know what, in that context, yeah, I wish my dad was Superman. If I’m nine years old in 1944, I’m going to relate to that. In regards to why superheroes survived, it was the dominant seller I guess. But in the 1950s, romance comics survived, media tie-in comics survived, superhero comics survived, as you mentioned. What else survived? … Westerns. But you know, so it wasn’t so much that the superheroes were the only thing that came out. I guess it was just that the culture’s taste changed enough that that was the one thing comics did best in the long run. I don’t know, I’m just speculating.

Beth: Do you think it might have been, as you said before, the Comics Code did their part to infantilize comic books for a while? Do you think it had something to do with that? Because I mean, superheroes really do appeal to the kid that wants to be the most powerful in his class. And it does seem that the comics that did survive are the ones that do appeal to a younger audience. I mean, that could just be me.

CB: No, it’s a fact that the comics that survived appeal to a younger audience, and it’s a fact that Mort Weisinger’s Superman comics are so incredibly stupid that they definitely appeal to five-year-old kids and now we look back at them with a kind of charm of the time.

A: Have you read any of Grant Morrison’s Supergod comics?

CB: No I haven’t read it yet, it’s sitting on my desk.

Alex: I’ll tell you, there’s some funny psychology when you look at some of these powers, as an aside. Fun psychology of these writers talking about a superman sprouting a six-inch-tall superman that fights for him. That’s diagnosable.

CB: But I don’t know, I don’t think that there’s anything perverse about… no, that’s the wrong word. I think market forces are what made superheroes survive. I think most of these things just come down to what people want to read. And I think that superheroes are more than children, that’s evidenced by box office takes today. But there’s a certain, you know, power wish that goes into these things.

A: One last question. In your opinion, what can be done by fans of the medium to both increase awareness of smaller, not necessarily non-superhero but certainly less traditional superhero genre comics, and increase the awareness of the CBLDF?

CB: That's two questions. I’ll tackle the superhero one first. 20 years ago, not to sound like an old man at my age, but 20 years ago, superhero comics represented 90% of everything that was in the comic book store, which was really the only place you could find comics in any kind of depth. Ten years before that, superhero comics represented 98%. Today, superhero comics might only represent 60% of what’s read in the United States, maybe less, if you include Manga, and so I don’t know if anything needs to be done on an activist level to increase awareness of non-superhero comics. I think as long as people are interested in comics, their tastes are going to lead them to where they want to go and we’re no longer in an era where if you were interested in comics you had to read about superheroes. We’re here at SPX and there’s a room full of stories that are written about a diversity of human experiences from appealing to a six-year-old to appealing to a 60-year-old. So I don’t know that I see any great need to raise awareness outside of it. I just think that people should be celebrating the fact that we have this robust medium of expression that continues to grow and continues to say interesting things and just get better every year. We’re in a golden age.

In terms of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, I think people should go to see the CBLDF.org website and read about our important casework and they should be aware that there are cases being brought by our tax dollars in our name against expressive art, and they should, if they are offended by this, take action by letting other people know by making a donation to our work, by objecting to laws that are brought in their districts against expressive content. Just by being aware and involved in the communicating that yes, in the 21st century, there are still people trying to tell you how to think and what to think and what not to think. If this offends you, you should speak up and support the organizations like the Fund that are fighting for free expression and fighting for us to be our own compasses of our intellectual development.

A: Earlier you were talking [with us] about volunteering with the CBLDF?

CB: Another way people can get involved with Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to volunteer their time. We are based in New York City and are always looking for people to help us in the office both in program-oriented things, design-orientated things and non-profit administrative oriented things. So if you’re in New York City, please do be in touch. If you’re not in New York City and you want to get involved we’re always looking for people to help us at conventions, to set up information tables at local book fairs or at local comic book shows and we also have a couple of ready-made PowerPoint presentations for people that want to spread the word about the fight for free expression in comics by delivering a talk about the CBLDF to their school or to a group in their community. So we encourage people to get in touch with us. You can reach out to us at info@cbldf.org or just go to CBLDF.org and follow the links and we’ll be glad to share the information with you. The thing about the CBLDF is that we are this gigantic team effort in comics, where we benefit from the work of readers and retailers and creators and publishers and we all come together and stand behind the art form and try to advance the art form. And we can’t do it without you so please join us and be involved.