Is the comic book community ready for dialogue about censorship and responsibility?

I attended the seminar held by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) this year (1998 Comic-Con) as well as two years ago.  The fund's Executive Director, Chris Oarr, gave a prepared presentation and then opened it up to Q&A.  It was not an easy thing for me to sit through because I disagree with the prevailing opinion of, at least, the attendees of the seminar but probably the comic book community at large.  My objections to the position of the CBLDF are probably very similar to those I have with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which makes sense since these two organizations work closely.  I would like to outline the CBLDF's position and provide some background information, state my problem with the fund's position, and offer a more reasonable approach for the comics community to consider.

The CBLDF's Articles of Incorporation state:  "The purposes shall be for charitable, educational and literary purposes, specifically defense of constitutional rights relating to speech and press, and from relief from arbitrary discrimination by authorities concerning the literary subject matter.  This corporation's activities and disbursements shall be solely in support of the forgoing purpose and in compliance with Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code, or corresponding section of any future federal tax code."  ( Susan Alston, Official CBLDF Newsletter, Summer 1997 )

According to Chris Oarr, executive director of the CBLDF, "We are first amendment absolutists". He explained that the charter of the fund is to fight censorship and defend the first amendment rights of comic book professionals throughout the United States.  The CBLDF is a non-profit organization that raises money for its cause at conventions around the country.  It provides legal defense for comic book shops and creators who are facing prosecution or law suits related to their work or wares. 

Recently, certain organizations have been cracking down on comics they consider inappropriate or over the line of decency.  Apparently, they have been having success in court battles by using this approach of "harmful to children" instead of using the more difficult to prove "obscenity" charge.

The comic book industry is faced with a particularly awkward situation.  Most people seem to assume that comic books are just for kids.  Well, in case you are unaware, comics are not just for kids anymore.  I don't know the actual statistics, but a large percentage of comics in this country are written for and read by adults.  What that means is that there are hundreds of comics out there that are unsuitable for children.  Now if the majority of Americans still believe that comic books are a kid's medium, then when they see adult oriented comics (and I mean sick stuff here), they are going to freak and call for something to be done.

I believe that freedom of speech is extremely important to defend and for that I commend the CBLDF for its good intentions.  However... It is my belief that, in general, the extremity of one's position is inversely proportional to the accuracy of the position.  The CBLDF currently holds an extremist position, namely, that freedom of speech is absolute.  You may be asking what is wrong with that?  Well, let me try to illustrate the problem with the response given to a question brought up in the seminar.  One of the conventioneers asked Chris whether or not responsibility had any place in either the creation of comics or the displaying of them in comic book shops.  The questioner further pointed out that several of the comic book shops and creators that have been brought to court could have avoided it by acting in a more responsible manner.  For instance, they should have limited children's access to the more heinous material.  Chris responded with some extraordinary comments.  One thing he said was that the only responsibility of a comic book creator is to his/her muse.  Secondly, he said that everyone knows of material that they would not find acceptable so who is to say what is good and what is bad?

There is a fundamental problem with limiting one's responsibility in creating comics to what the muse dictates.  It is this, none of us live in a vacuum but rather in a community.  What we do and think affects others either positively or negatively.  For our free society to endure, which is still in the experimental stages, we must have an ethical populace.  In other words, the majority of our citizens must adhere to certain rules of behavior and consideration for others for our form of government to function.  Any position that affords no room for personal responsibility with regard to society is flawed and extreme.

I also have a problem with Chris' statement that no one should judge the work of others.  If no one can judge, then who can?  It is an indefensible statement because judgment is not only acceptable but required, again for our society to work.  He admitted that he has made judgments on certain comic books by the very fact that he said he thinks some of them are unsuitable for children.  The unwillingness to make moral judgments is one of the more pervasive fallacies in our modern society.  If you accept the premise I put forth earlier about an ethical populace then you must accept that judgment on whether certain things are good or bad is essential.  So I find his second point not only extreme and simplistic but just plain wrong.

Now, the real friction occurs when we talk about what should be done as the result of our judgments.  The CBLDF believes that the other side wants to censor certain comics.  I am sure there are those who would actually outlaw these books.  I am not one of them.  I am saying these books are irresponsible and at the same time saying they should not be outlawed.  So what then?

To begin with, the CBLDF could adopt a more discerning position towards its clients.  For instance, the CBLDF and the industry at large should be willing to freely state the truth about, let's just take one example, Mike Diana's Boiled Angel.  The truth about his work is that it is sick, not suitable for children, and nearly devoid of any positive effect on society.  (Sure, go ahead and crucify me now, I actually said it, but you know you've thought it!)

In an April 1998 article, Chris Oarr warned:

"For those who doubt the CBLDF's relevance to their store, I have a message for you: There is something somewhere on your racks that is bound to offend somebody. And I don't just mean 'underground' comics, 'adult' comics, or so-called "bad girl" comics.  I am also talking about the died-in-the-wool superhero books that make up the majority of Diamond's Top 100, the kind of comic we all grew up reading."

Well, if the CBLDF continues to make no distinction between questionable material and undisputed heinous material then what does he expect? Of course, retailers and creators don't appreciate being equated with pedophiles and worse.  You can still defend the pedophiles' right to publish their works, but why not show that you are not an extremist by freely stating what we all know to be true about them? The CBLDF could also consider self policing, voluntary labeling, and common sense guidelines all aimed at an environment of full disclosure of the material that is available.

Self policing sounds militant but let me explain what I mean by the term.  The comic book community could be more willing to denounce heinous material and criticize it all the while recognizing its right to exist.  Just because irresponsible creators have the right does not mean that their works are morally equivalent to any other work.  The CBLDF should also be more open about the kinds of works they are defending and deal head on with their own consciences.  Sometimes we have to do things that are distasteful, like defending heinous material.  But the way to deal with the discomfort is not to engage in denial but rather to be honest with ourselves and the public and state the case clearly and objectively.

Voluntary labeling could go a long way towards easing the hostilities on both sides of this issue.  The "politically correct" and the extreme religious right, are winning their court battles by claiming that many of the more disgusting comic books are "harmful to children".  Well, if children's access to these works was strictly monitored by the retailers, then much of their argument would be nullified.  Voluntary labeling would make it much easier to protect minors from gaining access to these books.

I mention common sense guidelines above merely to recognize that the responsibility of the comic book community to working with society should be and ongoing and dynamic process.  As certain problems and concerns arise, the comic book community should be the first to look for a solution rather than to wait for the censors and "politically correct" to force theirs on the industry.

In conclusion, if the prevailing opinion expressed in this seminar is the community's at large, then I don't believe it is ready for a dialogue on censorship and responsibility.  I do feel that the CBLDF has a vital role to play in protecting our right to freedom of speech in this country.  However, I have expressed why I believe the CBLDF currently holds an extremist, and therefore flawed, position.  I think a good first step is to be honest and open about the works in question.  Let's be willing to call things as they are and not hide behind the myth of universal moral equivalency.  In my never to be humble opinion, self policing, voluntary labeling, and common sense guidelines are a good start and a positive step in the direction of a creative yet responsible comic book community.  I look forward to next year's CBLDF seminar to see where we are at on these difficult issues.

--Bugs  March 23, 1999


Q: Isn't voluntary labeling just another form of censorship?

A: Unfortunately, voluntary labeling is considered "censorship" by the CBLDF.  A system of voluntary labeling would increase the awareness of all people that come in contact with the subject matter and yet this enhanced free environment is opposed by the very organization that claims the First Amendment as its mantra.  Here is another example of why the comic book community is not ready for a dialogue on responsibility.  During this meeting one of the conventioneers mentioned a voluntary self labeling system and several of the other members stated how if people knew what was in the book then they might not buy it and therefore that is a form of censorship.  Answers like this seriously call into question the motivations of the supporters of the CBLDF.  You cannot support free speech for your clients while denying it to your opponents and claim that you stand for absolute freedom of speech.  If a local community considers a work obscene, it should have the right to say so because that is also protected speech.

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