Archive for the ‘Free Press’ Category

Michigan restricts nude drawings

Wednesday, November 5th, 2003
Free Press

A new law promoted as a way to keep porn magazines and videos out of sight of children went on the books today in the state of Michigan. Unfortunately, like most laws of this sort, it has potentially much broader consequences. The wording of the law could be applied to mainstream women’s and men’s magazines, R-rated movies, romance novels, clinical sex manuals, CDs… and comic books. Comics aren’t mentioned by name, but whether you call them magazines, books, or even pamphlets, they are (literally) covered by this law.

The law, known during its time in the legislature as H.B. 4360, requires that items containing “sexually explicit matter” have the bottom 2/3 of their covers hidden, or that they be placed in an “adults only” part of the store with restricted access. Store owners or managers who fail to do this could spend 93 days in jail and pay a $5,000 fine. Actually letting a minor examine the material is punishable by two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. (There are exceptions for parents, physicians, and - under some circumstances - librarians and educators.) It was passed without a single “nay” vote from either party, and Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who came to political prominence through her efforts as state Attorney General to protect children from sex-related dangers on the internet, signed it.

The law defines “sexually explicit matter” to include (among other things) “a book, magazine, or pamphlet that contains… a picture, photograph, drawing, [etc.] … that depicts nudity, sexual excitement, erotic fondling, sexual intercourse, or sadomasochistic abuse…” (emphasis added). Note that the nudity doesn’t need to be obscene, lewd, or provocative. Written materials have to contain “explicit and detailed” descriptions to be covered by this law, and written descriptions of mere nudity aren’t affected. But drawings don’t have that qualifier on them; all they have to do is “depict”, and “nudity” of any kind is sufficient. The thinly veiled sex scene in a recent issue of The Avengers could possibly qualify for this, Doc Manhattan paraded all through Watchmen fully naked, and certainly any number of Vertigo books have “depicted nudity”. Under the terms of this law, they should be placed in adults-only sections of the store, or kept behind the counter with 2/3-height boards over the covers.

One of the fundamental contradictions of this law is that it fails to take into account the adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. It screws this around in the opposite direction, by requiring the covers to be shielded based on the (not visible) contents of the book. For example, a hardcore porn magazine whose cover showed only a smiling, fully-clothed photograph of one of the models, would have to be blocked from the view of children. Meanwhile, a more provocative image on the cover of Maxim would be unaffected, since the material inside skirts just below the thresholds of this law. An amendment to change the focus of the bill from the content to what was apparent from the actual covers, was defeated.

This places an extra burden on shop owners, especially comics shop owners, who get a big batch of new mags to put on the shelves every week. They can’t just look at the covers to see what books they need to cover up; they need to check the contents of each one. And unlike the rules against selling explicit material to minors - which clerks could conceivably enforce as they ring up purchases, by paying special attention to the selections of children and teens, but just ringing up everything purchased by all the middle-aged men - this cover-covering assessment has to be done before the books are shelved. Or not shelved.

That’s the most likely outcome of all this. By making extra work for retailers, and requiring them to actually hide merchandise from customers (not just prevent children from looking through it), it becomes decreasingly profitable to carry anything with nudity in it. Which is, of course, the real objective of the law. If they were merely concerned about kids being casually exposed to sexual images - which is what the sponsors and the lobbyists behind it claim, and a reasonable goal - they would’ve limited the focus of the law to the covers.

Heck, most porn publishers already keep the front covers semi-nude at most (Playboy routinely looks more chaste than Cosmo), and the rest rarely get stocked outside of adults-only retailers. This “shield the kids’ eyes” rationale was merely an excuse to further restrict the sale of magazines, videos, etc. based on their content. And it gives yet another tool for prosecutors and citizen censors to use against freedom of the press for comics.

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Friday, October 10th, 2003
Free Press

I once got in trouble because of sexually explicit comics on my web site. Fortunately, the only thing it cost me was the goodwill of my employer (who owned the machine the site was hosted on), which led to me leaving that job. I didn’t get in trouble with the law. If it had been The Man who came down on me (rather than The Boss), I might have turned to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for help. The CBLDF is kind of like the ACLU of the comics industry, providing legal support for comics creators and retailers who are threatened with legal action while exercising their First-Amendment rights.

The CBLDF was founded in 1986, to defend the manager of Friendly Frank’s, a comics store in Lansing IL. He had been convicted of possessing and selling “obscene” comics, including the critically-acclaimed Omaha the Cat Dancer (an anthropomorphic-animals series about a professional stripper and the various people in her life). Denis Kitchen (of Kitchen Sink Press, publishers of Omaha) organised a fund-raising effort to pay for the manager’s appeal, which he won. The left-over funds became the CBLDF’s “war chest”.

Not that $20,000 is a lot of money when it comes to litigation. Lawyers aren’t cheap, and the kinds of experts you need to defend these kinds of cases (especially appeals) are even less so. You can spend several times that much on just a single trial, which is why the CBLDF does fund-raising all the time.

The CBLDF has participated in several other key cases in the past 17 years, with varying levels of success. They helped defend the owners of Planet Comics in Oklahoma City OK (who kept adults-only comics in a box behind the counter, but were raided by the police), Paul Mavrides (who argued that the California tax code should treat original comics art as art, not commercial property), Mike Diana (convicted of producing “obscene” comics and sentenced by the Florida courts to stop drawing), Tim Truman and Joe Lansdale (sued by Johnny and Edgar Winter for parodying them in a Jonah Hex comic), Jesus Castillo (convicted of selling an adults-only comic to an adult undercover cop in Dallas TX). I plan to write up each of these cases for future articles, explaining what was at stake, and how each one played out.

In the meantime, there’s a lot information about the organisation and their work on their web site. I encourage anyone who can afford it to join (and anyone who can afford to spend money every week on funnybooks can afford it) or to buy some of the cool merchandise they sell/auction to raise money.