Tom Neely & Dylan Williams Speak Out On Their Customs Seizure Experience

May 12, 2011
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Last weekend artist Tom Neely and publisher Dylan Williams were stopped and searched by Canada Customs on their way to the Toronto Comics Art Festival. Customs officers seized copies of two items they were bringing to the festival, Black Eye, an anthology of comics Neely contributed to, and Young Lions, a graphic novel by Blaise Larmee. The CBLDF caught up with Neely & Williams over email when they returned to the United States to learn more details about their ordeal.

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CBLDF: Please explain how you were bringing your comics into Canada.

Dylan Williams: Tom Neely and I were bringing books in that we didn’t have time to ship to the Toronto Comics Art Festival. We like to drive in from Buffalo but have been unlucky with customs every time for different reasons.

Tom Neely: Dylan Williams and I both flew into Buffalo and rented a car to drive to Toronto (way cheaper than flying into Toronto for some reason). We both had a suitcase full of books to bring to TCAF. When they asked us to pull over and show our invoices to the border patrol office, we followed the advice that the TCAF organizers sent out last week on how to deal with customs. They said to be honest if they ask about books, have a detailed invoice made out to The Beguiling, you might have to pay a tax, but everything should go smoothly… . We’d been through this before and just had to pay some taxes on the books we were bringing. So, no big deal… right?

CBLDF: Please describe the nature of the search.

Neely: They asked us to stand by the wall of the building and asked for the keys to our car. They opened up our suitcases and pulled out a random sampling of about 5 comic books we had in our bags. Those included Blaise Larmee’s Young Lions and the Black Eye anthology published by Rotland Press, of which I’m a contributor. The security guy asked us what the books were. We described them as “art comics” and he said he was going to take them inside for review. While we waited, two other security guards came out, opened the car and proceeded to pull out everything in the entire vehicle, pulled out a copy every book, and then went back inside.

Williams: The customs people pulled us over because we were important merchandise. One agent went through our bags and pulled out a sample of books. He then came back out with Black Eye and Young Lions and asked us about them. Then two more agents came out and searched every bag in our car. They damaged some books. They we all really nice however, especially the first agent who talked with us about the content of the book.

CBLDF: Do you feel that the fact that you were bringing in comic books or graphic novels played a part in the search?

Williams: Not really. At least they never mentioned that to us. They seemed more interested in sex than anything else.

Neely: The fact that we were bringing books in with the purpose of selling them is what prompted the search. I have no idea if “comic books” was a definite factor.

CBLDF: Please describe how they notified you that they would be seizing your property. Were you offered any recourse?

Williams: The first agent told us very nicely. He’d even given us a chance to explain the books. We’d said they were humor and art. Both Tom and I forgot to mention that both books were made in Canada, realizing later on that might have made a difference to them. They are sending the books to Ottawa where they will be officially reviewed. They said they’d send the books back if there is no problem and keep them if there was. He was a little unclear on what else would be done at that point. No recourse was offered really, but he had given us the chance to explain the books.

Neely: The first security guard was very polite and understanding. He reassured us by explaining what was happening throughout the process. So, he came back out with Young Lions and Black Eye and asked us to tell him what these books were. Dylan explained that Blaise’s book was a a semi-auo-biographical story. The guard flipped it open to a page he marked and pointed to a character and said “These drawings look like children…” and he flipped to another page and pointed out a panel in which two characters are kissing, and said that he thought would be inappropriate if they were “children.” I told him that I remembered an interview with Blaise where he said they were “first year art students in art school.” and he asked “Can you find anything in this book that would indicate their age?” Dylan flipped through and found a panel of a character mentioning an “unemployment check” and that a kid wouldn’t have that. The guard said “okay that might help…” and that he’d have to take it back inside for another look.

He then asked about Black Eye and who had made the book. I told him I contributed a couple of illustrations to it, and that I was bringing them over for the publisher. He flipped it open to a page of Onsmith Jeremy gag panels (many of which depict some rather extreme examples of dark humor – like men having sex with dead women) and asked me about them. I said “It’s an anthology of dark humor, and all of the work is an extreme form of satire.” He said something about a strip of someone “peeing on another person” and that that is not allowed in Canada. I told him I understood, and again mentioned they are “art comics” and “satire.” He replied that he understood it as “art” but that he just couldn’t let something like this through the border. He said he’d be back and went back inside again for further scrutiny of the material.

A little later he came back out and explained that they couldn’t allow Young Lions of Black Eye across the border. I asked if we could ship them back home, and he explained that they had to send them to Ottawa to be reviewed by a board who would decide if it was “obscene material” or not. If they deemed it “obscene, they will then pursue further action…” I asked “what does ‘further action’ mean? Am I going to get arrested?” and he said “No, they’ll probably just destroy the books. Or they may just ship them back to you.” He gave us a receipt for the seized property and then told us we could go.

It was a bit nerve-racking, but the guard was so helpful and reassuring, that the whole thing went rather smoothly.

The outcome of this incident is pending, but customs searches and seizures of comics are an ongoing concern.  Please contact CBLDF to notify us of other incidents involving comic books, and read our advisory for travelers on crossing borders with comic book materials.  It’s available here as a Word document, and here as a PDF file.

Please support the CBLDF’s coverage and defense of free speech issues like this by making a donation today!