History of Comics Censorship, Part 3

Below is a web-friendly version of the CBLDF presentation on the history of comics censorship, which has been delivered to audiences of scholars, lawyers, advocates and readers in the United States. Please contact CBLDF about bringing this presentation to your group.

Fandom Carries The Torch

By the mid-1970s, the outlook for the survival of comics in the United States was grim.  Sales on the newsstand were in a steady state of decline.  The economy for Underground Comix collapsed after the Supreme Court’s decision to localize the determination of obscenity made that material more vulnerable to prosecution.  On top of these dire economic factors, the medium was still regarded as promulgating tawdry, low-value speech and that stigma hindered its advance.  Although comic book characters would remain the basis of a number of household name media franchises — Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Incredible Hulk on the small screen, and Superman in movie theaters — that broad popularity failed to translate to a wider appreciation for the comics themselves.

Organized fandom transformed how comics were exchanged, and in doing so transformed the art and commerce of comics.  In the 1970s comic book conventions began to emerge where all styles of comics were bought, sold, celebrated and discussed by dedicated fans.  The conventions provided an environment where dedicated enthusiasts could celebrate the medium in its diversity.  Although the larger world regarded comics as disposable junk, here they were handled with care.  Dealers offered back issues of recent and collectible comics in all genres.   The distinction between underground and mainstream wasn’t an issue in the convention environment.  Here it was all comics.

The comic book specialty store was an outgrowth of this environment, made possible because of the development of the direct sales system, or what is frequently referred to as the Direct Market.  Established by Phil Seuling, a convention organizer and comic book dealer, the direct sales model involved distributors buying comics directly from publishers on a non-returnable basis.  The direct sales system allowed comic book stores to gain access to comic books in better condition, on a timelier basis, and in exactly the quantities they desired.  By selling non-returnable on the basis of orders placed in advance, publishers were able to know exactly what each title would earn, and more significantly, were able to try new material with significantly less risk than the newsstand required.

Direct Market distributors and stores became more numerous by the end of the 1970s.  This created the circumstances for small publishers to emerge, for the large houses to commission more experimental work, and for international work to find a home in the United States.

Comics Grow Up

Thanks to the Direct Market, the 1980s saw an explosion in the subject matter and audience reach comics could achieve.  The “by fans, for fans” marketplace led to a greater appetite for work that took the medium to different places.  As a consequence, new types of stories were told, and new formats, such as the graphic novel, emerged.

In the mainstream, the Direct Market made it possible for Marvel and DC to offer more sophisticated fare than they could on the newsstands.  Marvel’s Epic line of comics and graphic novels, and DC’s sophisticated suspense line wouldn’t have been possible outside the Direct Market — both economically and in terms of censorship mandated by the Code.  When the Code rejected an issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, DC opted to drop the Code from the title and distribute it exclusively into the direct sales environment.  Swamp Thing became the first mainstream comic book series to publish outside of the Comics Code.

Smaller publishers also were able to find an audience.  In the late 1970s, self-publishers began to emerge as viable contributors to the marketplace.  Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest and Dave Sim’s Cerebus blazed trails not only for developing the do-it-yourself comics business model, but for making challenging comics that transcended their genres while reveling in the medium.  The eighties saw a slate of new publishers emerge that would make their offerings the the Direct Market as the principle marketplace.  Some of the titles produced in that climate would become classics in part for their ability to speak without the censorship of the Code.  Books now revered, such as Love & Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez, Miracleman by Alan Moore & collaborators, Alec by Eddie Campbell, and the complete graphic novel output of Will Eisner would simply not have been possible outside of the Direct Market. Nor would the first flowering of manga, which came to the states via translations distributed through comics stores.

1986 marked the high-water mark for this movement, with the publication of the classic works Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. That trifecta placed comics at the heart of the cultural conversation, with coverage in mainstream outlets trumpeting the motto that “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore.”

With mainstream coverage at an all-time high, it looked like comics were poised for a breakthrough after long years of stigma.  But an expanding audience also leads to increasing scrutiny, and the good cheer was not to last long.

Arrested Development

While comics were starting to be reconsidered in general culture, law enforcement was still of the mind that they were for best suited for children and lesser minds.

On November 18, 1986, while “monitoring places where youths congregate” in Lansing, Illinois, Officer Anthony Van Gorp and his partner purchased 15 comics from Michael Correa, manager of the comic book store Friendly Frank’s.  In December, six officers came back and raided the store, seizing seven titles including Omaha the Cat Dancer, Weirdo, and Heavy Metal.  Store manager Michael Correa was arrested and dragged off in handcuffs as police officers shut the store down for five days.  Shortly after the original raid, police added Elektra: Assassin, Love & Rockets, Ms. Tree, Bodessey, and Elfquest to the list of titles for which Correa was facing charges of display of obscene materials.

In “Comics, Courts, & Controversy: A Case Study of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund,” Marc H. Greenberg writes:

The arresting officer, Sergeant Jack Hoestra, told theGary Post-Tribune that, in addition to the legal charges of obscenity, he noticed a “satanic influence” in many of the shop’s comics.  He told the paper: “Oh yes, there was absolutely a lot of satanic influence in the comics there. … If you know what you’re looking for, you can see the satanic influence all over.  Three-quarters of the rock groups today show satanic influence, and it’s all over the television.”

Once again, comic books were on the precipice of growth, and once again censorship threatened to set the medium back.

Standing Up For Our Rights

After being beaten down in the 1950s and 1970s, the comic book community wasn’t going to take the Friendly Frank’s case lying down.

Shortly after the arrest, Denis Kitchen, whose Kitchen Sink Press publishedOmaha the Cat Dancer, met with retailer Greg Ketter at a convention in Minnesota and discussed his feeling of obligation to aid store owner Frank Mangiaracina in defending his manager.  The two set to work developing a portfolio that would help raise money to pay for the defense.  Kitchen found strong support for his desire to help Mangiaracina stand up to the authorities.  He recruited fourteen artists to contribute to the portfolio: Sergio Aragones, Hilary Barta, Reed Waller, Steve Bissette, Bob Burden, Richard Corben, Robert Crumb, Howard Cruse, Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Mitch O’Connell and Don Simpson, and Eric Vincent.  Kitchen also found a printer who produced the portfolio at cost.  The project raised a net profit of $20,000 that would be applied to the defense.  It was placed into a bank account he called Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

While the portfolio was out raising funds, a trial was held.  On January 1, 1988 he was found guilty, fined $750 and sentenced to one year of court supervision.  Kitchen, now in possession of the funds from the portfolio took charge of recruiting a lawyer for the appeal and found First Amendment pioneer Burton Joseph, co-founder of the Media Coalition & Playboy Foundation willing to take up the case. Joseph won the case.

Reasoning that this wouldn’t be the last time comics were threatened in this fashion, the leftover funds from this appeal were placed towards creating a permanent organization to protect comics. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was born!

The CBLDF Fights For Comics!

Since that first case, the CBLDF has served to protect comics, waging legal battles, fighting unconstitutional legislation, and performing advocacy work to ensure comics can continue to grow.

Most of the CBLDF’s efforts are never seen.  That’s because a large portion of our work involves fending off cases before they go to court.

As Manga, comics, and graphic novels become more popular, the CBLDF has become more involved in helping libraries manage crises related to challenges.

Always make the CBLDF your first call in a First Amendment emergency. You can reach us at 1-800-99-CBLDF