Defending the Art: CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein Talks to Graphic Novel Reporter

John Hogan with Graphic Novel Reporter recently took time to speak to CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein about CBLDF and how it’s mission has evolved over the last 25 years.

In addition to getting the latest details on CBLDF’s Canada Customs Case, Hogan asked about the specific challenges comics face. Brownstein succinctly described how the focus of CBLDF’s efforts has changed from protecting small retailers to protecting collectors themselves:

The challenges are always changing. When the CBLDF started, our work was most urgently needed to protect small comic book stores from prosecutions by local authorities because of mature readers comics they sold to adults. In the ’90s, our work shifted to help artists who were being prosecuted by authorities. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the pendulum shifted back to helping retailers, and at the same time fighting against laws that targeted the internet and that would have made it impossible for retailers to display “harmful to minors” material—work protected for adults, but nebulously illegal for minors because of nudity and sexual content. Now we are seeing an increasing surge of prosecutorial efforts directed at readers for the comics they own and on their digital devices.

Later in the interview, Hogan asked whether comics, manga, and graphic novels are specifically targeted for censorship. Brownstein’s response is illuminating:

The thing I hear most frequently when talking to librarians and educators is that comics are a unique magnet for challenges because of their visual nature. Material described in a prose book needs to be imagined, whereas a comic book can be viewed in a cursory fashion and taken wildly out of context. As the category becomes more popular, the challenges become more frequent.

As its own category, manga draws a high incident of challenge largely from ignorance. The aesthetics of manga on the whole favor idealized, economical line drawings of fantasy characters that can look to the unknowledgeable viewer like something it isn’t. Additionally, it is an art tradition that comes from a culture with a different set of taboos than we have in North America. The authorities have yet to grasp that people with a passion and respect for manga can take in the entire category, including material taboo in our culture, and in doing so are studying the art, not the taboo content. It’s a big challenge.

When asked how he would increase legal awareness among comics fans, Brownstein quoted long-time CBLDF supporter and Board Member Neil Gaiman and reiterated how CBLDF’s work has helped protect seminal comics works:

I think Neil Gaiman summed it up best in his “Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech” essay ( “The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don’t.” Often people will disparage a case, or a genre, or a type of art because it pushes their personal discomfort buttons. But to protect a robust culture of art, even the stuff that makes one uncomfortable still must be defended. When the CBLDF was started, we were defending Elfquest and Robert Crumb. If we didn’t defend that work, there’s an open question as to whether both would be available as widely as they are for readers everywhere today.

You can read the rest of Brownstein’s interview here.

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