Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another week of The No-Fly Zone, Mania.com’s alternative comics column, where no superhero goes un-ignored (except for Watchmen and the other revisionist takes we all know about). Now, everyone in the comic book world loves a good controversy. Nothing gets fans fired up like censorship controversies, fights between publishers, and creators who walk away from movie deals in the name of integrity. Since the medium’s inception, drama has surrounded it. From its seedy origins alongside porn magazines to the Congressional inquiries that led to the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s, comics were born under a bad sign. Only in the past few years has the medium clawed its way to respectability. But, over the past few years, the specter of censorship and controversy over taste has still loomed. Here are five recent instances when comics came under fire.
If history has taught us anything, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls should’ve been at #1. Before the book’s release, publisher Top Shelf and Moore and Gebbie were braced for a firestorm of controversy. The story brings together three of literature’s most famous female characters together in a hotel in Austria just prior to World War I. When Alice Fairchild, Dorothy Gale, and Wendy Darling meet, the clothes come off and everything that can happen does. But, it’s all handled with a deft and graceful hand. Moore writes each character recounting a revised version of their familiar biographies—all recast in a more realistic setting and with emphasis on their sexual awakenings. Gebbie’s art is just beautiful, and it presents sex without a trace of ugliness or exploitation. But, the book includes a story-within-the-story—a device Moore is famous for including—that depicts children in sex acts, done entirely in black and white line drawings. If that doesn’t practically ask for a book-burning, nothing else does. Retailers nervously awaited the book’s arrival. Some creators (most notably John Byrne) spoke out against Moore, while fans split down the middle. A couple of would-be do-gooders even threatened to carry the book directly to law enforcement. But, it was all for naught. The mainstream press largely embraced the book. The greatest controversy emerged over the use of Wendy Darling in the United Kingdom, where Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie bequeathed the book’s rights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. In the end, Top Shelf only had to wait until 2007 to release the book there, when the copyright expired. The controversy over Lost Girls was mostly confined to message board rants, which amount to nothing here in the real world. Law enforcement didn’t really get involved, and the book is still available.
In late September 2006, Marshall, Missouri resident Louise Mills found the graphic novels Blankets by Craig Thompson and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel in the public library. Both are autobiographies, and both depict a bit of nudity and sex. We’ve lauded both books to no end here at the NFZ, as has much of the literary world. Hell, Fun Home was named the best book of the year by Time a few months after Mills spoke out. The library temporarily removed the books and held a few meetings. Mills and a contingent of supporters called the books pornography, and called for either their restriction or their removal. The blogosphere called Mills every nasty name in the book and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund sent a letter to the library and prepared for a fight. Even Alan Moore weighed in. In the end, the library decided to form a materials selection committee to review incoming books. In the meantime, the books were removed from the shelves until a decision was handed down. After a few months of red tape and wrangling, the new committee finally convened and promptly reinstated the books. But, they moved Blankets from the Young Adult shelf to the Adult section—where children could still check it out like any other title.
Michael Diana stands as the only American artist to be convicted of obscenity. His underground comic Boiled Angel depicted all manner of horrors, including child abuse. In the course of a Florida murder investigation, a police officer found a copy of Boiled Angel and contacted Diana. Though briefly a suspect, the real murderer was eventually found. However, in the course of the investigation, more issues of Boiled Angel were collected as evidence. They sat in a file for two years, until the State of Florida decided to charge Diana with obscenity. He was eventually convicted. He lost his job as a school janitor in the process, after some of his comics were found in a copy machine. Both the CBLDF and the ACLU worked to have Diana’s conviction overturned on appeal, but met with little success. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Diana was sentenced to three years probation and a glut of other punishments that made him sound like a child molester—including prohibitions on being near anyone under 18. Part of Diana’s sentence included 1,248 hours of community service—which he fulfills by volunteering for the CBLDF. Granted, Diana’s comics are extreme. They depict violence and sexuality with gusto in a manner that would make Robert Crumb proud (or blush). But, the context is so over-the-top in its satirical intent that it’s hard to see how it qualifies as legally obscene. In any case, Diana still produces comics through Angry Drunk Graphics—but they won’t ship his stuff to Florida.
Rome, Georgia doesn’t take kindly to comics, it seems—especially not ones with naked folk in ‘em. Comic store owner Gordon Lee was charged with distributing obscenity in 1993 for selling a couple of porn comics to adults. He received a suspended sentence and a small fine. But, that was just the beginning. On Halloween of 2004, Lee was giving away comics at his shop, Legends, including a copy of Alternative Comics #2, which featured a true story about painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The comic featured one panel with Picasso nude. There was no sex and it was historically accurate (at least historians are fairly sure that Picasso was, at some point during his life, naked). Lee accidentally gave the comic to nine-year-old boy—or a six-year-old boy, or both. Their mother called the cops. But, the age of the boys was the first of many problems. No one could get the facts straight. The District Attorney’s Office spent years trying to make an example out of Lee through a series of re-filed charges, mistrials, and other legal shenanigans. By the end, Lee had been formally charged three times for the same allegation. The CBLDF dumped huge amounts of money defending him, after he’d offered to apologize from the start. All this was for a comic with a naked guy in it for one panel, without any actual sex. In the end, the charges were dismissed. Neil Gaiman took the stage for a panel at New York City Comic Con 2008 and announced that the charges against Lee had been dropped. There was much rejoicing, and the DA’s office in Rome, Georgia went back to looking for new ways to waste taxpayers’ money.
If comics have a pantheon of saints with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, Denny O’Neill, and the like on one end, then Hart Fisher is the Devil. His Boneyard Press made national news by publishing Jeffrey Dahmer: An Unauthorized Biography of a Serial Killer. Make no mistake, Boneyard traffics in brutal, adults-only material that is not for the faint of heart. And, Fisher has been at the forefront of comics controversy innumerable times. He authored the Verotik short story A Taste of Cherry for Glenn Danzig that—along with some other comics—got a shop in Oklahoma City shut down. He also created the infamous “Marvel Can Suck My Cock” t-shirt that caused a stir at San Diego Comic-Con in 1997. The Dahmer biography provoked lawsuits and outraged the victims’ families—who were, it should be noted, in the process of trying to sell Dahmer’s possessions for their own profit. It also made Fisher a favorite guest—and target—on the talk show circuit, where Sallie Jesse Raphael and others set him up for a public drubbing. Fisher endured death threats, stalkings, and even a march on his home by angry detractors. He responded by holding a barbecue in full view of law enforcement and the protestors. In the midst of the hoopla, Fisher’s girlfriend Michelle was murdered, making the public outcry even more difficult to endure. Through it all, Fisher maintained his composure in public—always polite, well-spoken, and intelligent, but unapologetic. He made the angry mobs look ridiculous by comparison. Fisher’s still around, though he’s moved into making horror films. Right now, Fisher is caring for his wife, Waka, who has recently recovered from cervical cancer. You can here a message from Fisher here about his wife’s condition, and buy some Boneyard Press stuff to help pay their medical bills.
That’s it for this week, Maniacs. We’re long past the days of Frederic Wertham and The Seduction of the Innocent, but let this week’s No-Fly Zone remind you that our beloved sequential art is still under fire in some communities. Consider supporting the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund or just checking out some of the creators mentioned here. Some of the book’s we’ve talked about aren’t to everyone’s taste, but that’s the point. Sometimes you have to exercise your rights to the fullest extent to preserve them.
You are now exiting The No-Fly Zone.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.