Wading Into Dangerous Waters

In last month's column, I made the case for why the pioneers of the pornography industry of the 1960's paved the way for any number of the First Amendment freedoms that so many of us cherish today. Straight up pornograpy may not be something that appeals to the majority of mainstream of America, but it is an incontrovertable fact that the adult entertainment industry is a huge business. Billions of dollars in both sales and profits are generated each year through the marketing of adult magazines, books, films, and adult-themed websites. In seeking to protect those profits, the purveyors of adult material have been quite proactive in the courts, frequently utilizing the First Amendment to expand the body of case law about where and how adult material can be sold. Their successful court battles have clearly changed our entire culture, as many freedoms of expression now exist that were unthinkable during the 1950's. The current expressions of these freedoms in mainstream television, films, and art may frequently enrage the members of the conservative community, but the popularity of such programs as SEX IN THE CITY clearly illustrate that adult-themed entertainment appeals to a far wider audience than the zealots of the religious right would ever care to admit.

When I began writing last month's column, I realized that I was wading into dangerous waters. Even within the generally liberal comics community, there are those who would seek to silence the free expression of others. All of us have a point of personal distaste, and it is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to shut off messages that we don't care to hear. In my own case, I have a very, very liberal policy about selling comics. If someone publishes a comic book, and someone else wishes to purchase it, then it is my philosophy that, as the intermediary, that I have no right to impede that flow of material.

While that may appear to be a blithe and easy path to follow, in practice, it can actually be quite difficult. About ten years ago, for example, there was a poorly drawn little black and white comic book published about putting nuns in bondage, and then whipping them. Yecch! I was so put off by that amateurish twisted drek that I asked Leanne Harper, who was then our Operations Vice President, if we couldn't just pass on listing it in our catalog in the following month. After all, we only had a couple of subscribers, and we were only generating about fifty cents per issue in profit. What could be the harm? This was an instance where Leanne saved me from straying off the path of defending personal freedom. Simply put, she reminded me that any time that you start to draw lines about who's personal freedoms you'll protect, and whose you'll ignore simply because they personally offend you, you begin to fall into the same moral and ethical trap as those who would ban all forms of expression.

Since heeding Leanne's advice, I've made it a point to experiment to see where other people draw the line. Sadly, I've been astonished to discover a dismaying propensity for knee-jerk repression on the part of otherwise rational people. The real simpletons among us are more than willing to pass laws prohibiting anyone from criticizing the government, or our leaders, under extreme circumstances such as during the hysteria right after 9/11. "Who needs personal freedoms when we're at war!?! Everyone needs to just shut up and support our president until the terrorists are defeated! " Adolph Hitler and Joe Stalin would have been proud of those pathetic dolts... Ignoring those extreme positions, however, and moving more into the views of the general population, I've been stunned when playing the Devil's Advocate about free speech issues at comics conventions to discover that darn near everyone I meet thinks that censorship, under certain circumstances that only they can define, is OK.

Before you dismiss my musings as being irrelevant to your own view of the world, let me offer you a quick pop quiz on your own personal acceptance levels. Which of the following could you willingly accept in comics:

1) Comics containing blatant racism, combined with repeated visions of viciously nasty treatment of women

2) Comics which consist entirely of scenes of murder, torture, and dismemberment of genitalia

3) Comics which advocate massive drug use

4) Comics that advocate the overthrow of the United States government

5) Comics which repeatedly depict frontal views of nude male and female genitalia

Are you offended by any of the above? Do you think they should be outlawed? All of those comics are real, and some of them are among the best-selling comics of all time. For #1 check out nearly any comic book ever produced by Robert Crumb. Crumb is one of the comics geniuses of our time, but he is also one very twisted puppy in his world views. For #2, just read any of the comics created by S. Clay Wilson. S. Clay's Checkered Demon, Captain Pissgums, and Ruby the Dyke characters populate some of the most violent comics ever published. They are so over-the-top in their non-stop mayhem that they end up parodying themselves, which is why S. Clay is one of my personal favorite comics creators. Drug use is the central theme of THE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROS., which makes that book an easy exmple for #3. When all the multiple printings are taken into account, FREAK BROS. #1 AND #2 have sold well over a million copies each, making them among the most popular comics of all time. Spain Rodriguez's TRASHMAN is a bit dated by now, but he was among many Underground Comix characters who viewed violent overthrow of the established order as a viable option during the late 1960's. As for multitudinous exposed penises, just check out DEN, by Richard Corben. Incredibly great comics stories, often featuring completely nude male and female characters.

While all of my examples are drawn from the world of Underground Comix, I think you can see my point. Should S. Clay Wilson go to jail as a child pornographer just because he drew a cartoon in 1968 where Captain Pissgums is sodomizing a cabin boy? A frightening percentage of the American population would believe that to absolutely be the case. They conveniently ignore the fact that no one was actually harmed in the creation of that imaginary comics panel, and that neither Captain Pissgums or the unnamed cabin boy actually exist. Their sole basis for seeking to severely punish S. Clay is that they are offended by his art.

What makes me really far more worried than the views of those outside of comics, however, is that I have become very aware that some of you reading this column would also agree to criminalize the creation of certain comics, just because their imagery offends you. If I serve no other purpose with today's column than to make you think a little about your own limits, then I think it will be an excellent investment in my time. To paraphrase Walt Kelley's Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us..."

The message I hope I have conveyed to you with my examples that I listed above is that we all need to be very careful when letting our own world views color what is legal expression in comics. We may not like certain comics, but that doesn't make them in any way illegal. Sadly, however, those of us in the comics community make very easy targets for those who think othewise. As the current Comic Book Legal Defense Fund battle in Atlanta clearly illustrates, in some local jurisdictions even the inadvertant passing out a comic book to a minor depicting a renaissance painting containing male nudity can be considered a criminal offense. If comics generated the levels of windfall profits that come from straight pornography this would be no big deal, as we could then easily afford the cost of emplying the best defense attornies. The reality of the situation, however, is that the CBLDF can only help those who are being oppressed when individuals, such as yourself, make personal contributions. To lead the way in supporting free expression, I recently requested of CBG that my monthly stipend for the creation of each installment of this column go straight to the CBLDF. My fervent hope is that, combined with contributions from everyone else in the world of comics, that we can raise enough funds to keep defending those of us who are being unfairly oppressed. As I've said frequently in the past, the only way that we can defend our own freedoms is to first defend those of others. We're all in this together, even if we don't all agree about what constitutes great art.

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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