A Passion For Comics (Chicago Tribune article)

Scott from a.f.n.g. found this one; he’s been a much better newshound than me of late.


Robert K. Elder
November 3, 2000

There’s a bit of irony in it, a British writer raising money to defend the American 1st Amendment.

“The Americans have this amazingly cool thing, free speech, that we certainly don’t have in Canada or England, and just take it for granted,” says author Neil Gaiman, fresh off his reading tour to raise money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Gaiman has created a cultlike fan base for himself with the comic book series “The Sandman,” TV scripts and novels such as “Neverwhere” and “Stardust.” And, although he’s now focused on other areas (he’s up to write and direct a film for Warner Bros. based on his Death character), Gaiman remains passionate about a medium close to his heart: comic books.

Before visiting the Chicago Humanities Festival this week, Gaiman concluded the Last Angel Tour — a four-city reading tour to benefit the CBLDF. While also providing a sneak peak at his forthcoming novel, “American Gods,” the tour served to raise awareness and money to fight censorship for comics on paper and on the Web. Over the last decade, Gaiman has raised close to $200,000 for the CBLDF, including $60,000 on the Last Angel Tour, completed on Oct. 26.

Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for “Maus,” a comic book biography of his parents’ survival of the Holocaust, and Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” was given the American Book Award for its first-person journalistic account of the tensions in the Occupied Territories. Still, when most Americans hear the word “comic book”, they think of Archie, Donald Duck or a host of muscle-bound men in multicolored pajamas punching each other out.

Although that perception is changing as the comic book audience grows older (most comic readers are between the ages of 18 and 34), the CBLDF and supporters such as Gaiman are fighting an uphill battle. “This is a really exciting time for comics creatively,” says Chris Oarr, executive director of the CBLDF. “Despite all evidence to the contrary, there’s this notion that comics are children’s literature, that the form of comics dictates content.”

Attacks by politicians on the entertainment industry for excessive violence have also included some criticism of the comics. Gaiman’s own “Books of Magic,” a series about a young man who may become the most powerful magician since Merlin (a story that predates Harry Potter’s success), received partial blame for the Columbine school shooting. A one-off joke in the series, referencing DC Comics’ magicians as “The Trenchcoat Brigade,” became part of the national vocabulary when talking about the teenage gunmen.

When Gaiman saw the article he was horrified. “Not only are we the wrong target, but this was kind of offensive,” Gaiman says. “It’s as offensive as the online sites who point to Dylan Klebold [one of the Columbine shooters], and say, well, `He was Jewish, that’s why he did it. You can’t trust those Jews.'”

Politically active author Harlan Ellison has also been particularly outspoken on the assault on comics. A fervent, self-professed enemy of censors, Ellison doesn’t pull any punches about the topic.

“The attack on comic books is no more valid or important in terms of really cleaning up any `dangers’ than the attacks have been on movies or television or video games,” Ellison says. “[Censors] always have to have demons. That’s how they stay in business. If there were no devil, these people would be out of business and they’d have to go get honest jobs instead of preying on the gullible and naive and easily frightened.”

Recent cases in Texas and West Virginia of obscenity in comics have come under the CBLDF’s radar, and although the non-profit group has been successful in either getting cases dismissed or won — the specter of the Mike Diana case looms large.

A Florida artist, Diana was found guilty of obscenity for his own work in a 1990 photocopied zine, “Boiled Angel” #8. The traded zine was not aimed at or sold to children, and included both cartoon and prose essays from Diana. “Boiled Angel” contained stories and depictions of murder, sexual assault and incest, which a Florida jury found obscene.

“In many ways, his essays and the prose contained in `Boiled Angel’ are more disturbing than the cartoons. And yet it was the cartoons that got him into trouble,” Oarr says. “Mike Diana’s works reflected some of the worst elements of modern American society, but we can’t forget they are elements of society.”

Diana’s sentence included a three-year suspended jail sentence, $1,000 fine, a thousand hours of community service and other provisions. He was also forbidden to draw anything that “might” be obscene, and ordered to seek psychiatric treatment and take a journalistic ethics course — both at his own expense. The CBLDF took the case to the Florida State Supreme Court and later exhausted appeals when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

“If he had been a writer, forbidden from writing, he would have been on the cover of Time magazine. Amnesty International would have taken up his case,” Gaiman says. “But, it’s comics, so it’s essentially trivial.”

Oarr adds: “The most important and terrifying thing about the Mike Diana case, is that he is the first artist in the history of the United States to be convicted of obscenity for his own art.”

Scott McCloud, comic book cultural critic and author of “Understanding Comics,” points to the historical crusade against comics, observing that not much has changed.

“Much like in the 1950s we tend to be something of a sacrificial lamb,” McCloud says. “Comics, like pornography, are low enough on the totem pole that anyone with only a half understanding [can attack the medium].

He adds: “It’s a historical fact it’s always the least among us that need that protection. Should comics fall, you can bet other forms of literature will be next on the hit list.”

Gaiman says the Last Angel Tour will be his final major fundraising tour for the CBLDF, which will allow him to focus on other projects. Gaiman says, however, that he still remains a staunch supporter of comics and free speech — even hinting that he may do benefits here and there in the future.

“The scary thing about absolute freedom of speech is that it includes freedom of speech you do not like,” Gaiman says. “And the flip side of that is, you’d better support the freedom of speech you do not like because if you don’t, the speech that is not liked may well be yours.”