Founded 25 years ago, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of cartoonists, publishers, retailers, and librarians, is coming off a big year. Besides electing cartoonist Larry Marder its new president, the CBLDF relaunched its Web site, moved to larger Manhattan offices, and was awarded the prestigious Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award at the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting in San Diego. In accepting the award, CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein called it "a great honor to receive this award in a room full of free expression professionals, particularly librarians, who respect graphic novels. It's a signal that comics are where it's at."
CBLDF's 1,400-sq.-ft. office on West 36th Street is like the ultimate comics hideaway, full of carefully organized original artwork by every major cartoonist working, inventories of signed books, original prints and posters, and other premiums used to attract donors that help raise part of CBLDF's $300,000 annual budget. But the fan boys in this office are serious free expression professionals: Brownstein, a former journalist and Comic-Con programming manager; operations manager Brady Bonney, a former Internet retailer; and development manager Alex Cox, writer, cartoonist and former owner of the now shuttered Brooklyn comics shop Rocketship.
Citing the recession, Brownstein said fund-raising in 2010 was "challenging for us, like it was for everyone," but the new and larger space "is an asset. We can bring in volunteers to work, we're launching an educational series here in the office, and the three of us can work around the clock to reach out to hundreds of supporters." The larger offices of the CBLDF also offer more space for stocking its fundraising premiums, photographing works and publications sold through online auctions and a very busy mailroom.
Fundraising efforts also include customized handdrawn membership cards (membership/donations range from $25 up to $1000 “champion” level) by artists like Jeffrey Brown, Matt Wagner, Eric Powell and others. And the CBLDF is celebrating its 25th anniversary by teaming up with Cryptozoic Entertainment to produce a set of 72 trading cards that will tell the story of the fight to the defend the first amendment and fight comics censorship over the years. “We’re going to use our anniversary to package and promote our history and contextualize the challenges we face,” Brownstein said.
In January the CBLDF launched a lecture series with John Layman (creator of the indie comics hit Chew), the first of monthly talks by comics artists and publishers at the CBLDF offices that will also include former DC Comics president Paul Levitz and legendary editor Bob Shreck. The organization is updating The Best Defense, its retailer resource guide on First Amendment protections and a Graphic Novels Best Practices Guide to help librarians when comics are challenged.
On the legal side, CBLDF has a new legal counsel, Robert Corn-Revere, that Brownstein described as "the best First Amendment attorney in the country." Brownstein issued concerns over a growing number of cases in involving laws against the depiction of alleged obscene acts in cartoons and comics, noting the Christopher Hanley case in Iowa, in which Hanley was sentenced to six months in prison and three years of probation for possession of manga deemed to be “obscene visual representations of minors.” In a statement on the case the CBLDF called the Hanley case, “the first time a comic book reader has been sent to jail for owning comic books.” Brownstein also noted a case in Idaho in which a man was convicted of “obscene visual representations of child sexual abuse” for the possession of sex drawings based on the Simpsons’ animated characters.
“There needs to be a distinction made between real crimes committed by real people and drawings,” Brownstein said. He also emphasized that CBLDF has issued cautionary warnings to comics readers crossing international borders with computers, in particular, the U.S. border with Canada, where custom officials have been seizing computers with manga on them, claiming to be looking for child pornography. “Even in Canada, people are being arrested for having manga on their computers,” said Brownstein, “we’re putting materials together to educate Americans who plan to travel outside the country.”
“Stuff keeps coming in, comics are being challenged in libraries, librarians and patrons are being harassed by law enforcement and the issue is growing and very often its about comics,” Brownstein continued. “Librarians are getting threatening calls at home. As long as comics are cool, they will be challenged." In 2010 CBLDF challenged anti–free speech laws in Alaska and Massachusetts, won a Ninth Circuit Court case that struck down a "harmful to minors law" in Oregon, and filed an amicus brief in the ongoing Schwarzenegger v. EMA video-game suit, to prevent the state of California from censoring violent video games.
"There are always threats to defend," said Brownstein. "We strive to be a force that ensures no creator, retailer, or reader need fear prosecution as a result of their comics."