Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, divides the organization's activities into “peacetime and wartime,” and right now, he said, the CBLDF is on a war footing. Since 2004, the CBLDF has spent nearly $100,000 defending Gordon Lee, a Rome, Ga., comics retailer charged with distributing materials harmful to minors, who faces a year in jail and $1000 fine if convicted. The much-postponed case is likely to come to trial in November.
But Brownstein said he's also looking forward to “peacetime” in 2008, which means general fund-raising, increasing CBLDF's membership, redesigning its Web site (cbldf.org) and acting as a national clearinghouse on censorship in a fast-growing comics marketplace that has changed dramatically in recent years.
Much like the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the CBLDF is a nonprofit resource center dedicated to defending First Amendment rights—in this case, the rights of comic book publishers, retailers and artists. But the rapid growth of the graphic novel category has broadened CBLDF's mission, which now encompasses efforts aimed at libraries and traditional book retailers. “We defend graphic novel First Amendment rights, wherever,” said Brownstein. “It doesn't matter if it's a comics shop or a bookstore.”
Founded in 1986 in Northampton, Mass., by legendary comics publisher Denis Kitchen, the CBLDF moved to New York City in 2005. “New York was the right move,” said Brownstein, who has been executive director since 2002. Attorney Burton Joseph, Playboy magazine's longtime lawyer, heads the group's legal team and oversees hiring lawyers in the localities where cases are being litigated.
Brownstein emphasized that the outcome of the Gordon Lee case could have an effect far beyond comics. The case stems from a store event in which a promotional comic with nudity was inadvertently given to a minor. “Any retailer—an independent bookstore, a video dealer or Barnes & Noble—that sells anything with artistic nudity is at risk,” said Brownstein. And he expects that comics will be at the center of future controversies. “The next generation of cases will be about manga,” predicted Brownstein. “Taboos in the U.S. and Japan are different. To the untrained eye, characters in manga look like minors, and explicit content can raise the eyebrows of prosecutors.”
Brownstein is also concerned about legislation like the Protect Act of 2003, intended to combat child pornography, but which also criminalizes protected speech that may happen to be about the sexuality of minors. Brownstein said the law creates “new categories of thought crime. Child pornography is photographic evidence of a crime, but comics are lines on a page. There's a concern that books like Craig Thompson's Blankets or Phoebe Gloeckner's A Child's Life could be prosecuted as child pornography by a naïve prosecutor.”
|Brownstein (l.) and Bone creator Jeff Smith|
CBLDF's immediate goals are to strengthen its educational efforts on free speech in comics and, said Brownstein, “let people know that if they are challenged, we'll get them top-level legal help.”