Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Comics and controversy

Following on from a comment I made in the post above, I've decided to compile a short list of cases of censorship, criminal trials, and even death, all related to the world of comics. The majority of these cases have to do with the underground comics of the sixties, a time where head shops were constantly raided for such material, and the export of underground comics to the UK was strictly monitored:

(1 The Oz School Girls Issue

I remember watching an episode of The Secret Millionaire in which the presumably well educated millionaire confesses to the camera about his expulsion from college, not on the grounds of smoking drugs or being violent towards a member of staff, but simply for reading and being in possession of what the college obviously considered dangerous and radical material, that is Oz magazine. Oz was a counter-cultural magazine started in Sydney Australia in 1963 which moved its based of operations to London in 1967. It was the famed 'School Kids Issue' that became the centre of one of the longest obscenity trials in the UK. The issue was a response to the criticism that Oz had lost touch with the kids, so the editors of the magazine invited a whole host of secondary school children (mostly all from public schools) to edit an issue of Oz. The image/s in question that caused the Obscene Publications Squad to clamp down on Oz, was an act of simple schoolboy humour produced by a 15 year old school boy: the pasting of Rupert the bear's head, onto the body of a character of one of Crumbs obscene cartoons, to give everyone's favourite British institution of childhood innocence, a sexual edge. The trial was pretty well publicised and defence witnesses included DJ John Peel, artist and drugs activist Caroline Coon, and academic Edward De Bono . John and Yoko even became involved forming the Elastic Oz Band and writing a song 'God Save Oz' (later renamed 'God Save Us' to minimise confusion with the US listeners) to raise publicity and funds. The 'Oz three' (as they came to be known) famously turned up to the trail wearing rented schoolgirl costumes and wigs. The result of the trial was that the attempted charge of 'conspiracy to corrupt public morals' failed to stick, however, this didn't stop them from being charged for two lesser offences, and being sentenced to imprisonment, the final nail in the coffin being the police shaving their heads upon arrival at the prison. A copy of the School Kids issue currently goes for between £80-£180 on ebay!

(2 The Trial of Nasty Tales

Another UK obscenity trial, again sparked by the reprinting of a Crumb comic, was sparked when an eight year old boy managed to buy a copy of the adult comic Nasty Tales at a newsagent, and his mother complained to the police (it was later revealed that his mum put him up to it). The police proceeded to raid the offices of Nasty Tales and made off with several boxes worth of the comic. The charge brought against the editors was that of 'possessing an obscene publication for gain' although as one of the defences witnesses (none other than Germaine Greer!) boldly stated: 'Among comic strips and comic books this is rather better than most and a good deal less insidious in its effect on public taste than Superman'. A similarity between this and the Oz obscenity case was that the prosecution seemed to jump on the representation of (and therefore encouragement of) 'perverse' sexual behaviour such as sadism, and (shock horror!) homosexuality. The verdict was an outstanding 10 to 2 of not guilty and Nasty Tales celebrated by printing a comic book version of the trial transcripts drawn by Dave Gibbons, Edward Barker, Chris Welch, George Snow, and Martin Sudden (a comic which you can still see lurking around on Ebay now again, and it's quite cheap at that!)

(3 The Pirate and the Mouse

In 1971 a group of underground cartoonists lead by Danny O'Neil were foolish enough to take on Walt Disney when they printed two issues of an underground comic called 'Air Pirate Funnies' in which they had characters that strongly resembled Disney characters (O'Neil had claimed that changing the names would dilute the satire) partaking in sexual activities and drug taking. O'Neil saw Disney as a symbol of conformist hypocrisy in America and therefore as being ripe for satire. This of course is not a unique case of satirising Disney see also: Will Elder's 'Mickey Rodent' from MAD magazine, Wally Wood's 'The Disneyland Memorial Orgy' spread from The Realist magazine, and even the Swedes were in on it at some point with Charlie Christensen's Arne Anke(*1). Apparently O'Neil was so keen to be sued by Disney that he had copies of his comic smuggled into a board meeting at the company, by a board members son. By the end of 1971 O'Neil got his wish and Disney filed a lawsuit against him and the other members of the Air Pirates for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition. The first impression was that they were going to loose, and O'Neil urged his fellow Air Pirates to settle with Disney and let him carry on the case defending himself. During this time the remaining members of the Air Pirates went against a temporary restraining order and published more material intended for the third Air Pirates comic, in a comic called The Tortoise and The Hare. 10,000 copies of this comic and Disney won a preliminary hearing of $200,000 and another restraining order, which O'Neil continued to defy by drawing more Disney characters. Other underground comic artists also began selling original artwork (mainly of Disney characters) in order to raise money for O'Neil's defence. The case dragged on for several years and finally in 1978 O'Neil lost the case (although they weren't able to pin trademark infringement on him) and in 1979 the court refused to hear an appeal. However it wasn't over for O'Neil yet, in mid 1979 he formed a secret artist organisation called The MLF (Mouse Liberation Front) holding an art show in new york and creating another four page Disney story, which with the help of sympathetic Disney employees he delivered in person to the Disney studios, where he posed at an animation table drawing Mickey Mouse, and apparently smoked a joint in the office of the late Walt Disney. Finally weighing up the massive legal fees and loss in damages, Disney finally agreed to drop the charges if O'Neil promised to no longer draw Disney characters. Opinions on what good this case actually did for the comics business and freedom of speech/the press are divided, and some people believe O'Neil set satire back 20 years.

For more details about this case and to see some original Air Pirates art, you can buy Bob Levin's book on the subject, published by Fantagraphics books, entitled 'The Pirate and the Mouse'

(4 Hector Oesterheld 'disappears'

Argentinean journalist and writer of graphic novels and comics goes missing in 1976 (presumed dead) and a year later his four daughters and their husbands are arrested and never seen again. It is widely believed that the reason for his disappearance is linked to the publication of a biography of Che Guevara published a year after his death and removed from circulation, with the original artwork destroyed by the Argentine government. Now I'm not exactly pro Che's actions and think the prevalence of Che's face in popular culture today is a bit odd (I love to quote Mark Corrigan from Peep Show at this point, where he calls the phenomenon 'the ironic verification of tyrants') but I think this is an interesting and extreme example of censorship and comics. Osterheld's work had at this point become increasingly political, (although sometimes disguised as science fiction) and he was also (along with his daughters) believed to be part of a leftist guerrilla group called Montoneros. Whether or not this political activity had anything to do with his disappearance remains to be seen, to me it seems a bit far fetched that he would be kidnapped and killed on the basis of a comic (Alberto Breccia the artist behind the biography was not punished) but when an Italian journalist asked about his disappearance in 1979 he was met with the reply: 'We did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of Che Guevara ever done'.

(5 Busted Jesus Comix

Another American obscenity trail and the first recorded trail to land a cartoonist with a criminal conviction in America. In 1990 teenage school janitor Mike Diana began producing issues of his own adult comic book Boiled Angel using the school's photocopying machines. In 1991 while investigating a Florida murder case, a police officer came across a copy of Boiled Angel and desperate for clues, phoned Diana to inform him he was a suspect, and requested a blood sample. The real killer was soon apprehended and Diana was not pursued. However the police officer in question collected additional copies of Boiled Angel and sent them to the State Attorney's Office where they went on file, and two years later the Assistant State Attorney came across the comics and sent Diana a certified letter telling him that he was being charged for three counts of obscenity under the Florida Statute 847.011-that is for publishing, distributing. and advertising the material. Diana was found guilty on all three counts, and was sentenced to a three-year probation, during which time his residence was subject to inspection to determine if he was in possession of or was creating obscene material. He was to avoid all contact with children under 18, undergo psychological testing, enrol in a journalistic ethics course, pay a $3,000 fine, and perform 1,248 hours of community service. He was also ordered to cease drawing for personal use, and his place of residence was to be open to inspection by the police, without warning or warrant, at any time, for illustrations violating this ruling. He was not sentenced to any jail time, but spent four days in jail between the dates of the verdict and the sentencing. To fulfill the requirement of undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, Diana was informed that the doctor whom he would see charged $100 an hour, which he would have to pay for himself, and that his evaluation would take two hours. After the evaluation, Diana was informed the session would cost $1,200 because the doctor claimed to have spent 10 hours reading Boiled Angel in preparation. Out of funds, Diana was unable to pay, and the doctor refused to give her evaluation to the court, effectively making him in violation of his probation. Diana was eventually allowed to move to New York to serve the remainder of his sentence and his legal ordeal inspired a 2005 off-Broadway play called Busted Jesus Comix. Despite all this, the cynic in me can't help thinking that the legal proceedings and the eventual conviction gave Diana a lot more publicity and acclaim than if it never happened, because upon looking at extracts of Boiled Angel, aside from the nice use of colour in parts, I am reminded a bit too much of the sex blood and shit shock tactics of Vice magazine's resident cartoonist Johnny Ryan (whose only work of merit in my opinion is Prison Pit Volume 1-which yes, is a blood and gore fest, but done in a manga style similar to Tokyo Zombie, which makes it acceptable)(*2) , and perhaps some of the gorier aspects of Ivan Brunetti.

(6 The Infamous Dr Wertham

No list like this would be complete without mentioning Dr Wertham's notorious tirade against the comics, in particular the crime and horror comics of EC, the summary of his ideas (comics as the cause of juvenile delinquency) can be found in his famous book 'The Seduction of The Innocent', which even if you don't agree with it, still makes for a fascinating read. Modern day critics like Bart Beaty have returned to Wertham to suggest that he wasn't as right wing as his most famous work suggested. He was actually anti-censorship, and did a lot of work on the psychological effects of racial segregation in school children, and was a key speaker for the defense in the famous Brown vs Board of education case to end segregated schools in America. In fact the main misunderstanding in the whole Wertham affair is that he wanted to burn comics and ban them all together, he just wished for a system whereby comics were classified as having adult material and therefore could not be bought by children. Whatever you think of him however, without Wertham and the introduction of the Comics Code (which he didn't agree with anyway) things might not have shaped out in quite the same way for comics as we know them today, the underground comics being a direct response to the kind of moral panic Wertham set in motion.

(7 Metro banned

In April 1008 Egypt's first Graphic novel 'Metro' by Magdy L Shafe was banned and all copies seized after the Egyptian courts ruled the author and the books publisher guilty of printing and distributing a publication infringing public decency, and handed down a LE 5,000 fine against both of them. The obscene content in question was the limited sexual content of the book which the author and publisher had tried to safeguard against by putting 'for adults only' stickers on the books. Arab Network for Human Rights Information director Gamal Eid said that defence lawyers submitted to the courts images published in daily newspaper Rose El-Youssef which were "more lewd" than the graphics in "Metro" that the court objected to.

(8 The Anti-Cartoon Legislation and beyond

In 1897 the advancement of printing creates a powerful surge of political cartoons, in response to this politicians in America create an anti-cartoon legislation to regulate political cartoons (the last anti-cartoon legislation is put in place in 1913). In 1903 the regulation of cartoons comes to a head when Walter McDougall challenges Pennsylvania's law forbidding the depiction of political figures of animals. His drawings of Governor Pennypacker, as a tree, a beer, mug, and a variety of tubers leads to the law's repeal.

(9 Those Danish cartoons

There's almost an air of 'the Scottish Play' about me posting about this, but I am of course talking about the twelve editorial cartoons published in a Danish newspaper back in 2005 under the heading 'The face of Muhammad' the most famous of which was Kurt Westergaard's depiction of Muhammad as a man with a bomb in his turban. The details are too extensive to go into in any great detail here, but the backlash from the Muslim community was enormous, with more than 100 people dead in protests around the world, and the burning of Danish flags, and indeed Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. There was also a recent attempt on Kurt Westergaard's life. For more information on this, wikipedia have a pretty extensive account of the event (and if you type Danish cartoons into google this is the first thing that will come up) and The Comics Reporter has a regularly updated news item which follows critical responses. There is also a critical book on the controversy surrounding the cartoons called The Cartoons That Shook The World (by Jytte Klausen), which I will be taking out from my library very soon.

(10 The Beano and Ideology

There are numerous creative rights cases in the world of comics, perhaps the most famous of which was the Siegel and Shuster case for the rights to their creation of Superman(*3), but I thought I'd include a homegrown favourite here instead. Inc 1980 Leo Baxendale (the creator of beloved comic strips from our youth such as Minnie the Minx, The Bash Street Kids, and Little Plum) started a seven year legal battle with DC Thompson over the rights of his characters, eventually settling out of court. Baxendale wrote a book on the subject called 'On Comedy: The Beano and Ideology', and now runs his own publishing company (Reaper Books) and continues to self-publish his comics.

For more information, and a pretty good timeline of censorship and comics, go to
The Comics Legal Defence Fund

(*1) Arne Anka was a Donald Duck satire that when the artist was threatened with legal action, he responsed by drawing a story where the duck had plastic sugery to replace his rounded beak with a pointed one, thus erasing the resembelance.
(*2) I'm not against blood and gore in comics, far from it, I just think there's a certain way of doing it that's trying too hard to shock us (e.g. the whole severed head doing something sexual) and as a result falls a bit flat
(*3) Another famous case of property rights in the world of comics was when Crumb had to pay out thousands of dollars when it was decided that 'Keep on truckin'' was an image in the public demain, and therefore did not belong to him.

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