Comic books need real heroes to protect First Amendment rights

Tuesday, September 15, 1998

The First Amendment protects Batman. And Robin. And far darker images.

Comic books enjoy the full protection of the free press guarantee, a point
driven home in “Free Speeches,” a new publication by the Comic Book Legal
Defense Fund.

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund? Sounds a little odd, doesn't it? Why would
publications directed toward kids ever need a defense fund?

The answer: Comic books — and their audiences — have grown up. Any adult
topic can be told through graphics and most comic book stores carry product
lines with sex and violence for mature readers. Though these comics are not
marketed to children, that hasn't prevented criminal prosecution for content
that would seem to have constitutional protection. Two examples in the past 15

  • In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of the
    conviction of a Florida artist who had been convicted of obscenity for his
    self-published comic book. The book with adult images was not marketed to
    children. The artist was fined $3,000, ordered to enroll in a journalism ethics
    course and told not to have contact with children under 18.

  • The owners of a comic book shop in Oklahoma City were charged with
    trafficking in obscenity for selling a sexually explicit comic to adults. The
    owners were fined $1,500 and sentenced to probation in a plea bargain.

    What's difficult to understand about those cases is how drawn pictures could
    possibly rival the explicit magazines legally sold by many adult bookstores. The
    prosecution of the cases seems to stem from the fact that the medium is
    associated with children.

    As comic book columnist Michael Sangiacomo of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland
    put it, those were “incidents where some of the local folks got a little excited
    that 'funny books' could also be sexually explicit.”

    This is not the first time that comic books have been singled out for
    scrutiny. In the 1950s, Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist, campaigned against
    comics. His 1953 book “Seduction of the Innocent” led to congressional hearings
    into the possibly destructive effects of comic books on young people. Wertham's
    “findings” included his assessments that Batman and Robin represented a
    homosexual fantasy, Wonder Woman glorified bondage and crime comics led to
    juvenile delinquency.

    To head off Wertham and other critics, the comic book industry adopted its
    own code of conduct. One provision: “Respected institutions shall never …
    create disrespect for established authority.”

    Almost 50 years later, “respected institutions” — and comic books — are a far
    cry from the 1950s.

    The risk for retailers is that they may be subjected to prosecution from
    which they'll never recover, even if their constitutional rights eventually are
    upheld. Many stores are small and owner-operated. There's not a lot of margin
    for idealistic defenses of constitutional rights.

    That's where the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund comes in. It provides needed
    funds, but also helps educate Americans about fundamental First Amendment
    freedoms. That's every bit as heroic as leaping tall buildings in a single
    bound, and probably just as difficult.