Dallas prosecutors drop second obscenity charge against comic store clerk

Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Comic book enthusiasts won a small victory in a court battle in Dallas
last week when prosecutors dropped an obscenity charge against a 21-year-old
store clerk for selling an adult comic book.

But a battle over Keith’s Comics, a small store selling games
and books in downtown Dallas, continues because last August a jury found the
same clerk guilty of obscenity for selling another comic book. The clerk was
fined $4,000.

Prosecutors contend the store clerk sold two obscene comic books
— both print adaptations of popular Japanese animé films
— to two customers over the past year. At trial, prosecutors clamored
about the effect such books could have on children, even though a 45-year-old
police officer and a PTA father purchased the books in question.

“This shouldn’t even be about children,” said Chris
Bleistein, deputy director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is
representing the store. “There’s no question that these books were
never sold to children. But the state maintains that they are harmful to adults
and that they have absolutely no redeeming value.”

Both Bleistein and Chris Oarr, director of the comic book group,
describe Keith’s Comics as one of the most responsible bookstores
they’ve seen. Both books, as well as a variety of other comics designed
for mature readers, were in an adults-only section behind the counter.

Oarr said the store’s owner allowed the comic book group to
handle his case provided the group not publicize the case and not reveal the
name of his store. He said storeowners fear that news of an arrest can
sometimes be worse than the conviction itself.

“Most don’t want to become a First Amendment
martyr,” Oarr said in a telephone interview. “Many are mom-and-pop
stores. Whenever we can, we make it possible that they can come to

To date, the effort to keep developments in the case quiet has been
successful. The August trial generated no coverage from
The Dallas Morning News, the city’s leading
newspaper, or from area radio and television stations.

But officers in the Dallas Police Department’s vice squad last
week told
The Freedom Forum Online that the store was Keith’s Comics but
declined to comment on the case except to say that the second change had been
dropped. They also would not name the clerk. Other officials in the county
attorney’s office, the mayor’s office and city council offices
either hadn’t heard about the case or refused comment.

The case stretches back more than a year to when an undercover police
officer purchased a copy of Demon Beast Invasion:
The Fallen #2
. The father, who was a member of the PTA of a
nearby elementary school, bought a copy of Legend
of the Overfiend

Dallas police arrested the store clerk in January and charged him with
two counts of obscenity, which could have carried a 5-year jail term and a
$20,000 fine.

Oarr said both books were clearly created for adult readers. Each copy
included a large advisory, warning “Absolutely Not for

That aside, Oarr said the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund faced an
uphill battle in defending the clerk and the store’s reputation.

While other art and literary forms have found considerable protection
in courts, the comic book hasn’t gained the same respect. Most notably,
the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 refused to hear the appeal of artist Mike Diana
who had been convicted of obscenity in Florida for creating and selling a
series of graphic comic books.

Later that same year, the owners of Planet Comics, an Oklahoma City
store, pleaded guilty to obscenity charges only a few days before they were to
go to trial.

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding
and Reinventing
, said the comic book industry has changed considerably
over the years. The 1980s and early ’90s, in particular, saw a surge in
adult-oriented comic books, clearly underscoring his claim that the genre is no
longer one just for kids.

“The industry created a lot of fine art and some great, adult
and challenging work,” said McCloud, who testified on the clerk’s
behalf in August. “But I am saddened because we seem to have lost our
traditional kid base.”

But he said the public continues to perceive comics as solely a
children’s format, despite the emergence of Frank Miller’s darker
version of Batman, a variety of adult-oriented series such as DC Comic’s
Vertigo line and many animé books.

Japanese animé, in particular, has followers worldwide. But
while child-oriented fare such as Pokemon and Sailor Moon claim numerous fans
in the United States, the art form remains a mostly adult one in Japan.

In court, Susan Napier, associate professor of Asian Studies at the
University of Texas at Austin and author of The
Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature
, told the jury about the
important role of adult animé, also known as
hentai, to Japanese culture and its
growing popularity in this country.

But the testimony fell upon deaf ears last August, both Oarr and
McCloud said.

The county attorney didn’t question the expert testimony or call
witnesses to debunk the experts’ testimony. In closing arguments, the
prosecuting attorney hung onto her claim that the comic book is strictly a
children’s format.

“I can’t believe the judge allowed the prosecuting
attorney to hold up a comic book in her summation and say to the jury,
‘You know in your hearts that this is a format designed to appeal to
children,’” McCloud said in a telephone interview. “She could
not have done that with a copy of Catcher in the Rye.”

Oarr said interviews with jury members found that many of them
didn’t think the comic books in question would stand the test of

But Oarr said he was happy that prosecutors dropped the second charge
against the clerk, allowing the group to direct its time, money and resources
in appealing just one conviction.

“Now we can focus on constructing an appeal for the first
charge,” he said.

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