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By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

Oni Press' Free Speeches

New kid on the comic book block Oni Press has already made waves in the industry with its impressive stable of top-notch artists, writers and titles. Now the little company is making a bid for respect and posterity with their new charity one-shot, Free Speeches--an all-star comic book jam to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Free Speeches is more of an illustrated textbook than a cartoon cavalcade, but its contents make it indispensable for any serious comic book reader. The job of the CBLDF is to guard against censorship in the comic industry. Since comic books have, for generations, been regarded as disposable juvenilia, it's easy for some to dismiss them as both art and literature--and, therefore, exempt them from any constitutional protection. The rampant censorship that has occurred in the comic book industry in the past few years is frightening. Artists, writers, publishers, distributors and retailers have all felt the sting of moral conservatism--perhaps that's why so many were willing to donate their time and talent to this landmark book. Not only did the artists and writers contribute their work, but distributors, printers and color separators were all willing to waive certain fees in order to present Free Speeches.

The book begins with an introduction by Comic Book Legal Defense Fund founder Denis Kitchen, explaining his organization's history and purpose. From there, Speeches moves to a rousing keynote address from the 1996 San Diego International Comic Convention by Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU. Strossen's extensively footnoted speech is a wonderful bit of rhetoric, giving a brief history of censorship of comic books and other media, explaining in no uncertain terms the basic constitutional principles that bar censorship of comic books and even mounting a lucid argument against industry self-censorship. Strossen does a great job of explaining the prejudices and stereotypes that make comic books such an easy target for censorship. By way of example, she points out the notorious Oklahoma City obscenity charges against the owners of Planet Comics. Apparently, the prosecutor dropped one count of the original eight-count indictment because the disputed work (Viper Series Official Art Book) was "a book, not a comic book." The charges against anything deemed a "comic book" were not dropped--as if the First Amendment enumerates the forms of literature that it does not protect (comic books, cereal boxes and John Grisham novels?). It's a slippery slope, warns Strossen, and if comic books are banned today, it will be Shakespeare tomorrow.

Following Ms. Strossen's words come pithy orations from comic creators Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller. Sim offers up a ludicrous history of San Francisco's historic 1909 censorship board--pointing out that even laughable restrictions are dangerous. Gaiman explains several efforts (in Sweden and England) to ban one of his stories from Outrageous Tales of the Old Testament. Several conservative politicians have stated, quite straight faced, that the violence in the story will undoubtedly lead to real acts of violence. The punchline, of course, is that none of them seem to realize Gaiman's story is an exact translation of a Biblical passage (Judges, Chapter 19). Naturally, none of those censors has suggested banning the Bible. Finally, Miller (in a speech to a comic book retailers seminar) unleashes a frighteningly believable argument that the Comics Code Authority (the industry's self- censorship code, in effect since the 1950s) was created for the sole purpose of driving '50s industry giant EC Comics out of business. It's hard to argue with Miller when you read the actual code (printed in its entirety). Part B, Section 1 states, "No comic magazine shall use the word 'horror' or 'terror' in its title"--that must have put a damper on EC's best-selling titles Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror. Could it be that the major motivating factor behind censorship--then, as now--is nothing more than economic?

In addition to the stirring words, well-known artists like Will Eisner, Peter Bagge, Evan Dorkin, Bill Sienkiewicz, Sergio Aragonés, Jaime Hernandez and many others contribute original spot illustrations throughout Free Speeches. Assorted historical quotes on the nature of censorship--from Thomas Jefferson to John Cage--litter the text. In short, everything has been done to make this a rallying battlecry against censorship in comics. And by purchasing a copy, you're sending much- needed financial support to the industry's number one hero--the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (Oni Press, paper, $2.95)

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