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Second of Two Essays for Expo 2000
posted December 31, 2000

Did you have any idea what you've just done?

It should at least be clear you've purchased a great comic book. SPX 2000 The Comic Book features some of the most amazing cartoonists from around the world, including a healthy sampling of what's best in the United States. In case this is your first purchase of a comic book intended as art -- and I'm jealous of the discoveries ahead of you -- I'll let you in on a secret. Comics is a vastly underappreciated art form, capable of the same searing insights, the same expressions of inner truth, available to artists in every other media. The only visual art form that can be controlled by a single creator and one of a few that depends on total reader immersion, comics is the great, warm whisper of the American cultural subconscious.

You may be aware that the proceeds of this book go to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. You may even know about the organization. The CBLDF helps ensure basic rights to free speech for everyone involved in bringing comics to readers: artists, publishers, store owners, distributors. This means acting as a quick response team when someone feels pressure from an overzealous politician or aggressive police force, providing legal advice and support, or acting as a responsible, informed voice of reason in the media. It also means education: helping retailers and artists become aware of local laws and restrictions; teaching ways to refute unsubstantiated claims from the confused, vindictive, or even well-meaning.

Just as important is the CBLDF's status as a symbol, a sign to everyone involved in this great art form that they will never have to face censorship alone. If you know something about comics, you may have known that; if you didn't, then rest assured your donation is a very good thing.

What you may not know is this: by purchasing this comic, you are participating in the latest chapter in one of American comic books' most admirable stories -- the combination of art and activism. A book like this, an organization like the CBLDF, is an outgrowth of the arts culture that spawned them, a culture that in many ways has always turned to artists to fight for what's right. In that way, this book has been in the making since the first comic book was published.

Lest we forget, comic books is the last great American industry built on the backs of children. Many of the artists who fueled comic books' first great explosion of color and pulpy fun were just out of school; several were still of school age, some were as young as 13. Their energy and enthusiasm kickstarted an industry celebrating the start of its seventh full decade. Their youth and inexperience, on the other hand, helped establish basic economic injustices seven decades have never seen completely rectified.

Early activism in the very commercial industry of comic books focused on very commercial concerns. Several attempts to formally organize artists and craftspeople led to a few raucous meetings but no union. When times were good for comic books, many of the concerns were alleviated by the amount of work available; when times were bad, the publishers had an almost unassailable upper hand. But one thing is worth pointing out: many of the most eloquent spokespersons for improving conditions were the medium's best artists.

As a second generation of cartoonists began to dominate the comic book industry in the 1970s and 1980s, artists banded together in support of creators of a previous generation. Popular artists used their influence as industry spokespersons -- and as valuable company resources -- to speak out on behalf of injustices done against giants of the industry like Joe Shuster, Jerry Seigel and Jack Kirby. Very few did so without some risk, and some careers were altered forever by choices made in support of those causes. Activism became a part of the everyday landscape of comics professionals, even as there was less and less agreement over the issues. Benefit comic books were done in support of specific industry-related actions just as often as they were put together to fight larger social ills. Cartoonists met and discussed specific rights and professional obligations (although a guild or union was still out of reach), and editors editorialized with fire and brimstone.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is the current great shining example of comics industry activism. After a dizzying decade of industry upheaval and the introduction of new technologies which may change the business side of comic books forever, most activism done on behalf of industry issues has been dealt an incredibly harsh blow by day-to-day reality. It's not that principles have been abandoned as much as the entire landscape has changed to the point where it's not clear which ones still apply.

But one thing is clear: free speech is important to the art form and the industry. And comics is particularly vulnerable to censorship. Comics is relatively new medium. It is a medium known almost solely for its best children's entertainment. It is a medium that has suffered recent economic hardship. And it is a medium where the most dangerous, provocative and vital art has relatively little investment in the established publishing structures. This is an art form at risk. Artists know this instinctively, and that is why some of comics' grandest personalities, often the main players in some of its most heated rivalries, will put aside their differences for this common cause. Free speech is not only a right, it's a necessity. That is why the cartoonists featured here are doing the best thing they know -- making comics -- for its protection.

The contributions in SPX 2000 The Comic Book from cartoonists outside of the United States is intentional, and more appropriate this year than ever. Although First Amendment rights are the framework from which we in the United States argue free speech, censorship is a worldwide issue. And as appetites for new and different kinds of comics continue to grow in the U.S, comics from other countries will become a more significant part of this market. For those in the United States who believe comics are an art form suitable only for children, comics grounded in another culture add another layer of complexity that can only be read as dangerous. Already, the Fund has been informed of cases against Japanese manga on precisely these grounds.

So what have you done? You have participated in a worldwide effort on behalf of artistic expression. Your precise role in this case is to have completed the circle. You are quantifying the donated time. You are reading the contributed art. Purchasing this comic will have immediate benefits for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Hopefully, reading the comic will have a long-range effect on you, serving as either a reminder or an initial, heady alarm that comics is an art form that deserves to have protected its right to expression.

There are more circles to be drawn. As a supporter of free speech, I hope you'll consider joining the Fund through the information provided below. Your $25 goes straight into the war chest. As a fan of comics, I hope you'll avail yourself of the pleasure attending several Small Press Expos or participating in other CBLDF fund-raisers at conventions or through the mail. And as someone who see the fight for free speech as a significant outgrowth of the creative communities who call for it, I hope you'll encourage others to do the same.