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Why We Must Support Gordon Lee
posted February 13, 2005

The most surprising thing since the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's announcement of the Gordon Lee case on Monday, February 7, is how many people in comics-related chat rooms, including fellow members of the retail community, seem to believe Lee is simply getting what he deserves.

imageLee, of the comic shop Legends in Rome, Georgia, was charged with two crimes stemming from a downtown community event on Halloween night, 2004. A copy of Alternative Comics #2 was given to a nine-year-old. Alternative Comics #2 was the 2004 Free Comic Book Day from Jeff Mason's boutique comics company of the same name. It contained selections from various Alternative projects, including eight pages from cartoonist Nick Bertozzi's forthcoming work "The Salon." Three of those pages contained pictures of a naked Pablo Picasso acting in a non-sexual manner.

Lee was charged approximately one week after providing the child with the comic in question. The charges were "distributing material depicting nudity" and "distributing obscene material to a minor."

When people question the value of supporting Lee, the focus of their complaints seems to be on Lee's actions: that the retailer screwed up, he should have known better, he should have made certain this didn't happen, and his mistake makes it that much harder for everyone who does not make such mistakes to run their businesses.

imageThere are also a few less-frequent lines of reasoning. Some people seem to think that selling a nine-year-old a comic with a depiction of a man's penis is indeed distributing obscenity, or that it's close enough to distributing obscenity for argument's sake. A few people seem to be worried that the Fund is going to pour a lot of money into this case that should be held in reserve for retailers who find themselves in trouble for something not preceded by a mistake on their part.

We have to remember two things.

First, legal matters usually revolve around issues that are often distinct from our own interest in the case, no matter how passionate that interest may be.

We saw this just a couple of weeks ago with Stan Lee's round-one legal win against Marvel. As much as that legal victory brought with it all of our thoughts on Stan's relationship to fellow creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan Lee Vs. Marvel is a contract dispute, not an episode in the ongoing story of creator's rights.

Similarly, the State of Georgia against Gordon Lee is not a referendum on Lee's skill as a retailer.

imageIf this were a matter before a Comics Retailers' Guild to censure Lee, or if we were talking about whether or not to give Legends the Will Eisner retailing award in 2008, or if we were even talking amongst ourselves over whether we wanted to shop there, that would be one thing.

But the CBLDF's involvement isn't a retailer award; the CBLDF's involvement is based on the criminal charges involved; their merit, not Gordon Lee's. Gordon Lee faces two convictions for crimes, one of which could put him in jail for three years. These matters of law are the things with which the Fund and its lawyers strongly disagree and on these matters of law they feel they stand a very good chance of winning.

The second thing to remember is that all comics readers, professionals and retailers have a stake in legal outcomes that affect comic books.

A pair of convictions here would not simply be an unjust outcome for Lee, it could lead to easier future convictions involving a 17-year-old, or adults, or imagery those of us who find objectionable Nick Bertozzi's depiction of a dink might think perfectly okay. It will likely lead to other laws in other parts of the country, and encourage those who live where those laws are passed to apply them more and more aggressively.

imageThe Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was founded at a time when comics suffered from a public image problem and a lack of resources that made them easy prey for prosecutors exploiting shaky law and tired prejudice for unfortunate and sometimes selfish motives. More people know about comics for adults now, but a lot of places haven't received that memo yet, and more than a few of them will ball it up and throw it in the trash when it arrives. Many of them already have.

Gordon Lee is being charged with violating one law that doesn't apply (obscenity) and one law that is an offense to anyone who believes in long-established standards for free expression and the value of art (nudity). If you agree with those laws, that's one thing. But for the rest of us, let's put aside getting worked up over side issues or being upset that this is the fight before us at the time it's before us. Let's concentrate our energy on winning.

The pictures used in this article were some of those used by Nick Bertozzi in creating the scene in question in his The Salon. Apparently, I can't mail them to a friend in Georgia.