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The legend on Final Crisis, Batman R.I.P. and what’s next.
By Laura Hudson
[Editor’s note: This story ran in the Spring 2009 issue of Comic Foundry Magazine]
Final Crisis is over, Batman is dead, and the enigmatic scribe behind it all is ready to take a look back at the work that culminates his career at DC Comics, and what it tells us about the stories we tell ourselves.
Final Crisis ties together a lot of plot threads and themes from your work the DC Universe over the years. How long have you specifically been navigating towards this story?
For me, honestly, I’ve been building towards this since those very first Animal Man issues where I figured out what I wanted to do with superhero comics.
Did you know that this was the end point, or is that something that you realized over time as you were building certain narratives?
When you start out writing shared universe comics, you tend to come in with a grand vision based on years of consuming the material and thinking about it. But you don’t get to do Batman and Superman when you start, so the universe-altering epics take a while to get to. I’ve worked almost exclusively at DC for over 20 years and I’ve only done two major crossover events (DC One Million and Final Crisis).
The longer I’ve gone on working, the more I’ve been able to weave together all of my DC stories into one coherent mega-narrative going back decades. Final Crisis brings a lot of that stuff full circle to The Coyote Gospel in Animal Man No. 5. The idea of drawings emerging from white paper. If the “paper” is the Ground of Being in the DC Universe and let’s just imagine that the paper itself is “alive,” how would that pure pristine consciousness feel about being written on, you know, with all these mad stories of passion and violence and need? Especially if it learned to feel from watching us. You can trace this inspiration back to that brilliant Brian Bolland cover for Animal Man No. 5.
Was there a specific thematic intention from the beginning, or did the story evolve and take shape on its own?
I’ve always been exploring the bizarre relationship between the real world and our fictional role models. I’m fascinated by the “reality” of comic book characters like Superman and Batman, who are really much bigger than we are. They’ll be around when we’re dead. In fact, they were around before most of us were even alive. I find it incredible that drawings on paper can make people laugh or cry or get angry. You know these primitive, occult marks that really quite magically come alive in our heads.
Living worlds like the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe only exist in two dimensions yet occupy full holographic sensurround space in the minds of readers — universes tended and maintained across decades by generations of stewards who devote their lives to keeping Superman and Spider-Man and all the others alive. How weird is that? It’s a real place, a two-dimensional real place. So I guess — I’m trying to be an explorer in these worlds. The way I see it, I’m going to a real place, where rather than write “stories” that force the characters into situations of my devising, I’m trying to study and take notes and send back reports to the 3-D world. I don’t want to remake their world as our world necessarily. It’s more like — look what’s possible when you can play freely in a world so different from our own.
How much harder is this to execute when you’re working on a mega-crossover like Final Crisis, and there’s so many other moving parts and plot threads and other creators involved?
It’s hard, but you just have to turn the problems into part of the process and part of the story. When you’re dealing with continuity disconnects or whatever, you have to take advantage of those and make them part of the story. You’ve got a lot of people working on a shared universe, and different people have different perspectives on what to do, so I’m trying to make that part of the work. By having a god smash up spacetime and deliberately calling into question much of what we regard as “continuity” for the duration of this event, Final Crisis is also a comment on what it’s like to make one of these Crisis stories. And it’s an epic superhero story at the same time, and it’s kind of about DC Comics as an entity and here’s my take on how it felt to get into this universe as a kid or any number of things. Like I say, it’s the story of the ultimate war between the pure unbounded blank page and the sinister ink that marks it! [Laughs.]
So, I don’t know, yeah, it’s hard to coordinate, but that’s also the fun of it, really. Part of the fun of DC Comics is that for 70 years it’s been almost impossible to ultimately coordinate DC Comics continuity. Not even the original Crisis on Infinite Earths could do that, hence the endless reboots and time lines that never stick and always spiral off into chaos again. Marvel Comics grew naturally from a very focused vision. It was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and New York City. Marvel was the vision of a couple of men and was able to grow from a single unified movement. DC Comics has grown out of dozens of different franchises and comic lines, all with tones and approaches that often clash with each other. It’s pretty easy to keep the Marvel universe on a straight course, but DC will always be a bucking bronco and, like I say, that’s part of the fun if you’re willing to let the two companies be different and to enjoy the mad ride. A lot of fans want DC continuity to run as smoothly as Marvel’s, but I don’t think that will never happen and I don’t think it should. So for me, DC is more fun, more DC and less like Marvel when it embraces its sci-fi heritage and its sprawling, disconnected web of constantly shifting worlds and characters.
Have you been satisfied with the way that Final Crisis has been handled given all the complications?
Yeah. I’d have liked a lot more pages, but I only had seven issues and a couple of tie-ins, which meant I had to leave out one or two things I might have done.
Otherwise, I think the only real complication was losing our artist [JG Jones]halfway through, but that was dealt with very quickly and who wouldn’t be pleased with Carlos Pacheco and Doug Mahnke as replacements? I’d already promised the book wouldn’t be late, so the art change became necessary to keep on track. JG got to do all the scenes I most wanted to see him do, right up to the Tawky Tawny fight, so I was fine with it. Then Marvel swooped in on Carlos, and Doug Mahnke stepped in from Superman Beyond, and it all worked out fine.
Final Crisis was supposed to end in December, and now it ends in January. Given the circumstances, I think everyone did a brilliant job and kept any delays to an absolute minimum.
How did the change in artists affect the way that you dealt with the work? Did you rewrite anything knowing that it wasn’t going to be JG for some of the final issues?
No, not at all. Once I knew that Doug Mahnke was doing it, and that it was going to pick up all the strands from Superman Beyond, I was happy. Doug’s up there along with people like Frank Quitely, Phil Jimenez, Chris Weston, JG Jones, Cameron Stewart and JH Williams, you know, as one of the best interpreters of my stuff. I’d work with him on anything.
Once I had Doug on board – actually, issue 7, I think, is going to be like Back to the Future, when Marty McFly winds up playing “Johnny B. Goode” like Hendrix. That’s Final Crisis No. 7. It feels kind of wild, and you know, I’m loving it, so — Doug Mahnke is perfect for that. The work he’s done in Superman Beyond is just some of the best comics I’ve ever seen. I challenged him to do the Sgt. Pepper of hero comics and he more than delivered. There haven’t been real, full-on cosmic comics since the ’70s, but Doug just knocks it out of the park AND he’s a fan’s dream artist since he’s quick! He drew the whole of Final Crisis No. 7 over Christmas and New Year with NO loss of quality. The guy’s incredible.
One of the big problems with both Marvel and DC is the difficulty of trying to execute these huge events with all of these different people. Do you think more lead time needs to be built into them?
The thing is, the more lead time you build in, the more people will just take advantage of lead time. Business practices have changed. Back in the days when comics were published on a regular monthly or bi-monthly basis, the star system wasn’t really in existence, people didn’t get paid quite as well and fan expectations were not as high.
A lot of artists are naturally wary of fan pressure and the excessive criticism that come with a higher profile, so they put their all into a project, knowing that if they do less than the best they’re capable of, 50 jeering bastards on the Internet will turn up to personally insult them.
Also, when an artist can beef up his income by selling original art pages to collectors, he’ll want to do his best. And with a lot of these guys, the best takes time and effort and planning.
So I don’t think it would speed things up at all to start the project earlier. A lot of artists would just use up all the time to do their best work on the first issue and still be late with the second or third.
Ultimately, fans need to adapt to the fact that there are some comics that can be produced quickly on a monthly basis, while some other comics will take longer because the artists involved have different working methods. And that will affect the quality of what you read in different ways. Not everyone is the same.
So it’s just the nature of the beast, that’s just the nature of the mega-crossover?
Of course. I’m one of the people in the camp who would rather wait for top-quality work than see production-line level quality across the board. There is a middle ground here, but you can’t expect all of your favorite artists and writers to be able to occupy that middle ground, unfortunately.
I mean, there are a lot of fans out there who are like, “I want it, and I want it now.”
Yeah, I know there are, and they’ll all get a well-deserved, long-awaited, short, sharp shock when they finally realize that real life is less indulgent of their petulant whims than mummy and her ever-giving tit! [Laughs].
I’m sure Dr. Freud had a name for this kind of oral compulsive bird-beak behavior but, in a world where there are still too many mothers whose dearest dream is a single bowl of rice with which to feed their diseased and doomed children, it’s really hard to have sympathy with a bunch of blubbery malcontents bitching about the frequency of their comic books.
You get it when it’s done, o ye privileged, dissatisfied child of the Capitalist Society of Spectacle.
So is Final Crisis your big, final story with DC, or do you see yourself in the future coming back to tell other stories on this scale?
Final Crisis is a big epic kind of statement for me, about superheroes, about comics, about DC comics in particular, about life these last few years in the West, about storytelling and about the nature of God. I’m sure people will talk about it for a long time to come. I hope so. But yeah, I’m still working at DC for the foreseeable future, and there are some other stories I’d like to get to. But I don’t think they’ll be on this scale again, or even set entirely within the DC Universe per se.
The story of the DCU is a continuing, never-ending story, and I love adding to it, but right now I’m taking some time away to rethink and work on new material without the pressure of deadlines or expectations.
You mentioned that it’s a statement — what are you trying to communicate about the nature of stories, as you mentioned?
It’s about why we tell stories at all and what they’re for – why particularly the hero story. With Superman Beyond, we’re trying to get right into the basis of what is that hero story: the brave guy trying to protect his “tribe” from threat. How far back to the primal core can we take that one? Why do we, as a species, like to repeat this particular story to ourselves over and over? Why is the human race obsessed with the idea of the hero? Why do we all expect to be the hero in our own story? Why are superhero stories so popular in these times of real-life crisis?
From there, I was thinking about the power of stories over people.
And that’s when we expand out into the big idea of, why is our culture telling itself such a bad story right now? Why all the guilt and self-loathing? Don’t we realize how real and how dangerous this kind of self-hypnosis can be? Why do we keep telling our children they’re doomed to inherit a fouled, wrecked planet of cynics, pedophiles and gangsters? Could we be talking our culture into extinction? And I know a lot of them are true stories, but at the same time there are other true stories that are better, but we tend to downplay them currently in our culture.
And what would happen if we told better stories?
So for me it’s about the whole feeling of having suffered through George Bush, Osama bin Laden and that whole — Tony Blair, that climate of fear and terror. The sense that the 21st century had been cancelled. That was Darkseid and Mandrakk. And there was that kind of sense of that, I think, in people’s hearts. So I was trying to look at that, you know, put that in the context of what I do for a living, with the hero story. Actually putting on paper how it felt to watch your hopes for the future disintegrate, your faith destroyed, your heroes mocked and showing how they come back.
I mean, do you feel differently now that, for example, Obama is president? Has your perspective changed at all since Obama’s win?
I don’t know whether Obama’s election will change the status quo or put any real dent in the side of bad things that go on in the world, but in terms of a symbolic and metaphoric victory of the imagination, as an indicator of possibility, Obama’s induction seems huge. He brings a sense, at least, that change can happen, and because it seems quite a radical change, it’s almost as if the future has permission to continue. I think it will make America feel better about itself — the story that I expect America to start telling itself now is that, “Hey, we’re waking up out of a bad time into something different, therefore new, therefore potentially better.” So maybe we could take advantage of that to start talking honestly about terror, drugs, race, the economy, whatever. So bringing us back, I’m turning all of this real-world stuff into fuel for my DC superhero “myth,” where I can, in my simple way, tackle some of these big themes using the broad language of metaphor and symbol and colors.
The first two pages of Final Crisis No. 7 should’ve proved quite amusing in the context of Obama in the White House, incidentally.
Was the ending of Final Crisis something that you brought to DC, or did they have something in mind already?
The ending was always part of the story and it’s the ending you read, but I did add a scene at DC’s request. They wanted to close down the original cycle of Crisis stories with the parallel worlds and the Monitors and clear the decks for a unified New Earth and a new direction.
For me, it was just a case of leaving things nice and tidy for the next guy, which is what I’ve done. Final Crisis kind of takes the DC Universe to an ultimate limit of nihilism and despair, but obviously it does have to be put back to a certain extent, because publishing has to continue. The story ends, but as part of a shared universe ongoing narrative it can never really end, so I had to make sure I was leaving a bundle of plot threads obviously open for the future.
In terms of Batman R.I.P., how did the idea for the death of Batman come about?
Way back in 2005 when I was hired to do Batman, I spent a few days working out my plans for the long-term arc, and they included a sketch of Batman kissing the woman, who turned out to be the Jezebel Jet character, in bright sunlight, and underneath I’d written “Batman R.I.P.” It combined with
a story idea I’d scribbled down as “Doctor X,” where Batman would be up against the ultimate “diabolical mastermind” mystery character in a paranoid duel to the finish.
So this long-form story was plotted to end at the same time as Final Crisis, which was intended to cross over right after the final six-part Batman R.I.P. deconstruction of Batman. When Dan [DiDio] heard the title, he said, “Well that’s great.” He goes, “I’ll actually go for that, we can do something here with Batman that we haven’t done before, if we take that title slightly more literally.” I then put the death of Batman through my own filter and here we are.
Batman is a huge and very profitable franchise for DC — was there any resistance to the idea of killing Batman?
Don’t worry, I predict he’ll continue to be big and profitable! As I keep saying, this is only part of the ongoing story of Batman. Batman has been around since 1939 — happy birthday, Bruce! — and he ain’t going anywhere.
This is about telling a story that never ends while still trying to make it twist and turn and flip. So we’re simply moving onto the next amazing chapter in the continuing story of Batman. And more than that I don’t want to say.
For me, the only essential question of a superhero universe — and a good superhero story — is not “How did that happen?” or “Why did that happen?” but “What happens next ?!!!”
It’s almost nice, I think, that you didn’t go for the more traditional death, because that’s been so overdone at this point that it’s hard to believe that anybody really dies. In comic books we see everyone come back eventually. I can’t lie. These guys are all going to come back somewhere, somewhen, and for some reason that seems to make sense at the time. I decided to acknowledge that as kind of a natural law in superhero universes.
I thought that was one of the nice touches in Final Crisis, when Martian Manhunter died and Superman said something at the eulogy like, “We pray for a resurrection.”
Yeah, because you have to get used to this sort of thing if you live in the DC Universe.
For you, after this story, what are the mountains left to climb for you? Do you feel like there are goals, at least within the DCU, that you have not yet achieved?
I’ve got some ideas. This is it for a certain type of approach, I think, and it’s time for a little break. I’ve been doing superhero comics on a daily basis now since JLA in 1996, and it’s kind of — it’s a very perpetual motion way of writing, like playing a certain kind of music, like a 12-bar blues over and over again. So you have to find different styles to keep it interesting.
I’ve been coming up with a lot of new ways to tell stories and new ideas for page layouts in recent stuff, but it’s all been done on the run. I’d like to combine the clarity and simplicity of All-Star Superman with more experimental storytelling approaches in the next batch of material.
There was a lot of discussion in the last year — particularly after Robert Kirkman’s video manifesto — about corporate versus creator-owned work. How important is it to you to do creator-owned work?
I think it’s essential, and I’ve got three or four new projects coming out from Vertigo in 2009-10. Most people who are doing this work on corporate franchise characters have better ideas of their own for stories and love to do their own characters, but the market for creator-owned nonsuperhero stuff isn’t that great in the short term, especially. These books just don’t sell like superhero comics. Readers come back to the characters they recognize, and the brands they’re familiar with. The comics audience is reading hero books. That might change if we get past this climate of fear and reaction, and people maybe will start looking for more progressive or forward-looking material. I hope so, because I’m doing some pretty weird stuff next! There’s a very obvious move towards a psychedelia in popular culture right now in music and fashion and advertising, and I just want to see a little bit more of that new model cosmic head stuff in our comics, which is why I’ve been doing the kind of material I have recently. It’s hard to sell your own characters, although those of us who’ve got a bit of status in the business can always create our own oddball books. But the less commercial stuff rarely brings the money or recognition that a run on Batman will get you, so most of us do those books as well. I really like writing superhero comics, so I don’t find this to be too much of a burden.
Did you see Final Crisis as solely directed specifically at the core fanbase, or is it something new readers could pick up as well?
I tried to make it something anyone could read.
Readers who are very deeply into DC continuity will spot a ton of references that people less familiar with DC won’t get, but readers new to this will understand that a universe of familiar superheroes has been infested by some ultimate evil, conveniently called Darkseid. Longtime fans will recognize Anthro and Metron and Dan Turpin, new readers will recognize familiar fictional figures like the caveman, the space god, the chain-smoking private ‘tec. It’s a story about gods so I tried to deal only with characters and situations that are archetypal. Good girl versus bad girl, exiled prince, redeemed villain, etc.
I suppose I see more of it as a science-fiction/horror story starring the DC Universe. DC was always the sci-fi comic company, you know, so it’s going back to the roots. It might be a little different from the way these things have been approached before, but I see that as a plus, not a minus. It’s ultimately the story of the Monitor, a godlike abstract intelligence, reacting to what it believes to be the ultimate story.
What is about superhero comics that compels you, as opposed to other types of narrative?
Because this narrative can deal with the big questions, you know. You can talk about life, and death, and guilt, and loss and all these big capital-letter things, but using outrageous, colorful super people. I kind of see it as a metaphoric thing, so it’s like the stories of the Greek gods. It’s all about human passions distilled to essences. In superhero comics you can actually have Superman punching guilt, punching fear. I just love playing that stuff out in such a direct, concrete way. I love the kind of big epic sweep of comics, and the Jungian, bombastic sweep of the language. It fits with how I see the world. So the more like movies they get or the more like TV plays they get, the less I like them.
I really think comics are more fun when they play to their strengths, and do the things that movies can’t do, and go to places in the imagination where movies can’t go. Let’s take up the type of storytelling that movies daren’t do, you know? Why are we conforming to Hollywood storytelling styles and losing sales when we can do anything? I think its time for comics to become, you know, more Matt Fraction, much more Brendan McCarthy, more psychedelia, more cosmic, more freewheeling, more internal. Comics begin with a guy, with a pencil and an imagination, or a guy at his word processor, and after that anything can happen. And so rarely does.
Comics don’t have to be burdened by the rules of screenwriting, or by film budgets. It’s becoming very easy for comics creatives to find work in Hollywood these days. Most of the big names in comics are making money in Hollywood in some capacity as far as I’m aware, and that’s as it should be. But now that we no longer need to apply for the gig, now that we don’t need to show them we too can write action hero movies, can we all get back to the business of blowing minds, please? And not just in the creator-owned stuff, but in the pages of Iron Man and Avengers and Batman. The page is wide open for creativity.
With Final Crisis and especially with issue 7, I’ve been working towards this storytelling technique I’m calling channel-zapping comics. Why spend a page on a scene when you can press all the same buttons with a single loaded panel? Why waste readers’ time on every mind-numbing detail of story when you can blitz them with the good bits and move onto the next thing?
People consume images and assign meanings very rapidly, and across multiple channels, all the time these days. They like things they can participate with, and I feel as if storytelling should be adapting to this stuff, learning from it and trying new things. Comics, with their minimal budgets, can afford to take risks and break rules in this area that Hollywood and TV producers are generally afraid to do. We’re at the front line of the world’s collective imagination, so there’s no need to be so timid.
We here at Comic Foundry love hearing from you. Many people have written in to express their feelings on end of CF. Each one has been heartfelt and sincere and receiving them means more than I can express. This one, however, is my favorite:
What the unholy fuck!?! This is for the main editor guy.. I can’t find the proper cuss words to explain how meticulously pissed I am that you guys are quitting the print game. Shit, I misspelled print 5 times while typing. That’s how pissed I am. I’m not doing any of that kiss-up bullshit; You guys had something that was already, at least, 5 levels above Wizard. Goddamnit that magazine can be a waste of the dead seals they use to make their ink, sometimes. You guys had actual witty (not lazy writing) articles with quality reasons for writing them. Not just shit to fill up space. I just read that the real reason for quitting isn’t even ‘cuz of the ‘Bushy’ economy we’ve got. That makes it even worse! How are you gonna’ start something so goddamn exciting, then decide to just close up shop? Where I’m from, cock teasing to that extreme is akin to donkey punching someones else’s wife in public; don’t start what you can’t finish. You really left us high and dry, here, man. I mean, all we’ve got left, really, is Wizard. SHIT!! You better hope we don’t meet somewhere, editor guy, ‘cuz I swear I will do everything in my bowels to birth one of the quietest, stinkiest, juiciest farts you’ve ever had the displeasure to gag from, without staining my attire, and land it square in your nose hairs. OOOHHH I’m so mad.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and sing my daughter to sleep with ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’
We just put up a giant sale to get all five issues of Comic Foundry for one low, low price. Check out the link on the left for this limited-time bundle.
Comic Foundry stood above both the fanboy-pandering and highbrow-obsessed mags-about-comics in its witty but weighty treatments.
Thanks to all over there!
Hey all, the latest and last issue of Comic Foundry is in stores today! There’s a lot of great stuff, including our cover story on Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley. Chhhhhheck it!
We’re over in Artists Alley! We have a half-table — you can spot us from afar by our orange tablecloth. We’ll have all of our issues for sale and have NYCC exclusive previews of the next issue, that have sweet interview excerpts from Grant Morrison and Bryan Lee O’Malley.
When we launched Comic Foundry Magazine it was a breath of fresh air to the industry and introduced a variety of coverage in types of stories never seen before in the comics press. We found praise and a fanbase that had a deep passion for the content we created. Together, my team helped changed the game. Comic Foundry means the world to me, which is why it saddens me to an unexplainable extent to say that our next issue will be our last. I’m sorry to admit that I’ve reached the unfortunate point where my career no longer allows enough time to do the magazine. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” my high school journalism teacher used to say. In this case, I’d rather cease publication than put out issues we don’t have time to devote to fully — less than 100 percent is not an option.
So what does this mean? Well, we have one last amazing blowout issue that comes out in early February — we’ll be at NYCC, MoCCA and probably even SDCC. If you have a subscription with pending issues you’ll be reimbursed. (Again, finances are not the reason for our early departure).
I want to take this time to thank my right hand (wo)man — Laura Hudson. She’s had my back every step of the way and I probably would’ve made this announcement much, much sooner if it weren’t for her. I also want to thank all of our contributors for believing in our vision — their efforts were the backbone of our success, and I owe it all to them. I also want to thank our readers and our supporters online, especially Heidi MacDonald, Blog@Newsarama v1, Tom Spurgeon, Matt Fraction, Chris Murphy, Brendan McGuirk, Sean McDevitt, Brigid Alverson, Peter Svensson, John Parker, Jason Michelitch, Tucker Stone, Michael Tedder, Ernie Estrella, Adan Jimenez, Evie Nagy, Matthew Badham, Caleb Goellner, Van Jensen, Brian Heater, Kai-Ming Cha, Sarah Jaffe, Freeman Jack, Alan Kistler, Chip Zdarsky, Jay Franco, Vikram Tank, Complex, TJ Wilkinson, Holly Wray, Chris Allen and Amber Mitchell and countless others — you guys/girls have had our backs from the get-go, and it means the world.
Editor In Chief
Comic Foundry Magazine
Comic Book Club is live talk show in NYC that runs every Tuesday night at 8:00pm at the Peoples Improv Theater. I was fortunate to be a guest last year after the first issue came out, but I can’t wait to return with Laura and talk about the new issue and everything else happening in the comics world. Tickets are just $5 but you’ll get a free issue of Comic Foundry (which costs $5) — so it’s really like you’re making money by coming!
Laura Hudson and I (along with a very long list of amazing contributors) work pretty darn hard to get each issue out. And while we put our blood, sweat and tears into each page, we’ve got our respective ipods blaring. To what, exactly? So glad you asked. With the new issue of Comic Foundry in stores tomorrow, we present the Comic Foundry Issue 4 Mixtape — the best and bassiest of what we listened to when making this issue:
SEX IN COMICS? LAWS SAY GIVE IT ARREST
According to several state and federal laws, selling — or even owning – certain comics may now be a crime
By Laura Hudson
It was a very good year for First Amendment rights in comics, featuring one of the greatest triumphs ever for the nonprofit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, when in the midst of April’s New York Comic Con, obscenity charges against Georgia retailer Gordon Lee were finally dropped after three and a half years of protracted legal battling and more than $100,000 in legal fees.
Lee had been accused of distributing indecent material to a child after a boy visiting his store in 2003 accidentally received a free comic containing an excerpt from The Salon, an Ignatz Award-nominated work that contained a nude image of Pablo Picasso.
But while the Lee case marked an important victory, the fight for First Amendment rights in comics is hardly over. Even now legal battles are under way in response to federal and state laws that could threaten the rights of both retailers and readers of comics and manga.
THE OREGON TRIAL
Two Oregon laws passed in 2007 to restrict the sale of sexually explicit materials to minors have been challenged by a coalition of retailers, librarians, publishers and First Amendment advocates — including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Oregon-based Dark Horse Comics — who say that the law restricts access to constitutionally protected material, including comics.
Although the laws were intended to target sexual predators giving sexually explicit material to children, the ambiguity of the wording does not specify any intent to harm. As a result, the laws could be used to prosecute booksellers who sell books, comics or graphic novels with sexual content to people under the age of 13, or in other cases, under 18 years of age.
The first law, OR 167.0574, criminalizes the giving or selling of “sexually explicit material” — which could potentially include everything from Watchmen to Judy Blume novels — to children under the age of 13. Violators can be punished by up to a year in prison, or a $6,250 fine. Selling the same material to a 13-year-old would be permitted, though no mention is made of how booksellers and comic shop are meant to distinguish between 12 and 13-year-olds.
The second law, OR 167.057, criminalizes giving or selling material with visual or verbal depictions of sexual conduct to anyone under 18, “for the purpose of arousing or satisfying the sexual desires.” Putting aside the fact that it can often be difficult to determine a customer’s exact sexual agenda at the time of purchase, the law could be used to prosecute the sale of any “satisfying” material — including the sale of nearly any yaoi manga title, for example — to a 17-year-old as “luring a minor,” a felony that can mean up to five years in prison and $125,000 in fines.
The laws would also require bookstore and comic-shop retailers to make a determination about the often subjective sexual content for every single item they stock, which could pose a significant burden for stores that often carry thousands of titles.
“It doesn’t fit any national standard,” says Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. “There’s a lower degree of protection than the constitution provides, and that’s fairly dangerous.”
Attorney P.K. Runkles-Pearson, who is representing the coalition of various plaintiffs in the case with both laws, says the material is constitutionally protected, and that while the plaintiffs “do not contest the importance of protecting minors from harm … [the statute] cannot sweep over the protections of the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so.”
Runkles-Pearson cites manga classics such as Kazuo Koike’s Lady Snowblood and Kentaro Miura’s long-running Berserk as titles that could spur criminal charges if sold in violation of the laws.
She adds, “In the process of reading these materials for the case, I’ve come to really appreciate” graphic novels. A work that particularly impresses her is Charles Burns’ Black Hole, the distribution of which could now result in prosecution.
An injunction has been sought to halt enforcement of the laws, which are currently in effect, and oral arguments were scheduled to begin Oct. 3.
Another case with potential consequences for comics involves Iowa resident Christopher Handley, who is being prosecuted by the federal government not for distributing sexually explicit comics material, but rather for owning it.
Handley is charged with receiving “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children” for importing what is known as lolicon manga from Japan. Derived from the term “Lolita complex,” lolicon is a genre of manga that features young girls drawn in sexual situations.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the prohibition of “virtual” child pornography under the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 was unconstitutional, as it prohibited “speech that records no crime and creates no victims by its production,” the PROTECT Act of 2003, which was intended to prevent the abuse of children, says something very different.
Its prohibitions against child pornography state that “it is not a required element of any offense under this section that the minor depicted actually exist,” extending to drawings, sculptures, computer-generated pictures or any other type of image that portrays sex with a person under 18 and is deemed obscene.
The law has a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, according to Mike Bladel of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern Iowa, which is prosecuting the case.
And it could potentially apply to any individual in possession of yaoi or shotacon manga, for example, “if the depictions appeared to be of anyone underage,” says lead defense attorney Eric Chase.
The definition of who does and does not “appear to be” 18 can also be more complicated in the case of manga, where artistic conventions often dictate that characters appear more childlike than their age might indicate.
“Technically it’s an obscenity statute, but the punishments are cross-referenced with child pornography. They’re punished the same way as if it were [pictures of] real children,” Chase says. “If this is permitted, it could easily move into other genres. The implications are very far-reaching.”
The case is slated for trial in October in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.