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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

Current Installment >> Installment Archives | General Forum

BAKER'S DOZEN for 12/24/2003
Giving the Gift of Freedom ...

ACTOR It's easy to forget, amidst all the delightful craziness of the holiday season, that any number of worthy charities depend on the general public's support to continue their good work. And, in this age of tightened monetary belts, it's become increasingly important that we remember to give to these fine institutions. Which brings us to the subject of comic-related charitable organizations like ACTOR [A Commitment To Our Roots] and the CBLDF, or the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

ACTOR, with its focus on aiding comic creators who have fallen on hard times financially or otherwise, is certainly a worthy cause, and one I urge everyone to support wholeheartedly. But it's the CBLDF, and its mission of protecting our increasingly maginalized freedoms of expression, that I'd like to focus our attention on today. And what better way to do just that than run an interview with one of the most visible and vocal supporters of the Fund, Neil Gaiman.

CBLDF

Now while it's true that this piece is a bit old, having first run on the now-defunct WizardWorld.com during Maureen McTigue's too-short but gloriously fun tenure as editor of that site last century, sadly much of the concerns that Gaiman addressed then are still pertinent today. Quite simply, the forces of suppression are still out there, perhaps even stronger than before, and working hard to undermine the basic freedoms which constitute the very foundations of the art form we all love.

So I urge you to consider giving to the fund today. Give yourself, your children and the rest of us that most precious gift this festive season ... Freedom.

We'll all be the better for it.

Send Me a Guardian Angel

Neil Gaiman on Freedom of Expression, Censorship, and the Need for the CBLDF

Neil Gaiman For most of the 90's, Neil Gaiman headlined a series of personal appearances in support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (often referred to as "the CBLDF" or simply as "the Fund"). These events, which soon became known as the Guardian Angle tours, led to a series of sold out readings by this popular author that served to bolster the Fund's coffers while cementing his [quite well-deserved] reputation as an entertaining, witty and often hypnotic performer. Then, just as the last millennium was waning, Gaiman announced that he was embarking on his final tour in support of this worthy cause.

As luck would have it, I was at that time beginning my too-short tenure as a freelance journalist with Wizard magazine's website, and somehow landed the plum assignment of attending Gaiman's performance at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. So I stuffed my tape recorder into an overnight bag and traveled to the Windy City for what turned out to be a memorable evening of Gaiman reading from his works, both new and old, and answering the audience's questions.

Earlier, I'd interviewed Gaiman about his support of the CBLDF, and what had lead to his backing of this particular cause with such an obvious passion. His answers proved to be simultaneously enlightening and disturbing ... particularly if you think that the CBLDF is solely concerned with protecting the rights of some shadowy perverts to buy, create, and sell "adult" or porn comics. In point of fact, if you think that there's no need for you to worry about ever being censored, or face going to trial, because you only do super heroes, or you'd never do anything "dirty" ... well, you'd better brace yourself for some hard truths.

Guardian Angel Poster

Bill Baker: Why did you start the Guardian Angel Tours, and why are you calling a halt to them?

Neil Gaiman: Well, it started, more or less, accidentally. It was about 1993, and I got a call from the owners of The Beguiling, a comic store in Toronto. And they said, "Why don't you come up here? We'll rent a theater, and sell tickets for the (Comic Book) Legal Defense Fund, and you can do a reading for the Defense Fund?" And I said, "Are you sure this is a good idea?" And they said, "Yeah! Joe Matt'll buy a ticket if you do."

So I said OK. And I went and did the reading, and it was a huge success. We sold (out) a 500 seat theater, and I discovered that I'm good at it. I think Susan Alston, from the Legal Defense Fund, had come up to help to organize it, so she then put one on in Northhampton, (MA), at the Northhampton Theater, and that went brilliant. And, really, we've just been doing them ever since. And it turned into this two-weeks-a-year tour, where I do a few locations, take (over) a little theater, and do readings. And I enjoyed it no end.

The problem was just finding two weeks (free time where I could do it). Finally, at the beginning of this year, I said to Chris Oar, the director of the Fund, "I can't do it. I can't keep doing it. I'd like to go on holiday with my children before they grow up and leave home. Finding two weeks a year to go on tour is becoming impossible.

"And," I said, "I'd also love to see more people moving in and filling the kind of ecological niche that I were to vacate. If I stop doing this, maybe other people would start getting out on the road, doing their own thing for the fund."

So, that was why we decided to do the last one, and make it a huge one, make it a big one. Which it is. It's four stops: Chicago, New York, Portland and LA.

BB: Does this signal the end of your involvement in, and your efforts on behalf of, the Fund?

NG: No, absolutely not! It just signals ...

I just feel like seven years of going out on the road is enough. It felt like the time. And I've always been very fond of the idea of finishing in a big way when you're at the top, rather than limping on until everybody's sick of you. It was the way that we did Sandman. And it seemed like a very good thing to do now.

BB: So we'll be seeing more things like the recent eBay auctions (during which Neil's famous black leather jacket was sold for four figures)?

NG: Yeah. I'll do more eBay stuff. I'll probably get much more directly involved with the Fund itself. But, in terms of actually getting out there and educating people for $20 a ticket, I probably won't. This (will be) the last of the tours. It may not necessarily be the last time I ever actually get out in front of people and entertain them for the Legal Defense Fund, and tell them stories, or read them poems. Or it may turn out to be, if I do this again, it may turn out to be ... I may actually go on the road as a support act for, ya know, Led Zeppelin reforming. I could get out there and read stories as a support act for that one.

I'm not necessarily saying this is even the last time I get out and tell stories in public. But it feels like it's time to be done. And, again, I'd like to see more people getting out and doing stuff like this, themselves.

BB: What sparked your interest in the Fund in the first place? I mean, come on, Sandman is not Boiled Angel (Mike Diana's 'Zine that a Florida court found so offensive that they not only fined Diana heavily, but mandated police searches of his residence without any warrants to enforce a ruling that he could not produce art of any kind in the future ... despite the fact that both conditions violate Diana's Constitutional rights).

NG: Sandman is not Boiled Angel. Having said that, and this occurred in about '95 or '96, well after I became involved with the Defense Fund, in Gainsville, Florida, the chief of police went into a store (nearby) and said (to the owner), "OK, you're selling this thing, Death: The High Cost of Living, and it has this seven page thing in the back, called Death Talks About Life, where somebody rolls a condom onto a banana, and they talk about risk factors involved in various forms of sex. And on how not to get aids. How not to get pregnant. How not to die." She said, "I don't like this. I don't want you selling this. And, if you keep on selling this, I will put you out of business." And the store owner very sensibly got in touch with the Legal Defense Fund, and the Legal Defense Fund attorney fired off a letter. And the police department laid off (the store).

Freedom of speech, as far as I'm concerned, is an absolute. Americans seem to treat freedom of speech in the same way the English treat the Health Service. The English have the National Health Service. If you're a poor person in England, and have heart problems, you will get treated. It will not financially ruin you for the rest of your life. Or you will not have to choose between getting the heart (problem) treated, and eating. If you are severely injured in England, you go to the emergency room. It's something you take for granted. And people (there) grumble about it. They're not really sure if it's very good or not, but they do. People actually take it for granted.

In America, you have guaranteed freedom of speech for everybody. This is one of those cool things, like health care, that people take for granted when they've got it. And I think that's why, as an Englishman, coming out here, (I can appreciate that right). Saying that "Sandman's not Boiled Angel", as far as I'm concerned, diminishes the obscene behavior of the Florida court in regard to Boiled Angel.

Imagine that, instead of being a comics artist and writer, Mike Diana had been a novelist. And if a novelist had been (found) guilty of obscenity, and been convicted to three years suspended sentence, a $1000 fine, psychiatric treatment at his own expense -- which is something Soviet Russia was really into, enforced psychiatric treatment of dissident artists -- a course in journalistic ethics at his own expense, (and) he's not allowed within ten feet of anyone under eighteen -- he lost his job at a convenience store -- and not allowed to draw anything that might be considered obscene, with the local police authority instructed to make 24 hour spot checks (without need of a Constitutionally required warrant) on his place of abode, to make sure he wasn't writing, if that was a novelist doing that, Amnesty International would have taken that one up. He would have been on the front page of Time magazine. It would have been a cause celeb.

Instead, a few comics people know about Mike Diana. A few civil rights and first amendment people know about the Mike Diana case.

And I remember being completely shocked when, some years ago, at a convention in Charlotte, (NC), where I was there as a guest of the Legal Defense Fund, and I was doing one of these readings, and I had asked for Mike Diana to come in and introduce me (to the audience), and the convention organizer wouldn't let Mike Diana's name be written down anywhere. They wouldn't let him be mentioned over the loudspeakers. It was as if he deserved it, he brought it on himself, for drawing pictures that other people didn't like.

I'm sorry, freedom of speech is an absolute. The rule is, if you don't like the pictures, you don't look at them.

Let me limit that; freedom of speech to adults is an absolute. Freedom of speech to kids isn't. But, then again, Boiled Angel was not being sold to kids. The person it was sold to, who was the person who made the complaint, was a police officer pretending to be a fanzine fan. And I suspect that, if he was anything like the police officers I know, was reasonably unshockable.

But, there ya go. Sorry about the rant.

BB: No need to apologize. This is information that most people aren't aware of, but really need to know about.

Well, given the current political climate, and an increasing tendency towards censorship in this country, what are your thoughts on labeling? Do you have any suggestions or solutions in this area?

NG: I wish people would label intelligently.

Frank Miller, and Alan Moore, are hard-line anti-labeling people because they point out, very successfully, that it doesn't seem to do much good. A retailer in Texas was convicted six weeks ago of selling a comic labeled for over eighteen, (which was racked) in the over eighteen section of the shop, to an undercover cop who was over eighteen. As they (Miller and Moore) said, "Sure helps a lot!"

I think that intelligent labeling is probably a good thing. I only think that because there are some very stupid people out there, and there are some very stupid television reporters and such out there.

If you hand a child a box of DC comics, everything they published that month, they will go through it and pull out the ones that look appealing. And that won't be Transmetropolitan, and it won't be The Dreaming. It'll be The Batman Adventures, stuff that looks like it's for kids. And, frankly, if you give your typical Wizard reader that same box, they will probably ignore The Dreaming, Lucifer, and so on and so forth, as well. Again, because they don't look like people in colorful spandex punching each other. On the other hand, you give that box to an eighteen-year-old, they'll probably go through and that'll be the stuff they'll pull out. Because they're done on the spandex.

So, I think there's a level on which stuff self-selects anyway. Very few comics "light up" in people's hands. And, as many people point out, book stores ...

You don't go into a book store and see age limits, and stuff, on the back of books, and labeling. On the other hand, things are labeled in bookstores by the way that they look, and by the place where they're positioned.

BB: And also by the publishers' suggestions (concerning genre, age group, etc.).

NG: Well, yeah, but I'm not even thinking of "Recommended for three to nine year olds" (suggestions). 'Cause you have to look very closely for those, and they're certainly not for a lot of things.

But I am saying that you can pretty much tell, wandering around a bookstore, what kind of stuff you'll probably like, and what kind of stuff you won't. And, unfortunately, there is a long tradition in the world of the media of getting a bunch of comics ...

I remember one thing done with Elektra Assassin, the wonderful Frank Miller-Bill Sienkiewicz strip. They held up Elektra Assassin to the camera, and then pulled back to see a display of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Archies, and stuff, it was a sort of a kid's section, and they said, "This is what your kid's are reading! I bet you thought comics were this, but this is what your children are reading!"

Join the Fund! BB: Any last thoughts on what an average reader can do to help? I mean, a Neil Gaiman can go on tour, but what can your average reader - as an individual - actually do?

NG: Well, an average reader can become a CBLDF member. That's the basic, most simple thing. Twenty-five dollars a year, it gets you a card. The card gets you into a bunch of CBLDF events. For my reading tour, for example, a CBLDF membership card will get you into the sort of pre-show mingle, meet-and-greet cocktail party thing, which otherwise you have to buy $60 VIP tickets to get into. So, they'll do all kinds of cool, magical things.

Other than that, you can do simple fund raising. Somebody once pointed out that if every comic shop in America had a jar in the front, you know, the kind of jar people drop pennies, and spare change, and stuff like that into for the fund, and got it off, it would triple or quadruple the Fund's revenue.

And the other thing somebody can do in the short run is come on out to one of the readings, in the Chicago, New York, Portland, or LA area.

*****

To learn more about the Fund or to make a donation to this worthy cause, go to www.cbldf.org.

For more information on Neil's efforts on the Fund's behalf, or his life and work, head on over to www.NeilGaiman.net.

Finally, show your support and get something in return. Take a look at the CBLDF auctions.

<< 12/17/2003 | 12/24/2003 | 12/31/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me in World Famous Comics' General Forum.
Read my weekly blog, Speculative Friction, on my website BloodintheGutters.com.


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