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Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Wonder Woman’s bracelets repel bullets. And Spider-Man’s web catches thieves just like flies. But who comes to the rescue when comic book characters get in trouble with the law? The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, of course. Seriously, there is such a thing. The CBLDF doesn’t actually represent illustrated Americans, and it has yet to open offices in Gotham City or Metropolis. But the Massachusetts-based nonprofit is a hero to artists, publishers and retailers at the cutting edge of the comics industry. It represents all three groups in free speech cases ranging from intellectual property disputes to criminal charges. The CBLDF was founded in 1986, when an Illinois comic shop, Friendly Frank’s, was accused of peddling obscene materials. A group of independent publishers organized a comic book art sale to fund the defense, which overturned Friendly Frank’s conviction on appeal. The remaining funds were used to create the CBLDF. Sixteen years and more than a dozen free speech cases later, the organization is well known in the industry for its never-ending battle “to fight censorship and defend the First Amendment rights of comic book professionals throughout the United States.” Supported by membership dues, individual contributions and the sale of merchandise, the group provides pro bono legal advice to industry members and their counsel and raises funds for outside legal fees. The CBLDF’s newest fearless leader is Charles Brownstein, a 23-year-old journalist who’s written about the comics industry since his high school days. Brownstein, who became the organization’s fourth executive director in March, sees comics as the purest form of free speech in the entertainment world. “There’s not a lot of bureaucracy between idea and execution or between the creative process and the business product,” Brownstein says. “And because the cost of creating a comic is so low, people can get their ideas through more easily.” That independence, and the fact that comics are perceived as a product for kids, means that creators who take on mature subjects often attract the ire of the authorities. (The comic book at issue in the Friendly Frank’s case, for example, featured “Omaha,” the anthropomorphic stripper cat.) As he takes the reins of the CBLDF, Brownstein anticipates that the post-Sept. 11 environment will prove especially challenging for independent comic book artists. “In the current political climate,” he says, “it’s hard to say what the cost of free speech might be. In the past, the worst we faced was obscenity charges by overzealous city council members. Now, who knows?” Brownstein’s sidekick is counsel Burton Joseph, a seasoned First Amendment attorney with Chicago-based Joseph, Lichtenstein & Levinson who also serves as special counsel to Playboy Enterprises Inc. Joseph advises the CBLDF’s clients and, like Brownstein, sees the comic book industry as a perennial scapegoat. “No politician ever loses by attacking youth culture,” he says. “And, in many ways, this is personified by the comic book industry, even though the readership is mostly adults.” But the CBLDF’s archenemies are not limited to politicians. A recent case was Starbucks v. Dwyer, in which coffee giant Starbucks Corp. sued artist Kieron Dwyer after Dwyer parodied Starbucks’ logo in his self-published “Lowest Comic Denominator.” The parody featured a mermaid holding a cell phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Dwyer added nipples and a navel ring and replaced the words “Starbucks coffee” with “consumer whore.” To Dwyer, the parody “clearly pokes fun not just at Starbucks, but at consumerism in general.” Starbucks sees things differently. “While we may not agree with the substance,” the company said in a written statement, “we recognize that people have the right to comment on or criticize Starbucks, and sometimes their criticism may include variations of the logo that we do not like. They do not, however, have the right to use the Starbucks logo or even a parody of the Starbucks logo in an attempt to make money.” After a year of litigation, Brownstein says, the parties reached a settlement that allows Dwyer to continue most editorial uses of the challenged parody. Earlier this year the CBLDF team moved to new offices in a quaint brick building off Main Street in downtown Northampton, Mass. The space is adorned with the trappings of the organization’s peculiar trade: “Simpsons” action figures, a plastic “Green Lantern” power ring and a mounted copy of the First Amendment. Ultimately, says Brownstein, his organization’s mission is about respect. “We want the law to recognize what vast numbers of readers and journalists already know: Comics are an important form of free expression deserving of full First Amendment protection.” To be continued … Jenkins is a writer in New York and director of the Ford Foundation’s human rights and international cooperation unit.

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