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A Tax on Cartoons/News Bites 

If you're a First Amendment absolutist, or even a moderate who had a normal childhood, you'll view with concern the forces of repression arrayed against the lowly comic book.

I gleaned the following narrative from "A Short History of Comics Censorship & the CBLDF," a handful of pages faxed to me by the Massachusetts-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

In the 1950s a Dr. Fredric Wertham publishes Seduction of the Innocent. It argues that comic books foment delinquency. The U.S. Senate holds hearings. The Comics Code Authority is formed. Classic titles like Vault of Horror and Tales From the Crypt disappear.

In the 60s and 70s comics go adult and underground. In New York Zap #4 is ruled obscene and banned.

In 1986 Friendly Frank's, a comics store in Lansing, Illinois, is busted for selling Weirdo, Bizarre Sex, and other titles. The CBLDF is founded to aid the defense. Eventually the store manager is acquitted.

In the 90s pecksniffery intensifies, and the CBLDF caseload doubles. In Sarasota, Florida, the manager of Comic Book Heaven serves 18 months behind bars after a conviction on two counts of displaying material harmful to minors. The Georgia Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a Rome shop owner found guilty of distributing obscene materials, Debbie Does Dallas and Final Tabu. Undercover detectives arrest comics retailers in suburban Fort Worth and Glendale, California, but both obscenity cases are thrown out of court.

And today in San Francisco, Paul Mavrides, cocreator of the immortal Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Book of the SubGenius, finds himself besieged by the state of California. If Mavrides's foes were the usual bluenoses backed by billy clubs he could fight on familiar terrain. But no one accuses Mavrides of obscenity--he's a satirist. Instead he's being taxed.

Four years after the California Board of Equalization sank its teeth into Mavrides's shank he's still struggling to pry himself free. Admire his fortitude: only $1,467.70 is directly at stake, and he could have settled long ago. But he and the CBDLF fear a doleful precedent, and to avoid setting it the CBDLF has poured nearly $70,000 into Mavrides's defense.

"My interest in this is keeping the state away from the First Amendment," Mavrides tells me. Defeat wouldn't deny other cartoonists their freedom of speech, but it would raise the price. California could make them pay a sales tax whenever they sell artwork for publication in state. The state could make California publishers pay a use tax whenever they buy art.

Mavrides came to the BOE's attention because of the board's own blunder. He says that while filing his 1990 sales tax returns, "I put down that I made $14,000 in what I believed to be exempt royalties, mostly from comic work, some of it for prose work and out-of-state work." (He also sold some piecework illustrations for which he paid sales tax.) A few weeks went by, and the BOE sent Mavrides a letter asking him to explain the exempt $94,000. Someone at the board had typed a nine instead of a one.

Mavrides pointed out the board's mistake and itemized the $14,000. "They immediately sent me a bill which I was confounded by. They said, OK, it's our mistake on the royalties. But you owe us $1,400 back sales tax on the rest of it."

The BOE dunned Mavrides (eventually slapping a lien on his property to collect its money) on the grounds that he'd been selling commercial artwork. Under California law, authors of literary manuscripts are exempt from a sales tax when they sell them for publication. But the BOE decided overnight that a comic book is not a manuscript. Or even if it is, so what?

A BOE staff counsel ruled against Mavrides last May. "I agree with claimant that the value of a comic strip and comic book lie in their ability to express an idea," wrote Carl Bessent. "The issue, however, is whether the real object sought by the publisher is the service of creating the comic per se or the expression of the idea in its physical form. It is clear that the publisher desires the expression of the idea in its physical form. I conclude that the comics provided are camera ready art."

Lending his name to Mavrides's cause, Maus's Art Spiegelman commented, "If the implications of California's tax board--that comics are not literature but simply a commodity--are allowed to stand, I guess I'll have to send back my National Book Critics Circle nominations . . . as well as my Pulitzer."

But Bessent says comics are both literature and a commodity--and as a commodity they're taxable.

On July 4 Mavrides wrote a letter that the trade magazine Comics Journal distributed to more than 500 artists across the country. He told them their liberty was in peril.

"The Board has promised that, should it prevail in my case, it intends to obtain your name and address from your California publisher, track you down (literally coming to your home and knocking on your front door if necessary, as they did mine), forcibly . . . register you as a California business, back audit your financial records all the way to 1990, and impose on you the same type of assessment they have claimed against me (plus interest and penalties). . . . There is nowhere you can hide from the immense power of this State tax bureaucracy." He might have added that anything California gets away with today, Illinois or any other state can copy tomorrow.

He's looking everywhere for allies. He found one in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which the other day sent the BOE a note of protest. "Most people are surprised to learn that editors usually forbid the author and the illustrator of a children's book to have any contact until the book is completed," wrote Stephen Mooser, president of the society. "That's because they don't want the author dictating the illustrations. That way the illustrator has a free hand to bring his or her unique vision to the story. . . . In children's books, as in the comics, all those familiar with the field will tell you, an illustrator is an integral, essential part of the creative process."

The ACLU is also in the field, though the BOE's ignoring it. BOE counsel Carl Bessent wrote, "The Board has no jurisdiction to act on issues regarding whether a tax is constitutional or not." So the ACLU's First Amendment arguments will have to wait until Mavrides is granted his 20-minute oral appeal, loses it, and then takes his case to the state courts.

The ACLU's position is that illustrations (i.e., Nast, Herblock, Doonesbury) enjoy the same freedom-of-speech protections as text. A taxing scheme that burdens the first but not the second makes an unconstitutional distinction based on content. Furthermore, says an ACLU brief, "any regulation which differentiates between text and illustrations creates a false dichotomy." To suggest how silly this distinction can be, the brief cites Dr. Seuss.

Mavrides is no longer alone in his fine mess. As Hot Type reported in July, several months ago the BOE requested all Creators Syndicate sales records going back to the LA syndicate's founding in 1987. The board now threatens to impose back taxes for every comic strip and cartoon that Creators has ever sold to a client newspaper. Naturally, Creators' columnists would be spared this indignity.

"I think our strongest argument is that cartoons need to be written," syndicate president Richard Newcombe told me this week. Creators made this point by turning over to the BOE incomprehensible comic strips whose dialogue bubbles had been whited out. But Mavrides makes the opposite point. To demonstrate the narrative power of a cartoonist, he's produced a couple of wordless strips. One's a complete zero. Titled "Lost in the Arctic," it consists of four blank panels.

"What's significant," Newcombe said, "is that all the newspapers in the state are potentially allowing the Mavrides case to dictate their situation. If he loses and the state takes the position all papers owe a use tax, plus penalties, for syndicated cartoons, those papers would have a whopping tax bill. We're all in the same boat being shot at by the same people."

Yet Mavrides's natural allies haven't rushed to his side. That's why he's out beating the bushes--"contacting groups and nailing down public support statements to let the board know this is not a small issue they've opened up. I wish there were a Paul Mavrides defense fund, so I could have enough money to have some real help here."

The publishers of California seem to regard Mavrides as too much of a fringe figure to line up alongside, no matter how clearly it's in their interests that he prevail. Even Newcombe wasn't sure just what it is he does. "The nature of my work has been political and social commentary," Mavrides says. "If I have wandered into sex it's to comment on that. In the world of comics I am somewhat fringe. I have some respect, but I'm not producing SpiderMan or any widely popular characters."

But he said the BOE has never suggested for an instant that it's driven by disapproval. He draws, so it wants his money. "On that, I am totally on equal grounds with other people."

News Bites

"I worked for the Tribune Company when the Tribune was a great company to work for," political columnist Jon Margolis told me last March, explaining why he could afford to accept a handsome buyout offer, move to Vermont, and retire. Or semiretire--Margolis allowed that come '96 he might contribute to some paper's election coverage.

That paper could be the Tribune. It turns out that even before they left, Margolis and Inc.'s Dorothy Collin were chatting casually with their editors about coming back on a contract basis for the Democratic convention. Those chats have continued and become less casual. "We've kind of worked out the basic parameters," Margolis says.

"It's just that we've been around forever," Collin adds. "We didn't quit in the sense of "Oh boy, are we mad at you!' Nor were we told to leave. We were both tired of working full-time. Especially with Jon, who's a world-class political reporter, they thought it was nice, while he's young enough to totter around, to use some of his expertise."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Madeo.

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