Neil Gaiman raises funds for the First Amendment.
Neil Gaiman has plenty on his plate. Among the acclaimed author’s most recent projects is playing editor for an anthology, Stories (William Morrow, $27.99, due in June). Last year, he won the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book, which is now following his book Coraline to Hollywood.
But none of that is at the forefront of Gaiman’s mind right now; instead, he has an important cause bringing him to town. On Saturday 17, he’ll hold court at Arie Crown Theater in a freewheeling format he hasn’t employed in a decade, making a benefit appearance at the brand-new Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo to raise funds for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. And at the Fund’s booth during the day, you can buy prints of an unpublished Gaiman poem, illustrated by Tony Harris of Starman and Ex Machina renown. Gaiman has a long history of championing CBLDF, a group with a clunky acronym but a noble mission.
“We are the front line of defense challenging unconstitutional laws that attack the creation, sale or display of comic books,” explains executive director Charles Brownstein. CBLDF traces its origin back to a 1986 prosecution in Chicago’s own backyard, when a clerk at Friendly Frank’s comic shop in south suburban Lansing was arrested for selling allegedly obscene comics to an undercover cop. Clerk Michael Correa was convicted, but comics publisher Denis Kitchen raised money to hire a new lawyer with First Amendment expertise, and the conviction was overturned on appeal. Considering that the comic-book medium had hit a watermark in maturation that year with the publication of Watchmen and Maus, the decision was made to found CBLDF as an ongoing nonprofit.
Gaiman says the Friendly Frank’s case made him realize “how important it is to have an organization whose sole purpose is to defend free expression.” As his own reputation grew with his landmark Sandman series, Gaiman did a few storytelling tours in the mid-’90s, raising more than $100,000 for CBLDF. He joined the board of directors later that decade.
A more recent example of the group’s efforts is a 2005 Georgia court case: Prosecutors charged a Rome retailer with two felonies and five misdemeanors for inadvertently distributing, on Free Comic Book Day, excerpts from Nick Bertozzi’s The Salon to a minor. A graphic novel of historical fiction, The Salon’s disputed pages depict “historically accurate frontal nudity of Picasso,” Brownstein says. CBLDF successfully defended the owner in court, though the costly case dragged on for more than three years.
It wasn’t just about saving that retailer, Brownstein points out. “It was about fighting a bad precedent that would encroach on the ability of people to read and think what they want to read and think,” he says. “The accusation against this comic has implications on works ranging from Watchmen to R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, which contain [similar] nonsexual depictions” of nudity.
When not litigating, CBLDF is busy educating about comics. Partly because some people still view comics as a kids’ medium, and partly because pictures rile some people more than words, comics are popular targets of would-be censors—often in libraries. “Libraries are on the very front lines of the First Amendment battleground,” Gaiman says. “Like comic-book retailers, they’re often small and staffed by people whose passion for stories drives their work…. For years, the CBLDF has been working to expand its ability to help libraries with information to aid in selecting and defending graphic novels.”
Topics like these might well be discussed Saturday night, although most of the evening will be devoted to Gaiman entertaining his fans. He’ll read unpublished work as well as old favorites and answer questions from the audience. “In general, he will be engaging in his role as a storyteller extraordinaire,” Brownstein says. “It will be quite a thing to see.”
General-public tickets to An Evening with Neil Gaiman are sold out, but you can still buy tickets to see him at Arie Crown ($15 and $45) in conjunction with a C2E2 day pass ($25).