Saturday, 5 October 2013

Free Speech: Defending The Inch

'Drinking Buddies' Print
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(Available exclusively from CBLDF)
(from a speech in support of CBLDF, San Francisico, 1995)
When I was asked to be Master of Ceremonies here tonight, I thought it appropriate to say a few words that might have greater resonance here, in the Bay Area, rather than elsewhere. To that end I enlisted the support of someone you've met already, and uh, I would ask you to give him another nice round of applause, Mr. Brian Hibbs of the Haight's own Comic Experience. Brian went all the way to the library for this, so we hope you enjoy it. 8 hours of infrequent cigarette breaks while prowling through newspapers on microfilm, the guy should get a medal of some kind.

June 3rd, 1909, a day of infamy in the history of this great Metropolis. On that date San Franciso became the first city in the great republic to have a genuine, official, brand spanking new, city-supported censorship board. Less than a month before, the SF Board of Supervisors, had passed unanimously, unanimously, ordinance #761. In the convoluted syntax and phraseology common to legislation the world over, it read, as follows, and you'll forgive me... when I read things like this, I tend to slip into a Groucho Marx voice:
"It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, association, or corporation to display or to cause to display, or permit to be displayed at any moving picture exhibition or at any entertainment at which moving pictures are exhibited, any picture, illustration or delineation of any nude human figure or of any lewd or lascivious act or of any other matter or thing of an obscene, indecent, or immoral nature or offensive to the moral sense or [now at this point, this guy is really struggling to make a sentence, so he throws in some parentheses at this point], in such detail as to offend public morality and decency [throws another parenthesis at the end of that one], any murder, suicide, robbery, hold up, stabbing, assaulting, clubbing or beating of any human being."
Unable to make hide, nor hair of what they were talking about, the Mayor signed it into law on May 13th. Norman W. Hall, Secretary to the newly formed Board of Censorship, in regarding this dogs breakfast of alarmist incoherencies, was moved to observe, "From the above, it will be seen that the scope of the Board's action is wide." Mr. Hall is to be commended in retrospect as a master of understatement.

In its four years of existence, the Board found no fewer than 476 films to condemn, no fewer than 158 films to modify. At least four arrests were made. In one notable case, it required an arrest, a criminal prosecution, and the keen and even handed assessment of a municipal court judge to determine that a moving picture did not qualify for condemnation or modification under the (quote) "wide scope of the Board's action." That a film of a boxing match did not constitute the "assault and clubbing or beating of a human being."

The single public report issued by the Board of Censorship is a model of its kind, and I mean that in the unkindest possible way. Here's a great quote from it:
"The Board is enthusiastic in its endorsements of the moving picture, and desires to encourage its patronage by the public."
How very benign of them, how positively redundant to issue a report, in 1911 encouraging people to go see movies. It's rather like signing a petition in 1995 encouraging people to watch more television. The single public report (one pictures it descending from the hills above the city, carved on stone tablets) the single public report pontificates:
"With those moving pictures that depict positive immorality or criminality in detail there can be but one verdict... condemnation!"
The report then goes on to describe the positive immorality and criminality contained in those films in excruciating detail. By the way, shouldn't that be "a portrayal of immorality in a positive light"? Positive immorality, h'mmmm. Perhaps catching himself drooling from the corner of his mouth, the author of the report hastens to add:
"These particular pictures are mentioned not to condemn a great industry, but to impress the necessity of avoiding such productions, in order to secure the patronage of the decent-loving [I guess he means decency loving unless the Board was also in the business of rating the romantic abilities of the people of SF] self respecting public, and at the same time we have alluded to them to show the obvious importance of a careful censorship."
As we gaze back at the year of the report, 84 years distant from us, we are moved to speculate on the all consuming and disastrous effect upon the morals of the citizens of this great metropolis had the pharisees of Los Angeles, those eternal corrupters from Gomorrah by the Pacific, been able to circumvent the vigilance of the Board and inflict upon the unsuspecting, though by all accounts, decent-loving citizenry of SF, such Mephistophelean fare as, and these are the actual titles of films condemned by the Board: Saved by a Sailor, Getting Even With Everybody, The Bankers Daughter, The Way of The Transgressor is Hard, The Italian Sherlock Holmes, and my favorite - The Story of Lulu According to Her Feet.

What peril, what disaster so narrowly averted, what heroism that for a stipend of a mere $50 a year, these stalwart defenders of the public good, submitted themselves to the soul jeopardizing imagery contained in The Story of Lulu According to Her Feet. Of course there was another film that they condemned, a film banned from public display at the time of it's release, within the city limits of SF -- Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp.

It is at this point in my narrative, at this point in every confrontation with the forces of censorship, the forces of oppression, that their buffoonery, their silliness, their Keystone Cop, slapstick dog and pony show, ceases to be funny and become serious... deadly serious.

Whether you are talking about film-near-to-the-point-of-its-genesis or the comic-book-as-literature-near-to-the-point-of-its-genesis, eventually, sooner rather than later, the battle lines are drawn and the issue becomes clear.

The respective trenches having been excavated in this ancient conflict, one envisions a manifestation of creative-freedom-as-absolute, facing it's opposite number the-self-appointed-guardian-of-the-public-good, raising respectively their pointed fingers of self righteous wrath and approbation after the fashion of revival tent preachers, crying out in a unison of accusation: "If we give you an inch, you'll take a mile," and in this they are both entirely accurate.

Where the boundaries of convention are violated, the floodgates invariably open. Inadequate works, poorly conceived, execrable in their execution, having naught to recommend them but provocation for provocation's own sake of society's overly sensitive souls -- this follows in the wake of genuine innovation, as night follows day. An inch is granted and a mile is taken.

But to make room for the sublime we must defend the absurd, the guttural, the moronic, the fourth, fifth, and tenth rate. If the forces which are interested in sequestering From Hell are to be kept at bay, we must resist those efforts against a work like Verotika #4, deplorable as it is -- and the imagination boggles at what imitations Verotika itself might engender.

To give the censor an inch on on Verotika is to invite them to take a mile. The hammer blow which strikes down Verotika as self-evidently worthless trash glorifying violence against women will next descend, you can make book on it, upon Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby, or Donna Barr's Desert Peach for their portrayal of, to quote the rhetoric of the right wing, "an immoral lifestyle." Our goal is not the defense of mindless pornography; our goal is not the advocacy of creative works which degrade any group or individual. These substandard and repulsive works are not the standard we bear.

In the waning hours of the twentieth century we believe that individual choice must be preeminent, if we are to call ourselves a civilized people, a free people. Whether as San Franciscans, as Californians, as Americans, as North Americans, or as citizens of the global village. Just as no one should be forced to create, publish, distribute, display, sell, or buy comic books in violation of their personal choices and preferences, so too must it be seen as a violation of inherent human rights to impede anyone from creating, publishing, distributing, displaying, or buying the comic books of their choice.

Your assistance in guaranteeing these fundamental freedoms to choose is urgently needed; no contribution can be considered too small. A $5 contribution from each of a 100 people, a $20 contribution from each of 25 people, a $500 contribution from a single donor. Each contribution buys someone, somewhere, a minute, or an hour, or a day, of freedom from the imposition of a collective will upon the rights of them as an individual.

Neil Gaiman, and the Board of Directors of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund ask for your contribution in the name of the ideal of free expression of creative ideas, and the fundamental human right to participate in and enjoy free expression without fear of prosecution.

Help us to defend that inch and the mile will take care of itself.


Anonymous said...

Dave's 2012 drawing of High Society-era Cerebus looks really different from the way Dave drew High Society-era Cerebus in the early 1980s. He looks a bit like Latter Days-era Cerebus.

Interesting how Dave's style of drawing Cerebus has continually changed over the years.

-Reginald P

Gabe McCann said...

You can also get this print from the CBLDF too ....