Skip to main content
Unpublished Paper
Comics, Courts & Controversy: A Case Study of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
ExpressO (2011)
  • Marc H. Greenberg


Cartoons and comics have been a part of American culture since the formation of this nation. Throughout that lengthy history, comics and cartoons have also been a subject of controversy, censorship, legislation and litigation. They have been viewed as a threat to society, amid claims that they incite juvenile delinquency, and are scandalous, indecent and obscene.

This article is a case study of the work of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a New York-based non-profit organization which provides legal defense for comic artists, collectors, distributors and retailers who find themselves facing civil and/or criminal penalties for the creation, sale and even ownership of comics, cartoons, graphic novels and related works.

The article begins with an Introduction that charts the history of the comic art form and in particular, its history in the United States. This section of the article then offers a summary of the first effort to restrict the content of comics via an investigation and a series of hearings that took place in 1954 before the U.S. Congress. The dubious psychology and social science theories of Dr. Frederic Wertham, which fueled the congressional investigation, are profiled and offer an example of the kind of misguided fears that still figure in the attacks on the comic art form today. The Introduction concludes with the origin of the CBLDF and the first prosecution of a comic store owner that was the impetus for the creation of that organization.

The second section of the article provides a detailed discussion of the case of Mavrides v. Franchise Tax Board, a case in which comic creator Paul Mavrides, who, among other work, was a co-author (with Gilbert Shelton) of the notorious underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, battled with the California Franchise Tax Board over the taxation of comics. The CBLDF paid the legal fees in this conflict, and the success of this effort had a huge impact on the ability of independent comic artists to be free of undue tax burdens that would otherwise have limited their ability to continue to create comics laden with edgy political and social commentary.

The third section of the article focuses on what has become the principal type of case the CBLDF has worked on for the past two decades - fighting the efforts of local state prosecutors and the U.S. Justice Department to censor the content of comics, usually on alleged grounds that the content is obscene or indecent. An array of cases in which CBLDF has been involved are examined, with particular focus on the case of Gordon Lee, a Georgia based distributor prosecuted for allegedly distributing an obscene graphic novel to a minor, and the case of Christopher Handley, an adult prosecuted under the PROTECT Act for the mere possession of allegedly obscene Manga comics.

The final section of the article looks at how we came to a point in American jurisprudence where we are imprisoning creators, distributors and collectors for the ideas they express in graphic formats. It discusses the fork in the road of obscenity law when it was decided that obscene materials are outside of the protection of the First Amendment, and examines the impact of that decision on the rights of comic creators, distributors and collectors. This is followed with an analysis of the rationale for criminalizing explicit sexual material – to protect children from the alleged harm exposure to these materials causes. The absence of any definitive proof of that harm necessarily leads to a recommendation that at the very least, criminal penalties for the creation, distribution and ownership of comics and cartoons with sexual content be de-criminalized.

Publication Date
August 9, 2011
Citation Information
Marc H. Greenberg. "Comics, Courts & Controversy: A Case Study of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund" ExpressO (2011)
Available at: