Canadian customs seizes “obscene” comics
No superheroes came to the rescue of two U.S. comic publishers who had their books confiscated by Canadian customs officers on suspicion of obscenity.
On May 6, Tom Neely and Dylan Williams’ rental car was pulled over by the Canadian Border Services Agency in Buffalo, N.Y. They were carrying copies of about 30 titles to sell at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and had carefully prepared all the tax-related paperwork required to cross the border with print merchandise. But they didn’t anticipate that a customs officer would pull a random selection of books from the car, including the graphic novella Young Lions by Portland artist Blaise Larmee, distributed by Williams’ Sparkplug Comic Books.
Larmee’s pencil sketches caught the officer’s attention. He took a copy inside the office.
“Then two more officers came out, took out everything from the car, every book, opened up suitcases,” says Neely, on the phone from Los Angeles. “They searched every inch of the car.”
One of the customs officers suspected that Larmee’s novella depicted children engaged in sexual contact, but Neely explained that while the characters appear child-like, the book is actually about young adult artists. Asked to prove otherwise, Williams pointed out a caption of a character talking about his unemployment cheque, but this wasn’t considered definitive evidence.
Neely, who self-publishes his comics, was also carrying five copies of BLACK EYE 1: Graphic Transmissions to Cause Ocular Hypertension, an anthology of dark humour comics he was delivering to TCAF as a favour for Rotland Press publisher Ryan Standfest. The officer opened the book to a spread by cartoonist Onsmith Jeremy called “Blood Clots,” which includes some sexual and violent imagery.
Rotland Press and BLACK EYE began as pet projects for Standfest, a Detroit art teacher who financed the anthology using Kickstarter, a website that allows individuals to invest in creative projects. This was the first time Rotland Press would have been represented at TCAF. “I didn’t quite make it there, but ... because of the confiscation more word has gotten out about the book than I imagined,” Standfest says.
Standfest is interested in black humour, specifically that of 1960s U.S. underground and trangressive comics. Besides artwork from Standfeld’s favourite artists such as Jeremy, BLACK EYE also includes an interview with former Mad magazine editor Al Feldstein and an essay by Canadian writer Jeet Heer (and Q&Q contributor) on underground comic artist S. Clay Wilson, whose own twisted art often faced threats of censorship.
“There are some very heavy issues, but I haven’t tried to do something that would flat-out offend or outrage,” says Standfest. “I think it’s a by-product that this type of humour bothers people.”
Copies of both books were taken from the car, and will be sent for review to the CBSA’s Prohibited Importations Unit in Ottawa. If they are approved within a 30-day period, the books will be returned to Buffalo. If the books are deemed obscene, they will be destroyed.
According to memorandums from the CBSA, officers use “targeting criteria” to determine if materials such as books, videos, and magazines are considered obscene under the Canadian Criminal Code. Although they have the authority to detain suspicious materials, customs officers can’t officially declare that such books violate the Criminal Code. “The officer said, ‘I understand this is art — I can’t make a judgment if this is obscene or not, but this looks like something that we shouldn’t be allowing into the country,” says Neely.
This seizure isn’t an isolated event. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit U.S. organization dedicated to protecting rights of comics artists, has issued a statement warning creators about travelling over the border with controversial materials.
However, Peter Birkemoe, co-owner of the Toronto comics bookstore The Beguiling and a TCAF co-founder, says this was the first publications seizure since the festival began in 2003. He suspects it was a case of a customs officer “feeling uncomfortable making a decision,” and that Standfest and Williams will have their books returned.