Comic Appeal

Comic books for adults? Not in Dallas.

Dallas has become known as the city in which they bust racy comic books, a reputation it has earned now that Jesus Castillo's legal appeals have been exhausted.

Castillo, a manager of Keith's Comics in East Dallas, became something of a cause célèbre in comic-book circles after police brought him up on misdemeanor obscenity charges for selling a racy comic book to an undercover vice cop. (See "Dirty Pictures," by Joe Pappalardo, January 4, 2001.)

Because of a vigorous defense paid for by the Massachusetts-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which saw fit to fight the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case has spent nearly three years before appeals courts. After the nation's highest court declined to hear the matter in its most recent term, Castillo's conviction became final, and he began a yearlong probation this summer. He also paid a $4,300 fine using money donated by shop customers and other local supporters.

"People in comic books--not only retailers but writers and editors--considered this an important case," says Castillo, who was charged in early 2000 with selling a copy of the anime comic Demon Beast Invasion: The Fallen. A Dallas jury convicted Castillo on a misdemeanor obscenity charge after listening to prosecutors argue that Keith's Comics was attempting to sell obscene materials to minors.

The obscenity case had nothing to do with minors, but that part of the prosecution's final argument raised the hackles of people who see comic books and graphic novels as far more than a juvenile medium.

Castillo, who says the shop segregated comics containing violence or sex in an adult section of the store, sold the racy comic to C.A. Reynerson, an undercover detective with the Dallas Police Department who went into the shop specifically looking for Demon Beast Invasion. But in final arguments at Castillo's trial, Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ohan told jurors: "Use your common sense. Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids. This is a store directly across from an elementary school, and it is put in a medium, in a forum, to directly appeal to kids. That is why we're here. We're here to get this off the shelf."

The Demon Beast series, which is popular in Japan, details the return to Earth of a race of intergalactic horrors that take various forms and seek women to impregnate so that their mutant offspring can take over the world. The book the police busted featured several panels that, in the detective's words, "depicted females with their vaginas penetrated by tree roots."

Defense lawyers brought in expert witnesses who testified that the comic, particularly when viewed as part of its series, was not obscene because it had serious literary and historical themes and creative artwork. Susan Napier, an associate professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, testified that the comic explores issues of power and connection in society.

Castillo's lawyers raised the issue of artistic merit, and a host of others, in a vigorous round of appeals. Last July, they lost a 2-1 decision in the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas. Justice Tom James, the lone dissenting vote, found that the state failed to prove Castillo knew "the content of character" of the comic when he sold it, as required under the law.

"That issue turned out to be kind of our best shot," says Castillo, who testified that he had not read the comic until it was presented at trial. "I thought we had done a good job proving it wasn't obscenity, but we didn't get very far with that."

After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declined to review the case, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund hired one of the nation's top obscenity lawyers to write a brief for the U.S. Supreme Court, which also declined to hear the case and let the conviction stand. In all, the fund spent about $60,000 defending Castillo.

Charles Brownstein, a comic-book journalist who directs the legal fund, said he could hardly believe the conviction has held in the courts. "People like me are incensed because this is very much an injustice," he says. "This is clearly a case of a rising tide of intolerance."

Brownstein says the fund became interested in the matter because Keith's Comics did everything it could to make certain that adult materials were sold only to adults. "This is a case of someone doing everything right," he says. "We think they struck the proper balance between making constitutionally protected adult materials available and protecting children." He also says he was irritated by the prosecutor's attempt to trivialize comic books as only a child's medium. "That view is about 50 years out of date," he says.

Brownstein posted the final outcome of the case on his Web site last week and received a flood of e-mail, much of which he has posted. Nearly all of it is critical of the Dallas prosecution.

"It's a pretty big deal in our little niche in the world," said letter-writer Malcolm Harris, who runs Manga Graphix, a Dallas-based comics publisher. "Keith's has a large following."

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