When C.A. Reynerson walked into Keith's Comics in September 1999, it was clear he wasn't looking forward to catching up on the action in the second installment of the anime comic Demon Beast Invasion: The Fallen. He was looking for a case.
Reynerson, a detective in the vice section of the Dallas Police Department, found one when he saw the cover of the Demon Beast Invasion book, which depicted a naked woman whose measurements exist only in comics. The book was in the store's adult section, a spot generally more of a haven for violent comics rather than sexually explicit ones. Still, Reynerson was detective enough to find one that fit the bill.
The cop thumbed through the book and, according to an affidavit, "observed hand-drawn pictures of men and women engaged in oral sodomy and sexual intercourse." Several panels depicted "females with their vaginas penetrated by tree roots."
The case was made in September, but the arrest came in early 2000. Who did the Dallas police cuff and haul to jail? Jesus Castillo, age 26, manager of Keith's Comics, who was operating the register when Reynerson bought the book. Castillo's attorneys say the first time he saw the inside of the Demon Invasion comic was in court in August, when it was being dissected for artistic, political, and literary value for the benefit of the jury. He was charged with obscenity, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison plus fines.
Things were not over yet. A second obscenity charge was filed against him after David Little, PTA vice president of the nearby Stonewall Jackson Elementary School, bought a similar Demon Invasion book (Legend of the Overfiend) and sent it to Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss, who forwarded it to the police. Charges were again filed against Castillo.
The arrests of Castillo, a high school graduate who never worked anywhere else, fit the city's pattern of vice squad enforcement typically aimed at adult stores. The vice cops come in, purchase a product to build an obscenity case around, and arrest whichever hapless clerk or manager rings up the sale.
"He's obviously concerned. He doesn't feel that he did anything wrong," says Castillo's attorney, Paul Shunatona. "Typically in these cases the cop will ask the clerk whether there's plenty of fucking and sucking in the book to prove the clerk knows what's in there. There was no test here to show the clerk knew what was in there. You can't judge a book by its cover."
Jesus Castillo was caught in the middle of a political struggle he didn't know existed. In fact, the trouble coming to Keith's Comics was unknown to owner Keith Colvin himself. His attorney maintains Colvin had never received any complaints before the police swooped in.
Shunatona says he was picked to defend Keith's because he shops there. He admits reading Frank Miller's Dark Knight series instead of studying for the Bar exam. "I've had my kids in there," he says of the store. Shunatona is a former prosecutor with one obscenity case in his background, the prosecution of a dildo's owner. The outcome? "Actually, it was a hung jury," he says. (It's impossible not to laugh at him when he says this.)
Backed by funds from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Keith's Comics and Jesus Castillo went to court to fight the charges. The jury was treated to a full discussion about the Demon Invasion series, featuring testimony from experts in Asian culture and comic books.
The plot of the book is simple: After millions of years in exile, Lovecraftian horrors called Demon Beasts return, taking human form and seeking women to impregnate so that their mutant offspring can take over the world. The aforementioned tree fornication scene was a demon impregnation. The comic book series and related movies are extremely popular in Japan.
During the trial in late August, Shunatona called Susan Napier, an associate professor in UT-Austin's Department of Asian Studies, to have the book put in cultural context. Part of the legal definition requires that the work in question, "taken as a whole, lacks any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."
Napier's page-by-page analysis of the work included dissertations about the symbolic value of trees in Japanese culture, explorations of the dynamic visual style of the book, and an explanation of the appeal these books have for Japanese men who feel disempowered by their society. That argument echoes the appeal that Death Wish movies have for American men who feel emasculated by their status as crime victims. In that way, Napier argued, the books have a political value. She was not cross-examined.
Scott McCloud, nationally known author of Understanding Comics, a social guide and history of comic books, also testified. He maintained that the series, taken as a whole, had artistic merit and contains a thematic thread. His testimony was aimed at deflating Reynerson's contention that "the comic book depicts nothing but a sequential representation of explicit sexual acts...The comic book shows but isolated acts of sexual conduct and has no plot and development of characters except as it relates to connecting one sex scene to another."
McCloud maintained that the book indeed has characters who have emotions deeper than horniness. He brought up an example: After two demonized women have Sapphic sex, one says to the other: "I still feel hollow." The book also has a story arc, an arc in which the good guys ultimately defeat the demons (until the next series). McCloud also maintained that it was impossible to judge the work as a whole, as required by law, by only examining the most graphic book of the series.
"You can't pull out chapters of a book, you have to judge the book as a whole," says Shunatona. "Obviously the jury didn't buy it."
Indeed. Castillo was found guilty and sentenced to 180 days in jail, given probation, and fined $4,000. An appeal is under way, and Shunatona advised him to not speak to the press while the case was pending.
While preparing for the second case, Shunatona subpoenaed Mayor Ron Kirk, as well as Poss and her staff, for information describing their involvement in directing the police to Keith's Comics. Days before the trial was to commence in September, the district attorney called and asked to dismiss the case. Shunatona agreed without question.
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Asked whether the politicians had the case spiked, Shunatona says, "Anything's possible." Poss could not be reached for comment, but a staff member says Poss' involvement was limited to forwarding the comic to police. Shunatona makes it clear that there is no evidence that the first bust, the one that got the conviction, was set in motion by anyone at City Hall. But he's also sure that now that Keith's Comics has been targeted, more trouble lurks like Demon Beasts.
"I don't doubt for a second that they sent people [into the store] looking for stuff and they haven't found anything," he says. "Keith's takes special orders, and if the person who orders it says, 'I don't want this' then the buyer is stuck with it. Our best determination is that's what happened here with that book. They're not stocking and selling it."
Still, Castillo waits for his appeal to be heard. He has no prior arrests, and told court officers he "was very diligent" in keeping children out of the adult section of Keith's Comics. He obviously enjoys working there: He started during his senior year of high school and worked his way up to manager. He still lives with his parents in East Dallas. Yet he waits, labeled a purveyor of obscenity in the eyes of the law and the PTA.
"This guy's not a troublemaker, he's not a criminal," says Shunatona. "He's just the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time."