Thursday, June 21, 2007

Parental Advisory, Explicit Lyrics

Let us turn our eyes now, down, down, down, to the very depths of the American conscience. Let’s talk about a guy named Gordon Lee, who is suffering because of one community’s terminal lack of common sense.

Here’s the deal. Not too long ago, I had a good conversation with a very bright creator named Nick Bertozzi. Nick wrote and illustrated a fantastic new graphic novel called The Salon. You can read about it in the new Graphic Lit Spotlight at Kirkus Reviews. It’s an exquisite book – deeply weird, in a good way – about the birth of modern art. I wrote the spotlight and I don’t think anybody would mind my reproducing it here.

“I had this idea that there was this magical blue absinthe that modernist painters could drink that would allow them to jump inside paintings,” says Nick Bertozzi, author of The Salon, a surreal yet thoughtful examination of the act of creation. His fanciful notion launches the audacious adventures of Paris’ finest minds as they play cat-and-mouse with a serial killer. With a cast that includes Gertrude Stein and her life partner and muse Alice B. Toklas, as well as Georges Braque and the uproariously uncouth Pablo Picasso, the book touches on dozens of sophisticated concepts but never gets bogged down. The fast-paced narrative strays far from Stein’s salon to propel its lustful icons from the gaslit bedrooms of downtown Paris to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but its unique take on modernism remains intact. The result is an affectionate experiment that taught its creator more than just art history. “I learned that when you’re working on a big project like this, you’re kind of along for the ride,” he says. “You have to let the subconscious take over, let your associative mind do most of the work and trust your instincts. That sounds so cheesy but it’s true.” The book’s artwork blends the artist’s bold reinterpretations of modernist masterpieces with a brazen two-toned color scheme to evoke the weird and wonderful birth of contemporary art. “I wanted to show that cubism didn’t arrive as a gift from on high,” says Bertozzi. “It’s not a gift from the gods. It’s this painstaking process of happy accidents that takes a long time.”

Good deal, art created, a round of absinthe all around, right? Not so fast. A bit of the material that eventually became The Salon was once featured in an alternative comic book called “Alternative Comics #2,” meant for mature readers. But on Halloween of 2004, Gordon Lee, the owner of a comic book store in Rome, Georgia, decided to give out free comic books instead of candy, one of which happened to be the aforementioned comic book.

An admirable notion to give youth something of educational substance, and done with good intentions. Except -- the book features artist Pablo Picasso as one of its protagonists and wouldn't you know it, he's naked. Somebody squealed, and the law came knocking. Lee was arrested on charges of distributing material depicting nudity, and distributing obscene material to a minor.

At the time, Lee said, "Though I am willing to apologize for this particular art book getting in the hands that found it offensive, I will adamantly agree that the book is not 'harmful to children' or 'obscene.' In my opinion, this book is no more offensive then viewing the beautiful paintings of the Sistine Chapel or reading one of the best selling books with stories of sex, lust and nudity known as the Bible."

Most of the charges have been rightfully dismissed, but Lee goes to trial on August 13th for two remaining misdemeanor charges. The court costs alone are expected to hit $20,000. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a damn fine cause, has already spent $80,000 defending Lee from this childish nonsense. Though he’s not personally involved with the lawsuit, Bertozzi has been admirably vocal in his defense of Lee.

“When the court case is over, hopefully this will be done,” Bertozzi told me. “I feel awfully bad for Gordon Lee that he has to be the poster boy for the First Amendment. People talk about the tide of history and this time we were all swept up in it. I’ll be glad when it’s over and he has prevailed.”

Well said. Until that celebratory day, the CBLDF could use your help. Please visit them to find out what you can do. One day you might want a comic book, too, and then where will you be?



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