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From the Comic Book Defense Fund:


100th Anniversary of the Comic Strip May Be Its Last
California Zaps Cartoonists and Children's
Books with an Unconstitutional Tax

"It's sad and ironic that California, a state that has figured so prominently in the development of the medium of comics...should now come to stand for the forces of darkness and repression. If the implications of California's tax board-that comics are not literature but simply a commodity-are allowed to stand, I guess I'll have to send back my National Book Critics Circle nominations...as well as my Pulitzer." Art Spiegelman (author of Maus)

Comics Creators Denied Rights as Authors

For the last four and a half years California's State Board of Equalization (BOE) has been dunning California resident, Paul Mavrides, a cartoonist, for back sales taxes that Mavrides says he does not owe. The BOE bases its 1991 demand on the assumption that cartoonists are not authors (by law, the BOE cannot require authors to collect sales tax on manuscripts delivered to publishers located in California). The BOE claims that because cartoonists write with pictures and words rather than words alone, they are not writers at all, and do not deserve the exemption given to other authors. Paul Mavrides has consistently maintained that as a comics creator he is unquestionably an author and is entitled to the same exemption the government grants to other authors. The amount of money in dispute in the Mavrides case is less than $5,000. According to the BOE's misinterpretation, in addition to all other California comic authors, creators of visually oriented children's books and editorial cartoonists, no longer considered authors by the state government, are also liable for the sales tax. However, the BOE is not waiting for an established precedent with the Mavrides case - it is already seeking back tax payments from The Creators Syndicate of Los Angeles for editorial cartoons (Herblock, Doug Marlette and Stephen Chapman) that the syndicate distributes to California newspapers.

Governor Wilson Backs Illegal Government Action

The Universal Press Syndicate and the United Feature Syndicate, despite their out-of-state business locations, are also liable for this sales tax and have registered strong protests with Governor Wilson, stating that they are considering the withdrawal of their cartoon features from the California press market. In response, Governor Wilson, through his Governor's Constituent Affairs Representative, Mark D. Gursky, has decided to back the BOE on this issue, despite the harm the Government's decision will cause to newspapers large and small throughout the state. The comics and editorial pages of all California newspapers will look quite different after a state boycott by these features syndicates.

It is only a matter of time before the Board begins taxing children's literature authors and their publishers within California. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Printing Industries of California have registered their own protests with the BOE.

Worse yet, small independent publishers, self-publishers and marginally successful authors will soon find themselves unable to financially function under the state-imposed burden of this tax ruling exclusively directed at, and only at, their chosen literary format - unlike any other type of author or publisher - a classic illustration of how the power to tax is also the power to destroy.

Under the State Tax Board's redefinition, creators such as Art Spiegleman (Maus), Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are) and Dr. Seuss (The Cat In The Hat) are no longer considered authors of literary work by the California government; their works are no longer legally defined by the Government as works of literature. State Licensing Authors in Defiance of 1st Amendment

Even more onerous is that the BOE ruling has created, for the first time in American history, a system of government licensing of authors. Because of the BOE's requirement that citizens who collect sales taxes for the State must do so with a mandatory state issued Sales Permit, a revocation of this tax license for any reason at all will prevent an author from receiving income from their California-published work and also prevent them from arranging publication contracts. The de facto censorship and governmental control of elemental speech rights (by state tax bureaucrats, no less) is an intolerable and shocking violation of basic Constitutional liberties.

This new tax has not been passed by the legislature or signed into law by the Governor. On the contrary, it is a tax imposed by a bureaucratic decision. Ignoring numerous legal precedents, the tax board has read the issue backwards, placing their duty to tax above the rights of the citizenry. A Board staff auditor has admitted that the sales tax Board has no objective standards whatsoever to determine whether an illustration is "incidental" to or inseparable from prose editorial matter. When the Board was asked for the specific criteria they used for this determination, they replied, "There are none. But we know it when we see it." Furthermore, this bureaucratically imposed tax has already wasted thousands of dollars of taxpayer's money in legal fees and may go on to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars more defending an illegal tax. Certainly California is under pressure to generate new sources of revenue income, but eradicating the constitutional guarantees of its citizens' freedom to speak is no solution.

"The tax collectors need it spelled out sweetly and simply: Comics are free speech, and you don't put a tax on free speech."

Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons)

Alarmed by the broad First Amendment implications of the case, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California has filed a legal brief with the Board challenging the tax bureau's ruling. The brief contends that the arbitrary sales tax applicable to comics and other cartoon illustrations creates a "differential taxation" scheme that is clearly unconstitutional. The ACLU, which does not normally become involved in tax issues, has also pledged to litigate on Mr. Mavrides' behalf, if necessary.

The brief, authored by Paul Hoffman, Esq., the ACLU Foundation's former Legal Director, argues that the BOE's position violates the first amendment rights of cartoonists by denying them the same sales tax exemption afforded to other authors under California law by creating a "differential taxation" scheme that is clearly unconstitutional. Mr. Mavrides has already filed a brief through his lawyers which deals largely with the BOE's interpretation of California law, and additionally presented Mr. Mavrides' Constitutional claim.

"...stop them damned pictures! I don't care so much what the papers write about me- my constituents can't read; but, damn it, they can see pictures."

- Boss Tweed, 1901, responding to the cartoons of Thomas Nast

"For some ideas, the picture is the only practical means of expression, or the only one capable of reaching a wide audience," said Mr. Hoffman, "The economic damage to Mr. Mavrides from having to pay this tax is significant, but the damage to our system of free expression is incalculable. Free expression is too important to be sacrificed at the altar of vague regulations that selectively tax illustration."

The state's differential taxation scheme could create a myriad of arbitrary and discriminatory taxes against forms of media that use illustrations to convey content and context, additionally placing California publishers and authors at a competitive disadvantage with residents of other states.

Paul Mavrides, who was featured as an "American Original" on the 1993 Thanksgiving broadcast of ABC's Nightline, also paints, draws and writes. He has authored: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers with Gilbert Shelton, The Book of the SubGenius and Revelation X with Ivan Stang (Simon & Schuster pub.), and various political comics. His paintings, drawings and other works have been shown in New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Berlin, San Francisco and San Diego. His poster design for the documentary Comic Book Confidential won the Gold Plaque Award at the 1988 Chicago International Film Festival. He was an invited guest at the 1993 Vancouver International Writer's Festival and his work has appeared in the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle, Whole Earth Review, Mondo 2000, New Media Magazine and Interview.

Mr. Mavrides' legal bills, now approaching $70,000.00, are being paid by the comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a charitable nonprofit organization which defends the First Amendment rights of authors, retailers, publishers and distributors of comic book and cartoon literature.

To offer help or for further information call:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
P.O. Box 693, Northampton, MA 01061
[413] 586-9525 or 1-800-99-CBLDF

Contact the California State Board of Equalization and
Governor Pete Wilson
and let them know your opinion on this issue:

Governor of California
Sacramento, CA , 95814
[916] 445-2841

Chair, State Board of Equalization
450 N Street, MIC:71
Sacramento, CA , 95814-5691

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