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The Difference Between Comics and Literature 

Cartoonist Paul Mavrides fights the Board of Equalization over more than taxes

Wednesday, Oct 4 1995
A carnival of kitsch erupts from every corner of the Mission apartment Paul Mavrides has called home since 1979. Acrylic plates, the kind schoolchildren bring home from crafts classes, dot the stairwell that climbs to his studio. There, a collection of toy laser guns occupies a wall that watches over a case of skewed action figures and modified snow-domes. Velvet paintings vie with their acrylic cousins for wall space, French-salon style.

This cartoonist renaissance man's talents stretch to far corners of the art-world canvas: He co-authored the long-running The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers underground comic book; his lowbrow black velvet paintings of media images seared into the collective psyche -- green tracers over Baghdad and the Challenger explosion -- have hung in galleries from Los Angeles to Paris; and he's authored and edited The Book of the SubGenius and Revelation X as one of the dozen or so "disciples" who launched Church of the SubGenius, an absurdist quasi-religion that offers guaranteed eternal salvation through slack or triple your money back.

In his home studio, Mavrides is all business and no slack as he hovers over a photocopier in the corner, glancing at the five legal boxes that litter the floor. It's these boxes of tax returns and legal briefs -- not his artwork -- that archive his most important work from the past 4 1/2 years.

Mavrides, single and in his early 40s, is battling the Board of Equalization (BOE), the tax wing of the state government. Although his battle centers on a First Amendment issue, the state's legal threat against him isn't sexy: The vice squad didn't raid him for obscenity, the way Oklahoma officers did a comic shop last month. No court barred him from drawing, as a Florida judge ordered comic artist Mike Diana last year. Instead the BOE, a bureaucracy worthy of a Kafka novel, sent quiet letters and slapped him with a lien in February 1993 for failure to pay the 8.5 percent sales tax on $14,000 of income.

"I don't think that the board sees the long-range effects of this case," says the salt-and-pepper-goateed Mavrides. "But just because they have this blind spot doesn't mean they should get away with it."

Mavrides attracted the board's wrath in the wake of a clerical mistake it made while processing his 1990 tax return in April 1991. As a seller of canvases and other art, Mavrides must (and does) pay commercial sales tax on his works. In that particular return, Mavrides reported $14,000 in sales of comic book manuscripts, prose, and out-of-state work and declared them -- as he always does -- as exempt from sales tax. A few weeks later, the board demanded in a letter that Mavrides explain his "$94,000" exemption. An errant typist had botched the first digit.

Mavrides called the board on its mistake. But instead of an apology, it responded with a new letter asking for $1,467.70 in back sales taxes on that $14,000 in income.

For the next year and a half, Mavrides fought the board alone, successfully convincing a local board auditor that his comic manuscripts were indeed an author's work and therefore exempt from sales tax. But just when he thought the issue had blown over, the state board in Sacramento overruled the decision and cuffed him with a lien on his property.

Enter the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a Massachusetts group that fights censorship cases in the comics world with the righteousness of a caped crusader. Sensing the gravity of the case, and the legal precedent it could set, the CBLDF doled Mavrides the money to remove the lien early in 1993 and told him they could cover the costs of a good tax lawyer.

Mavrides' lawyer, Sanford Presant, availed himself to the appeals process to force the BOE into re-examining its earlier decision. Meanwhile, Mavrides cranked up a public relations machine to spread word of his threat and drum up support. Editorials in comics world publications sounded the first alarms, followed by profiles and interviews that divulged the breadth of the argument.

The BOE claims that comics produced by Mavrides and other artists are not literature, but camera-ready commercial art, which is taxable. (Indeed, commercial artists gripe about this tax, but they do not resist it.) By providing his publishers with an object -- a manuscript of drawings and text -- Mavrides creates a transaction that is taxable, the board says.

Prohibited by taxpayer confidentiality from speaking directly to Mavrides' case, BOE Deputy Director of Sales and Use Glenn Bystrom explains the difference, in the board's view, between comics and literature.

"The essential difference is that we look to the object of the contract. Is the object, in a tangible form, being transferred, or is it the ideas represented by the object?" says Bystrom.

"If I'm an editor of a newspaper and I ask for an editorial decrying the practices of the BOE, I don't care if you deliver it to me in eight picas or 10-point roman; what I want is your thought process. But if I ask for a sculpture or a drawing, I want the artist's representation in a specific form; an object. There's no doubt that there is a thought process, but the transfer of ideas is in a specific object."

And that object can be taxed. That is the crux of the state's argument. Mavrides and his lawyers insist that the drawings in his work are not incidental, but intrinsic to his work. Vouching for him are such comic-art luminaries as Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Matt Groening, David Sim, and Neil Gaiman. Gaiman and Sim have donated the proceeds of comic books and reading tours to the CBLDF, which has already shelled out $70,000 to Mavrides' defense. Outside the comics world, the ACLU filed an amicus brief in support.

Despite all the help, Mavrides lost the Business Taxes Appeals review last May. In an eight-page letter, BOE staff counsel Carl Bessent echoed the statements of Bystrom and nearly ignored the ACLU's brief, saying the First Amendment questions are irrelevant until mandated by a court.

The board is expected to hear a final 20-minute oral appeal in late November. Mavrides predicts that he'll lose, but he intends to sue the board in the state court system, where the appeals process could drag on for several more years through the legal chain.

"Paul has done a tremendous job of getting the people in the comics industry involved in this," says Brian Hibbs, the owner of Comix Experience on Divisadero and a member of the CBLDF. "He has been immensely good at spreading the word."

Turning stones for allies, Mavrides won a letter of support from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, whose members are theoretically subject to the same tax. The board has flushed another ally -- the Los Angeles-based Creators Syndicate, which distributes the columns of Ann Landers, Hillary Clinton, and Dan Quayle, as well as editorial cartoonists Herblock, Mike Luckovitch, and Doug Marlette. In December 1994, the board asked Creators Syndicate for financial records back to 1987; now Creators may join the case in light of the board's action.

"If they lose with the board, we may work with Paul on a class-action suit," says Richard Newcombe, the president of Creators. "Let me amend," he continues. "If the board tells us that we fall in the same category we might join, but if they evaluate us differently we'll have to see."

Creators' attorney, Brian Oxman, says the board contacted Creators last month after a six-month silence to request more financial records. But Oxman is not worried: "In the courts there is always a strong presumption in favor of taxation. Very few decisions fall against the state. However, I feel that this case is an absolute winner based on the constitutional implications."

Oxman and the BOE's Bystrom agree that the tax clause in question, Regulation 1543, went on the books in 1939, and Oxman adds that the Mavrides and Creators cases mark the first application of the tax on comic art.

"Perhaps it's something that we didn't specifically look at in the past," acknowledges Bystrom. "The way the industry has evolved and the way they do business now may be a factor. Or it could be that since we just started taxing newspapers a few years ago that created a greater awareness to the breadth [Regulation 1543] covers."

Always searching for more supporters, Mavrides says that he spends 10 to 40 hours a week on the case, crippling his ability to produce paying work. "Other people have actually died defending our speech rights. Inconveniencing my ability to produce work is minor compared to sacrifices like that," he says, adding that if the board succeeds in uniformly applying this tax to comic art, it will squelch commercially marginal voices like his own.

It was J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, the SubGenius holy man, who said, "You'll pay to know what you really think." Mavrides isn't waiting to ante up to uncover his thoughts on the First Amendment. And again, there's no slack.

Kathe Todd, editor of the comics-oriented Rip Off Press, says she's not surprised by Mavrides' tenacity with the case. "Paul's always had a bad attitude toward authority," she says. "He's kind of an iconoclast."

Make that an iconoclast who grew up in Akron, Ohio, with the ink of Batman vs. Superman staining his hands in nursery school.

"I thought it was stupid then," Mavrides says. "But I liked it."
The early '70s found him in Tucson, Ariz., working for the collectively held New Times for $10 a week, where he drew comics, wrote stories, and painted newspaper boxes, while subsisting on beans and tortillas. When he moved to Berkeley in 1975, he fell in with a comics scene, collaborating with such artists as Jay Kinney and Gilbert Shelton of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers fame. The ideology that manifested itself in the Freak Brothers, a simmering distrust of authority, was integral to Mavrides' formative character and guides his current crusade.

"In junior high I realized that if I drew a horrible caricature and passed it to another student in class, I'd get in trouble when I got caught," he says. "But if I printed the same horrible caricature in the school newspaper that it was journalism and comment and I was rewarded. That set a light bulb off in my head about the respect that print engenders for material that might otherwise be ignored or harassed.

About The Author

Jeff Stark


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