Ban on work of 'adult' cartoonist is overturned

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A small London comics firm yesterday overturned a Customs and Excise ban on a work from celebrated adult cartoonist Robert Crumb.

Uxbridge magistrates' court yesterday upheld the right of Knockabout Comics, based in Portobello Road, London, to sell Crumb's My Troubles with Women. The other banned import, a collection of feminist adult cartoons called Twisted Sisters, will also now be available to buy here. A Customs and Excise officer had banned the books from being imported into Britain or Europe by Knockabout Comics in January last year. The officer had taken offence to depictions of oral sex in each book.

Uxbridge magistrates yesterday rescinded that ban and awarded legal costs of pounds 6,000 to Knockabout Comics. Geoffrey Robertson QC, representing the publishers, celebrated the decision as a victory for freedom of information, and said: "This customs decision would have put at risk all the underground art of the sixties and we were very happy to put a stop to any such trend."

In his address to the magistrates, Mr Robertson invoked memories of other censorship trials, mentioning the censored novels Lady Chatterley's Lover and Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Knockabout Comics had argued that they had been given written permission from customs to import My Troubles With Women from 1988, and that the pictures offensive to the customs official were only two from two-hundred page books. They added that the books, far from being pornographic, depicted sex in a decidedly unglamorous light.

This view was endorsed in court by Dr William Thompson, a criminologist at Reading University and author of three books on pornography. "I have never seen anything like these pictures in mainstream pornography," he said.

Yesterday's trial once again bought to the fore the debate on the availability of adult comics to children. Knockabout Comics director Tony Bennett insisted that the books were "of adult subject matter, sold only to adults". The recent boom in adult comics, however, has meant that distribution has spread from specialist comic shops like Mr Bennett's to mainstream record and book chains, like Virgin, HMV and Waterstone's.

The creator of Fritz the Cat, Robert Crumb was last year the subject of a critically acclaimed film, Crumb, directed by Terry Zwigoss. But Andrew Bird, representing Customs and Excise, argued that " the artistic merit of these items is wholly irrelevant to deciding whether they are obscene". He admitted that customs officers "in the past seemed to have been liberal".

The customs officer who impounded both works, Mark Martin, gave a terse "No comment," yesterday. He also refused to take the stand, in spite of pleas from Mr Robertson.