Rights of Free Expression

I had breakfast last week with four old friends. While we all have loosely known each other for many years, we gathered together for the first time in one place because one of our company, Dennis Wakabyashi, has been diagnosed with advanced lung disease. Barring a lung transplant, Dennis has perhaps only a few months left to live. With that dire projection in mind, John Caruso (who currently owns Hollywood Posters in Denver) called us all to come together for a special breakfast to celebrate Dennis' life. We met at the Brown Palace, which even after 100 years, is still considered by many to be Denver's nicest hotel. We spent two hours in the main dining room reminiscing about old times, and exchanging war stories from a combined 175 years in the book and magazine business.

So how did I come to know these four men? My connections with Jerry Robinette are a bit circumspect, as we have seldom done any business together, and hardly know each other on a personal basis. He did, however, fill a critical role in the origins of Mile High Comics. As the manager of Book Barter Bob's, Denver's leading used book exchange in 1970, Jerry sold mystery-themed 1930's pulp magazines for 25 cents each to Denver's pioneering comics retailer, Jim Payne. Jim, in turn, wholesaled those pulps to me at our monthly meetings of the Colorado Springs Comics Club, for $1 each. I then retailed those pulps (at about $3 each) through my first ads in the old ROCKET'S BLAST (RBCC) fanzine, thus establishing my first successful mail order business while still a freshman in high school. John Caruso (in partnership with fellow diner Art Greer) was the leading comics retailer in Colorado, until I bought him out in 1980. His huge book and comics store across from the state capital is still remembered today with great fondness. Dennis Wakabyashi started off as a very active participant in the Denver hippie street scene during the Mammoth Gardens/Family Dog rock-n-roll heyday of the late 1960's. During that time, he founded a chain of head shops that also sold comics, that he dubbed Middle Earth. The Middle Earth publishing empire (which he co-founded in 1973 with the late Steve Allen) eventually produced wonderful portfolios by the likes of Frazetta, Barry Smith, Jeff Jones, and many others. Dennis and Steve allowed me to retail the entire Middle Earth portfolio line for them at the 1974 San Diego Comic-Con. Without the $800 in additional revenue that I generated from portfolio sales at that convention, I would never have had the working capital to open my first Mile High Comics retail store. Dennis also sold me my very first Denver Mile High Comics retail store location, when he decided to liquidate the Middle Earth chain, in late 1976.

To this point my story isn't too noteworthy, as you can find groups of older men having coffee and chatting about the good old days in just about any diner in America. There was one major difference in this group, however, as the four gentlemen with whom I dined also played key roles in the founding of the adult bookstore industry in Colorado during the late 1960's and early 1970's. John Caruso, who later owned Colorado Comics, started out in 1971 working with Jerry Robinette at Book Barter Bob's, the first store in Denver to have the audacity to open a small adult book and magazine room. His eventual partner in Colorado Comics, Art Greer, also started selling adult material at about that same time through his loosely held chain of Jerry's News newsstands. Art also helped found Sundial Books, the company that still controls distribution of most adult books and magazines sold in Colorado. While Dennis Wakabyashi owned Middle Earth, he financed that company through his parallel ownership of a tremendously profitable chain of adult bookstores.

The thought that struck me during our breakfast was that several of my companions had suffered enormously in seeking to uphold the rights of free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Three of them had been arrested, charged, and found guilty (a couple of them several times) of either selling or distributing indecent material. All of their convictions were eventually overturned on appeal, however, thanks to the incredibly diligent (but expensive...) efforts of Arthur Schwartz, Denver's foremost attorney dealing with First Amendment issues. Despite being ultimately vindicated, however, my breakfast companions all still went through the anxiety and humiliation of being dragged through the courts by overzealous District Attorneys seeking to limit what books, magazines, films, and novelty items that consenting adults could purchase. Taking this harassment even further, the FBI took a keen interest in the adult magazine trade during the late 1960's and early 1970's. They reportedly went so far as to stake out several of my friends, and keep records of all who visited them. That's apparently the origin of the rumor about how my own name came to be in an FBI file. My friends all enjoyed a moment of restrained amusement when I pointed out that our breakfast table was probably the only one in the entire city of Denver that day where every single diner had been at least once been investigated for allegedly criminal behavior involving the First Amendment.

So why am I waxing poetic about having breakfast with a bunch of guys who many would characterize as old smut peddlers? Because the rights of free expression that we all take for granted today didn't just materialize out of thin air. The repression that existed about what you could legally read and view in this country during the 1950's and 1960's only went away because of the efforts of guys like Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce, and my four breakfast companions. That having been said, I don't believe that a single one of them started out with being an advocate for the First Amendment as a personal priority. Each had their own agenda, which typically revolved primarily around making a buck, and feeding their families. But the fact remains that when they were charged with a crime for selling unpopular books and magazines, they fought back through the judicial system, and eventually won. Those victories set legal precedents that greatly expanded the boundaries of what can now be legally published in America. For undertaking that tremendous effort and risk, we all owe those guys a debt of gratitude.

Before you dismiss my contention that my friends helped all of us as mere sentimentality on my part, consider the fact that American standards of free expression are frequently still criminal acts in many (most?) parts of the world. A highly placed executive at Diamond Distributing derived great amusement about 15 years ago in sending me a news clipping from the front page of the MALAY STRAITS TIMES, a leading newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the article, I was described as "The Noted American Pornographer, Chuck Rozanski." It seems that through our N.I.C.E. new comics subscription service that one of our Malaysian customers had ordered some adult comics. Since selling those books to consenting adults in the USA is (for now...) completely legal, we filled his order. The Malaysian customs authorities had discovered those adult comics, and suddenly I was subject to arrest, and severe criminal sanctions, if I ever set foot in Malaysia. If I remember correctly, I think the article also said that I am also wanted in Singapore, under the same charges. Think about what this really means. Those people want to put me in jail because one of their citizens wanted to read a couple of mediocre B&W adult comics? It would all be one heck of a joke, if they weren't completely serious...

For those of you who don't follow these things, let me assure you that similar persecutions continue to happen in America to this day. Visit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website (www.CBLDF.org) to see the latest news on who is being prosecuted right now in our small world of comics publishing and retailing. Just as the Civil Rights battles are far from won, the battles to protect individual rights of free expression are under continual siege by those who desperately want to dictate to us what we can view, read, publish, and say. Fighting back those forces of repression is a struggle that requires the same courage and willingness to sacrifice that my breakfast companions manifested on their day. If the time came, would you be willing to be arrested, and face jail time, for the sake of protecting all our rights of free expression? My friends did exactly that, and that is precisely why I was so proud to be in their company last week. In their own way, these battle weary old men represent to me the epitome of courage and fierce dedication to personal freedom that defines the best of America's greatness. Call them smut peddlers if you will, but to me they will always be couragous patriots.

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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