The Difference Between Comics and Literature

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

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."

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