Lemons into Lemonade

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"Legal Action Comics" should be found in the "Silver Linings" department of your local comicbook store. A thick, book-length anthology, "Legal Action," (256 pp; $14.95) has been published by the Dirty Danny Legal Defense Fund towards which, short of printing costs, all proceeds are going. The peculiarity of "Dirty" Danny Hellman's situation motivated enough comix heavyweights, like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Spain, and Kim Deitch, to donate their work and turn "Legal Action" into one of the most anticipated comix of the year.

The circumstances that drew these and many other cartoonists to Hellman's aid may strike anyone outside the comix community as surprisingly weird and petty. Hellman has been sued for libel by another cartoonist, Ted Rall, because of a prank played on him by Hellman. The imbroglio began when Rall, author of the weekly syndicated strip "Search and Destroy" and an occasional contributor to TIME magazine, wrote a cover story for the August 3, 1999 "Village Voice," headlined "The King of Comix." It presented Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer-winning "Maus," as a kind of New York cartooning Nero — made more of luck and self-promotion than talent, who bestows plum favors upon an elite coterie of cartooning acolytes. Somewhere between iconoclastic and a hatchet job, the piece ended up costing Rall more goodwill than it did Spiegelman.

One form of backlash was an email sent to about thirty people, written by Danny Hellman, another New York cartoonist, posing as Rall, encouraging the recipients to send in their comments on the Spiegelman piece to a lewd email address. Hellman then began spoofing outraged responses by New York print media powerhouses both real and fictional. The artless prank was exposed within days, but like a pair of schoolyard bullies the two continued to escalate the matter until Rall brought suit against Hellman for $1.5 million in damages. So to support the legal fees Hellman has put together this "Legal Action Comics." Although Hellman spins himself as a First Amendment martyr, one can safely assume that many of the contributors have been motivated more by a disdain for Rall than a love of the Bill of Rights.

Art Spiegelman's contribution to "Legal Action Comics"

The book has many pleasures, though with Hellman presumably taking whatever anyone would give him, it lacks in editing what it gains in abundance. Comix scholars will appreciate the serendipitous class reunion of so many first generation underground cartoonists. Most notably, Spiegelman provides a back cover depiction of the Temple of Cartoon Gods, with Rall's effigy placed in the bathroom. It's his first public statement on the case and, by implication, Rall's article. The other really big name, Robert Crumb, has handed over what look like a couple pages from his sketchbooks, depicting a pair of medieval "Crumb Girls" in a catfight. Other conrtibutors include Julie Doucet, Jay Lynch, Kaz, Gary Panter, Robert Williams, Mary Fleener, Sam Henderson, James Kochalka and at least two dozen others.

The strength of "Legal Action Comics" is the diversity of contributors, making it a must-have for anyone interested in the variety of comic styles out there. However, unwary readers should not expect the most hi-brow material when it's in support of a guy who calls himself "Dirty" Danny. All of the pieces mean to be humorous and Tony Millionaire provides several of the best of these. My favorite contribution of his reads like a devastating, thinly-veiled reference to Rall, about a vicious, self-pitying giant snake roaming around the desert seeking love from the things it devours. Other artists use Hellman as an actual character, taking part in silly adventures that inevitably end in some vulgarity.

Whether you care about Hellman's case or not, $15 for 250 pages of comics still works out to a great deal. "Legal Action Comics" takes the shotgun approach to anthology-making. Some contributions are unreadable, but with so many of them you always find something enjoyable within a few pages. The creation of this book will inevitably be the best thing born out of such asinine circumstances.

"Legal Action Comics" can be found at better comicbook stores