January 29, 2010
Dwaine Tinsley, Hustler’s “most outrageous” cartoonist was infamous for wildly offensive humor in his often sexually explicit or politically driven cartoons. In 1989, however, he became infamous for something much, much worse. Tinsley, then Hustler‘s cartoon editor and creator of the recurring character “Chester the Molester,” was accused of sexual abuse by his teenage daughter. The ensuing trial tore his family apart, and the prosecution brought in hundreds of Tinsley’s cartoons as evidence – including those depicting Chester. What had begun for Tinsley as a figurative battle against censorship and repression turned very literal very quickly. In Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester, Bob Levin shows us how Tinsley was put on trial in defense of his artwork, rather than the accusations brought on him by his daughter.
While the story told in Most Outrageous does focus around Tinsley’s trial, it also describes the events leading up to it. In the first half of the book Levin carefully tells us the details of Tinsley’s shabby childhood, the rise to popularity of Hustler magazine, and the increasing public concern over child abuse at the time of the accusation. He gives us the background Tinsley’s three marriages, of his daughter’s upbringing, and the history of his relationship with his daughter both before and after her accusations. In a story where the reader is all but commanded to take a side, Levin manages to keep all of his characters human. All possibilities are considered, and from many perspectives. I won’t go as far to say that Levin is entirely unbiased – he says himself he really wants to prove Tinsley’s innocence – but he maintains a sense of realistic skepticism I have to credit him for.
Levin does remain sympathetic for Tinsley, if only for the injustice of being misunderstood. To most, Tinsley’s work would be regarded as inappropriate, or even pornographic, but to others, like Levin, they are pieces of art. In an interview with Tom Spurgeon, Levin said, “Tinsley viewed himself as a serious artist making serious statements. Let’s honor that intent.” Levin quotes text from Iain Topliss’ book, The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams and Saul Steinberg to point to a similarity between Tinsley’s humor and that of Charles Addams. Both artists put our darkest and grimmest impulses on to the page; for Addams these forbidden urges were of a homicidal nature, for Tinsley, sexual. Levin does point out, however, that no “Christmas caroler ever accused Addams of actually dumping his boiled oil upon her.”
The second half of Levin’s book chronicles the ongoings of the People v. Tinsley trial. Levin really is perfectly qualified to tell Tinsley’s story because, not only does he have insight into the nuances of cartooning as a frequent contributor to The Comics Journal, but he is also a lawyer. Levin explains in detail the anatomy of a criminal trial, everything from the complicated process by which jurors are selected to things as simple as explaining the purpose of an opening statement. He catalogues his scrupulous research on the trail while still managing to produce invariably thought-provoking prose. The text quotes jazz musicians, makes analogies to tennis more than once, and references Levin’s wife’s opinion several times. From Most Outrageous I learned the tragic details of the Dwaine Tinsley case, about the history of cartoons, child abuse and women’s rights, but I also learned a great deal about Bob Levin, and he seems like a pretty solid guy.
I only rarely write about non-comics publications in this blog and although this book was only tangentially about comics, I felt that it deserved its place here. This book was an incredibly compelling read, and told with both suspense and compassion. The story is both tragic and complex, and as we struggle to understand what may or may not have happened, so does Levin. His intimate narration of such an unfortunate tale is, I think, the most moving part of the story. If you are not too put off by the uncomfortable subject matter to read it, I don’t think you’ll disagree.