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A comic book store owner in Rome, Georgia goes on trial this week over whether he willfully gave a comic that depicted nudity to a child. It's a case that worries the comic book industry, which fears limits on artistic expression.

From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Susanna Capelouto reports.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: When you visit Legends Comic Book Store, you usually find owner Gordon Lee advising one of his loyal customers.

Mr. GORDON LEE (Owner, Legends Comic Book Store): Which issue of "The Ultimate Spiderman" did you get?

Unidentified Man: You're talking about 111?

Mr. LEE: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: It has two covers? I got both of them.

Mr. LEE: Okay.

CAPELOUTO: People come from all over North Georgia to visit his store in Rome, where it's been a fixture for more than 20 years. The shelves are packed with hundreds of colorful stories about heroes like Spiderman, Wolverine and the Incredible Hulk. There are comics of T.V. shows like "The Simpsons" and "Futurama." Lee has a lot to keep up with.

Mr. LEE: Let's see, today alone I have probably 200 different titles coming in. I'm still working on trying to get those sorted to put on the shelf. There is no way in the world I can look through every one of those books just to see what the content is. I'm just always hoping that, you know, there's nothing in it too controversial to worry about.

CAPELOUTO: Lee has reason to worry. Three years ago, on Halloween, his store took part in a downtown trick or treat celebration. Instead of candy, Lee handed out free comics, as his lawyer, Paul Cadle, remembers.

Mr. PAUL CADLE (Gordon Lee's Lawyer): There were stacks of people backed up outside his door. I know this because when I came up with my daughter, he kind of let me come on up there and get a book for her and go.

CAPELOUTO: The next time Cadle and Lee spoke was a week later - after Lee was arrested. It turns out that inside one of the freebies were two drawings about the rise of cubism, showing painter Pablo Picasso moving about his studio in the nude, his genitals clearly exposed. The comic's author, Nick Bertozzi, says it was an accurate depiction of the time. The comic ended up in the hands of a 9-year-old boy and his 6-year-old brother. That's why Gordon Lee is fighting charges of distributing harmful material to a minor.

University of Georgia law professor Alan Cook says the artistic intentions don't matter in the case.

Professor ALAN COOK (University of Georgia): The ultimate arbiter of whether or not it's harmful to manners is not the artist but the jury.

CAPELOUTO: The comic book industry is closely watching the developments. Writers and sellers worry about pressure to censor or even rate comics like the movie industry. In fact, Lee's $80,000 defense bill is being paid by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Director Charles Brownstein says this case is about freedom of expression.

Mr. CHARLES BROWNSTEIN (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund): If there were to be a conviction against Mr. Lee, it creates a level of vulnerability for other retailers of comic books but for other mainstream retailers of books and graphic novels.

CAPELOUTO: Back at Legends Book Store, customer Kenny Mitchell(ph) says an apology to the parents is all that's needed, not a court case.

Mr. KENNY MITCHELL (Customer): If they wanted to actually look around, actually see how the media is and also how entertainment is, there's actually more crap that's on T.V. than there actually is in like a little store. Go to the art museum, you can see everything.

CAPELOUTO: State prosecutors declined to comment for the story. If convicted, Gordon Lee faces a year in jail and $1,000 fine.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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