Manga, Censorship and Obscenity

by Jason Thompson, Dec 11th 2008

A while back Carl Gustav Horn, manga editor at Dark Horse, contacted us about the ongoing case of Christopher Handley. As you may know, Handley currently faces up to 20 years in prison for the possession of allegedly obscene manga. Carl was concerned about the ramifications of Handley's case, not just on Handley himself, but on all of us. I think his concern is a very legitimate one, the case against Handley could set a precedent that will affect a lot of collectors and consumers of illustrated and animated material.

After a bit of discussion, Carl was invited to write an editorial on the subject that would be posted on ANN. Shortly thereafter Jason Thompson, author of the Manga: The Complete Guide, expressed his interest in also addressing the subject. I don't think very many people would disagree when I say that Carl and Jason are two of the most respected individuals in the North American manga industry. If I could choose any two people in the world to write an editorial for Anime News Network on this subject, it would be Carl and Jason.

And that's just what I present to you today, Carl and Jason's thoughts on this case, and how you can make a difference.

-Christopher Macdonald


Manga, Censorship and Obscenity

by Jason Thompson

Christopher Handley, a manga fan in Iowa, is currently in an unenviable position: he's the first comics or manga fan ever to face criminal charges for possessing manga to read in the privacy of his own home. He's currently facing obscenity charges, which could carry up to 20 years in prison. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization which exists to defend free speech in comic books, is raising money to help with his case. You can read more about it here.

As a manga fan, reviewer and editor, I've become very familiar with manga censorship, much to my frustration. In my book "Manga: The Complete Guide" I pointed out whenever a manga has been censored. To me, censorship in manga is a serious issue -- sure, I can always just get the original Japanese version, but the version printed in English is the version most English-speakers will become familiar with. But it's important to remember that all the manga “censorship” which has happened so far in the U.S. -- nudity, cigarettes, violence, panties, whatever -- has not been the result of government interference. Each American manga publisher (like each Japanese publisher) has its own standards of what they will and won't publish, a much different situation from 1954, when the big comic publishers joined together to create the old American Comics Code. Until the 1980s, most stores wouldn't sell any comic without Comics Code approval, forcing smaller publishers to operate by Comics Code rules or go out of business. Thankfully, today, the publishing business is in some ways more decentralized, and there is no central tyrannical authority in the U.S. which determines what can or can't be published in a manga (or comic). Publishers whose pervy manga won't sell at Big Store X can generally sell it uncensored (if they choose) at smaller retailers and online. There is no Manga Code, and the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press.

But there is a way that the U.S. government can get involved in a form of manga censorship, and it's happening right now, since the government lawsuit claims that Christopher Handley's manga is "obscene." In legal terms, obscenity is the rock to free speech's scissors. Obscenity -- which can apply to manga, video games, movies, magazines, digital images, just about anything -- trumps free speech, and “obscenity” is a fluid term which is basically defined on a case-by-case basis. However, one of the primary definitions of obscenity is whether “community standards” would judge the work to be offensive, vulgar and without artistic value. For fans of Japanese comics in particular, this should be enough to cause alarm, since Japanese manga (and Korean manhwa, and all foreign comics) is by definition not created to suit American “community standards.” As a manga fan, as a comics fan, what is your “community”? What is “obscene”? Who gets to judge?

And this is just where things get tricky, as small communities (such as small towns, or small groups of fans) are forced face to face with unfamiliar standards. In 2000, Jesus Castillo, a comic store manager in Texas, was prosecuted for and eventually convicted of obscenity for selling a manga -- the legendarily 18+ “Urotsukidoji,” aka “Legend of the Overfiend.” The fact that the manga was labeled “for adults,” sold to an adult, and kept it in an “adult only” area, didn't matter to the jurors, who decided that “Overfiend” wasn't suitable reading material for anyone, adults included. Today, “Overfiend” seems almost as old as the Comics Code, and the case is hardly remembered among manga fans, but it's a disturbing example of how badly an obscenity trial can turn out. Another cautionary tale is the story of Mike Diana, a comic artist who received a harsh criminal sentence for obscenity. Although some manga fans may scoff at these cases as examples of how much America sucks compared to Japan, it's worth remembering that Japan has obscenity laws too, and they're very very harsh; a few unlucky manga artists and publishers have received harsh sentences for obscenity. At one time or another, artists and publishers in every country have had to fight for the right to free speech.

But Christopher Handley's case is, in some ways, more frightening than any of these cases. Most of us are not manga retailers or manga artists (although we may want to be). We're manga readers, and Christopher Handley is facing an obscenity charge for simply possessing and reading manga, like most of us. The only difference is, Christopher Handley must justify his private manga-reading choices to the world at large. Like a single person randomly picked out of a list of 10,000 file-sharers and sued by a corporation, he could be any one of us; he just had the bad luck to have the Postal Inspector search his mail. And if he is convicted, he won't just be fined or made to do community service: under the federal PROTECT act, designed for people who traffic in child pornography, he will be treated as a sex offender and a danger to his community.

The PROTECT act is involved because some of Handley's manga allegedly contains images of "underage-looking" characters involved in sexual activity; but what does this mean in manga terms, where age is drawn so intentionally vaguely? When my parents look at manga, they can't tell the difference between a 13-year-old and a 28-year-old. Manga isn't a photorealistic form of art, it's a fantasy medium where things aren't always what they seem. And "sexual activity" could mean a lot of different things, too -- to my parents, a panty shot might count as "sexual activity." We don't know exactly what manga Handley is accused of possessing. But who cares? As Carl Horn, my former coworker at Viz and the smartest person in the manga industry, says in his own editorial on the subject, you might not be a fan of comics like “Misshitsu” and “Urotsukidoji,” but “obscenity” is a weird, subjective thing. Ratings like “13+”, “16+” and even “18+” are basically arbitrary, and the vast majority of manga in America falls in this gray zone, not the obviously adult area of hard adult and yaoi manga. What is the difference between “appropriate” and “inappropriate,” between “adult” and “all ages,” between “obscene” and “not obscene”? Before you answer, consider this. And this. And this, and this. As long as comics and manga exist, they will spark “community standards” arguments like these. Images create an immediate emotional response in the viewer, and obscenity is a subjective, emotional issue. Manga fans must stick together to defend the rights of other manga fans; to paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I may disapprove of manga about maids and catgirls, but I'll defend to the death your right to read it.

The outcome of this trial could affect public perception and set a good or bad precedent for future manga-related legal cases. Ultimately, only the jury can determine Handley's fate. But donations to the CBLDF can help pay for the research and expenses related to the trial, and help them gather manga and First Amendment testimony that could be a turning point in the jury's decision. Please donate to them now.

Jason Thompson
Author, Manga: The Complete Guide; Manga Editor, Otaku USA


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