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San Diego Comic-Con 2012
Defending Manga

by Carlo Santos,

Charles Brownstein of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) led a panel to discuss legal controversies surrounding manga in the United States and Canada.

Comic books have been targeted by legal prosecutors since the 1950s, when the Comics Code Authority was first drafted as a response to objectionable content in comics. In the decades since, many other cases have emerged, all driven by the idea that any comics with mature content would somehow "corrupt the youth." The CBLDF was formed as an initiative to protect the free expression rights of those who create, sell, and read comics, whether explicit or not.

Manga began to make its way from Japan to the U.S. around the 1980's, but it was not until the boom years in the 2000's that manga became a lightning rod for legal controversy.

Different attitudes to sexuality in Japanese culture have caused concern among American audiences. By now, an entire generation of North America readers have grown up on manga and anime culture , making it a major cultural phenomenon—but also a potential legal issue for those who do not understand it.

Brownstein then reviewed several cases where manga came under legal fire simply for being manga.

In 2000, comics retailer Jesus Castillo was arrested on the charge of selling obscene manga such as Urotsukidoji to an undercover police officer. In this case, Texas vs. Castillo, manga and comics experts including Susan Napier and Scott McCloud explained that it was not a crime to sell adult comics to an adult customer. However, the prosecution countered with the "comics are for kids" argument, and the jury ultimately sided with the prosecution. Despite attempts to appeal the case, Castillo ended up having to serve a period of unsupervised probation.

U.S. Congress passed the PROTECT Act in 2003, which bars many forms of child pornography. However, the sweeping language used to describe "child pornography" meant that any manga or anime imagery involving sexual contact between "young characters" could be considered the same as photographs where real children are being harmed and sexually abused.

In the case of U.S. v. Whorley (where the CBLDF did not become involved), this law allowed a dangerous precedent to be set. The defendant had downloaded actual child pornography, but also some non-explicit manga images, yet in the eyes of the law these were all lumped together as objectionable content.

Perhaps the most well-known case involving "manga prosecution" is U.S. v. Handley. Christopher Handley was arrested in 2006 when inspectors found obscene manga in a shipment of goods he had received from Japan. Yet Handley was a model citizen with no criminal record—in Brownstein's words, Handley's main hobbies where "anime and Bible study." Yet prosecutors went through Handley's entire collection and deemed all of it questionable, despite the actual explicit content being just a small portion of his collection. Even looking at an anime website was considered an inappropriate act. Handley was ultimately sentenced to 6 months in prison, followed by 3 years of supervised release and 5 years of probation, with forfeiture of all material that had been seized by police.

The one positive development of the Handley case was the ruling that the court must at least find the images in question to be obscene. In the previous Whorley case, the mere possession of manga images of minors—sexual or not—was considered a criminal act.

The first real victory for free expression came in the case of R. vs. Matheson. In 2010, American citizen Ryan Matheson was arrested by Canadian authorities at the U.S.-Canada border due to contents saved in his laptop computer. This was a case that Matheson and the CBLDF ultimately won, although not without many challenges. After Matheson was detained by authorities, he was not informed of the reason for being sent to jail, was denied access to counsel, and was denied basic comforts like food and blankets.

Matheson himself was present at the panel to tell his story. In his account, he said that his position at the end of a security screening line and his possession of electronics (including the laptop) triggered an intensive search "for some reason." As he recounted what happened, Matheson said that the authorities never told him what they were doing; after 20 minutes they had said "you shouldn't have this here" and pointed out a scan from an artbook. The full search continued for 4 hours, long beyond what was legally allowable for the security staff. Any form of anime or manga-related content (even an innocuous wallpaper on his computer) inexplicably set off red lights among the authorities.

Matheson described his experience further, noting how the authorities made no effort to help him despite his requests to see the U.S. Embassy or find out what was going on. His stay in jail left him cold and hungry (he asked for food six times and never got a response); "the one thing I ended up getting was toilet paper," he said. During his time in protective custody, Matheson was told that he "must have done something really bad," apparently under a wrong assumption that he had actually molested a minor. "If you get raped in here, it doesn't count," was one of the threats he heard from the authorities.

Even after he had been released and was awaiting trial, Matheson was told not to use the internet at all (aside from work usage at one specific company), or even talk to children, and was limited to barely 10 hours a week of work at that one company. Matheson said that he basically could not live his life because of these restrictions.

Among the various images that led to Matheson's arrest was a clearly unrealistic, moe-style parody of the Kama Sutra. But somehow prosecutors had decided that "this is a sexually explicit image of five-year-olds." Another work that was considered obscene was a doujinshi of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS where the characters are, in fact, grown up.

The prosecution originally tried to talk Matheson into pleading guilty for possession of obscene materials, but after a call to his mother, he realized that he did not personally believe he was guilty for anything he'd done—and that he should not accept any amount of jail time. Driven by his newfound rage at the injustice of the situation, Matheson chose to fight against the charges with the CBLDF's help.

The CBLDF ultimately raised $75,000 to cover Matheson's legal bills (and are currently still fund-raising to pay off the remaining $45,000). Thanks to the CBLDF's strong defense, the Canadian government finally dropped the charges against Matheson.

Matheson talked about how the prosecution tried to "play mind games" with him and tried to make him feel like "the worst person in the world" with their treatment of him. But the final analysis, as Brownstein described it, was that Matheson had simply "brought something into the country that the authorities in that country did not want"—and had committed no criminal act.

Brownstein commented on the issue in general and said that this kind of art is accepted in Japan, where consumers can explore sexuality through the fictional worlds of manga. Yet the mere fact that artwork is "Japanese style" has somehow become code for obscenity to North American authorities.

Brownstein ended with the powerful sentiment that "Manga is not a crime," and that manga—along with all other forms of comic art—is protected free speech.

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