20 Years in Prison for Buying a Manga

by Carl Horn, 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


20 Years in Prison for Buying a Manga

Don't Let it Happen: Donate to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Today
by Carl Horn

In less than two months, starting on February 2, 2009, a court case will begin in Iowa. The defendant, Christopher Handley, is facing as much as 20 years in prison for the charge against him. This is, as we say on the intarwebs: serious business. Twenty years? They must claim he did something really bad. Something really bad to someone, right?

Actually, he just ordered some manga from Japan. And...that's all he did.

Some of these manga contain images that are supposedly—according to the prosecutor—"obscene." But we'll put aside what kind of images they are claimed to be for the moment, because that isn't being decided anywhere but in this court case. And although we can debate it, there's no practical point in doing so here—because debating their content on ANN won't, and can't affect the outcome.

Maybe there are certain types of manga you'd never read or buy. Maybe you've got strong feelings about some kinds of manga, and you don't think they're right. In fact, you're pretty sure you don't even have anything like that in your collection.

But again, the problem is, if Christopher Handley loses this case, that will no longer be for you to debate, or decide. Picture someone else deciding.

In fact, picture people from four different state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies deciding—deciding by coming into your house, today, with a search warrant. Picture them doing that while you're standing right there, while your neighbors are wondering about all the police cars outside, going through your entire collection of manga, artbooks and anime—packing them up, carting them off for inspection. Wait a minute—do they say all of them contain "obscene" content? Oh, by no means. They're saying only a few of them do. And not even the entire manga among those few. Just some drawings in them, here and there.

Picture being handcuffed and booked and told you may now go to prison for twenty years...over some drawings in your manga, here and there.

What's just been described isn't some drama that exists only in flames on the net, and it's not fear mongering—some nightmare scenario that might someday happen in reality. It already has happened in reality, to a manga fan in America named Christopher Handley. It's still happening to him right now, as he prepares for this case. And now here's the real question.

Do you think it's right? I'm not talking about the drawings in the manga. I mean, regardless of how you feel about the manga itself, do you think it's right that someone, anyone, should be sent to prison, merely for possessing drawings in a manga?

And if you don't think it's right, are you going to try and help? To try and make sure it doesn't happen—to him or anyone else?

Talking and debating the issue won't help now. It really won't. But there is something you can do—and should do—today, to help. Support the people who are helping to defend Christopher Handley in court: the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund—the CBLDF. http://www.cbldf.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=2

My friend Jason Thompson and I decided to ask ANN to post our editorials on this case for two reasons. First, we've both been in the U.S. manga industry for a long time—Jason started editing manga in 1995, with Battle Arena Toshinden and I started in 1997 with Neon Genesis Evangelion. We worked together on PULP, the first English-language seinen manga anthology magazine. Jason later became the first editor of the English Shonen Jump; today he is the manga editor for Otaku USA magazine, and last year, through Del Rey, he released the first comprehensive survey of all English-language manga to date, Manga: The Complete Guide. My own record isn't as nearly accomplished as Jason's, but I have had the honor of working for both of the oldest manga publishers in the U.S., Viz and Dark Horse.

The second reason is—because we're manga fans who also happen to have a foot in the comics industry—we know about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the good work it's doing. Jason is a comics creator himself, whereas Dark Horse is known as much for its original comics as it is for its manga. The CBLDF, as its name implies, has worked since the 1980s to supply specialist legal support, including counsel and expert witnesses, for comics-related First Amendment issues. In the past, they've defended artists and retailers, again with an emphasis on comic books. Look at their web site, and you'll see it's mostly references and testimonials related to American comics.

But they got involved in the Christopher Handley case because it's the first time a prosecution has been brought against someone merely for buying a comic. It happens to be a Japanese comic in this case—it's a manga fan who's been prosecuted. The CBLDF sees the importance of that. But do we? The CBLDF is coming to the support of a manga fan; are we manga fans doing what we can to support the CBLDF?

Look at Neil Gaiman, a board member of the CBLDF, who's been very active in fundraising support for this case. He has creative connections to manga and anime, having worked with Yoshitaka Amano and on the dub of Princess Mononoke. But he's primarily known as a creator of English-language comics and prose. In fact, Neil Gaiman isn't American, but he moved here in part because—despite cases like this, and despite the need for the CBLDF—freedom of speech is more strongly fought for in the U.S. than in his native country, the United Kingdom. He discusses this eloquently, and why he defends the right not to be arrested and not to be sent to prison for reading certain kinds of manga, on the December 1st entry of his journal, at journal.neilgaiman.com/.

Not to start humming "The Star-Spangled Banner" or anything, but it makes us proud that ours is a country that artists like Neil Gaiman can still come to in search of freedom—and to help fight for that freedom. To be manga editors, as Jason and I are, is to bring manga to America. We both know and work with Japanese publishers and creators. We don't want to tell them that America, a land whose fans—meaning you—have gotten so into manga in the past few years—creating new hope for the industry in Japan—has now become the land where fans can be put behind bars... for reading manga.

As American manga fans, as people who have worked all these years to promote their amazing art form in America, we would be ashamed to tell them that had become true. Far more ashamed than we could ever be, of anything in any manga—all of which are fake, by the way. Just drawings on paper.

So we aren't just going to express concern and disbelief over this case. We aren't just going to have sympathy for this situation and hope it turns out for the best. Before we do any of that—and before you do any of that—take action, and support the CBLDF. Hopefully this case will be won. If not, there will be an appeal which must be won. In any case, the CBLDF has already spent a lot of money to defend this manga fan—money that so far, has come largely not from the manga fan community itself, for whom it means the most, but from comics fans.

We manga fans need to do better for the CBLDF. We know many manga fans are still in school, and don't have a lot of money. Consider, then, at least a minimum donation of $10.00. Why at least ten dollars? It's the average price of a manga in the U.S... and symbolic of the mere act of buying manga that has brought this court case on. If you can "fill up more of the shelf," so to speak, as Jason and I have, please do so, and donate more.

ANN is the net's premier English-language anime and manga news web site, meaning that it is read in many countries throughout the world, but this appeal to support the CBLDF is made especially to American manga fans. Because this case is being tried in an American court—and, being a federal indictment, is being brought in the name of the American people. If you say, no, that's not true, you never wanted this, you don't think it's right, you're against it—but you do nothing—you will, unfortunately, be supporting this injustice by default. Dramatic words—but the real melodrama here hasn't been brought by us, and not by Christopher Handley, but by those who want to put someone in prison for 20 years for reading manga. And if that isn't injustice, well—that word has no meaning, I guess.

Jason and I wish it wasn't necessary to have written these editorials, and despite calling for you to support the CBLDF, it wasn't you who made the necessity—again, it was those who brought this court case. If what we say comes off as preachy, we apologize. The asking for donations part, that's always a little awkward. But hopefully you don't see it that way, because you want to do something about this, too. Just like people go looking for a fight in real life, people go looking for drama on the net. We didn't go looking for drama, and we would prefer that there wasn't any.

But because of real life, the drama is here. Let's put it to good use for a change.

We both work in the industry. Make no mistake, a successful prosecution in this case will have its chilling effect on the industry as a whole. Remember, the facts at issue are, from a legal perspective, not over certain kinds of manga as such, but over certain kinds of images and scenes in a manga. By the same token, manga that aren't considered "that kind" at all, would nevertheless receive close scrutiny for images and scenes that might be risky.

What's a "risky" scene? Well, if there's a chance of going to prison merely for reading it, let alone for publishing it or selling it, risky may turn out to have a pretty broad definition. This would mean increased censorship, or deciding not to bring a series over at all. And if you say, in that case, you'll simply go ahead and order it straight from Japan, then—

Right. Exactly.

Don't worry, don't get mad, and don't get upset, before you go donate to the defense right now at http://www.cbldf.com/SearchResults.asp?Cat=2. Because if that's how you feel about this cruel and pointless case, you'll feel better knowing that you're trying to do something about it. Please do it now.

Sincerely yours,
Carl Horn
Dark Horse Comics


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