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When Is A Comic Obscene?

A column article by: Regie Rigby
OK, I’m sure that as ever, I’m a little behind everyone else here, but I’ve just found out about Christopher Handley, and as a result the column that I had planned for this week has been bumped*. You see, It’s an odd story, and I’m genuinely conflicted about it. I wish I wasn’t, but I am. I know what I think I should think, and the fact that I’m not sure I do think that opens a can of worms that needs to be tackled. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, the basic facts are this. A guy in America had a bunch of manga comics in his collection. In amongst those comics were some panels of a sexual nature. Now, bear with me, ‘cos this is where I find myself in difficulty. You see, the particular types of Manga this guy had, specifically lolicon and yaoi manga, feature images which are, what shall we say? Culturally specific? I think that covers it. Basically the deal is this. Lolicon focuses on the Lolita complex, which is basically the idea that little girls are sexual creatures, and Yaoi features male homosexual romance for a primarily female audience. Now, from that definition I have absolutely no problem with Yaoi, but Lolicon makes me a bit uneasy. Well, a lot uneasy. However. It gets more complex**. You see there’s a cultural taboo in Japan around pubic hair. As a result, the characters in Yaoi tend not to have any. Which is fine. Except to Western eyes that makes the characters appear pre-pubescent. Which makes Yaoi appear to be child porn – just as Lolicon does. Now. I have no issue with Japanese culture. I sincerely doubt that paedophilia is any more acceptable there than it is in my home town – and just to head off any of the hysterical “won’t somebody thing of the children?!” e-mails that any comment on these issues seems to inevitably attract, I’ll make my position on child porn and the sexual exploitation of children in general absolutely clear. That such things are wrong seems to me to be so self evident that I feel a little bit stupid saying it. Of course it’s wrong. Child pornography is nothing more or less than a photographic record of child abuse. That’s it. The producers of such things should, in my view, be subject to the harshest penalties possible – as a teacher I’ve seen the long term damage that child abuse causes. So far as I’m concerned the perpetrators of such acts are just plain evil and should be treated accordingly. I’m equally clear that the same is true of the consumers of such material. Anyone who chooses to look at a photograph or video of a child suffering abuse for pleasure – sexual or otherwise – is every bit as evil and guilty as the perpetrator of the abuse. To consume such material is to encourage and vicariously participate in the act, and anyone who would do that needs to be off the streets and not breathing my air. To me it is perfectly clear, utterly non-negotiable and there is no discussion or debate to be had on the issue. But. Mr Christopher Handley is not accused of doing any of the things mentioned above. He has not been involved in the production, distribution or consumption of child pornography. He has not been accused of any such actions, and so it seems to me utterly bizarre and wholly unjust that any legal system should be proceeding as though that were the case. Now, as I said, I’m more than a little uneasy about Lolicon. For me it does encourage the sexual objectification of young girls, and I have a pretty major problem with that. On the other hand, we’re talking about cartoons drawn in a Manga style. These are not realistic images. There is no suggestion so far as I can tell that the characters in these comics are in any way real people. Nobody had to pose for the pictures. These are not images of child abuse, and while personally find them distasteful*** I don’t see how they can be regarded as criminal. The issue with Yaoi is even less clear, and I wonder how much of the objection to the content of those comics is down to straightforward homophobia. In both cases, I have to come back to the point that we’re talking about drawings. Stylized images from the imagination, not photographs taken from life. The images in comics are, to a greater or lesser degree, art. I have no idea whether comics of this kind are considered as pornographic or erotic in their native Japan, and I have no idea whether Westerners who import them do so out of a desire to understand and engage with a different culture, out of artistic interest, or for erotic purposes. If the latter I might go so far as to express some concerns regarding the interests of the individual. But again, I just can’t see the images as in any way criminal, and the implications of accepting them as such are both profound and deeply scary. I, for example, own the complete run of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I don’t doubt for a second that many of you lot do too. Within that collection there is at lest one image of child rape (in the story August) which, while neither graphic, nor titillating nor intended to be so, could, under the interpretation of the term used in this case, be regarded as obscene. However outrageous and unwarranted such a view of that image would be if officialdom were to take such a view – and the facts of this case would appear to suggest that officialdom is doing precisely that, at least in one section of the United States – it would cause a pretty big problem for a lot of people. Readers with long memories may recall that back in the early nineties, a comics store in central London was raided by officers from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise division (I think the closest American equivalent would be the ATF, but Customs an Excise covers pretty much anything imported) and a number of comics were seized as “obscene”. I mention this because amongst the seized items were copies of, you guessed it, Sandman. The resulting kerfuffle ran on for many months at great cost to the retailer, in spite of the fact that the authorities decided that there was simply no case to answer. So far as I’m aware, he never got all of his stock back either****. Basically, whatever we might think of the desirability of Lolicon or Yaio comics, this is an issue that should concern every comics fan. Not only does it potentially threaten pretty much every comic collection (and therefore every comic collector) in existence*****, it also threatens future work. If on official culture that regards stylized pen and ink drawings of anything in the same light as child porn is allowed to take hold, then writers and artists are going to alter the stories they tell – it does a creator no good at all to be linked, however wrongly, to such things. That road leads to self-censorship and stifled creativity. If that happens, we will all be significantly poorer as our medium and our culture becomes ever more sanitized and stifled. I believe this with every fibre of my being. Honestly I do. And yet, I finding myself not really wanting anybody to read Lolicon. I don't know that I'd want it banned, or for people to be punished for having it. But i do rather wish it didn't exist. I suppose that's the problem with freedom of expression. Sometimes people use it in ways we might find objectionable, and that perhaps is the price we pay for it. Maybe we should be uncomfortable sometimes. *Barring other astonishing developments expect a rundown of cool books for Christmas next week. **Yeah, like this stuff ever gets easy. ***To say the least. But there are actually things which offend me more, and which seem to me to encourage the sexual objectification of young girls even more. I teach eleven year old girls who walk around in jackets with the Playboy Bunny on the back, for example. What kind of message does that send? ****One if the more surreal aspects of that case was the fact that not only the comics deemed “obscene” by the officers who raided the shop were seized, but also other comics that has simply been in the same box on the grounds that they may have been “contaminated”. Apparently the law covering the seizure of printed matter is the same one that covers the seizure of contaminated food-stuffs. You really couldn’t make it up, could you? *****And it really does, you know. You might not have vast quantities of imported Japanese Lolicon on your shelves, or even a single issue of Sandman. You might never have bought a comic labelled as “Mature Readers”, but I guarantee you that somewhere, in one of the comics you own is an image that somebody with this obscenity seeking mind-set could interpret as obscene, whether it’s a particularly revealing costume or a depiction of a social situation. If somebody decides they want to find it, they’ll find it. Back in the fifties Dr. Wertham went so far as to suggest that a triangle of black in Batman’s armpit was a secret picture of female genitalia. Filth, like beauty, resides in the eye of the beholder…

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