Comics and Censorship: Is It Really about You?

News broke this past Friday of an American citizen arrested by a Canadian Customs officer at the US-Canada border after manga deemed to be child pornography was discovered on his laptop. Although no real children were harmed in the creation of drawn images such as those possessed by this man in his mid-twenties, he faces a minimum of a year in prison if convicted.

The US-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is currently raising funds for his legal defense. This is the second time they have rallied around the legal plight of a private US citizen caught with ‘obscene’ manga in the past five years. The CBLDF was also involved in the case of Christopher Handley, an Iowa man who ultimately pleaded guilty and was convicted for ‘possession of obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children’.

It is no secret that some Japanese manga (i.e. comic books) can be pornographic in the extreme and that adult-oriented genres such as lolicon, shotacon, and moé can feature children in sexually explicit—and sexually violent—situations. Even characters who are technically adults are sometimes drawn to look like children, for both stylistic and fetishistic reasons.

And it should likewise go without saying that obscenity laws and the ways in which they are enforced differ from country to country. What is permissible in Japan might not be permissible in the United States, and what is permissible in the United States might not be permissible in Canada (or the United Kingdom, for that matter).

I do not want to argue here about whether or not this manga should be illegal. Hopefully it goes without saying that I think we should be worrying about real children, not cartoons. But I do think that we ought to be talking a bit differently about these cases because, really, it is not about the comics.

Here’s an example of the sort of CBLDF-approved rallying cry you hear amongst fans:

If you are a fan of any manga or anime, if you are a fan of comics, if you have even one comics page, anime clip, or “dirty” picture on your computer, tablet, or phone, this is about you (my emphasis).

I do not mean to pick on this particular blogger here—similar examples have spilled from the virtual inks of the likes of writer Neil Gaiman or been published in the e-newsletters of New York publishing houses—but it’s a succinct example of the dominant discourse, which is: This man could be you. Yes, you.

If ‘you’ are a man who reads comics, then this in fact could be you. By all means, watch out. But if you aren’t, and many readers of sequential art in the Western world aren’t, then this probably isn’t you…even if you happen to read precisely the same comics he does. Over the years I have noticed a distinct pattern: The person facing jail time is always a man, and those who have already been convicted are all white men.

Why? One simple explanation is that white men are more likely to possess pornographic manga. This is possible, but I suspect that something else is also at play here. Why were they even looking through Handley’s international post or this latest man’s laptop files? Perhaps they thought they had found what they were already half-looking for. Pedophiles, after all, are known to be mostly men, and among those imprisoned for sexually assaulting children, the vast majority are Caucasian. (This, despite the underrepresentation of Caucasians in the prison system generally.)

In other words, I would argue that reading manga as a white man is rather like driving an expensive sports car as a black man. You are always already a suspect in the eyes of law enforcement authority—not because the car or the comics in themselves are necessarily a problem per se, but because your possession of said items seems to indicate, to our prejudiced little minds, far more serious criminality involving the harm of real people. Do not think for a moment that these cases are only about comics and censorship.

Interestingly, Canadian Customs has also garnered a reputation for being especially hostile to materials of interest to the LGBT community. The feminist bookstore Little Sisters endured a series of court cases over what can only be called institutionalized homophobia.

In any case, this brand of prejudice, the attendant possibility of discrimination, and the way discovery of the already-anticipated misdeed becomes a self-reinforcing cycle—these all need to be discussed at length. Furthermore, we need to talk about how our sociocultural anxieties victimize certain groups under certain circumstances. But that discussion won’t happen as long as comics fans of both genders and all stripes devolve into telling each other scare stories about how it could have been you.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

Categories: Mediated Matters

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4 replies »

  1. The things which I believe should be illegal are those that are overtly harmful to human beings, so I am coming at this article agreeing that no one should get arrested for possessing any kind of hentai. That said, I still found it absurd.

    Why do you go from pointing out that more convicted pedos are white male to the argument that white males that read manga are “always already a suspect”? The amount of assumptions that must be made to get to the second point from the first lead me to believe you are either grasping at an uninformed hunch, or forgot to cite a few of the intermediate facts which got you there.

    The claim that law enforcement is behaving in a prejudiced manner, both specifically and generally, is not the sort of thing that should be casually thrown around. I found your “black guy driving a sports car” simile immensely lacking in tact, considering the latter is demonstrably true and has resulted in the deaths of actual people. What you’re arguing here, as it is presented, is ultimately an assumption. The legitimate potency of the idea that cops are behaving unjustly has been forever lost because of people like you, who carelessly brandish it about when speaking in defense of something.

  2. Even a cursory Google examination of Canada Customs issues surrounding manga and LGBT issues exposes the ridiculous assumptions of this “article” to be baseless– A female traveler was detained, searched, and interogated for having manga on her person in June 2006, and wrote about it here: The manga in question? Tokyo Boys & Girls from Viz. Reading that article should hopefully disabuse you of your ridiculous notions about who is being targeted and why.

    Further, I don’t think the skin-colour or ethnicity of the person stopped at the border has been made public. That’s entirely your assumption, and frankly considering ethnicity is the linchpin of this mess of an article, it seems like something of a necessity to have that be a fact rather than a hunch.

    edited for inappropriateness

    • Chris,

      If this were a comment on somebody else’s article, it would not have ever seen the light of day. Your rudeness does not improve your argument, and anything you write–to me or anyone else–here in the future that is not civil will remain screened.

      I am aware of the case you describe and would point out that unlike Handley or the man in question now, this woman was not arrested or charged with any crime. She was hassled, but it went no further. The event she described also occurred on the heels of another case of–a man–caught with pornographic manga, and from her story it was the word ‘manga’ that piqued their curiosity.

      In addition, since I do not know her personally I would hesitate to presume, but some of the images on her site are yuri-esque, and as I noted targeting of the LGBT community seems to be a separate preoccupation of Canadian Customs…and the fact that among the books seized from Little Sisters includes works by bell hooks (among the most important living philosophers) ought to make it clear that it’s not just about content.


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