By Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
An Iowa man recently pled guilty to one count of “possessing obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children” and to one count of mailing obscene material. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. This obscene material? Manga.
Christopher Hadley, 39, ordered some manga from Japan two years ago. When a postal inspector decided that the content of the books was obscene, he applied for a search warrant. And when Hadley retrieved his package from the post office, having no idea it had been searched, he arrived home to find police officers who seized his manga, comic book, and DVD collection, as well as his computers. The charges against Hadley were based on only a small number of materials in the collection of over 1,200 publications.
Child pornography is obviously a touchy subject, and it’s a complicated one. The laws were originally enacted to prevent child abuse or any other harm to children, but since then, reported links between the use of pornography and actual abuse have led to the additional banning of virtual child pornography (i.e. illustrations or computer-generated images depicting children in a pornographic manner that did not involve the participation of any actual children). Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the first law to this effect, there is a new law, the PROTECT Act, that specifically prohibits obscene virtual child pornography. This is the law under which Hadley was prosecuted; his guilty plea makes him the first person to be convicted for possessing cartoon art without any evidence that he viewed actual child pornography.
Manga is particularly problematic with respect to child pornography laws because of the illustration style; not only do characters tend to simply appear younger than they may be intended to be, but males are often androgynous, and the Japanese have a taboo against pubic hair. Of course, obscenity laws are supposed to protect works that have serious artistic value, which brings up the additional problem that many people don’t consider manga (or comic books generally) to be “real” art. Even the heavy hitters in the comic world were worried about what a conviction for Handley might mean. Neil Gaiman told MTV News in November: “I wrote a story about a serial killer who kidnaps and rapes children, and then murders them [referring to a storyline in ‘The Doll’s House’]. We did that as a comic, not for the purposes of titillation or anything like that, but if you bought that comic, you could be arrested for it? That’s just deeply wrong. Nobody was hurt. The only thing that was hurt were ideas.”
We have written before about the issue of obscenity laws possibly going too far, and the common refrain seems to be “slippery slope.” Obviously the law should take all reasonable steps to prevent child abuse, and this includes child pornography laws; but where should the line be drawn? If it’s manga now, does this pave the way for Neil Gaiman next, or maybe Alan Moore? You might scoff at that, but you probably would have done so ten years ago as well if I’d told you that someone might go to jail for fifteen years because of possessing (not even drawing!) some cartoons.
As to why Handley pled guilty instead of fighting the charges? Supposedly it was partly because he couldn’t afford his defense, but the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was already serving as special consultant for the case and probably would have stepped up some fundraising efforts. Apparently Handley’s lawyer also thought he wouldn’t be able to convince a jury once they saw the images in question. “If they can imagine it, they drew it,” he said. Isn’t that kind of the whole point of art? No matter how disturbing we might find the finished product, should it be illegal to see it?
It should be noted that (due to a gag order, apparently) we don’t actually know what manga titles were problematic for Handley, though some have their ideas. So should you be worried about your own manga collection? If there is anything that might possibly maybe somewhat be considered a depiction of an underage character in a sexual situation, maybe so. As one blogger put it, “hope you own a cross-cut paper shredder and an indoor fireplace.” Because unfortunately you never know when the justice system might decide to make an example of someone.