Watch That Manga!

DES MOINES – Anyone familiar with Japanese comic books – manga – probably already knows that most of them share certain characteristics. They generally feature teenagers that are vaguely Anglo-looking, depict exaggerated emotions and physical acts, and while tits abound in the sexier ones, Japanese law prevents the depiction of pubic hair, so whatever genitals are depicted are bald – and therein lies the problem.

Manga collector Christopher Handley was busted in May of 2006, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intercepted a package addressed to Handley coming into the United States from Japan. The package contained several manga, which the feds say contained "visual representations of the sexual abuse of children, specifically Japanese manga drawings of minor females being sexually abused by adult males and animals."

ICE used the material as the basis to obtain a search warrant of Handley's residence, and there, postal inspectors found and seized what a Justice Department press release termed "additional obscene drawings of the sexual abuse of children," some of which were contained in a type of manga known as "yaoi."

According to the website Anime Network News, "yaoi" is a term used to describe manga with "strong, graphically-portrayed homo-erotic themes involving men [which] often focus[] exclusively on the sex, with only the minimal necessary story."

Based on evidence seized, Handley was indicted by a federal grand jury in May, 2007, under Sec. 1466A on the U.S. Criminal Code, "Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children."

The law, whose genesis is in the PROTECT Act, was enacted in the wake of Free Speech Coalition's win in the U.S. Supreme Court against certain sections of the Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA) which had criminalized images that "appeared to be," or that were "advertised, promoted, presented, described, or distributed in such a manner that conveys the impression," of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Congress' anger at this ruling led directly to Sec. 1466A, which makes a criminal out of any person who "knowingly produces, distributes, receives, or possesses with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct and is obscene," as well as any person who knowingly possesses such a depiction, even though no actual minors are involved.

The law also criminalized images that are or appear to be of a minor "engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex" that "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value," but in a hearing held on June 24, 2008, U.S. District Judge James E. Gritzner found those latter "crimes" to be unconstitutional. However, the judge allowed the Handley case to proceed on the obscenity charges.

Part of the problem faced by the defense was that the manga style of drawing made it difficult to argue that much of the material in question didn't actually depict minors.

"There is explicit sex in yaoi comics," acknowledged Eric Chase, of the United Defense Group, which was handling Handley's defense. "And the men are drawn in a very androgynous style, which has the effect of making them look really young. There's a real taboo in Japan about showing pubic hair, so they're all drawn without it, which also makes them look young. So what concerned the authorities were the depictions of children in explicit sexual situations that they believed to be obscene. But there are no actual children. It was all very crude images from a comic book."

Failing to prove that the depictions were of adults, and lacking sufficient funds for a proper defense – even though the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) had spend $2,400 on research and pledged up to $15,000 for expert witness expenses – Handley decided to plead guilty to "possessing obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children" and "mailing obscene material." He also agreed to forfeit all of his seized property to the government.

"Naturally, we are very disappointed by this result, but understand that in a criminal case, every defendant must make the decision that they believe serves their best interest," CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein said. "Because the set of facts specific to this case were so unique, we hope that its importance as precedent will be minimal. However, we must also continue to be prepared for the possibility that other cases could arise in the future as a result."

"Mr. Handley now faces the loss of his freedom and his property, all for owning a handful of comic books," Brownstein continued. "It's chilling. The Fund remains unwavering in our commitment to be prepared to manage future threats of this nature wherever they arise. This is the unfortunate conclusion of Mr. Handley's case, but it is not the end of this sort of prosecution."

According to the Justice Department press release, Handley faces "a maximum of 15 years in prison, a maximum fine of $250,000, and a three-year term of supervised release."

Handley's case has long been fodder for discussion on websites devoted to anime.

"Let’s face it everyone, this is a really big deal because he didn’t do anything wrong!" wrote an anonymous poster on Otaku Review. "All of us have something in our anime or manga collection that could be considered ‘obscene’ by someone. Anime and manga artwork have a very vague style that makes age an almost arbitrary device... One panel from one manga where a character that may or may not be under eighteen is flashing her panties at someone. Someone finds that obscene and you're an obscene sex offender doing twenty years because you bought a manga or anime. I don’t know about you but that’s about half my collection right there."

Adult retailers who carry manga may now want to examine their stock more carefully in light of Handley's prosecution, since mere possession of similar material is considered to be a felony.