Remember that terrible Brandon X situation I wrote about last year? An American man, crossing the border into Canada, was charged with child pornography for having manga images on his computer. Though the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund could not say exactly what the manga was, they reassured me earlier this year that the images were nowhere near the more shockingly and offensive content published for niche audiences in Japan. It was a case of cultural misunderstanding (really, ignorance) and they were confident they would win.
Their confidence was well-placed. All charges against Brandon X were dropped a few months ago. Now, Brandon X and the CBLDF are speaking out about what exactly happened when he crossed the border two years ago.
Ryan Matheson appeared with CBLDF chair Charles Brownstein to discuss the case at NYCC on Sunday. After a fast but thorough look at landmark cases in comic book/manga obscenity charges, Ryan was brought to talk about his ordeal.
The first key piece of information brought up for the first time was why Ryan was going to Canada. We knew he was visiting a friend. We didn’t know that he gave Customs a reason to search his computer by saying he was meeting with someone he met online. If you’re business is based off the Internet and you reveal that, your electronic devices will be searched.
Nothing might have happened if Ryan had a different wallpaper on his desktop. His background was anime art of a female character in summer clothes. She wasn’t nude or scantily clad; the Customs agent just had no idea what he was looking at.
Neither did his partner. Or his supervisor. Or the police.
None of the people Ryan had the misfortune of dealing with was familiar with the wide eyed stare of your typical anime or manga character. This lack of knowledge led to a week of being held in various cells until he was charged with obscenity and child pornography.
The big piece of information revealed at the panel was how much material on a laptop filled with images was deemed obscene or pornographic: two. The more significant charges came from one drawing.
The drawing is a parody of a well-known piece of Japanese art called “The 48 Positions.” The original version depicts 48 ways of winning a sumo match. This had been parodied countless times with sex positions. Ryan Matheson had a version called “The 48 Positions: Moe Style.”
Moe style is a slang term basically referring to a specific style of cute character. Chibi is a similar concept. Moe characters have tall eyes, large heads, short bodies, flat faces, and bangs. Think Sailor Moon. It does not mean that the character is a child. It just means that the character is drawn with a protected sense of innocence that is meant to be cherished.
Now imagine how people who didn’t even recognize traditional mainstream anime artwork would react to Moe characters in sexual positions.
The other image is perhaps even more damning to charges of child pornography or obscenity. It was a fan-made comic of two clearly non-human characters. It was a fantasy comic, too. There are pornographic manga, but neither image in the case was a real sample of that.
If Ryan Matheson’s case went to trial, it would have lasted seven days for two images. Why? The overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the defendant. The prosecution’s case was based on impressions of images with no cultural context. The defense’s case was based on expert testimony explaining that cultural context, including why characters that look like children in duress in manga and anime are usually adults drawn to reflect their emotional and psychological state. The prosecution had no choice but to drop the charges.
Ryan Matheson is very brave to go public with his story. I believe that the CBLDF would have kept his identity secret if he didn’t want to be associated at all with two years of hell any longer. It is commendable that he is willing to come forward and be the face of manga censorship in North America. His story and the legal work of his attorney, the CBLDF, and the Canadian Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund should be able to help people avoid and beat similar charges for years to come.