Comic Book Obscenity Laws; or, the Case of Brandon X

What do you use to read when you’re traveling? Do you pack up magazines and books or go all digital on your laptop or eReader? Do you ever stop at a shop in the bus station, airport, or train station and pick up a comic to read? An act as benign as carrying a comic book at an international border can be enough to get you in some serious legal trouble.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) had a table set up in the main hallway of the MangaNEXT convention. They had stacks of raffle tickets, artwork, pins, and pamphlets to raise awareness and raise money for this very issue. I spent a little bit of time talking to the workers at the table throughout the weekend to find out what was happening.

Brandon X, as he’s being called, is facing serious legal trouble in Canada over comics. Specifically, he had a collection of manga on his laptop. Customs officials in Canada asked to see his cellphone, iPad, and laptop. It is within their rights and jurisdiction to search electronic media at customs. When the customs official saw the wide-eyed child-like style of manga, they interpreted it as child pornography. The CBLDF is not releasing the names of the titles in question, but they plainly state that these were not pornographic titles.

Manga is not a crime
The logo for the CBLDF's work on the Brandon X case
Now, Brandon X faces a minimum sentence of one year in prison and having to register as a sex offender for having manga on his laptop. Let that sink in for a minute. A twenty-something guy could have a black mark follow him the rest of his life because a customs official wasn’t familiar with manga art. I can only hope that the trial makes it quite clear how absurd the charges are and Brandon X gets out unscathed.

There are a few takeaways from this incident. One, it is not isolated. Comic artists Tom Neely and Dylan Williams had books they were carrying over the US/Canadian border confiscated last May due to allegedly obscene material. One book featured two first year art students kissing–they looked too much like children–and the other book featured dark humor bordering on horror used as satire–naughty things with corpses. The books were seized and shipped to Ottawa to be examined for an official ruling on whether or not books already published in Canada were obscene material.

The second point is the nature of obscene material. It’s not enough at the US/Canadian border to explain how the wide-eyed characters of traditional manga art are not children. You have to prove, in context, the age of the characters. If they do anything even remotely romantic in nature (like kissing, as Neely and Williams learned), you will face problems caused by the allegedly obscene content. It’s not just child-like characters that can raise eyes of customs agents. Anything that can be deemed obscene–violence, sex, depravity of any kind–can result in legal problems.

The third point is a major one. Until last weekend, I had no idea this happened. Comics are comics, book are books, and so long as they’re published legally, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? Obviously, I was wrong.

Initiation of sarah
Is this image from The Initial of Sarah obscene because of the lack of context?
I took a look through my own laptop while working on this piece. In my screengrab folder alone (where I keep all images for online media writing), I found a picture of Homer Simpson tarred and feathered in his underwear, a handful of images featuring the young leads of Super 8 in tight quarters, a composite image of Nicki Minaj that looks childish on one side and overtly sexual on the other, and an entire folder of images of the animated opening sequence of The Happiness of the Katakuris in full eyeball ripping glory. How much of the content on my computer would be deemed obscene when I travel with my work?

What about the volumes on extreme horror and B-movie advertising that accompany me on all but weekend excursions? Are those obscene too? What about the webcomics in my bookmark folder or the archives of my own comic work? Some of those characters look like children even when they aren’t. Would I be facing obscenity charges if I crossed over into Canada today?

What we have with the story of Brandon X are two ways to help change this situation. First, you can give everyone you know a heads up about this issue. Share the CBLDF site, this post, or any information you find on issues of content censorship gone haywire. Knowledge is power and this subject is under-represented all over the place.

Second, you can consider joining to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The money won’t just be going to Brandon X’s trial costs. It’s used for all aspects of their work. The goals of the CBLDF are to fight censorship and raise awareness of censorship issues facing comic creators and fans alike. The funds are split between legal and educational efforts. Memberships start at $25. You can also donate directly to the CBLDF for a minimum of $5 or purchase donated items from artists and writers in their shop.

The case of Brandon X is not an isolated incident. Unless we work to raise awareness of censorship issues and fight against genre bias, he won’t be the last person to get in trouble for owning a comic book.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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