Friday, May 29, 2009

The Machino Cherry on Handley's Shit Sundae

In my home town of Freedomland, USA, this very image could land me in butt-pounding jail for a decade and a half.

Christopher Handley, the sort of watermark for how the First Amendment doesn't mean shit when hardcore sex is involved, recently plead guilty to distributing and receiving obscenity in the form of imported adult manga. (Shockingly, owning obscene material doesn't seem to be against the law.) He had the CBLDF behind him every step of the way, and was quite literally the first consumer - not a seller - to ever be arrested for reading adult comic books in his own home.

The material that raised a flag to start with seems to have been an unspecified work created by 40 year old professional comic artist MACHINO Henmaru (町野 変丸) , the creator of works like Girls Chaos, UFO, Dog Puppet, and Tokimeki Yumiko-chan Memorial. His work was featured prominently in the traveling "Simple and Flat" exhibit focusing on modern erotic manga art a few years back, which furthers arguments for his work having artistic merit, and by definition would make his work not obscene.

While I'm not personally the biggest fan of his work, I won't refute that the man has a talent in creating equal parts adorable and shocking creations that don't just break the boundaries of normalcy, but literally break the boundary of common sense into absurd, and at times hilarious monstrosities of the human libido... case in point:

Why yes, this sort of imagery is typical for Machino.

Two and a half years after the initial seizure of his massive collection of (primarily non-pornographic) comics, animation videos, and computers containing related images, Handley was finally brought to trial. He plead guilty just last week to charges of 'images of child abuse and bestiality', and now faces up to 15 years imprisonment and a quarter-million dollar fine. The only real upside to this was that the judge handling the case threw out charges relating to the relatively new PROTECT Act, ruling a set of laws intended to protect living children from sexual abuse as unconstitutional when applied to fictitious characters. Thank fuck for small favors, I guess?

As both an American and a fan of manga and anime - never mind my inclination to "obscene" natured material of any stripe - I find this whole scenario appalling. A part of me is incredibly angry that Handley didn't plead "Not Guilty", take all of the help offered to him, and try his best to fight against what's not just an injustice to fans of 2D comic art. Most troubling is that his fairly sizable collection was taken "as evidence", effectively removing the one passionate interest from his life entirely. This isn't at all like the Dwight Whorley case, in which a registered sex offender who collected actual child pornography along with lolicon material - Handley was a regular, not-particularly creepy otaku who had a small sampling of adult material in the mix. Police even found advertisements for the all-ages action series King of Braves GaoGaiGar noting that the show was "for robot fans who never grew up", and tried to present that as code word for the show being child pornorgaphy! I wonder if they'd have confiscated Disney's Pinocchio for the title characters' dream of being a "real boy", too?

Without new precedent ever being established, laws like the PROTECT Act and 1466A - and just as importantly, the outcome of their cases, will never change. As long as these laws exist in the United States good, decent people can get in big trouble for even requesting a fictional drawing that a court, at a later date, may or may not consider illegal in the first place! Handley could have been a very important martyr of sorts, standing up for everyone out there - regular assholes like myself, and you, dear readers - taking a bunch of flack and, just maybe, emerging outside the other end of the hentai gauntlet to prove that America is finally a country mature enough to handle clearly simulated acts of cartoon fantasy.

On the other, I know that the realities of Middle America mean that even if he had fought the good fight, odds are the images found in his package would still have been found "obscene" based on the Miller Test by a jury of his peers, and then he wouldn't be able to plea-bargain his way to a lesser sentence as he's surely doing now. Granted, some of the images might not have been found obscene, but ask yourself how the average person walking down the street would react to this:

If you want more, just google his ass. I'll be here when you get back...

The only time that manga has actually been ruled obscene in the US, to the best of my knowledge at least, is the case of a Texas comic shop clerk who was charged with obscenity for MAEDA Toshio's Urotsukidoji and Demon Beast Invasion. That particular case was actually a smoke screen set up by local officials to take the focus off of a regional periodicals tax, which would include magazines and comic books. When the CBLDF caught wind of this, they presented the information they had on the case, and one of the charges was dropped... unfortunately, Maeda was still found to be obscene, and as I've yet to hear any news of how the appeals went, I can only assume it was "badly".

This was already troubling in that Maeda's work isn't even close to the level of offensive and disturbing content found in authors like SAIZOU Horihone, UZIGA Waita, and even MAURO Suehiro, whom I would personally champion as some of the most talented and transgressive artists of the 20th and 21st century. If Maeda, a man who admits to being freaked right the fuck out by the wave of 'extreme' magazines that followed after his reign in the 1980s, can't stand as an artists who's questionable content has the literary and artistic credibility to be viewed as not obscene, the men I've mentioned above don't even stand a chance. I'm not requesting that everyone like these men, merely that they cast their notions of decency aside and recognize artistic talent when it's presented to them. Clearly, Texas has no concept of art, lest the poor bastard would have been let off for the offensive - but fantastic - work of Maeda Toshio:

Remember that Handley has not lost this case, merely plead guilty. The rules are the same now as they were from 1973 onward, when Deep Throat first hit American theaters and dragged the legality of cinematic pornography kicking and screaming into the public sector: lolita, bestiality, rape, bukkake, scat, snuff, and every other fetish a manga/anime can throw at the viewer is not inherently illegal... but it isn't safe from prosecution under the confines of obscenity, a concept which makes freedom of expression itself null and void.

That's not to say that everything found to be obscene stays that way forever, though; keep in mind that 2 Live Crew's album Nasty As They Wanna Be was deemed obscene in Florida in 1989 (which was overturned in 1992), as well the German film The Tin Drum by Oklahoma City in 1997 (which was overturned in less than a year). Sadly, few people are willing to stand up and fight for cartoons' right to exist, and when people like Handley refuse to even try, it makes me sadder still.

Obscenity is the Joker card in the deck of the Bill of Rights, allowing a court to appoint a judge and jury to decide what art does and doesn't quality as having social or artistic merit. I don't rightly see how any singular community can make that call, and more importantly, why the people who have it (and aren't even showing it off in public) can literally be thrown in prison for it. Obscenity harms no one, except for the poor bastards who are occasionally tried for it. I don't expect it to disappear within my life time, but I certainly hope it will. And not just for my sake, but for the sake of all who think that manga is a harmless and enjoyable passtime.