By now, most of you have heard about the case of Christopher Handley. Arrested in 2006, he was eventually charged with possessing manga that was deemed obscene and against societal norms. After the CBLDF got involved and a couple of charges were dropped, it looked like Handley might have been able to fight the charges but instead he pled guilty to the charges in May 2009 and began waiting for his sentencing hearing. Finally after months of waiting, the sentence has been passed down: six months in prison, three years of supervised release, five years probation (which will be served concurrently) and a $200 fine (which by the way, really? You don’t think fining him $200 on top his prison time was just being mean?). The supervised release will include psychological testing, a polygraph test and treatment which the prosecutor believes will help to identify just what kind of sexual deviant Handley actually is and what kinds of mental health issues he may have. On the plus side, he will not have to register as a sexual offender.
Since this story first broke many months ago, I’ve tried to follow the information as closely as possible. When the sentence was passed down late last week, I wanted to write an update but could never find the time to properly devote to the story. I know that I’m just a tiny blog in the cosmos of the internet but still, this is not a subject I could just write a short summary about and move on. Finally I was recently able to sit down and read the court documents relating to the case. While I couldn’t find the statement from the defense, I have read the prosecution’s sentencing recommendation cover to cover and now I’m completely removing my unbiased quasi journalist hat here. This is me ranting and taking a side.
From the very beginning, there has always been an annoying fog of obscurity around this case. With these documents finally being released to the public, a few things have finally become abundantly obvious. While it was nice to see that there was no interest in prosecuting moe (If a drawing did not clearly depict a minor, and could arguably be of a person 18 or older, the government gave the defendant the benefit of any doubt…a multitude of images in Mr. Handley’s collection that depicted the sexual abuse of quasi-human minors, with characteristics and features of real and mythological beings.); it’s easy to see why Handley might not have wanted to take this case to a full jury trial and why no one else may ever either: even if someone managed to walk out of a courtroom with a winning verdict, the cost of that victory could be high.
Reading the sentencing recommendation written by US Attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt, it is clear that Handley was being painted as a sick, sexual deviant who just needed a time, place and opportunity to be transformed into a child predator. To go to trial and face a jury of peers, Handley would have sat there and watched his character and name drug through the dirt. No matter what kind of witness line up or defense the CBLDF brought up, Handley would have to watch his personal life completely pulled apart.
Still, the sentence has passed and a precedent is now in place. When discussing this subject with others, a comment argument that I heard was that the case was largely someone being punished for reading a comic book. Quoting Klinefeldt once again…
“Some may argue that the crime at issue is not serious because no real children were involved. Such a viewpoint is short-sighted because it gives little weight to the nature of obscenity crimes, in general, and to the specific images involved in this case. A picture, proverbially, paints a thousand words, and there is no doubt that comic books, graphic novels, and works of manga and anime have a powerful ability to communicate through their use of dramatic imagery. Since the 1960s, the genre of comic books has been transformed from a target market of younger customers to a broad, word-wide market aimed at older, more mature consumers. The ground-breaking graphic novel, “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was even named by Time magazine of one of its top 100 novels of the 20th century. The power of the illustrated story should not be short-changed.”
This was the first point made by the defense that had me bothered. For years, fans have wanted comics, manga, graphic novels, anime, etc to be given attention and respect as art. Well there we have it… only instead we’re getting lolicon manga compared to Watchmen. Fans can’t have it both ways but I have to ask, can you truly argue that Mikansei Seifuku Shōjo (Unfinished School Girl) and Watchmen can be compared in any fashion? Are the areas between critically praised works and the erotic material imported by Handley that much of a grey area that they can even be compared?
There are many things that are obscene about this case; in the eyes of some it starts with the evidence and ends with the defendant. In my eyes, the obscenity of this case and sentence extend much further than that. When I thought that the case was merely over owning manga that local officials had deemed ‘obscene’ I was angry. A man was being forced to answer for and defend his choice of entertainment; in this case it happened to be dirty manga with explicit themes. No person in this country should have to defend his choice of fictional material to others. No matter the idea or theme, you cannot pick and choose what you want others to be able to see in the privacy of their own homes.
This week, author Neil Gaiman shared his thoughts on the case and why Handley and his collection deserved to be defended, “If you accept — and I do — that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said. The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don’t. This is how the Law is made.”
The real obscenity is what you find when you go one step further however. While Handley was charged and tried for what he owned: he’s being punished for what he thought. Handley purchased these items and admitted that he enjoyed them for their sexual themes. Because he owned explicit materials and had thoughts relating to the themes within, he is being punished with prison time and psychological evaluation. Have we as a society, really grown so protective of ourselves that we going to punish another individual because we didn’t like the thoughts that went through his head?
It’s ridiculous to think that from here on out anyone who imports particularly explicit manga will be hunted and tried in public as deviant heathens. It is not ridiculous however to think that sometime down the road, this case will be referenced. Someone in this country is going to import something that someone else has found to be against what they decide is a ‘societal norm’, a DA with a chip on his shoulder and an election to win will make the case and a victory for the side of common sense will be that much harder to obtain.
There are too many times in life when the few start to speak over the many. In this case, well meaning but wrong individuals have decided for themselves that anyone who owns explicit art that someone else doesn’t like can be accused of being deviant and a danger to society. And that’s not where I want to live.