Sharing the Language of Comics – Charles Brownstein on Manga and Comics Censorship Today

June 15, 2018
By

Charles Brownstein Stands in Front of CBLDF Banner. Photo by Jody Culkin

Photo by Jody Culkin


Last year, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Executive Director, Charles Brownstein, was invited by the Institute for Contents Cultures and Uguisu Ribbon Campaign in Tokyo to speak about the manga and comics communities and the continued importance of fighting on the front lines of free expression.

Brownstein’s presentation discussed the history of comics censorship, and the importance of continued cultural education to decrease challenges to the medium.

Right now, in the West, manga is sometimes misunderstood in a way that leads to calls for censorship. Earlier this year, BBC’s Stacey Dooley ran a highly emotional hit piece targeting manga for censorship because of the output of a small segment of the market. Dooley’s biases may have come from a place of sincere good intention, but she failed to demonstrate an understanding for the nature of the manga market, the comics medium, or Japanese culture. Comics is a language, not a genre. Like all languages, it has the capacity to enable both positive and negative ideas. Biased reports like Dooley’s reinforce incorrect notions that manga and anime culture are a monolith. In the absence of a broader understanding of what the culture really is, voices like hers resound more loudly than they deserve to.

Likewise, CBLDF continues to fight cases in the United States where various law enforcement authorities have broadly equated manga and anime with pornography. We were active in defending a generation of these cases, successfully turning the tide with the case of Ryan Matheson, an American citizen prosecuted for importation of child pornography in Canada as a result of relatively mild manga imagery. We helped secure Ryan’s win, and since then have quietly helped several individuals whose manga collections have formed the basis of police investigations. In the cases that have come to us, we have been largely successful at getting the investigations dismissed before they go to court.

Read the full text below.

For those interested in helping CBLDF continue to increase its reach in the manga community, please consider joining Comic Book Legal Defense Fund now. New members are being offered beautiful signed comics, original manga art, and much more for a limited time.


Thank you very much for your kind and generous attendance this evening. I am humbled that you have braved the typhoon to share this time, and look forward to sharing perspectives with you tonight.

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the gracious generosity of my hosts the Uguisu Ribbon Campaign and the Institute for Contents Cultures who have done so much to protect the culture of free expression for manga here in Japan, and in doing so, have ensured wider expression all over the world. Thank you. If you will, please join me in a round of applause for their efforts.

We have the good fortune to be living in the most fertile creative period in the history of comics. Yes, it’s true that all of us are coping with changes to the economics of publishing. And we acutely feel the fact that there has never been more competition for the attention of our audience, whose options now include virtually every creative work ever made in any medium available at the click of the button. But within those challenges there is also the enormous gift of relatively easy access to the global history of our medium.

A teenager in Chicago, Osaka, Dublin or Seoul may enter comics through One Piece, and follow a thread of interest that leads to Albert Uderzo, Sergio Aragones, and Rumiko Takahashi.

A student in Adelaide, Toronto, or Minneapolis can encounter the memoir Fun Home in her studies, and branch off to the works of Moto Hagio, Posy Simmonds, and Marjane Satrapi.

An executive staying in a Texas hotel may happen upon the film Sin City, follow that movie to the comics that inspired it, and then find his way to Miller’s influences Koike and Kojima, Hugo Pratt, and Johnny Craig.

We live in a time where we have access to the work of nearly all of the medium’s great creators, in their original language, and often in translation. When I was a student with the desire to learn all I could about comics, I heard whispers about the influential work of Osamu Tezuka, Jack Kirby, and Moebius, but to find it was a difficult and expensive quest. Now it is all easily available. What a privilege it is to live in such a climate! And what a gift to future readers and practitioners to have access to comics’ global art history. What a boon to know that new scholars are preserving still more of this work, and that publishers and institutions around the globe are presenting it. In the 20th Century, in many places, the history of comics was a hard-earned secret knowledge, but today it is readily available to all.

This didn’t happen by accident. The reason comics have become so widespread is that they are an important form of free expression. Our authors have something to say that an increasing readership wants to hear!

One of the greatest strengths of the comics medium is that the distance between creator and audience is very short. All that is required to express oneself to an audience in comics is talent, access to inexpensive printing or the Internet, and the courage to make and exhibit the work. This low barrier to entry ensures cultures of innovation in comics, notably the Doujinshi community here in Japan, the small press comics scenes thriving in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, and the vast culture of online comics thriving globally. These cultures empower creators and readers to exchange perspectives with less friction than almost any other art form. They provide a path for novice voices to gain expertise, and grow in skill and stature. The story of the self-published cartoonist who begins their career at Comic Market in Japan or SPX in the USA, and then goes on to create a franchise is becoming an archetype. No other medium provides such a career path. This is unique to comics, and it is worthy of celebration and protection.

In this increasingly visual century, comics have become an important form of literature that is global in scope, universal in appeal, and yet intimate. In their purest form, comics illuminate the emotional landscape in a way that connects viscerally with their audience. Comics thrive on the power of the static image, and our audience’s ability to bring those images to vibrant imaginative life as they read them. Comics connect with a reader’s deepest emotions in a way that can be liberating, inspirational, titillating, illuminating, infuriating, or even cathartic. For those of us who love this form, this characteristic of comics is a gift. To others, however, it is a threat.

The history of comics is marred with crises brought about as a result of moral panic, or the tendency of societies to assign blame to an issue that threatens the social order, frequently through attacking media. Blaming a form of storytelling for real world problems is a simplistic approach that absolves individuals of responsibility for their own behavior, and helps societies avoid confronting the root causes of societal problems.

In the United States, moral panic has led to attacks on movies, video games, music and the Internet, but no medium has suffered so greatly as comics. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the medium was blamed for the increase in juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress held public hearings to investigate this claim in 1954. In the wake of alarmist testimony from so-called expert Frederic Wertham, and bad testimony from publisher Bill Gaines the moral panic against comics led to calls for the government to censor the field if the industry didn’t do it themselves. The result was the Comics Code, which sanitized comics in a way that made them appeal to the youngest children and dimmest minds. Thousands of creators lost their jobs, many publishers went out of business, and most significantly, the field acquired a lasting stigma. Cartoonist Carmine Infantino, who would revitalize American superheroes in this era said, “if you were at a cocktail party and someone asked you what you did, you’d lie about it. To admit you did comics would be like saying you were a child molester.”

In the fifties, American comics went from being a mass medium with a broad range of genres to a disreputable fringe format. In the years that followed, each time the medium worked to appeal to older audiences, law enforcement clamped down. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of creators developed underground comics. These comics spoke openly about sex, drugs, class, race, and other social issues in the context of the youth social movements of the era. They developed in parallel to the gekiga movement here, and were wildly popular among college age adults. These comics attracted the attention of police, who arrested booksellers all over the country for selling them, eventually convicting store clerks in New York City, one of the country’s most intellectually liberal communities. These busts came in an era of moral panic concerning obscenity, where the US Supreme Court created a test to determine what is legally obscene. The combination of the New York conviction, and the obscenity test led to the collapse of the underground comics business. Once again, free expression in comics was flattened.

In the 1980s, American comics rebuilt itself again, creating a new generation of mature expression. In 1986, the field was experiencing a renaissance. Creators were subverting the dominant superhero genre to tell stories of political nuance, notably Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Alternative comics were telling personal stories of rare nuance, including Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which would be the first graphic novel to earn literary legitimacy in the form of a Pulitzer Prize. That was also the year Japanese comics came to our shores in a major way with the founding of Viz, which brought translated manga authors to American audiences.

In late 1986, while investigating places young people congregate, a police officer arrested comic store clerk Michael Correa for selling several adult comic books to an adult undercover police officer. Correa was convicted of selling obscenity. Informed by the struggles of the 1950s and 1970s, the industry this time took action, banding together to raise money for an appeal, charging that the case should be thrown out on the basis of the First Amendment’s guarantee to free expression. That was the beginning of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and that case was our first victory. From that moment, we continued on, becoming an institution dedicated to the protection of the comics community’s First Amendment rights through legal action and education.

Thanks in part to our efforts, the medium was able to mature. In the 1990s and 2000s, we defended dozens of retailers and artists who were facing prosecution because their comics challenged social norms. We won some cases, we lost others, but through it all, we provided some security that an institution existed with the sole purpose of protecting the medium from legal attack. Comics would no longer be set back by these legal interventions – we were at the front line of promoting a culture where comics would be afforded the same rights as other forms of media, such as novels, film, fine art, and television. This movement we were a part of helped American comics to grow, and set the stage for our current era, where comics are at the center of the cultural conversation precisely because they are seen as a serious form of free expression.

Manga was a critical part of this renaissance. In the early 2000s, franchises like Sailor Moon and Pokemon became phenomena among young audiences in the United States. Thanks in part to the strength of these franchises, American manga publishers were able to change the way comics were sold. Manga was able to earn dedicated shelf space in mainstream bookstores across the USA, which helped American publishers develop a wider presence for their work as well. Today, bookstores and libraries across the United States carry a wide range of comics for readers from earliest childhood all the way up through serious literary works for discerning adults. This is in no small part because of the way manga helped prove the salability of the book format for comics.

Where western and Japanese comics have diverged in the United States is that American and European comics are recognized as appealing to readers of all ages, whereas the most popular translated manga still tends to concentrate on material for children and teens. This creates the risk of problems similar to the ones American comics experienced in the twentieth century – why would a kids medium address mature or adult topics? Are the people making these books available trying to hurt our kids?

Western comics overcame those stigmas by developing a wide body of creativity designed to appeal to readers from all walks of life. It wasn’t easy. Publishers had to overcome market resistance and fund the development of those works over time, first selling them primarily to specialty audiences. Factors including the development of popular media adaptations, recognition in the form of literary prizes, and mainstream media coverage of these diverse graphic novels helped change the tide from comic books being seen as low-value speech for kids to their current status as a wide-ranging medium of expression. A member of the United States Congress, the Civil Rights leader John Lewis, recently won the National Book Award for MARCH, his graphic novel memoir about his experience in the movement. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than that!

At the same time as publishers and authors were developing this widening body of content, CBLDF helped combat censorship by creating education about the breadth of comics as a medium. When censorship occurs, we provide resources and counseling about the specific title, and its standing as part of the larger medium.

Cultivating wider awareness, understanding, and appreciation of comics as a multi-faceted artform is useful in preventing censorship. When the commonly held view is that a field is for children, any deviation from that stereotype is cause for concern. When parents and moral guardians understand that there is a comic for every reader, but not all comics are for every reader, the urge towards censorship is often successfully mitigated.

Of course, Japan led the way in developing a body of comics for readers of all walks of life. From the point of view of championing comics and manga as valuable forms of free expression, and from the practical position of mitigating censorship, it would be valuable to see more of the great tradition of Japanese material for adults make their way into the American market. There are stirrings of that occurring. Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband were both notable hits this summer. More American readers know Tezuka through his adult literary works like Phoenix, Buddha, and MW than his material for youth. Creators in the American art comics scene seek out back issues of Garo, while small publishers are producing volumes of work by its alumni Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Oji Suzuki, Tadao Tsuge, Suehiro Maruo, and Seiichi Hayashi. There is also a growing body of interest for pioneering works of female manga-ka, with the recent prestigious American editions of works by Moto Hagio and Shimura Takako.

But, of course, there is so much more than this. With strategic effort, I believe it is possible that the diversity of manga can achieve a substantial audience in the States and elsewhere, which will help reinforce that this is a wide-ranging medium, not merely a childhood and adolescent phenomenon. Based on our experience defending the rights of western comics, developing that popular understanding is essential to fighting broad calls for censorship.

When a medium is misunderstood, it is more likely to be attacked in the courts and in public opinion. In the 1980s through 2007, CBLDF fought cases on behalf of comic book retailers who faced obscenity charges for selling comics designed for adults. After 2007, when our last retail case to date ended, criminal prosecutions of western comics have grown dormant. I attribute this in part to the broader understanding of comics as a wide-ranging art form. Likewise, we no longer see so many news stories calling for ratings or regulation of comics. They do occur, of course, but without the virulence or perceived credibility that they did in the past.

Right now, in the West, manga is sometimes misunderstood in a way that leads to calls for censorship. Earlier this year, BBC’s Stacey Dooley ran a highly emotional hit piece targeting manga for censorship because of the output of a small segment of the market. Dooley’s biases may have come from a place of sincere good intention, but she failed to demonstrate an understanding for the nature of the manga market, the comics medium, or Japanese culture. Comics is a language, not a genre. Like all languages, it has the capacity to enable both positive and negative ideas. Biased reports like Dooley’s reinforce incorrect notions that manga and anime culture are a monolith. In the absence of a broader understanding of what the culture really is, voices like hers resound more loudly than they deserve to.
Likewise, CBLDF continues to fight cases in the United States where various law enforcement authorities have broadly equated manga and anime with pornography. We were active in defending a generation of these cases, successfully turning the tide with the case of Ryan Matheson, an American citizen prosecuted for importation of child pornography in Canada as a result of relatively mild manga imagery. We helped secure Ryan’s win, and since then have quietly helped several individuals whose manga collections have formed the basis of police investigations. In the cases that have come to us, we have been largely successful at getting the investigations dismissed before they go to court.

If our experience with Western comics tells us anything, it is that the most enduring way to fight censorship is to change the cultural understanding of the material facing censorship. To that end, CBLDF actively develops tools to help increase understanding of manga in the USA, although we would like to do more. In publications like our Manga Book Club Handbook; Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices; She Changed Comics, Panel Power, and articles on CBLDF.org, we are providing parents, educators, and librarians with a basis for understanding manga as a wide-ranging medium. In our campaign of lectures at universities, professional conferences, and fan conventions we are actively teaching audiences about the medium and their rights. In our training workshops for retailers, we are helping create strategies for accentuating the positive about the comics medium in a way that helps prevent censorship.

We are most thankful that Viz Media and Fakku! support our work as corporate members, making it possible for us to advance these efforts to promote the positive aspects of manga to thought leaders in education and libraries in the USA. If we had wider support from the manga publishing industry, and if more mangaka were to actively aid our work, we believe we could do much more. We could create more resources, develop campaigns that reach the manga fan community more effectively, and work in meaningful partnership with the industry to establish a more positive understanding of manga as a medium of free expression as important abroad as it is here in Japan. This strategy has been successful in our efforts for Western comics. We believe it would be successful in manga as well.

Of course, the work of fighting censorship does not end, it merely goes into periods of remission, or shifts focus. While in the USA, we currently are enjoying a period without legal attacks on retailers selling comics, there are other forms of censorship that we are actively combating. Schools and libraries are the main battleground in the current comics censorship environment.

As comics have become more popular, more academic institutions have introduced them into their curricula, and more libraries strive to serve their patrons’ desire for the material. The increased appetite for comics is leading to increased attempts to censor comics in those environments. Unlike the cases where law enforcement was threatening retailers with jail for selling comics, the new generation of cases are administrative. They interact with principles of First Amendment law that affects policy in public institutions, but they are resolved in administrative settings, not courtrooms. These new cases threaten the careers of librarians and educators, and deprive individuals of access to the information they want or need.
In recent years, comics have been among the most frequently challenged and banned books in the United States. The American Library Association defines a challenge as an attempt to remove a book, and a ban as a change in the book’s access status or availability. Last year the two most frequently banned books in the United States were comics, and most shockingly, they were comics for children and teens by bestselling mainstream authors that won prestigious awards for these works. This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki was the most frequently banned comic, challenged because of its frank discussions of sexuality, even though the book contains no nudity or sexual depiction. Drama by Raina Telgemeier was the second most frequently banned book. This book about middle school drama club kids was challenged for the mere presence of a gay character. CBLDF helped defend several challenges to these books.

These aren’t the only books CBLDF has helped defend. Earlier this year we successfully defended Sword Art Online from a challenge alleging that it and other manga were inappropriate for use in a middle school library. Other manga have experienced challenges, including Dragon Ball, Death Note, and Vampire Knight.

When a book is challenged in a school or library, we work directly with the affected employee or supervisor, providing counseling, defensive resources, and letters of support. We are sponsors of the Kids Right to Read Project, a coalition of the National Coalition Against Censorship, CBLDF, American Booksellers Association, and Association of American Publishers that exists to assist in these cases. We also make affirmative educational resources to help encourage comics reading, provide tool kits to help protect challenged materials, and offer other education.

We understand and respect that parents should have the right to determine what their children read at home. However, we object when parents attempt to make those decisions for other people’s children, or to override the professional judgment of educators and librarians whose job is to serve their communities. This work is important.

People like to learn what books are banned and challenged because it’s fun to read forbidden things. But what is often lost are the people hurt by book censorship: the professional educator or librarian trying to serve their community and facing loss of status or employment, and the community member losing access to information. This is especially heartbreaking in the case of children who don’t have the economic power to buy their own books, and who often need the information in these books to help them understand issues. How awful it must be for a child to have a book taken away in this manner. To be told, in effect, this book is bad, and therefore so are you. CBLDF will always strive to protect those people, and to protect the rights of authors and readers to engage with each other through their creative work.

While we are not currently experiencing as many legal threats to comics as we did in the past, this is not a time for complacence when it comes to protecting free expression. Indeed, in the United States, and in many places around the world, social attitudes and government postures towards free expression are changing in troubling ways. In some circles, free speech absolutism is seen as a negative orientation.

The United States is experiencing a time of turmoil related to the severity of our political divisions. The election of Donald Trump has emboldened many fringe voices in our society to more forcefully and openly articulate racist and sexist views, testing our cultural tolerance towards the absolute right to free speech. At the same time, the president himself actively undermines the institution of a free press with frequent threats, attacks, and false statements that defy many long held norms. Social media provides platforms where hostility towards certain views can be aired with speed, volume, and vitriol for topics both significant and frivolous. Such social media campaigns have led to publishers pulling book contracts, authors withdrawing work for publication, and the intimidation of authors and journalists.
All of these conditions are, however, part of free expression. In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees that the government has no right to impose regulation upon the right to freely worship, speak, publish, assemble, and petition. This applies as much to wholesome and sympathetic speech as it does to hateful and abhorrent speech. The First Amendment, and the absolute right to free expression, guarantee the right to compete in the marketplace of ideas. That marketplace can regulate itself in many ways. In some cases, it’s the terms of service imposed by providers like YouTube, Facebook, Deviant Art, Patreon, Amazon or Apple. In others it’s counter-protests or social media hurricanes condemning atavistic speakers and ideologies. In the best case, in my opinion, is through reasoned and informed discussion. Ultimately, the most valuable way to contend with objectionable speech is with speech, not with censorship, and certainly not with violence, threats and murder.

I’m an optimist about these things, although my inclination is to express the need for reason, maturity, empathy and understanding. I also think that it’s easy to get caught up in the negative and to miss out on the good. The good news is that we are in a time of unprecedented free expression, with incredible technology that allows for anyone to express themselves. This vast technology allows underrepresented voices to be heard, and enables us to experience more views of the world than ever before.

I think comics will be central to this continuing drive towards greater expression. The immediacy of the comics language allows its authors to connect with audiences with intimacy and impact. The accessibility of our form, and the low barriers to publication allow new voices to emerge, and new ideas to find audiences effectively. And our increasingly visual culture rewards the visual nature of comics. Taking these things together, I believe comics has the potential to become the great, global literary form of the 21st Century.

Ours is a wonderful medium of expression. Let’s work together to preserve its
history, expand its horizons, broaden its audience, and develop a future for the practitioners and readers yet to be born. This is a magnificent form of expression, and we’re only at the start of what’s possible.
Thank you for your kind attention!


Support CBLDF in the fight for free speech – join today! New members are being offered beautiful signed comics, original manga art, and much more for a limited time.

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