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My Autobiography Is Now Illegal

I'm going to tell you a story. Bear with me a moment, O best beloved. I promise I'm going somewhere with it, and probably not quite where you'd expect.

When I was fifteen years old, I lost my virginity. I have never once regretted this, and far from the life of pregnancy, promiscuity, degradation and low self-esteem that I was threatened with (mostly after the fact) I seem to have done okay, which fact I lay primarily at the feet of a really fabulous sex ed program.

It didn't hurt at all, although it was awkward as hell. It was not a sexy experience. We were not sexy people. We looked like coathangers with acne. I was as flat as a board, my hair was regrettable, and the only reason anyone would put lingerie on me was if they were planning on ironing it. After several abortive attempts to do the deed, we finally managed it in his parent's guest bedroom, while they were at work, during which time A) his very large dog kept trying to jump on the bed to see what was going on, B) his performance anxiety got the better of him. Twice. and C) he was so scared that his parents would find out that when the phone rang mid-coitus, he actually answered it, spent ten minutes attempting to act normal to a caller from Science Museum who was trying to renew the family membership, and by the time he got back to the business at hand, the performance anxiety problem had fatally reoccurred, a situation not at all helped by the fact that I'd begun laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all.

This was not erotic. Me telling it to you is not erotic. At best it's funny and stupid and a bit sad, and if I took the time to polish it and work the narrative and fine-tune the phrasing, I could probably aspire to poignancy. Still, it's my life--my stupid idiotic wonderful life--and every word I have written is entirely true and I would change no part of it because I would not be other than as I am.

If I made a comic out of it, not only could I go to jail for child pornography, but you, O best beloved, could be in the cell next to me for owning it.

(See, I told you it probably wasn't going where you were expecting.)

Ganked from Neil Gaiman's blog today:

The CBLDF is currently in the very weird position of having to defend a reader of comic books, because his yaoi collection looked like child porn to the postal inspector.


No photos. Manga. And we all know the manga style, and there's a real taboo against pubic hair in a lot of Japanese comics, and the end result is that because they're drawings of explicit sex and OH GOD ANIME STYLE, somebody got their panties in a wad.

Now, like everybody else with two brain cells to rub together, my response to child pornography is OH GOD NO NO NO KILL IT KILL IT WITH FIRE. But when we start to talk about art featuring such things I get the feeling of straddling two very slippery slopes, and while it's pretty easy to see where the bottom of the child pornography slope leads -- KILL IT WITH FIRE BRING THE GRENADES -- I get the feeling with this case that we're staring down at the bottom of the other slope. And it's bad.

Really bad. Very, very, very bad.

If a comic book artist draws something sexual that looks like the participants might be under eighteen--or where they ARE under eighteen, as witness my autobiography--that's apparently child porn.

And these guys are actually prosecuting it as such.

My outrage is late to the party, but better than never showing up at all, I suppose. I was willing to sit on my hands when they promised that they were just going after the really freaky stuff at the far end of the spectrum--I mean, I felt a sort of twitchy "this is daaaaangerous" voice in the back of my skull, but it ran into the KILL IT WITH FIRE screaming and was doused. But you start going after yaoi manga and even though it is desperately far from my tastes, that little voice starts chanting "First they came for the homosexuals, and I didn't speak up..." I mean, dude. I know people who LOVE yaoi--normal, sane, awesome people, the vast majority of them perfectly cool heterosexual women. These are not people who should be prosecuted for sex crimes in any world that I recognize.

(Seriously, do these obscenity people know about "Love is..."?)

I'm a comic book artist. Comics provide me with the better part of my living. If I drew the love scene from Romeo & Juliet, I could get hauled up before a jury. Okay, that's Shakespeare, I'm guessing it would fall under having redeeming artistic merit...but what about my LIFE? Sure, I think it'd have artistic merit, but I sure as hell don't want to be having to defend that to a jury in rural North Carolina, where the BEST case scenario is that I'd wind up innocent and dead broke to say nothing of the destruction to my reputation, and if they happened not to agree that I'm the artist I think I am, I could end up on a sex offender list.

For doing a comic about my life.

And if you, O best beloved, who have listened to me so faithfully, who like my work despite it all, and bought "My Life And Dumb Luck: An Autobiography"*--you'll be there in the cell next to me.

That's what this is about. I was already kinda screwed, but this is the first case I've heard of of somebody getting screwed merely for owning comics that somebody thinks looks inappropriate. (Shit, dude, it's manga. I mean...I mean...DUDE. MANGA. I realize that's not a coherent argument, but all I'm managing here is a lot of meaningless hand gestures and that thing where you open and close your mouth and splutter a bit.) 

I like you guys. I'm sure you'd be excellent company in the cell, but I'd much rather have coffee and skip the whole jail thing.

So the long and short of this is that the government has decided that it's illegal for me--a comic book artist--to do a comic about my life. My teen years are now off-limits to me as an artist. (God help you if you actually sexually abused as a child and wish to do something hard and grim and brutal about it. Maybe they can slip you an Eisner with a file in it.) And not just like "sort of illegal but c'mon, we're never going to do anything about it," illegal, but "we are going to try to get precedent to nail your ass to the wall for even OWNING a copy" illegal. (And while this section of my hypothetical autobiography would probably not be particularly explicit by my standards or yours, I REALLY don't want to have my artistic future dependant on what the postal inspector thinks is appropriate.)

I was willing to go with the law, as part of the greater good, on the principle that surely nobody would ever go after anything that wasn't completely freaky-wrong-kill-it-with-fire no-question-in-anybody's-mind child porn, but this just goes to show, yet again, that if you give some people an inch, they'll take a goddamn yardstick and try to shove it up your ass.

Seriously. What the hell?

So anyway, that's my outrage. Go buy a membership in the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund or something, and may the art gods have mercy on all our souls.

*Alternate title: "This Reminds Me Of Labyrinth: The Ursula Vernon Story."

Full press release from the CBLDF

NOTE: Discuss this in the comments all you want, but BE NICE. If somebody disagrees with you, it is not okay to call them a pedophile apologist. We tend to be incredibly civil in the comments here, and I am super proud of how y'all handled the election discussions, but this particular topic tends to get ugly as hell. Please proceed from the assumption that nobody here thinks it's okay to sexually exploit children.

A comment unrelated to the point of your post:

I enjoy it when address us as (O) your best beloved. I like it both as an expression of the relationship that exists and also as a convention.

*grin* With apologies to Rudyard Kipling...

I think all this is sad and disturbing. The cases where teens are arrested for their consensual and romantic acts with other teens go back at least a decade to when I was in high school - we were aware of them and discussed them when I was in high school in the mid-90s.

Community decency standards change and move in bizarre ways over time - for instance, for a long time it was illegal to mail birth control - the ability to get your prescription of birth control through the mail is a hard fought battle. Deciding whether James Joyce's Ulysses was obscene went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court (the judge's ruling decided that the sex scenes in Ulysses were more likely to make you want to vomit than to turn you on, and let it in). Feminists fought and were jailed for the right to distribute information about family planning, and even then for a long time it had to be described as information for married couples only.

I hope the poor man wins his case, but it's a rough time on these issues psychologically.

Hey. You should have been a sweden. In Sweden when you have had your 15th birthday your legal. Yeah, you can have sex all you want. *nods*

Card-carrying member of the CBLDF here. I second Ursula's call to join. It's a good organization that does good work, and needs all of the help it can get. Think of it as a targeted ACLU.

Also: the CBLDF Hellboy shirt is totally awesome. I actually get stopped on the street by random people complimenting me on the shirt, and I'm hardly a clothes horse.

So wait... it's child porn if it's in a comic book, but not if it's on Gossip Girl or Skins? Or some movie depicting the sexual abuse of a child? So it's okay to show teenagers getting it on with legal adults on TV, but it's not okay to show two consenting adults who merely look childlike getting it on in print? Well I'm sorry, but if you're gonna run a witch-hunt over my comics then I insist on there also being a witch-hunt over the Preps' favorite shows and the Biddy League's daily soaps.

This is all just so ridiculous.

One thing I wanted to share, which hopefully will not delve into the TMI relm.

One of my older male relatives was sexually attracted to young girls. And not the 16-17 technically illegal but the under 10 years old kind.

He died of lung cancer from smoking constantly all his life. (his wife died peacefully of a subdural hematoma a few years before)

When cleaning out their house, my father and I discovered a photo album that was liberally sprinkled with nude and nearly nude pictures of myself and other female relatives as small children. In the bathtub, running through sprinklers in summer, the usual things you get when no one thinks it's wrong to let the kids romp around with the gardenhose in their pampers.

I threw the pictures away and it took me a long time to feel clean. But at the same time, if you didn't KNOW he was a pedophile, you could easily look at those pictures and think it was the typical cute-but-embarrassing naked baby pictures that relatives take. There are probably a huge number of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who have pictures of baby's first bath that are not excited sexually by it. This sick fuck was.

So my question, would it really be fair to make it illegal for all of them to photograph their children at all until they're 18 because a few sick perverts might find it sexy?

To me, saying yaoi manga is linked to pedophilia is far more of a stretch than baby's-first-bath pictures.

Or, to give a better example of the yaoi=child porn... a man breaks into Buckingham Palace and bursts into room where the royal family is having tea, and ejaculates into the teapot. Tea-related pornography is declared illegal, and Ursula is arrested for the tiny tea card she made.

a tale like this always brings to mind the hassles that Hanna-Barbera had in bringing characters like Yogi Bear to life. When they first drew them, the powers that be loved it, but said they would never allow a "naked bear" to be on their networks, so Hanna-Barbera drew a bowtie on Yogi. Lo and behold, no longer a naked bear. But the bowtie was the ONLY article of clothing. Still naked from the neck down, but it satisfied the network weenies. I have one of the original animation cels of Yogi, without the bowtie, and it's always funny how people see it and the first thing they say is "I never noticed that Yogi was naked before".

Doesn't have much to do with Child Porn, as such

The case is based on obscenity laws, not child porn laws (the latter are stronger and are unconstitutional as applied to anything other than photographs of actual people).

Obscenity laws in the US are kind of odd, as they can only outlaw "obscene" materials that don't qualify for first amendment protection; the relevant constitutional case is Miller v California (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California):

  • the average person, applying contemporary community standards (not national standards, as some prior tests required), must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

  • the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law; and

  • the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

It's an odd test; It's obviously trying to strike a balancing act but I'm not sure how much I like it. However, pretending Sandman could be ruled obscene (as Neil mentions in the MTV article) is kind of ridiculous; the prosecutor would be laughed out of court. So the danger of the case is a little overstated, possibly because child porn laws (that are limited to photographs of real kids) don't have to pass Miller.

One thing the test certainly has to deal with is that the Internet has shot the "Community Standards" plank into little tiny pieces. We don't have a definition of what "community standards" are as applied to the net; the Supreme Court is going to have to revisit Miller one of these days.

When you do your autobiographical comic, leave a few pages blank in the appropriate place, except for a tag at the end that says 'I lost my virginity at fifteen, but I can't show it because that would make me a Child Pornographer.'

...on second thought, the irony would probably escape a lot of people.

... and what if he owned a copy of Lost Girls?

My teen years are now off-limits to me as an artist. (God help you if you actually [were] sexually abused as a child and wish to do something hard and grim and brutal about it. Maybe they can slip you an Eisner with a file in it.)

Oh, that would imply it would win an Eisner.

Also: Goddammit, how many countries is this going to happen in?

Edited at 2008-11-27 04:24 am (UTC)


At least the US protects political speech: you can, largely, lobby to change laws.
This post is child pornography by Canadian standards.

I'm coming late to the party, but I didn't see this mentioned:

Phoebe Gloeckner is a comics artist who focuses on autobiographical subjects, though the actual stories are fictionalized/sensationalized. A Child's Life in particular deals with an abusive child/adult relationship.

Now there was a scandal and a small-scale banning when a kid checked it out from a public library (It was shelved in the children's section) but she's still getting published -- there's no censorship bureau with such silly ideas yet at least.

Art & censorship don't mix

I came across your work on Elfwood and read the better part of one of your stories. "OMG, she illustrates and writes...both beautifully." So, of course, I had to check out your blog, and seeing you opine upon an issue near and dear to my heart, now I have no choice but to comment. The thing is, I'm way in the extreme when it comes to freedom of speech. I don't think that government should be getting in the way of art. Even bleeping out words on television is a defacement of art, imho. Having said that, I think that not only are we on a slippery slope but that we're quickly sliding down it, and where we'll end up as a result is difficult for me to imagine. Human beings are animals, intelligent animals...spiritual animals...but, ultimately, animals. Eventually, I think, we may become like your garbage dragon (http://ursula.elfwood.com/garbagedragon.jpg.html), a once proud race full of possibilities and contradictions but reduced to a state of utter dependence and enslavement to our baser instincts...a state that we'd, with our current sensibilities, probably consider to be one of abject depravity. Just like every society before us, we continually give more and more rope to our inner demons until we end up hanging ourselves, and whether or not that happens this time remains to be seen, but it doesn't take a genius to see that America certainly isn't in the best shape ever. Nonetheless, I think we should push the envelope as much as we can. I think that, for instance, you should write a comic about this scene from your youth if it is your inclination to do so, and if the art-nazis show up, fight 'em off, and do it with style and zeal and good humor (all of which you have in abundance). As far as we know, we only live once, so make it count, and if you go down in flames, at least you had the courage to follow your heart. That is an artist's duty, after all.