‘Lost Girls’ Cleared by British Customs Despite Law Banning Sexual Imagery [Exclusive]
This week is Banned Book Week in America, and while we've heard a lot of stories recently about the media being cowed by their pervasive fear of the word "Mohammed" and over-protective parents demanding that the dictionary be banned from their school's library, it's nice to be able to celebrate at least one story in 2010 about free speech winning the day.
After the British importation of the Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie graphic novel "Lost Girls" was recently halted due to the passage of a law criminalizing ownership of sexual images of people under 18 -- including drawings -- the book has finally cleared customs despite the law and can once more be legally distributed within the country, as Top Shelf Publisher Chris Staros told ComicsAlliance exclusively.A sexually explicit tale of three female characters from literary history -- Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy of Oz, and Wendy of Peter Pan -- that recast their stories through the lens of sexual awakening, "Lost Girls" was intended to help redeem the genre of pornography, as Moore in an interview with Science Fiction Weekly:
Certainly it seemed to us [Moore and Gebbie] that sex, as a genre, was woefully under-represented in literature. Every other field of human experience-even rarefied ones like detective, spaceman or cowboy-have got whole genres dedicated to them. Whereas the only genre in which sex can be discussed is a disreputable, seamy, under-the-counter genre with absolutely no standards: [the pornography industry]-which is a kind of Bollywood for hip, sleazy ugliness.
There had been much concern in comics circles that the book would be criminalized under Britain's Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which went into effect in April 2010, extending a previous law that had outlawed images of underage sex that derived from photographs, like tracings, or photo-realistic images. Now, the law extends to any image in any medium, reminiscent of the PROTECT Act in the United States that recently sent a man to prison for 6 months for owning lolicon manga.
Comic book artists in Britain formed the Comic Book Alliance -- whose supporters included Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot -- to help defend artistic erotica against the law, which many feared would make ordinary comic book fans into sex offenders and outlaw works like "Lost Girls," which was often referenced as an example. As one dissenting MP, Jenny Willott, said at the time, "The problem I have is that the definition of what constitutes an image and a child is incredibly broad," she said. "The Government considers almost anything to be an image, from a painting to a private scribble on a piece of paper. At the same time they have defined a child as something that looks like a child even if it isn't."
This isn't the first time "Lost Girls" has faced issues with export to other countries since its publication in 2006; due to the disputed copyright status of Peter Pan and related characters who make appearances in the graphic novel, Top Shelf agreed not to import the book into the U.K. until 2007, when the copyright had lapsed. Following that, Staros says he approached British customs formally, rather than importing the book and seeing whether or not they banned it. While they never received a formal ruling, Top Shelf began importing the book after a temporary ruling from customs that deemed the book acceptable:
Unfortunately we have as yet not received a formal written response from our policy specialists dealing in the area of indecent and obscene material. However, I have been informally advised that the prohibitions and restrictions team, having viewed the material in its entirety, do not consider that the contents would fall foul of the department's interpretation of the terms obscene and indecent. Therefore the publication in question would be released.
Staros also approached Canadian customs in 2006 because of concerns that customs policies regarding obscenity and child pornography would prohibit the book. Despite "Lost Girls" containing content that might normally result in the banning of a book by Canadian customs, Staros ultimately received a letter that not only cleared "Lost Girls" for importation into Canada but spoke very highly of the book's artistic merit:
Later, when the book's legality in the United Kingdom came into question again under the stricter laws in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, Staros approached British customs once again, and provided them with lists of the coverage from magazines, radio stations, and other sources that supported the literary merit of the book. These tactics seem to have worked, as Staros recently received the following e-mail from a British customs agent:
CUSTOMS, INTERNATIONAL TRADE & EXCISE ENQUIRIES
Date 21 September 2010
Our Ref IT10-67006 www.hmrc.gov.uk
Subject: Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
Further to your enquiry regarding the admissibility of this book.
My colleague at the UKBA Policy team for prohibitions and restrictions on
indecent and obscene material is of the opinion that as this book is already
freely available to purchase from various legitimate sources in the UK its
importation would not be prohibited.
I hope this information is useful.
Unlike the Canadian customs letter, the e-mail from British customs focuses on the book's acceptance by reputable retailers, rather than making its own judgment about the content and merit. "The British customs ruling really sort of sidestepped the issue and dealt more with the fact that it's already available through so many legitimate channels," said Staros. "Maybe they realized that a book like this wasn't the intent of the law from a prosecutorial point of view, or that it wasn't the first case they wanted to deal with in a challenge. I don't know."
The recent halting of the book's import into the United Kindom took place without any public announcement or fanfare, as Staros says he prefers "not to make a big stink about things while the formal process is underway... We have fought a lot of battles on the book quietly and respectfully because we believe that the people who oppose the book are due respect, and we want to deal with them on a professional level." If one of the governments had ever reached the decision to ban the book, however "then we probably would have gotten loud."
"Lost Girls" creator Alan Moore was very supportive of Top Shelf in challenging the rules, said Staros. "Obviously Alan is of the same opinion as us that books should not be banned in any shape or form, and Lost Girls as well." And while "Lost Girls" has ultimately been very successful in clearing some major hurdles, Staros expressed a larger concern about the way these laws limit speech:
When you get into the area of the mere depiction of things, it becomes very grey. if things are ink on paper, that's an expression and an idea, and people have the right to create them and publish them whether or not people want to read them or not. It runs into the area of free speech and the right to talk about things. Those laws get overly broad, and those are the sorts of things that the CBLDF [Comic Book Legal Defense Fund] and ACLU challenge on a regular basis.
If you're interested in learning more about how to support free speech in comics, check out the CBLDF website and our ongoing Monsters Project CBLDF benefit for October.