Manga collector Christopher Handley was sentenced to 6 months in prison last Thursday, after importing lolicon and yaoi manga from Japan that the federal government deemed obscene and prosecuted under the PROTECT Act of 2003, which states that any obscene illustrations, sculptures, computer-generated pictures or other imagery that depicts minors in sexual situations will be treated no differently from actual video recordings of child sexual abuse.

Handley plead guilty to the charges of "possession of obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children" as part of a plea deal with the government; he could have faced as many as 15 years in prison without it.

The most important difference between child pornography and drawings, of course, is that making child porn involves the abuse of real children, while drawings are not people and so creating them involves no abuse. Real people also have actual ages, whereas drawings do not, and thus the difference between an adult and a child -- which is as simple as determining someone's birthday in the real world -- becomes a very subjective matter. The issue is particularly complicated when it comes to manga, where the stylistic conventions of the art result in even adult characters looking significantly "younger," particularly given Japanese restrictions on depicting pubic hair.

Both the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and writer Neil Gaiman have spoken out in support of Handley, with Gaiman saying after the arrest that "they found his manga, and found some objectionable panels... He's been arrested for having some drawings of rude things in manga. I'm sorry, but if you went through my comic collection, you could arrest me if you're going to start doing that. It's just wrong," adding further that "nobody was hurt. The only thing that was hurt were ideas."It's worth noting that the vast majority of Handley's manga collection was not pornography, and while some of his reading choices may make some people uncomfortable, I'm way more uncomfortable with the idea of someone going to prison for looking at pictures of imaginary people drawn on a page -- for the crime of collecting fiction whose pictures and ideas are deemed offensive. As any number of comic book controversies throughout the nation have taught us, there's always going to be someone somewhere who thinks the books and comics you love are obscene, depraved, and should be set on fire.

So be careful, comic book fans -- or fans of any form of art, really. If the government determines that a work in your collection features an imaginary character that they don't think looks 18 in a sexual situation, and decide it "appeals to the prurient interest" and "lacks serious literary value," you too could be facing the same felony charges as someone with a computer full of child porn.

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