Monday, February 22, 2010

Obsenity and the 1st Amendment

In case you haven't heard, there's a big hullabaloo going on over an Iowan Christopher Handley's possession of erotic loli manga (essentially manga involving young girls). To make a long story short, in 2006, Handley was arrested after purchasing the manga over the internet. Customs found it and busted him. He has been found guilty and sentenced to prison time for his crimes.

And that's where things get iffy for me.

Let me preface this entire post by saying that I in no way support child pornography in any form, and find the entire thing to be reprehensible and disgusting. Having said that, I think Handley's conviction is a travesty. This man needs counseling, not prison time. The entire ordeal screams of a farce, a media frenzy whipped up for politicians and lawyers to sit on high horses, toss about banalities like "obscenity" and "family values," and earn political points. Every time I hear something new about this case, I always have the same question in the back of my mind: "What about the 1st Amendment." I think that is ultimately what this boils down to. Is Handley's manga collection protected as a form of free speech? I would have to say yes.

But of course, there's the snafu of the Miller test, which came about as a result of the 1973 case of Miller vs California. The Miller test provides three criteria to determine whether or not something is considered obscene, and thus not protected under the 1st Amendment. They are:

1. Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

2. Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.

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

And therein lies the problem. All three of these criteria are problematic. The problem is the lack of specificity. Who determines what an "average" person is? Which community's standards? Who decides what is considered "offensive?" Who determines literary, artistic, political, or scientific value? Obscenity and value are relative, and vary from person to person. I take issue with the government telling me what I can and cannot read based on some vaguely defined and arbitrary criteria. It is not the government's place to legislate this sort of thing. Personally, I don't consider seeing breasts to be obscene, but there are many people in the United States who would disagree with me. And that's fine, it's a personal choice. Granted, manga depicting child pornography is significantly more disturbing, and rightly so, as it is one of the most heinous acts one human being can inflict upon another. But if Handley wants to sit in his basement in Iowa and read stuff like that, then I say more power to him. It's his right as an American, and it harms no one (except maybe Handley himself, but again, that's his prerogative).
Comics and fiction are not the same thing as reality, and I think that's the point that's being missed here. If Handley had actual photographs of children, or videos, then that is a whole different story. He would deserve every punishment we could throw at him. But that isn't the case. No children were victimized to create these works. Not one. Handley never showed children his manga collection. As far as I know, it was a private hobby (which makes sense, considering the type of hobby). It seems to me that this is the ideal way for Handley to indulge in whatever messed up fantasies he has without resorting to the actual thing.
Many people are making the argument that if someone enjoys reading that kind of stuff, then they are more inclined to "live out their fantasies" so to speak. This argument comes up frequently in obscenity cases, and that logic is just as faulty and flawed in this case. Thinking is not doing. Playing a violent video game does not make me want to go shoot up a school. Should we keep an eye on people like Handley? Perhaps. But last I checked, we were not in the habit of locking people up for crimes they could POTENTIALLY commit. Handley, to anyone's knowledge, had no intention of harming children. Until he demonstrated an intent to act, or acted, he is guilty of no crime.
Ultimately, I don't think that the 1st Amendment is one that is open to degrees. Either speech is free, or it isn't. Handley has issues, and these types of comics are a blemish on comics as a whole, but if that's how Handley chooses to spend his time and money, that's his choice. I see no value in comics of that nature, and I choose not to read them, as most people would. But I absolutely feel that Handley is guilty of no crime save extremely poor taste. I just hope that this unfortunate incident does not set a precedent, as these trials are wont to do. As every child that goes sledding in the winter knows, slippery slopes are very hard to climb back up.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Comics Aren't Dead! Hooray!

I found this article on CBR, and I have to say, it annoyed the heck out of me. I knew this article was going to annoy when they misspelled "Blackest Knight." I mean, come on, Blackest Night is one of the hottest stories in comics right now. He could have looked at the shelf or done a Google search and found the correct spelling in about two seconds.

The article then goes on to discuss how comics are mainly in the purview of the 30+ age group who grew up reading them because, well, TV wasn't as good back then. Of course, this niche has since been replaced "by other forms of animation." They have Nury Hernandez, the owner of the LCS, talking about how the younger generation is only about the video games these days. After all, "Why would kids want to buy a comic book they will only read once when they can play a game every day for a year?" I must say I can't argue with that logic. I mean, who reads anymore? Why would I want to read a comic when I can watch a cartoon, or play a game? It must be my gnat-like attention span or my Ritalin induced stupor that precludes me from wanting to pick up a book. This man should have his comic retailer license revoked. Why would you sell a product you don't believe has any value or worth to anyone but a "dwindling breed of die hard fans?"

Of course, the reporter then finds the kid in the store playing video games (the presence of playable consoles in a comic store baffles me, but regardless), who spouts the profound statement, "I never got into comics. Don't know why." But the worst part of it is, 20 year old store regular Alex Martinez is playing...Halo 2. It's 2010. Halo 3 is old at this point, and this kid is playing Halo 2? This is either yet another error on the part of the reporter, or this guy (and the store for that matter) is stuck in 2004. How can I possibly take someone seriously who frequents a comic book store to play a shooter that hasn't been popular since I graduated from high school? Where do they find these people?

Of course, I can see why the comics industry is in trouble. Apparently, Marvel only releases 110 comics a year, with DC putting out 80. No wonder none of the issues they put out are "rarely priced below 3 dollars." If Marvel is only bringing in a couple thousand bucks a year, the industry is definitely on the outs. But not to worry. Good old Nury Hernandez is ready to write off comics completely. "People need to pay their bills," he says. "They don't need a comic." Good thing he's got his gamers to keep his dying comic business afloat, until the folks from the nursing home can wheel themselves in to buy the latest issue of Action Comics.

With journalism like this, it's no wonder newspapers are on the outs. He may has well have just titled this article "Comics: Not as Cool as Video Games," put up a big picture of Mario dropping a deuce on Spider-Man, and been done with it. Of the "dozen comic stores" that "still exist in Miami-Dade County," this reporter finds the only one with the owner that is such a masochist that he sells something that he feels is too expensive and no one cares about because it "keeps him young." I guess I just expect more out of my news than this. But then again, what do I know? I'm a 22 year old comic reader. Apparently, I don't even exist.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A New Moon

For once, I agree with Roger Ebert.

The new Stephanie Meyer movie, New Moon, was officially released in theatres today, an event which has me thinking about the Twilight-mania that has swept our great nation. It seems like everyone has read or is reading the Twilight books. The premise is interesting enough. Who doesn't like vampires and romance? But no matter how much I hear about these novels and their theatrical counterparts, I find myself having to stifle a strong gag reflex. I feel like I'm one of the few people who ISN'T obsessed with these glittering vampires. I mean, how can I take a vampire that GLITTERS seriously?

In all honesty, I wouldn't be bothered by this normally. There are plenty of vapid, inane, and downright stupid things that appear in pop culture on a regular basis, only to disappear just as quickly as they came. I've even partaken in some of them myself (POGS come to mind...what was I thinking?), and before I begin, I would like to say that I fully realize that some of the things I read are guilty of some of the things I accuse Meyer of. My gripe with this particular pop culture phenomenon is that Stephanie Meyer's novels are being lauded as some kind of pinnacle for young adult literature. Any rational thinking person with a modicum of literary taste could open Twilight, read a page, and immediately see that Stephanie Meyer is no J.K. Rowling. Hell, she's not even a Jeph Loeb. These novels contain some of the worst writing I've ever seen on a page, and I've read Superpro. It's kitschy, it's sickeningly saccharine, and it doesn't challenge the reader in any way. Any passage in the book would do, but take this little excerpt as an example:

"I walked to my room and shut the door, slammed it really, so I could be free to go to pieces privately...For three and a half hours I stared at the wall, curled in a ball, rocking. My mind went around in circles, trying to come up with some way out of this nightmare. There was no escape, no reprieve. I could see on ly one possible end looming darkly in my future. The only questino was how many other people would be hurt before I reached it. The only solace, the only hope I had left, was knowing that I would see Edward soon."

I for one, am not impressed. One creative writing workshop would have torn this novel apart. I may sound fairly elitist right now. I know what you're thinking. "This is written for teenage girls. She's writing to her audience." I am of the opinion that we do teenage girls a disservice by holding them to such a low standard. And what excuse do the thousands of other non teenage girls that read this stuff? I am forced to wonder, after novels like this win awards and are read by millions of people, where our standards have gone? Novels like Twilight don't challenge people. They don't get them thinking. If anything, they venerate behaviors that most people would find abhorrent and socially uncouth. Edward and Bella have a weird, codependent relationship where true love means being unhealthily obsessed with someone to the point of stalking them. And the age difference? Seriously, there is a hundred year gap between Bella and Edward. How is this not creepy? Shouldn't Edward have his high school diploma by now? In New Moon, Bella is useless after Edward leaves her. She mopes around an whines for an ENTIRE NOVEL. Bella and Edward are not so much characters as they are caricatures of themselves. Bella is the lovesick teenager. Edward is the dark, mysterious, brooding hunk. Is this what we want our young people to aspire to? If people want to read this garbage, that's their prerogative, but I don't think that we should be proclaiming it to be quality literature. We should call it what it is: vapid, mindless, and devoid of any literary merit. If this is what constitutes literature in today's society, I think I will just stick with the classics.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Beginnings of Wednesday Conversations

As any comic book fan knows, Wednesday is new comic day, a day where comic book fans will congregate at their LCS (Local Comic Shop) to pick up the week's books and talk about comics, pop culture, and whatever else comes to mind. This blog will be channeling the spirit of the LCS on Wednesdays (hence the title). As I work at a comic book shop myself, I find that Wednesdays are so much more than just new books. I have been engaged in many interesting and thought provoking conversations with both my co-workers and the patrons of our fine funny-book establishment. As a result, while I will most definitely be discussing comics, I will not restrict myself to the comics medium. With that being said, welcome to Wednesday Conversations. We'll see how it goes.