Cross the Border, Go to Jail

A column article, Manifesto by: Jason Sacks

You love manga. I love manga. Everyone loves manga. But you know who hates manga – who considers it pornography and a threat against a nation's morality? No, not some right-wing political wacko. The organization that hates manga is Canada Customs.

And they don't just hate it – they can throw you in jail for possessing the manga.

Support the CBLDFDon't believe me? This actually happened to an American comics fan who we'll call Brandon, though it's not his real name. "Brandon X" was arrested by Canada Customs when flying from the US on vacation to visit a friend. Brandon was like most of us. He brought all his devices along with him – his laptop, his iPad and his iPhone. Because what good geek would ever take a vacation without his precious electronic toys?

Well, Canada Customs was very curious what Brandon had on his devices. So they poked around on his laptop and his iPad and phone. They're not allowed to search those items, but Customs searched them anyway. And what did they find on his laptop but some horror and fantasy manga.  Now if you've ever read manga, you know that manga cartoonists draw a very distorted version of the human figure, and their common depiction of female characters often makes them look prepubescent.

So Customs looked at Brandon's laptop, found the comics, and decided that Brandon's manga comics were a threat to the health and safety of Canadian citizens. They accused him of the horrible crime of trying to bring pornography across the border to Canada.

Keep in mind, Brandon wasn't traveling to Iran or Burma. This isn't some weird military-ruled global powder keg. This is Canada, America's best friend, a place where Chester Brown actually created a graphic novel about his addiction to prostitutes and had that work underwritten by the Canada Council for the Arts, for goodness sake!

Brandon was thrown into a concrete cell without food or blankets for more than a day by Canada Customs. He was also told that he was in protective custody, so if he got raped in his cell, it "doesn't count." All of these horrible abuses were just because he was carrying comics that the Customs officials didn't like. Into freaking Canada! He was going to go to jail for comic books.

Listen, I'm as sympathetic as anyone about the dangers of child pornography. It goes without saying that that is an evil crime and the people who perpetuate that crime should be thrown in jail for a long, long time. But that's not the issue here. These aren't pornographic comics. These are ordinary manga that perfectly fit the idiom of manga that we're all familiar with. But the Customs officers aren't trained into how to handle art being placed in their hands. Heaven knows that Customs officers are stressed out every day in their jobs and sometimes just want to take their frustrations out on others. But this is a horribly egregious abuse of power.

Oh, and in the "guilty till proven innocent" category, it's estimated the case will cost $150,000 to defend. Yeah, that's a hundred and fifty grand cash American just to prove that Brandon X isn't carrying pornographic manga into freaking Canada.

This is serious stuff. It's important. Our hobby is constantly at siege from people who don't understand our hobby and feel like it's a threat to society's well-being. Despite all the popularity of the characters we love, the comics medium is constantly having to battle the small-minded and censorious publicity-mongers who are looking to make a reputation in attacking comic books.

Support the CBLDF!Thank God we have the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to help Brandon. The CBLDF has been around for 25 years, working on cases like Brandon's and many other aspects of our great artform.

As Twain said, "history doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme." Most comic fans know about the witch hunt against comics in the 1950s and Fredric Wertham's infamous Seduction of the Innocent, but we may not be as aware that comics have been under attack pretty much constantly since the artform emerged. DC Comics hired an advisory panel in the 1940s to help protect it against censors.  In the wake of Wertham, the restrictive Comics Code was founded in 1954, squelching a huge amount of innovation in the medium. In the '60s and '70s, underground comics were placed under attack. In the '80s, as comics became more innovative and embraced adult themes, comics were once again placed under attack.

It's actually pretty amazing reading news from the mid-1980s to hear what retailers were concerned about. The most amazing story is about Miracleman #9, which featured graphic scenes of childbirth. You might figure there's nothing more wholesome in the world than watching a child being born, but Steve Geppi of Diamond Distributors, among others, was up in arms over the threat to America's children that was presented by the sight of a baby emerging from her mother's vagina. Nothing ever came from concerns about that comic being available in comics shops. But there was also real harassment during those days. The manager of a Friendly Frank's comic shop in the Chicago area was actually arrested for selling adult comics like Bizarre Sex to adults. Apparently an issue of Bizarre Sex is too bizarre for even adults to read in Chicago.

The Friendly Frank's case started the CBLDF 25 long years ago. Kitchen Sink Comics' Denis Kitchen donated the initial seed money, and since 1986 the CBLDF has been stalwart at working on the front lines defending our liberty.

Executive Director Charles Brownstein and his team have done heroic work to defend and fight for rights that most of us just assume are covered by our First Amendment rights. We live in a free society, after all, and we all know that all kinds of crazy shit is just one quick Google search away. Surely the police and Customs officers have more important things to pay attention to than sending some guy into a concrete cell just because he wants to read some manga when hanging out on his friend's couch.

But that's precisely the point. They set their own priorities. They set their own rules and they will enforce them, whether those rules are fair or equitable or right or just plain humane.

And you know what's most terrifying about this case? The fact that Charles gets calls about these sorts of issues nearly every day, that people are being harassed in their own neighborhoods for reading comics, literally being harassed by the police for reading comics. And, tragically, most people don't think to contact the CBLDF, to work to protect their rights, to pause when they're sitting there in abject fear in the police station and take the right action. We only know about Brandon X because it got some publicity. We don't hear about the many cases that are just as terrifying and which are managed quietly.

So I need you to do this, at the very least. Remember this number. Put it in your wallet, tattoo it on your arm, I don't care. But remember 800-99-CBLDF or bookmark The CBLDF is there to help you. For free. Because they care about freedom and allowing readers to enjoy the stuff they love without fear of government harassment. Because isn't that the least that we deserve in a free society?

Better yet, spend a few bucks and join the CBLDF. That's a pretty damn powerful thing to do. You get a cool membership card (mine is even autographed by Mike Mignola), a really helpful newsletter and more premiums – not to mention the pleasure of helping fight for what's right.

And there's one more way to help, a way that is so easy it's not even like donating money. Visit their website or their table at a convention and buy an awesome autographed book for not much more than cover price. This is your chance to get autographed comics by people like Guy Davis, John Layman, even Dan Clowes if you go for the artsy stuff. You'll have a unique and special copy of a book that will make you the envy of your friends, and the CBLDF will have money to help them defend the rights that every one of us treasure.

I'm really proud to be a member of the CBLDF and to do my small part to help my beloved hobby. Comics Bulletin is committed to do whatever we can to help the CBLDF prevent the rise of new Werthams in our industry. Every generation has the responsibility to shock its parents, and the parents have a responsibility to understand why they are shocked. The CBLDF helps comics embrace that important cycle.

Jason Sacks is the Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at or friend him on Facebook.

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