The Spectator: Could you get arrested for owning a graphic novel?

Could you get arrested for owning a graphic novel? | Coffee House

Wednesday, 28th January 2009
Could you get arrested for owning a graphic novel?
William Blackstock 5:27pm

Film adaptations of graphic novels such as Zack Snyder’s 300 and the upcoming Watchmen mean that graphic novels are growing ever more popular. They’re not just in dingy comic book shops anymore but on the shelves in Waterstones and Borders. So is it right that they are now under threat by government anti-pornography legislation?

There are two bills in parliament at the moment that, if successful, could make the possession of ‘extreme pornographic images’ an offence.

An ‘extreme image’ is defined in The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act as one that is ‘grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character’. So far, so good, right? That all sounds normal enough, but there¹s a sting in the tail for unsuspecting readers of the graphic novel: ‘and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that any such person or animal was real.’ There¹s a similar set of rules for child pornography. So, in a nutshell, if it looks like it¹s real (i.e. it¹s well drawn), then you can be prosecuted for owning it.

Fans of Frank Miller’s Sin City probably have little to fear; his stark high-contrast black and white panels are explicitly violent yet a far cry from ‘realistic’. If, on the other hand, you prefer Alan Moore¹s Lost Girls or even Neil Gaiman¹s Sandman, you may be in for a shock. In an interview with MTV here, Gaiman said (of the similar US PROTECT Act):

‘I wrote a story about a serial killer who kidnaps and rapes children, and then murders them, we did that as a comic, not for the purposes of titillation or anything like that, but if you bought that comic, you could be arrested for it? That¹s just deeply wrong. Nobody was hurt. The only thing that was hurt were ideas.’

I¹ve read the story and it¹s not as explicit as Sin City; is written extremely well; and, even more important than that, is necessary in order to understand the world of Sandman.

Works like Lost Girls really blur the line. Alan Moore¹s story of Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Wendy (from Peter Pan) and Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz) talking together of their sexual exploits as adults in 1913 is filled with rich, beautiful language and wonderfully illustrated by Melinda Gebbie but it is erotic in content (Moore himself goes further, saying deliberately that it is ‘pornography’ and rejecting the ‘erotica’ label). It is also, in places, quite uncomfortable to read. But then a huge part of the point of literature, erotic or otherwise, is to challenge our expectations of what is acceptable and what is not.

For the government to step in and say what we can and cannot own, to define the morality of art in that way, is both ludicrous and impossible; especially when it concerns entirely fictional situations with equally fictional artwork.

And where will it all end? If Alan Moore can be censored, then why not Angela Carter or James Joyce in a few bills’ time? Why not Renaissance art? Much better, I think, to let the individual choose what they want to see or read and to censor things for themselves.

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