There’s nothing comic about this ‘Manga verdict’
Criminalising a Swede for collecting images of childlike cartoon figures confuses a victimless hobby with an act of child abuse.
A bespectacled graphic novel expert, Swedish translator of Japanese Manga comics and owner of over four million cartoon images, Simon Lundström is himself like a cartoon image of a nerd. But according to the Swedish courts his Manga collection is perverse.
Last year, Lundström was convicted of possession of pornographic material after 50-odd Manga images stored on his hard drive were classified as child porn. The Swedish court of appeal later agreed that 39 of the illustrated images, none of which has been banned in Japan and none of which shows real people, fitted the definition of child porn. Lundström was fined 5,000 Swedish Crowns (£500). Meanwhile, his main employer, publisher Bonnier Carlsen, has stopped giving him translating commissions, and Lundström has been burdened with a reputation of traversing the biggest taboo of our time: getting off on kids. The case has now been appealed to the Supreme Court.
Cultural commentator Ulrika Knutson did not exaggerate when, earlier this week, she described the case as a ‘Swedish censorship scandal, perhaps the worst one in modern times’. As she points out, it should not simply be left to ‘other young cartoon nerds and Manga fans’ to defend Lundström against the legal and moral trials he has been subjected to since a note informing him that he was suspected of child pornography crimes was slipped through his home mailbox last summer. Instead, anyone who values freedom of speech must also defend the renowned Manga expert.
Looking back at Lundström’s treatment at the hand of the courts and assorted moralists, the word ‘Kafkaesque’ comes to mind.
Possession of child porn has been a criminal offence in Sweden since 1999. As of July last year it is also illegal intentionally to watch child porn, which includes illustrated images depicting persons who have not fully gone through puberty, or who are under the age of 18, in sexual circumstances. According to an official from the Swedish Department of Justice, in order to be classified as pornographic, an image must be ‘sexually arousing’. And although the law does not apply to images that are ‘of artistic value’, only the creator of an image can use artistic freedom as a defence.
In other words, Swedes are not allowed to own or intentionally look at drawn images of non-real characters that a court could determine might to some people resemble child-like figures in situations that for some could be sexually arousing.
It’s an absurd situation: judges deliberating over the artistic merits of images, trying to determine what stage of puberty illustrated characters might be at and speculating over what kind of thoughts they might stimulate among adults. As for Lundström’s images, apparently the judges who convicted him felt that Manga comics, which are read and loved by millions around the world, violate children.
Indeed, Manga comics often show risqué images of cheeky, sexy, brave, saucer-eyed and – yes – childlike girls, but they’re not real! To paraphrase that lawsuit-avoiding phrase from the movies, no actual child has been harmed in the making of Manga comics. But this did not stop the judges from paying heed to child protectionists who have determined that the non-real fantasy characters whose speech bubbles it is Lundström’s job to translate have no place in a civilised society.
Asked by a Swedish news team to describe the incendiary material in his hard drive, Lundström said they’re ‘nude images of cartoon figures whose breasts, in the prosecutor’s opinion, are too small’. In most pictures, Lundström said, the figures are standing up, but in a handful of them a sex act is depicted. As he pointed out, some could find these Manga comics uncomfortable, but discomfort is not a good reason for banning something.
Olof Risberg, a psychologist who works for Save the Children in Sweden, said he was concerned with illustrated sexualised images of children becoming normalised, as this means the step to accepting sexual images of actual children will get smaller. He admitted that in illustrated images there are no victims, but still insisted it is wrong to ‘expose children in a pornographic context, whether they’re illustrated or real children… but even in this case, I think the [Manga] images are unnecessary and wrong’.
If we were to remove all artistic expressions that could be deemed unnecessary, upsetting, unsettling or immoral we would be left with little to hang on the walls of museums or to fill our bookshelves. Ironically, it’s the likes of Risberg who are blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and between art and pornography by entrenching an attitude that images of children are risqué per se, and that anyone who likes to look at them is probably a pervert who abuses kids.
Lundström’s passion for Manga comics is a legitimate hobby and profession, not a harmful perversion. His case should indeed worry anyone who cares for free speech. Because that freedom is the real victim of the so-called ‘Manga verdict’.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.