A coalition of graphic artists, publishers and MPs have condemned Government plans to introduce a new set of laws policing cartoons of children, arguing that the current broad wording of the legislation could lead to the banning of hundreds of mainstream comic books.
This week Parliament will discuss a new Bill which will make it a criminal offence to possess cartoons depicting certain forms of child abuse. If the Coroners and Justice Bill remains unaltered it will make it illegal to own any picture of children participating in sexual activities, or present whilst sexual activity took place.
The Ministry of Justice claims that the Bill is needed to clamp down on the growing quantity of hardcore paedophilic cartoon porn available on the internet, particularly from Japan. But critics of the legislation say the current definitions are so sweeping that it risks stifling mainstream artistic expression as well as turning thousands of law abiding comic book fans into potential sex offenders.
One of the books likely to fall foul of the new law is The Lost Girls by the graphic artist Alan Moore. The world renowned British writer is the creator of critically acclaimed comics such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and is regarded as one of the finest writers of his generation.
The Lost Girls was published in the UK in January to largely favourable reviews and is an erotic graphic novel that imagines the teenage sexual awakenings of three famous fictional characters. In the book Alice from "Alice in Wonderland", Dorothy Gale from the "Wizard of Oz" and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan meet as women in their 30s and discover that they all share equally high sex drives. Certain pages in the novels could fall foul of the new law because it currently defines a child as under 18-years of age. This is problematic because many of the women's sexual experiences in The Lost Girls occur in their late teens when they are above the age of consent but still under 18-years-old.
There are even fears that Watchmen, one of the industry's most critically acclaimed graphic novels, could risk being banned because one of the main superheroes sees his mother having sex when he is a young child.
Comic book writers and publishers, including Moore's daughter Leah who is herself an acclaimed graphic artist, have now set up the Comic Book Alliance to ensure that the legislation only targets overtly paedophilic and pornographic cartoons and not artistic erotica.
"We do not oppose any legislation that protects children from abuse, we understand the need for it, but some parts of the Coroners Bill do need rewording and clarifying," said a spokesperson yesterday. "This new legislation could be used for the wrong reason and if used incorrectly thousands of people could become criminals overnight. The Government refused to impose minimum tariffs on cheap alcohol because it was unfair to punish the majority for the crimes of a minority; yet this legislation does exactly the same."
Their campaign has won the support of a number of prominent comic book writers including Bryan Talbot, John Reppion and Neil Gaiman, the British-born writer of Stardust and The Sandman comic series. Gaimen wrote on his blog recently that cracking down on cartoon pornography invariably meant governments passed overly broad laws that stifle artistic expression and criminalise innocent people.
"If you accept - and I do - that freedom of speech is important then you are going to have to defend the indefensible," he wrote. "That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don't say or like or want said. The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don't. This is how the Law is made."
The Bill currently going through Parliament is closely modelled on a similar piece of Australian legislation which has caused numerous controversies since it became law. Earlier this month an Australian man was convicted of possessing child pornography because he downloaded six images of characters from The Simpsons performing sex acts on each other as a joke.
Chris Staros, the publisher of Alan Moore's The Lost Girls, said he hoped any new legislation in Britain would not target mainstream comic book writers. "It would be a tragedy if any law was enacted that would prevent an author from telling the story that they wanted to tell," he said. "Lost Girls is a universally praised, literary and artistic work of art, and it deserves to be read by any adult who wishes to read it. Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of any free society, and it is always frightening to me when legislation is proposed that would chip away at those rights."
Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff, is one of the few MPs who has spoken out against the Bill. "The problem I have is that the definition of what constitutes and image and a child is incredibly broad," she said. "The Government considers almost anything to be an image, from a painting to a private scribble on a piece of paper. At the same time they have defined a child as something that looks like a child even if it isn't."
The Ministry of Justice has denied suggestions that Britain's comic industry would suffer from the law. A spokesperson said: "The clauses in the Bill are to tackle pornographic and obscene images of child sexual abuse which have no place in our society. It is not our intention to criminalise the possession of material that does not fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act or to criminalise the legal entertainment industry, the art industry or pornographic cartoons."
Read more at The Independent.