Monday, May 28, 2012

Start Again in the Month of May

The picture at left is a new piece of graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge that I saw while walking back from Manhattan earlier today.  New is always a relative term in New York, which moves so quickly that a few days out of circulation can be enough to completely alter the landscape of your personal experience of the city.  So this was new since the last time I crossed the bridge.  This time, I'd probably changed as much as New York had in the time that elapsed.

The amount of life I packed into the two or three weeks between bridge crossings was almost as robust as the pace of life as experienced by the city that I keep my home in.  In that short period of time I've walked on the other side of the planet, spoken to audiences of librarians, academics, politicians, lawyers and reporters in three cities, and lived off of the coffee in twice as many airports.  When I was walking home tonight, with the sun setting behind me, I was returning from giving an interview on manga censorship that will air on ABC's Nightline, and visiting my friend who was blowing through town on a rapid whirlwind of a trip that might even give me whiplash.  The Arcade Fire was in my ears singing "Culture War" as the shadows grew long:
"These are different times that we're living in.
'Cause these are different times.
Now the kids are growing up so fast.
They're paying for our crimes."
Those words might encapsulate the topics that recurred in the various lectures and interviews I gave this month.  And, catching up on the world in those half-alive and lonely moments of jet lag when I'm awake at odd hours absorbing the headlines I've missed since I've been away, the other part of the chorus comes ringing to life:
"You want it/you got it/here's your culture war. 
You want it/now you've got it/so tell me what's it for."  
The last time I wrote to you, I was talking about my trip to Portland at the start of the month.  Since then, May has been a blur.  My flight from Portland landed long enough for me to get a night's sleep and head out to Long Island to deliver a presentation on graphic novels and censorship to the 37th Annual Long Island Library Conference.  Though feeling the time lag from a heavy month of criss-crossing the country, I was energized to speak to this packed room about the medium I love.  They were a terrific crowd, and they displayed a pronounced difference in the attitudes about comics and graphic novels than the one I experienced when I first interacted with the library space over 10 years ago.  Back then there was a strong generational rift between the establishment, who were affected by the Wertham-era stigma that comics were low value speech, and the younger generation who was just getting out of library school and had grown up on Neil Gaiman, Chris Ware, Rumiko Takahashi, and the overall concept of the graphic novel as a powerful form of literary expression.  Now that generation is coming into a position of established prominence, and an even younger group is emerging that takes the value of comics as a given.  So the discussion about why we should collect graphic novels seems to have given way to how should we collect them, and what are the challenges and concerns associated with doing so.  I spoke about the medium's merits, genres, and the history of censorship that informs the battery of challenges currently faced by library professionals managing the category in their systems.  I find that the success or failure of a talk can be measured by the questions one receives after the presentation, and here I was met with folks looking to delve deeper into the historical casework I discussed, and the authors whose work provoked those challenges.  This is a long way from the question of whether or not comics have a place in libraries.  "These are different times," indeed.

Less than a week later I flew to California to visit a friend and close out some writing deadlines for the Fund and for me over a long weekend.  Then it was up to LAX for the long trip across the Pacific to Tokyo.  It was my first time in Japan, and I'll be writing about it at length in a series of posts on CBLDF's blog and this one over the coming weeks.  But in short form, I was there to participate in a symposium on international manga censorship, representing the issues we face in the States that the CBLDF has had to defend.  While I was there I met with members of the Diet, Japan's legislature, and members of the Democratic Party of Japan to discuss laws affecting manga's free expression rights.  I also met with an esteemed group of representatives from the publishing industry who opened my eyes to the careful self-censorship measures that the industry takes in response to the legal climate facing the medium.

I was treated to dinners at back alley dives and high end restaurants where I spoke to lawyers who litigated on behalf of manga, academics who study the art form and its cultural import, foreign scholars who are charting its impact on the world in real time, and advocates who've dedicated their lives to advancing the medium even in the face of government censorship and public confusion.   I was taken to world class bookstores where manga enjoyed full floors, and manga specialist stores that composed 3, 4, or 5 floors of nothing but comics and anime.  I was taken to Akihabara, an entire city district given over to the forward looking subculture of manga, anime and video game fandom, and technology enthusiasm.

Through all of these experiences, I encountered a robust culture of individuals and institutions dedicated to the power of comics as art and expression.  Even more significantly, I encountered representatives of communities that haven't met all of their counterparts that exist internationally, and who feel, in some respects, that they are facing their challenges to protect this important medium all alone.  As the Arcade Fire sang to me as I contemplated this trip tonight, "We're soldiers now/In the culture war. We're soldiers now/But we don't know what it's for."  I know I walked away from the trip with a sense of solidarity in the fight to protect comics as free expression, and with a new understanding of the issues facing my international compatriots.  I hope that they experienced the same sense of common cause.

I was only in Tokyo for four days.  And, of course, if you read this blog, you know that I have a curiosity for wherever I am, so I spent as much of the free time I had wandering the streets to uncover life as it's lived, art as it's made, and the communities who make both happen.  I'll be posting about what I saw in the days to come.  But, in total, it was a brief but amazing time.

When I got back I had enough time to take a day and a half off to manage the jet lag, and then it was back to the office where I prepared to speak at a continuing legal education event sponsored by the New York State Bar Association about comics and manga in the wake of the Protect Act's designation of drawings and cartoons as part of a category within the  new crime "obscene child pornography."  That was another heady conference where I spoke alongside prominent legal scholar Amy Adler and Michael Delohery, chief of the High Technology Crime Bureau at the Westchester County DA's Office.  Michael drove home the complex landscape he faces as a prosecutor seeking to prosecute the truly contemptible criminals who contribute to the sexual victimization of children, alongside a world where every horny teenager has a powerful computer that records and transmits media in their pocket, and a legal landscape that, on paper, doesn't distinguish between drawings and reality.  He's one of the good ones, who does prioritize prosecuting the real criminals.  But, as my presentation showed, there are still cases involving people being prosecuted for mere drawings where no real people were hurt.

The long weekend arrived shortly after this presentation, and today I began a new work week speaking about all of these areas to a reporter for ABC News who was putting together a story for Nightline.

Heady times.

When I first touched down in NY at the start of May, I knew that the month represented a long road, where I would confront the matrix of art and law that affects comics in the United States and Japan.  But coming out the other side, my perspective in enlarged, and so is the stage where I share it.   

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