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Why Comics Need Age Ratings

June 12, 2008 | | Comments 25 |

I’ve been wanting to link to one of my favorite publishing blogs, Buzz, Balls & Hype, for some time now — it offers great information and links for authors and small publishers. Its creator, M.J. Rose, is a self-publishing sensation who in the late 90s parlayed some brilliant Internet marketing into literary fame and a string of book deals with mainstream publishers.

In addition to penning useful articles herself about writing and marketing in the 21st century, she’s also managed to gather an excellent stable of guest bloggers, including John Shableski of Diamond Book Distributors, writing as The Graphics Novel Guy. John is doing a great job of introducing and evangelizing the potential of the graphic novel to BB&H’s mainstream lit audience — both as an art form and also as something that is gaining greater mainstream appeal in the United States.

Age Ranges: Good For Business?

Recently, he has been writing about Age Ranges for Graphic Novels. In an article, he wrote on May 19th, he made this bold claim:

Tipping Point-Thy Name Shall Be Age-Ranges

I think I have finally nailed what the tipping point will be for the graphic novel publishing industry and it comes down to the applications of age ranges. During my recent meetings with some independent bookstore owners it dawned on me that I was hearing exactly the same questions that the public library folks were asking just a few years ago:
How do I buy this stuff?
Where do I (rack)shelve it?
Can I at least see a catalog that is set up with age ranges?
Can you tell me what is for kids and what is for adults?

All they want is a simple easy-to-follow method for selecting the books that they can trust. Just like the librarians did.

He continues, talking about why publishers might be wary about any authority, even one composed of other comics publishers, imposing age-ranges on comics — namely that when it was done before in the 50s and 60s by the Comics Code Authority, it was used as a censorship tool. (For a great account of this drama, my good friend Bill S. recommends The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu — which you can now watch discussed on The Colbert Report!) Even though this Code had no legal power, most distributors refused to carry non-Code approved content, which effectively made it impossible to sell such comics.

But Mr. Shableski ultimately does not see age ranges negatively affecting sales to the those currently making the purchasing decisions

The approach really needs to be looked at from the perspective of the novice retailer, librarian and educator. They want a simple process by which they can select and buy the books. Age ranges aren’t a deterrent for these people…

and argues that if Age Ranges could give good information about who might actually enjoy the book, they would greatly boost graphic novel sales:

The proper application of age ranges would need to focus on the level of comprehension associated with the subject matter of the story.

By doing this we can actually accelerate the buying process. I know that publishers would love it if every single book published were actually read by the person who buys the books for the library or store. The fact of the matter is they dont. There are so many books coming out that this is impossible. Age ranges, reviews from trade publications, and peer or customer recommendations are what really greases the wheels of the buying process. When this happens, then we will really see how fast this rocket can fly.

While I don’t think this tells the whole story of why age ranges might be useful — and does not address the very real danger of economic censorship for more challenging work (more about this later) — you certainly can’t argue with making your book easier to buy. And giving retailers and librarians a quick read regarding who your intended audience is would certainly help with that. (He has a lot more to say on this issue and it’s worth reading the whole article.)

In his most recent article, he reports from a panel at the Book Expo in Los Angeles provocatively titled “Sex and Graphic Novels”. The big question there was whether age-ratings were now necessary for graphic novels. He notes that many graphic novel publishers already do this, with TokyoPop proudly announcing that they had a “very detailed” program currently in place. (A program which Johanna Draper Carlson of Comics Worth Reading has covered and criticized before [be sure to check out the comments of those articles on Johanna’s site for more interesting debate!].)

As expected, the industry members of this panel expressed concern over how age-ranges might contribute to censorship, but Mr. Shableski again argues that such labeling makes good business sense, citing examples from the movie, music and video game industries where product sales actually increased in spite of and even because of restrictive ratings. (Teens apparently just love that forbidden fruit — go figure!). He finishes by arguing that informed parents make for happy consumers and that even restrictive age-ratings will not ultimately get in the way of (one assumes older) kids reading more mature graphic novels:

I guess it really is all about money anyway isn’t it? If the ratings system is developed by a trusted source-such as a group of librarians, then there is credibility. If the ratings are applied after the book is published, then that isn’t censorship is it? If the parent is allowed to make an informed purchase based on the information you have placed on the jacket then that’s a good thing. Parents don’t really care for surprises and are normally quite ok with PG and R rated stuff-as long as they know it’s in the book. It’s those parents who are waiting to play the ‘gotchya game’ you need to look out for. They need to see the ratings as well. If you do it for one audience then you have done it for all audiences.

This way, the librarian, the store owner and the parent all come out winners. Eventually, the kid is gonna read the book.

There is a lot of sense to what he says. Certainly one good reason for age-ratings is to make sure that parents can make informed purchases. And informed consumers and informed retailers are likely to make for a healthier market for graphic novels.

The Real Impetus Behind Age Ratings

But for comics in America, I see the stakes as being a bit higher than this and, likewise, the risks for censorship greater as well. This is what I wrote as a comment (after thanking him for the useful articles, of course :-) ):

I had some thoughts about the age-ratings issue, esp. your take that “I guess it really is all about money anyway isn’t it?”

As someone looking to publish graphic novels, for me the age-ratings are primarily about protection, in particular legal protection, for myself, but especially for the retailer. The laws in most states have much more stringent requirements for visual art with sexual content that minors are allowed to see than they do for textual material. If there’s a picture or drawing, even if it is more suggestive than explicit, the chances of it being illegal to sell to a minor with significant criminal penalties is a serious concern.

In addition, as I’m sure you know, there’s a real double-standard for what’s acceptable to show visually in a comic vs. say a film because many communities in the U.S. are convinced that all comics are for kids. The heroic Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has defended many retailers from aggressive DAs who prosecuted them “for the sake of the children”, in at least one case despite the fact the comics were bought in an “adults only” section!

(Here’s the link to that in case my embedded link doesn’t work:

http://www.cbldf.org/pr/001122-texas-trial.shtml)

So there is extra reason to be cautious when it comes to adult content in graphic novels.

As for censorship, the issue for me would have less to do with when the rating is applied than *who* applies it. As Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” so clearly illustrated, even a self-regulating industry can be destructive when its decision-making is both arbitrary and lacks transparency. This is why as a publisher I would much rather determine the age-ranges of my own books — despite the fact that there are no clear rules. Certainly this would be a place where I would look for guidance from a distributor like Diamond, but I’d hate to have some age-ranges imposed from on high, unless I could be assured the process was both fair and completely transparent.

It’s a complicated issue for all artists, but for those who create sequential art in the U.S. that is not “all ages”, it’s one that merits serious and careful thought and absolutely cannot be ignored.

It is the very real risk of legal consequences for the publisher and the retailer that is the reason why I feel age-ratings for any type of provocative sequential art are necessary. Personally, I think such age-ratings will be, by their very nature, subjective and thus to some degree arbitrary. Personally, I think it is silly to believe that an 18 year old can suddenly handle material a 17 year old cannot (or 16/15, etc.). Personally, I think it is incredibly unfair and delusional that our society perceives mature storytelling in comics as more dangerous than mature storytelling in film or prose novels. Personally, I think that violent and mean-spirited content is far more threatening to the minds of young people than images of happy, consensual sex (yet it is the sexual material that exposes publishers and retailers to the greatest legal liability and thus offers all the more reason to err on the side of caution with a very restrictive age rating!) Personally, I think it sucks that age-ratings need to be there for any reason other than to help consumers make educated, informed decisions.

But in the United States, in the current climate, there are other reasons and they cannot be ignored. So there we are.

Who Should Watch The Publishers of “Watchmen”?

That said, though, I still feel that these ratings should remain in the hands of the individual publishers. Yes, that could make things less clear for the retailer — what if one publisher uses very different standards for a 16+ book than another? — but as I argued in my comment, even a central authority will fail to offer consistent standards, because when it comes to determining “age-appropriate” levels of sex and violence in art, how can they? Ten smart people can come up with ten different and equally valid standards and each will have different takes on how those standards should apply to an individual work. No wonder the MPAA offers no transparency! Would you want to argue to a filmmaker why ten seconds of full frontal nudity makes her film unacceptable to those under 18, but six seconds would be fine? My belief is that if such decisions remain in the publisher’s individual hands, the chances of the artist’s wishes being respected or at least heard out is that much greater.

But here’s why ultimately I’m going to lose on this one: if you look at the legal cases taken on by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, it’s not really the publisher who’s at the greatest risk, it’s the retailer. If every publisher had their own rating system, then it could be argued that it was still up to the retailer to make sure a books’s content was as “safe” for the intended audience as the publisher claimed it was. But if the retailer has a central rating authority to point to, then she has some protection in court and thus less of a need to sweat every title coming across her desk.

Because the legal stakes are so much higher for comics than for, say, the music industry (sell an adult comic to a kid and you can actually go to jail), it is in the retailers interest to have some central authority claiming responsibility and since it’s the retailers who are paying the bills, keeping them happy will matter a lot more than keeping artists happy. (And to some degree, with Diamond’s separate and not really equalPreviews Adult” publication, a system like this is already in place for the Direct Market.)

Think I’m crazy to believe that this will happen? Take a look at the history of the ESRB, the central rating authority for video games. They started out with individual publishers rating their own titles, but it wasn’t long before a centralized authority was called for. And with the precedents for universal ratings firmly established in the movie and video game industries, I doubt we’ll need much of a kick in pants from Congress to go there.

The Very Real Risk of Economic Censorship

And speaking of the ESRB, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that we’ve moved beyond Comics Code style economic censorship stemming from the use of universal age ratings. Titles rated “Adults Only” by the ESRB will not be carried by major retailers (such as Blockbuster, Best Buy and Wal-Mart) and all three of the major video game manufacturers (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) explicitly prohibit the release and sale of AO-rated games for their consoles. Game companies work very hard to avoid this rating and, yes, that often means changing content to become more palatable to the ESRB. (And while the links in this paragraph are all talking about the über-violent game Manhunt 2, reading more closely, you’ll see one of the reasons this case got all that press is that it is highly unusual for a game to get an “Adults Only” rating based on violence — almost always the criteria is sexuality.)

A similar situation exists today within the world of film — films that studios allow to be released with an NC-17 rating effectively commit financial suicide. Thus, studios will also jump through serious hoops to avoid that rating — cutting and recutting their film repeatedly to somehow, someway manage to tone it down enough so that the MPAA will give it a commercially-viable “R”. And the fact that the MPAA refuses to detail exactly how much needs to be cut merely gives the illusion that they are not effectively censoring very specific content and themes — the truth is, they are.

Therefore, ratings applied “after a work is complete” do not necessarily assure fairness or freedom for artistic expression.

So, to sum up, currently age-ratings in both video games and films does in fact contribute to censorship, in particular by making visual art showing human sexuality financially untenable for its creators. This has the effect of dumbing down artistic expression in those media to that which is “child-safe” — at least in the mainstream. Particularly disturbing is the very real possibility that gay relationships are especially penalized.

Now, it may be argued “Human sexual interactions can all be implied in visual art — sometimes even with strong erotic effect — why show sex at all?”, but this misses the point — grown-ups should be able to appreciate art meant for other grown-ups. Any restrictions on artistic expression — no matter how creatively they can be worked around — diminish public discourse and cripple the best and most effective way we have to understand our fellow human beings, especially those who are different. One of art’s special gifts to the world is its ability to grant such understanding — we should be looking to enhance that power, not curtail it.

If it’s gotta be done, let’s do it right

The point I’d like to put forward is that we have an opportunity to make some better choices when it comes to our rating system. Most retailers and librarians are strongly committed to offering high-quality art and as such are strongly against censorship. When and if the time comes for some central, self-regulating authority to determine age-ratings for comics, let’s not make the same mistakes as the film and video game industries. Let’s come up with as clear and fair standards as we can, let’s keep the process 100% transparent and let’s all agree that not all comics need to be for kids by not excluding adult-only material from mainstream retail venues.

Let me break that last point down because it’s crucially important: if you’re a retailer and you believe that graphic novels can and should be for adults as well as children, then you must, must, must be willing to stock high-quality “Adults Only”-rated titles. If you’re a distributor who similarly believes in the potential for sequential art to elevate the world’s artistic discourse, then you must, must, must permit the same books to be easily marketed to mainstream retailers and not simply lump them into a catalog meant primarily for retailers of pornography. (I’m not making a value judgment re: pornography here — merely pointing out that there currently isn’t a good way for mature, clearly sexual but not pornographic graphic novels to effectively reach the retailers and consumers in the Direct Market who would most appreciate them.)

Final Thoughts

Of course, I hope that I’m being foolishly alarmist by suggesting that a central authority for age-ratings is likely. In some ways, it does feel like I’m crying out that the sky is falling. But after reviewing the history of other industries, it doesn’t seem so unlikely to me, especially when you consider the prevalent belief that “comics are for kids.” Maybe it won’t happen tomorrow, but we better be ready for it when it does.

Those of us in the industry should all be thinking very hard about the best way to implement Age-Ratings wisely. And for the sake of all of us grown-ups, we must find a way to use them that won’t lower the artistic discourse of sequential art to that of the level of children!

We’ve already been down that road — let’s do it better this time.



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About the Author: Filmmaker by day, yaoi creator by night, Alex has dedicated himself to helping cute guys fight evil and find love.

RSSComments (25)

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  1. gynocrat says:

    Particularly disturbing is the very real possibility that gay relationships are especially penalized.

    They are penalized – look at the tame titles that come from June Manga–they have to be shrink wrapped despite the fact that there's no explicit sex in them – in most titles from June Manga, there’s not even implied sex–it's just a romantic story that features two men who kiss. For some reason, this benign showing of affection must be 'hidden' from my children? It sickens me, because it sends a clear message to kids that homosexual and transgendered people aren't capable of anything other than dirty-things-you-can't-be-exposed-to. :/

    Another thing I find very disturbing is how bookstores still shelve manga in alphabetical order. It never bothered me until I saw 'Only Words' sitting next to 'One Piece.' Yes, it was shrink wrapped–but we all know the life-expectancy of s-wrap in the face of the average hobo-taki [those nitwits that sit on the bookstore floor and read their manga for free].

    I would love to think that more detailed age-ratings would lead to something good such as different shelving practices–but I just don't see it happening. What I see happening is, bookstores ordering less and less mature rated and wrapped titles, and more of the kid stuff. :(

  2. For some reason, this benign showing of affection must be ‘hidden’ from my children? It sickens me, because it sends a clear message to kids that homosexual and transgendered people aren’t capable of anything other than dirty-things-you-can’t-be-exposed-to. :/

    Yes, this is frustrating for me as well. It reminds me of a debate I once had with a very nice, straight progressive administrator about why I shouldn't cop to being gay if my 16 year old summer school students asked me directly. Now, that's a story for another time, but my experience is that it's a very prevalent belief, even among those whose hearts are in the right place. I think it is value judgments like these — often subconscious — that make a centralized authority rating books for "age-appropriate" content potentially (and in the case of the MPAA, quite actually) discriminatory and toxic, despite good intentions.

    What I see happening is, bookstores ordering less and less mature rated and wrapped titles, and more of the kid stuff. :(

    And yes, this is my fear — that age-ratings, while hopefully providing better guidance to librarians, retailers and parents for who the best audience is for a book, will wind up making more mature and challenging titles ultimately less marketable, perhaps dramatically so.

    I hope I'm wrong about this — and it is something that is within retailers' and distributors' control, hence my call to action in the post — but it's certainly something that we all need to think about carefully if we are to consider some sort of centralized, universal age-ratings.

  3. gynocrat says:

    I hope I’m wrong about this — and it is something that is within retailers’ and distributors’ control, hence my call to action in the post —

    Sadly, I think the only way we'll ever get 'graphic-novel' nirvana is when bookstores open 'graphic novel only' outlet stores. :( Places like this will have the space and manpower to arrange books by genre, and then by age–but that would require bookstores to begin treating graphic novels like more than just a niche medium. [which in the West, it still is.]

  4. Sadly, I think the only way we’ll ever get ‘graphic-novel’ nirvana is when bookstores open ‘graphic novel only’ outlet stores.

    Intriguing. I haven't heard much talk about this. How would you see these stores operating differently than the Direct Market here in the U.S.?

  5. artdjmaster says:

    Okay, I read some brief points in the article and comments, but for me, if the book says "18+", I'll most likely get it over a "16+" one. I think the major appeal of Yaoi is the more explicit titles.

    Also, I don't mind the "18+" June books being shrink-wrapped because there are sexual scenes which should be avoided by prying children's eyes. And anyways, the June titles that are "16+" are not shrink wrapped at my major bookstore. In fact, that bookstore is doing a very good job of promoting Yaoi by featuring some titles in "Shelf Hotspots". They've recently stocked some Kitty Media, Deux, and DramaQueen books as well as the usual Blu and June titles.

    As for "graphic-novel" nirvana, it already happens for me since my favourite comic shop stocks all the Yaoi there is in English. Any titles that are missing can be ordered through my major bookstore.

  6. Oliver,

    As for “graphic-novel” nirvana, it already happens for me since my favourite comic shop stocks all the Yaoi there is in English. Any titles that are missing can be ordered through my major bookstore.

    Well, that's certainly cool. :-) One question, though. From what I've gathered from your blog, you're based in Canada, right? (Think I read that somewhere…) Now, I've heard that there are major restrictions on certain kinds of "explicit" yaoi being allowed across those borders — in particular, the titles that are contained in Adult Previews (which I believe DramaQueen and 801 have to list in, at least sometimes). Have you ever talked to your comic book retailer about this? Would you be willing to talk to your comic book retailer about this? :-)

    I'd love to hear about how real a restriction this is — particularly because there is a risk that Yaoi 911™: Firsts will be exiled to Previews Adult should I distribute with Diamond… :-(

  7. gynocrat says:

    Well, for starters, the direct market seems reliant on 'floppy' titles. Walk into any given US comic shop and there's walls loaded with single-issue releases. A specialty bookstore dedicated solely to graphic novels would likely put their books face out, and in the proper category, and then age group in that category. I suppose 'manga' would have to be kept separate from Super-Hero fare…but when you think about it, would it? Honestly, Naturo is as much a young man's action comic as is any action title coming from DC or Marvel. Let's face it, 'Ninja outfit' and 'plug-suit' is the Japanese cape and spandex. :/

    As for dealing solely with Diamond – they wouldn't have to. Many of the manga pubs and small presses deal with distributors other than Diamond. The only thing that could hinder a graphic novel franchise would be Diamond demanding exclusivity from GN pubs :/

    And don't knock Previews Adult just yet. ^_-

    All BL has been 'moved' to Previews Adult, and this is making the book more lucrative. Any vendor interested in carrying BL would have to check out the Previews Adult, and so the only thing going against you would be…not having enough titles to stand out amidst the mass listing of June/801 and BLU. :)

  8. A specialty bookstore dedicated solely to graphic novels would likely put their books face out, and in the proper category, and then age group in that category.

    This is a good point. Of course, living in San Francisco I already get to experience this at my too cool local comic book store, <a href = "http://www.isotopecomics.com/&quot; rel="nofollow">Isotope. ;-) Some part of me wonders if this is going to be the direction the entire Direct Market will head at some point. Certainly as an independent publisher, graphic novels make a lot more financial sense. And as reader, I prefer them as well.

    And don’t knock Previews Adult just yet. ^_-

    All BL has been ‘moved’ to Previews Adult, and this is making the book more lucrative. Any vendor interested in carrying BL would have to check out the Previews Adult, and so the only thing going against you would be…not having enough titles to stand out amidst the mass listing of June/801 and BLU. :)

    Thank you for sharing this. I hadn't heard this before and it's very encouraging. :-D Now if I only knew whether it'll keep me out of Canada…

  9. artdjmaster says:

    Well, I don't know about any major restrictions in Canada since I've got just about every 801 and DQ book. I talked to my comic retailer a few months ago and they said certain books may take longer to ship if they're from Adult Previews. All the June releases are on time, but 801 Media and DQ take a little longer. They also told me that Blu doesn't want to ship to Canada anymore for some reason. Mind you, all the explicit Yaoi available in English can be found in Canada anyways. We're not such a close-minded society (Toronto's annual Pride Parade is a week away :)

  10. Oliver,

    Not to worry — I have no illusions about Canada being a close-minded society, particularly compared to the U.S. I've got family in Toronto — so I know how it is there — and let's face it, you've got the gay marriage and have led North America in terms of gay rights. So, my feelings re: Canada are of admiration, not tsk, tsking. ;-)

    Thank you for the info re: your retailer. Now I'm of course curious what the reasons for the delays are (customs delays?) and if there are any issues with getting books through Previews Adult (or if there is any issue at all with getting that catalog period.) When next you go, would you mind asking? I am curious if having my books listed in Previews Adult will hurt my sales to Canada or not…

  11. artdjmaster says:

    Yeah, it won't be a problem for me to ask them. I may go there in the next 2 days, so I'll let you know what they say.

    Also, a few times I asked about certain releases at two different comic stores, and the answer was that they didn't know when the shipment for some Yaoi would come. "Finder Series 3" and some DQ books appeared that they came in a different truck and at a different time than the usual manga releases on Wednesdays. One answer I got was, "We'll get it when the guy decides to come down here." So it could be either a problem with customs, or a problem with the Canadian drivers. In any case, the releases are always on time if special ordered through the major book retailer.

  12. Yeah, it won’t be a problem for me to ask them. I may go there in the next 2 days, so I’ll let you know what they say.

    Thank you — that's much appreciated. :-) Basically, I'd be curious to hear what the best way to distribute 18+ yaoi to Canadian retailers would be, particularly in the Direct Market.

    “Finder Series 3″ and some DQ books appeared that they came in a different truck and at a different time than the usual manga releases on Wednesdays.

    This makes me wonder if a different distributor is being used for these books than the "usual manga." Hmmm.

    Thanks for checking this out for me. I hope all is well with you up North… :-)

    Alex

  13. Hello Alex! Thank you for the compliments! It is nice to know that my raving has made some sort of sense. I do agree with your concerns of economic censorship. We do have to protect those indie minded store owners who are willing to shelve books of all kind and manner. If they are aware of what the books contain, they will know where to shelve them.

    Insofar as the big boxes carrying Yaoi, Yuri or Josei? It's a bit of a lose win situation. It will be a long time before we see the mainstream retailers feeling comfortable with sexuality of any kind really. This is where the indie stores will find strength. If a book features gay-themed stories of a tame or explicit nature, the indie stores will likely benefit by staking the territory. Surely, there will be a hue and cry from the conservative consumers but if the store owner isn't caught off guard they can react accordingly.

    This makes me think of a conversation I had with my high school aged son about kids coming out in school. He says there is still some prejudice there but it's probably nowhere near what took place in my high school days. I'm glad it's getting a little easier. Or at least it seems that way.

    I think the up side is that book store owners will understand exactly what the books can contain, they will know where to properly shelve them. No one wants to be thrown into jail for the stupidest of reasons. It almost happened with a book called The Salon by Nick Bertozzi. We need to allow these booksellers some sense of guidance and protection. Librarians have a collection development policy that will protect them. Indie stores do not. If we create an age ratings system this can help them tremendously.

    Thanks again for allowing me to be a part of the discussion. I do think we are making progress.

    John

  14. Thanks for joining in, John! :-)

    I do agree with your concerns of economic censorship. We do have to protect those indie minded store owners who are willing to shelve books of all kind and manner. If they are aware of what the books contain, they will know where to shelve them.

    I think it is balancing these two concerns — protecting the retailer and avoiding economic censorship — that presents the greatest challenge when it comes to age-ratings and comics meant for adults. We can protect the retailer by letting them know where an adult title should be shelved, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t exile truly adult material from the mainstream — and a lot of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the distributor and retailer.

    The relationship has to be symbiotic here — the publishers protect the retailers by giving honest assessments and warnings about the content within a comic and the distributors/retailers need to reward that honesty by still buying and promoting these works. The truth is, it’s tempting to just slap on a “For Mature Audiences” on my book and be done with it — Vertigo titles use this description and certainly are not exiled in any way. But if there is frank sexuality inside, is that really protecting the retailer? Wouldn’t it be better for the retailer to know for sure whether a book is ok for late teens or really is just for adults?

    As a publisher I want to and will protect the retailers interested in selling my books. I just don’t want to be punished for it. If we want to create a literary culture that allows for books for adults and have age-ratings to guide buyers and consumers, then distributors and publishers need to commit to promoting 18-and-over books. And that’s how we can avoid the mistakes of the film and gaming industries.

    Insofar as the big boxes carrying Yaoi, Yuri or Josei? It’s a bit of a lose win situation. It will be a long time before we see the mainstream retailers feeling comfortable with sexuality of any kind really.

    I wonder how true this is. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big believer in the independent bookstore — but it certainly seems to me that the big boxes are willing to have lots of books with sexuality. (Everything from “The Joy of Sex” to whole gay fiction sections can be found at Barnes & Noble, yes? And I bought my first Robot at Borders — and that was shrink-wrapped and had a big “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” sticker on it.) So I think there definitely is willingness on their part to stock and promote this kind of material.

    Now would they have been willing to take a chance on Robot if they had to find it in a distributor catalog that consisted primarily of pornography? Probably not. The context a work is presented in is important. That’s why creators are hesitant to have their non-pornographic work appear in Previews Adult — and why it’s in the publishers interest not to label their mature works “18+”, even if it would be safer for the retailer for them to do so.

    This makes me think of a conversation I had with my high school aged son about kids coming out in school. He says there is still some prejudice there but it’s probably nowhere near what took place in my high school days. I’m glad it’s getting a little easier. Or at least it seems that way.

    I think things are getting easier for gay kids, which gives me hope for the safety and well-being of all people in the world who face discrimination. And I personally believe that media plays a large role in this transformation. From Philadelphia to Ellen to Will and Grace to Brothers and Sisters, folks are exposed to the lives of gay people in a way that slowly but surely diffuses prejudice. And I believe a big driver for the acceptance of these kinds of representations in mainstream media was the success of shows that were specifically meant for adults, such as Six Feet Under and The Wire, pushing the envelope.

    When I was a gay kid just coming out, I remember attending a speech by an openly gay Boston city councilperson called “Coming Out, Creating Change.” One of his main points is that “Gays have nothing to fear from the truth!” — meaning that it was disinformation about who we really were that promoted hate and prejudice and that the more honestly and clearly the world could see us, the better off we’d all be. The bad guys want to keep the truth in the dark — the main job of the good guys is to be there to shine a light on it.

    Art and literature for adults can enjoy a special freedom to do just that. But only if we’re willing to let it see the light of day…

  15. artdjmaster says:

    @Alex:

    I found out at my comic store today that the reason why Previews Adult titles are late is because they are detained at the US/Canada border. They said that it takes longer mainly because it is a comic shop issue (Maybe there's less trust for comic shops?). What's weird is, another comic shop just got a huge shipment of new Yaoi that should have been in stores two months ago! Obviously, there's more strict regulations on Adult Previews stuff. Anyways, all the 18+ June titles are always on time. Maybe I should just stick to June-only titles?

  16. @artdjmaster

    Thank you, Oliver — that's good information. So it seems like the Adult Previews stuff can get through — it just take a lot longer. Good to know.

    And you could do worse than sticking with June, but you'd still be missing some nice titles, like the actually mature Seduce Me After the Show by Est Em… ;-)

    Thanks again for checking that out!

  17. Originally Posted By Alex WoolfsonWell, that's certainly cool. :-) One question, though. From what I've gathered from your blog, you're based in Canada, right? (Think I read that somewhere…) Now, I've heard that there are major restrictions on certain kinds of "explicit" yaoi being allowed across those borders — in particular, the titles that are contained in Adult Previews (which I believe DramaQueen and 801 have to list in, at least sometimes). Have you ever talked to your comic book retailer about this? Would you be willing to talk to your comic book retailer about this? :-)

    I'd love to hear about how real a restriction this is — particularly because there is a risk that Yaoi 911™: Firsts will be exiled to Previews Adult should I distribute with Diamond… :-(

    Speaking of restrictions, I have been curious for some time about the various levels of graphicness (if that's a word) of yaoi. Some titles show detail, some have the infamous little white dots over certain parts and other have the more graphic "bits" covered in what I like to call snow. Is this a restriction required for the US market or is this how it is published in Japan? If I were to publish my own yaoi graphic novel in the US, would I be limited by what I can show? Is there information somewhere that would point me in the right direction as to what is ok to draw/include and what is not?

  18. artdjmaster says:

    @Yaoi Review:

    On the topic of varying levels of censorship, it depends on the artist, and the Japanese/English publishers. Some artists choose not to draw genitalia, and some choose to draw it, but censor it themselves. Sometimes, the Japanese publisher censors it, but I think the only english publisher that censors this, is June. Be Beautiful has only censored one of their works due to a small Shota-ish scene, not the private parts.

    An interesting thing I learned from DramaQueen, is that the Japanese version of their flagship title, "Brother" is censored. However, DramaQueen requested the original uncensored art from the publisher, and that's why Brother is the most explicit Yaoi book in English. A US publisher actually wanted to release a more explicit version of Brother, rather than have it toned down, so think about that.

    If you want to publish your own Yaoi graphic novel in english, you can be as explicit as you want because most OEL Yaoi is, at most times, even more graphic than Japanese Yaoi.

    You can approach Yaoi Press, which specializes in Global Yaoi, they won't give you complete artistic freedom, though. Check their website http://yaoipress.com/info.htm for their requirements for submissions. Tokyopop will publish tame BL. Yaoi House, based in Britain, also accepts English manuscripts, go to their website https://www.yaoihousebooks.com/site/submit.php for more info).

    Hope this helped,

    Oliver

  19. Thanks! That helps a lot. No minors in my stuff. Not even young looking boys, just manly adults.

  20. @The Yaoi Review

    Then you should probably be O.K. ;-)

    Good luck with your work — when it's complete, give us a shout-out over here.

    Cheers,

    Alex

  21. @artdjmaster

    Thanks for your thoughts. I actually have Brother (because I heard it was pretty explicit) so that is interesting to hear.

    I need to run all my options as far as self-publishing or going through a publishing company is concerned. Luckily, I've got plenty of time to sort it all out.

  22. @The Yaoi Review

    As I understand it, this is a Japanese legal requirement — that, in Japan, you cannot show uncovered genitalia. When you see yaoi here in the U.S. with penises that have been obscured or even not drawn at all, this is the reason. Now, from what I’ve seen, usually the letter of the law is followed, but not the spirit. For example, you will often see drawn penises that leave nothing to the imagination, but will have a very thin, black line crossing it — technically obscuring it and thus keeping the work in legal compliance.

    In the United States, there is no problem with showing adult genitalia — it falls under First Amendment protection — so long as the work is not “obscene”, which in the U.S. means that it would fail the Miller Test. For the most part, in this day and age in the U.S., so long as all your characters are adult, you don’t really have to worry too much about what you can show. Go take a look at the work of Class Comics to get an idea what gay comics publishers in Canada can get away with – and as I mentioned before, things seem to be more restrictive there.

    Where you need to be careful — or at the very least aware — is if the characters you draw engaging in sexual activity are minors, and minors is defined as anyone under the age of 18. You can have two 18-year-olds do whatever you want. Throw in a 17-year-old and you could face prosecution for creating or “pandering” child pornography.

    Whether cartoons and comics where no real children were ever involved should be considered child pornography is a subject of much debate. There are continued attempts on the part of Congress to make drawings of minors engaging in sexual activity illegal. The Supreme Court continues to act as the voice of reason* (PDF), but I would be remiss if I gave you the impression that creating such stories carries no risk. For a good example of the risks involved take a look at How To Keep Manga Fans Out Of Jail.

    So the short answer (from my non-laywer, layman’s opinion — continue doing your own due diligence!)? So long as minors aren’t depicted, there are virtually no limits to what you can show. It is only if you want to show minors engaging in sexual activity that you are exposed to serious risk — and then, according to the current view of the Supreme Court, only if the material could be judged as “obscene” and/or is believed or promoted as actual child pornography.

    Hope this helps! And good luck with your work!

    Alex

    * UNITED STATES v. WILLIAMS — this decision reflects the most current legal take on the relationship between comics and child pornography here in the U.S. It strikes down a challenge by the Eleventh Circuit to the PROTECT Act. The PROTECT Act makes it illegal to “pander” child pornography, whether or not any actual children are involved. The Supreme Court overruled the Eleventh Circuit and thus most of this decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the PROTECT Act. You have to dig a fair amount to find the sanity. There is this line that offers some hope:

    This was invalid, we explained, because the child-protection rationale for speech restriction does not apply to materials produced without children.

    but it’s not until nearly the very end that we get this clarification:

    Finally, the dissent accuses us of silently overruling our prior decisions in Ferber and Free Speech Coalition. See post, at 12. According to the dissent, Congress has made an end-run around the First Amendment’s protection of virtual child pornography by prohibiting proposals to transact in such images rather than prohibiting the images themselves. But an offer to provide or request to receive virtual child pornography is not prohibited by the statute. A crime is committed only when the speaker believes or intends the listener to believe that the subject of the proposed transaction depicts real children. It is simply not true that this means “a protected category of expression [will] inevitably be suppressed,” post, at 13. Simulated child pornography will be as available as ever, so long as it is offered and sought as such, and not as real child pornography.

    If you have an interest in law or in what the limits are in terms of sexual depictions in comics, you will find the decision as written by Justice Scalia to be actually quite readable (even downright snarky in some places) and includes a handy legislative grammar lesson involving “operative verbs”. I actually would recommend folks giving it a read. Thought-provoking stuff.

  23. artdjmaster says:

    That's good. Good luck with your endeavors!!

  24. Well… to tell the truth, I think you Americans’ laws on age-ratings should be eased a little bit. The reason why pornography is not legal for viewing by anyone under 18 is that it tends to depict sexual acts that are not appropriated, even sometimes dangerous on some aspects. That’s likely to create problems with teenagers since they do not necessarily make difference between what’s normal and what’s not, what’s okay and what’s not. That doesn’t mean that anything having to do with sexual content is harmful to them. (I think you got that point, though.)

    I live in Quebec – the francophone province on the East side of Canada – and despite the fact that we have a certain access to american comics, most of translated japanese comics we have here come from France, and there, it gets REALLY obvious that they’re not that severe with it. To give you a better idea, Viewfinder is labeled as «not suited for children» or «for an advised audience only», which means that not only could I by french versions of No Money and Viewfinder at the age of 17, but nearly anybody could. And that’s the part that bugs me: I believe like you do that comics should be given a fair rating. As an example, with Viewfinder, the first volume should be sold to people over the age 18 only, while the rest of the series surely should not be sold to anybody below 15.

    • Hey Pierre-Marc!

      It’s interesting to speculate in what ways showing sexually arousing materials to people under the age of 18 can be harmful. You have a good hypothesis that it’s because young people are more likely to act on content they see in the media, even if it’s not in their best interest. That would be something that would be interesting to test to see if it were so — and as it seems like there are plenty of people who have viewed pornography when they were under 18 who are now adults, I believe you could look for correlations there without having to expose minors to porn to do the test. You’d have to somehow try to nail down causation — are young people more likely to engage in risky behavior because they had access to arousing material or are people who would have engaged in risky behavior anyway more likely to seek out porn? — but that seems doable. If your hypothesis were shown through actual evidence to be correct, that would be a solid reason to have these laws in place.

      Alas, at least here in the United States, I don’t think that reasoning is behind these laws. One reason I think that is, is that it is legal to show any kind of violence or torture to minors, so long as it is not sexual. If the reason for minors not to see this material is because they are more likely to act on it, you would think you wouldn’t want them to see media depicting decapitations and murder! Yet time and again when legislators try to ban violent video games, etc, the Courts strike those laws down, arguing that non-sexual violent content is protected speech.

      Again, if there were scientific evidence of actual harm being created by minors viewing violent media, then the Courts wouldn’t be able to do that. Much like the classic example of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater, the right of free speech in the U.S. has limits when it causes physical harm. But as of yet, the studies don’t support the argument of opponents of violent video games. And I would imagine the same would be the case for minors viewing media designed to sexually arouse. But, as I said, it would be a worthy area for study!

      At least here in the U.S., I think a primary motivation for the specific ban about sexual content has more to do with our Puritan heritage, general discomfort about sexual content and the fears and discomfort of some parents about their young people becoming adults. I also think that’s why the definition of “obscenity” — which can make media illegal even for adults to create, view and own! — requires an appeal to “prurient” (sexual) interest. I don’t think at least in the U.S. the government is actually basing the law on the reasonable (and testable) hypothesis you offer here. Thus, you get bad law like the PROTECT Act.

      Anyway, I really appreciate your comment — it’s a great springboard for discussion and thought! As a creator, just as when I wrote this article, I still would like clearer guidelines — if for no other reason than to make creating art safer and to further the discussion of what is actually, testably appropriate and safe for minors to view.

      Alex

      P.S. Growing up in Vermont, I have a lot of positive associations with Québec. Very nice folk there! :D

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