On his blog, Neil Gaiman succinctly argues even something as “icky” as manga depicting sex with minors should be defended because, to protect the First Amendment, all speech has to be defended, even if it is on the surface “indefensible.” (He also neatly deals with the canard that banning deviant pornography in some vague way protects children from rape).
Gaiman is talking about defending smut in general. He alludes to, but doesn’t really explore, how deeply upsetting pornography has a natural home on the comics page.
Comics, like books and animation, but unlike film and photography, can tell stories of things that can not be (i.e. supernatural powers, alien worlds, mythical creatures).* That is well known. Less well explored is comics as a place for stories of things that should not be, things that would be illegal, unethical, or just plain morally reprehensible to do with actual actors and models.
Or rather, less well explored in this country. In Japan, pornography involving actual humans is very restricted, so much so that a large percentage of Japanese erotica are comics and cartoons (building on a tradition going back hundreds of years).
Freed from the real, Japanese pornographers have let their imaginations run wild over the years, telling stories of fantasy sex (such as demons and aliens with imaginative genitalia) as well as culturally offensive sex, such as incest, rape, bestiality, and so on (as in this story, which is EXTRAORDINARILY unsafe for work. Also it reads right to left.) Though there is plenty of “normal” pornography in Japan, Japanese sex comics and cartoons can be so kinky that the Japanese word for “perverse” has become the American word for Japanese erotic entertainment—“hentai.”
And hentai serves many purposes. Beyond the obvious prurient interests, hentai allows readers to explore their own sexuality and better understand what turns them on and what they enjoy about sex. For instance, even if you would never really want to copulate with a multi-tentacled hell-lord, seeing a character taken by a demon king might help you understand your own submissive nature (or possibly dominant nature, depending on with whom you identified). It also allows people to talk about and read about important issues, such as rape or youthful sexuality that would be uncomfortable to recreate using real people.
Prose fiction in America has certainly explored kinky sexuality too, from the BDSM of the Kushiel’s Dart series to the horror erotica Anita Blake or Twilight series (ooh, spoiler). But it’s one thing to read about a werewolf gangbang, it’s another entirely to actually see it, making hentai uniquely powerful.
If comics is a place where creators and readers can explore the boundaries of what is physically possible, it can also be a place to explore the edges of what is psychologically possible, even when that edges into the uncomfortable arena of sexuality. But to do that, readers can’t be afraid of being arrested for having comics that “offend the community,” even if those comics are enjoyed solely in their own home.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has taken up the case, and you can go to their page to learn more about what you can do to protect free speech and dirty pictures in this country. Because if we can’t talk about tentacle rape in our own homes, where can we talk about it?
*Yes, there’s obviously plenty of live action fantasy, but special effects are just puppetry and animation pretending very hard to be real.