Before embarking on my illustrious career as a semi-professional comics critic and blogger, my first post-collegiate writing gig was as a staff writer for a local newspaper based in my small hometown in northeast Ohio.
It’s not often that I feel nostalgic for those days of combing police reports for grisly accidents and salacious crimes, or sitting through school board and city council meetings in the hopes of finding something potentially interesting among the hours of droning on about the most mundane financial matters.
But the other day I felt a bit jealous of Greg Latshaw, staff writer for the Daily Times, a Salisbury, Maryland-based newspaper owned by Gannett. (They’re online at delmarvanow.com).
At one of those boring meetings Latshaw covers, Wicomico County Councilman Joe Holloway, a 53-year-old Republican, apparently spread out photocopies of pages from Dragon Ball Vol. 1, a collection of Akira Toriyama’s incredibly popular Dragon Ball comics.
The photocopies apparently showed scenes of adolescent hero Goku, Toriyama’s version of the mythological Monkey King character, naked, and expressing curiosity regarding the difference between his body and that of Bulma, the first human female he’s ever encountered. If they’re from the first volume, than these scenes would have been Toriyama’s earliest Dragon Ball strips, and produced around 1984 or so.
How did they end up on the agenda of county council meeting? Apparently a nine-year-old fourth-grader checked out the book—which is rated “T” for teen and, in some editions, says for ages “13 and up” right there on the cover—from the Pittsville Elementary and Middle School library, which is within Councilman Holloway’s county.
My colleague David Pepose linked to the original story yesterday, quoting the paper’s specific examples of what was objectionable. I’ll do so again here. From the Times article:
In cartoon format, it depicts nudity, sexual contact between children and sexual innuendo among adults and children,” Holloway told fellow council members during the comment period of Tuesday’s meeting.
Photocopies provided by Holloway detail several of the scenes.
In one, the protagonist, a young boy, pats the covered crotch area of a sleeping teenage girl before removing her panties. The same boy later appears naked in the bathtub and is naked when he performs flying jump kicks.
In another scene, a Peeping Tom watches a naked teenage girl as she takes a shower. Furthermore, the novel shows a teenage girl flashing a bearded man; and another man asking a girl about her bra size.
If you’ve read Toriyama’s Dragon Ball comics, you’re no doubt familiar with the scenes in question (Yamcha’s the peeping tom, Bulma’s the girl and Master Roshi is the bearded man). You might also be scratching your head that this is something that even needs discussed at the level of a county government.
Goku is drawn with the body of a Valentine’s Day cherub, and while he’s occasionally nude, it’s the innocent nudity of naïve childhood. His penis is drawn on the page here and there, and it consists quite literally of two semi-circles. Fourth-graders will see more detailed male nudity in your average book of renaissance art then in Dragon Ball.
I don’t have my Viz back-issues in front of me as I write this—these comics are so old that the first time I read them Viz was still publishing chapters of manga in floppy staples and paper comic format—but I don’t recall the female nudity as being even that detailed. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Bulma didn’t even have nipples, which, like female genitals and pubic hair, are actually pretty rare in manga. So I would guess the female nudity is PG-13 movie-style, “TV nudity,” which would mesh with Viz’s rating (Or, in other words, about the same level of nudity seen in this photo gallery linked to from the Daily Times‘ home page yesterday. Seriously, those are some very small bikinis those gals are wearing). The nudity in Dragon Ball is therefore about as detailed as what your average fourth-grader sees when undressing Ken and Barbie dolls.
The peeping scene could be considered sexual, as could a later scene where Bulma flashes the panties-obsessed Master Roshi (readers just see her butt) but there’s nothing even vaguely sexual about a Mowgli-like little orphan boy who lived his whole life in the woods running around naked here.
Nevertheless, the Times article is headlined “Schools’ library book pulled for sexual content,” the lead refers to “the racy illustrations” and the mother of the fourth-grader called them “disgusting.”
It’s all very Victorian.
Now I’m not going to argue that Dragon Ball necessarily belongs in a grade school library, and I’m uncertain of its educational value in general. It’s not a bad introduction to Journey to the West and some Chinese and Japanese mythology in general, and it’s certainly an expertly drawn and occasionally quite funny adventure comic with a juvenile sense of humor and fantastic action sequences. But it’s hardly required reading for school kids.
If the school, school board or county government want to take it out of the library, go for it. Heck, a glance at the book’s cover and a bit of first-grade level math will determine it probably doesn’t belong in most grade school libraries, and probably shouldn’t be lent out to nine-year-olds anyway (To put it mathematically , 9 < 13).
I am going to point at Joe Holloway, Latshaw and The Daily Times for making a big deal out of something that should be as simple as saying, “Oh yeah, this says it’s for teenagers, maybe we shouldn’t give it to nine-year-olds” though.
Holloway going to the trouble of making photocopies and asking his fellow members of county government to consider how sexual these semi-circles implying a little boy’s pee-pee are is obviously overreaction (Surely something more pressing must be going on in Wicomico County that deserves his attention, no?)
The Times article is kind of depressing though. Late in the first piece on the subject, Latshka notes that Wicomico Schools Superintendent John Fredericksen “said the book in question was likely purchased with grant funding.”
In other words, Latshka or someone else must have asked if taxpayer money was being spent on putting pornography in our schools. Not to be too sensational or anything.
That line of thinking is followed up on during a second article, also by Latshaw, published on Thursday:
Mark Thompson, president of the county school board, said it appears grant funding —not county dollars —bought the books in question. He said county schools did not select the books individually because they came as part of a “bulk purchase.”
“The pictures I saw, if it was meant for adults, it crosses the line for child pornography. If it’s for a child, why show these scenes for children?” Thompson said.
Here are scans of what I assume is the peeping tom shower scene, by the way, and another of Goku asking Bulma about the second butt on her chest. I’ve taken them from Matthew Brady’s August 2008 review of the first volume:
I should note that due to the age and the popularity of Dragon Ball, there are several different versions of it in English now, so without the Times running images of what Holloway passed out, we can’t be sure of which version was in the school library. The bubbles over Bulma’s chest aren’t in every version, apparently (You can see a partially bubble-less version, as well as images of the naked Goku, on this message board thread. Prepare to not be shocked).
Back to my jealousy of the juicy council meeting though, Latshaw’s initial article also notes that the school superintendent said “he expects the book to be reviewed by a committee that judges the merit of red-flagged books. At that point, a permanent decision on the future of the Dragon Ball book will be made.”
That is awesome. Can you imagine a committee of folks with no prior knowledge, experience or interest in Dragon Ball or manga or maybe even comics all sitting down to read a couple hundred pages of Dragon Ball and trying to parse it?
How come this pig can talk, and why is it dressed like a Chinese communist and so interested in panties? Why are there anthropomorphic, talking animals and normal animals? Why is this Yamcha person so afraid of girls? What’s up with this floating cat creature with a giant head that calls Yamcha “master”? Why does this bald kid look like a muscular baby?
That meeting is going to have the best minutes!
Related: Anime Diet notes Holloway’s suspicious strategy of removing the book from the school library—by bringing it up at a county meeting instead of contacting the school first—and some of his other political positions.