Bengaluru parents and children who attended Comic Con 2018 at KTPO Trade and Convention centre, Whitefield on 17 and 18 November were in for a bit of a shock once they got home and opened the goody bags they received along with their tickets.
Those who bought online passes for the convention in Bengaluru were given a goody bag, containing a wristband, a packet of Doritos, a Batman poster and a graphic comic book, when they went to the counter to collect their physical tickets. But much to the consternation of the parents of young children who received the bag, the graphic comic which was in it, Saga, by Brian K Vaughan, contained several explicit images which many parents found utterly unsuitable for children. These included images of aliens engaging in various sexual acts and positions, a bloody image of childbirth, and frank depictions of male and female genitalia.
Many parent groups online and social media members posted about their shock and anger at their children having received an age inappropriate book in a freely distributed gift bag along with their tickets, especially as they did not request or pay for it, and were not warned of its contents.
Social media commentator and lawyer Debjani Aich posted on Facebook about having been given this comic as part of the goody bag, which she and her 8-year-old daughter collected at ComicCon. She encouraged those who saw the post to escalate the matter, and act against the negligent and â€śillegalâ€ť distribution of â€śpornographicâ€ť material to children. She also tagged Comic Con and Comic Con India in her post.
Manas, another parent who had accompanied his young child to Comic Con this weekend, told TNM, â€śWe didnâ€™t look through the book there, but opened it only when we came home. My wife saw it, the first few pages, and immediately took it away after noticing the material it contained. Now as a parent, Iâ€™m not saying that such material should not exist or that people shouldn't read or it or something, but it should have come with some kind of warning or age advisory displayed, which neither this book nor the bag had.â€ť
Debjani told TNM, â€śI have filed an FIR in this matter with the Baiyappanhalli police station against Comic Con Private Limited. The police stationâ€™s system is currently down, so they have not been able to produce an FIR number for me yet, but they have acknowledged my complaint. As of now, we [herself and another lawyer assisting her in filing the case] feel it violates sections of the POCSO Act, and certain sections of the IPC.
Responding to the incident, the Comic Con Communications Team released a statement which read, "We sincerely apologize for the inadvertent mix up that has occurred at Bengaluru Comic Con 2018. In almost 7 years of our show, we have never had such a thing happen. We as an organisation neither support nor promote such content for underage audience."
But is it really pornography/obscenity?
The comic book in question, Saga, is an epic space opera/fantasy comic book series written by an American named Brian K Vaughan, with illustrations by Fiona Staples. Itâ€™s been described as Star Wars meets Game of Thrones, and depicts a husband and wife, Alana and Marko, who are members of rival inter-galactic tribes, and fleeing authorities from their respective tribes while caring for their daughter, Hazel. Itâ€™s an extremely popular and highly critically acclaimed comic book series, having earned twelve Eisner and seventeen Harvey Awards between 2013 and 2017.
As advocate Satyajit Sarna pointed out to TNM, pornography, or what constitutes printed pornographic material, in India is viewed through the lens of obscenity. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code deals with the sale and distribution of obscene materials, while Section 293 involves the distribution or sale of such obscene material to children. Section 292 says that a material shall be deemed to be obscene â€śif it is lascivious or appeals to the pruriÂent interest or if its effect [is] such as to tend to deprave and corrupt personâ€ť.
However, the exception to Sec 292 reads that this section does not extend to materials which are â€śproved to be justified as being for the public good on the ground that such [material] is in the interest of science, literature, art or learning or other objects of general concernâ€ť. The exception also excludes religious materials, and historical architecture and sculptures.
Given the high artistic and literary value of the Saga comics, it cannot be said that the sexual images depicted in the series existed merely for â€śprurientâ€ť purposes, as they are part of a larger literary and artistic project.
It then remains to be seen if in a court of law, the distribution of such material as was handed out by Comic Con, even to children, would be seen as the offence of publishing or distribution of â€śobsceneâ€ť material to children, as the material may not fall into the legal definition of obscenity in the first place.
â€śBut while it may not stand up in a court of law, that doesnâ€™t mean that this [the distribution of the comic at Comic Con] is not enough to get an FIR registered,â€ť Satyajit warns dryly, â€śAlthough thatâ€™s not the best standard to go by, of course.â€ť