The story of Britain’s first horror moral panic and the odd role that the Communist Party played in it.
It began, as these things often do, with a touch of snobbery. George Pumphrey was a headmaster at a school in Sussex. Diana Sinnott was a teacher in a tough comprehensive on the Old Kent Road. Peter Mauger was a teacher in Chingford and – and this is significant – a member of the Communist Party. All three individually came across imported or reprinted American crime and horror comics at the end of the 1950s, and all three were appalled at what they saw. The comics were crudely printed – literally pulp publications, the British editions on whatever paper was the cheapest and slapped together with little care or attention by independent publishers – and were far from what British people believed comics should be. Britain, even today, still tends to see comics as juvenile entertainment – back in 1949, the idea of comics aimed at adults was beyond comprehension. For these teachers, comics were suitable only for children – a crude and disposable form of entertainment that had no literary worth. Even the most wholesome of comics – the Beanos and Dandys of this world – have long been viewed with some suspicion by a certain sort of patrician teacher, the kind who feel that kids should be pouring over the classics as soon as they can read, rather than enjoying the empty pleasures of the comic strip.
But these comics – from famous EC titles like The Vault of Horror to less well-known fly by night titles – were hardly wholesome. Even today, the post-war, pre-code American horror and crime comics are startlingly lurid – gore-drenched, mean-spirited, cynical and morally ambiguous. In 1949, to people already inclined to see comic books as essentially worthless and to have an instinctive belief that they, above everyone else, knew what was good for society – well, these comics must have seemed beyond outrageous.
In his essential study of the era, A Haunt of Fears, Martin Barker quotes Reverend Chad Varah, who would later found The Samaritans and help launch The Eagle comic as a direct, stiff-upper-lipped wholesome English riposte to the crude American imports. In the time-honoured method of third-hand anecdotes that censorship campaigners engage in, Varah talks of a Peggy Middleton – yet another teacher! – who found an eleven-year-old pupil reading a comic that featured “a drug addict flogging a naked girl to death with a bicycle chain” and then found similar material in every desk of the class. Context be damned, this was certainly shocking stuff. Middleton joined Pumphrey, Sinnott, Mauger and others in what became a quickly growing campaign against the dangers of these comics. Then, as now, the protection of children was the trojan horse for censorship groups, but the reality of the campaign was to control what anyone could see – to socially engineer a society that the campaigners approved of, and to silence dissent and deviation.
A similar campaign was underway in America, where Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent would lead the way in a moral panic about children being warped by lurid comic books. But while the overt concerns were the same, the underlying panics between Britain and America were very different. In the USA, the horror comics were frequently seen as part of some Communist plot to undermine American society. In Britain, it was the Communists who were leading the charge against what they saw as corrupt American culture infiltrating British society.
Pumphrey would become the figurehead of the Comics Campaign Council, a campaigning body that quickly set the agenda for the discussion of horror comics. Then, as now, the anti-censorship campaigners were caught on the hop and unsure what to do – no one, not even the writers and artists who you might think would be instinctively against censorship, wanted to defend the comics. In one of many parallels to the Video Nasties hysteria thirty years later, liberals and intellectuals were unwilling to speak up against the censorial, either because they were afraid (who wants to defend the corruption of children, after all?) or because they too had a snobbish disregard for the material. Tales from the Crypt was no Lady Chatterley’s Lover, after all.
There was another aspect to the campaign, as Barker’s book revealed. Many of those involved in the campaign against American horror comics were members of the Communist Party, and for them, the threat of the comics was more the ‘American’ part than the ‘horror’ part. The horror and crime content was seen as just another example of American cultural decadence, with comics being just a part – along with American movies, music and literature – of the threat to traditional British culture. As Sam Aaronovitch – the British Communist Party’s cultural spokesman – said, British culture was Shakespeare, Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Constable, Turner, Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin. A curiously nationalistic and traditionalist idea for radical Communists, you might think – but one that absolutely did not include the decidedly low cultural pleasures of the comic book, especially ones that brought the distinctly American diseases of crime, gang warfare, loose morals and (significantly) anti-Communism in the form of Russian and Chinese villains. In short, the comics were like the American soldiers of World War 2 – “overpaid, oversexed and over here”.
But as the campaign gathered momentum, so the Communist connection was downplayed and eventually washed over. After all, if they wanted to get the Conservative government of the day on board, then the campaign needed to see less political and more social. Still anti-American, perhaps, but an anti-Americanism that was less political and more cultural. There remains even now the belief among the British – across the political divide – that America is a cultural wasteland: our movies, our music, our art and our television are all better than that of the USA. The British middle classes have long looked down their nose at American culture, especially the populist sort. It was, therefore, easy to de-emphasise the Communist involvement in the campaign by appealing to British cultural snobbery and the belief – as we have seen with every moral panic since – that it is the lower orders, with their baser tastes need to be protected from themselves.
The CCC proved to be a determined campaigning group, and published their own Werthamesque pamphlet, Comics and Your Children, in 1954. Psychologist Phyllis Packard convened a panel of educators, magistrates and other middle-class citizens (including Pumphrey) to look into the issue, and produced their own report – British Comics – An Appraisal. As you might expect, both reports were light on facts but heavy on hysteria, and reached evidence-free conclusions about the dangers of American horror comics.
As with the Video Nasties campaign, the press and the campaigners quickly picked up on cases that ‘proved’ the dangers of horror comics. Alan Poole was a young thug who died in a shoot-out with the police, and was allegedly found in a hideout full of crime comics. The hysteria surrounding The Gorbals Vampire – when children in Glasgow became briefly obsessed with the idea that a vampire was on the loose, and roamed the streets armed to the teeth, trying to track the monsters down – was blamed on the pernicious influence of horror comics. And the rise of Teddy Boys and other juvenile delinquents – gloriously described by the Daily Mail in 1954 as “a collection of spivs, bohunks and yahoos, listless shifty-eyed tailor-dummied youths and painted trollops” – was again blamed on the influx of delinquent American culture, primarily comic books. Evidence for the claims of a connection was, of course, thin – but the stories were hyped relentlessly by the press and the campaigners.
Before long, the CCC had recruited the National Union of Teachers to their cause, a helpful addition that gave them a more direct route to the government. In 1954, the NUT mounted an exhibition of the worst of the comics – much like Mary Whitehouse‘s infamous collection of the most violent scenes from Video Nasties, shown without context to MPs and the media. As with that cynical manipulation, the exhibition had the desired effect – the government announced a Bill to deal with this foreign menace, and in 1955, after barely any public or Parliamentary debate, the tersely worded and predictably ambiguous Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act came into force that outlawed:
“any book, magazine or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying—
- (a) the commission of crimes; or
- (b) acts of violence or cruelty; or
- (c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature;
in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall.”
As with many a British moral law, it seems at first glance to be (assuming that you agree with the outlawing of horror comics) reasoned and restrained, but of course “the commission of crimes” and “acts of violence” are remarkably loose ideas that could be applied to almost anything. A determined person might even consider a Dennis the Menace strip to fall foul of these rules. Such vague rulings could have serious consequences for those deemed to have broken them – a fine of £100 (a more significant amount in 1955) and/or up to four months in prison awaited.
Like many a British law, it was initially passed for a specific period – in this case, ten years – and then brought up for renewal. And like almost every such law, it was renewed without debate in 1965, despite the fact that there had been no successful prosecutions in the preceding decade – a fact that the Act’s supporters would chalk up as evidence of its success rather than its pointlessness. The Act remains in force to this day, and if you think that it is simply because of oversight, think again – the fine was increased to £1000 in 1982, though any cases will now be treated as summary offences – that it, heard by Magistrates rather than a Judge and Jury.
It is worth noting that there have only been two prosecutions under the Act, both in 1970 – though frustratingly, there is no word on either the titles or the outcome. If these were in front of Magistrates, who have long been in the habit of rubber-stamping prosecutions in obscenity cases, they probably ended in convictions. Nevertheless, the Attorney General refused to support prosecutions in 46 cases, between 1955 and 1982. This is despite the fact that the law, as worded and intended, was widely ignored. The comics-code approved US horror comics from Marvel, DC and others were widely imported from the 1970s onwards, as were more visceral magazine-format comics from companies like Skywald. In 1974, Marvel UK launched Dracula Lives! – a weekly comic reprinting stories from Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night and other US Marvel horror comics. This was either a direct provocation or more likely because no one at Marvel even knew the law was in force. In 1984, IPC published Scream!, another weekly comic that was the horror equivalent of 2000AD (which itself was probably in violation of the law). House of Hammer adapted Hammer horror movies into comics, as well as running other strips from 1976 – 1978. Other publishers also reprinted US horror comics from the Seventies onwards in magazine format, and did so without problems.
In truth, the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act was somewhat made redundant by the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 – a wider-ranging Act that was used extensively and so became the go-to law for the authorities to use against the more extreme and explicit comics such as Savoy’s Lord Horror. But it is worth repeating: this law is still in force. There’s a precedent of long-forgotten laws being dredged up by angry campaigners who can’t get satisfaction in any other way, and we should never disregard the possibility of some moralising group pushing a case against an indie comic that they have been outraged by, even now. This is a useless, pointless piece of legislation – but as long as it exists, it remains a theoretical stick that the powers that be can beat errant publishers with if they choose to.
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