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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Comic Book Censorship in Australia - The Letter That Changed It All



To cope with the changing trends in society a different kind of censorship exited in Australia in the early 1970s when compared to the 1950s, or even as recently as the early 1960s.  For the most part horror comics were becoming readily available at newsagents, mainly through reprints as provided by K.G. Murray and Page.  Horror reprints would explode with the introduction of Gredown in the mid 1970s, but, for the time being, there was still some control and regulation, albeit loosely.  However the Liberal Government of day, led by then Prime Minister Billy McMahon (father of actor Julian McMahon) was busy fighting a losing fight with youth culture, resulting in visiting bands being targeted for drug searches, such as Led Zeppelin, being refused entry, as nearly did happen with the Rolling Stones and, in the case of Joe Cocker, deported entirely.  Books were still being banned, It Magazine and Oz had gone underground, and strong debates were taking place for the introduction of an ‘R’ certificate for films which would allow the release of movies showing excessive nudity, horror, language, violence and other adult themes.  The Little Red Schoolbook was also subject to much debate and censure, although, looking back at it’s contents forty years on, it seems rather tame and, in places, quaint.  Not to mention what was considered to be too extreme for cinema in 1972 is now considered to be tame on day-time television in 2013.  The more the Government tried to ban items, the more the public wanted to see them.

Into this debate came the issue of importing blasphemous and obscene comics – the Underground Comix scene of the USA, featuring works by the likes of Crumb, Spain, Sheldon and many others now highly regarded in the art world at large for their subversive and daring works.  In late 1971, in response to speciality shops importing horror comics, the Federal Government commissioned a report into the changing trends of comics, resulting in a four page document that called for change and damming the work of Fredric Wertham (that report iscovered here).  It came as no surprise to the Government that a serious shot would be fired from a bookstore.

In August, 1972, two shipments of comics addressed to Space Age Books in Melbourne were intercepted and their contents seized.  The books seized were The New Adventures of Jesus, Jesus Meets The Armed Services and Rowlf.  Earlier that year volumes of The Collected Adventures of The Fabulous Freak Brothers had also been seized and placed under review, resulting in lost sales.  These seizures were a bit too much for then Space Age Books employee, Paul Stevens, who wrote a three page letter to the Department of Customs and Excise arguing against the seizures and also against the wording and application of the review process.  At the time Space Age Books was a Mecca of sorts for science fiction and comic book fans alike in Victoria.  Located on Swanston Street, the store was started up by two science fiction fans, Merv Binns and Ron Graham.  Binns was the owner for all intensive purposes, but Graham, who was a Sydney Science Fiction fan, was a the silent partner who helped with the original finance until Binns bought him out in about 1975. Paul Stevens was the assistant manager of the store.  According to Phil Bentley, “It ran from 1971-31/12/84. It was primarily an SF store that also sold 'counter culture' books and some comics, both new (imported from the States) and 2nd hand.”

Phil Bentley spent a lot of time in Space Age Books, “I haunted the place from 72-77 and worked there for half of that year as well,” he says.  As such he wasn’t surprised to learn of Stevens questioning the Federal Government.  “You have to understand that both Paul and Merv were something of Grumpy Old Men before they were even old,” says Phil, “so some of us were rather ambivalent towards them and the shop. But everyone does have their good side and I guess Paul was someone prepared to nail his colours to the mast in support of a cause. Paul was more into B culture than Merv, who was more of an SF purist, so Paul's anti-censorship campaigning may well have been spurred as much by his interest in horror films as comics.”

The letter that Paul Stevens sent raised some very strong, and valid, points for the importation and sale, regulated, of Underground comic books.  In the letter Stevens points out that The Adventures of Jesus actually dealt with blasphemy – one of the reasons given for the seizure of the title – and should be considered to be satire more than blasphemy.  Another point given was the fact that, although the Freak Brothers comics were banned, there were, at the time, counterfeit copies being openly sold in some book-stores, and Rowlf, although now banned, was previously on sale in Melbourne.  Stevens pointed to the fact that the newly introduced ‘R’ certificate was enabling films to be shown that had been previously prohibited and such regulation could easily be adapted for comic books.  The Comic Code was also dealt with, with Stevens pointing out that Warren magazines, such as Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, were exempt from the American code, thus paralleling the earlier report by the Government that also raised this issue, using the same magazines.  To bolster his argument, Stevens also included photocopies of relevant pages to illustrate his view.  In December, 1972, Stevens also hosted a special Underground Comics meeting as part of its regular Comic Meets.  Phil Bently was there for this.  “Paul was one of the speakers and spoke about his dealings with customs,” recalls Phil, “I don't really recall such detail. But I enjoyed the night. It was far more hip than the usual mumbling speaker with a dodgy projector.”

The Department of Customs and Excise, then headed by Don Chipp, took the letter very seriously and had a report prepared with recommendations.  Although the subsequent report was sympathetic towards Stevens request, and did outline a number of valid reasons as to why the entire system of banning comics in Australia should be changed, the outcome was the same – the Underground Comics remained banned.  The report did give a glimmer of hope though, as it did give scope for a change to then situation.  A handwritten addendum to the report stated the following, “I think this is a good paper, with serious implications for our policy. The appeal by Space Age - while one may not necessarily agree with the material in question - is a genuine attempt to explain the modern trend in comics.  The lines I have mentioned on Dr Allen's paper (folio 5) are important.  The former Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors said something similar more recently - "we cannot censor for the occasional, 15-year-old, maladjusted delinquent."  Suggest circulate this paper to all staff and discuss at a specialist meeting in, say, a week's time.”

A reply was prepared and sent to Stevens in early December stating that the books in question had been reviewed and the bans maintained.  By this stage the Liberal Party had been voted out of Government to be replaced by the Whitlam led Labor Party.  One of the issues debated during the election campaign was censorship, and the fact that the Liberals had been controlling the country since the late 1940s.  The Whitlam Government promised reforms and this is reflected in another handwritten notation, on the letter to Stevens which states that, “Because of certain information relayed through Melbourne office I rang Mr Stevens today to discuss implications of our decision of 5 Dec.  I explained current problems (electronic, new Ministry etc) & reasons for decision (as far as I could) and said that policy on comics would be taken up in (???) review when Minister returns from o/seas.  He offered benefit of his own research on current position, trends etc.”

While it can’t be proven that this letter had any real impact upon the changing censorship trend, it’s clear from the comments on the correspondence that a degree of importance was placed upon Stevens views of the time.  History does show that shortly after Whitlam came to power, trends began to change dramatically in the comic book world.  Horror comics were allowed to be sold in Australia, both locally produced and imported.  Underground Comics could be found at specialist bookstores, by the end of the decade they were openly on sale at comic book store in Melbourne and outlets such as Minotaur never had to deal with the Literature Board or Customs and Excise over the importation of comic books.  Other than the odd fuss that some comics created, such as Todd McFarlane’s Spawn #5 which dealt with a serial killer and was famously ‘shamed’ on Derryn Hinch’s then television show, comic book censorship in Australia as it had previously been known was all but finished.
 
 

 
 
 

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Thanks to Phil Bentley for shedding a lot of light into Space Age Books.  Visit his site and buy his brilliant Word Balloons!

4 comments:

ilgordon said...

Nice piece Dan. One thing Ron Graham was a bit more than just a fan. He was a very successful engineer who amassed a collection of science fiction and comics that went to the University of Sydney on his death. There is a printed guide to this material and also some information here:

http://www.library.usyd.edu.au/libraries/rare/3.2spec.html

See under Comics Collection and Science Fiction Collection.

Ian Gordon

Daniel Best said...

Thanks Ian.

That's a great collection that Ron left the Univsersity - very, very impressive. Hopefully, one day, the digital world will be advanced enough that it'll be on-line.

And thanks for picking up that typo! Bloody MS Word!!

Rick Diehl said...

First rate piece Dan.

J. Stack said...

Hey Dan,

I had no idea about this censorship controversy in Australia. Do you consider this a major milestone in Australia's comics' history? My father is the author of the Jesus comic discussed. He's still around and I'll ask him if he knows about this. If your are interested in communicating with him, contact me on facebook, and I'll put you in touch with him! All the best, Joan Stack-Columbia, Missouri