"Literature calculated to encourage depravity" - The Banning Of Detective Comics

What do The Shadow and Batman have in common other than Bob Kane swiping aspects, inspiration and images from The Shadow for Batman?  The answer is that neither Batman nor The Shadow were available in Australia from 1938 onwards, thanks to the Customs and Excise office, which placed an outright ban on The Shadow and Detective Comics due to them being labelled as “Literature calculated to encourage depravity”.  If that sounds very much like how Max Gaines described Mad – “Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad” – it’s worth bearing in mind that the Australian customs came up with their title a good decade and a change before Gaines used his.  This also means that Detective Comics might very well hold the dubious distinction of being the first American comic book banned in Australia as sweeping changes came into effect. 

While it’s commonly known that American Golden Age comics were non-existent in Australia during the 1940s and ‘50s, first due to import restrictions placed upon newsprint during World War II and then the resulting examples of hysteria and censorship from the late 1940s onwards, it’s not been all that widely reported that censorship of American comic books started as early as 1938.  The first titles that were known to be banned included The Shadow and Detective Comics, thus giving them a link that existed well before Batman appeared in May 1939, a comic that was never on general sale in Australia and could not be imported.  If anyone did try to import it at the time, and was discovered, then the comic would have been confiscated and destroyed.  The banning of Detective Comics also goes a long way towards explaining why Superman caught on with Australian audiences in the 1940s and Batman didn’t really impact until the 1950s when K.G. Murray began to reprint the early American books.

The banning of Detective Comics really began with a statement from the Minister for Trade and Customs, in which the proposal for the prohibition on the importation of undesirable literature was put forward.  Although the proposal was titled ‘literature’, the text made it clear that the focus would be firmly placed upon pulp magazines and comic books which were deemed to be blasphemous, indecent and obscene.  The content of the statement also placed a strong emphasis on the undesirable content of the literature in question, in particular sex and crime and the harmful effect that any exposure to either would have on youth.  Damning evidence was provided in the form of a recent murder case in which the murderer had been found with a large collection of pulps, thus, for the powers that be, showing a direct line from pulps and comic books to outright murder.  It was all that was needed.

The demise of Detective Comics and The Shadow continued with a letter from the Queensland Customs and Excise Office.  Dated 22nd August, 1938, it tells of five titles that had recently been intercepted and forwarded to the Comptroller-General of Customs in Canberra – the five titled being The Shadow (issue unknown, but as it was dated as ‘July 1938’ it can be narrowed down to two), Clues Detective Stories (July 1938), Black Mask Detective Stories (May 1938), Detective Book Magazine (Spring 1938 and Detective Comics #16.  The first four titles were pulp magazines, the last a straight out and out comic book – possibly the first comic book submitted for examination due to content.  It didn’t take long for the order to be handed down.  Out of the five titles submitted two had already been marked as prohibited from importation – The Shadow and Detective Book Magazine.  The remaining three then suffered the same fate – added to the list of publications prohibited from importation and labelled as Prohibited Imports for the duration.  This ban preceded the general import restrictions and explains why Detective Comics never appeared on the now infamous list of 250 titles consisting of comic books, pulp magazines and other printed matter in 1940 (and more on that soon).

Detective Comics was banned due to it’s, “(undue) emphasises on matters of crime.”  The title was also attacked as being deceptive and the comic strips inside being a mere, “…adjunct to the main theme of crime.”  There was no coming back from the ban.  The notices were sent to every port in Australia and that’s where it should have ended.

Fighting the ban was Associated Magazine Importers and Distributors.  Associated Magazines were the main importers of the magazines at the time, and with the banning of other titles, such as Esquire, were seeing their business eroded and cried discrimination.  They made a representation to the Minister and demanded that the full reports leading to the bans be released to the public, a demand that was ignored and it didn’t take long for more bans to be announced as more titles found themselves on the list of prohibited publications.  Comic books were heavily targeted with the result being that ALL American comic books were to be held at Customs until they could be examined and their contents digested.  Associated Magazines again cried in public against the banning, to no avail.  Once the first comic book was banned, it would only be a matter of time before more followed, however in a show of conciliation, Detective Comics Inc published titles Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics were both passed by the Comptroller-General on October, 1938 and classified as, “…not regarded as Prohibited Literature.” 

 The attack on the banning of Detective Comics didn’t end there, but in reality the fight was merely an exercise in formalities.  Distributors Gordon & Gotch, seeing a large part of their income stream being potentially stripped, contacted DC/National and advised them of the ban and urged them to intervene directly. DC also felt that the ban was more due to the title of the comic than the actual contents, a point that was valid as it appeared anything with crime related title, such as Detective, was being targeted.  This point was driven home when it was pointed out that three of the five banned titles were Detective variations.  With that in mind DC duly submitted a copy of Detective Comics #25 to prove their point.  It mattered not, the result was the same, the title was still banned with Customs ruling that the comic had much the same content as the previously issue, but there was a difference and a small win.  Instead of the book being classified as “Literature calculated to encourage depravity”, it was reclassified as merely being, "...subversive to young minds".  The decision to ban the comic was upheld and the ban remained in place.  Two issues later a new character would appear, but Australia would have to wait a while longer before it got a glimpse of The Batman.

Two issues later, not to be seen in Australia



Frankly the media didn't report much at all.  The saga was restricted to the back-rooms of Government and as such the media were only ever told of a decision once it was made, not of the reasons behind it.  With such limited information, and with war already in place, the media were highly selective as to what they could report - and the banning of a few comic books just didn't rate that high in terms of importance.  The following story was printed in a number of papers on the 14th of September, 1938, but that was it.


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