The 1955 Romance Comics Trials remains one of the lesser known of all comic book trials. It began in 1954 when the Queensland Literature Board took action and banned a series of romance comics, citing the newly formed Objectionable Literature Act, which directly resulted in three affected publishers taking legal action in the Supreme Court.
The case is largely forgotten today; however its importance cannot be underestimated. At a time when comic books were under serious attack worldwide, it marked the first time that a publisher had taken a Government appointed board to court in order to fight for their product. Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting all the surviving information for the case, affidavits and as much of the transcript of the trial proceedings as possible. This material will also be available as an e-book, which can be ordered exclusively from the Blaq Books site by clicking this link.
PART ONE: Introduction
In mid-1954 the Queensland Government set up a Board of Review, working under the Objectionable Literature Act of 1954 act. The board, consisting of four men and one woman, initially met once every fortnight with the view of examining all publications on sale in Queensland, barring newspapers, and ultimately to prohibit the circulation in Queensland of any material that they found to be objectionable. The manner in which the Board acted was almost the opposite of the better known Commonwealth Censorship Board. The Commonwealth Censorship Board was more concerned with books of literary merit, banning titles such as Huxley’s Brave New World and The Dubliners by James Joyce than comic books and pulp magazines, although it often would, and did, ban titles from coming into the country, starting with Detective Comics in the late 1930s and continuing into the 1960s when several hundred titles were on the prohibited import list, including almost everything by Mickey Spillane along with virtually every horror and crime comic and magazine and comics as diverse as Doll Man, Marvel Tales, Battle Action, All American Men Of War, Zip Jet, Fightin’ Marines, Captain Marvel Adventures and, incredibly enough, single issues of Classics Illustrated relating to Frankenstein and Crime And Punishment. Despite this censorship the Queensland Literature Board would go even further.
The Board didn’t limit itself to banning only overseas titles; it was just as keen to stop the distribution and sale of locally made publications. To this end they focused on what they defined as 'trash', publications meant for juveniles or young people, comics, popular magazines and glossy novelettes. Keeping in line with the strong religious sentiment of the time, the Board stated in its second Annual Report (1956) that it was doing its best to provide, “…an invisible but permanent armour against what the Scriptures call ‘the fiery darts of the wicked’.” However in doing its best it operated largely in secret with publishers being told of bans only after their books had been named and shamed in the Government Gazette and refusing to detail just how the decisions came about. Although avenues were open for appeals, the workings of the Board made it all but impossible to do so as nobody was clear as to how anything had been decided or what materials were used. Operating in this manner the Board were able to, and did, ban entire publications on the basis of single or multiple issues, and the publishers had little recourse to defend.
This arbitrary manner of working was due to the vagueness of the Act that controlled it. As it stood the Board was not required to give any prior notice of a prohibition order, nor was it required to hear representations from any publisher or distributor. It also did not have to give any reasons for its prohibitions or to specify into which category of objectionableness a particular banned work falls. Not only did it have the power to ban the current and back issues of a title, it also had the power to ban any and all future issues meaning that it could, and did, ban material that had yet to be published or even created. This caused many a problem as a publisher could, and often did, rejig material and tone the overall feel of the title down to an acceptable level with the hopes that the Board would lift the ban, but it was up to the Board to decide if bans were to be lifted. More often than not, once a ban was in place it stayed in place. The only avenue for a review of the ban was an appeal to the Supreme Court, a costly enterprise and one that the Board felt certain wouldn’t be taken up by a small, struggling publisher.
The Board ended its first year of operations in June 1955 with a list of forty-seven banned publications, the majority of them being crime or love comics. Not one publisher was informed in advance of a proposed ban let alone being asked to show why a ban should not be imposed. Nobody, least of all publishers and distributers, were prepared for the ferocity and scope of the Boards decisions. In their First Annual Report (1955) the Board stated that,
“Some (publishers) came to say that they were already at work "to clean up" their publications, a circumstance which argued the possession of a not entirely moribund conscience. Others told of the adoption of internal "code" systems to which their publications would in future conform. All stated that the loss of Queensland trade would seriously affect their profits and might even put the publication off the Australian market because of adverse reactions in other States. Some came to submit "reconstructed" publications or to, give an undertaking to eliminate objectionable features. In several instances the Board accepted such undertakings and lifted a prohibition previously imposed. Almost all asked in one form or another, "Give us a statement of your standards, and we shall endeavour to conform to them". The difficulty of this will be apparent to all who realize that in dealing with any publication it is impossible to set out what forms of say, sex, horror and violence shall be permitted and what shall not shall one permit, for example, one, two or three murders per comic, or one or a dozen robberies with violence? Such analysis reaches a reductio ad absurdum."
Even though publishers had asked for a statement of standards the Board didn’t possess one to hand out. The Board banned on their own subjective standards, hence it was almost impossible to fight – what one person regarded as objectionable in matters of sex or crime might not fit into what another person’s standards. However as there were few publishers with the financial means to mount a Supreme Court case, there wasn’t a lot that could be done to fight the Board’s bans, until five separate publishers decided to fight their respective bans over two court cases.
By mid-1954 the Board were kept busy banning comic books and other periodicals. The most high profile title banned was Len Lawson’s Lone Avenger. The Lone Avenger was a mysterious lawman who wore a hood with eye holes cut into it as a mask and who’s role in life was to punish criminals. He tended to specialise in saving scantily clad, busty young women from kidnappers and murderers. Len Lawson was charged with the kidnapping and rape of five school girls in early May, 1954. In an ordeal that lasted just over two hours, Lawson had met the girls on the premise of taking photos of them for a calendar that he was putting together, but had taken them into the bush where the police alleged that he first bound the girls, placed sticking plaster over their mouths and then raped two of them, indecently assaulted another two and had carnal knowledge of the fifth. All five girls were under the age of the 16, the oldest was 15, and, after arrest, Lawson was refused bail and pleaded not guilty to all charges. The defence argued that the girls had been talking about sex to Lawson and had posed ‘provocatively’, but that failed to sway the judge. Lawson was found to be guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, which was then brought down to fourteen years.
There were several victims in the Lawson case, one of which was his young wife and their children, and, of course, the girls he terrorised. His wife instigated divorce proceedings in October, 1954; in a bizarre twist she alleged adultery against Lawson due to his rape of one of the girls. The divorce was granted and she then moved on with her life. Lawson’s strange tale didn’t end there though.
Lawson was released after serving seven years of his fourteen year term. Once released he turned to his artistic skills to survive, painting portraits of people. However something inside of him snapped in 1962. On November 7th, 1962, while painting a portrait of 16-year-old Manly girl in his flat at Collaroy, Lawson suddenly bound her arms, sexually assaulted her and finally stabbed her to death. The next day, he burst into the chapel of the Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School at Moss Vale, taking schoolgirls and staff hostage at gunpoint. The police were called and Lawson demanded that the current Miss Australia, Tricia Reschke, and Olympic Golden Girl Betty Cuthbert be brought to him. Naturally his demands were refused and in the resulting siege, a struggle ensued, Lawson’s gun discharged and he killed a 15-year-old student who was sitting in the pews. This time Lawson wasn’t as fortunate as before. Arrested, charged and tried, he was convicted of rape and murder and was locked up for life. Ten years later, in 1972, he attempted to escape jail by taking a visiting dancing girl, Sharon Hamilton, hostage at knifepoint and stabbing her in the struggle that ensured. Although Hamilton was largely unharmed, the trauma affected her to the point where she took her own life six years later. This was the final straw for authorities who sentenced Lawson for the term of his natural life and marked his file ‘Never To be Released’. Despite lodging several applications for day release and parole it wasn’t to be and Len Lawson died in Grafton Gaol in November 2003 at the age of 76.
While in gaol for the first set of offences, Lawson applied to the authorities for permission to continue writing and drawing his comic book, The Lone Avenger. The application was refused, but it mattered not, the comic was banned as soon as Lawson was convicted. Eventually the ban was rescinded in October of the same year, the Board didn’t give a reason, but the removal of Lawson’s name from the strip and the general toning down of the more racier aspects of the strip, and the removal of Lawson himself would have gone a long way towards the lifting of the ban. The lifting of the ban only applied to issues published after November 1954 – anything with Lawson’s name attached to it was to remain prohibited.
The Lone Avenger wasn’t the only comic book banned. The Board was kept busy banning both comics and periodicals in its first year. Its first ban list, released in July 1954, contained the following titles; Fight Comics (Action Comics Pty. Ltd.), G-Man (Atlas Publications Pty. Ltd.), Guilty (Atlas Publications Pty. Ltd.), Love Illustrated (Barmor Publications Pty. Ltd), War Heroes Blue (Diamond Publishing Co), The United States Marines (Larry Cleland Pty. Ltd), Anti-Crime Squad (Red Circle Press), War Battles (Red Circle Press), Dare (Ron Ashworth) and Famous Yank (Rosnock Pty. Ltd.). All of the comics banned were locally produced titles, as promised the Board were more interested in banning Australian produced material, leaving overseas material to the Customs Board and other Federal regulators. As the months rolled on more titles were added to the ban list. On the 25th of August 1954 the Board banned another series of titles; the aforementioned Lone Avenger was amongst them. The other titles were Dizzy Dames (Atlas Publications Pty. Ltd.), Headline Stories (Atlas Publications Pty. Ltd.), The Mask (Atlas Publications Pty. Ltd.), Wanted (Atlas Publications Pty. Ltd.), First Romance (Barmor Publications Pty. Ltd), Love Problems (Barmor Publications Pty. Ltd), Teenage Love (Barmor Publications Pty. Ltd), Atomic Attack (Calvert Publishing C. Pty. Ltd.), Dragnet (Invincible Press) and Soldier Comics (Larry Cleland Pty. Ltd.).
For one publisher this was too much. Five days after the ban was announced, solicitors acting for Invincible Press, along with its associated companies, Truth and Sportsman Limited, formally lodged an appeal against the banning of Dragnet. The terms of the appeal fell along five sections as outlined in the Board’s terms. These were that Dragnet did not 1] nor does any part thereof unduly emphasise matters of sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence, 2] was it not nor is any part thereof blasphemous, indecent, obscene, or likely to be injurious to morality, 3] was not nor is any part thereof likely to encourage depravity, public disorder, or any indictable offence, 4] was not nor is any part thereof otherwise calculated to injure the citizens of this State and 5] did not not nor does any part thereof have any tendency to deprave or corrupt any of the persons classes of persons or age groups aforesaid. The Boards defence was built around its claim that Dragnet was objectionable within the meaning of The Objectionable Literature Act of 1954. This would prove to be a hard claim to attack as it was, as previously mentioned, arbitrary at best. The Dragnet case would rely on mainly on affidavits, unlike the case that would follow.
Although these bans were limited to Queensland only, the rest of the nation was watching, and what was banned in one state was generally banned, albeit unofficially, in another. What compounded the issue was the loss of sales in a growing market and if a publisher was located in Queensland then they were prohibited from actually printing the product, meaning that a Queensland ban could very well spell the death of a periodical.
Despite the first appeal being lodged it was business as usual for the Board. On the 20th of December 1954 another round of comics were banned from publication and distribution in Queensland. Instead of the usual war and crime comics (horror was all but dead and buried by this stage) the focus was on romance comics and their use of sex. The titles were as follows: Darling Romance (Action Comics Pty. Ltd.), Love Secrets, Teenage Confessions and Teen-Age Romances (all published by Barmor Publications Pty. Ltd), New Romances and Popular Romance (both published by H. John Edwards Publishing Co. Pty Ltd) and Love Experiences, Real Love, Real Romances, Real Story and Romance Story (all published by Transport Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd.). The notice duly appeared in the Queensland Government Gazette on the 25th of December. As with the publisher of Dragnet, the Board would find itself facing an appeal. Three publishers banded together, Action Comics, Barmor Publications and Transport Publishing, to bring the appeal to the Supreme Court. Unlike the Dragnet case the appeal would consist of more than merely affidavits as for the first time in Australia, and perhaps in the world, a superior court listened to days of argument and a series of witnesses in order to decide whether a comic book had the power and influence to deprave the reader.
The first stage of the case was not a success for the publishers. They produced three witnesses, who also swore affidavits. The witnesses, two psychiatrists and a librarian, all testified that the comics didn’t deprave anyone and indeed could serve a positive purpose by giving frenzied young girls and outlet for their romantic desires. In response the Board also a psychiatrist, who testified as to the results of studies that he had conducted and who also claimed that, by showing a positive outcome, the stories within the comics were totally unrealistic and would cloud a young girl’s judgement. Also appearing for the Board was a Salvation Army Girl’s School Matron who recounted the evil impact of the comics, as they had a tendency to overly excite the girls to the point of hooting at romantic scenes in movies and whistling at workmen who tended the School’s gardens. Dr. Fredrick Wertham’s Seduction Of The Innocent was raised as a defence for the banning, In one of the more amusing portions of the trial, one of the psychiatrists, appearing for the publishers, mentioned how he’d never read the book as it was, “…always out on loan,” from the NSW Parliamentary Library. Als in the Boards defence, the then current Senate Hearings was brought up as more proof that comic books were evil.
The artists and writers didn’t escape notice with their efforts being decribed as crude, poor and not worthy of publication. Some of the artists efforts were misinterpreted by the lawyers and judges, despite an effort being made to help explain their techniques. The inference was clear, those who wrote and drew comic books were just as depraved, unprofessional and objectionable as the books themselves.
The trial, as mentioned, went badly for the publishers. Two of the presiding judges found for the Board, one found for the publishers. The publishers then promptly appealed to the High Court where they were more successful. The appeal was upheld by a majority of judges with the word ‘objectionable’ being interpreted as ‘obscene’. This served to negate the Boards powers to ban comic books that would not be able to deprave or corrupt the average person. The ruling in the Dragnet case was handed down three days after the Romance Trials, it found that the Dragnet comics were ‘objectionable’, but as the High Court had stated that objectionable meant obscene, the Board had no real power to continue the ban. They were defeated in this instance and, ultimately, the comic books had won.
The Board continued to ban magazines though and were taken to court in the future. Ultimately the focus was shifted to books and with the lifting of import restrictions in 1961, the Board became somewhat of a toothless tiger, making sure that they were visible, but with no real powers. The comic book publishers had fought the law, and they had won.
NEXT: The Banned Comics.
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