Horror Comics: The Nasties of the 1950s

Article excerpt

* |Moral panic' occurs when the official or press reaction to a deviant social or cultural phenomenon is |out of all proportion' to the actual threat offered, implying a periodic tendency towards the identification and scapegoating of agencies whose effects are regarded by hegemonic groups as indicative of imminent social breakdown. "'Unparalleled evil and barbaric killers" says judge -- but did horrific video nasty trigger James's murder?' queried a tabloid headline, rekindling the |video nasty' debate the day after the conviction of two eleven-year-old boys for the murder in February 1993 of two-year-old James Bulger in Bootle, Merseyside. |Moral panic' surfaced again in April this year, engendered by the rantings of the tabloid press and by Home Secretary Michael Howard's climbdown in the face of cross-party Commons' support for Liberal Democrat David Alton's illiberal amendment to the Government's Criminal Justice Bill, an attempt to ban films for home viewing on video that could cause |psychological harm' to children.

Alton's proposal and the surrounding press clamour had a precedent nearly forty years ago with the passage through Parliament of the now-forgotten Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act. In the early 1950s lurid American 'crime' and 'horror comics' reached Britain as ballast in ships crossing the Atlantic: unsold copies were also imported from Canada and Australia. Few penetrated much further than the environs of the great ports of Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast and London. Seeking out elusive copies from London's East End street markets, one anti-comic-book campaigner confessed that 'I put on an off-white accent and an old coat before I won the vendor's confidence'. Using blocks made from imported American matrices, ensuing British versions of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were printed in London and Leicester to be sold in small back-street newsagents.

On May 17th, 1952, Picture Post, the popular Hulton Press photo-magazine, drew widespread public attention to the British |horror comic' trade in a provocative article (|Should US "Comics" Be Banned?') by Peter Mauger, a Communist teacher anxious to exploit anti-American feeling. |Who can look at these comics and escape the conclusion that there is a connection between them and the increasing volume of juvenile delinquency?' queried a reader's letter. If Hulton, publishers of the irreproachable Eagle range of British comic papers, feared American competition for the juvenile market, parliamentary deputations of teachers and churchmen feared American mass culture invading Britain. All gave voice to an orchestrated groundswell of opinion demanding urgent government action.

|The problem which now faces society in the trade that has sprung up of presenting sadism, crime, lust, physical monstrosity, and horror to the young is an urgent and a grave one', thundered The Times on November 12th, 1954. |There has been no more encouraging sign of the moral health of the country than the way in which public opinion has been roused in condemnation of the evil of "horror comics" and in determination to combat them'. Yet the relatively small sales of American |horror comics' in comparison to home-grown British comics was openly admitted by eminent paediatrician, Dr Sam Yudkin, an active British Communist Party lobbyist and force behind the Comics Campaign Council (CCC). Yudkin, somewhat disingenuously addressing the Tory Education Committee, estimated that perhaps only 10 per cent of British school children bought 'horror comics' but |swopping' led to their circulation being rather wider. This small circulation did not prevent such unlikely allies as the CCC, the British Communist Party, the established church, and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) from vigorously campaigning against their diminishing sales. The NUT eventually distanced itself from the CCC, made aware of the political affiliations of many of those active in the anti-comic book campaign. …