Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

The Comic Menace

How fear and protectionism killed Canada's postwar comic book industry

In November 1948, two boys, aged thirteen and eleven, stole a rifle and hid by the highway at Dawson Creek. Playing highwaymen, they eventually shot at a passing car. A passenger in the vehicle, James M. Watson, was fatally wounded. The senseless, random nature of this crime shocked the people of British Columbia, and the provincial Department of Health and Social Welfare launched an immediate investigation. It was soon discovered that both juveniles were avid readers of crime comic books. According to the authorities, the older boy read about fifty crime comics a week, while the younger regularly devoured thirty.

The equation seemed obvious: crime comics triggered criminal behaviour. During the trial that followed, both the Crown prosecutor and the presiding judge blamed comic books for James Watson’s death and recommended that measures be taken to ban the periodicals. “I am satisfied,” proclaimed Judge C.S. Kitchen, “that a concerted effort should be made to see that this worse-than-rubbish is abolished in some way.” Needless to say, the case provided powerful ammunition to the opponents of crime comics in Canada and the US. In fact, chapter eleven of the most influential anti-comics tract ever published, Frederic Wertham’s 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, is titled “Murder in Dawson Creek.”

According to their critics, comics were to be blamed for everything from illiteracy to juvenile delinquency and sexual deviancy. Marshall McLuhan would later attribute this linking of comics and anti-social behaviour to “naive literary logic,” noting that even the “dimmest-witted convict learned to moan: ‘It wuz comic books done this to me.’” Whether or not anti-comics arguments were sound, by 1948 the alarm felt by a few scattered individuals transformed into a mass movement, one with determined and persuasive leaders like Eleanor Gray of the Victoria and District Parent-Teacher Council and E. Davie Fulton, the MP for Kamloops, British Columbia.

In 1949, the crime-comics campaign gained substantial momentum when community groups across the country lobbied for the passage of anti-comics legislation that had been proposed by Fulton the year before. Among those who supported a legislative response to the crime-comics problem was Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King, who was wholeheartedly opposed to the publishing of “comics, which are calculated to incline the minds of children in the way of murder and immoral acts, etc.” Also caught up in the anti-comics fervour was future prime minister Brian Mulroney, who, as a ten-year-old in Baie-Comeau, won a Lions Club public-speaking contest with a passionate speech about bad comics. (Mulroney would later become a supporter of Fulton’s leadership aspirations within the Progressive Conservative Party.)

The anti-comics act, which came to be known as the Fulton Bill, made it an offence to print, publish, distribute, or sell “a magazine, periodical or book which exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially the commission of crimes, real or fictitious.” For Fulton, there was no question about the perils of comic books: “The evidence shows that there is a real menace to the youth of this country in the widespread publication and circulation of crime comics.”

After months of intense nationwide campaigning, the Fulton Bill (officially Bill 10) was given first reading on September 28, 1949. Following some revisions, the bill passed unanimously in the House of Commons—underscoring the degree of support that the crime-comics campaign enjoyed—and was sent to the Senate. By this time, the comics industry had finally awakened to the threat of censorship and asked to appear to make representations against the Fulton Bill. The Senate obliged by referring the legislation to a standing committee. The key industry witness to appear before the Senate committee was William Zimmerman of Superior Publishers.

A survivor of the collapse of Canada’s wartime comics industry (the golden age of Canadian comics from 1941–1946), Superior was one of a handful of intrepid publishers that issued original, full-colour Canadian comics. It was involved not only in comics publishing, but also in the production of pulp magazines and early paperbacks. Superior displayed a particularly aggressive approach to comics publishing which allowed it to dominate the Canadian comic-book scene from 1947 until 1956.

Zimmerman endeavoured to defend the crime comics, pointing to their role as a welcome outlet for children’s natural impulses. He made the fatal mistake, though, of circulating samples of what he represented as harmless entertainment for kids. As long as the debate had centred on intangibles like freedom of speech and child psychology, many senators had shown sympathy for the businessman’s position. However, once they saw what was actually being peddled to impressionable children, the passage of the Fulton Bill was guaranteed. Sent back to the Senate without amendment, the bill passed by a vote of ninety-two to four. As a result, on December 10, 1949, the Fulton Bill became law, and everyone, from the PTA to the Communist Party of Canada, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The nation’s young people had seemingly been rescued from the nefarious influence of foreign cultural trash.

No one, however, had reckoned with the audacity of Superior. In 1949, the company launched Bruce Gentry, Ellery Queen and My Secret, three comics that were not only racy, but included depictions of crime. To make things worse, the firm also acquired the rights to William Gaines’ line of often excessively lurid “New Trend” EC comics (among the most famous and most highly regarded comics ever published in the US), a clear indication that Zimmerman was not particularly intimidated by the Fulton Bill. Fulton, Eleanor Gray, parents, educators and religious leaders were furious that the ban was not being enforced with sufficient vigour. And indeed not a single prosecution had occurred since the bill’s enactment in 1949.

While Zimmerman defied the ban, most other Canadian companies acted swiftly to reassure parents and legislators that the comics industry could behave in a responsible manner. In much the same way that their American counterparts would band together four years later, Canadian comics firms formed the Comic Magazine Industry Association of Canada, which promised to review all US comic-book printing mats shipped into Canada to ensure that offensive material would not find its way onto the nation’s newsstands.

Ironically, it was economic forces, rather than censorship, that dealt the fatal blow to the nascent Canadian comic book industry. In the postwar boom, as Canadians rushed to purchase newly available foreign goods, an alarming trade deficit with the US rapidly developed. Mackenzie King’s government quickly introduced an import ban (the 1947 Emergency Exchange Conservation Act), which effectively excluded American publishers from the Canadian market. However, the regulations did not prevent Canadian publishers from purchasing the rights to reprint and repackage American comics; and thus a new comic-book industry—reprinting US imports—sprang up overnight.

This came to an end in 1951. Only four years after the import ban was passed, the restrictions on US imports were lifted. Most American firms then resolved, naturally, to ship their comics directly into Canada. Canadian companies that had chosen the simpler—and cheaper—path of acquiring reprint rights rather than establishing the infrastructure needed for a distinct national industry were left fatally exposed. A few companies tried to hang on by competing with the US comics giants, but by the end of 1951 only Zimmerman’s Superior Publishers remained, largely because it had never depended on protectionism for its survival.

Meanwhile Canadian anti-comics crusaders resumed their activities. Not surprisingly, antagonism toward Superior intensified. In 1954, at St. Bernadette’s school in Hull, Quebec, the anti-comics moral panic of the era ignited in an extraordinary spectacle. Senior students were assembled on the school grounds to witness the ritualistic burning of a large pyre of comics. Apparently, no one was troubled in the least by the spectacle of a place of learning engaging in a public book-burning. Earlier that year, in Vancouver, the Junior Chamber of Commerce had sponsored a comic-book-burning rally, where kids could exchange ten offensive comics for a single wholesome book. Another Vancouver-based organization, the Pontifical Association of the Holy Childhood, offered an even greater inducement to children. The organization formed an anti-crime-comics club, in which boys and girls pledged to forfeit the reading of “bad comics” in order to preserve the purity of their immortal souls.

In 1955, the legal assault against comics mounted, with several prosecutions against Canadian distributors. Although Superior had successfully appealed a crime-comics conviction in 1954, its days were obviously numbered. The firm issued its last horror comics in early 1955 and withdrew from the comics field altogether in 1956.

Because Superior had been the only publisher to survive the import deluge of 1951, the firm’s withdrawal marked the death of the Canadian comic-book industry that had been born in 1941. Ironically—but perhaps appropriately, given the American domination of the field—Canadian newsstand comics disappeared just as the so-called silver age of comics began in the US with the appearance, in DC’s Showcase No. 4, of the resurrected wartime superhero The Flash. With Canada’s own silver age nearly two decades away, a fascinating but somewhat ignominious chapter in Canadian publishing history had ended. Comics in North America would now be sanitized—and American.

 

Excerpted from Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe by John Bell. To be published by The Dundurn Group in November 2006.