1954 was a big year if you didn’t like comic books.
I talked a bit about Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in this post about superheroes as role models a couple of days ago, but I’ve just come across another story that’s related, all moral panics and urban myths. This one gets weirder though.
A terrifying figure with iron teeth was said to be lurking in the area’s Southern Necropolis. It had alread killed two children (or so it was said, although no-one could say exactly who had been the victims…), and now a small army of kids, from teenagers down to four year olds, were patrolling the cemetery with makeshift weapons. Although the group was soon broken up, it would return on subsequent nights until the whole thing died down.
The story seemed to have evolved from a couple of sources; local urban myths and, allegedly American horror comics, and this is where the story crosses over with that of Wertham. EC Comics were one of the major comic books publishers at the time, but rather than the superheroes of DC, they were best known for their horror comics, some of which were pretty gory – while they were basically morality tales, there were an awful lot of entrails involved. Their best known title at the time was Tales from the Crypt, one of the books that caused Dr. Wertham to wig out, although it’s worth noting that, thanks to the politics of the time, one of their most controversial stories, and the last comic published by EC, was Judgement Day. The reason for the controversy? It featured an astronaut who was black…
Anyway, parents soon drew a link between the Gorbals Vampire and horror comics (although apparently the horror comics didn’t feature a character matching the Vampire’s description – there was, however, a World War II comic strip character called Iron Jaw who might fit the bill). This lead to cries for censorship that eventually resulted in the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955, which legislated for the imprisonment or fining of anyone selling a book or comic that may corrupt young people through portraying the commission of crimes, violence, or “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature”. It was a bit of a waste of time, as it didn’t prosecute anyone until the seventies, and then there were just two convictions.
However, this is where it gets weird. Because the Comics Campaign Council, the group dedicated to banning horror comics, actually turned out to have been dominated by members of the British Communist Party (the story is told in Martin Barker’s A Haunt of Fears, some of which is available at Google Books); and the British Communist Party at the time had a vested interest in countering American cultural influence on the UK. It’s worth noting that the comics criticised by the campaign were often known simply as American comics (it’s interesting to note that, while Glasgow becoming a flashpoint in the campaign to ban US comics, Dundee was publishing the relatively tame Beano and Dandy, via DC Thompson – someone really should write something on Scotland’s influence on the comic industry). Somewhere along the line, comics had found themselves on the frontline of the 1950s culture wars.
Meanwhile the Gorbals Vampire passed into folklore, another case of schoolyard Chinese whispers and hysteria that fed into a much wider moral panic, all against the backdrop of McCarthyism and HUAC. Strange days indeed.