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I’m a pretty clean-living, law-abiding sort of fellow. I’m an honest citizen and I abide by the laws of the United Kingdom, supporting the police in their work as and when I can. I have never been in trouble with the law and I have never knowingly committed a crime. Except once. Thirteen years ago. I didn’t steal anything or damage anything; I wasn’t involved in a fight; I didn’t defraud anyone. Like I say, I’m as honest as the day is long. But I am a smuggler. I carried an illegal item through customs. Returning from a few days in Los Angeles, I made a deliberate decision to walk through the green circle ‘Nothing to declare’ channel at Heathrow even though I knew that within my luggage was an item which jolly well should have been declared - an item that should only have been taken through the path of the red octagon.
      I brought into the UK, from America... a horror comic.

      Now, to be fair, it wasn’t exactly the most gruesome publication ever. That weekend I had been attending the AFM, the annual American Film Market, where the lower orders of cinematic production and distribution meet to buy and sell crappy B-movies: film that have been made, films as yet unmade and ludicrous ideas for films that are never going to be made. When not hanging out with cool people like Brinke Stevens, Julie Strain and Angus Scrimm, I had spent a significant portion of my time in the Troma office. It was a sort of default home-from-home (well, home-from-hotel) where I could be assured of a drink, a chat and a laugh. All sorts of people passed through the Troma office that weekend. To my eternal regret, I was actually in the same room as legendary porn actor Ron Jeremy and didn’t take the opportunity to speak with him. Damn and blast. Anyway, Lloyd Kaufman was there - of course - acting as ringmaster of the whole Troma circus. I love Uncle Lloydy, he’s a fabulous guy, a great showman, a diligent supporter of independent film and an avowed enemy of faceless corporate power. Some day I’ll write one of these columns all about Troma and Lloyd, but not now. My point (and I do have one) is that Lloyd had given me, among many other Tromatic freebies, a couple of issues of a prototype Toxic Avenger comic. It was funny and silly but it was also full of eye-gouging, head-squelching and general dismemberment. To a humourless customs official, unfamiliar with the various adventures of New Jersey’s most famous hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength, it could well have come under the category of ‘horror comic’.
      And horror comics are prohibited. It is illegal to bring one into the UK. I mean, actually illegal. Because, you know, I wouldn’t have given this thing a second thought except that I was looking at the customs declaration form. I didn’t have any ‘controlled drugs such as opium, heroin, morphine, cocaine and LSD’. I didn’t have any ‘firearms, ammunition or explosives (including fireworks)’. Nor did I have any counterfeit currency or (very specific this one) a flick-knife. But I did have a horror comic, which back in 1998 was listed with all the above in a section of the customs form headed ‘Prohibited and restricted goods’ - and still is today.

      Isn’t that astounding? In fact, isn’t that doubly astounding? It’s astounding that the danger presented by ‘horror comics’ is considered on a par with that presented by firearms, flick knives and heroin. And it’s astounding that this law remains in place in 2011 (in fact, it’s pretty amazing that it was there in 1998 - I certainly had to check the thing twice to make sure I hadn’t misread something). And it’s the specificity that really gets me. Horror comics have their own bullet point in the list. There is an entirely separate bullet point which prohibits the import of ‘indecent or obscene books, magazines, film, video tapes and laser discs’. Which, now I come to think about it, means I probably have broken the law a few more times than I thought.. So why are ‘horror comics’ singled out like this? Well, it all goes back to 1955 and the passing of the snappily titled ‘Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act’, which is commonly called the Horror Comics Act. Like the concurrent brouhaha across the Atlantic which led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, this was a knee-jerk reaction by the Powers That Were to the brief, mid-decade popularity of gruesome, over-the-top comic-books, typically from the EC stable: The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt and suchlike.

      It was the 1950s. In the United States, a generation was reaching maturity (or at least puberty) who were too young to properly remember the war. There were of course all manner of factors affecting that generation’s views: television, rock’n’roll, the concept of ‘teenagers’ as a social group and the marketing of products directly thereto. They hadn’t lived through the depression, they hadn’t fought in the war and they were reaping the cultural and economic benefits of the USA’s post-WW2 lurch into global supremacy as Europe rebuilt itself. When I say ‘they’ obviously I’m only referring to the white kids here. In 1955, black American kids still weren’t even allowed to sit at the front of the bus; they weren’t reaping the benefits of anything. But appalling social inequality based on ingrained, nationalised racism wasn’t really something that the American government was too bothered about, not when there were important issues to discuss like Tales from the Crypt. That whole American horror comics scare is well-known and has been well-documented. Less fuss was made over the British Government’s 1955 Act, at the time or subsequently. Over here, we really did have bigger things to worry about. Strikes were crippling the country; our Empire was falling apart; it was the year after rationing had finally ended, the year before the Suez Crisis. Besides, British teenagers at this point weren’t anywhere near as affluent (and hence influential) as their American counterparts. Nor were they as culturally adventurous. The Yanks had Elvis. We had Tommy Steele. Nevertheless, reprints of EC comics and similar publications were on sale in UK shops.

      In fact, I was particularly delighted to learn while researching this column that one of the principal (re-)publishers of this stuff was based just up the road from me in my home town of Leicester. This is heartening news: Leicester isn’t really very famous for much. Our only local celebrities are Gary Lineker, Joe Orton and Showaddywaddy. We invented Fox’s Glacier Mints, genetic fingerprinting and tourism. And that’s about it; I’m out. But hey, 55 years ago we were home to Hermitage Publications Ltd, the Jenson Book Company Ltd and Thorpe & Porter Ltd - respectively publisher, printer and distributor of vile, pernicious filth, all of whom were actually named in a House of Lords debate by the former Lord Chancellor, Earl Jowitt, who said: “I think it desirable, contrary to usual practice, to state these names, and I hope that all these persons are thoroughly ashamed of what they have issued.” If you look for this and similar debates in the online Hansard (replace ‘...Act’ with ‘...Bill’ when searching) you can find all manner of (now hilarious) discussion by politicians in both Houses who were aghast at the existence of these publications. “Your Lordships will probably share my own view,” presumed Under-Secretary of State Lord Mancroft, “which is, first, one of astonishment that anyone should bother to publish such rubbish as this, and, second, that anyone should bother to read such boring and uninteresting nonsense. But, apparently, our views are not shared by the large number of readers who do, in fact, study these so-called ‘horror comics’ and who are undoubtedly, if evidence is to be believed, harmed by them. It is to prevent the harm caused by these so-called ‘horror comics’ - which are about the most uncomic productions most of us have set eyes upon - that we are asking for a Second Reading.”

      At 41, Lord Mancroft was one of the youngest politicians debating the issue but even he had a pre-war mentality, a mind that could only equate the idea of ‘comics’ with Film Fun and The Dandy. Jowitt, a driving force behind the bill who clearly held strong views on the subject, was a generation older still. Born in 1885, the most significant thing that had happened when he turned 16 was that Queen Victoria died! And yet here he was, presuming to have a full understanding of post-war ‘Children and Young Persons’ and how they were affected by ‘(Harmful Publications)’. It was paternalistic, privileged parochialism in its purest form. Jowitt and his colleagues weren’t advocating a return to Victorian values because for them such values had never gone away - because many of them actually were Victorians. The Bill went through Parliament and became law. Some politicians tried unsuccessfully to expand its remit to cover ‘obscene publications’ in general, which wouldn’t happen until that much more famous Act of Parliament was passed four years later. After which, the Horror Comics Act was largely forgotten. A Parliamentary question in 1974 revealed that during the first 19 years of the Act there had been a total of two prosecutions, both in 1970.

      The other thing that rendered the Act somewhat superfluous was that society’s opprobrium shifted from the printed page to the big screen two years later when the Transatlantic double whammy of The Curse of Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf were released. Suddenly all those ‘Young Persons’ could be harmed by something much worse. EC Comics themselves eventually transferred to the screen in films like Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow, but not till much later. The former title also resurfaced as a TV anthology series in the late 1980s which ran for several years, including one season that was actually shot in the UK. I recall going down to an episode where I got to interview a pre-Star Wars Ewan McGregor and walked past Bob Hoskins in a corridor. Heady days. In 1993, just to show how little threat this stuff now presented to kids, there was a spin-off cartoon series called Tales from the Cryptkeeper. Admittedly the whole thing was toned down considerably but it demonstrated not just that kids love horror but also that the old horror comics were, like so much old-fashioned frightfare, essentially morality tales. Characters did wicked things and were punished for it. ’Twas ever so, even back unto The Bible itself. (There was also, according to online man-in-a-pub Wikipedia, a kids’ TV game show called 'Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House'!)
      The 1950s fuss over horror comics was just another in the series of media scares which have bedevilled society over the decades. In essence, it wasn’t that dissimilar to the video nasty furore of the mid-1980s which I looked at last November. But then neither was it massively different from the Victorian affair of the Penny Dreadfuls: cheap, exploitative, OTT gothic partworks which were, allegedly, single-handedly responsible for all the social problems of late 19th century Britain. (The irony here, of course, is that the likes of Earl Jowitt were old enough to have read Penny Dreadfuls - though I somehow doubt that he ever did.)

      Do horror comics still have any meaning or significance? Certainly they do. If anything, more so than ever before as comic-books are now accepted, by all but the most conservative cultural commentators, as a legitimate medium. Didn’t the New York TImes include Watchmen in its list of the greatest novels of the 20th century? Horror comics can combine the visual flair of the most extravagant cinema with the personal, authorial voice of the finest fiction. Which is why the good folk at Hemlock Books will soon be stocking a range of horror comics and graphic novels  alongside their catalogue of macabre movie magazines.
      Just don’t enquire how they’re getting them into the country...

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.