The Beginning of the End for Australian Comics Censorship

Jesus Meets the Armed ServicesRegular CBLDF readers probably recall Joe Sergi’s post from last year about the birth of official comics censorship in Australia, where the gruesome crimes of Lone Avenger creator Len Lawson cast a pall over the entire industry for decades. Now Australian comics blogger Dan Best brings us another post documenting the beginning of the end of that era, when underground comix collided spectacularly with official notions of the comic genre.

In 1972, Melbourne Sci-Fi and comic shop Space Age Books tried to respond to growing demand from its mostly teenaged and young adult customers by importing several underground comix titles from the United States. The Australian Department of Customs and Excise had other ideas, however, and seized two shipments of books that it judged unfit for distribution in the country. Faced with a plethora of bureaucratic justifications for withholding the books, including blasphemy, drug references, and violence, Space Age Books employee Paul Stevens took it upon himself to fight the ban. In a letter to the customs officials, he pointed out that Australian restrictions on other types of entertainment media had been relaxed in the past several years:

Film censorship has been updated and now films that would have been banned two years ago, are operating freely under an adults “R” certificate. Books and magazines are also entering the country that only a few months ago would have been seized as obscene. The only standards that have not yet altered are those dealing with com[i]cs.

Next, Stevens patiently explained that comics were no longer just for children (if they ever had been!) and were a legitimate form of expression:

Previously, the term comic, meant a publication with drawings in panel form designed purely for children from the age of 4 to 14. But now this has very definately [sic] changed. Within America there are a number of young adults who have experimented with the comic panel art form to produce a platform from which they can say what they want to say. (A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS and this comic art format is a new term of expression).

Urging officials to consider comics like Jesus Meets the Armed Services (in which Jesus is arrested as a draft dodger and a “long-haired weirdo”) and The Collected Adventures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in the context of contemporary issues, Stevens asked them to reconsider their decision and relax restrictions on imported comics in the future:

I sincerely hope that when examining future publications…you can take into account that the comic is no longer produced exclusively for children and that the majority of publications are meant for students and adults. Graphic arts is a new, very rapidly changing, and expanding artform and as such it does contain a lot of merit.

Upon receipt of Stevens’ letter, Customs and Excise employee D.C. Gordon drafted an internal memo summarizing the debate and making a recommendation for the department’s next step. While Gordon sounded a bit skeptical of the possible worth of underground comix — “[t]he claim is sometimes made that a number of these comics are fine examples of graphic art” — Gordon also seemed to be close to admitting that the restrictions on comics could not be sustained much longer:

I sympathize with the view that there is some justification for the release of serious adult comics whose merit is often more than enough to outweigh the occasional outburst of bad language. The interest of children is hardly likely to be sustained because in most cases the material is well over their heads.

Nevertheless, Gordon’s recommendation was to maintain the ban and not release the comics to Space Age books. The response letter that was sent to Stevens gave no hint that anyone in Customs and Excise had given his request serious consideration; it simply listed the seized books and curtly stated that “the prohibition [has been] maintained on these publications.” Within a few years, however, such restrictive inspections of comics were history. While it’s impossible to know if Stevens’ letter was the impetus, says Best, there is no question that it ushered in an age in which “comic book censorship in Australia as it had previously been known was all but finished.”

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.