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ARCHIVED - Crackdown on Comics, 1947-1966
By early 1947, Bell and at least one or two other reprint companies were operating in Canada. There were also three intrepid publishers issuing a handful of original, full-colour Canadian comics: Superior Publishers, F. E. Howard Publications and Export Publications. All of these companies were located in Toronto, and all were involved not only in comics publishing, but in the production of pulp magazines and early paperbacks.
Determined to keep the Golden Age alive, F. E. Howard, which had published Captain Commando and the Boy Soldiers in 1945, obtained the rights to various Bell Features characters and published two titles, Super Duper and Dizzy Don, which were distributed in both Canada and the US. Export Publications, which had been responsible for a one-shot Canadian fantasy pulp, Eerie Tales, issued an educational comic book, Captain Hobby Comics, in February 1947. They, too, arranged for distribution south of the border. As was also the case with F. E. Howard, Export's foray into the production of original comics was short-lived. American competition proved too overwhelming for both.
Superior Publishers, on the other hand, not only survived the difficult transitional years of 1946 and 1947, but also began to display a particularly aggressive and innovative approach to comics publishing. Not long after releasing a single issue of Space Nomad Comics by former Maple Leaf, Bell, and F. E. Howard contributor Edward Letkeman, early in 1946, the firm published another comic book by the same artist. Entitled Zor the Mighty Comics, it featured heroes such as Zor, Dr. Justice, and Sir Guy. A few months later, a second issue appeared. In June 1947 it was reprinted as Red Seal Comics No. 19, a title that Superior had acquired from the American publisher Harry A. Chesler. These Letkeman comics also seem to have been repackaged under the titles Jungle Comics and Jungle Adventures, both of which received distribution in the UK.
Apparently owned by William Zimmerman, Superior tended to dominate the Canadian comic-book scene from 1947 until 1956. In addition to using its own name, Superior published under at least four other imprints: Century Publishing, Herald Printing, Duchess Printing and Randall Publications. Although it initially eyed the post-war UK market, it soon shifted its attention to the larger and more accessible US market.
The US orientation of Superior Publications and the few other publishing houses active in 1947 was attributable to economic realities. As they no longer had the national market to themselves, and as the British market ceased to be a viable long-term alternative, the country's publishers were obliged to reprint US comics for distribution in Canada, or to sell Canadian comics in the US. Economic conditions did change, though, late in 1947.
Although the Canadian economy was experiencing a post-war boom, an alarming trade deficit with the US rapidly developed as consumers rushed to obtain the many goods that they had been denied between 1941 and 1945. Although reluctant to introduce trade barriers which ran counter to the international trade negotiations then underway, the Mackenzie King government was forced to preserve US exchange reserves by reintroducing an import ban. Once again, American publishers were excluded from the Canadian market. However, unlike in 1941, the new regulations permitted publishers in Canada to purchase the rights to reprint and repackage American comics.
Overnight, a new comic-book industry sprang up in response to the government's actions. There was no thought of resurrecting the Canadian titles that had flourished during the war years. American hegemony was an accepted fact, and it was much simpler -- and cheaper -- to acquire reprint rights than it was to establish the infrastructure needed for a distinct national industry. Moreover, publishers could not help but be aware of their vulnerability. The entire reprint industry was predicated on a government intervention that was ultimately unacceptable to many Canadians, as well as to their powerful neighbour to the South.
Those firms, like Bell Features, which were already reprinting US comics, quickly expanded their lines in the wake of the import ban. Other companies arose and acquired rights from the various American publishers previously unrepresented in Canada. By 1948, numerous publishing houses were involved in the burgeoning new industry, including Bell Features, Anglo-American, Export, Superior, Wilson, Daniels, Publication Services, Derby, Gilberton Publications, and Better Publications -- these last two being American subsidiaries.
Superior was among the leading reprint firms, but at the end of 1948 it was also the only company releasing original comic books. Even these, although published in Canada, were only nominally Canadian. In addition to continuing with Red Seal, Superior acquired two titles that had been previously associated with the US publisher Farrell: Aggie Mack and Brenda Starr. Like all subsequent original Superior comics, these would be produced by Jerry Iger's New York comic-art studio. Written and drawn by American artists for American audiences, Superior's line was a far cry from the original Canadian comics that had preceded them.
Although 1948 marked the resumption of Canada's comic-book industry, it also witnessed events that would have a profoundly negative impact on the development of North American comic art for many years to come. Across the country, parent-teacher associations, community groups, and church organizations were becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to "crime comics," which they perceived as an insidious threat to the moral development of the nation's children. According to critics, such publications were to be blamed for everything from illiteracy to juvenile delinquency and sexual deviancy.
Concern over the possible ill effects of the medium was not new. In fact, opposition to comics portraying crime and violence had been evident in Canada as soon as the war ended. But by 1948 the alarm of a few scattered individuals had been 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 Member of Parliament for Kamloops, British Columbia. Increasingly, anti-comics crusaders saw legislation as the only solution to the crime-comics problem. Their position was bolstered late in the year by events in northern British Columbia.
In November 1948, two boys, aged 13 and 11, stole a rifle and hid by the highway at Dawson Creek. Playing highwaymen, they shot at a passing car, and 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 boys were avid readers of crime comic books. According to the authorities, the older boy read about 50 crime comics a week, and the younger 30. The equation seemed obvious: crime comics caused criminal behaviour.
In 1949, the crime-comics campaign gained substantial momentum as community groups across the country lobbied for the passage of an anti-comics law that had been drafted the year before by E. Davie Fulton. Eventually introduced as a private-member's bill, the legislation was intended as a revision of Section 207 of the Criminal Code, which dealt with obscenity. The act, which came to be known as the Fulton Bill, made it an offence to make, print, publish, distribute, sell, or own "any magazine, periodical or book which exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially the commission of crimes, real or fictitious."
After months of intense, nation-wide campaigning, the bill was given first reading on September 28, 1949. The federal minister of justice, Stuart Garson, welcomed the legislation, but requested that it be submitted to various provincial attorneys general to ensure that it was enforceable. As a result of their feedback, Bill 10 was reformulated as a complete revision of Section 207 and changes were made to give it more bite. Following its revision, the bill passed the House of Commons unanimously, underscoring the degree of support that the crime-comics campaign enjoyed. The legislation was next sent to the Senate.
By this time, the comics industry had woken up to the threat of censorship and had asked for an opportunity to make representations against Bill 10. The Senate obliged by referring the legislation to a standing committee. The key industry witness to appear before the Senate committee was William Zimmerman from Superior. Much like William Gaines of the noted US comics firm E. C., who, five years later, would make a famous appearance before a US Senate committee, Zimmerman endeavoured to defend the crime comics, pointing to their role as a welcome outlet for children's natural impulses. Zimmerman made the mistake, though, of circulating samples of what he had represented as harmless entertainment for kids.
As long as the debate centred on intangibles like freedom of speech and child psychology, many senators had shown some sympathy for the businessman's position. However, once they saw what was actually being sold 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 92 to four. As a result, on December 10, 1949, Bill 10 became law.
No one, however, had counted on the audacity of Superior Publishers. In 1949, the company launched Bruce Gentry, Ellery Queen, and My Secret, three comics that were not only often racy, but not always devoid of depictions of crime. Although Superior did not inaugurate any new titles the following year, it did acquire the rights to William Gaines's E. C. comics, among the most famous and most highly regarded comics ever published in the US. Zimmerman made one concession to his opponents: in Canada, E. C.'s Crime Suspense Stories was retitled Weird Suspense Stories.
While Zimmerman defied the ban by shifting to romance and horror comics, most other Canadian companies acted swiftly to reassure parents and legislators that the comics industry could behave responsibly. 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 (CMIAC), which promised to review all US comic-book printing mats shipped into Canada to ensure that offensive material did not find its way onto the nation's newsstands.
Later that year, however, the CMIAC encountered a far more serious threat than censorship. The Foreign Exchange Conservation Act was relaxed sufficiently to allow certain businesses with unused import quotas to bring US comics into the country. The spectre of an American deluge began to worry Canada's publishers. In 1951 their worst fears were realized, as, stimulated by the Korean War, the Canadian economy was sufficiently strong to permit the removal of restrictions on US imports.
Most American comics companies shipped directly into Canada and thereby sealed the fate of the Canadian comics industry. As had been the case in 1946-1947, a few companies tried to hang on by competing with the US comics giants. Export, for instance, published its second original title, Science. By the end of 1951, however, only Superior remained, largely because it had never depended on protectionism for its survival.
In addition to continuing with his E. C. reprints, Superior's Zimmerman was extremely successful in penetrating the US comics market with what were essentially American comic books. Thumbing his nose at Section 207, he launched two horror comics in 1951: Journey into Fear and Strange Mysteries. These were joined by Mysteries Weird and Strange in 1953. As well, Superior issued more romance comics and diversified slightly with Super Funnies and United States Fighting Air Force.
Meanwhile, as the US campaign against crime and horror comics escalated, Canadian anti-comics crusaders resumed their activities. Led by E. Davie Fulton and Eleanor Gray (who were in contact with the most famous American anti-comics activist, Dr. Frederic Wertham), parents, educators, and religious leaders expressed concern that the ban was not being enforced with sufficient vigor. In fact, not a single prosecution had occurred since the bill's enactment in 1949. Accordingly, pressure mounted on both the political and the judicial systems to act against the publishers, distributors, and retailers who were brazenly exploiting children with lurid crime, horror, and romance comics. Finally, in 1953, a conviction was obtained against a Winnipeg distributor, and later that year it was upheld in appeal.
Not surprisingly, antagonism towards Superior was exacerbated throughout 1954, both north and south of the border. In the spring, Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (which cited some Superior titles) effectively fanned the flames of anti-comics sentiment. Furthermore, in June, one of Zimmerman's most formidable adversaries, the Kamloops Member of Parliament E. Davie Fulton, appeared before the hearings of the US Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. A few months later, the censorious Comics Code Authority was created within the US industry in an effort to avoid direct regulation by the American government.
Like the US publisher William Gaines, of E. C., William Zimmerman of Superior issued his last horror comics early in 1955. By the spring he was left with only four titles: G.I. War Brides, My Secret Marriage, Secret Romances, and United States Fighting Air Force. Although the company had successfully appealed a crime-comics conviction in 1954, its days were numbered. Not only did 1955 see several prosecutions against Canadian distributors, but another murder, purportedly involving comics, occured -- this time in Westville, Nova Scotia.
As Superior was the only publisher to survive the import deluge of 1951, the firm's withdrawal from the comics field in 1956 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 of the resurrected wartime superhero the Flash in DC's Showcase No. 4. What might be called Canada's own Silver Age was still 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.
For English-Canadian kids growing up in the latter part of the 50s and the early 60s, US comics were a major part of childhood. However, encounters with comics became a curiously alienating experience; not only were most comic-book stories set in the US, but even the enticing back-cover ads for sea monkeys, toy soldiers, and other products were American -- and often, much to the frustration of Canadian boys and girls, only available to residents of the US. Comics thus served to reinforce the feeling that Canada was a backwater. Nor was this a short-lived problem. In English Canada, only US comics would be available on the newsstands until the 1970s.
Despite the scarcity of Canadian newsstand comics, some comic books produced in Canada were in evidence during the period between 1957 and 1966. Known as "giveaways," these one-shot publications harnessed the undeniable power and reach of comic art for educational and promotional purposes. Issued by various levels of government and by corporations, Canadian giveaways were created primarily by two studios: Orville Ganes' Ganes Productions of Toronto and Owen McCarron's Halifax-based Comic Book World. Between them, these two studios produced more than 50 different comic books. Often the giveaways conveyed admonitions to potentially wayward teens. Accordingly, hundreds of thousands of Canadian adolescents were introduced to the dangers of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and venereal diseases in comics that were distributed free for many years in classrooms across the country. While far from representing the resumption of the Canadian comics industry, Ganes Productions, Comic Book World, and the other smaller giveaway studios that operated during the 50s and 60s, helped to keep the national comic-art tradition alive during what were extremely lean years.
Although the 1950s and early 1960s were a period of serious contraction for Canadian comic-book publishing, it should be noted that the era did witness the publication of several new Canadian newspaper strips, including Lew Saw's "One-Up," Winslow Mortimer's "Larry Brannon," Doug Wright's "Nipper" (later "Doug Wright's Family"), and Al Beaton's "Ookpik."