Crime Comics and the Remnants of a Moral Panic

The federal government’s Bill C-13 has come in for a good deal of well-deserved criticism — principally for being in fact an omnibus bill and for increasing the power of authorities to invade our privacy. A recent critique of the bill by Peter Nowak in Canadian Business caught my attention because it reminded me that it’s still illegal to publish a crime comic. The prohibition occurs in s.613 of the Criminal Code:

163. (1) Every one commits an offence who . . .

(b) makes, prints, publishes, distributes, sells or has in his possession for the purpose of publication, distribution or circulation a crime comic.

 . . .
(7) In this section, “crime comic” means a magazine, periodical or book that exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially

(a) the commission of crimes, real or fictitious; or
(b) events connected with the commission of crimes, real or fictitious, whether occurring before or after the commission of the crime.

There is a defence to the crime if “if the public good was served by the acts . . . ”

Nowak’s critique is slightly misplaced in that Bill C-13 doesn’t amend s.163 (so far as I can judge), but it does amend subsequent sections dealing with authorities’ powers that refer back to s.163 and that mention “crime comic” explicitly. So a reading of Bill C-13 has brought this peculiar provision into view, as it would have done for those planning and drafting the proposed amendments; and it might sensibly be asked why the government didn’t take the opportunity while it was mucking about in the “corrupting morals” area of the Code to get rid of this archaism.

crime_comicCrime comics became wildly popular in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Canada during the latter part of the 1930s and during the 1940s. This wave of tawdry entertainment caused concern among those who worried that children would be corrupted by it. This improbable mischief was given a scientific gloss largely thanks to a Dr. Fredric Wertham. His 1954 book, titillatingly titled Seduction of the Innocent, is often seen as the root of the anti-comics movements, but in fact his campaign began much earlier. The publication of his 1948 symposium, “The psychopathology of comic books,” is perhaps a better starting point. It was referred to in the 1949 debates in the House of Commons leading up to the passage of the original version of the Canadian prohibition:

Mr. Fulton
. . . May I read to the house some of the words used by an experienced psychologist in discussing the type of thing with which I am dealing. I hold in my hand a book entitled “The Psychopathology of Comic Books”, an extract of the symposium held by the association for the advancement of psychotherapy held in New York city and written by Frederic Wertham. The first paper was read by a Mr. Gerson Legman. I shall read from page 473 of the proceedings of the association. I read these words because they are a perfect description of the type of publication which I have in mind:

The comic books concentrate on aggressions which are impossible under civilized restraints—with fists. guns. torture. killing. and blood. The internalized censorship of both artist and child makes this attack respectable by directing it against some scapegoat criminal or wild animal. or even against some natural law like gravity, rather than against the parents. teachers. and policemen who are the real sources of the child’s frustration and therefore the real objects of his aggression. At the same unconscious level that the child identifies himself with the heroic avenger. he may also identify whoever has been frustrating him with the corpse.

Violence displaced In this way from its intended object invariably appears in larger and larger doses, more and more often repeated. Twelve years ago, in 1936, there was not one comic book published in the United States. Today, at a conservative estimate, there are five hundred million yearly.

May I pause here to remark that that estimate is already out of date, because the last authoritative estimate in the United States is that 60 million of these publications hit the magazine stands in that country every month, or 720 million a year. I regret that I have not been able to obtain authoritative figures on the numbers which are circulating in Canada; but, as I have said, if any hon. member wants to see for himself the threat which they are he has only to go to any newsstand in any otherwise reputable magazine shop in this or in any other city.

It’s pretty much all there, the trappings of a moral panic argument: emphasis on the vulnerable among us (whether young or ignorant or simply “innocent”), the allegation of insidious corruption working in ways that are out of the sight of the ordinary person, the confident assertions of the experts, the reification of the danger in print (“I hold in my hand a book . . . ” , “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names . . . “) and the use of very large (and rising) numbers that need only be tangentially related to the actual scourge . . .

Of course, nowadays, in an era of unbridled violence on television and in video games, this seems laughable. (For a look at the actual comics of the period, go to Comic Book Plus, which has a section on crime comics.) But it might be useful still as a reminder that today’s moral panic, whatever it may be — terrorism, marijuana, crime rates — will in a relatively short while look just as ridiculous, and that there really is no substitute for skepticism, the cautious testing of evidence, and a genuine reluctance to become involved on a primarily moral basis with what citizens do.

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  1. The history of the “crime comics” provision of the Criminal Code is fascinating. While alluded to in Simon’s post, it is worth highlighting that the enactment of what is now Section 163 of the Code occurred in 1949 – more than five years before the much more famous 1955 hearings of the US Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (England also enacted a “crime comics” prohibition in 1955).

    What would eventually become known as the “Fulton Bill” was introduced as a private member’s bill in the Canadian Parliament in 1948 by Davie Fulton (who would eventually become Diefenbaker’s Minister of Justice). One of the precipitating crimes was the killing in 1948 of James Watson in Dawson Creek, BC, by two boys, identified as avid crime comics readers, who were shooting at cars passing on the highway. The campaign in favour of crime comics was considered pressing enough that the issue was the subject of the maiden parliamentary speeches of a number of MPs elected in the 1949 general election. The Fulton Bill eventually garnered support from all parties: it uanimously passed the House of Commons in December 1949.

    The crime comics provision was only half-heartedly enforced: there were a handful of prosecutions through the 1950s, but they seemed to have dropped away by the 1960s – though as late as the 1980s, a “crime comics” charge would occasionally be laid (in one case in the late 80s from Calgary, the charge was eventually changed to an obscenity charge). More details can be found in Janice Dickin McGinnis’ “Bogeymen and The Law: Crime Comics and Pornography” (1988) 20 Ottawa Law Review 3 or Chapter 1 of my book “Under Arrest: Canadian Laws You Won’t Believe”.

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