First published in 1984, A Haunt of Fears examines the little remembered "moral panic" in the UK regarding American comics, around the same time when America was coming to grips with Fredric Wertham's ludicrous book The Seduction of the Innocent, which makes various claims that comics lead to juvenile delinquency, homosexuality and fascism. This culminated in a notorious Senate subcommittee where Wertham concluded that "...Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read."
Similar sentiments led to a campaign in the UK, but it's origins are a lot murkier and more nationalistic. And there's a reason for that, as academic Martin Barker reveals.
From the post war antipathy to American culture (seen as decadent and jigonistic) and a desire to get back to "traditional English culture and values", the campaign successfully pulled both sides of the political spectrum (with little to no knowledge of how the campaign owed much to communists) to come together and create the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955. This said that:
..any book, magazine or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying —
(a) the commission of crimes; or
(b) acts of violence or cruelty; or
(c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature;
in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall.
Interestingly, Barker points out that there was virtually no defence of the comics from anyone, which demonstrates how lowly they were considered in society. He also finds it astonishing that there was no link made with the Teddy Boy "moral panic" at the same time. In fact, communist papers went out of their way to defend the Teds as disaffected working class lads (even though they were the market for American comics in the UK).
From this angle, the book is fascinating and gives an insight into English thinking as the Cold War was at it's height and the ambivalence (as well as downright antipathy) towards American consumerism began to make it's way to post war Britain.
However, where the book falls flat is Barker's deconstruction of the various comics cited by campaigners as "horrific" and "damaging to children" etc etc etc. They're obviously included to prove the point that the campaigners did not attempt to engage with the comics in question but, ultimately, it has the same effect as pulling apart a joke: kills it stone dead.
As well as this, in 1984, the popular perception that comics were kiddie fare was still in vogue and the graphic novel boom (pioneered by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus) a few years away. So, from that angle, it's also understandable Barker makes a defence for them.
Ultimately, this is a tale which shows just how easy it is to ride the zeitgeist for your own end, and how "moral panics" emerge out of a variety of issues before convalescing on one issue that unites the political divide. It's also a time capsule of academic writing on comics before they became the hot source material that they are today.
Also, if you do have any old EC Comics, let me know if they're worth the fuss.
Martin Barker, 1984, A Haunt of Fear: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. Pluto Press ISBN-13: 978-0878055944
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.