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Thursday, 18 August 2011

Why 'Things That Grip'? (...and what's the connection to the cover of Atom no.17?)

Round about the time I was being born in 1955 the John Bull Rubber Company of Leicester began an advertising campaign for a range of tyres which emphasized their superior road-holding ability with the snappy slogan 'Things that Grip!' Some of these adverts were quite unremarkable, comparing the 'grip' of John Bull Tyres to eminently sensible items such as a mountain climber's cramponed boots.

Others, however, took off in a wholly unexpected direction using surreal and horrific examples of 'Things that Grip!', each of them portrayed with gruesome humour by an unknown cartoonist who threw himself enthusiastically into the task of depicting the most blood-curdling images possible.

Though the artwork is relatively crude one can't help but feel it must have been influenced by the style of certain American comic-books - particularly the tongue-in-cheek brand of horror popularized in the pages of legendary EC titles such as Tales from the Crypt. The curious thing is that by 1955 this sort of fare could no longer be found in America itself because of an industry-wide code of self-censorship established by the main publishers who'd found themselves engulfed in a wave of paranoia which swept the country when it was claimed that such comics were corrupting the nation's youth.

In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, American comic books had already been officially unavailable for several years - firstly as a result of wartime restrictions on the importation of non-essential goods, and latterly because of the UK Government's response to a post-war balance of payments crisis (though limited quantities did occasionally leak out of American Air Force bases in some parts of the country). Nevertheless demand for US-style comics remained strong, leading a number of enterprising British publishers to produce black & white reprints of a range of popular titles. One of the most successful of these suppliers turned out to be a neighbour of the John Bull Company - Thorpe & Porter Ltd. of Oadby, Leicester, who made an early entry into the horror field with short- lived versions of Eerie Comics and Comics to Hold You Spellbound, closely followed by Simon & Kirby's Black Magic. However, when the latter series began to attract negative publicity they cannily allowed their main rival the Miller family of London to take over with the twelfth issue.

Some early British horror titles from Thorpe & Porter

Black Magic Magazine no.12 (British Edition) published by the Arnold Book Company - aka the 'Son' of L. Miller & Son

In fact, this negative view of popular literature was nothing new in Britain. As far back as the nineteenth century there had been a profound moral panic amongst educated classes about the corrupting effects of 'Penny Dreadfuls' on their social inferiors. In his spirited defence of such publications G K Chesterton observed in 1901 that it had become the custom, particularly amongst magistrates, "to attribute half the crimes of the Metropolis to cheap novelettes". In many ways these attacks reflected the country's long-standing class divisions which were themselves challenged by the existence of an increasingly educated proletariat. Once literacy itself had been the exclusive province of a privileged minority but now that even the meanest guttersnipe was learning how to read and write it became all-important to relocate the old class divisions in more intangible questions of taste and breeding!

Moreover, this notion of the degrading nature of lower class literature didn't, by any means, limit itself to matters of 'blood and gore'. In a book published in 1949 Geoffrey Trease began something of a witch-hunt against Enid Blyton, of all people, whom he accused of polluting children's minds with anodyne fantasies which left them ill-equipped to deal with the real world. At the same time a Southport vicar called Marcus Morris launched an attack on contemporary comics which not only took in American imports but also home-grown titles such as J B Allen's Comet - and even nursery comics where "cute little animals seem mostly to be bashing each other's heads or stealing each other's sweets and cakes."

Not surprisingly the Reverend Morris was a self-confessed propagandist for Christianity and in 1950 he got his chance to produce a comic based on the sort of Christian values he'd advocated - as editor of 'the new national strip cartoon weekly' Eagle! In spite of his missionary zeal, however, Morris turned out to have surprisingly sound commercial instincts so that the space-going vicar called 'Chaplain Dare' who'd originally been slated for the all-important cover slot was converted into the more traditionally heroic 'Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future' before publication.

Morris's new breed of hero, as initially designed by his star artist Frank Hampson

Eagle was a phenomenal success, and it provided the template for a whole new generation of British adventure comics that were to make the 1950s and 1960s something of a golden age for fans of the genre. Unfortunately the myth of innocent young minds being polluted by an avalanche of American-style 'horror comics' had built up such a head of steam by this stage that there was no shortage of special-interest groups eager to jump on the bandwagon. Most surprising of all was a concerted behind-the-scenes campaign conducted by the Communist Party of Great Britain who hoped to damage Anglo-American relations by portraying US-style 'Horror Comics' as a perfect symbol of the fundamentally corrupting nature of American culture.

When a number of Communist activists moved to promote their cause by founding a pressure group known as the Comics Campaign Council in 1953 they were understandably eager to conceal their own political agenda. As a result they encouraged a wide range of concerned parents and teachers to spread the word about the threat British children were facing from such reading matter, and in due course one of the campaign's most effective lobbyists emerged in the person of a Sussex headmaster called George Pumphrey. Pumphrey was a tireless crusader who'd already made a name for himself by addressing meetings and writing articles on the subject for educational journals; in 1954 he was the author of an influential booklet called Comics and Your Children which was published under the auspices of the CCC.

In all this time the reforming headmaster never suspected that some of his principal backers viewed him as a convenient mouthpiece for the Communist Party. Ironically this makes him an easy target for the label of 'Red Dupe' - a charge that the increasingly-embattled publisher of America's EC Comics was even then leveling against his own critics in a memorable editorial which appeared on the inside front cover of his titles for August 1954.

EC Comics' famous 'Red Dupe' editorial, illustrated by Jack Davis

As Gaines put it, "some of these people are no-goods, some are do-gooders, some are well-meaning, and some are just mean." To be fair to Pumphrey I've no doubt that he fell squarely into the 'well-meaning' category, and it's clear to me that his opposition to so much of the popular literature he came across stemmed from very deeply held convictions about the potential harm it was inflicting on young and impressionable minds. In truth his objections to American comics weren't restricted to their depictions of lurid violence and criminality: indeed his complaint that Superman and Superboy "fulfill the wildest phantasies, and to the mature adult seem stupid and humourless in their fantastic adventures" recalls the terms of Geoffrey Trease's attack on Enid Blyton, and could even be linked to the uncompromising brand of cultural elitism that F R Leavis and his followers were earnestly fostering within Britain's academic institutions.

One of George Pumphrey's later books about British comics, published by The Epworth Press in 1964

Nevertheless Pumphrey was well aware that the popular view of American-style comics as purveyors of nightmarish horror was his most effective weapon in stirring up public opinion against them, even though he must have known that the majority contained little more than colourful western adventures; thus he was perversely "delighted" when he discovered a copy of The Haunt of Fear no.1 which seemed to be a perfect representation of the negative stereotype. Barely able to believe his eyes he said to himself "this it it, they have gone too far - this is something the campaign can really use."

The one-and-only British Edition of EC's The Haunt of Fear

And use it they did! In the letter column of the Times Educational Supplement for 17th September 1954 Pumphrey wrote a blistering condemnation of this comic that generated a growing storm of outrage. In no time the controversy spilled over into other newspapers, and even led the powerful National Union of Teachers to mount a major exhibition of objectionable American comics which drew large crowds as it toured around the country. Even though The Haunt of Fear no.1, a single edition of Vault of Horror and two issues of Tales From the Crypt were the only EC horror comics ever to be officially released in the UK they were cited over and over again as prime examples of the sort of 'filth' that was being peddled to British children. In some ways the unusual skill of EC's writers and artists made their work all the more amenable to critical dissection - especially when certain sequences were highlighted and taken out of context.

Thus when the Conservative Government of the day was itself forced to take an interest in the matter George Pumphrey's own copy of Haunt of Fear was requested by the Ministry of Education for further study. In due course all this activity resulted in the passage of an official Bill to "prevent the dissemination of certain pictorial publications harmful to children and young persons". It is even said that when the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George (son of the famous Prime Minister) introduced the Bill for its second reading on 22nd February 1955 he brandished a copy of Tales from the Crypt.

In spite of a heated debate in which it was subjected to a number of objections (notably from Michael Foot) the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 was given the Royal Assent on May 6th 1955 and duly passed into law from June 6th 1955. Its provisions applied in full throughout England, Wales and Scotland (though not Northern Ireland) and it remains in force to the present day. The Act officially prohibited the sale or publication of:

"...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 (defined as being under 18 years of age) into whose hands it might fall."
Remarkably this meant that henceforth comic strips were singled out in law as being uniquely influential upon young minds in a way that didn't apply to any other form of literature or artistic expression!

This chain of events now brings us neatly back to the John Bull Rubber Company and their unusual advertising campaign, for it was on the back cover of Arthur Pearson's Men Only magazine for June 1955 (the very month that American-style horror comics were finally outlawed) that the following advert appeared:

If you click on the image you'll see that they're all there - the torture chambers and graveyards, the helpless women being threatened by leering mad professors and animated corpses, the vampire bats and bloody axes, the guillotines and gallows and the ghostly clutching hands! In short it is a love letter to the sort of comics that were even then being brutally surpressed by an adult world that just couldn't understand what children saw in them.

"...the horror comic (obsolescent) that holds its youthful subscriber (adolescent) in thrilling thrall; conjuring in his febrile brain a regular phantasmagoria of awful phenomena; gripping him with tales of ghosts and ghouls, lavishly illustrated with ghastly garishness..."

It is a glorious epitaph to a lost era - and as such I couldn't resist appropriating it for this blog's title and header.

...And what does all this have to do with the cover of Atom no.17? Beyond its obvious connection to the general theme of tyres and 'things that grip' very little really. Except for the fact that, like the diminutive superhero who inevitably manages to escape from his plight in the nick of time, the major American comics publishers also managed to avoid the threat of crushing legislation at the last moment by agreeing to censor themselves via their own 'Comics Code Authority' which they established at the end of 1954 (though it was a solution that failed to save EC comics).

Oddly enough, even though America and Great Britain dealt with their 'Horror Comic' question in very different ways, the net result was surprisingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. In each case it was the minor publishers who bore the brunt of any measures taken while the major companies were almost completely unaffected. Indeed it could be argued that, by being forced to experiment with relatively uncontroversial superhero characters to replace the horror titles that had been their stock in trade, Stan Lee's 'Atlas' line eventually went on to become one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world under its new name of 'Marvel Comics'...!

  • (n.b. A significant amount of the information contained in this post - particularly anything relating to the activities of the Comics Campaign Council and their hidden links with the Communist Party - is taken from Martin Barker's seminal History of the British Horror Comics Campaign A Haunt of Fears, first published in 1984 by Pluto Press Ltd. This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to study the period in more detail)


  1. Great blog! Please do not let it die!
    Do you know how to get "Comics and your children", by Pumphrey? I think is a very interesting reading to understand the British anti-comic campaign, but it is not easy to find.
    Thank you again for your blog.

  2. That's an interesting read, and undoubtedly there were several people back then who over-egged the pudding - for whatever reason. However, part of the nature of being corrupted is that one is unaware that it has happened. Nowadays children regularly play the most violent video games imaginable, where people are blown up, dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, etc. - all in the most graphic detail - and are entertained by it. Even if they're not likely to imitate what they watch on-screen, the fact that they can watch such images - and do so for fun - seems to indicate a certain level of 'corruption'. I find the fact that children can watch such images and not be appalled by them to be somewhat unsettling. Even if all that parents of the '50s wanted to do was to prevent their children being similarly affected (regardless of being stirred up by those with their own agenda), then surely that's understandable, isn't it? And perhaps even noble after a fashion, as parents these days seem to let their kids do whatever they like.

    Keep blogging.

  3. By way of correction. The gun toting dude above is most definitely not Jim Kenner. It is Alf Wallace who was brought over from Fleetway to manage the old Hulton's stable of comics...Boy's World being the first new publication under his management. While I was not involved in the concept and preparation of Boy's World, I was a sub on the comic from about the sixth issue. I knew Mike Moorcock at Fleetway and I know it is a long time since the 60s b ut I have zero recollection of Mike being involved in any way with Boy's World. That is not to say that he couldn't have sold scripts working exclusively with the editor (Kenner and subsequently Bartholomew) but it would have been extremely unusual for the rest of the staff not to have been aware of his contribution. I never saw his name on anything and I did not ever see him visit the editorial offices.