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Manitoba History: Dick Tracy Gets Smacked Down: Crime Comics in Manitoba [1]

by Sgt. John Burchill (ret.)
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 77, Winter 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In 2013, the Central Canada Comic Con attracted nearly 45,000 visitors to Winnipeg’s Convention Centre. The past year also saw comic book characters from the 1940s and 1950s bring in some of the largest box office receipts at Winnipeg theatres and in home video retail sales. Captain America, Superman and Batman have all become cultural icons, each battling crime and corruption, fighting life-and-death battles against evil. The Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman are under production and expected to grace the big screen in the coming years. With some of the biggest mail-order dealers in the country, Winnipeg was probably the number-one comic city in Canada for 30 to 40 years. However, 60 years ago, the comic book industry was under siege, with Manitoba’s highest court ruling that the children of this country needed to be protected from the evil effects of such publications. Crime fighter Dick Tracy was to be the first target.

Art and morality are not easy bedfellows. Sometimes art is deemed to corrupt the public morals, be it in books, paintings, sculptures, or plays. However, such dangerous and wicked forms of expression are never fully suppressed. Time often sees them in a different light. Their very novelty made them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which the artist spoke. [2]

Today, section 163 of the Criminal Code of Canada criminalizes the sale and distribution of another dangerous and wicked form of expression—comics. Specifically, it bans crime comics in which the dominant characteristics involve the undue exploitation of sex or sex and any one or more of the following subjects: crime, horror, cruelty, and violence. This section has been part of our criminal law since 1949. However, except for the small blip in the mid-1950s, it has seldom been used to prosecute the purveyors or distributors of such “art.”

Dick Tracy No. 62, April 1953. The Chief Justice of Manitoba equated a child who learns to read from comics like Dick Tracy with raising them on “home-brew.”
Source: J. Burchill

Over the years, the concern these characters once drew has since been replaced by concern over graphic movies, television, music lyrics, and video games. However, the history of the section is an exposé in moral panic and the tension that exists between art and literature on the one hand, and incitement to crime and disorder on the other. It was their very novelty that made them repulsive until the public learned the new language in which they spoke. As famously noted by University of Manitoba alumnus Marshall McLuhan in 1963:

Not having anything connected or literary about them, and being as difficult to decipher as the Book of Kells, [comics] caught on with the young. The elders of the tribe, who had never noticed that the ordinary newspaper was as frantic as a surrealist art exhibition, could hardly be expected to notice that the comic books were as exotic as eighth-century illuminations. So, having noticed nothing about the form, they could discern nothing of the contents, either. The mayhem and violence were all they noted. Therefore, with naive literary logic, they waited for violence to flood the world. Or, alternatively, they attributed existing crime to the comics. The dimmest-witted convict learned to moan, “It wuz comic books done this to me.” [3]

Section 163, as it principally reads today, was for all intents and purposes introduced into the House of Commons on 3June 1948 by then Conservative backbencher Davie Fulton. At the time, the relevant section of the Criminal Code read in part as follows:

207. Every one is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to two years’ imprisonment who knowingly, without lawful justification or excuse ... (a)publicly sells, or exposes for public sale or to public view, or has in his possession for sale any obscene book, or other printed or written matter, or any picture, photograph, model or other object, tending to corrupt morals ... [4]

The Right Honourable Edmund Davie Fulton (1916–2000) appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency on 4 June 1954.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-125799

While obscene books that tended to corrupt morals were criminalized, there was no definition of what was “obscene” and the notion of obscenity was based on the test formulated in 1868 by Cockburn C. J. in R. v. Hicklin:

I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall. [5]

While several US legislatures passed laws banning any magazines or other printed paper principally made up of “criminal news, police reports or accounts of criminal deeds or pictures and stories or deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime” as early as 1884, [6] the Canadian government was content to let the courts apply their notion of obscenity for such printed matter until 1948.

Although there were concerns expressed regarding comics prior to 1948, the first phase of comic book hysteria reached its peak earlier that year, primarily through the medium of Dr. Fredric Wertham who began publishing his research (or at least his opinions) on the harmful effects that comic books had on the development of children. Dr. Wertham’s first public condemnation of comic books (“The Psychopathology of Comic Books”) was presented on 19March 1948 at a symposium of the New York Academy of Medicine. [7] A review of his research appeared the following week in an article by Judith Crist in Collier’s Magazine, [8] followed shortly thereafter by his own views in the Saturday Review of Literature. [9] In 1948, he also wrote “Are Comic Books Harmful to Children?,” “Comic Books are Bad,” and “The Betrayal of Childhood: Comic Books.” [10]

The last noted paper, presented in August 1948 at the Annual Congress of Correction of the American Prison Association, called comic books a “correspondence course in crime.” In it, he lists the seven ways comic books affect children: 1. Comic books may suggest criminal or sexually abnormal ideas. 2. They create a mental preparedness or readiness for temptation. 3. They suggest the forms a delinquent impulse may take and supply details of the latest techniques for its execution. 4. They may tip the scales in the behaviour of an otherwise normal child and act as the precipitating factor of delinquency or emotional disorder. 5. They supply the rationalization for a contemplated act which is often more important than the impulse itself. 6. They set off a chain of undesirable and harmful thinking. 7. They create for the child an atmosphere of deceit, trickery, and cruelty. [11]

In addition to Wertham, other writers took on “The Case Against Comics” [12] and “Countering Crime-Laden Comics” that year. [13] In April, Time magazine pictured Detroit Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy examining a mountain of comics and commenting that they were“Loaded with communist teachings, sex, and racial discrimination.” [14] Groups and committees were formed to evaluate comic books and the United States Supreme Court had just rendered its decision in Winters v. New Yorkafter two years and three rounds of arguments on comic books, obscenity and whether they intended to encourage or incite crime. [15]

In the midst of the noise, on 3 June 1948, with encouragement from his constituents and the British Columbia Parent Teachers’ Association, Mr. Fulton addressed the issue of crime comics before the House of Commons. However, upon further debate it was rejected by the Liberal Justice Minister at that time, the Hon. James Ilsley, in part for lack of proof that crime comics contributed to juvenile delinquency:

If it can be established that crime comics are having the effect of an inducement to crime and are causing young people to set fires, stab and shoot and grow up into criminals, they ought to be banned entirely, and I would be fully justified in adding such a provision to the present sections of the criminal code, but in the absence of some agreement among those who have had an opportunity of judging this matter I do not consider that I would be justified in introducing legislation. [16]

In a cruel twist of fate, Fulton was given his connection six months later in a community 900 km north of his riding in Dawson Creek, BC. On 12 November 1948 two boys, aged 11 and 13, stole a 30-30 rifle and ammunition from an unlocked car in Dawson Creek, donned masks and planned to rob the next vehicle that came down the Alaska Highway. Sixty-two-year-old James Watson was subsequently shot through his car and died four days later.

On 22 November, the two boys were arrested and they admitted to reading 40 to 50 comics a week. M. S. Morrell, acting as coroner, recommended that authorities “censor the more lurid type of comics which is apt to encourage crime.” Within a week, both boys were found to be delinquent and Crown Prosecutor, A. W. McClellan, recommended a nation-wide effort to rid the country of the “horrible and weird literature with which children are filling their heads.” Police Magistrate C. S. Kitchen concurred that such “rubbish” should be abolished. [17]

In the wake of the Watson murder, British Columbia’s Attorney General called for action against the comics, as did a number of community and parent-teacher associations. Dr. Wertham’s work on delinquency and comics “provided the movement with a veneer of scientific legitimacy”, and on 2 February 1949 Fulton presented his first Bill to Parliament restricting crime comics. [18] However, a federal election was called sending voters to the polls and the Bill never got past its first reading.

On 27 June 1949, the Liberal government was returned to power and, in the fall session of Parliament, Fulton introduced Bill C-10 for first reading restricting crime comics. [19] Evidence that comics caused young people to set fires, stab and shoot, and generally grow up into criminals was led by Fulton at the second reading of the Bill on 4October 1949. Not only did he include the murder of James Watson and the “scathing criticism of crime comics [by Justice Kitchen], laying the blame for this murder almost directly upon their influence”, he quotes at length from Dr. Wertham’s 1948 paper on “The Psychopathology of Comic Books”:

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.

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.

The price being only a few cents apiece, and the distribution national, every city child can, and does, read from ten to a dozen of these pamphlets monthly, an unknown number of times, and then trades them for others. If there is only one violent picture per page—and there are usually more—every city child who was six years old in 1938 has bynow absorbed an absolute minimum of eighteen thousand pictorial beatings, shootings, stranglings, blood-puddles, and torturings-to-death, from comic books alone. [20]

Bill C-10, known as the Fulton Bill, made it through the Senate and had its final reading on 5 December 1949. The Bill was passed and subsequently became law, making it an offence to “make, print, publish, distribute, sell or have in ones possession for the purpose of publication, distribution or circulation a ‘crime comic’.” In addition, a “crime comic” was defined as “a magazine, periodical or book that exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially the commission of crimes, real or fictitious.” [21]

Dr. Wertham subsequently devoted an entire chapter in his book, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” to Fulton and the murder in Dawson Creek, outlining the events and prohibition on comics in Canada. However, Wertham’s crusade was not just against horror and slasher comics. He also took a swipe at the Caped Crusader (Batman) and the young Boy Wonder as being “psychologically homosexual”; Wonder Woman was the lesbian counterpart of Batman—a cruel, “phallic” woman who made a frightening figure for boys and an undesirable ideal for girls; and Superman as a Fascist solitary avenger who “undermines the authority and the dignity of the ordinary man and woman in the minds of children.” [22]

Shortly after Dr. Wertham’s book hit the shelves, both he and Fulton were invited to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency. The public hearings took place on 21–22 April and 4 June 1954 in New York. They principally focussed on “crime and horror” comic books. [23]

Fulton testified on the last day. [24] He detailed the Dawson Creek murder as well as another from Westville, Nova Scotia, where Stewart Wright, 14, shot a friend dead while they listened to a shooting radio program and read comic books about the Two-Gun Kid. While the jury found the shooting an accident, they recommended that comic books of the type found at the scene be banned. Fulton talked about the success of the Roher case from Manitoba and the Zimmerman case from Ontario (which had not yet been overturned). [25] Fulton also reflected on the input that Dr. Wertham had on himself and the Canadian legislation:

I have read extensively from Dr. Wertham’s articles and, of course, I read with great interest his latest book, Seduction of the Innocent. I have had considerable correspondence with Dr. Wertham and I think it is fair and accurate to say that insofar as I myself, made any contribution to this matter and to the enactment of our legislation that I used and found Dr. Wertham’s opinions, his quotations, of great assistance and I found they were generally accepted as authoritative in our country in a discussion of this matter. I am not again saying that opinion was unanimous, but I think it is fair to say that Dr. Wertham’s views were given great weight in our country.... [26]

Ultimately, however, as a result of the legislation, crime comics had pretty well disappeared from Canadian newsstands. Nevertheless, vigilance by authorities and, in his opinion, stiffer penalties, were required to ensure they did not return. The suppression of crime comics was not a complete answer to the problem of juvenile delinquency, he said; however, it was a start. [27]

While the Subcommittee concluded that American youth were being “fed a concentrated diet of crime, horror, and violence” which had to be eliminated, in their interim report they felt it was best done by industry regulation—not by federal criminal law. In light of the Comics Code and Seal of Approval adopted by the Comics Magazine Association of America on 26 October 1954 (after the Hearings concluded), the Senate Committee would take a wait-and-see approach. [28]

Debates in the British Parliament on the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Bill took place shortly after the conclusion of the Senate Committee Hearings in New York. The bill was introduced on 30 November 1954 with Dr. Horace King (the Member of Parliament for Southampton, Test) equating the exploitation of children’s imaginations, emotions and morals by the publishers and disseminators of crime comics with child labour before the Factories Acts. He decried, “There is only one solution to the problem of the horror comic, and that is its complete destruction.” [29]

The Second Reading of the bill was on 22 February and the Third on 4 April 1955. Sir H. Lucas-Tooth, in urging the House to give the Bill a unanimous Third Reading, reminded the members of what it was they were attempting to destroy. “I shall refer once more to Dr. Wertham,” he stated, “whose work in America on this subject is of such enormous value to child life throughout the world.”

As a psychiatrist, he has said that the increase of violence in juvenile delinquency has gone hand in hand with the sensational increase in the circulation of horror comics. He has said: ‘You cannot understand present day juvenile delinquency if you do not take into account the pathogenic and pathoplastic influence of the comic books...’

If one can sum up what we are trying to destroy, it is the glorification of violence, the educating of children in the detail of every conceivable crime, the playing on sadism, the morbid stimulation of sex, the cultivation of race hatred, the cultivation of contempt for work, the family and authority, and, probably most unhealthy, the cultivation of the idea of the superman and a sort of incipient Fascism.

The Bill seeks to stamp out, not the work of James Joyce, not the work of a great artist, but the work of bastard, mongrel artists who have created types of unhealthy amusement.... [30]

Mr. Douglas Houghton (MP for Sowerby), however, did not support the Bill and queried whether the “horror comics” from the ceiling of the Crypt of Westminster Hall should be removed as they depicted someone being boiled in a cauldron; toasted on a grill; and being stoned to death. “If they are not comics, they are certainly horrifying. They are all of a repulsive or horrible nature, and I commend them to the attention of the Minister responsible.” [31] Mr. Rees-Davies also noted that under the terms of the Bill, Goya’s Los Caprichos was clearly a horror comic as well. [32]

Ultimately, the Bill received Royal Assent on 6 May 1955 and became law on 6 June 1955. [33] It is interesting that there have been only two prosecutions under the Act, both in 1970. [34] The last trial involved the prosecution of Bloom Publications Ltd., Joy Elaine Farren, Michael Anthony Farren, Paul Lewis, and John Edward Barker for possessing an obscene article for gain, namely 275 copies of the comic Nasty Tales No. 1. Mr. Roger Davies, counsel for Edward Barker, summed up his defence to the jury:

Each comic reflects the attitude of its generation. You are trying a generation. The producers of this magazine are representative of their generation...consider this magazine in the context of the times and the defendants and the titter from the public gallery—they are the people who are likely to read this magazine. For want of a better word: hippies. [35]

All four accused were acquitted. The very novelty of the comics made them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which they spoke.

Back in Canada, it was the Winnipeg Police Morality Squad, created in 1911, that was assigned the task of supervising such dens of wickedness as “sporting houses”, dance halls and pool rooms. By the mid-1950s the Morality Division had grown to 19 officers and had begun targeting some of the City’s more notorious criminals under the new Fulton Bill—including that wily 22-year veteran of the rough and tough underworld—Dick Tracy.

Dick Tracy was a hard-hitting, fast-shooting “detective.” He lived life large and his exploits in crime and corruption were carried almost daily by newspapers throughout North America in the 1950s. [36] It is estimated that by 1953 he and his ilk were grossing an estimated $90 million a year throughout North America. He is still alive today and lives on in film, books and newspaper serials. [37]

Dick Tracy is a comic book character. He was created from the imagination of Chester Gould and made his debut in the Detroit Mirror on 4 October 1931. [38] However, by 1953, his exploits and those of his rivals were deemed every bit as criminal as those of his real life contemporaries—Bugsy Siegel, Al (Scarface) Capone, John Dillinger and Charles (Lucky) Luciano. Perhaps even worse for the depravity, sadistic degeneracy and insanity of his exploits and those of his pulp fiction cohorts, were leading to the delinquency and moral corruption of the nation’s youth. Crime was increasing and comics were to blame.

By 27 March 1953, the government of Manitoba had had enough of their exploits and the Honourable Ivan Schultz, Attorney General for Manitoba, called upon the federal government to do something about the law, as they had been unable to effectively deal with such similarly minded characters (or caricatures). [39]

Later that same day George Young, a Winnipeg Police morality officer with seven-and-a-half years’ experience, was tasked with bringing down Dick Tracy’s criminal enterprise. He deftly walked into Roher’s Lunch at 360 Graham Avenue and bought the April 1953 edition of Dick Tracy No. 62. The shop owner, Abe Roher, was subsequently arrested and summonsed to court for having in his possession for sale a “crime comic”, contrary to section 207(1)(b) and (3) of the Criminal Code.

Justice was swift. It was to be a test case of the government’s resolve to curb such moral wickedness plaguing the city’s youth. Morality officers said they would prosecute any person in the city who sold or kept such magazines for sale—highlighting that the penalty under the Criminal Code was as much as two years in jail. [40]

On 29 April 1953, within weeks of his arrest, Mr. Roher appeared before Magistrate Maris H. Garton in Winnipeg Police Court. To deal with such moral turpitude the Crown was represented by none other than C. W. Tupper QC. Not only was Tupper a well-seasoned lawyer with 30 years at the Bar, he was also the grandson of former Prime Minister Charles Tupper and the son of William Johnston Tupper, the former Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba. [41]

Charles William “Charlie” Tupper (1898–1960), circa 1958, prosecuted Abe Roher for selling a copy of Dick Tracy No. 62 to an undercover police officer.
Source: Winnipeg Police Museum, A1616-53372

Mr. Roher was represented by Mr. F. J. Turner QC and his son Keith Turner who ably argued for the defence that the whole theme of such comics was that “crime doesn’t pay” and that the criminals were always captured in the end. “There is nothing harmful in crime comics ... The same comic strips are carried in newspapers everyday”, F. J. Turner said. However, Magistrate Garton found Mr. Roher guilty and fined him five dollars and costs or in default thereof to imprisonment for a term of five days in jail. [42]

Within days, Mr. Roher appealed his conviction. However, on 9 November 1953, a unanimous Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and the validity of the legislation. In upholding the conviction Chief Justice McPherson stated:

My interpretation of the section dealing with “crime comics” is that the legislature wished to enact laws to protect the children of this country from the evil effects of being subjected to publications dealing with crime... The only defence under this section I have ever heard suggested is that by reading these publications the child acquires a desire to read. To me it is a strange basis upon which to start child education and, logically considered, could be quite easily adapted to other phases of training; for instance, by starting children on “home-brew” they might become connoisseurs of fine liquors and whisky and eventually experiment with a drink of milk! [43]

Furthermore, while upholding the sentence, Chief Justice McPherson stated that where crimes such as this are committed on a commercial scale for the purpose of making profit, a fine was not the proper punishment. In his personal opinion, a fine was no more than a tax, the severity of which depended upon the profit made by the business. For that reason, a term in jail or the penitentiary “would not only be more just and appropriate but also more effective.” [44]

There is no mention of Dick Tracy’s big smack-down by the Winnipeg Police in G. G. Robert’s book on Dick Tracy. While Robert acknowledged some newspapers declined to carry his exploits due to the violence, it was not until 1968 that his full criminality was exposed when Time magazine suggested Dick Tracy had somehow inspired Sirhan Sirhan in assassinating Robert Kennedy. [45] However, the world had moved on to more real-life villains—long-haired freaky people, [46] drug dealers, Peaceniks, Communists, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnam War.

While Dick Tracy was deemed to be a test case, the province of Manitoba had previously tried to prosecute another newsdealer as a “test case” a few years earlier without success. On 1 November 1951, the Dauphin Herald reported that Paul Jaddock, a Dauphin newsdealer, had been charged after an RCMP constable purchased several comics at his newsstand. He was subsequently prosecuted for distributing the comic Journey Into Fear. The Crown, represented by C. S. A. Rogers KC, maintained it was a “crime comic.” Magistrate Thomas Little would have none of it and dismissed the case. While finding it was a “low type of literature,” Magistrate Little would not find it was a crime comic. [47]

Paul Jaddock, Sr., owner of Paul’s Café in Dauphin, was prosecuted for selling the comic Journey Into Fear.
Source: Stephen Jaddock

Counsel for Mr. Jaddock was E. N. McGirr KC who, at the time, was also the elected member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly for Dauphin. [48] His co-counsel was Mr. Mannie Brown from Toronto, general counsel to the Comic Magazine Industry of Canada. Mr. Brown stated that the entire industry felt Mr. Jaddock’s defence was an important one for all magazine dealers throughout Canada. Perhaps the Winnipeg Police and their well-seasoned Morality Division could do what the RCMP could not. The Calgary Police failed, too. They tried a “test case” against the Alberta News on 23 July 1951 for having copies of Underworld Detective available for sale, but Magistrate Ross entered an acquittal in that case. While he found the comic to depict the aftermath or investigation of crimes, he found it was “obviously published for adult consumption and not for children of tender age.” In fact, he said, “... the same type of illustration is often seen in reputable newspapers and magazines which show authentic pictures of some of the nation’s most sordid crimes.” [49]

However, within weeks of the Manitoba Court of Appeal’s decision in R. v. Roher, police agencies in Montreal and Toronto swooped down on newsdealers and laid charges related to the possession and sale of sordid crime comics. [50] One reported case was that of William Zimmerman and R. v. Superior Publishers [51] who had been charged with selling a litany of comics depicting such depravity and degeneracy as:

Kaanga Jungle King No. 17, 22 January 1954
Danger Is Our Business No. 1, 1 December 1953
Mysteries Weird and Strange No. 7, May 1954
John Wayne No. 23, no date
Strange Mysteries No. 15, January 1954
Strange Mysteries No. 17, May 1954
Journey Into Fear No. 15, September 1953
Journey Into Fear No. 16, November 1953
Journey Into Fear No. 18, March 1954
Journey Into Fear No. 19, May 1954 [52]

Journey Into Fear was the same comic publication that prosecutors in Manitoba had been unsuccessful in convicting Mr. Jaddock of selling in Dauphin two years earlier, and Mr. Mannie Brown of the Comic Magazine Industry of Canada was again back at the helm for the defence. Brown argued several grounds of appeal and successfully convinced a five-member panel of the Ontario Court of Appeal that the charge and conviction were unsound.

Ernest Newburn McGirr (1887–1982), lawyer and MLA for Dauphin from 1949 to 1953, defended Paul Jaddock Sr. for selling copies of Journey Into Fear to impressionable Dauphin youth.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Ernest N. McGirr #1

While Brown asked the Court to find the decision of the Manitoba Court of Appeal in R. v. Roher was wrongly decided and to follow the decision of Magistrate Rose in the Alberta News case instead, the Ontario Court quashed the convictions principally on the ground that the indictment or information was improperly drafted by charging as a single offence the printing of a number of different and unconnected periodicals. In the absence of evidence showing that they were all printed at the same time, the Court stated it cannot be said that the printing of them all constituted a single offence, consisting in successive and cumulative acts. [53]

Nevertheless, the outrage against Kaanga Jungle King and his immoral contemporaries continued to rage in the public arena. Mrs. H. E. Vautelet, President of the Canadian Association of Consumers (CAC), founded in 1947 as an independent, not-for-profit organization aimed at raising consumer awareness of marketplace issues, and to facilitate government and industrial coordination to tackle marketplace difficulties, stated that purveyors of crime comic books were worse than drug dealers. “Those who organize the sale of drugs to children are saints compared to the men who deliberately use psychology to arouse the lowest passions in eight-year olds,” she said at the CAC annual meeting in Ottawa. [54]

In Vancouver, to deal with an increase in crime attributed to comics, the local Junior Chamber of Commerce (“Jaycees”) encouraged children to turn in their crime comics for a hardcover book of more suitable reading material. More than 8,000 comic books were turned in during the month-long drive and were eventually burned in a large public bonfire at Strathcona Park on 11December 1954. Vancouver Alderman Syd Bowman lit the funeral pyre and Len Wynne, head of Vancouver’s Junior Chamber of Commerce Youth Leadership Committee, was pictured adding to the conflagration in newspapers carried throughout Canada. [55]

The newsdealers arrested in Montreal (Newsdealers Supply Company Limited, American News Company Limited, and Benjamin News Company) were eventually found guilty of selling crime comics and received substantial fines of $1000 plus costs on 6 June 1955. Judge Cloutier stated he could not “find words strong enough to express my disgust for such things.” [56] There is no record of the decisions being appealed or who represented the companies at trial.

Shortly after the fines were handed down, Davie Fulton, the Member of Parliament from Kamloops, BC who initiated the legislation banning crime comics, said the fines being imposed were not enough. Echoing the sentiments of Manitoba’s Chief Justice a year earlier, he stated the fines were “nothing more than a license fee.” However, the current Justice Minister, Stuart Garson, disagreed saying the law was strong enough. [57]

In 1957, Davie Fulton was appointed Minister of Justice by John Diefenbaker after the Tories ousted Stuart Garson and the Liberals in the next Federal Election. While Fulton made some slight modifications to section 207 of the Criminal Code by adding a new sub-section deeming any magazine or comic to be obscene where the dominant characteristic involved the undue exploitation of sex or sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence, [58] the winds of change were blowing in a different direction and there were no more reported prosecutions involving crime comics.

While the new deeming provisions were used by the Winnipeg Police Morality Squad to target theatres, movie houses, video stores and magazine sellers peddling “girlie magazines,” “skin-flicks” and “hard core” pornography with varying degrees of success, [59] it was for images of real people involved in sexual activity—cartoon characters were no longer the cause du jour. In fact, as early as December 1954, Attorney General Schultz is reported to have stated that his efforts to control the sale of crime comics as against the retailers had not been worthwhile and that the place to stop them was at the distributor. [60]

Journey Into Fear No. 4, November 1951. Such comics were deemed to corrupt children, raising them on a diet of crime, horror, and violence to become criminals.
Source: J. Burchill

From 1950 (the year after Newfoundland entered Confederation and the Comic Crimes section of the Criminal Code was fully in force) to the end of 1969, the number of delinquency cases in Canada more than quadrupled from 6,418 to 27,197 cases. During that time the youth population (ages 7–15 years) barely doubled, from 2 million to 4.1 million. [61] As crime and horror comic books were no longer part of the mainstream market, something other than comics must “have made them do it.” Rock ‘n’ Roll?

It certainly was not Dick Tracy. Overlooking the fact that the government had used Abe Roher as a test case and that Davie Fulton himself had supported the Roher decision before the US Senate Subcommittee the following year, in 1988 Fulton said, “...that the crime comics we [the government] were concerned about were notthe relatively innocent things of the ‘Dick Tracy’ or ‘Li’l Abner’ type; rather they were detailed portrayals often of the most bizarre types of crime and killing, blueprints of seduction and murder....” [62] All was forgotten. Dick Tracy had been excused for his transgressions in the end. It was just a test case after all.

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests. Sometimes the subject of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself. [63]

Cartoon characters are no longer the cause du jour and the Winnipeg Police has since disbanded its Morality Unit (at least in name). However, offences involving morality are still prosecuted from time to time. Nevertheless, as the British Library Board unfurled its “Comics Unmasked—Art and Anarchy in the UK” exhibition in London last summer (2014)we see how comics have become part of our culture.The exhibition explores the full potential of the medium, “showcasing works that uncompromisingly address politics, gender, violence, sexuality and altered states. It explores the full anarchic range of the medium with works that challenge categorisation, preconceptions and the status quo, alongside original scripts, preparatory sketches and final artwork that demystify the creative process.” [64]

Yesterday’s comics are now today’s art. Their very novelty made them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which they spoke.



1. Originally prepared for Issues in Criminal Law: History, Evolution & Theoretical Approaches (2014), Osgoode Hall Law School.

2. The quotation comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing (1903), 188 U.S. 239 at 251. The entire passage reads:

It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits. At the one extreme some works of genius would be sure to miss appreciation. Their very novelty would make them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which their author spoke. It may be more than doubted, for instance, whether the etchings of Goya or the paintings of Manet would have been sure of protection when seen for the first time.

3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963, p. 187-188. A short biographical sketch of Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) can be found online at Manitoba Historical Society website.

4. Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1927, c. 36, s. 207.

5. R. v. Hicklin (1868), L.R. 3 Q.B. 360, at p. 371.

6. Cf. Act of May 28, 1884, ch. 380, 1884 N.Y. Laws 464. In all likelihood these early statutes were passed to address such publications as the “Penny Dreadfuls”, the forerunners of comics that were cheap, sensational and met the desires of the poor class. The term dreadful was used to express the social anxiety or moral alarm over these profitable innovations directed at the youth. However, while they were overdramatic and sensational, they were generally harmless. See John Springhall, “Disseminating Impure Literature: The ‘Penny Dreadful’ Publishing Business Since 1860” (1994) 47(3) Economic History Review 567, at pp. 568-569.

7. Time reported on the symposium on 29 March 1948 in “Puddles of Blood”, concluding that comics inspired evil. Also see Fredric Wertham: A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress, op. cit. note 10.

8. Judith Crist, “Horror in the Nursery”, Collier’s, 27 March 1948, p. 22.

9. Fredric Wertham, “The Comics, Very Funny”, Saturday Review of Literature, 29 May 1948, p. 6 (a condensed version appeared in Reader’s Digest, August 1948, p. 15).

10. Registers of Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress: Fredric Wertham: A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress, online.

11. Fredric Wertham, “The Betrayal of Childhood: Comic Books”. Proceedings of the 78th Annual Congress of Correction, American Prison Association (1948), p. 58.

12. John M. Brown, “The Case Against Comics”, Saturday Review of Literature, 20 March 1948, p. 32.

13. Elaine Exton, “Countering Crime-Laden Comics” (1948) 117 School Board Journal 47.

14. Also see Washington Post, 29 April 1948 “36 Comic Books Banned in Detroit as ‘Corrupting’”. In the Reader’s Digest version of Wertham’s paper “The Comics, Very Funny” (note 9), the following update was added on the measures taken against comics to date:

Three U.S. cities have acted against the sale of comic books deemed harmful to youth, reports the American Municipal Association. Working together, Indianapolis magazine distributors, city officials and civic groups have banned 35 comics. Detroit police have forbidden newsstand sale of 36 comic books. Hillsdale, Mich., has banned the same books prohibited in Detroit. – AP

15. Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, decided 29 March 1948. While the Court struck down the law (6:3), it was for vagueness over the meaning of the word “massed” (the law prohibited magazines “principally made up of criminal news or stories of deeds of bloodshed or lust, so massed so as to become the vehicles for inciting … crimes.”). However, they did not prohibit the states or Congress from passing laws that served to eliminate the evils to which, in their judgement, such publications give rise (p. 520).

16. Canada, House of Commons Debates, 4th Sess., 20th Parl., [1948] vol. 5 at 5202 (14 June 1948).

17. Jonathan Swainger, “Symposium: Crime and Popular Culture: American Crime Comics as Villains: An Incident from Northern Canada” (1998) 22 Legal Stud. Forum 215, at p. 222.

18. Ibid., p. 226.

19. Canada, H.C. Debates, 1st Sess., 21st Parl., [1949, 2d Sess.] vol. 1 at 317 (28 September 1949).

20. Ibid., at 512-513 (4 October 1949).

21. S.C. 1949, c. 13, s. 1, rep. & sub. See Criminal Code s. 207(1)(b) and (7), respectively.

22. Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth, New York: Rinehart & Company (1953, 1954). Chapter 11 is devoted to “The Murder in Dawson Creek.”

23. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency”, Hearings, 1954 (Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office, 1954).

24. Ibid., Fulton’s testimony starts at p. 248.

25. See R. v. Roher and R. v. Superior Publishers and Zimmerman, op. cit. notes 43 and 51, respectively.

26. Ibid., at p. 251.

27. Ibid., at p. 250.

28. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency”, Interim Report, 1955 (Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office, 1955), pp. 32-33.

29. Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 30 November 1954, vol. 535 cc8-136.

30. Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 4 April 1955, vol. 539 cc909-942.

31. Ibid.

32. Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 28 March 1955, vol. 539 cc49-118. Goya, also mentioned by Oliver Wendell Holmes in Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing, supra note 2, is regarded by some as the Father of Modern Art. In 1799 he published a collection of allegorical etchings called Los Caprichos (the Phantasms or Whims) that introduced a world of witches, goblins, and other fantastic creatures. Los Caprichos were withdrawn from public sale shortly after their release due to the attention they drew by the Spanish Inquisition. After Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807, Goya expressed his horror and outrage at the ruthlessness of war in a series of images entitled Los Desastres de la Guerra (the Disasters of War). The scenes pictured fighters being executed; the ragged remains of mutilated corpses; and the emaciated victims of famine. They, too, remained unpublished until 1863, thirty-five years after the artist’s death, due to State repression.

33. Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1955, 3 & 4 Eliz. 2, Ch. 28.

34. The number of prosecutions under the Act was reported in the Hansard on 5 December 1974 (vol. 882, cc588-589W); 22 December 1982 (vol. 34, cc549-550W); and 20 February 2008 (Column WA73).

35. Roger Hutchinson, “Nasty Tales Trial”, International Times No.147, 9 February 1973, pp.17-20. Online: Funtopia.

36. In 1953 more than 400 newspapers, with a readership of 90 million people, were carrying Dick Tracy. See Garyn G. Roberts, Dick Tracy and American Culture: Morality and Mythology, Text and Context, Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003, p. 288.

37. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency”, Interim Report, 1955. Washington, D.C. United States Government Printing Office, 1955.

38. Garyn G. Roberts, Dick Tracy and American Culture: Morality and Mythology, Text and Context. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003.

39. Winnipeg Free Press, 8 April 1953, p. 1, reporting on comments made in the Legislature on 27 March 1953, that the crime comic legislation needed to be strengthened as they had been unable to get convictions due to the law’s “limited scope.”

40. Winnipeg Free Press, 30 April 1953, p. 1.

41. A short biographical sketch of Charles William (C. W.) Tupper with links to his family heritage can be found online at the Manitoba Historical Society website. Similar biographies can be found online for Frederick Turner and Keith Turner.

42. Winnipeg Free Press, 30 April 1953, p. 1.

43. R. v. Roher, [1953] M. J. No. 4, at paras. 13 & 16.

44. Ibid., para. 15.

45. Garyn G. Roberts, Dick Tracy and American Culture: Morality and Mythology, Text and Context. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003, pp. 136, 141.

46. Marcel Martel, “‘They Smell Bad, Have Diseases and Are Lazy’: RCMP Officers Reporting on Hippies in the Late Sixties” (2009), 90(2) The Canadian Historical Review 215. The author states that by depicting hippies in very negative terms, the RCMP was able to describe them as a threat and argue against their cultural, social, and political demands on the grounds that this was necessary to preserve society as it was.

47. Dauphin Herald and Press, 8 November 1951, p. 1. There is no mention of Mr. Jaddock and the crime comic case in the Dauphin Valley local history, Dauphin Valley Spans The Years, published by the Dauphin Historical Society in 1970. Regarding Mr. Brown, there is no record he appeared at Mr. Roher’s trial; perhaps believing it was unnecessary after the Jaddock case.

48. A short biographical sketch of Ernest Newburn McGirr (1887-1982) can be found online at the Manitoba Historical Society website. Also see a motion of condolence outlining Mr. McGirr’s legal and political background in Dauphin in the Hansard, Manitoba Legislative Assembly, 24 June 1982, p. 3549-3550. Online.

49. R. v. Alberta News Ltd. (1951), 101 C.C.C. 219.

50. Winnipeg Free Press, 10 November 1953, p. 1. Asst. Insp. J. O. Pelletier, head of the Montreal Police Juvenile Morality Squad, commenting on the Manitoba decision, said they were preparing evidence against newsdealers. He described many of the crime comics on sale as being “sadistic and cruel … definitely a bad influence on children.” It was also noted that Church officials were lined up squarely behind police.

51. R. v. Superior Publishers and Zimmerman, [1954] O.R. 981. The other decision from the same court a few months earlier was R. v. Kitchener News Co., [1954] O.J. No. 414 (C.A.), which was quashed on the grounds of duplicity.

52. Ibid. The list of comics is highlighted in the first paragraph of the Court’s decision.

53. Ibid.

54. Winnipeg Free Press, 30 September 1954, p. 8. For a history of the Canadian Association of Consumers, see online: Consumers Association of Canada.

55. Winnipeg Free Press, 16 December 1954, p. 38. Also see The Dusty Bookcase, Freedom to Read Week: On Burning Comic Books, online.

56. Winnipeg Free Press, 7 June 1955, p. 4.

57. Winnipeg Free Press, 25 June 1955, p. 19.

58. Act to Amend the Criminal Code, S.C. 1959, c. 41, s. 11.

59. See for example R. v. Dominion News & Gifts Ltd., (1963) 2 C.C.C. 103 (Man. C.A.), rev’d [1964] S.C.R. 251, for selling “Dude” and “Escapade” magazines containing pictures of nude or semi-nude women in provocative poses; R. v. Great West News Ltd. (1970), 4 C.C.C. 307 (Man. C.A.), leave to appeal to S.C.C. refused [1970] S.C.R. ix and R. v. Prairie Schooner News Ltd. (1970), 1 C.C.C. (2d) 251 (Man. C.A.), leave to appeal to S.C.C. refused [1970] S.C.C.A. No. 1, for selling magazines such as “Nudist Life”, “Photo Field Trip”, “Rapture”, “Late Date” and “Chick Mate” among others; R. v. Odeon Morton Theatres Ltd. and United Artists Corp. (1974), 16 C.C.C. (2d) 185 (Man. C.A.) for screening the movie “the Last Tango in Paris”; R. v. Cinema International Canada Ltd. (1982), 13 Man. R. (2d) 335 (Man. C.A.) for screening the movies “The Other Side of Julie” and “Always Up”; R. v. Video World Ltd. (1985), 22 C.C.C. (3d) 331 (Man. C.A.), aff’d [1987] 1 S.C.R. 1255; and Avenue Video Boutique (a.k.a. R. v. Butler) (1991), 60 C.C.C. (3d) 219 (Man. C.A.), rev’d [1992] 1 S.C.R. 452.

60. Winnipeg Free Press, 8 December 1954, p. 3.

61. Statistics Canada, “Delinquency Cases, but Nature of the Offence, Canada, 1927-1969”, Series Z249-260; and “Census and Estimated Population aged 7-15 years, by Sex, Canada and the Provinces, 1927-1975”, Series Z305-328.

62. E. D. Fulton, “Comment on Crime Comics and Pornography” (1988), 20 Ottawa L.R. 25 at p. 28.

63. Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils & Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, New York: Blackwell (1972, 1990), p. 9.

64. Comics Unmasked, 2 May – 19 August 2014. The following caution is noted by the Library Board:

Parental guidance is advised for visitors under 16 years of age due to the explicit nature of some of the exhibits on display. Within the exhibition, there is a separate section examining sexual themes which visitors can by-pass if they wish.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 5 April 2020

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