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Manitoba History No. 90

No. 90

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Manitoba History: Dick Tracy Gets Smacked Down: Crime Comics in Manitoba

by John Burchill
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 77, Winter 2015

The text of this article is not available online at this time.

Copies are available for purchase

Click the icon at left for the Table of Contents of this issue.


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 – 19August 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.

Page revised: 3 April 2015

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