On History: The Mazengarb Report

By | Tuesday, October 06, 2015 Leave a Comment
One of the things I've tried reading up on over the past couple years has been comics history outside of the US, Japan, and Europe. I think that with so many people considering comics an American art form, they tend to relay the medium's history in precisely those terms. Even many of the histories I've read of manga and European comics tend to talk about them in relation to the US. That's not entirely without justification, I suppose, but it does tend to mean other countries get an even shorter shrift. Now I don't claim to be an expert by any means, but how many of you even know that there are comics in Russia, much less a book written about their history? Mexico? Canada? India? Australia?

In any event, one of the things I've found interesting in my readings is that many countries experienced a backlash against the comics industry about a decade after World War II, in much the same way that the United States did. Each culture reacted differently, of course, and the impacts from the social fervor charted how comics came to be made in those respective societies. Where the US resorted to a form of self-censorship that sanitized much of what readers had available, and ultimately led to a swing towards underground comix, Mexico actually enacted legislation that essentially prevented what might have become an underground comix movement. I don't doubt that there were creators doing underground-type comics, but their distribution would have had to have been, for their own safety, even more covert than Tiajuana Bibles were in the 1920s and '30s.

So in that backdrop, I recently learned via Dylan Horrocks about New Zealand's reaction. Much like the US, there was a growing moral outrage against comics, but rather than having a Fredric Wertham beating an ongoing drum to rouse public interest, there were two legal cases (one murder and one underage sex ring) that came to light within a few days of each other in June 1954 that sparked New Zealand into action. A ministerial inquiry from "The Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents" was initiated, led by Queen's Counsel Ossie Mazengarb.

The committee ran things very quickly. Hearings lasted barely two months, and the resulting report was issued just over a week after that. Their findings were much harsher than Estes Kefauver's Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency here in the States, but they were unable to actually enact any legislation themselves, only making suggestions and strong recommendations. Not surprisingly, many of them focus on censoring depictions/discussion of sex.

The 70-some page report was then printed and mailed to every household in New Zealand. I don't know exactly how many copies that ended up being but the country's population was north of two million at the time, so I'm guessing somewhere in the one million range? It was evidently more than enough for postal service employees to complain about the huge amount of additional weight they suddenly had to account for.

The report is freely available in several electronic formats thanks to Project Gutenberg, so if you have any interest in how countries besides the US tried to censor our favorite medium in the 1950s, be sure to check it out!
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