Untold lives blog

23 June 2014

Obscenity and men’s erotica – 1970s comics

The 1970s was a momentous decade for the British Library: it’s when we were founded by Act of Parliament and both collections and staff transferred in from institutions such as the British Museum. It was also a momentous decade in terms of changing attitudes towards sex in this country, and this can in part be tracked through the comics that found their way into the library’s collections.

1971 saw the longest obscenity trial in English history. Issue no. 28 of the satirical magazine Oz contained a comic that combined an existing erotic story by the American comics creator Robert Crumb with the British children’s character Rupert Bear. The result horrified many people, and prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was perhaps inevitable. Courtroom discussions show that the case highlighted a generational gap: young people found the story funny and harmless (the story had in fact been suggested by a teenager), whereas most older people were truly appalled. The magazine’s three editors were found guilty and jailed, but were released on appeal. But prosecutors didn’t let it lie: the next year the underground comic Nasty Tales was in the dock for obscenity, but found not guilty. The documentary comic The Trials of Nasty Tales recounts the court case.

Cover of The Trials of Nasty Tales (1973).
The Trials of Nasty Tales (1973). BL shelfmark: Cup.51/127.

Fast forward a few years and a quick survey of British ‘top shelf’ magazines published in 1977 shows that erotic comics had become widespread. Most of the mainstream erotic titles for straight men contained British or American comics. Penthouse was publishing ‘Oh Wicked Wanda!’ by Frederick Mullally and Ron Embleton; Mayfair had ‘Carrie’ by Mario Capaldi; and Club International  was printing one-off stories such as Pete Davidson’s ‘At Home with Richard Nixoff’ or Jamie Mandelkau’s ‘The Lust League of America’. Fiesta had been publishing comics in the mid-1970s (e.g. ‘Miss Muffin’), but by 1977 these had been largely dropped in favour of erotic cartoons. All these comics are essentially more about humour than eroticism, often based around puns or contrived storylines that place the characters into sexually compromised situations.

Gay men’s magazines in 1977 also contained comics. They were generally much more explicit: unlike their straight equivalents, gay comics often showed fantasy sex acts in full graphic detail. Prime examples are Oliver Frey’s beautifully drawn adventures of ‘Rogue’, which appeared in Him International  under his pseudonym Zack.

The widespread availability of these titles went largely without comment from the police, and publishers felt free to deposit them with the British Library. The obscenity trials of Oz and Nasty Tales in 1971-72 had started a debate. The tacit acceptance of erotic comics that we see by 1977 is perhaps evidence of how much attitudes towards sex in British society were changing.

Adrian Edwards
Co-curator, Comics Unmasked

Many of the titles mentioned above are on display in Comics Unmasked.  Join Oliver Frey alongside Melinda Gebbie (Lost Girls) at the British Library on Thursday 3 July from 18.30 – 20.30. Book now



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