Last weekend, while clearing out a cupboard (Mrs GOB said that I wouldn't get fed until I did), I chanced upon a set of eight comics by the American artist Wallace Wood. (Comics, that is, in the 'graphic storytelling' sense; see Wikipedia for a learned discussion of the terminology.) This discovery reminded me of how much we in the UK owe to Her Majesty's Customs & Excise.
The story goes as follows.
It so happens that I have had an almost lifelong interest in (a) crime fiction and (b) graphic art. And round about 1994, I became aware of the work of an American graphic artist called Wallace Wood.
Wood was born in 1927, and he soon displayed an aptitude for drawing cartoons and comic strips. He had, says one authority, 'a checkered and impressive career as one of the most famous and influential comic book artists in history.' There are several online biographies of him, notably one on Wikipedia.
It so happened that Wood was the creator of a series of comic books featuring a kind of James Bond clone called Cannon. This Cannon, by the way, has absolutely no connection with the fat detective of that name who featured in a 1970s US television series.
I first noticed the 8 comics in Wallace Wood's Cannon series when they were listed in the catalogue of an American publisher, who issued them in 1991. And since the Wallace Wood Cannon series so obviously combined two interests of mine, crime and graphic art, I sent off an order, to the US-based firm in question, for copies of all 8 comics. The cost was, as I recall, $12, or about £8.
In due course I received a letter from HM Customs, telling me that the comic books that I had ordered had been seized under the terms of subsection 45(g)(ii) of Regulation 924, issued under the powers delegated by the Obscene Publications Act of 1802 (or whatever).
In other words, I was being accused of trying to import some dirty books.
The letter (actually it was a printed document, thus indicating that these things are issued regularly) informed me that my comics would be destroyed in one month's time. If, however, I wished to contest the judgement of HM Customs and Excise in this matter, I should give notice by such and such a date, and I would be required, in due course, to appear in court in Greenwich (I think it was) to argue my case.
Ha! As if, for the sake of $12 (and the principle of free speech) I was going to take a day off work, travel to Greenwich, and appear before some magistrate in order to argue that these comics were not, in fact, unspeakably filthy. Forget it, I said to myself, and tossed the letter in the bin. Apart from anything else, it is quite hard to prepare a defence of material that one has not actually seen.
Three months went by.
And then -- behold. I opened a catalogue from a British secondhand-book dealer, and found advertised therein the very same 8 issues of Wallace Wood's Cannon series. My dears, what a surprise!
Actually I wasn't altogether surprised. And let me be clear what I am saying here. I am not saying that someone in HM Customs was running a nice little earner, whereby they confiscated as 'obscene' anything which looked a bit racy, and then passed on said confiscated items to a local bookdealer, thus earning themselves a few quid, and, what is more, repeating the exercise on a regular basis, confident in the knowledge that not even one punter in a thousand is going to take the trouble to appear in court and take on the mighty judgement of HM Customs and submit to the arbitration of some magistrate who probably has a great many friends in said organisation and in any case is probably a deeply repressed puritan in the first place.
No. Goodness me, no. I am not saying that at all. To say that would imply that there are, within the ranks of HM Customs and Excise, men who are tinged with corruption: men who will abuse the application of the law for their own profit. And that, of course, cannot be. So I would not dream of suggesting that for a moment, and I trust I make myself absolutely clear.
No, what I am saying here is that there was clearly, within the UK at that time, someone with the same peculiar combination of tastes as my own. That someone had ordered the same series of comics as I had myself, and that someone had benefited, shall we say, from the fact that HM Customs & Excise cannot be eternally vigilant, and his particular order from the US had been delivered without being labelled 'obscene', whereas mine, for better or for worse, had not. And, that same someone, when he had finished reading the series, had sold it to a secondhand-book dealer.
So, by now being particularly interested in just how disgustingly filthy this Cannon series was, I sent off an order to the UK-based bookseller.
A couple of days later, the comics arrived, and I read them, as you can imagine, with even greater anticipation than usual.
What did I find?
Well, I found that the comics fell into that category of entertainment which might reasonably be described as blood and thunder. Lots of tough guys beating up bad guys, guys firing guns at each other, and all like that. And there were, of course, gals to accompany the guys. For the most part they were pretty voluptuous gals, with big knockers -- sorry, generous curves -- and, as is the way with this particular genre of blood and thunder, the ladies tended to part company with their clothes at frequent intervals. There was some female nudity.
But obscene? Wallace Wood's Cannon series? Obscene? Hardly. Not, that is, unless you count as obscene the kind of naked women who are daily to be found in the comic strips of several UK tabloids. Yes, there were breasts, complete with nipples; and bums. But there was no pubic hair. And on the gentlemen's part there were certainly no penises; not even a limp one.
By this point it was clear to me that I had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Or, as a bookdealer of my acquaintance, one who regularly imports material from abroad, put it to me, I had fallen foul of the 'Ooh, the boys in the canteen would love this one' syndrome. And, if I had had unlimited time, energy, and financial resources, I might have taken steps to rectify the matter. But, life being what it is, I didn't bother.
But hold -- that was not quite the end of the matter.
When I came to peruse the Wallace Wood comics closely, together with their publishers' catalogue, and when I had dragged my eyes away from the voluptuous ladies suffering from a severe absence of clothing, I came across a fascinating piece of information buried in the small print.
My eight comics, it appeared, were actually a compilation of pages which had originally been published in 1972-74. And where had these drawings first appeared? Answer in The Overseas Weekly. And what was The Overseas Weekly? Answer, it was a magazine distributed free, by the US government, to members of its armed forces.
Thus we have the curious situation whereby material which was commissioned and paid for by the US government, in 1972-74, was twenty years later declared to be obscene by the officers of HM Customs & Excise.
I return to my original point. How fortunate we are, here in the UK, to have officials who protect us in this way; and how farsighted of our own government to have given them the delegated power to make judgements which can only be challenged in a court of law, a process which will deter all but the most perverted and depraved from trying to import such filth. What a relief it is to know that HM Customs and Excise are slicing open other people's mail at will, and are poking their nose into other people's business without let or hindrance -- for otherwise the minds of the great British people would be corrupted by all sorts of undesirable ideas. Would they not?