Underground Comics and Britain’s Obscenity Trials in the 1970s
By John Harris Dunning
Oz was a seminal 1960s counterculture publication that originated in Sydney, Australia in 1963. It quickly raised a storm of controversy around its coverage of abortion and homosexuality, and its editorial team was promptly charged with obscenity. They were charged a second time in 1964 and were sentenced to hard labour – a ruling that was swiftly overturned. Following this, part of the editorial team, namely Richard Neville and Martin Sharp, left for London and started up a British version of Oz in 1967. Immediately allying itself with the psychedelic scene, Oz became the mouthpiece for the 60s counterculture, leading the way with an eye-blistering design attuned to the LSD aesthetic of the time.
Like its American counterpart, the burgeoning British underground scene held comics in high esteem. Oz featured the new wave of mainly American comics creators who were starting to portray sex more frankly than their predecessors. The crucial difference between this material and earlier erotic comics was that Oz and other underground publications were not mail-order only; they could be found on the news-stands across the UK, bringing the sexual revolution to the high street.
Oz’s content continued to be controversial, and it finally came up against the British authorities with the infamous ‘Schoolkids’ issue of May 1970, edited by 20 pupils in their mid to late teens. Oz was again charged with obscenity, this time due to the appearance of a Robert Crumb strip that had been adapted by a 15-year-old guest editor, Vivian Berger, resulting in what became the longest-running obscenity trial in Britain. The trial in 1971 resulted in Oz magazine becoming a flashpoint for the whole counterculture. John Lennon and Yoko Ono leaped to the magazine’s defence, even as authors such as E M Forster had supported Lady Chatterley’s Lover, bringing the trial huge public visibility.
Oz editors Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson continued to provoke the authorities, in one case appearing in court dressed as schoolkids. Unsurprisingly this did not endear them to the authorities, and they were convicted and imprisoned, an outcome that was not popular with the public. They appealed their conviction, this time appearing in court decked in wigs to replace their long hair that had been forcibly cut on entering prison, and were soon released. The result of the overturning of the conviction remains significant in terms of censorship, and more specifically the censorship of sexual content in Britain.
This same year saw the publication of the first issue of Nasty Tales, an underground comics anthology. Acknowledging the popularity of comics in underground publications, Nasty Tales was a comics-only title. It mainly reprinted American underground comics, but also offered a platform to nascent British underground comics talent. Again it was a cartoon by Robert Crumb that sparked the Nasty Tales obscenity trial. Nasty Tales was also available on news-stands, and when a boy of eight bought a copy and his mother got wind of it, obscenity charges were brought against the publication.
The trial, which played out at the Old Bailey in London in 1972, and included star witnesses such as Germaine Greer, was a triumph in that eventually Nasty Tales was exonerated. This allowed subsequent publications to run increasingly daring content with less fear of legal consequences. The reality, however, was that the trial was financially disastrous to Nasty Tales, and the publication was forced to close down.
The special issue that followed the trial, namely The Trials of Nasty Tales, featured exclusively British talent, indicating the British underground’s growing self-confidence. It featured a cover and interior artwork by Dave Gibbons, who went on to co-create Watchmen with writer Alan Moore. The cover included the unbelievable (but accurate) quote by a barrister while railing against a female member of Nasty Tales staff that, ‘You’re just a dirty-minded girl!’ There were plenty more where she came from.
This article is an excerpt from Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK (The British Library) by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning.
Originally published by the British Library under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.