October 2019

Arts & Letters

Len Lawson: Australia’s most infamous comic artist

By Jeff Sparrow
The tragic story of the creator of the Lone Avenger

“I have received quite a number of letters asking if Action Comic has been banned. Let me say definitely that Action Comic, which features the Lone Avenger, is acceptable to the censorship authorities and I do not anticipate any trouble whatever with this magazine.”

That was Len Lawson, perhaps the most successful comic book artist in Australia at the time, addressing the “Junior Lone Avengers” of his fan club in an undated editorial (almost certainly from 1953). With a furore raging over the propensity of violent comics to corrupt children, Lawson reassured readers that his work “always featured stories of the Crime-does-not-pay kind”. Yet, within a year, Action Comic (sometimes Action Comics, also the title of the American series that featured Superman) had indeed been censored, less because of its contents than as a response to Lawson’s own extraordinary depravity.

I first came across the Len Lawson story when researching the communist role in the great comic book panic of the ’50s.

Today, with superheroes so dominant in popular culture, those who remember the campaign against comics in the years after the war often attribute the hostility to McCarthyist paranoia. But while the 1954 United States Senate’s Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency did, in some ways, resemble the more famous red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities, the impetus for the anti-comic hysteria came as much from the left as the right.

Crusaders drew, in particular, on the work of psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent presented a purportedly scholarly account of the effects of comic books on juvenile readers. His discussion of the “subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin’” seems to modern readers both ridiculous and bigoted. Certainly, recent critics have exposed Wertham’s research as relying on carefully curated “evidence”. Yet while he shared the widespread homophobia of his day (Robin, we’re told, “often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident”), he also voiced arguments of a more contemporary stripe.

Wertham worried about the violent misogyny of horror, true crime and war comics, and noted the propensity of artists to depict heroes as Aryans and villains as “natives … Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese [and] immigrants of every description”.

These themes were echoed in Australia too, but there was a distinctive local element, reflecting the anxieties produced by the changing relationship with the US.

In 1941, John Curtin had re-oriented foreign policy away from the declining British empire and towards the rising American one. With World War Two over, Australians found themselves face to face with their new ally’s unfamiliar mass culture, a culture epitomised by American comics.

“[M]ost of the comics bear not the slightest resemblance to those we knew in our childhood,” complained the principal of Marsden Girls College, Eleanor Appel, in 1952. “[From] America, under the name of comics have come the most lurid strips which glorify violence, brutality, immodesty and disrespect.”

With the war in Korea raging, the comics often depicted American soldiers shooting down reds. The Communist Party of Australia’s Rex Chiplin thus identified them with Robert Menzies’ militarism. Comics, he said, were “teach[ing] our youth to be brutal, to glorify in killing”.

Such arguments also reverberated throughout the trade unions. In Queensland, the trades and labour council voted in 1952 to oppose “the corruption of Australian children’s and adolescent minds by mass distribution of murder, crime, horror and sex publications”. The following year, the council placed the issue on the ACTU agenda above “full employment and national health insurance” and just below “the nationalization of key industries”. The unions’ concern was not merely ideological. In 1940, bans on importation of printed matter had spurred a local publishing boom. Peace had ended that, with American comics blamed for locals losing their jobs.

But, if other artists were struggling, Leonard Keith Lawson was not.

Lawson’s family came from the New South Wales Riverina region, where his father once boxed as “Wagga’s Wonder Walloper”. They moved to Manly in the 1940s and Len, a skilled schoolboy artist, won a competition to publish with the legendary artist Syd Miller (best known for his “Chesty Bond” character) when only 15. By 1946, he was writing and drawing all the material for Action Comic.

Lawson’s talent lay in the skilful imitation of American adventure stories, offering readers the science-fiction explorer Spencer Steele, the racer Johnnie Star, the detective Michael Justus, and Diana, the “Queen of the Apes”. But his biggest success came with the cowboy hero Paul Nicholls – better known as The Lone Avenger.

The title featured a masked lawman fighting outlaws and Indians in an Old West town called Redrock. Though unabashedly modelled on Fran Striker’s Lone Ranger, it became hugely popular, so much so that, by 1949, Action Comic was regularly publishing full-length Lone Avenger specials.

Lawson married when he was just 18. By the early ’50s, he had three young children and was earning a substantial salary from his work.

The novelist Robert Drewe was one of thousands of members of the Junior Lone Avenger Club, an organisation with branches in New Zealand and Fiji as well as Australia. He recalls winning a Lone Avenger gun belt and holster in the monthly “find the bullet” competition, in which readers were invited to guess at exactly where their hero was firing. The prize came with an imprecation to obey the Lone Avenger’s Code, a “strict and all-encompassing” doctrine that included pledges to worship God, venerate the Queen, be kind to animals, study hard and follow the law.

In 1953, a Catholic priest called Father Cornell read several hundred comics so as to advise parents on which were “risky” and which were “poison”. He duly classified Lone Avenger as “safe” – a category that also included Donald Duck, Captain Marvel and Kokey Koala.

But if the Avenger was safe, his creator was not.

In May 1954, Lawson hired five female models (two of whom were only 15), telling them he was producing a calendar. He drove them into the bush in Terrey Hills, in northern Sydney, produced a rifle and told them he was suffering from cancer and wanted to die. He tied up the women, raped two, attempted to rape a third, and sexually assaulted the others. He then took them back to Sydney, paid them and let them go.

His arrest and subsequent trial transfixed the nation.

“No court case perhaps in Sydney’s history,” explained the local tabloid Truth, “and certainly none since the war, has aroused such great public interest.”

Lawson’s legal team used all the squalid methods common in rape cases at the time, including forcing the teenage victims to disclose their previous sexual histories for a defence that implied they invited the attack.

“You are entitled to have regard,” his lawyer told the jury, “for the fact that, gun or no gun, one would expect more than a mere token resistance from women.”

Nevertheless, Lawson was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to hang.

In the wake of that sentence, unprecedented since the 19th century for a crime other than murder, Truth noted that Lawson’s work “frequently depicted bosomy heroines”, and helpfully republished an image of one of them. The Queensland Literature Board of Review, formed in response to the trades and labour council’s anti-comic agitation, promptly banned “The Lone Avenger”, while authorities refused to allow Lawson to draw comics in prison.

He did, however, keep making art.

With his death sentence commuted to a 14-year term, Lawson embraced Catholicism and began painting religious iconography and portraits of Church officials. In his essay collection Fortune, Drewe suggests that Lawson’s new devotion impressed the NSW justice minister, Jack Mannix, who released him after a mere seven years’ incarceration.

Outside jail, Lawson pledged to remain dedicated to art and to God, offering a portrait he’d painted of Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix (unrelated to the NSW minister) to the Catholic Church.

That presentation never took place. Within three months, Lawson had raped and murdered a young woman he’d asked to pose for him, writing “God forgive me” on her torso in eyeliner. After the killing, he drove to the Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School with a rifle and took the students and staff hostage. He demanded to speak to a nun who’d visited him in prison, as well as to the reigning Miss Australia, Tricia Reschke, and the Olympic athlete Marlene Mathews. As the police arrived, some of the teachers rushed Lawson, who began shooting wildly. One of his bullets killed a 15-year-old student called Wendy Luscombe. Lawson went back to jail, adjudged never to be released.

Again he turned to art. Again he seemed a model prisoner. In 1972, as president of the inmates’ association, he helped organise a charity concert in Parramatta Gaol’s chapel, which had been decorated with his paintings. After the performances, Lawson was invited to deliver a speech of thanks. He rose to the podium – and then grabbed one of the dancers, a woman called Sharon Hamilton, and put a knife to her throat.

“Everybody leave but her,” he said.

Though Lawson was quickly overpowered by other prisoners, the assault traumatised Hamilton, who feared he’d find her again. She received extensive psychiatric treatment but later committed suicide.

Lawson remained in jail for the rest of his life. He died in 2003, by then one of NSW’s longest serving inmates.

It would be wrong to attribute the collapse of the local comics industry solely to the sociopathy of Len Lawson. Comic books were, after all, already under threat before his arrest.

In 1953, creators in both Australia and America were adopting a voluntary code of conduct. In his definitive history of Australian comics, John Ryan describes how censors began painting out the guns and knives from comics, so that frames depicted heroes reeling back ludicrously from the empty fists of villains. Then, in 1959, the removal of import restrictions wiped out many of the local publishers who were already struggling with increasing costs and competition from television.

Irrespective of Len Lawson, the industry in the 1960s would have looked very different from what had come before. Nevertheless, his conviction certainly helped the anti-comic cause – an extraordinary confirmation, some thought, of the real-world consequences of pernicious literature. It’s difficult to look at Lawson’s art today without thinking about his crimes.

The State Library of NSW’s Mitchell Library holds a large collection of Action Comic, which displays Lawson’s talent for striking, dynamic images. On the cover of No. 31, the Lone Avenger crash-tackles a pistol-wielding desperado; on No. 8, he glares out from the eyeholes of his red and black hood as Comanche warriors tie him to a pole.

Flicking through the yellowing paper on the reading room table, I wondered about the significance of the Lone Avenger’s disguise, a strange outfit that occasionally leaves him looking less like a cowboy than a Klansman or a bank robber. I speculated that the character represented Lawson’s own cloaked desires, but recalled how ubiquitous masked heroes were in the comics of the time.

The Lone Avenger’s adventures aren’t, in fact, particularly violent and rarely involve women. The Junior Lone Avengers page features relentless pictures of well-dressed children posing with their dogs or ponies, and a substantial section for “Pen Friends Wanted” (with, for instance, Ian W. Berry of Minnivale, Western Australia, describing himself to prospective pals as “a boy … interested in sport, comics and agriculture”).

Perhaps to the modern reader the most disturbing elements of Action Comic express not Lawson’s own pathologies but the sensibilities of the era, as with the casually racist depictions of Native Americans.

Lawson’s Mannix painting (dated “Goulburn, July 1958”) now belongs to a John Stevens, who bought it at auction without knowing its history. It’s tempting to think Lawson has deliberately portrayed the archbishop as a severe, almost foreboding, figure, but, again, that probably reflects a contemporary perception of Catholic authority more than anything else.

On YouTube, you can find an interview Len Lawson did with 60 Minutes a few years before his death. In the footage, he’s frail but articulate. Interestingly, he no longer claims to be religious, and he certainly doesn’t blame comics for his crimes. 

“Whatever happened to me mentally, I’m damned if I know,” he says. “I had a normal upbringing, a great family life. But something happened up here and I went haywire.”

It’s not much of an explanation.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Melbourne editor, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre.


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