Felix Dennis, defendant in Rupert Bear obscenity case, dies

Felix Dennis, who passed away this week at age 67, was the founder of a publishing empire that included the men's magazine Maxim and the news magazine The Week, but he also has a place in comics history as one of the defendants in a famous U.K. obscenity trial that drew support of many prominent figures of the time, from John Lennon to Germaine Greer.

Dennis was one of the editors of the British satire magazine Oz, which published a mix of prose, art, poetry and comics. Stung by criticism that they were out of touch with youth, the editors in 1970 placed a notice in the magazine inviting schoolchildren to contribute to a special issue. About 20 teenagers came to London, singly and in groups, to create and edit a special "Schoolkids" issue. (One of those students, Charles Shaar Murray, described the experience 30 years later, and another contributor, David Wills, has posted the full issue online.) Although the "Schoolkids issue" was created by teenagers, it wasn't necessarily created for them. On the other hand, teenagers were obviously already reading the magazine, as that's where the call for contributions appeared.

(Warning: Potentially NSFW image below.)

Oz had always featured edgy content, and the "Schoolkids" issue included one of Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoons. But what seems to have tripped the alarms in this case was the "Rupert/Crumb montage." Created by 15-year-old Vivian Berger, the comic was a mashup of Rupert Bear, a beloved British comic for young children, and Robert Crumb's "Eggs Ackley Among the Vulture Demonesses." Berger simply pasted Rupert's head and torso into the comics so it looked like he was having sex with an unconscious woman.

In July 1970 the Obscene Publications Squad raided the magazine's London office, seized its materials, and charged the three editors with conspiracy to "corrupt the morals of young children and other young persons" by creating an "obscene article," selling it for profit, and sending it through the mail. The obscenity charges carried maximum sentences of a £100 fine or six months in prison, but the conspiracy charge had no limit, so this was serious business.

The trial has been described in detail elsewhere — there's even a book about it. Dennis and co-defendant Jim Anderson hired attorney John Mortimer, who would go on to create the television series Rumpole of the Bailey; the third defendant, Richard Neville, chose to represent himself. The defense cast it as a freedom-of-expression case, and called witnesses that included legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, artist Feliks Topolski and comedian Marty Feldman. John Lennon and Yoko Ono took up the cause and made a record in support, while artist David Hockney created a drawing of the three defendants in the nude to help raise funds. There seems to have been a theatrical aspect to the whole trial; the defendants showed up at one hearing dressed as schoolgirls.

Berger himself was compelled to speak as a witness for the prosecution, but he gave a spirited defense of his creation, saying, "This is the kind of drawing that goes around every classroom, every day, in every school." The judge found this assertion startling, but Berger added, "Maybe I was portraying obscenity, but I don’t think I was being obscene myself."

In the end, Dennis and his co-defendants were found not guilty of the conspiracy charge but guilty of the other counts. They were sentenced to fines and imprisonment, and Anderson and Neville, who were Australian, were also ordered to be deported. Dennis was given a lighter sentence because, the judge said, he was "very much less intelligent" than the others; that didn't sit well with Dennis, and when the judge made the same comment years later in The Spectator, Dennis sued the magazine. The verdict sparked a massive demonstration outside the Old Bailey, it can be seen in this contemporary video clip, which also includes an interview with Berger:

While the three defendants were imprisoned briefly (and their long hair was cut, which caused considerable consternation), all the charges were overturned on appeal.

As Murray, one of the original "schoolkids," said 30 years later:

This was a cultural war disguised as an obscenity trial: ordinary porn, which knows its place and reinforces rather than challenges the social order, rarely receives this kind of attention from the authorities. On the other hand, overtly radical work concerned with ideas becomes instantly vulnerable, whenever it touches on matters of sexuality, to mass outbreaks of orchestrated indignation and - in this case - the full weight of the law.

The fact that, between verdict and sentencing, the Oz three were subjected to forcible haircuts was a valuable clue towards figuring out what their real crimes were. As Jonathon Green wrote in All Dressed Up: "The Establishment did not like Oz or the counter-culture that it represented - when Neville naively, injudiciously, combined 'children' with the usual irritants of drugs and sex and rock, they saw their chance."

It's interesting to speculate, in this context, whether the Obscenity Squad would have descended on the magazine had the editors simply run the Crumb cartoon without the addition of Rupert Bear. A fixture in the Daily Express since 1920, Rupert is an anthropomorphized bear who lives in a forest and has magical adventures with an assortment of friends of different species. It has a timeless and innocent feel to it, and Nigel Fountain interviewed at least one potential witness, Louise Ferrier, who would not take the stand precisely because the cartoon involved was Rupert:

She felt bad about it; and they [the defendants] were, she thought, quite offended and hurt, but Rupert, she brooded, was one of her childhood heroes. ‘I think in many ways my character was partly shaped by Rupert Bear! My memories were being violated. The arrogant, male, aggressive style of drawing that appeared in the name of revolution worried me. It brought into symbolic shape areas of male antagonism to women that were completely covered up in the old socialist style of the movement. It awakened our antagonism to the way men had the arrogance to portray sexuality in their terms’.

Greer, who was a contributor to Oz, wrote an essay on the trial that was published as part of her collection The Madwoman's Underclothes; in it, she asserts that the magazine was too far ahead of its time:

Before repressive tolerance became a tactic of the past, Oz could fool itself and its readers that, for some people at least, the alternative society already existed. Instead of developing a political analysis of the state we live in, instead of undertaking the patient and unsparing job of education which must precede even a pre-revolutionary situation, Oz behaved as though the revolution had already happened.

Premature revolutionary or not, Dennis turned out to be a lot smarter than the judge gave him credit for, and he built up a massive magazine empire over the ensuing decades. At his death, his personal fortune was estimated at more than $800 million, and he was recognized in 2013 with a lifetime achievement award by the British Media Awards for his "uncanny knack for being around at the start of every new trend in publishing."

(via Bear Alley)

Junji Ito's No Longer Human Is Seriously Heavy Reading

More in Comics