"The irony, of course, is that I can buy the book in any country except the one I've been living in for the past 14 years."
That's Eddie Campbell, late of Scotland and Southend-On-Sea, now a resident of Australia. Eddie Campbell, as regular readers will know, is one of the medium's most gifted writer/artist, and also Alan Moore's illustrator collaborator in the creation of FROM HELL, probably the best graphic novel of the last few years. FROM HELL, a work about Jack The Ripper and the bloody birth of the 20th Century from the grime and hypocrisy of Victorian England, now in production as a feature film starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, is certainly one of the medium's most acclaimed works of recent times. Indeed, just a few days ago, Eddie and FROM HELL were being featured in a major piece in a national Australian broadsheet newspaper.
At exactly the same time as Australian Customs were banning FROM HELL from further importation.
Funny how things go.
"Ten years ago, at the end of her seven-year tenure as chief film censor, Janet Strickland told the Herald we were entering a period of social conservatism and predicted that by the mid-1990s the climate of censorship would be stronger than it had been for three decades. 'It's undoubtedly so,' Strickland says today. 'I think that's exactly what has happened. And it's speeding up. It's going to get worse. God knows what kind of society we'll be living in in 10 years' time. It could be like Victorian times again, with all the hypocrisy and double standards.' " (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 96)
It appears that earlier in the year Australian Customs seized a copy of the seventh issue of the original serialisation of FROM HELL from a Diamond Comics Distributors despatch to a comics store called Quality Comics, in Perth. The legal process for this is that Customs pick a box, slice it open, and rummage through until they find something that looks pervy. Australian Customs then sent the book to something called the Office of Film & Literature Classifications. This is essentially the censorship arm of the Australian government. From http://rene.efa.org.au/censor/, a website detailing the state of censorship in Australia today: "It is a criminal offence to sell or exhibit films, videos and computer games unless they have been pre-rated by the government Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). It is also illegal to sell publications (greeting cards, posters, magazines, books etc) which might be rated unsuitable for minors unless they have been pre-rated by the OFLC. In order to obtain a rating, a fee must be paid to the OFLC. The fee for rating of an X-rated video for public/commercial sale is the same as that charged to a local gardening club for rating of a video about pruning trees for distribution solely to club members. From 1 July 1998, the OFLC will operate on a full cost recovery basis - censorship in Australia is a Government business enterprise."
The OFLC works under a blanket of somewhat paranoid secrecy. They attempted to ban Catherine Breilat's film ROMANCE. When the Censorship Board was called on the decision and asked to produce the written document on the decision, the Acting Director (this is an organisation that has left key posts officially unfilled for years at a time) refused to provide such to the public. He deemed it inappropriate, publicly admitting that the decision would go before the Censorship Review Board (where ROMANCE was unbanned). The State Of Censorship website takes a forgiveable cheap shot: "It defies imagination what that has to do with Australians being allowed to know the reasons for a decision by a government statutory authority banning a film that is shown around the world."
The OFLC has issued a recommendation that FROM HELL contravenes Regulation 4(1A)(a) of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations.
What does this mean? Here's Eddie, speaking from the front of http://www.eddiecampbellcomics.com: "After talking at length with a representative of the Office of Film and Literature Classification on the matter of context, I have come to understand that the 'ruling' handed down by this office is not a ruling at all, but a recommendation or guideline. Therefore there is no arguing or appealing here. The 'ruling' is entirely a concept of Customs. And this office would not enter into any reviews of the situation. They suggested that my only route, if I feel that the correct context was not originally submitted, would be to talk Customs into submitting the new enlarged book for an assessment in the normal way, as a new case."
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's WORLD TODAY radio program put this into depressing perspective back in January. "Inefficiency and political distractions are being blamed for a stockpile of publications awaiting classification at the Office of Film and Literature Classification Board…. Sources close to the Board say there's a back-log of over 1000 publications awaiting classification at the Sydney offices of the Film and Literature Classification Board. Magazines can't be sold until they've been given the all-clear by the Board. But sources say poor work practices, inefficiency and political distractions mean some publications never make it to the news stand."
Publisher of fairly innocuous-sounding People Magazine and The Picture, Brad Boxl, says "They've got, you know, progressively more difficult, we find, dealing with an incredibly frustrating, and we find the interpretation of the new guidelines particularly troublesome and problematic." The reason for the delays? "Just the sheer workload they've got down there. They say that they're training new classifiers, that the new guidelines are taking a lot time to bed in and they need to, you know, get certainty in their decisions."
"Right across the industry, wherever you go, people are - magazines are being toned down to what they were six months ago, and in some cases quite a lot in terms of language, in terms of depictions of nudity. If you go back and look at magazines from a year ago, even the layman will notice a big difference in content."
Journalist Alison Caldwell adds: "Spare a thought for the publishers of Hemp Times. They had to wait 12 months before they were told their magazine was banned. In the meantime its international counterpart is available on the Internet."
Where does this leave Eddie? Attempting to use due process to convince Australian Customs - and, presumably, the OFLC -- to unban one of the most acclaimed works in the medium, translated into six languages (Eddie mentioned this, and got the response "I don't care what goes on in the rest of the world, this is Australia."). Will they be reasonable? Evidently one Michael Dean, writer for The Comics Journal, has already been on the phone to Australian Customs. I'll give Eddie Campbell the last word.
"The Customs Chappie said that if Mr Dean quoted him in print that I would find no good will there from here on."