Addendum: The Gorbals Vampire & More

This is an addendum to a previous post. I recommend you go read that first, and then follow the link at the end of the post to read this one. However, if you’ve already checked that out, then have at:

My friend Jack Illingworth posted an article that has eerie resonances with my recent post about the moral panic over computer gaming and the internet in Korea. It’s a piece about the context of a mid-twentieth century crusade in Scotland against the “corrupting power” of… comic books. What it traces is how comics were selected as the cause for a bizarre sort of moral panic over a vampire among children, which led to a second moral panic among adults as to why kids would believe such a thing.

Those most concerned behaved just as the anti-gaming and anti-internet people in Korea today do: ignoring the likelier sources, which were a passage in the Bible and a poem taught in schools–and, frankly, just the imagination of kids, which is more powerful than that of adults–they decided that comic books would need to be censored. Very strictly, too. And they got their wish.

And of course, after reading the piece on the Gorbals Vampire, Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” comes to mind. It’s an essay in the collection The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have a copy of it around here somewhere–I think, in my office–but it’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I’ll rely on this review to summarize the essay:

In “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” she analyzes distrust of fantasy as a consequence of the Puritan work ethic, profit-mindedness, and, most distressingly, the American male’s fundamental distrust of imagination itself.

I don’t remember her blaming the American male, actually, but a ferw summaries of the article online claim she argued that American men were particularly raised to fear and distrust their own imagination. One is tempted to wonder whether Le Guin here isn’t, behaving more like the “teachers, communists, and Christians” in Gorbals by laying the blame on whatever happens to be appropriate to her ideology.

When I go to SF conventions today, I see no shortage of men–in fact, rather the opposite–and though I’m sure things were different 30 years ago, one must stop and remember that SF fandom for the longest time wasn’t just predominantly male, but as far as I can tell seeemed to present itself to the world as almost wholly so. (Which was sexist, as well as bad for the genre, but that’s another matter.) Sure, things have changed: this article raises questions about whether Americans indeed still are afraid of dragons.

And as for the repudiation of fantasy being especially male, well, I have my doubts. I’ve seen as many women as men exhibit a snotty attitude towards fantasy or fabulation of any kind, and in fact, when it comes specifically to people rejecting magic and fantasy on religious or scriptural grounds, and this is purely anecdotal on my part, it’s nearly always been women I’ve run into doing this. (In little cases like this one reported by Mark David Gerson.)

An interesting comparison would be to look at the gender breakdown of people actively involved in groups like BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) or at similar groups who spread moral panics about Satanism, rock’n’roll, and stuff like that. Though perhaps extremist groups don’t reflect more general sentiment, I still think it would be interesting to see, and might put the lie to Le Guin’s claim that anti-fantasy sentiment is predominantly, or especially, a problem with male Americans.

(Incidentally, the Gorbals Vampire story sounds like an amazing basis for a piece of fiction. Hmm.)

9 thoughts on “Addendum: The Gorbals Vampire & More

  1. This is true:

    My D&D set disappeared. I thought I misplaced it somewhere, but could never find it. I asked my mom if she knew. Turned out she’d burned it outside in the grill.

  2. I may comment about your long post (though I may not – I have a paper due); but as a short comment on this short addendum: When I was in kindergarten and 1-2 grades, comic book rental stores (you pay and borrow comic books for 1-2 days) were very popular. (I’m talking about early 1970s here). I understand that these stores were banned for three years or so in the late 70s. (I went to US from 3rd to 7th grades so I can only tell you secondhand) because they were thought to corrupt kids, and take time away from studying. Also, a really vibrant comic book industry was basically destroyed. Obviously, they have made a come back since the 1980s. However, these “Seduction of the Innocent” type of arguments are (as elsewhere) not uncommon in Korea. (I also believe – perhaps irrationally – that this ban basically destroyed a generation of comics / fantasy writers and artists; and is responsible for current dilemma in Korean comics and animation indutries; namely we have a lot of people who can draw, but very few who can write characters and story. Everytime I hear a government official saying how the government have to give aid to develop the comics and animation industry,(seriously!) I want to barf).

  3. Rhesus,

    Ha, Dhalgren instead. She maybe would’ve, had she opened it up and read through it. I’m grateful my mother never burned my D&D books, as it most certainly would have culminated in me demanding reimbursement, buying the books, and keeping them at a friends’ house… if any such reimbursement were forthcoming.


    Woah. I didn’t know that the 만화방 had ever been banned. That’s nuts. And, yes, sounds like a good explanation for the problems in the Korean comic book industry.

    I wonder, too, whether this has anything to do with the unpopularity of SF here? Though I didn’t read a lot of comics as a kid, they were (along with a few films like Time Bandits and Return of the Jedi and even E.T., and the original Star Trek series in rerun) a big gateway drug for SF for me, predating even RPGs like D&D… Especially the old, musty horror comics at the local library in tiny, Northern Lac La Ronge where I lived when I was really young. I think lots of SF people I know also got into the genre via comics. Hmmm.

    Also sounds somewhat like how too-strict controls murdered the live music scene in its cradle here. It still disturbs me how few of my students have seen a live music performance of any kind. I actually took them to Hongdae last semester, as part of my “studying media” course — we did a segment on “indie” media, which was when I discovered almost nobody had gone to a music club. So we went. And most of us had a lot of fun, too… but the live music scene here is so tiny it’s a bit shocking, really. Well, and the result is, all too many people seem to think that the Wonder Girls is actually music.

    Good luck on the deadline: I have one, too, but it’s a few days off and I only have to cut 130 words from my manuscript. Hoping to do that tonight. When you’re done, I’d be interested in whatever you have to say about the post. :)

  4. I think most Korean comics historians would argue that the decline of comic book rental shops in mid-’70’s had a net positive effect. The rise of the rental shop culture during the ’60’s and early ’70’s led to focus on quantity rather than quality (the demand of the industry was such that a cartoonist was expected to produce a 50-page comic book in one day) and substandard comic books proliferated. When the rental shops became a target of public persecution (due to an incident in 1973 where a kid died after trying to copy a stunt he saw in a comic book), comics for young readers moved out of rental shops and into magazine serialization and a wider readership. Such comics were then published in collected volumes, and the comics market gradually changed into one where the readers purchased comic books directly, rather than borrowing them. (Rental shops, on the other hand, became a market focusing on works geared towards more mature readers during the ’80’s.)

    Many would probably say that the current problems with the Korean comics industry began with the Asian financial crisis of 1997. When many laid-off middle managers chose to start their own businesses, book rental shops were among the most popular choices. Along with the legislation purported to protect children from harmful reading material (which is the reason why so many comic books in Korea are sold in shrinkwraps), the book rental businesses decimated the retail market. It appears that the only thriving segment of Korean comics right now is web toons, which has its own problems related to the peculiarities of Korean internet. (Overdependence on portal sites, for example.)

    1. SKFK,

      Wow, that’s way more historical information, as well as an interesting different interpretation. What you say about the post-97 explosion of 만화방s makes a kind of success, and I’ve long wondered about how and why the retail market for comics ended up being so small. (Though, also, if I could rent comics in English, or borrow them from a library, I probably would. They’re pricey bastards.)

      But as for a ban leading to a rise in quality, I have to wonder how important that is. Anglophone SF certainly went through its own period of being dominated by hacks–at certain times, I suspect, it was difficult to sell or make ends meet as a writer if one wasn’t writing something that was, by our standards, hack-work. The tradeoff, though, is the generation of an incredibly involved and committed audience. There are probably cultural factors mitigating why fan cultures might differ in Korea compared to in the English-speaking world or Japan, but I can’t help but wonder how differently things might have turned out if comics hadn’t been cracked-down upon back in the 1970s.

      Not that I have any opinions: you guys have opened up a whole new world for me with this. A question: do you know where I can get more about the 1973 incident that led to the comics crackdown in Korea? It seems, again, one of those cases where grown-ups overlook the millions of kids who read comics but don’t attempt the stupid stunts, and focus on the one (probably dumb) kid who did attempt it, as an excuse to crack down on something they distrust, dislike, or whatever. Not that this is unique to Korea, of course, as the Gorbals Vampire case and the moral panic over D&D in the 1980s clearly show.

  5. I looked it up a little bit more in depth, and I was off by one year: the incident took place in 1972. I don’t know if the information is available in English anywhere, but here’s a quick and dirty summary of what happened. I got most of the information from this blog post: which also has images of contemporary newspaper articles.

    On January 31st, 1972, 12-year-old boy named Byung-Sup Chung (정병섭) was found dead, hanging by his neck from a rope tied to a high shelf, by his 15-year-old sister. According to Byung-Sup’s sister, he was a comic book fanatic and he often imitated comic book characters’ actions in the books. The sister also said that, on the day of his death, he came back from a comic book rental shop, and told her, “In comic books, people come back to life even after they die. I want to find out if I can do that too.” Based on his sister’s words, the authorities and the press began the witchhunt. The owner of the rental shop that Byung-Sup frequented was arrested. 69 comic book creators were indicted. There were 58 comic book publishers at the time, and the government revoked the business licenses of about half of them. Over 20 thousand copies of comic books were confiscated and burned, and over 70 comic book rental shop owners were sent to summary trials.

    Here’s another blog entry that summarizes the media reports and editorials at the time.

    Note that the first article in the blog post, which shows a photograph of comic book burning, is dated June 29, 1971, indicating that comic books were a favorite target of the authorities even before the unfortunate death of Byung-Sup.

  6. I guess the spam filter caught my comment for including multiple links, so hopefully Gord can restore it.

    In the meantime, let me add one more comment about the Korean comics industry in terms of rental vs. retail markets. The rental market has always been a significant part of the Korean comic book industry since its beginnings during the 1950’s. The difference back then, compared to today, was that there was more or less a clear differentiation of product lines geared towards rental market and retail market. In other words, rental shops had its own supply chain made up of comic book creators who exclusively developed material for that specific market. Comic books intended for the retail market usually didn’t end up in the rental shops.

    It was under this environment that the comic book retail market reached its apex during the ten-year period between 1988 and 1997. This was the period when multiple comics magazines serving different age groups proliferated, and homegrown Korean comic book titles (as opposed to translated Japanese manga) actually sold more than a million copies per volume.

    When the youth protection legislation (which ramped up the restrictions about reading material) was introduced in 1996, bookstores stopped carrying comic books. The book rental shops that began popping up in mid-’90’s mostly dealt with prose books at first. Comic book publishers, who found that they could not ship their merchandise to bookstores any more, began pushing their books (which were designed for the retail market) to the book rental businesses, and that’s when the longstanding line between the two markets began collapsing. The result, after almost a decade and a half, is that most Koreans think that comic books are only worth one quick read-through before returning it to the rental shop. It’s very difficult to develop “an incredibly involved and committed audience” under such an environment.

  7. SKFK,

    Thanks for going into this in such depth. It’s really interesting. The one point that kills me is that comic books were banned for encouraging belief in resurrection from the dead (which they don’t, really), but the Bible remained in open circulation (though it does, really).

    That page you linked DID end up in the spam by the way, so thankks for mentioning it. I usually don’t look there, as it rarely catches anything that isn’t spam, and would have missed it. Unfortunately somehow the page’s format forbids copying and pasting or even machine translation. Argh. I’ll have to trawl thru it slowly alone, though I am grateful for your summary. I wonder if copies of those comics exist anywhere in archive. Hmmm.

    Youth Protection Legislation. You know, if such laws were ever actually about protecting youth (from, say, child abusers or drunken morons driving home at night, say) I’d be all for it. But it’s laughable when those laws are created as a kind of public show of the requisite amount of prudishness. As if kids don’t always find a way of getting their hands on stuff that grownups think they shouldn’t see?

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