Daily Archives: January 24, 2010

Innocence, Seduced

9 Unintentionally Hilarious Statements Taken From an Excerpt of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent That Appeared in the May 1954 Edition of Reader’s Digest Magazine

1. “Years of working with maladjusted children have convinced me that the unwholesome stimulation of such comic books contributes markedly to delinquency.”
The great tragedy of the life of Fredric Wertham (1895-1981) is that, had he not published Seduction of the Innocent and testified in front of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954, he would likely have been remembered as a psychiatrist who was a passionate advocate for social change. (He founded the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic in Harlem during the 1940s, one of the few institutions dedicated to serving the needs of the black community at that time, and his writings about the effects of racial segregation on children were used as evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.) Instead, generations of comic fans and amateur historians have vilified him as the public face of a mid-century moral crusade that nearly destroyed the American comic book industry. Wertham certainly didn’t make it easy for his defenders with statements like this one, just one of many in SOTI that mention a causal link between comic books and juvenile delinquency and take it as a given that the reader would defer to his expert opinion — not a risky assumption on his part, since the 1950s was a time in which people weren’t apt to question the “experts” in anything.

2. “A boy of 11 killed a woman in a holdup. When arrested, he was found surrounded by comic books.”
SOTI is full of similar stories like this one: a child (almost always a boy) does something bad, gets caught, and asks for comics to read while sitting in jail or talking to a psychologist. Or a child commits a crime and he says he got the idea out of a comic book. It’s sensational reading, and it appears to make a very convincing case against comics, especially the crime and horror comics that, in the pre-Code days, heaped up plenty of gory details. Just one problem: while other doctors and scientists may have used research to determine if a causal link between comics and bad behavior existed, Wertham’s case against comics almost entirely consisted of anecdotal evidence. It’s particularly amusing when you consider that, in those pre-television days, comic books were pretty much the only things out there in terms of kid-targeted pop culture: a modern-day Wertham might find reasons to target, say, Grand Theft Auto or Pokémon for corrupting young morals. And while it’s awfully tempting to blame youth violence on the likes of Pikachu, it doesn’t help explain the millions of kids who take part in such pursuits and then go on to become normal, well-adjusted human beings.

3. “Most people, including many child psychologists, know little or nothing about these publications. Comic books, they assume, are Disney-type animal cartoons or reprints of comic strips from newspapers – ‘like Bringing Up Father, you know.'”
Here, the article’s maddeningly vague language is particularly evident — and since the audience consisted mainly of Middle America types who were not inclined to question statements made by anyone addressed as “Dr.”, it’s especially frustrating to consider how many readers in 1954 would have taken this statement as gospel. We have only Wertham’s word that most people at that time knew “little or nothing” about comics — an unlikely proposition, given the millions that were sold every month to people of all ages, sold every month to people of all ages, albeit mostly children and military personnel. It’s also unlikely that most thinking Americans (including child psychologists) saw comics as either funny-animal books or reprints of family-friendly newspaper strips, given the wide range of genres (westerns, romance, horror, historical non-fiction) available during comicdom’s Golden Age. Sure, most Americans at the time might have taken issue with the editorial quality of some of those comics, but only the most oblivious person living in America in the 1950s would have thought “saccharine” or “sentimental” were the only options out there.  At the very least, the graphic covers on the likes of EC’s horror comics would have given them some clue what to expect.

4. “Jungle, horror and interplanetary comics specialize in torture, bloodshed and lust in an exotic setting. White men in jungle books are blond, Nordic he-men, athletic and shapely, while the colored natives are characterized as subhuman.”
While most anti-comic crusaders understandably took aim at the more gruesome horror and crime comics of the day, Wertham’s genius, if you can call it that, was his ability to see the perversion and moral turpitude in just about anything presented in a comic book format. And while his views on the moral effects of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories may have gone unrecorded (Lord knows what he would have said about all the “uncles” and “nephews” roaming Duckburg), he had plenty to say about any comic in which some element of adventure or conflict came into play. But to single out the racial politics of jungle comics at a time when movies and magazines routinely portrayed Africans as large-lipped cannibals with bones in their noses (and hardly treated African-Americans much better) is selective amnesia, to say the least. Wertham’s efforts on behalf of racial equality mark him a man ahead of his time, but why would he single out comics for their questionable racial overtones? One possible answer: because taking on a gaggle of disorganized and slightly disreputable comic publishers was politically safer than taking on the politically influential movie studios of the day.

5. “The superman type of comic book also needs an endless stream of criminal, ‘foreign-looking’ people, to justify the constant use of force and superforce. “

Ironically, Wertham’s efforts to sanitize the comic industry created the perfect conditions for the Silver Age of superheroes, and the heroes have been the medium’s dominant force (in North America, at least) ever since. Which is unfortunate for Wertham’s legacy, since many of his racier pronouncements about the superheroes haven’t aged well, and they’re a big part of the reason why he’s remembered with scorn among most comic fans today. He had plenty to say, for instance, about the homoerotic subtext in Batman and Robin’s relationship, lesbianism in Wonder Woman stories, and Superman’s fascistic approach to life. But his assertion that all superheroes are bad because they fight an endless steam of “foreign-looking” people… OK, first, this didn’t seem to be a problem when the U.S. was at war. Second, in a country as diverse as the U.S., how exactly does an artist make a hero’s opponent appear “foreign-looking”? And third — all right, putting aside the fact that almost every mad scientist and arch-villain of the time was white (moreso, in the Joker’s case), is it possible the doctor was confusing “foreign-looking” with “garishly costumed and sufficiently powered to present a credible threat to the hero”? Because Superman whaling on purse-snatchers and crooked union bosses would have gotten really boring after the first few issues.

6. “Juvenile delinquency has increased about 20 percent since 1947, the period corresponding to the great rise in comic-book circulation.”
Heavens! Clearly, then, if we stopped the presses tomorrow, then we’ll have wiped the scourge of juvenile delinquency off the face of the Earth forever! This is the same kind of logic that caused ancient societies to associate comets with great military victories — just because two things happen around the same time doesn’t mean there’s a direct causal link. For now, let’s leave aside questions of what yardstick Wertham used to determine that 1947 was a high point in the industry, or how “juvenile delinquency” is defined in this context. Is it not unreasonable, one might argue, to assume that the social upheavals inherent in a great depression, the  greatest global conflict the world has ever known, and a few years of teaching kids how to duck and cover so they don’t die in a nuclear holocaust might — just might, now — have a little more of a psychological impact on kids than a couple of comic books?

7. “Against the child is concentrated the economic power of a large and completely unregulated industry.”
This statement is especially heart-wrenching, painting the image of a lone waif defenceless against a mighty industry that answers to nothing and no one. But it doesn’t tell the entire story, or even necessarily a true one. To be sure, the publishing and magazine distribution businesses in the 1930s and ’40s weren’t places for the faint of heart, with strong-armed tactics often used to force retailers to accept books they didn’t necessarily want to sell. But those tactics tended to happen on the distribution side — the publishers, with the exception of Dell and DC (and Fawcett, until it was sued into oblivion by DC), were almost entirely shoestring operations with far less influence, individually or collectively, than the movie studios or newspaper syndicates of the day. As for why Wertham would encourage this monolithic image of comic publishers, think of it this way: would it have made much sense for the moral crusaders of the day to launch a fight against an industry that had the means to fight back?

8. “Actually a few firms put out most of the comic books, but they do so under various names. Titles, too, are subject to frequent change: if a book is criticized the publishers may stop the series and start the same thing again with another title.”
As mentioned above,  most comic publishers during the Golden Age were small-time operations, or small divisions of shady publishing concerns that focused on pulp fiction or more adult fare. Stability wasn’t exactly a hallmark of the trade, as many a freelance artist trying to collect a paycheque would learn to their chagrin. And while it may not have been unheard of for a publisher to shut down an office and start up a new company to avoid paying artists and suppliers, it wasn’t the norm, either, and few if any publishers changed business addresses or published under different names to stay one step ahead of the morality brigade. On the other hand, plenty of publications did in fact start out with one title and end up with something quite different as the months went on — but this was due more to postal regulations that cost publishers money every time they started a brand new title with a #1 issue. It’s the reason why, for instance, EC’s Moon Girl Fights Crime became A Moon, A Girl… Romance for four issues before becoming Weird Fantasy with #13.

9. “Folklore, which presents legend and fact in story and song, has nothing to do with the knife-wielding, eye-gouging,  marijuana-smoking heroes of the crime comics.”
This statement appears near the end of the article, and Wertham apparently made it to counter the arguments of contemporary comic defenders who would have said that comic stories were the modern-day equivalent of the fairy tales and legends that people have told each other for thousands of years. And… yeah, one could make the argument that the likes of Snow White or Red Riding Hood don’t have much in common with the murderous characters in the crime comics. Well, except for the poisonous apples, the cutting out of hearts, devoured old women, woodcutters and little girls joining forces to sew rocks into the bellies of wolves… you know, the “kid-friendly” stuff.