Seduction in the Eighties
The following essay appeared in The Comics Journal No. 106 in March 1986, hence the reason for the subtitle above. As a book review, it needed no adjustments to be as pertinent today as it was then. But whenever the argument involves the moral climate of the times, I’ve done a little tinkering to make it clear which times I’m referring to, then or now. And at the end when I turn to the prospect of a “new Wertham” invading the precincts of the comics world, I’ve made a few more adjustments and added a fresh concluding footnote—again, hoping to fit the discussion into both the mid-1980s and the waning years of the Bush League ascendency. In the article’s original publication, a clump of sentences was mislaid and never made it into print; I’ve restored those here, so this is actually the first—and, so far, the only—time the entire piece appears as I intended.
While I’ve been thinking for some time of posting this essay, I was prompted anew a week or so ago when I learned that Wertham’s bombshell tome, Seduction of the Innocent, long out of print since its initial publication in 1954, had been recently reprinted. A couple versions are presently available, at least one of which is offered through Amazon.com for about $42. One of these is from Amereon and is dated 1996; the other, from Main Road Books, is copyrighted 2004. My copy, just purchased, is one of the latter (limited, it says, to 220 copies), and it features a lengthy introduction by James E. Reibman, who teaches literature and media studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Although a specialist in law and literature with publication on the legal writings of Samuel Johnson and his circle, Reibman is Wertham’s biographer and is co-editor of the forthcoming Fredric Wertham Reader. He is understandably distressed that Wertham’s reputation has apparently been determined entirely by comics aficionados who have turned the psychiatrist into a compunctionless censor and detest him for it. Eager to rescue Wertham, Reibman rehearses his life, beginning with his birth March 20, 1895, in Nuremberg, Germany, and ending with his death November 18, 1981, in the United States. Wertham came to the U.S. in 1922 and worked for seven years at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he met Florence Hesketh, an artist and Charlton Fellow in Medicine, who became Wertham’s wife and intellectual partner. As an indication of Wertham’s social and mental gifts, Reibman notes that while Wertham lived in Baltimore, he frequently gathered with H.L. Mencken and his musical cohorts for the meetings of the fabled Saturday Night Club, a weekly soiree of good food and drink, rousing music, and stimulating conversation. Wertham authored at least ten books, most of them on social and/or psychiatric issues, and he emerged as a distinguished psychiatric witness in legal matters. His testimony in a Delaware case about the impairment suffered by African American children due to school segregation became part of the legal argument in the famed Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, laying the groundwork for desegregation of schools (and of the rest of America). And Wertham was appointed psychiatric consultant to Senator Estes Kefauver’s Subcomittee for the Study of Organized Crime, out of which, eventually, camethe subcommittee investigating the deleterious impact of comic books. Wertham was not, in other words, a kook or a crackpot. I’ve never supposed he was. He was notable enough in 1949 to be on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature, a respectable and usually liberal weekly, which depiction I’ve used here to illuminate this prelude. But while Reibman defends Wertham as a man whose motives were of the best sort and establishes his credentials as a psychiatrist, he does not, significantly, defend Wertham’s science as displayed in Seduction of the Innocent.
I have always thought that Seduction of the Innocent was a Book of the Month Club selection, but apparently it wasn’t. It was scheduled to be the Club’s “alternative selection” one month, but at the last minute that plan was cancelled for reasons Reibman doesn’t specify; we may suppose were the most sinister from his subsequent assertion that the book’s publisher had torn out of the volume pages 399 and 400 because they listed the publishers of the comic books Wertham castigated. (These pages have been restored to the edition I have; and probably to the other one, too. In any event, you should look for them in order to reassure yourself that you have a complete and valid reproduction of the original volume.) The reprinted volume at hand also includes the scabrous illustrations Wertham had plucked from assorted sordid comic books.
When I wrote the article that follows, Ronald Reagan was President, and the so-called Moral Majority loomed powerfully over the land. The conjunction of these two forces suggested to many observers on the comics scene that the industry was about to be subjected to another repressive assault by censors. My examination of Wertham’s book and the review I wrote of it was prompted by this wild-eyed supposition. Here we go:
First there were grumblings about too much violence in comics. Then came rnurmurings about rating systems and codes.
Today’s comics industry (1986), poised on the brink of a new prosperity thanks to direct sales successes, hesitates momentarily to turn introspective. Books manufactured for direct sales evade the Comics Code Authority and go into the world naked and unadorned with a seal of approval. The absence of that seal thirty years ago had sprung the death trap for more than one publisher. Is history about to repeat itself? What kind of risks are being run by publishing violent stories, unsealed comics? And if the risk is too great, could it be reduced by introducing a rating system like that used for movies? Do we reed a new codifying of comics to separate the sheep from the goats, marking the former for ruminating children, the latter for rutting adults?
Amid such rumblings we can hear the distant din of another voice, speaking from the past—the voice of Fredric Wertham, M.D.
As every comics fan knows, Werthan’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, tolled the death knell for comic books as they then existed. His book and his testimony before Congressional investigating committees focused public attention on comic books, which brought pressure on comics publishers, which resulted in the creation of the clean-up Comics Code Authority, and that eventually caused the untimely demise of the revered EC Comics line.
That’s what every comics fan knows. Or thinks he knows. Fact is, other publishers besides EC went under, too. And probably Wertham didn’t slay all those dragons single-handedly. But he made a name for himself in comics history—a name much invoked these days amid the rumblings about excessive violence and rating codes.
Like most comics fans, I’ve seen quotations from Wertham’s book here and there from time to time. Invariably, the quotations struck me as silly. Judging from these snippets in isolation, it seemed obvious that Wertham had traded in patent nonsense. His snake oil cure for the increase in juvenile delinquency in the wake of World War II was to ban comic books for everyone under the age of fifteen. As if comics were the sole cause of youthful crime!
Again judging from quoted bits and pieces, it seemed that Wertham forged his case against comic books entirely in the heat of his fevered imagination. His explanations and accusations bore so little resemblance to the facts about comics as I remembered them (or so twisted interpretations of those facts) that they seemed to be mere maniacal ravings. How could any such utterances, so transparently bereft of science and logic and (even) reason, prove so powerful in swaying public opinion that a giant publishing empire was brought to its knees?
The best way to find the answer to that question, I decided, was to stop reading Wertham out of context. Truth to tell, I’d never read Seduction of the Innocent, this watershed work in the history of the medium. A summer or so ago, it seemed soon enough to correct the omission.
The first thing I found out was that although I’d never read Wertham’s book, the book was not going unread. The libraries of the University of Illinois carry over a dozen copies of the book—and they were all checked out. The one I finally laid my hands on had been checked out five times a year since 1980. Wertham may be dead, but his book still gets around.
I suspect that a lot of us have bandied the good doctor’s name about over the years without having actually perused this tome. So I thought this might be a good time to review the thing in some depth and to present Wertham’s argument and examine it. Writing the review that follows proved no easy task. The book itself is a simmering stew of accusations and innuendo, a grab-bag of examples, case histories, anecdotes, facts, near-facts, and (I suspect) some fictions. Although the book’s fourteen chapters give it some semblance of order by providing topical headings, the ostensible subject of one chapter often crops up again in another chapter for extensive treatment. To find in this confusion the single thread of organizing principle by which a review of these chapters could be strung together in a unified, cogent argument was more than I bargained for in setting myself the task. So I gave up that search. What follows here is, I hope, organized, but it’s my organization of Wertham’s material, not his. And it’s not all of his material either—just enough to illustrate his case, his method, his madness.
Wertham’s argument is actually quite simple: reading comic books is bad for children. It gives them unwholesome ideas, turning some kids into sex perverts and some into criminals. But even if reading comic books doesn’t turn everyone into one or the other, the habit does no good for anyone. We should ban comic books, Wertham urges; and if we can’t ban them, we should forbid their sale to anyone under fifteen.
This argument is the chorus of his book. It is the melody of Wertham’s song, and it runs like a rushing river current through the flood of examples, incidents, and exegeses that litter the banks in his book. The hodge-podge organization of the work results from his heaping up of instance after instance, allegation after allegation—all to prove his initial premise.
I’ve made no attempt to verify or disprove the factual accuracy of the information Wertham retails as cold fact—circulation figures of comics, for instance, statistics on the rise of juvenile crime and the like. My purpose is to report on the content of the book, to present as much of Wertham’s argument as seems essential to an understanding of his major positions, pausing occasionally to analyze his methods. Some of what I quote from the book shows either sloppy thinking or conniving rhetoric. But some quotations, I hope, reveal the passionate humanity of the author. The book is all of these things—fallacious, contriving, and humane. It may even be right.
Wertham’s motives in writing the book cannot be impugned from anything in it. That he has at heart the welfare of children is clear throughout. He sees children as victims, the scapegoats of a society that has created social values that seem to nurture juvenile delinquency and other kinds of maladjustment. In permitting such things as crime comic books to fall into children’s hands, society ignores its proper role in the care and rearing of the young, and when children go wrong, the courts discharge society’s responsibility (and assuage its collective conscience) by sending them to reformatories “with a light heart and a heavy calendar.”
Wertham castigates a judge who vows angrily to treat kids as criminals when they act like hoodlums. But were these youths ever treated like “kids” in the first place? Wertham asks. “Were they protected against the corrupting influence of comic books which glamorize and advertise dangerous knives and the guns that can be converted into deadly weapons?”
Gawking at the pulpy colored pages of badly drawn comic books, Wertham looks askance at society. “Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?”
Wertham may have made a lot of money with his book, and he certainly achieved
celebrity if not notoriety. But the announced objective of his crusade was to protect children from the alluring malevolence he saw in comic books. While he sometimes seems clumsily to mistake a simple sequence of events for a cause and effect relationship as he attempts to indict comic books, Wertham doesn’t say that comics are the sole cause of juvenile delinquency or of any aberrant behavior: “Slowly, and at first reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that this chronic stimulation, temptation and seduction by comic books, both their content and their alluring advertisements of knives and guns, are contributing factors to many children’s maladjustment.” Contributing factors.
Unhappily, in an effort to make his case convincing, Wertham very often allows himself to be seduced—seduced away from logic and scientific method into insinuation and allegation, into sentimental rhetoric instead of scientific reportage. The effect is to weaken the argument of his book by leaving various passages open to question. But even after those questions have been asked, the weight of his rhetoric hangs heavy still, pregnant with suggestions the truth and validity of which we have yet to ascertain or overthrow with certitude.
Crime Comics Defined
Wertham’s particular bete noir was the crime genre of comic books. Books with titles like CRIME Does Not Pay, LAWBREAKERS Always Lose, There Is No Escape for PUBLIC ENEMIES, CRIMINALS on the Run, CRIME Can’t Win, and the like. The words I’ve capitalized were always printed much larger on the book covers than the other words of the titles. And that emphasized the subject.
The usual crime comic book of the late 40s and early 50s peered closely at the exploits of crooks. Typically, the stories traced the careers of gangsters, beginning with their rise to power in the underworld and continuing with accounts of their exercise of power and concluding, eventually, in their downfall. By way of characterizing the demented personalities of criminals, most crooks were portrayed as wholly unsavory villains—cruel, thoughtless, and treacherous, given to acts of merciless brutality and, often, of craven cowardice.
The choice of narrative focus was unfortunate. It made criminals the protagonists of the stories and police the antagonists. By this simple rhetoric of the ensuing narrative, crooks were the heroes; cops, the villains. By concentrating on the lives of gangsters, the efforts of law enforcement agencies were shoved into the background. Even if the crooks were captured (or killed) in the end, the stories nonetheless emphasized lives of crime. The emphasis was not lost on Wertham: it gave him an opening through which he eagerly pounced.
About such comics Wertham could legitimately say: “The atmosphere of crime comic books is unparalleled in the history of children’s literature of any time or any nation. It is a distillation of viciousness, The world of the comic book is the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shrewd deceiver, the torturer, and the thief, All the emphasis is on exploits where somebody takes advantage of somebody else, violently, sexually, or threateningly. Force and violence in any conceivable form are romanticized. Trust, loyalty, confidence, solidarity, sympathy, charity, compassion are ridiculed. Hostility and hate set the pace of almost every story.”
But Wertham’s attack on comics was not confined to the kind of crime books I’ve just described. For Wertham, a crime comic book was any comic book that depicted crime, “whether the setting is urban, Western, science-fiction, jungle, adventure or the realm of supermen, horror, or supernatural beings.” Even animal comics in which the characters pursue furry criminals are crime comics to Wertham. In one such comic, he finds a picture of a rabbit “crying and begging for mercy, a duck poised to kill him with a baseball bat.” Given the conventions of animal comics, it’s debatable if the duck is planning to “kill” the rabbit; but the conventions were undeniably violent, and that’s the axe Wertham grinds.
“Jungle, horror and interplanetary comics are also crime comics of a special kind,” Wertham says. “Jungle comics specialize in torture, bloodshed and lust in an exotic setting. Daggers, claws, guns, wild animals, well- or over-developed girls in brassieres and as little else as possible, dark ‘natives,’ fires, stakes, posts, chains, ropes, big-chested and heavily muscled Nordic he-men dominate the stage. They contain such details as one girl squirting fiery ‘radium dust’ on the protruding breasts of another girl; white men banging natives around; a close-up view of the branded breast of a girl; a girl about to be blinded.”
Romance comics, too, are crime comics. In many of their stories, young women become romantically involved with criminal types—much to their subsequent grief. “Unless the love comics are sprinkled with some crime, they do not sell,” Wertham observes. “Apparently love does not pay.”
Wertham allows that there are some “harmless” comics, but they are outnumbered by crime comics. Between 1937 and l947, he says, only 19 crime comic titles existed. But in the post-war years, crime comics became so popular that by l948, “107 new titles of crime comic books appeared, 53 straight crime comics, 54 ‘Westerns’ featuring crime.” In l946, crime comics represented only a tenth of the total number of comic books; in 1948, their representation had increased to one third. “By 1949 comic books featuring crime, violence and sadism made up over one half of the industry. By 1954, they form the vast majority of all comic books.”
Because crime comics are so exciting to children, crime comics are the most popular and most widely read. “The great attraction of crime comic books for children is alleged to be continuous fast action. There may be some. But when the stories come to details of a delinquency or depiction of brutality, the action slows noticeably. A typical example, vintage autumn 1950: in one story there are 37 pictures, of which 12 (that is, one in three) show brutal near-rape scenes.” In another comic, Wertham finds 97 pictures showing the criminal winning and only one picture for “the apotheosis of his suicide.” In another, of 51 pictures “no less than 45 are scenes of violence and brutality.”
“In many comics stories there is nothing but violence. It is violence for violence’s sake. The plot: killing. The motive: to kill. The characterization: killer. The end: killed.” In what he calls “the blood-and-bra formula” of crime comics, Wertham finds an “obscene glorification of violence and sadism” through savagery, murder, lust, and death.
Wertham quotes Dr. George Reed, director of the psychiatric hospital at McGill University, who holds a similar view of comics. “Dr. Reed said what comic books are about: ‘Violence is the continuous theme, not only violence to others but in the impossible accomplishments of the heroes, heroines and animals.’ He found undue stress on superdevelopment of hero and heroine: ‘... any variation from this norm is the subject of suspicion, ridicule or pity.’ He noted that distorted educational data are common; that direct action by the hero is superior to the dumb and incompetent police; that race hatred is taught; that ‘scantily clad females are man-handled or held in a position of opisthotonos (exaggerated intercourse-like position).’ It was his opinion that juvenile delinquency is in part dependent on environment and that ‘books are of increasing importance as a part of children’s environment.’”
The Morality of Crime Comics
Publishers of comics and other apologists for the medium countered Wertham’s allegations by contending that the moral message of crime comics was that crime doesn’t pay: crooks were always caught or killed in the end. But marketing strategies made equivocators of the publishers. Crime may not pay, but it certainly sold: the largest letters on the cover of CRIME Doesn’t Pay showed that the publisher knew what interested his youthful readers.
Considering the portion of a crime story given over to the life of the criminal, it would not be surprising if readers missed the lesson in the concluding panels. Wertham points out that frequently children remember only bits and pieces from the stories they read—often the goriest details. “A fifteen-year-old girl, asked which comics she remembered, said, ‘I like one where a man puts a needle in a woman’s eye. The eye is all bloodshot and frightened. And another one with a hunchback man carrying a woman from the grave or to the grave. I read four or five a day.’ This is typical of how crime comics are reflected in a child’s mind. Nothing here of crime prevention or of ethical lessons.”
But even if readers are aware that a comic book criminal career usually comes to an unhappy ending, the comic book means to that end are, says Wertham, scarcely desirable: “The experts claim that the theme of comic books is good conquering evil, law triumphing over crime. (But) there are many more crimes in comic book stories than crimes that are punished. Moreover, punishment in comic books is not punishment; it usually takes the form of a violent end. Melodrama instead of morality. ... If the forces of law do win in comic books, they do so not because they represent law or morality, but because at a special moment they are as strong and brutal as the evildoer. The real message of the comic books to children is the equation: physical force equals good. As author and critic Marya Mannes wrote: ‘In twenty million comic books sold it would be hard to find a single instance where a character conquered only because he was kind, honest, generous or intelligent.’ Can there be a more serious indictment?”
The actual lessons taught by depicting the defeat of a gangster protagonist who has starred for many pages in his own lurid life story is something quite different from “crime does not pay.” To suppose, Wertham writes, that the final defeat of the villain cancels out his previous triumphs and achievements is “psychologically naive.” The lesson, he goes on, “is not that the villain should have been a better person but that he should have been shrewder.” When he asked children how it came about that a crook gets punished in a comic book, they often replied that it served the criminal right—“He got caught, didn’t he?” His dessert was just because he was stupid enough to get caught—not because he was evil. The real crime is in getting caught.
But even if children were to learn that crime doesn’t pay, it’s the wrong lesson, Wertham points out. The slogan “Crime does not pay” is not moral, he says, “but highly immoral” because it stresses payment, reward. “The reason that one does not hit girls, even if comics have made it so attractive, is that it is cowardly and that it hurts them; the reason that one does not steal or break into stores is that that is not how one lives in a civilized community; that whether crime pays or does not pay, it is not what a decent person wants to do. That should be the lesson for children.”
Influence on Attitudes
As literary criticism, Wertham’s point is doubtless on target. But Wertham is less interested in the literary stature of comics than in the effects of reading them on the young. He estimates that in 1954, 90 million comic books flooded the newsstands each month. By his definition, most of the books were crime comics (including, remember, Superman and Super Duck). Contending that his conclusions are based upon hundreds of case studies of children, Wertham alleges that these comic books are the most important of the cultural influences under which children grow up. Largely discounting the teachings and experiences of the home, the school, the church, and the street, Wertham says the “most exciting” influence on children is the crime comic book. “It arouses their interest, their mental participation, their passions and their sympathies, but almost entirely in the wrong direction.”
In the world of Wertham’s case studies, comic books were easily available in vast quantity. Children read them during most of their spare time—two or three hours a day. And they read little else and were influenced by little else. Thus, reading comics resulted in distorting a child’s ethical perceptions, his character development, his emotional and social maturation, and his cultural appreciation.
“Children seek a figure to emulate and follow,” Wertham writes. “Crime comic books undermine this necessary ingredient of ethical development (by playing up) the good times had by those who do the wrong thing. Those who at the tail end of stories mete out punishment use the same violence and the same lingo as those whom they punish. Since everybody is selfish and force and violence are depicted as the most successful methods,” children are led to accept such behavior as normal. And this rationalization in turn leads them to think that it is permissible to indulge their own most primitive (and anti-social) impulses.
“In this soil, children indulge in the stock fantasies supplied by the industry: murder, torture, burglary, threats, arson, and rape. Into that area of the child’s mind where right and wrong is evaluated, children incorporate such false standards that an ethical confusion results for which they are not to blame. They become emotionally handicapped and culturally underprivileged.” In addition, Wertham goes on, “comic books are a factor in a host of negative behavior manifestations: dreams and daydreams; games; nightmares; general attitudes; reactions to women, to teachers, to younger children; and so on.” He finds attitudes of “arrogance and bravado sometimes combined with a tendency to cruelty or to deceit and trickery” that are “caused, stimulated, encouraged, or rationalized by comic book reading.”
The attitude “most frequently engendered by crime comics is an attitude of brutality” sometimes combined with “sadism, with sado-masochistic tendencies, with cruelty, with sex, with hostility and aggressiveness.”
But “the most subtle and pervading effect of crime comics on children can be summarized in a single phrase: moral disarmament. I have studied this in children who do not commit overt acts of delinquency, who do not show any of the more conspicuous symptoms of emotional disorder and who may not have difficulty in school. The more subtle this influence is, the more detrimental it may be. It is an influence on character, on attitude, on the higher functions of social responsibility, on super-ego formation and on the intuitive feeling for right and wrong. To put it more concretely, it consists chiefly in a blunting of the finer feelings of conscience, of mercy, of sympathy for other people’s suffering and of respect for women as women and not merely as sex objects to be bandied about or as luxury prizes to be fought over. Crime comics are such highly flavored fare that they affect children’s taste for the finer influences of education, for art, for literature and for the decent and constructive relationships between human beings and especially between the sexes. The detrimental effect on character is if anything worse on girls than on boys. Their ego-ideal formation is interfered with by the fascination of the sadistic female comic book heroines.”
Racial Prejudice and Brute Force
Wertham’s case studies also revealed that children imbibe racial prejudice from comic books. The good guys are always tall, blond, and regular featured. “On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, ‘ape men,’ Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features.” About such minorities, children say: They are bad. They are vicious. They are criminals. They are dirty. You can’t trust them.
Even if crime comics do not cause such attitudes, they nourish them. “I have repeatedly found in my studies that this characterization of colored peoples as subhuman, in conjunction with depiction of forceful heroes as blond Nordic supermen, has made a deep—and I believe lasting—impression on young children. And amidst all the violence between slaves, apes and humans in these books are big pictures of lush girls, as nude as the Post Office permits. Even on an adult, the impression of sex plus violence is definite.”
Elsewhere, superheroes encourage the worship of strength and force. “The superman conceit gives boys and girls the feeling that ruthless go-getting based upon physical strength or the power of weapons or machines is the desirable way to behave.” Superheroes Wertham psychoanalyzes as “psychopathic deviates.”
The effects of reading the exploits of such superheroines as Wonder Woman are even worse. “She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”
Moreover, the impossible deeds of superheroes (defying the law of gravity, for instance) undermine a sound education.
Wertham supports his allegations throughout with specific examples from his file of case studies. In support of his contention that superhero comics nurture detrimental attitudes about strength and force, he produces this specimen: “Particularly dangerous is the superman-speed-fancy in girls who in turn influence boys. One young girl told me that she would only go out with boys who would not let other cars pass them on the road. That was the idea of the proper male behavior that she had got from comics.” To give Wertham the benefit of the doubt, we must assume that the girl, when questioned, was precise in identifying comics as the source of her attitude. That is the implication of Wertharn’s concluding remark. But she could have developed the notion in other contexts—in movie theaters, for example, where Saturday afternoon serials often depicted high-speed car chases and the like.
In many of Wertham’s examples, we must make an assumption. He connects an attitude or a behavior to comic book reading. We assume he does so because his patient did so— specifically. But Wertham isn’t precise in identifying the source of his conclusion. Did the patient say so or not? And Wertham’s imprecision leaves his assertion open to question: Is he reporting the results of an interview, or is he simply stating an opinion? In almost all cases (like the one I just sketched), the attitude or behavior that Wertham says is caused by comic book reading could, in fact, be caused by some other influence.
One circumstance, however, seemed to me when I wrote this in the mid-1980s to be inconvertible evidence of the influence of comics. [I’ve since changed my mind; see the Footnit below.] This involves the famous “injury to the eye motif”—the threat or actual infliction of injury to the eyes of a victim, male or female—which Wertham offers as “an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books.” Seduction of the Innocent carries one illustrative panel (from a story drawn by Jack Cole, but not a Plastic Man story) that depicts a woman (in close-up, eyes wide with terror) into whose eye some fiend is about to plunge an ice-pick.
This particularly gruesome detail, Wertham says, “has no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or for adults.” He conveniently forgets the blinding of Oedipus (a curious lapse of memory for a psychiatrist) and of Gloucester in “King Lear”—to name two literary instances that leap to mind—but I think the strength of his case is not substantially diminished by this absent-mindedness. [It is, however, by the Three Stooges.] The point is that the injury-to-the-eye motif is a peculiar, vivid and therefore easily identifiable narrative detail. And when Wertham finds this detail cropping up in children’s lives, he is fairly certain that it came into their lives via comic book reading.
Wertham began working with children in the 30s. In studying their dreams in those days, he says he found almost no injury-to-the-eye motifs—and those he did find occurred in disguised forms. By the 50s, however, this motif in dreams was no longer rare and no longer disguised. This circumstance seems to me reasonable evidence of comic book reading having some effect on the minds of young readers—on their subconscious, at least. [But not anymore.]
Wertham goes on to say that the injury-to-the-eye motif in comics produces two “brutalizing effects.” It causes “a blunting of general sensibility” as children perceive that this kind of thing is somehow permitted—and if it is, then so too are other acts of brutality. And it inspires direct imitation: children at play, Wertham reports, are increasingly apt to try to injure the eyes of other children.
FOOTNIT: Wertham cites several examples of eye-injuring action in comic books and, as above, finds no other source for what he deems wide-spread episodes of it among the youth of the day. Momentarily bowled over by the sweep of his formulation, I failed to see the gaping hole in his argument: before eye-injuries in comic books would have the pervasive effect on the behavior of children that Wertham alleges, I imagine that virtually every other comic book published would have to contain an instance of the injury-to-the-eye motif. Clearly, that never happened. While I was able, at the time, to remember Oedipus and Gloucester as possible “counterparts” outside the realm of four-color pulp, lately I’ve been reminded of much more likely sources than literary. One of the supposedly hilarious antics of one of the celebrated Three Stooges was to poke one of his cohorts in both eyes at once with a two-fingered fist. Wertham’s comic book readers would have been exposed to the Three Stooges: there were 200 Three Stooges shorts made between 1934 and 1958. An even more common source of the notion that injury to the eye is painful is everyone’s experience when a foreign object, the proverbial cinder, gets into the eye. It hurts. Finally, remember your mother’s caution whenever she saw you playing with a sharp object? Be careful with that stick or you’ll poke your eye out. With these examples before me, I no longer believe Wertham’s injury-to-the-eye motif is indisputable evidence of the evil influence of comic books on the young. And, yes—I should have thought of these before, in 1986.
As sources of inspiration for imitation, comic books exert their most insidious influence upon the young, according to Wertham. He cites a study by Sister Mary Clare, “a trained and experienced teacher” (but not a psychiatrist): “Children want to put into action what they have learned in their comics, thinking they can have the thrill that is theirs only vicariously as they read. Sometimes they set out to imitate the hero or heroine, sometimes it is the criminal type that appeals, and of course they are sure that they will not fail as the criminals did in the magazine story, for ‘getting caught’ is the only disgrace they recognize.”
For additional support, Wertham musters the work of a sociologist, Harold D. Eastman, who analyzed 500 comic books and studied several hundred high school students among three high schools and 35 fourth graders. While the scope of the study is scarcely broad enough to validate sweeping conclusions (the fourth graders, for instance, are doubtless all from the same neighborhood, and their environs may be as important in influencing them as their comic book reading), Wertham uses Eastman’s results to bolster the case against comics. “In experiments with the fourth-grade children,” Wertham notes, Eastman “found that over half of them wanted to play the part of the villain” in comics.
Wertham finds more convincing evidence for the influence of comics in a list of 12 cases of children who died or injured themselves imitating comic book actions. In one of the cases, “a fourteen-year-old boy was found hanging from a clothesline fastened over a hot-water heating pipe on the ceiling. Beside him was a comic book open to a page showing the hanging of a man.” Most of these cases involve hangings; but several children injured themselves by trying to fly like Superman.
Children’s games, says Wertham, now imitate comic book stories. Realistic games involving torture, “unknown fifteen years ago,” he says, “are now common among children. To indicate the blood which they see so often in crime comics, they use catchup or lipstick.”
Wertham allows that “violent games may be harmless enough, but only a hairline divides them from the acts of petty vandalism and destructiveness which have so increased in recent years.” (What he says may be true: “only a hairline divides...” They are separate acts. But notice how he implies a cause-and-effect relationship between two facts without actually saying one causes the other. Assuming for the nonce that he has successfully demonstrated a causal relationship between comic book reading and violent games, he pairs this “fact” with another—an increase in petty vandalism—implying that playing violent games leads directly to committing petty vandalism. Wertharn frequently employs this kind of rhetoric, and its sloppy logic that slyly indicts by association only weakens Wertham’s argument over-all by making him appear less that straight-forward in the presentation of his case.)
Conscious imitation is only the tip of the psychological iceberg. Children not only imitate what they see in comics, they subconsciously identify with comic book characters. “The child gets pleasure from poring over what a comic book figure does, is emotionally stirred and identifies himself with the figure that is active, successful, dominates a situation and satisfies an instinct, even though the child may only half understand what that instinct means. He looks for the same sensation again and becomes conditioned to identify himself with the same type that stimulates him to seek and satisfy the same pleasure again.
“In investigating the mechanism of identification in individual children with individual comic books, it became clear to me that comic books are conditioning children to identify themselves with the strong man, however evil he may be. The hero in crime comics is not the hero unless he acts like a criminal. And the criminal in comic books is not a criminal to the child because he acts like a hero. He lives like a hero until the very end, and even then he often dies like a hero, in a burst of gun-fire and violence.” Moreover, “since the heroes of crime comics invariably commit violent acts of one kind or another just as the criminals do, the child must identify himself with violent characters.”
Primers for Crime
And if young readers identify with criminal types and desire to imitate them, they are well on the road to a life of crime, Wertham claims. Comic books create not only the desire to be a criminal, they show how to become one. Stories that trace the exploits of crooks inevitably show how those crooks commit their crimes. Although such demonstrations may be offered quite innocently by comic book writers (that is, as integral narrative parts of the stories being told), they turn comic books into what Wertham calls “primers for crime.”
“If one were to set out to show children how to steal, rob, lie, cheat, assault and break into houses,” Wertham says, “no better method [than comic books] could be devised.”
Sometimes children “translate” comic book crimes into a minor key: “stealing from a candy store instead of breaking into a bank; stabbing and hurting a little girl with a sharp pen if a knife is not handy; beating and threatening younger children, following the Superman formula of winning by [superior] force.” But sometimes, Wertham claims, children do no translating: they simply do as their comic books instruct them. Comic books, he says, show in detail—in words with illustrative diagrams (the pictures)—how to snatch women’s purses, how to pick pockets, how to throw knives, and so on. They show how to rob banks and how to commit murder. And they show how to run an extortion racket.
Finally, to complete the lesson, there are the advertising pages in comic books. On these pages, one learns the sources for weapons: knives, pistols, and rifles for sale through the mail. And, says Wertham, these ads are used: once a New York district attorney linked “such arsenal advertisements” to actual weapons caches confiscated by the police from young offenders.
The case against comic books seems conclusive. “Taking into account every conceivable possibility, comic books present the details of how to commit crimes, how to conceal evidence, how to evade detection, how to hurt people. ... The cover of the comic book draws the child’s attention to a crime, the text describes one, the pictures show how it’s done and the advertisements provide the means to carry it out.”
But Wertham’s case so far is mere literary analysis: theoretical speculation based upon the content of the comic books. To complete his indictment, Wertham had to show a definite cause-and-effect relationship between reading comic books and committing crimes. He had to move out of the world of theory into the real world.
Comics Create Criminals
For the most part, Wertham’s labors to prove a causal relationship all involve a now-familiar maneuver: he links two sets of facts or circumstances as if associating them together establishes that one causes the other. It’s the old guilt-by-association ploy. But proximity is not proof.
He cites sociologist Eastman again: “Crime comic books were listed as first choice (reading matter) by more than 90 per cent of the inmates” of two institutions for juvenile delinquents. The implication is that reading comics made these inmates into juvenile delinquents. But it could also mean simply that criminals prefer to read about crime, and comic books are easy reading.
Again: “Our researches have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency. Many children read only a few comics, read them for only a short time, read the better type (to the extent that there is a better type) and do not become imbued with the whole crime comics atmosphere. Those children, on the other hand, who commit the more serious types of delinquency nowadays, read a lot of comic books, go in for the worst type of crime comics, read them for a long time, and live in thought in the crime comics world.”
In this paragraph of seemingly conclusive indictment, the opening reference to “our researches” and to “significant correlation” creates a scientific aura into which Wertham insinuates his damning juxtaposition of facts. He first admits disarmingly that some children who read comics do not become criminals. Then he couples his damning facts: (1) serious juvenile criminals (2) are constant comic book readers. The implication is that the second fact created the first. Maybe that’s true. But maybe, as in the previous example, young criminals prefer to read about crime. (And, being poorly educated, maybe they don’t enjoy reading prose text but prefer the picture storytelling of comic books.)
In one section of the book, Wertham lists and describes 22 cases of juvenile delinquency, most of which are acts of brutality rather than crimes against property. He introduces his list by reporting that “juvenile delinquency has increased about 20 per cent since I first spoke about crime comics in 1947.” (And after listing the 22 crimes, he notes that “up to the beginning of the comic book era there were hardly any serious crimes such as murder by children under twelve.”) His list, Wertham says, is a “random sample” of the sorts of things juvenile delinquents are up to. The acts described are undeniably gruesome. The implication, of course, is that they were all inspired by comic books. But in only two of the 22 cases can Wertham tie the brutalities of the juveniles to comic books: in one, the youths confessed that they were enacting a comic book plot; in the other, the young criminal when arrested was “surrounded by comic books.” In 17 of the remaining 20 cases, Wertham makes no reference to comics. But the other three include references like that made in this one:
“Four boys, two of them fourteen, one fifteen, one sixteen, carried out a comic book classic. They beat the 68-year-old proprietor of a little candy store with a hammer and while he was lying on the floor one of the fourteen-year-olds drove a knife into his head with such force that the hilt was snapped off.”
Brutality beyond reason. No question. But was it inspired by comic books? Wertham says only that it was “a comic book classic,” implying that similarity to a comic book plot is the same as a causal relationship.
The two other cases with which Wertham attempts to smear comic books involve an act of “comic book torture-by-fire” and another torture inflicted “in comic book fashion.” Again, guilt by implication, not evidence.
The other 17 cases are merely grisly reminders that man’s brutality to his fellow man is not an exclusively adult condition. Although they are only tangential to Wertham’s subject, including this catalogue adds a dimension of horror to the book. A purely rhetorical maneuver. At the conclusion of his list, Wertham opines that he could continue it “indefinitely. There is nothing in these juvenile delinquencies,” he goes on, “that is not described or told about in comic books. These are comic book plots.”
He is probably correct. But to say that “these are comic book plots” is not the same as to prove that the crimes were caused by reading comic books. He asserts a similarity, insinuating a causal relationship.
In this section of the book, Wertham stretches beyond indictment by association until he reaches unabashed name-calling. And in many of his examples elsewhere, he stoops to the same technique, often attaching as many sensational accusations as he can to his basic charge. Speaking of a collection of space comics, Wertham says “old fashioned mugging—in recent years so frequently practiced by juveniles in large cities—is a recurrent theme, despite the interplanetary trappings. Blood flows freely, bosoms are half-bared, girls’ buttocks are drawn with careful attention.”
In addition to implying that comics are responsible for a recent upsurge in muggings, Wertham invokes the demon of sexual stimulation (and what mother wants her son to be sexually stimulated?).
Turning to another inflamatory subject, teenage drug addiction, Wertham first asserts that there are heroin addicts “who are only twelve years old.” Then he goes on: “All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic book readers. In the lives of some of these children who are overwhelmed by temptation, the pattern is one of stealing, gangs, addiction, comic books, and violence. The parallel with crime comic stories is striking. ... Whatever factors come into play in the cases that we have studied, the conclusion is inescapable that crime comics do their part in the education of these children, in softening them up for the temptation of taking drugs and letting themselves be drawn into participation in the illegal drug traffic.”
First he juxtaposes two facts: (1) child addicts (2) who are inveterate comic book readers, implying, in his usual fashion, a causal relationship where none, in fact, has been established by anything he has said. That he finds the lives of juvenile addicts similar to the lives portrayed in crime comics is scarcely surprising: the comics set out to portray such lives. But Wertham is suggesting that young addicts have deliberately modeled their lives upon comic book stories instead of the reverse. Finally, he makes his most insidious charge—insidious because imprecise and therefore less likely to be proved or, significantly, disproved—that comics are “softening up” children for lives of crime and drug addiction. How is one to be “softened up” anyhow? Here, Wertham is simply being an alarmist, conjuring up bogeymen with unsubstantiated and unverifiable accusation.
Once he gets on the kick of hysterical accusation, Wertham pulls out all the stops: “When unscrupulous adults seduce and use children for sexual and criminal activities, they do not use little pornographic comics (8-pagers), but shower the child with the ordinary crime comic books. In this way, children have been softened up by adults for the numbers game, the protection racket, drug addiction, child prostitution (female and male); and girls have been softened up for crimes where they serve as decoys. A special way in which children are being used nowadays by adults is as ‘watchers.’ Adults who have sexual relations in a park engage children as young as seven to watch for policemen.”
The most remarkable thing about this passage is that Wertham stops short of invoking every perversion known to man as being inspired by comic book reading.
Despite these hysterical flights, Wertham returns to earth occasionally—sometimes as a model of reasoned restraint.
“There is no doubt that the impulse to commit a delinquent act is important. What counteracts the impulse, however, is equally important. In the children I have studied, I have endeavored to determine what perspective of life the child had and what it came from. Children, like adults, are impelled in different directions, good or bad. ... Crime comics are certainly not the only factor (in creating juvenile delinquency), nor in many cases are they even the most important one, but there can be no doubt that they are the most unnecessary and least excusable one. In many cases, in conjunction with other factors, they are the chief one.” But comics should not be ignored even if they are only one factor among many. Even if their influence “always takes place in the setting of other factors, it should be understood that the effect of a stimulus—any stimulus—on a child’s life is not so simple as the impact of one billiard ball against another. A child’s life, unlike a billiard ball, stores many memories and the game of life is not played on a smooth, green, level surface. To disregard the comic book factor is unfair to children, particularly in the light of the severe punishments they so often receive, after they have become delinquent. A little attention beforehand would do away with a lot of detention afterwards.”
Sex and Sadism in Comics
Criminality was not the only deviant behavior fostered by comics, Wertham claims. Children’s attitudes towards sex, women, and life in general were shaped by what they saw on those four-color pages.
Comics were certainly sexy in those days—assuming that crudely provocative drawings of women are sexy. There may well be more female flesh exposed more fully in today’s culture than in yesterday’s, but the comics of the pre-code era went the limit of their day in flaunting women’s primary sexual characteristics. Not in all comics, mind you—but in some. It was the age of the “sweater girl,” and the women in many comics all seemed to be vying for the title of champion sweater girl. Women may have played minor roles in these stories, but they were displayed prominently in the pictures. Backs arched and arms raised, they thrust their bosoms tantalizingly towards readers—provocative sexual decorations in panels where they often played no part in the action. Leg art was a big thing, and frequently whole page layouts were designed around full-figure drawings of leggy females. And Wertham notes that similar care and attention were lavished on buttocks.
Stimulating as such displays must have been to young male readers, Wertham’s principal objections to the portrayal of women and sex in comics arise from the story content. Apart from the few heroine roles accorded them, women played bit parts mostly—gun molls for gangsters, hangers-on for space cadets, damsels to be rescued. And in crime comics particularly, women were often brutally mistreated. Wertham notes the effect of all this upon readers with anecdotes like this one:
“A twelve-year-old sex delinquent told me, ‘In the comic books sometimes men threaten the girls. They beat them with their hands. They tie them around to a chair and then they beat them. When I read such a book I get sexually excited. They don’t get me sexually excited all the time, only when they tie them up.’ The difference between the surreptitious pornographic literature for adults and children’s comic books is this: in one it is a question of attracting perverts, in the other, of making them.”
Such episodes prompt Wertham to observe that “if a medical student had to write a paper for his psychopathology class on the varieties of sadistic fantasies and sadistic acts, he could cover the whole field by studying just what is in our children’s comics ... typically full of blood, violence, and nudity.”
In short, comics nurture sexual sadism.
To illustrate the effect on young readers, Wertham refers to such things as children’s spontaneous drawings. “In one such drawing, a girl is tied nude to a post. A handkerchief is stuffed into her mouth. On the floor are her discarded panties. In front of her is a boy heating some torture instruments over a fire. On his chest is the S of the superman.” He finds the influence of comics in interviews, too. “Several young men who gloated over these sadistic comics stories as adolescents have told me that during sexual relations they have to rely on the fantasy that the girl is bound and tied down in one way or another.” A variety of sexual hang-ups are appealed to in comics, Wertham says. “In Western comic books, the erotic spanking of a girl by a man is frankly featured. Beatings with a sexual connotation occur in many comic books.”
Comics also appeal to fetishes—such aberrations as fascination with “high heel” pictures (of leggy women in high heeled shoes) and bondage: “There are men who have a desire to see undressed girls tied to posts or with their hands bound behind their backs or above their heads, or confined in chains. Such deviations of psycho-sexual development usually have their origin in some early chance experience either seen, heard or read. American children are given every opportunity to develop these psychopathic tendencies” through the plots and pictures of comic books. The implication of the last sentence is, of course, that children will take advantage of these opportunities and will develop psychopathic tendencies as an automatic result of reading comics.
But Wertham’s catalogue does not end with fetishes. “Comic books create sex fears of all kinds. In girls the identification of sex with violence and torture may cause fear of sex, fear of men, and actual frigidity. A Western with a picture of Tom Mix on the cover has in one story no less than 16 consecutive pictures of a girl tied up with ropes, her hands of course tied behind her back! She is shown in all kinds of poses, each more sexually suggestive than the other, and her facial expression shows that she seems to enjoy this treatment. Psychiatrically speaking, this is nothing but the masturbation fantasy of a sadist, and it has a corresponding effect on boys. For girls, and those boys who identify themselves with the girl, it may become the starting point for masochistic fantasies.” In that last sly sentence, “may” is not the same as “will” except, perhaps, in Wertham’s rhetorical intention.
In one of his most curious maneuvers, Wertham prints a panel from a comic book that shows in the foreground a man (probably a pirate) with a red scarf around his neck, his naked shoulder taking the prominent position in the drawing. By carefully cropping the picture to focus just on the shoulder and the lines that define and model its muscles, Wertham reveals that the shoulder is really a drawing of a woman’s naked crotch. This artful dodge, Wertham claims, is frequently practiced in drawing comics. (Think of the vast amounts of time the cartoonist must spend constructing such hidden pictures!) The pictures, “looked at in a certain way,” reveal “crude sexual details.” “This is so clear that it can induce the immature reader to look for such things and stir him up sexually,” Wertham intones.
This example is, I submit, a better measure of the temperature of Wertham’s fevered imagination than it is an indication of the comic book industry’s intention to corrupt the morals of the young. But when he turns to plot analysis instead of art criticism, Wertham makes better sense. “Love comics do harm in the sphere of taste, esthetics, ethics, and human relations. The plots are stereotyped, banal, cheap. Whereas in crime comics the situation is boy meets girl, boy beats girl; in love comics it is boy meets girl, boy cheats girl—or vice versa.”
Sex and Crime
Wertham finds “a special kind of cruelty mixing crimes against property and sexual exploits which I have hardly ever encountered in juvenile cases before the comic book era. Nowadays,” he says, “it is not at all uncommon.” He relates an incident involving a boy from a well-to-do family who was referred to him for psychotherapy. “During treatment he told me once that he and three other boys, fifteen and sixteen years old, used to go to a candy store in the neighborhood where they ate ice-cream cones, bought comic books, and talked big.” One evening, the boys picked up a young prostitute, took her to the home of one of the boys whose parents were away, and had intercourse with her. En route to returning her to where they’d picked her up, they stopped the car, beat the girl “unmercifully,” robbed her of all her money, and left her at a subway station. “This is comic book stuff,” Wertham concludes—once again labeling an example without supplying any evidence (except eating ice cream and reading comics) to support the allegation. But the clear implication is that the boys got their ideas from comic books (not ice cream cones).
In another instance, he tells a story about “Annie, aged ten,” who “engaged in sex play with men for which she received money.” This child prostitute, Wertham says, read about twenty comic books a day, “absorbing fantasies of violence and sex.” Although he doesn’t say Annie turned to prostitution because she read about it in comics, he insinuates vigorously that such was the case.
Wertham is masterful in limning seedy scenes in which he juxtaposes comic book reading and shady sex. “There are quite a number of obscure stores where children congregate, often in back rooms, to read and buy secondhand comic books. The proprietors usually permit the children to spend a lot of time in their establishments and to pore over the comic books. In some parts of cities, men hang around these stores which sometimes are foci of childhood prostitution. Evidently comic books prepare the little girls well.”
The scene oozes innuendo, playing to parents’ fears about their “little girls.” Each sentence (except the last), viewed as a statement of discrete fact, is probably true. In combination, however, they slyly suggest something else without overtly asserting it: reading secondhand comic books in the back rooms of obscure stores leads to childhood prostitution. Wertham could doubtless establish the factual truth of each of the individual sentences. But it is questionable that he could prove the truth of the implication he achieves by combining those facts.
In fanning the flames of parental alarms about sex, whether “normal” or perverted, Wertham finally gets to homosexuality. “Many pre-adolescent boys pass through a phase of disdain for girls. Some comic books tend to fix that attitude and instill the idea that girls are good only for being banged around or used as decoys. A homoerotic attitude is also suggested by the presentation of masculine, bad, witchlike or violent women. In such comics, women are depicted in a definitely anti-erotic light, while the young male heroes have pronounced erotic overtones. The muscular male supertype, whose primary sex characteristics are usually well emphasized, is in the setting of certain stories the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation.”
I can’t recall ever seeing male genitals “well emphasized” in comics; but leave that as it may be. After comics have turned young boys off of women as sex objects, they present role models like Batman and Robin, whose stories, Wertham says, are “psychologically homosexual.” Batman and Robin live together and work together, constantly saving each other from attacks by their enemies. The homoerotic overtones are a prelude to homosexuality, Wertham implies. And “the feeling is conveyed that we men must stick together.”
Noting Robin’s bare-legged uniform, Wertham says that Robin is “devoted to nothing on earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne,” and he finishes by observing that Robin “often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.” Discreetly? Given the pose, it’s more likely to be overtly than discreetly. And the “genital region” is the crotch, the presence of which it is impossible to omit and still draw human anatomy. But “crotch” is not as inflammatory a sex word as “genital.” And Wertham is out to inflame his readers, to stir them if he can into a lynch mob fervor against comics.
Image of Women and of Life
The image of women and the picture of life in general that emerged from comic books was clearly distorted. About that there can be no quarrel. The same can be said about television today and about movies. The entertainment industry does not trade in ordinary events; it goes for the exotic and the exciting.
Looking at how women were portrayed in comics, Wertham asks, “What are the activities in comic books which women indulge on an equal footing with men?” And he answers: “They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl, there are Lesbian overtones. They are either superwomen flying through the air, scantily dressed or uniformed, outsmarting hostile natives, animals or wicked men, functioning like Wonder Woman in a fascistic-futurist setting, or they are molls or prizes to be pushed around and sadistically abused. In no other literature for children has the image of womanhood been so degraded.” And again: “The repeated visualization of women being treated violently by men can do nothing but instill an ambivalent emotional attitude in the child towards heterosexual contacts.”
Just as the portrait of women was a twisted one, so was the image of life in general distorted in comics. “In vain does one look in comic books for seeds of constructive work or of ordinary home life. I have never seen in any of the crime, superman, adventure, space, horror, etc., comic books a normal family sitting down at a meal. I have seen an elaborate, charming breakfast scene, but it was between Batman and his boy, complete with checkered tablecloth, milk, cereal, fruit juice, dressing-gown and newspaper.”
Elsewhere, Wertham quotes a letter from a mother who found love comics in “bad taste” but otherwise unobjectionable—“although they give a false picture of love and life.” And Wertham uses it to frame a potent question: “What more harm can be done a child than to give him a ‘false picture of love and life’?”
Our entertainments probably ought to do better. But they don’t. If they can’t make ordinary life entertaining, then at least they could aim at improving the quality of that life by inspiring us to the achievement of humane if not noble goals. And some entertainments do that. But few entertainments, if any, survive by presenting a true picture of life. A true understanding of life is acquired only by living it. Children whose parents provide a home with love and understanding and opportunity to grow arrive at a comprehension of life that enables them to turn away from “false pictures” because they know them to be false. And that sure knowledge is more fertile soil for growing human aspiration than any entertainment.
Huckstering in Comics
The major thrust of Wertham’s indictment of comic books draws upon their editorial content. Quotations from his book over the years have almost always reflected this part of his argument. For most comics fans, this is the heart of the matter, and for that reason, I’ve devoted the bulk of this review to presenting this facet of Wertham’s case. But his book does not stop with the stories and the characters: Wertham includes the advertising pages in his indictment, too.
From what I’ve already repeated from the book, it is doubtless clear that Wertham regarded the advertising pages as an insidiously logical supplement to the editorial content: the stories showed how to commit crimes, the ads sold the tools of the trade through mail-order warehouses. Not all ads sold weapons, but what they did sell was just as bad for children.
Generally speaking, comic book advertising played upon adolescent fears. Kids who worried about their complexions and bodies (strength, shape, weight, breast size) found ads in comics that promised to assuage such fears by curing pimples and building biceps and busts. Even if the cures worked (which, Wertham says, they didn’t), the psychological damage to children was done by making them self-conscious and ultra-sensitive about real or imagined deficiencies. “Some children get so worried about acne and the repeated failure of the costly comic book cures that they withdraw socially to such an extent that they look like—and have been diagnosed as—incipient schizophrenia,” Wertham says.
Body building ads for boys are “illustrated with photographs of supermuscular he-men (often with big genitals like some of the comic book heroes).” (Funny: there are those big genitals that I never saw again.) These ads, Wertham says, are really selling more than better bodies. “Boys with latent homosexual tendencies collect these pictures, cut them out and use them for sexual stimulation,” he writes. Budding interest in sex is appealed to in ads that sell telescopes, which Wertham says a “number of youths” told him they used to spy on women undressing.
But the most “stupendous” advertising effort in comic books, Wertham says, is devoted to the “childhood armament program.” “Every device known to advertising” is employed “to fascinate children with weapons. ... Glamorous advertisements in comics seduce more and more children into wanting, buying, and using them.”
Wrapping up his indictment of comic book advertising, Wertham writes: “Comic book stories teach violence, the advertisements provide the weapons. The stories instill a wish to be a superman, the advertisements promise to supply the means for becoming one. Comic book heroines have super figures; the comic book advertisements promise to develop them. The stories display the wounds; the advertisements supply the knives. The stories feature scantily clad girls; the advertisements outfit peeping Toms.”
Leaving no rock unturned in his effort to expose the maggots of social decay that are nurtured by comics, Wertham devotes an entire chapter to the contention that “comics are death on reading.” His effort here is inspired, I suspect, by his desire to counter the notion put forward by the comic book industry that reading comics actually improves a child’s reading ability—“a fantastic idea,” Wertham snorts.
Much of the chapter is about the importance of reading and about various kinds of reading problems, none of which Wertham is able to relate with scientific precision to comic book reading. The best he can do in this regard is to demonstrate that “severe reading disorders and chronic addiction to comic books are very often associated.” The implication is that inability to read is caused by comics. But one might very well explain the association of these two facts by supposing that children who couldn’t read turned to comic books for a kindred experience which they could have by “reading” the pictures.
That is exactly the difficulty, Wertham notes. Those who read just the pictures and not the words are deluded into thinking they can read, and they resist or ignore early training in real reading. “Picture reading” of comics also masks an inability to read and prevents the diagnosis of that inability. Masks it for whom? Not teachers, surely: it would take only a few minutes for even a mediocre teacher to see that a kid couldn’t read the textbook before him.
Comic books further interfere with acquiring good reading habits by doing “specific harm to the acquisition of fluent left-to-right eye movements, which is so indispensable for good reading,” Wertham says. The left-to-right reading habit cannot be acquired because comic book readers are accustomed to “reading irregular bits of printing here and there in balloons instead of complete lines from left to right.” Here, Wertham’s understanding of reading abilities is far too mechanistic for an act that is essentially cognitive.
Comic books are also full of bad spelling, and they discourage reading better literature because comic book readers fail to appreciate quality in literature. Finally, invoking the thematic chorus of his book, Wertham observes that bad readers are often delinquents.
This chapter is the least convincing in Wertham’s book. The long passages defining and discussing a variety of reading disorders (sprinkled with an assortment of paeans to the importance of reading for a good and successful life) camouflage the fact that he is unable to demonstrate a causal relationship between habitual comic book “perusal” and inability to read. He asserts that “not a single good psychological study based on scientific data can show that comic books may help children to read.” But he can’t find one that shows bad readers are created by comic books either.
Oddly, in quoting one youthful “picture reader,” Wertham verges on undercutting his argument. “I get the story by just looking at the pictures,” says the youth. “Once in a while, when a good part cones, I read what I can, but the words I don’t know, I just pass over. When it is a short story and it looks interesting—when it is bad and they shoot each other—and when they get the woman—then I try to read it.” Here a poor reader reveals that the pictures seduce him into trying to read the words. Not a bad accomplishment for a medium that Wertham claims is “death on reading.”
Reading specialists today, while they don’t claim that comics can teach reading, often use comic books as motivational devices. Poor readers are likely to enjoy reading comics, and once a taste for reading has been stimulated, it is less difficult to teach reading skills. Then when rudimentary skills begin to develop, teachers steer these readers into other reading matter of increasing difficulty and complexity. Comic books alone may not improve reading ability, but they’ve often egged poor readers on to improve.
The Rest of the Book
Not all of Seduction of the Innocent is devoted just to comic book analysis. I don’t intend to go into tedious detail in reviewing the chapters on tangential aspects of Wertham’s case, but to provide another toe-hold on the import of the book, the rest of its contents is worth noting briefly. In a chapter on “The Experts for the Defense” of comic books, Wertham points out that many of the psychiatrists who defended comic books as beneficial were on the payrolls of comic book publishers. He successfully demonstrates that they sometimes contradict themselves: good comics, they say, exert a great infIuence; bad comics, none at all. How is that possible?
Wertham pooh-poohs the notion that youthful comic book readers who become juvenile delinquents are those that are already “predisposed” to anti-social behavior. “It amounts to no
more than saying that comic books are good and the children bad,” he says, “and I believe it is the other way around.” (For a discussion on this issue, click here to visit another Hindsight site where we examine precisely this question under the heading “If Good Comics Can Have Good Effects—.”)
That there are other social forces besides comic books at work in the creation of juvenile delinquency Wertham does not deny. But the influence of comic books, he says, is so easy to control that they, at least, should be removed as one of those factors contributing to the phenomenon.
Elsewhere in the book, Wertham relates various of his attempts to influence public opinion against comics. Here he is fairly convincing (if slightly paranoid) in showing how a faceless publishing industry is successful in squelching its opposition. He tells how the work of another opponent of comics was suppressed when the magazine that intended to publish it was pressured by its corporate owner, which also published comics. A representative of the comics industry also tried to get Wertham’s publisher (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston) to abandon its plans to publish Seduction of the Innocent, he says.
Baffled by the intricacies of comic book publishing, Wertham imputes to the industry a conspiratorial mysteriousness. An outstanding characteristic of the industry, he says, is the anonymity of the publishers. They achieve this facelessness by conscious design: a small company may publish several comic book titles but does so under various names. And new names are forever cropping up. Different reasons, he says, are given for this “concealment.” Noting the vagaries of tax laws and postal regulations that might be responsible, Wertham nonetheless suspects the anonymity is desired because the publishers are ashamed of the product.
In a chapter on “Makers of Comic Books,” Wertham attempts to paint the Mafia-like power of the comic book industry. Distributors who may not like distributing comic books are forced to distribute them: if they don’t, they won’t get any other magazines to distribute. They must market the bad in order to have a chance at marketing the good.
Writers and artists are told what to write and draw—that is, they must produce what sells or lose their livelihood. “Text and drawings of crime comics are concocted, not created. And there is no freedom of concoction.” Wertham interviewed one artist who agreed that crime comics were unsavory. But he did his work on assignment, and he did as he was told. “We want blood,” his employer told him. “They criticized my drawings because they were not sexy enough,” the artist said.
In a touching series of passages, Wertham speculates about circumventing the power of the comic book Mafia by getting the courts to enforce certain laws, which, he says, ought to be applied to comic books. “There are laws,” he says plaintively, “according to which it is a punishable offense to ‘contribute to the delinquency of a minor.’ Yet the text, pictures, and advertisements in crime comic books do that constantly” without even a suggestion that the publishers be punished. Similarly, laws against creating an “attractive nuisance” that could be invoked against comics publishers never have been. A kid may be sent to a reformatory for using a switchblade knife that he bought through a comic book ad, but the comic book publisher remains at large, Wertham says sadly.
In a chapter on television and other mass entertainment media, Wertham proves an early crusader against the boob tube. Comic books influence other media, he says: “There are radio comic books, tv comic books, and movie comic books. ... The study of comic books is indispensable for understanding what happens in less overt form in other media. If one has studied comic books, one recognizes sadism for sadism’s sake even if it is embellished with psychological thrills.” He attacks tv for the same reasons he attacks comics—and with many of the same techniques. “What all media need at present is a rollback of sadism. What they do to children is that they make them confuse violence with strength, sadism with sex, low necklines with femininity, racial prejudice with patriotism, and crime with heroism.”
When he turns phrases like those, Wertham can be remarkably persuasive.
The scientific foundation upon which Wertham builds his indictment of comic books seems a trifle shaky if judged by academic standards. The book presents no statistical analysis of his data, for instance—nothing that reports how many subjects he interviewed and what percentage of them became juvenile delinquents because of their comic book reading. There is no precise analysis of the population he studied: how many of them were juvenile delinquents, how many were not? None of Wertham’s conclusions were ever subjected to experimental validation. Although such an experiment would doubtless prove impossible to implement, his findings might acquire greater validity if he had studied a “normal” comic book reading population and compared the results to those that emerged from his study of children suffering various degrees of maladjustment. But such criticisms of his book, however much they must be considered in assessing the accuracy of Wertham’s allegations, ignore the fact that he wrote the book for a general reading public, not for the scientific community. A popular book would never reach its intended audience if it were loaded with the freight of scientific apparatus. Still, I’d expect a little more scientific reasoning than I find here.
The publisher’s note that begins Wertham’s book takes cognizance of its scientific shortcomings by stressing that the book represents an “expert opinion.” “This book, thoroughly documented by facts and cases, gives the substance of Dr. Wertham’s expert opinion on the effects that comic books have on the minds and behavior of children who come in contact with them.” Such opinions are not just ordinary opinions, we are assured: they are “based on facts, facts that can be demonstrated and proved.” While expert opinion is nothing to be sneezed at, an expert opinion is not the same thing as a demonstrable fact. It is still an opinion. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that two experts viewing the same set of facts might arrive at different “expert opinions” about the significance of those facts.
Wertham sees himself as a scientist notwithstanding, and he goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate the science he employed in assembling his case. He frequently dismisses contrary views by simply labeling them “unscientific” without further elaboration, an autocratic stance he feels safe in assuming once he has devoted an entire chapter to a description of the ways in which he collected his information. In this 38-page chapter (one tenth of the book), Wertham describes a variety of tests he used—Rorschach tests, thematic apperception tests, mosiac tests, intelligence and aptitude tests, reading tests and association tests. His subjects were tested and interviewed, and in some cases, he talked also to parents, siblings, teachers, social workers, school officials, and friends. Children participated in an assortment of self-expression exercises—drawing and story-telling, chiefly—and in these, as in almost everything else, Wertham found the malevolent influence of comic book reading.
Wertharn determined that many children spent a good deal of time reading comic books, and “nothing that occupies a child for several hours a day over a long period can be entirely without influence on him.” Tests revealed “underlying feelings of hostility and destructiveness” and “preoccupation with unhealthy sexual attitudes” and with violence in general—all, Wertham states, due to the influence of comic books. In storytelling games, children revealed the influence of comic books in the plots of their stories: violent stories, as the children testified when questioned, were inspired by comic books.
One of Wertham’s methods called for children (ages five to twelve) to make up plays for puppets. “It was interesting to see how the concrete inspiration for a plot, such as it was, came usually from a real event or from a movie, radio program or comic book. Typical crime comic book methods appeared in the plays: knife-throwing, throwing somebody out of the window, stomping on people, etc.” Wertham classified the productions into one of two groups —constructive or destructive. “The constructive plays were about parties, family reunions, lovers, dancing, painters in the house, etc. ... Destructive plays were about crime, robbers, spies. ... Comic book influences played a role only in the destructive plays. I have seen no constructive play inspired by a comic book. ... No good marionette show plots ever came from comic books, although the children read so many of them. The ‘inspiration’ from comic books was never artistic, literary, or even a good story. It was a precipitate of fragmentary scenes, violent, destructive and smart-alecky cynical. This was in marked contrast to the inspiration children derived from movies, of which they had seen a much smaller number.”
Given Wertham’s definition of a “destructive” play (and considering that he regarded virtually every comic book published as a crime comic book), it is not surprising that comic books played a role only in destructive plays. Indeed, given his definitions, it would be difficult to avoid that outcome. By this kind of logic, a child’s play that was actually inspired by a movie would be classified as “comic book inspired” if the movie were about crime. Presumably this sort of erroneous logic was prevented: Wertham says that after every play performance, the author was questioned by his audience. In the example Wertharn cites, the young author says the source of his ideas was a comic book. From this single instance, we are to assume that the sources for all the plots of “destructive” plays were similarly identified by their authors.
For a scientist, Wertham expects us to assume an awful lot. He gives us no statistics, no raw (or refined) numbers. Perhaps Wertham didn’t keep score. (If not, what of his pretension to scientific method?) And so we are left to ponder a most pertinent question: What percentage of the children’s productions were “destructive”? If only one of every ten plays were “destructive,” how malevolent is the influence of comics? Not very—given the quantity of comic books kids read. On the other hand, if seven of every ten were “destructive,” comic books could clearly be charged with shaping children’s minds to their detriment. But Wertham gives us no numbers.
He either can’t (because he has no score card) or he doesn’t (because numbers would weaken his case?). If he can’t, his science is surely questionable; if he doesn’t, his integrity is suspect. In the absence of any kind of statistical evidence, rhetoric alone makes the case against comics as the sole source of destructive ideas in children.
Sources of Wertham’s “Data”
Even if we assume Wertham’s absolute integrity (and there is nothing practical to be gained by supposing anything else), we should not therefore assume that his conclusions apply to all children, to all readers of comic books. The population he studied, after all, was a small one—and, in some respects, an unusual population.
Wertham’s standing as an expert whose opinion is worth consideration rests on his professional status and his experience. At the time this book appeared, he was the author of a half-dozen books, including a textbook, The Brain as an Organ, “used all over the world.” His clinical investigations had uncovered a new mental disease. He was not without status. For twenty years (1932-1952), Wertham served as a psychiatrist variously in the Department of Hospitals of New York City—directing mental hygiene clinics at Bellevue Hospital and at Queens Hospital Center. As I mentioned earlier, his opinions were part of the legal argument that destroyed the “separate but equal” doctrine in America’s schools. He was in charge of the Court of General Sessions Psychiatric Clinic. And he had appeared countless times in court to give expert opinions and was the psychiatric consultant for Kefauver’s committee investigating organized crime. Wertham’s opinions about the effects of comic books on children were derived mostly from his experiences in psychiatric clinics. In other words, most of the population he studied were those who came to a mental hygiene clinic—presumably for treatment or consultation on some behavior problem.
Wertham did not set out just to study the effects of comic books on children: he says he was led to the study when he discovered that comic books were often read in great quantities by the children he was seeing in his various clinical settings. Eventually, he assumed that there might be a connection between what they were reading and the problems they were suffering, and he occasionally looked for evidence of that connection. But for the most part, he says, the evidence that indicts comics emerged almost incidentally in the course of consultation with troubled children.
While this assertion protects Wertham against the charge that he deliberately went witch hunting after comics, it also reveals the source of most of his evidence—“children as they are seen in mental hygiene clinics: children who were referred by every variety of public and private child-care agency; who had come to the attention of the Police Bureau or the Children’s Courts; who were seen in the course of private practice or were confined for observation in psychiatric wards for adolescents, or were confined for physical diseases in pediatric wards, or seen in pediatric clinics.” Only those in the last two groups could be termed “normal” children.
But Wertham says “a large proportion of children were normal children who came to our attention for some social reason.” Unhappily, we have only Wertham’s word for that—and his word is, in this instance, ambiguous. How large is “a large proportion”? Fifty per cent? Thirty? And what were the “social reasons” that brought these “normal” children to a psychiatric clinic?
Although most of Wertham’s evidence was assembled through his clinical contact with children, he reports in some detail the results of one study that involved a significant number of non-clinical children. Ironically, the results tend to undermine Wertham’s contention that comics corrupt youth. Astonishingly, Wertham doesn’t seem aware of it.
The study in question took place with 355 children enrolled in a parochial school “where ethical teaching played a large part and all the children had undergone this uniform influence.” The children all came from better-than-average homes economically. School authorities assumed that these children read only the better comics, but Wertham found that they read the “bad” ones, too. (And he makes much of this fact: “school authorities had misjudged the comic book situation, and under their very eyes, many of these children were being seduced by the industry.”)
Wertham says the kids’ comments were revealing. Here they are. About Superman, a boy said, “It teaches ‘crime does not pay’—but it teaches crime.” Other comments: Superman is bad because they make him sort or a God. Superman is bad because if the children believe Superman they will believe almost anything. I think they (crime comics) are bad, but good to read. Some are dirty, some give you bad thoughts. Some comic books lead us into sin. The children’s remarks included such phrases as “impure dress,” “indecency,” “they are not modest,” and the like. “Many children,” Wertham writes, “have received a false concept of love, thinking of it as something dirty. They lump together love, murder, and robbery.”
From all of this, Wertham concludes that these children get from comic books “just the opposite of what they learn at school or at home.” But a person anxious about the corrupting influence of comics should derive some comfort from most of the children’s remarks. Most of them reveal that the ethical teaching of the school “took.” Most of the children recognized the so-called “bad” comics as something bad. If so, they are scarcely being “seduced” as Wertham claims. They are, in fact, doing precisely what their teachers and parents presumably hoped they would do under the circumstances: they are rejecting the immoral blandishments they encounter.
Astonishingly, Wertham fails to see this aspect of this study. Or ignores it. After all, if children properly grounded in moral concerns reject the corrupting influence of comic books, much of his case threatens to fall apart. Certainly there is less for the average parent to be alarmed about. And Wertham has written this entire tome in order to raise the alarm.
This study is the only one that Wertham reports on at length that does not involve patients in a psychiatric clinic or children brought to him for consultation. Given the parochial and economic background of these children, they are probably not “average.” But psychologically, they are closer to being “normal” than patients in Wertham’s clinic.
I don’t bring up the abnormal character of most of Wertham’s subjects in order to invalidate his conclusions. (Even if only maladjusted kids were influenced by comics, isn’t that enough reason to prevent the influence?) I mention it only to stress a point that is often overlooked in discussions of Wertham’s book. Wertham’s zeal in assembling the case against comics led him often to make statements which a hasty reader could interpret to mean that all children who read comics are potentially juvenile delinquents or sex perverts. And that interpretation is not entirely the result of the reader’s haste: as I’ve tried to show, Wertham’s logic is (to phrase it charitably) sometimes sloppily expressed, and his juxtaposition of two facts often implies a causal relationship where none, in fact, exists. Moreover, when he says crime comic books are primers for crime, teaching the young reader exactly what he must know to be a successful criminal, the implication is that all readers of comic books are being seduced into a life of crime. But when facing the question point blank, Wertham says that comic books are only “ccntributing factors” to maladjustment (remember?) and that “it is true that many children read comic books and few become delinquent.”
Not only does most of Wertham’s evidence come from case studies of maladjusted children, most of those children are residents of a large metropolitan area, New York City. And even in the 40s and 50s, the life of a child growing up on the streets of New York was different than the life of a kid in Mason City, Iowa.
To repeat, my point is that a reader of Wertharn’s book must resist the temptation to generalize too enthusiastically from Wertham’s particulars, to assume that what he says is true about maladjusted city kids who read comic books is true for all kids who read comic books. Unfortunately, as we have seen, Wertham encourages surrender to this temptation. Whether inadvertently or not, he often seems to generalize sweepingly himself when marshaling his examples. Indeed, the rhetorical weight of the sheer quantity of his examples and the potency of their implied significance (which he does little to deny or diminish) overshadow those few occasions on which he expressly mentions the legitimate limits of his conclusions. When he says juvenile delinquency increased once comics were published and devotes an entire chapter to the contention that comics contribute to delinquency, we are likely to forget that he also once spent a sentence saying not all who read them become delinquent.
What of It?
If Wertham had been right, juvenile delinquency would have disappeared from the face of the nation with the collapse of EC Comics. But juveniles continued to be delinquent. Ergo, Wertham was wrong. This pat assessment of’ Wertham’s work won’t wash. Although he labored strenuously to prove that reading comics caused many young readers to become delinquent, he never said comics were the only cause of this or any other maladjustment. “Of course there are other factors beside comic books. There always are other factors,” he writes. But the existence of a host of other factors should not justify our ignoring one of them that we’ve identified (particularly when it is one that is relatively easy to deal with). “When a child reacts to something, whether it be comic books or a dog that bites him, a good doctor takes up the whole situation and does not leave out any factor, including the possibility that either the comic books or the dog may be virulent.” A good doctor in treating a disease attends to anything that may contribute to that disease, even if he is able to isolate only one such contributing factor.
No, we can’t leave Wertham to twist slowly in the breeze just because juvenile delinquency continued to rage across the land even after comic books were toned down and cleaned up. The question about Seduction of the Innocent is not: Did Wertham prove that comics were the cause of juvenile delinquency? It is, rather: Did Wertham prove that comic books were one of the factors that directly contributed to juvenile delinquency or to any of the other misbehaviors and maladjustments he discusses? That’s all Wertham aimed to do; all he claimed to have done. Did he do it? Perhaps. A few times. In some special instances. But is that good enough? Was his proof good enough to justify the wholesale demolition of publishing enterprises left and right?
One way to establish proof is to look to the scientific method. And Wertham indeed glances in that direction. But the proofs of science should be verifiable through repetition. The proof emerges when a given phenomenon can be explained every time it occurs. The power of the proof stems from its ability to predict outcomes. Wertham was unable to construct this kind of proof. He was unable to prove that the reading of crime comics always produced criminal or aberrant behavior in young readers. He was unable even to identify with clinical precision the psychological make-up of youngsters who might be the most vulnerable to the temptations flaunted before them in crime comics.
Wertham is not much bothered by this sort of failure. “It proves nothing,” he says, that only a few of the many children who read comics become delinquent. “Innumerable poor people never commit a crime, and yet poverty is one of the causes of crime. Many children are exposed to the polio virus; few come down with the disease. Is that supposed to prove that polio virus is innocuous?”
But this is the rhetoric of the conjurer not the proof of the scientist.
For another kind of proof, we look to courts of law with their rules of evidence. One objective in a trial is to establish through evidence that a defendant is “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” It’s the prosecutor’s objective, and Wertham plays that role here. Would a jury bring in a verdict that comics were guilty as charged? Did Wertham prove that guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”?
Historically, judging from the results Wertham wrought, the jury found for the people, against the defendant. Wertham won. But what about a jury of his readers today? I, for one, have reasonable doubts. And those doubts will remain as long as so much of Wertham’s evidence admits of more than one interpretation. In too many of his examples of comic book readers gone wrong, the errant youths could have been led into the error of their ways by something other than comics. While Wertham presents some telling evidence (kids who hanged themselves enacting comic book stories, for instance), the argumentative force is overpowered by the sometimes not so faint odor that clings to the mud-slinger. Wertham so frequently attempts to indict by evidence of association rather than of causation that he raises doubts about his motives and his methods. If we doubt either, we must question too the authority of his evidence as a whole.
Considered as scientific document, Seduction of the Innocent is more insinuation than proof; as a trial brief, more innuendo than evidence. But if the book is considered as literary criticism, it gains modest stature.
Literary criticism need not prove anything: it needs only to be persuasive. It employs insight and analysis to unveil the thematic inner workings of literature. And Wertham’s book clearly performs this function with comic books. When he includes all superhero books and animal comics in the embrace of his indictment, he is engaging in hyperbolic allegation, true. But there were large numbers of comics “concocted” to a “blood and bra” formula, and the violence and sex than ran rampant through the pages of these books presented their readers with an “obscene” image of life.
Literary criticism is generally seen as a rather harmless academic exercise. We think of literature as providing only a pleasant interlude of escape from the rigors of reality, and the proofs of literary criticism cannot therefore be understood as impinging upon real life. In this context, to accuse comics of being among the causes of juvenile delinquency seems far fetched indeed. But many of those who labor in the fields of imaginative literary enterprise—its teachers, scholars, and critics particularly—believe that literature affects its readers. The imaginative engagement between reader and book results in the reader’s participating in the fictional lives that unfold on the pages before him. As those fictional folk live through their lives, they encounter good and bad fortune, they are tempted, and some are weak while others are strong. Vicariously, the reader has parallel experiences, making hard choices and fearfully facing the consequences with the characters in the book. This vicarious experience, while not of the same depth as real life experience, nonetheless tastes of it. And every reader who enters imaginatively into the life of a fictional character makes another acquaintance, and each such acquaintance increases his understanding and appreciation of the human condition. Literature may do many other things as well, but it does at least this.
Wertham’s book revealed that many comic books offered their readers imaginative experiences that were unwholesome. We are likely to reject the experiences of imaginative literature when our own experience of life shows them to be false—when the fictional people don’t seem real, when their aspirations do not parallel those we have or can feel a kinship with, when the circumstances of their lives are too exaggerated to seem authentic. Those who grew up in surroundings that approximated the myths of middle America probably rejected the image of life they encountered in some of Wertham’s comics. But what of those who walked the mean streets, virtually homeless, to whom the four-color fictions seemed real?
For them, reading comics may well have resulted in distorting ethical perceptions, character development, emotional and social maturation, and cultural appreciation. The damage may not have been great or permanent or incapacitating. It may not have resulted in destructive anti-social behavior. Maybe not many readers were affected at all. And maybe the effects, like adolescent acne, were outgrown. But if good literature has an effect on its readers, so must bad literature. And comic books have as much potential for good or bad as any other literature. Today if we tout the potential educational value of a comic book about drug abuse, we cannot ignore the potential effects of a comic book in which Wolverine slashes his opponents into ground beef. The two are not the same, true: the realities of the former are likely to be more recognizably akin to life experiences than the realities of the latter. But both have the potential of affecting their readers.
Wertham may not have proved—scientifically or judicially—a causal relationship between comic book reading and maladjusted kids. But if literature has any social or personal value beyond escapist entertainment (and I think it does), we are better off as a society without the kinds of comic books he described.
A New Wertham Today?
[“Today,” back when this piece first appeared, was 1986. In 1986, remember, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the Moral Majority was in ascendency. The times seemed ripe for a new round of Werthamism. And it was exactly the prospect of that possibility that prompted my examination of Wertham’s book. I returned to the proposition to conclude the article. Here, I recycle again that conclusion—adding a few notes to bring the argument up-to-date, almost. Then I’ve added a Footnote as a finale.]
Is there another Wertham, poised today just over the horizon to pounce on the industry for its unsealed comic books? Maybe. Would he be as successful today as Wertham was? I doubt it. In the first place, I like to think that the specious reasoning of Seduction of the Innocent would be recognized these days for what it is. But even if it weren’t, Wertham wouldn’t have today an audience quite as attentive as the one he enthralled in the fifties.
The attentiveness of Wertham’s audience in those days stemmed largely from its awareness of the vast quantities of comic books available to children. With temptation so apparent on every hand, Wertham easily conjured up a bogeyman. But today’s comics are not produced in similar quantities. Nor are they as widely available. Consequently, they are the constant reading matter of far, far fewer children. So there would be fewer parents alarmed by a Wertham today. I doubt that today’s Wertham could muster troops enough to his cause to bring about substantial change.
Moreover, today, in 1986, a newer bogeyman seems much more horrific to parents: television. And today’s mass media exposes us all to more sex and violence than yesterday’s. Perhaps, as Wertham long ago suggested, our sensibilities have been blunted by overexposure. Whatever the case, we are less likely to be aroused to censorious action by the sex and violence in today’s comics, which seem tame in comparison to tv and movies. And the sex and violence in television and movies, in case you hadn’t noticed, have scarcely been washed away by the much touted power of the “wave of conservative morality” that eddies back and forth across the country. The Moral Majority exists, I don’t deny that; but it has always existed—albeit without a name. Its present distinction lies in its seeming organization, an illusion buttressed by cable vision programs like “The 700 Club” that give voice to its opinions (but that reach only like-minded listeners). Despite the persuasiveness of this illusion, the Moral Majority’s failures as a social and political force are at least as notable as its successes. It may have helped elect Reagan in 1980 and 1984 [and George W. (“Whopper”) Bush in 2000 and 2004], but it hasn’t yet secured legislation banning abortion. And the porn movie industry, thanks to videos and the Internet, is alive and thriving. The Moral Majority is hardly an invincible monolithic juggernaut, grinding all opposition under its feet. No: judging from the evidence of the cultural accouterments on all sides of us, the Moral Majority is not even a simple majority.
What, then, about the rash of book burnings and shelvings and other kinds of
censorship that Jan Strnad catalogued in 1985 in The Comics Journal? And what about the “concerned citizens” whose police department shut down a comics shop because a comic book had a picture of a naked painter in it? Don’t such incidents speak of a growing censorious power? Not really. The usual targets of these efforts at censorship are libraries and schools, local public institutions that are peculiarly vulnerable to the pressures of their immediate constituencies upon whose votes they rely for funding. There may be more voices raised these days in protest against Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath, but that’s merely because those voices acquired the courage to speak by believing themselves members of a majority. (To that extent, the Moral Majority has been successful: although it is neither moral nor a majority, it has succeeded in convincing us that it is both. But it will take more than artful public relations, computerized mailing lists, and “The 700 Club” speaking largely to its own members to achieve a wholesale restructuring of society’s moral postures and practices.) As for shuttered comic book stores, they’re mostly in those few regions of the country where moral fervor burns brightest and education is the slightest. Menacing, yes; but not yet widespread.
The censorship statistics so helpfully assembled by the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development do not, I’ll bet, include many instances of any group successfully censoring private enterprise. Despite the self-proclaimed power of the Moral Majority, it has been remarkably unsuccessful in performing even such an eminently moral act as shutting the doors of the adult bookstores that provide sanctuary for much more scandalous material than comics, even television and movies, have to offer—except in certain benighted regions and neighborhoods of the country. In short, its power is regional, not national. Considered on a nationwide basis, the Moral Majority is largely a phantom social force, an impotent power. And even if it weren’t, comics, as I said before, are not ubiquitous enough in children’s lives these days to constitute a target worthy of the Moral Majority’s endeavors. Cat Yronwode was doubtless correct when she said that our mid-1980s fears of a new Wertham investigation and exposure are “childish” —even paranoid—deriving more from the days when “we got caught reading comics under the covers by flashlight” than from actual conditions in our present circumstance.
But comics are vulnerable. Their distribution system is, at best, fragile; their economic base, slender. Relying now  chiefly on direct sales distribution through specialty shops, comic books are more likely to be done in by self-righteous or fearful bookstore operators than by social upheaval. We must recall that Wertham’s power was rhetorical not evidentiary. And rhetoric needs only to approximate actual conditions. His proof resided in the persuasiveness of literary criticism not in science. The sheer quantity of his evidence, whether spurious or not, weighed heavily in the scales. The chorus of his theme by constant repetition dinned on the public ear, raising questions about smoke and fire.
When Don and Maggie Thompson, writing in the widely circulated Comics Buyer’s Guide, say “the threat of censorship of comics by a powerful outside force unfriendly to comics is greater right now than at any time since the early-to-mid fifties,” they add a loud voice to the chorus that today’s Wertham (if he exists) might be rehearsing just over the horizon. Each noise added to the chorus means the next noise must be louder in order to be heard. So do alarms raise alarms. And the resultant cacophony assaults the ear without addressing the mind.
At the helm of one of fandom’s major periodicals, the Thompsons can scarcely keep silent on the subject. But their utterances on this and other matters are sometimes infected with a kind of prissy sanctimoniousness that is not only cloying in the extreme but revealing. Sanctimony has a way of masking ignorance: it parades self-righteous virtue as if virtue alone were sufficient justification for an opinion—a pose that conveniently permits the poseur to ignore every fact and shard of reality that might contradict his opinion. “Threat of censorship” and “powerful outside force unfriendly to comics” indeed. C’mon. Name two. The Thompsons have spent too long in the alien worlds of science fiction.
Be that as it may, elsewhere they are probably right: comics might benefit from employing a rating system like that used with movies. But I don’t see a rating code as a device by which the medium shields itself against an attack by the spawn of Wertham. (A pointless exercise in itself: as I said, Wertham’s minions are all but impotent in today’s more permissive mileu.) Rather, I see coding as a consciousness-raising mechanism. If publishers undertook to code their books as an indication of the audiences for which they might be most appropriate, it might make the producers of comics more self-conscious about the content of their books and the potential they have for affecting their readers. The effect I have in mind is the effect that imaginative literature may have upon those readers who become engaged with it—the potential to broaden and deepen the individual’s human experience, creating understanding of and sympathy for his fellow creatures. Self-awareness may also breed a keener sense of responsibility. And many of those who now dabble in four-color literature might dabble less and create better if they took seriously the responsibility that producing imaginative literature entails upon its producers—the responsibility to engage the reader’s imagination and involve him in fictional experiences that bear enough upon his life to enrich it.
In short, a coding system may help to correct the notion that comics are inconsequential crap. Since that view is held by many who produce comics as well as by some who read them (not to mention the innocent bystanders, the public at large), it has the effect on comics of a self-fulfilling prophecy: thinking the product is crap results in producing a crappy product. This attitude acquires its philosophical nimbus in such slogans as, “Give the public what it wants” and “The best is what sells best.”
Wertham smelled that attitude in the comics of his time. He believed those comics were cultural crap. But he was convinced they weren’t inconsequential. If comics producers had his conviction, they would disprove his belief: they’d think better of their work, and we’d get better work as a result. So bring on the codes.
As it turned out, comics weren’t censored by a “powerful outside force” after all. Ratings codes and cover advisories came along. And comics got better and better. Almost as I’d predicted (although, after all the foregoing gaseousness, I’d hesitate to claim a cause-and-effect relationship here.) And then, as the better comics assumed the long form of graphic novels, the medium achieved a cultural status we could scarcely have envisioned for it in the 80s. But the Moral Majority and the Righteous Religious Right are still with us. In 1986 when I wrote this diatribe about Wertham, I felt that the wave of conservative morality had probably crested as a social and political force. Even the movement’s most obvious beneficiary in those days had seen fit to modify his more extreme views: the canny performer in the White House in the 1980s knew that there wasn’t a conservative majority that could re-elect him unaided by other demographics. But the moral passion of the Righteous Right has a peculiar resilience. Like most extremist social forces, it has a relatively short life, but it has it often. It crested again with the elevation of the Bush League in 2000, and now, as in the mid-1980s, we are seeing the wave being sucked under by the more powerful mainstream currents as the common man’s common sense re-asserts itself.
Still, the last six years or so have been a time of moral assertiveness somewhat like that of the early 1980s only a bit more strident and unforgiving. Back then, I could not have conceived that a small cabal of Bush League ideologues could so drastically alter our political and cultural life. But they have gone about it systematically, insinuating into every nook and cranny of the federal edifice bureaucrats of kindred moral dedication; it will take a generation to weed them out and return our government to a pragmatic rather than a programmatic agenda. And while that is going on, the Righteous Right will continue to flourish in certain besotted regions of the country where significant portions of the populace share a belief that they can make better humans of us all by imposing upon us their own private codes of conduct and conviction. We will still need the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to protect us all from those who regard themselves as our moral superiors.