Despite considering myself fairly well-read when it comes to comic books, I have never read the infamous Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham. I have seen originals priced in the hundreds of dollars range but, every once in a while, one publisher or another sets out to reprint it. I had never seen one of those reprints actually come to pass, though, a fact which I lamented recently here on this board. Captain Comics mentioned that he bought a copy that actually was reprinted in 2004, which sent me on a quest. (I remember reading about it, but never saw it solicited or published.) I soon found a copy at a price I was willing to pay.
I first learned about Seduction of the Innocent (and read excerpts) from Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes. Wertham was never mentioned throughout my academic career, including college. In fact, all I have ever heard about him was through "comic book" sources. I have always been interested in reading Seduction of the Innocent, but only as a curiosity, which is the only way I thought it would ever be published. I just finished reading the 2004 edition's 37-page introduction, but so far that's all I've read of it. I was quite surprised to see Wertham championed as "a distinguished psychiatrist of wide and deeply humane interests, a advocate of social reform, and a defender of civil liberties."
James Reibman, who wrote the introduction, does a good job of presenting both sides of the story, but the selected quotes of industry professionals are edited to highlight his particular thesis. (If I said one of the female writer/editors quoted is widely known for shooting off her mouth would you be able to guess to whom I was referring?) I know know more about Fredric Wertham now than I did previously, and I believe he thought he was doing the right thing. (Actually, I've always thought that.) Despite his intentions, I remain convinced that his research was faulty by today's standards and that ultimately he did much more harm than good.
I have always been told (and believed) that Wertham's "research" consisted of him interviewing "juvenile delinquents" and asking them if they read comics. Since almost all kids read comics in those days, Q.E.D. But here's something I gleaned just from skimming his test cases, of which there are 14. They are all boys between the ages of 9 and 12 who read far below their age level, but there's something else that jumps right out at me. I'm not going to defend what "I.Q." means in this context, but these boys had scores ranging from 54 through 74. they did not present themselves well. I wonder what his results would have yielded had he interviewed children with I.Q.s of 100 (which is average) or above who read comic books?
There is also a 16-page section of illustrations culled from contemporary comics which are clearly taken out of context. One of them has a caption which reads: "Comic books are supposed to be like fairy tales." Oh, yeah? Who says? I don't know how much more I'll have to say about this book once I actually start reading it, but I thought I'd start this thread just in case. Frederic Wertham may have been a great guy with the best of intentions, but it's going to be difficult to convince me that he didn't do more harm than good. I will try to read with an open mind.
IX. THE EXPERTS FOR THE DEFENSE - "The Scientific Promotion of Comic Books"
"The direct effect of comic books on children through their pictures, text and advertisements is reinforced by an indirect influence: endorsements and writings of experts. They affect the child through parents, teachers, doctors, clergymen, adults in general and public opinion."
I don't plan to spend a lot of time on this chapter. Wertham's message can be summed up in one simple phrase: "I am right and everyone else is wrong." He cherry-picks single sentences from various sources written by sundry experts which seem to contradict each other, then links them together. He does make at least one valid point, however: many of the experts are in the employ of the companies which publish their findings.
"When does he get around to mentioning the famous Wonder Woman bondage?"
He mentions Wonder Woman again in chapter nine, but still not the bondage (at least not directly).
"As the the 'advanced femininity,' what are the activities in comic books which women 'indulge in on equal footing with men'? 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...
"The prototype of the super-she with 'advanced femininity' is Wonder Woman, also endorsed by this same expert. Wonder Woman is not the natural daughter of a natural mother, nor was she born like Athena from the head of Zeus. She was concocted on a sales formula. Her originator, a psychologist retained by the industry, has described it: 'Who wants to be a girl? And that's the point. Not even girls want to be girls... The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman... Give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves.' Neither folklore nor normal sexuality, not books for children, come about this way. If it were possible to translate a cardboard figure like Wonder Woman into life, every normal-minded young man would know there is something wrong with her."
Jeff of Earth-J said:
He does make at least one valid point, however: many of the experts are in the employ of the companies which publish their findings.
“My experts (in this case “Me”) are better than your experts. And if they're not testifying for free they are not to be believed. Saw this a lot on Law & Order.
Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones...
In Wertham’s mind children are only adopted for sexual exploitation.
X. THE UPAS TREE - "Making and Makers of Comic Books"
"Crime comic books are showered upon us in abundance. What is the tree on which this fruit grows? After the most careful study of many years I have come to the conclusion that it is not a tree which only occasionally bears poisonous fruit, but one whose very sap is poisonous."
In this chapter, Wertham interviews dozens of comic book writers, artists and newsstand vendors. However, they are all so desperately afraid of being black-balled, he does not use any of their names. He does not blame any of the writers artists or vendors; they are victims of the system who are forced into the comic book field in order to make a living. Those he quotes he does not name, and those he names he has not interviewed.
He points to a negative review of a Micky Spillane Mike Hammer novel then questions the hypocrisy of criticizing an novel aimed at adults which sold some 20 million copies while ignoring the comic books he write which reached an audience of hundreds of millions of children. He quotes Nancy's Ernie Bushmiller (from a speech to a woman's club): "I wish you would differentiate between newspaper comics and the comic books. Most newspaper comics are wholesome, but a large percentage of the comic books are cheap junk and just turned out for a quick sale." I find it ironic that he criticized the "experts for the defense" for contradicting themselves in the previous chapter given the following remarkable assessment.
"If I were asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children during the last decade I would know no better formula than to say that they were conquered by Superman. And if I were further asked what is the real moral of the superman story, I would know no better answer than the fate of the creator of Superman himself.
"John Kobler has written one of his magazine articles about the rise of Superman. It has a photograph of Jerry Siegal, inventor of superman, lying on an oversized, luxuriously accoutred bed with silken covers, in a room adorned with draperies. Here indeed is success." A couple of paragraphs later, Wertham says, "How did the Superman formula work for his creator? The success formula he developed did not work for him. Superman flies high in comic books and on TV; but his creator has long since been left behind."
Wertham also mentioned that comic book artists were well-paid: $10 a page.
"[An anonymous artist interviewed by Wertham] added that after these drawing were used in crime-comic books they were printed and catalogued according to sex and action and then sold to private customers who had strange erotic desires, for very personal reasons. Some wanted men, some wanted women, some wanted thighs, etc. All this was taken from drawings for comic books for children!"
Wertham on Himself: "I have sometimes indulged in the fantasy that I am at the geate of Heaven. St. Peter questions me about what god I have done on earth. I reply proudly that I have read and analyzed thousands of comic books--a horrible task and really a labor of love. 'That counts for nothing,' says St. Peter. 'Millions of children read these comic books.' 'Well,' I reply, 'I have also read all the articles and speeches and press releases by the experts for the defense.' 'Okay,' says St. Peter. 'Come in! You deserve it.'"
Frankly, I'm glad that you're reading this book. Otherwise, I might've been tempted to try to find a copy.
The Baron said:
Frankly, I'm glad that you're reading this book. Otherwise, I might've been tempted to try to find a copy.
This. I actually have a copy, but reading it felt more like a chore than anything I'd enjoy or learn anything new from.
XI. MURDER IN DAWSON CREEK - "The Comic Books Abroad"
This chapter details opposition to American crime comics worldwide. Much of the coverage early on focuses on Canada and Europe, but by the end of the chapter he has covered (albeit briefly in some cases) Africa, Asia, Australia, Mexico and South America.
XII. THE DEVIL'S ALLIES - "The Struggle Against the Comic Book Industry"
In this lengthy chapter (54 pages), Wertham examines various anti-comic book court cases across the United States and their outcomes. Some reading this may find it hard to believe, but Wertham himself was staunchly anti-censorship. (He did not consider his crusade to be censorship.) "I do not advocate censorship, which is imposing the will of the few on the many, but just the opposite, a step to real democracy: the protection of the many against the few. That can only be done by law. Just as we have ordinances against the pollution of water, so now we need ordinances against the pollution of children's minds. I suggested a law that would forbid the display and sale of crime comic books to children under fifteen."
Here are some interesting statistics he cites: "It is estimated that at the present time (1954) the number of comic books fluctuates around 90 million a month. There are estimates which are lower; there are others of 100 million a month and more. According to The Wall Street Journal (1953) there were 840,000,000 units a year, 20 percent more than four years earlier." These stats illustrate a point I made last week: in 1954, what we know today as "The Golden Age of Comics" was still going strong.
Also last week we discussed a "funny animal" comic in which the main character, a duck, shoots atomic rays and threatens to kill rabbits, saying, "I'll kill the parents, I'm a hard guy and my heart is made of stone." Wertham cited that same scene a second time, lending credence to Richard Willis's question, "How hard did he have to look for a funny animal comic with this situation?" It is also a further example of how frustratingly vague he is with his sources. The ones I have been able to track down often display a misunderstanding of the situation on his part (interpreting an anti-racist stance as a racist one, for example). Having said that, though, he cites scenes involving Howdy Doody and Bugs Bunny (without providing the exact title or issue) that are definitely racist.
All the collections I have of old cartoons have a segment with someone saying, in effect, "Look, some of this stuff is racist as all get out, but we didn't feel right censoring it, so we thought we should warn you."
Jeff of Earth-J said:
. Having said that, though, he cites scenes involving Howdy Doody and Bugs Bunny (without providing the exact title or issue) that are definitely racist.
"All the collections I have of old cartoons have a segment with someone saying, in effect, 'Look, some of this stuff is racist as all get out, but we didn't feel right censoring it, so we thought we should warn you.'"
I feel the same way about such things in an historical context; the Howdy Doody and Bugs Bunny comics Wertham described were wrong then and are wrong now, but if those comics should be reprinted today, they shouldn't be edited. The collections of old Disney cartoons I have feature a disclaimer by Leonard Maltin which can be neither skipped, nor fast-forwarded over. Disclaimers are fine; I don't think ignoring the past is the answer. Here is a paragraph, in the midst of a section in which Wertham denounces educational comics, in which he sounds like one of those people today who denounce [what they think is] "critical race theory."
"Among other 'good' comic books are those that teach history. Typical is one called Your United States. It devotes one page to each state and, although on bad paper and as smudgily printed as the others, it really contains some instructive information. But practically every state, although it gets only one page, has a sense of violence; if one doesn't, that is made up for in other states where there are two or three such scenes. For instance, a man hanged from a tree by a 'vigilance committee'; Negroes in chains; corpses and dying men; a girl tied to a tree, her bound wrists above her head, her skirt blowing up in the wind and a coy facial expression of fright as in a sadist's dream; a girl about to be raped or massacred. Is that what you want your children to think is the history of 'Your United States'?"
Pointing out factual errors is one thing (which he does as well), but I'd really like to see some of these scenes in context.
As long as I'm being anachronistic, here's something I did just for grins. I happen to think assault rifles are bad for children. Try reading the following excerpt, mentally substituting "assault rifles" for "comic books."
"Since the lawyers seemed so opposed to new laws, I studied the various laws that existed already pertaining in any way to comic books. And that led me to what seemed to be a startling discovery: As it stands, the law is heavily weighted against children, and in favor of adults, including of course the comic-book industry. This may appear unlikely, but it is easily proved. I include in this statement existing laws that apply directly to the subject and others that apply more indirectly or whose application is more controversial, the whole judicial process with its appeals, the administration of the law and even the penological aspects. Of the fact itself there can be no doubt. The law as it applies, or might apply, to crime comic books leaves the child unprotected, while it punctiliously safeguards the material interests of the adult."
Speaking of specific examples (and misunderstanding context)... "I have never seen any good effects from comic books that condense classics. Classic books are a child's companion, often for life. Comic-book versions deprive the child of these companions. They do active harm by blocking one of the child's avenues to the finer things of life. There is a comic book which has on its cover two struggling men, one manacled with chains locked around hands an feet, the other with upraised fist and a reddened, bloody bandage around his head; onlookers: a man with a heavy iron mallet on one side and a man with a rifle and a bayonet on the other. The first eight pictures of this comic book show an evil-looking man with a big knife held like a dagger threatening a child who says: 'Oh, don't cut my throat, sir!' Am I correct in classifying this as a crime comic? Or should I accept it as what it pretends to be--Dickens' Great Expectations?
Hey, I've got that one! It's the Classics Illustrated version and, although it is pretty much as Wertham describes it, it's not nearly as gruesome as he makes it sound.
At one point he compares "little pornograhic comics" (so-called "Tijuana Bibles" although he doesn't use that term) favorably to crime comics! He reasons that the porno comics are aimed at adults and don't include violence or "perversions of sadism, masochism, flagellation, fetishism and pedophelia" (although they do include "orogenitalism (mouth eroticism), intercourse in unusual kinds of positions, including triolism (sex practices between three people) and anal eroticism." At least he has convinced me he's anti-censorship.
I'll end this post (although I've still got a good bit of the chapter yet to go) with the following: "The whole question of 'good' comic books can be summed up in this way: Crime comic books are poisonous plants. The 'good' comic books are at best weeds."
"There is a comic book which has on its cover two struggling men, one manacled with chains locked around hands an feet, the other with upraised fist and a reddened, bloody bandage around his head; onlookers: a man with a heavy iron mallet on one side and a man with a rifle and a bayonet on the other....... Am I correct in classifying this as a crime comic? Or should I accept it as what it pretends to be--Dickens' Great Expectations?"
He made the mistake of citing an actual example.
This paragraph from Wikipedia seems to describe the cover scene:
“That evening, Pip's sister is about to look for the missing pie when soldiers arrive and ask Joe to mend some shackles. Joe and Pip accompany them into the marshes to recapture the convict, who is fighting with another escaped convict. The first convict confesses to stealing food, clearing Pip.”
So, the two guys fighting are escaped convicts, hence the chains. The “reddened bloody bandage is no worse than the one seen of the often-seen “Spirit of ‘76” picture. Since he is standing with the little boy, Pip, I think the man with the mallet is there to repair the shackles on the convicts. The guy with the “rifle” (actually a single-shot “fusil”) is a uniformed soldier there to recapture the convicts.
I happen to think assault rifles are bad for children.
The fusil and the contemporary one- or two-shot pistol was what they had in mind when writing the Second Amendment.
Someone recently pointed out that the bullet, with powder and projectile combined, did not exist at that time.
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