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.
I seem to have slipped into chapter five without conveying the chapter title or sub-title. Allow me to rectify that now.
V. RETOOLING FOR ILLITERACY - "The Influence of Comic Books on Reading"
I think what happened was I had planned to quote the first paragraph of every chapter as an introduction, but this one's didn't really lend itself to that and I slipped right past it. Here is a paragraph from later in the chapter which is fairly representative (and allow me to reiterate: I don't disagree with everything Wertham says; just his methodology and conclusions. Note everything I quote here is intended to ridicule.)
"Reading disorders, whatever their cause, are profoundly disturbing in a child's life. These children have to perform on a level far above their functioning capacity in an atmosphere of competition, and under the critique of teachers and parents they are exposed to an ever-present threat. They have to cope with something they do not understand. Almost with the precision of an experiment they are placed in a situation of ever-increasing frustration and disorientation. Going over the records of such children, I find noted over and over again: lack of self-esteem; no self-confidence in school; 'seems to lack interest in subjects he used to like'; estrangement from parents; shame; suspicion; hostility' feeling of inferiority; fear; truancy; running away from home; such characteristics as disruptive, rebellious, over-aggressive, destructive, discouraged; attitude of defeat; 'doubts his learning ability in any field.'"
Again, those are the kinds of things prospective teachers are taught at the college level to recognize and deal with, but Wetham goes on to present this almost textbook case of the axiom "correlation is not causation": "Over the years I have found a relatively high correlation between delinquency and reading disorders; that is to say, a disproportionate number of poor or non-readers become delinquent, and a disproportionate number of delinquents have pronounced reading disorders. Often such children are harmed by comic books in two ways. Comics reading reinforces the reading disorder, if it has not helped to cause it in the first place, and the child, frustrated by failure, is made mare liable to commit a defiant act. At the same time comic books suggest all kinds of specific defiant acts to commit."
In many of the cases he cites, his patients purport not to read the comics, anyway; they just look at the pictures. "Reading the comic book text is often difficult. For example, the reading material in the huge present crop of horror comics is hard to amke out even for the average adult reader. But all the emotional emphasis of comics is on the pictures, and that is where they do the most harm to reading. The discrepancy between the easy appeal of the pictures and the difficulty of reading the text is too great to encourage anyone to try to follow what the characters are supposed to be saying."
VI. DESIGN FOR DELINQUENCY - "The Contribution of Crime Comic Books to Juvenile Delinquency"
This chapter presents case after case after case of juveniles committing delinquent acts. The difference to today is that now the offenders are armed with assault rifles rather than zip-guns. Let's start with Wertham's definition of "juvenile delinquency" and go from there.
"Juvenile delinquency is not a thing in itself. It can be studied only in relation to all kinds of other child behavior. And it is a mass phenomenon which cannot be fully comprehended with methods of individual psychology alone. Children do not become delinquents; they commit delinquencies. The delinquency of a child is not a disease; it is a symptom, individually and socially. You cannot understand or remedy a social phenomenon like delinquency by redefining it simply as an individual emotional disorder."
Okay, that's fine. So far so good. At this point I am in agreement with him. Now let me read the rest of the chapter...
Like I said, chapter six is case after case after case of JD. Here is a representative one.
"Edith was a delinquent girl of fourteen. Over the years the family had contact with some twenty-five social agencies. It was a history of illness, vocational dislocation, disruption and financial difficulties. The girl, good-looking and anxious to get help, had serious aspirations to make something of her life.
"Surely in such a case one cannot disregard the social conditions, nor can one ascribe delinquency directly to them. One must search for the particular in the general, the individual in the social, and vice versa. There is no such thing as abstract frustration leading to abstract aggression.
"what goes on in the mind of such a girl? Where does the rationalization come from that parents permit her to act against her better impulses? Her ideal was Wonder Woman. Here was a morbid model in action. For years her reading had consisted of comic books. There was no question but that this girl lived under difficult social circumstances. But she was prevented from rising above them by the specific corruption of her character development by comic-book seduction. The woman in her had succumbed to Wonder Woman. By reading many comic books the decent but tempted child has the moral props taken out from under him. The antisocial suggestions from comic books reach children in their leisure time, when they are alone, when their defenses are down."
I mentioned earlier how each chapter begins with a quotation, but I haven't relayed any of them yet. The quotation for the next chapter is from Shakespeare:
Give me good proofs of what you have alleged;
'Tis not enough to say--in such a bush
There lies a thief.
If Wertham had used that quotation for this chapter, that would have been irony writ large.
I am currently about halfway through the book and Batman has been mentioned a grand total of once.
That is about to change.
Wertham would s*** his pants if he saw how dominant comic book movies are now,
He’d call them “crime movies.”
It was a history of illness, vocational dislocation, disruption and financial difficulties. The girl, good-looking and anxious to get help, had serious aspirations to make something of her life.
Who says “vocational dislocation” when they mean that the parent(s) lost a job?
Surely in such a case one cannot disregard the social conditions
But he chooses to do so.
What goes on in the mind of such a girl? Where does the rationalization come from that parents permit her to act against her better impulses?
He almost, by accident, said that her parents might have something to do with it. But no:
Her ideal was Wonder Woman. Here was a morbid model in action. …… The woman in her had succumbed to Wonder Woman.
How is Wonder Woman encouraging her to commit crimes?
VII. I WANT TO BE A SEX MANIAC - "Comic Books and the Psycho-Sexual Development of Children"
This chapter's title is taken from its first paragraph: "A small boy who had mad ample use of the reading and entertainment we provide so plentifully for children was once asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His instant reply was enthusiastic: 'I want to be a sex maniac!'" Wertham's scholarly approach aligns with my college instruction, and many of the same names/studies are mentioned: Kraft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, Freud, Stekel, Kinsey... but should we get right on to Batman?
On Batman: Those of you familiar with Feiffer's book will have already seen this section excerpted. I present it here in context. "In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship [adolescent-with-adult] is depicted to children before they can even read. Batman and Robin, the 'dynamic duo,' also known as the 'daring duo,' go into action in their special uniforms. They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. They lurk not only under every bed but also behind every star in the sky. Either Batman or his young boy friend or both are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something's wrong with Bruce. He hasn't been himself these past few days.' It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm. Like the girls in other stories, Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains and Batman has to give in or 'Robin gets killed.'"
On Robin: "Robin is a handsom ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident."
On Catwoman: In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and antifeminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick. For instance, Bruce and Dick go out one evening in dinner clothes, dressed exactly alike. The attractive girl makes up to Bruce while in successive pictures young Dick looks on smiling, sure of Bruce. Violence is not lacking in these stories. You are shown Batman and Robin standing in a room with a whole row of corpses on the floor."
Case Study: One "intelligent, educated young homosexual" provided exactly the response Wertham was looking for: "I found my liking, my sexual desires, in comic books. I think I put myself in the position of robin. I did want to have relations with Batman. The only suggestion of homosexuality may be that they seem to be so close to each other. I remember the first time I came across the page mentioning the 'secret bat cave.' The thought of Batman and Robin living together and possibly having sex relations came to my mind. You can almost connect yourself with people. I was put in the position of the rescued rahter than the rescuer. I felt I'd like to be loved by someone like Batman or Superman." Tracy is skeptical of the veracity of some of the interviews in this book, but I've seen the 1994 documentary Crumb in which the famous cartoonist confesses he once had a sexual attraction toward Bugs Bunny.
On Wonder Woman: "For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is anti-feminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely anti-masculine. Wonder Woman has her own female following. They are all continuously being threatened, captured, almost put to death. There is a great deal of mutual rescuing, the same type of rescue fantasies as in Batman. Her followers are th 'Holliday girls,' i.e. the holiday girls, the gay party girls, the gay girls. Wonder woman refers to them as 'my girls.' Their attitude about death and murder is a mixture of the callousness of crime comics with the coyness of sweet little girls. When one of the Holliday Girls is thought to have drowned through the machinations of male enemies, one of them says: 'Honest, I'd give the last piece of candy in the world to bring her back!' In a typical story, Wonder Woman is involved in adventures with another girl, a princess, who talks repeatedly about 'those wicked men.'"
If you wonder what Wertham would think of today's crop of super-hero movies, I wonder what he'd make of the comics offered during "Pride Month"!
I think you can certainly read a "homoerotic" subtext into those early Batman stories if you want to. I'm also reasonably certain that that was not what Kane/Robinson had in mind. As with many "texts", people find in them what they're looking for.
When I was a kid, what I saw was a wish dream of having a secret clubhouse and being rich. It was pretty much the same reason I liked “The Monkees.” They had a clubhouse where they could hang with their friends, they never had to go to school or work, and there were no parents. That, Mr. Wertham, is what kids see in Batman and Robin. You, however, saw something else. That’s not on the comics or the kids. That’s on you.
A small boy who had mad ample use of the reading and entertainment we provide so plentifully for children was once asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His instant reply was enthusiastic: 'I want to be a sex maniac!'"
Where would a small boy get this phrase? Not from Batman, even pre-Code.
They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred.
Flowers? Obviously homosexual. (Voice of Rorschach)
Does he imply a three-way with Alfred or did that only come up when they created Aunt Harriet?
Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something's wrong with Bruce. He hasn't been himself these past few days.' It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm.
If Robin was Bruce’s biological son, would Wertham still infer a sexual relationship? Probably.
Robin is a handsom ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.
“Ephebic” drove me to the dictionary. Have never seen this word in 74 years. I doubt that with his legs spread (the common impossible hero stance) you could see any suggestion of genitals.
Do Batman and Robin wear cod pieces or the modern equivalent? I certainly hope so.
The only suggestion of homosexuality may be that they seem to be so close to each other.
Even the young (presumably) adult homosexual doesn’t really see the overt sexual relationship that Wertham is so eager to see.
Tracy is skeptical of the veracity of some of the interviews in this book, but I've seen the 1994 documentary Crumb in which the famous cartoonist confesses he once had a sexual attraction toward Bugs Bunny.
Maybe he liked the Brooklyn accent. I suspect that Crumb, a jokester, was fibbing.
On Wonder Woman: There is a great deal of mutual rescuing, the same type of rescue fantasies as in Batman.
Doesn’t rescuing of kidnapped people occur in a lot of fiction, even his favored classical fiction?
When does he get around to mentioning the famous Wonder Woman bondage?
I wonder what he'd make of the comics offered during "Pride Month"!
Psychiatry at the time defined homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973. That was his training.
I may have mentioned this before, but watching movies from the 40s and 50s I've noticed a worshipful attitude towards psychiatrists and psychologists, like they could do no wrong. This is probably why his findings were given so much attention.
I'd never seen "ephebic" before, either, and I like to kid myself that I have a reaosnably extensive vocabulary.
“'Ephebic' drove me to the dictionary."
"I'd never seen 'ephebic' before, either"
Wertham previously said: "Just as ordinary crime comic books contribute to the fixation of violent and hostile patterns by suggesting definite form for their expression, so the Batman type of story helps to fixate homoerotic tendencies by suggesting the form of an adolescent-with-adult or Ganymede-Zeus type of love-relationship."
"When does he get around to mentioning the famous Wonder Woman bondage?"
Interestingly, he doesn't... not in this chapter, anyway. Maybe it's coming up, but I don't think so. If he doesn, you'll hear about it here first.
VIII. BUMPS AND BULGES - "Advertising in Comic Books"
"One is apt to forget that besides delinquent and emotionally disturbed children there are many children who are just plain unhappy. that is particularly true of adolescents. If you gain their confidence and give them a chance to talk to you under suitable circumstances you will find that one of their most frequent and serious worries has to do with the growth of their bodies."
This is the least objectionable chapter so far. The problems he describes still exist today, but they have moved from comic book advertisements to magazines and the internet. Those of us who read Golden Age comics mostly in archival collections are spared the original paid advertisements. This is where a company such as PS Artbooks, which reprints entire issues, warts (i.e., "advertisements" in this case) and all. Wertham spends 15+ pages relating ads for products, aimed at both boys and girls, purported to change the reader's body type in some way. Too thin, too fat, bad complexion, wrong breast size, etc... there is a product out there for you.
He spends about 3 1/2 pages discussing ads for guns: mostly BB guns, but .22s as well; two paragraphs on homemade weapons described in crime comics; approximately two pages on knives (including a 10-piece table-knife set); and a page on miscellaneous other ads. His conclusion: "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."