Sunday, October 23, 2011
Fredric Wertham, George Washington and the Boy of Steel
I'm showing this Superboy story because it was mentioned in the infamous Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, M.D. When you've read the story I have a couple of pages from SOTI scanned with pertinent paragraphs highlighted. Then I have my own opinion of what Wertham said.
I continue to be fascinated by Wertham. He'd be an interesting person to study even if he hadn't gotten into the business of condemning comic books. Click on the Fredric Wertham link in the box below for more of what I've had to say about Dr. W.
"George Washington's Drum" is drawn by John Sikela and Ed Dobrotka, and is from Superboy #2, 1949:
What did Fredric Wertham have against Superboy?
It's safe to say that Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, never met a comic book he didn't hate. He found fault with Superman, who reminded him (a German emigré) of the Nazi superman. Wonder Woman was frightening to boys, Batman and Robin were a homosexual wish dream. The list goes on. Wertham slandered them all.
He also had ways of exciting emotions of his core audience, parents, teachers, even government officials, in his battle against comic books. In the two pages I've scanned from SOTI he used the universal propagandist's tool, turning his enemies' own words against them. He quoted an article from the Child Study Association of America, and quickly established it was written by a writer who worked for the publisher of Superman.* He ridiculed the writer's choice of comic books as being unrepresentative of comic books sold to kids. He gave the writer's words to number 10, Jungle Comics, a twist. As quoted by the article writer, "sometimes women are featured in these stories as captives or intended victims." At the bottom of his paragraph scoffing at this writer's claims he inserted this zinger, ". . .and she tries to make parents believe that the sexy wenches in the jungle books are just "fair maidens"!) The article writer didn't say anything about sexy wenches or fair maidens. Those are Wertham's words, poisoning the well with a negative buzzword ("wenches") and sarcasm ("fair maidens").
Wertham went into the argument against comics with his guns firing, and had the comic book publishers ducking for cover. The industry as a whole knew there were a lot of things in comic books that kids probably shouldn't see.** But kids also went to movies, listened to the radio, and presumably read other material that may have things they shouldn't hear or see. What kid hasn't? (By the way, it's called growing up.) By zeroing in on comics Wertham kept the hatred focused, even if he went askew at times with his arguments. To him the Superboy story focused on a "uniformed superman-youth" rather than "the father of American democracy [George Washington]." But of course it did. It's not a history lesson. It is entertainment, a fantasy like other fantasies of time travel. It used historical characters and events for its own purposes, which is what fiction does. This was his answer to the article writer's claim that "History is often a dull subject. . . .Through comics it could be made a fascinating study." He used the Superboy story as an example of kids getting the wrong historical information from comics. I think the kids who were old enough to read the story had heard of George Washington*** and knew that Superboy going back in time was just fantasy, an extension of the whole concept of a Superboy.
Wertham caps off this paragraph by throwing something in that blindsides the reader: "Similarly, it must be admitted that a lesson about anthropoid apes is less 'dull' when accompanied by a picture of the animal about to rape a girl." Where were we talking about apes raping girls? What does that have to do with George Washington or Superboy or American history? Well, nothing, but in Wertham's mind they must have had equal value: Superboy helping George Washington=ape raping girl. He threw everything into his argument: ridicule, slander, misquotes, non sequiturs and conclusions coming from...where? Of course, he was a prominent psychiatrist, a social reformer, the de facto leader of the anti-comics movement, and if he threw things into his argument that didn't make sense to you, well, maybe you just read too many damn comic books!
*The writer he refers to is presumably Josette Frank, a consultant on children's literature to the Child Study Association of America, as listed in comics published by DC.
**Some self-righteous publishers would say it was the "irresponsible publishers" who put out the disreputable comics. That usually meant EC and its imitators.
***Kids my age during the 1950s and '60s had access to wonderful books like the Landmark series of history books for young readers, when we could tear ourselves away from our historically inaccurate comic books, that is: