Sunday, October 23, 2011

Number 1039

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:


BillyWitchDoctor said...

Speaking of slander; I read nothing here to suggest Wertham's basic observations were wrong.

Instead, I see the Penny Arcade approach: "I like and/or make money from (video games/rap/comics); so-and-so says they have a strong psychological influence. Well, I haven't personally gone nuts and killed nobody, so (twirls finger around temple) koooooo-koooooooo ha ha ha!! He just hates everything! ...And also too his arguments are really childish!"

Using an opponent's words against them isn't a "propagandist's tool;" ironically, using loaded words like "propagandist" is.

The ultimate argument against Wertham is that his actions denied the nation excessively lurid comics filled with images of women being strangled or raped and men having their eyes carved out. (There was no reasonable way to mandate more intelligent comics.)

Are we not truly blessed to live in an age when the comics industry (and the whole entertainment industry) has more than made up for that terrible loss with immortal wonders like Countdown: Arena and Cry for Justice and other great epics of rapegutstortureporn?

(Cross-reference: "Tipper Gore demanding printed lyrics made available to parents = Nazi Germany!! Why is society getting involved? Why can't parents just hover directly over each of their children every single moment for eighteen years?")

Kip W said...

Wertham had a bestseller, The Show of Violence, which was picked up by book clubs and got him money and notoriety. Then public attention moved on to other things. How could the Doc get back into the public eye, and bestseller lists, and the lecture circuit?

So he came up with his crusade. Well, he seems like he might have been a nice enough fellow — a friend of mine met him at a convention when Wertham was interested in fandom — but he had to shut off his higher brain functions to write some of the things he did.

On the other hand, the default assumption today that the ECs were the worst of the worst, as far as violence and gore, turns out to be misleading. There were plenty of would-be EC writers and artists who managed to get the more lurid aspects down pat, but without the wit and (surprisingly) restraing of the EC product. A friend showed me some once. I remember a story about aliens attacking, rounding people up and disintegrating them. The story follows a protagonist who tries to think of a way out for himself and a pretty girl he sees, and perhaps mankind. At the end of the story, she's vaporized, then he's vaporized, and the aliens sneer that the reader is next. And that's it. Not as well written, not as well drawn, and with no sense of irony or even the sort of reciprocal just-desserts that motivate much of EC's output. Just 'everybody dies and you're next.'

That wasn't as bad as some of the off-brand humor attempts, though. Brrrrrr.

Pappy said...

BillyWitchDoctor and Kip W., a couple of very thoughtful comments, and I appreciate your input.

I stand by what I wrote.

Kip W said...

If nothing here suggests Wertham's observations were wrong, go to the source. I have a copy of his book, and in the 70s, I was pretty much the only person to check the book out from the local library. It contains a lot of post hoc ergo propter hoc and hasty generalizations, and demands that society essentially take comics out of the hands of all (through a ratings system that would doom any distribution in the business) for the sake of some kids who, in the absence of comics, would likely have gone psycho over the pictures in the Sears catalog.

He may have done more harm than good, given studies that show that access to "harmful" materials is more likely to give potentially dangerous individuals a way to get their thrills through fantasy instead of inflicting themselves on others.

Pappy said...

Kip, I also checked the book out of the library, in 1959 when I read about it in an EC fanzine, EChhhh! SOTI instilled in me a curiosity for horror and crime comics, which is far from the intent of the book. I thought, man, if these books are so horrible I want them.

I don't doubt that some individuals reacted to horror and/or crime comics. But the same arguments, basically, were made by Anthony Comstock in his pre-Wertham book from 1883, Traps For the Young, showing the evils of dime novels! I bring up Dr. Wertham because he had such an impact with this book that reflects on what I'm showing in my blog.

Kip W said...

Somehow, I keep getting the impression that you think I'm saying Wertham was right. As I looked at it after publishing, I was wishing I'd said "a very few" instead of "some" when talking about the number of kids who may possibly have done bad things because of comic books.

Let me clarify. He was wrong. I used to draw comics about him, showing him as pretty much a Nazi (not knowing at the time that he was from Germany, and probably came here to escape). Ridicule, I thought, was the best revenge. At least it was one I was capable of.

He was the heir of Comstock and Anslinger and the guy who ruined Betty Boop, and the precursor of Nancy Reagan and Tipper Gore; part of the long tradition of busybodies who want to take something away from others and aggrandize themselves in the process.

Pappy said...

OK, Kip, I think we're on the same page here, just have different ways of saying it. I believe Wertham was a self-serving and publicity-seeking individual, and I had a very harsh opinion of his overall career based on his crusade against comics. He did have a background in dealing with the psychology of violence and violent offenders. As I've learned in the past few years he was also a social reformer. It hasn't softened my view of his anti-comics work, but it has made him more three-dimensional for me.

Maybe I'm going pretty far out on a limb here, but if you read Seduction Of the Innocent you start to see in the text where it appears many of the children he interviewed about their comics reading habits are African-American. This came from his work with the LaFargue Clinic in Harlem, the first clinic to deal with mental health issues of black people. I don't have time to go back through the text of SOTI for exact quotes, but if you read it you can see it. What I'm wondering--and this is where I'm going out on the limb--is if many of his conclusions about comic books came mainly from black children who were dealing with a whole lot of other issues in their daily lives.

Wertham was a publicity hound, but I think he saw it as being in a good cause. He really believed what he was saying about the effects of comic books on children, and it may have been true from his viewpoint, working with such disadvantaged children. But it wasn't true for most of the other readers of comic books, who came from across the spectrum of American society. If crime and horror comics had turned every reader into a criminal the country would have exploded with crime. Bill Gaines said he had to sell about 500,000 copies of a comic to make money, and I assume that would be true for all publishers. There were a lot of comic book readers in those days, if a comic sold anywhere near a half-million copies in a country that had a population of about 125,000,000. The greatest percentage of people who read and liked horror comics were obviously much better behaved than the troubled children Wertham was seeing and dealing with.

What he effectively did was kill a form of entertainment for hundreds of thousands of Americans who could read horror and crime comics without beating someone to death with a rock or hang themselves in the closet over an open comic book (as he mentioned in SOTI). I have watched would-be censors all my life. It hit closest to home in about 1958 when I went to a PTA meeting in school with my parents and a parent got up waving a copy of Mad, berating this form of "sick literature we're allowing our children to read." It was a bad night for me, because I was a Mad fan and my parents were already upset about it.

What I learned from the experience was when my son grew up I let him listen to the music he wanted to listen to, see the movies he wanted to see, and read what he wanted to read. I just shared it all with him. He's a dad with two young children of his own, graduated cum laude from university with a business degree, and unlike his old Pappy, he's outgrown all those youthful things. I wonder if my own parents had not listened to the alarmists and just left it alone whether I would have just lost interest, rather than form an obsession for the forbidden literature of horror, crime and Mad comic books!

Reading Seduction Of the Innocent as a youth turned me on to horror and crime comics, but as I've thought about it over the years it's also taught me that in a supposed "free society" as we purport to have, the pressure from some to censor is still strong, and should always be resisted.