Monday, April 07, 2014

Number 1555: “The Man With Nine Lives”

Syd Shores did this violent crime story for Wanted Comics #48 in 1952. Shores was a very facile and talented comic artist, one of the journeymen I admire who had been around since the earliest days of comics. The symbolic splash for “The Man With Nine Lives” is very striking. Like the best artists Shores didn’t stick with one genre; he could draw just about anything. I have examples of him doing horror and Western, also (see the links below my short article on Fredric Wertham and Alfred Hitchcock).


Wertham and Hitchcock

After Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., had done serious damage to the comic book industry in 1954 he didn’t just go away and retire. He was available to the legal system and reporters on the subject of media violence. For Redbook magazine Wertham interviewed director Alfred Hitchcock on his movie, Psycho. Psycho had been linked in the newspapers to at least a couple of murders where the killers were reported to have been “inspired” by the film.

From Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, published in 1990:

     “. . . Hitchcock agreed to talk with psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, an author and outspoken critic of media violence. The published account of their dialogue suggests that Hitchcock was not about to be pinned down. Wertham, after admitting that he had not seen Psycho [emphasis mine], tried several times to get the director to admit that the violence in the film was ‘A little stronger than you would have put in formerly — say ten or fifteen years ago?’ Hitchcock replied, ‘I have always felt that you should do the minimum on the screen to get the maximum audience effect. Sometimes it is necessary to go into some element of violence, but I only do it if I have a strong reason.’ Wertham persisted: ‘But wasn’t this violence stronger than your usual dose?’ Eventually, Hitchcock conceded, ‘It was.’ ‘More?’ asked Wertham. ‘More,’ Hitchcock replied. So it went for Wertham, and one suspects that is was, for him, much like dealing with a particularly defensive patient.
     “The psychiatrist may have hoped to elicit from Hitchcock at least an artistic, if not moral justification for that violence. Yet one is left with the clear impression that Hitchcock might justify the bloodletting in Psycho similarly to the way he had justified to François Truffault the risqué opening scenes. ‘Audiences,’ Hitchcock said, ‘are changing. I think that nowadays you have to show them the way they themselves behave most of the time.’ Thus, the filmmaker implied that he was a reporter, not a shaper, of human behavior.”

Here Wertham showed that he didn’t need to see what he was criticizing in order to criticize it. Isn’t this a lot like pressure groups that jump on pre-release publicity of books or movies in order to justify their calls for censorship or banishing — or even death to the author?

By calling in Wertham as their interrogator Redbook showed it had its own agenda. Wertham was famous for his views on violence in popular culture, comic books, television and movies, so the magazine was out to show their readers that Hitchcock was responsible for the evil wrought by his movies. With that in mind, why would Hitchcock agree to sit down with Wertham?

Hitchcock had a strongly intuitive knowledge of psychology. He was a master showman (think P.T. Barnum) and manipulator when it came to moving his audiences through the story. The psychology that Wertham used to come to his conclusions about violence being promoted by popular culture was also used by Hitchcock in the way he brought  audiences into theaters and juggled their fears and emotions. I would not doubt that Hitchcock felt such an interview, even with someone who had such well-known and outspoken views as Dr. Wertham’s, could be turned to Hitchcock’s advantage.

One thing both of them had in common was the ability to rise above the din and clamor of everyday life —  and the news cycle— and make themselves heard. The difference is that after Hitchcock died he became an even bigger cultural icon than he had been when he was alive, where Wertham sank into public obscurity, except amongst us Golden Age comics fans.

I have done several posts where Wertham fits in. To find them click on his name at the bottom of this post.


As promised, two more stories by Syd Shores. Just click on the thumbnails.


Daniel [] said...

This story is a pretty blatant example of contorted rationalization in the narration. The principal character goes straight, the mob seeks to kill him and do kill his wife, they ultimately succeed in killing him, we don't learn of any repercussions for those who killed him and we're told that this all proves that criminals will lose in the end 'cause, well, he broke some law.

Pappy said...

I can't argue with you, Dan'l. If there's a moral to this story it's a bit murky. Maybe Irwin should have just listened to his wife and not gambled any more.

Daniel [] said...

The last blip from Wertham that I spotted during his lifetime was a letter to TV Guide. They'd had some forgettable article about whether fictionalized violence on television promoted real violence. Wertham's letter complained that it were treated as unacceptable to yell “Smoke!”; that a fire had to be seen. (I wrote a response that TVG did not publish.)

Obscurity was perhaps the best for which he might reasonably have hoped by that point. I won't here belabor the problems with SotI as an attempt to present social science, but simply note that opinion-shapers had become more able to recognize those sorts of problems. Wertham would have been seen as quite out of his depth.

None-the-less, in the years since, members of the generations of fandom that once simply reviled him have since taken a more nuanced position, and come to acknowledge that there were comic books of the “Golden Age” that present a warped morality, and some that were otherwise unsuitable for much of their readership.

Brian Barnes said...

It's even murkier when you realize that this character -- per the story -- *always* won. Always! Except at the very end, after having a relatively long life of being rich, owning (winning) a casino, avoiding kill squads 10 times (!!!)

Why is this not a reason to gamble? I'm anti-gambling, but I'd gamble if I had this kind of luck, it seems foolish otherwise.

Did his wife get killed? Yes. Did he eventually get killed? Yes. But people get killed all day, from accidents, to murder, to old age, and none of them have his luck or his life.

Honestly, he seemed to have done everything logically. Heck, his wife wasn't even upset with him for standing him up!

Even more: He was HEROIC. He stood up to people with guns! He kicked out the mob! He testified (yes, eventually, but he still did.)

This one is a brain twister. Great splash, though!

Pappy said...

We've had a lot of distance -- now 60 years! -- since SOTI, and a lot of time to evaluate Wertham. He was not the first or only critic of comics; he became the focus with his Senate appearance and writings, and he is the one we remember.

The last time I ever heard of Wertham's effect was in the early '70s when a local head shop was busted and prosecuted for selling a Robert Crumb comic book. A professional acolyte of Dr. Wertham's was called to the stand by the prosecutor and gave testimony which sounded like it could have come straight out of SOTI.

That same comic, found obscene at the time, has been reprinted many times with the same objectionable material that got it busted. The arguments against the material just kind of ran out of gas, as did Dr. Wertham's reputation and influence.

Pappy said...

Brian, I like your thinking: "If I had his luck..." you'd gamble.

Now me,I could be the luckiest SOB on the planet and still not gamble. I know people who do and I don't criticize them, but for me personally, no.

For all of you in a long queue waiting to buy lottery tickets when the pot is up to hundreds of millions of dollars, good luck on that. But you won't find me in line with you.

Oh, also Brian, good observations on the story. Thanks.

Odyzeus! said...

Why do stories need morals? Morals are for children. I'm perfectly happy with stories that are stories. Didactic tales are inherently predictable and weak.

Pappy said...

Odyzeus!...the reason any crime comics story would have a moral is because of those vocal critics of crime comics who said the moral of the story (which the publishers insisted was CRIME DOES NOT PAY, or CRIME CAN NOT WIN, etc.) is only that if you're a dumb criminal you will get caught. So to the censorious types the "moral" is overshadowed by the actions of the criminal. The danger and excitement, which is exciting to a young reader, completely obliterates any social good from the story. Or so the claims went.

Dr. Wertham P. Fredrics said...

Dear Papsy,
I don't know who zis Dr. Fredric Wertham fellow is, but he sounds like a schmart cookie. Schtop reading der comics or you vill end up all seducted.


I enjoyed reading your commentary regarding Wertham and Hitchcock. At the crux of the issue is a dynamic between artistic liberty and moral subjectivism. Over the decades since Wertham's misguided crusade, standards of decency and limitations on what is deemed obscene or offensive have eroded. Practically anything goes now, and the typical audience is bombarded by media that continues to "push the envelope", consequently almost nothing shocks todays viewer. Therefore in retrospect, while his theory may have been fundamentally flawed, nevertheless Wertham's summation that society is affected by increasingly graphic sex and violence portrayed as entertainment in movies, TV, and comics, might have a basis for truth. I am afraid that our society as a whole is not unlike the experimental frog, placed in a pot of room temperature water, which is then boiled to death completely unaware, as the temperature is increased in progressively delicate increments.

Artistic freedom has triumphed, which is a valued victory, but like a water faucet without a filter, we are flooded with both good and bad, and distinguishing and separating the two is an almost pointless and never-ending exercise, to the point where we learn to drink the constantly contaminated fluid without thinking or hesitating anymore.

Pappy said...

Apocolyte, I can only go with my own feelings on sex and violence in media. As an adult I can handle it. Watching violence in action movies does not encourage me to commit violence, because I can put it in perspective of fantasy vs reality. That goes for sex, even graphic sex. But it doesn't mean I feel the same way for my grandchildren. At their tender ages I would like them screened from such material. As old-fashioned as Psycho may be to today's jaded audiences, I still wouldn't want my grandkids to see it. In his interview with Hitchcock, though, Wertham was implying the use of violence in Hitchcock's movie was bad for everyone, even adults.

As sheltered as my upbringing was, when I was able to read Wertham's Seduction Of the Innocent in 1959 at age 12, my whole thought process turned to the strong desire to see what was so bad, salacious, and titillating in those forbidden comics that needed to be kept from tender minds lest they be turned to immorality and criminality. Such crusades as the one Wertham waged against comics can easily be affected by the Law of Unintended Consequences. By clamping down on certain materials with censorship it creates a "need" for some to experience it. His crusade stirred up such powerful feelings in me here I am, over 50 years later, sharing lurid 60 to 75 year old comics with readers around the world. I'll bet with all his psychiatric training or in his wildest imaginings Wertham never conceived of such a thing.