Usually when I do a Chapter By Chapter book review it’s one that I physically own and a work of fiction. This next series of article are neither of these. However, it is a book that I am super curious about as a comic fan because despite not being a comic itself, it’s rather infamous for comic fans and creators.
See, the book has become a sort of boogeyman for the comic book community. It started the crusade against comics that led to the Comics Code, which I’ve already examined previously. It’s why Alfred, loyal butler to Batman, was killed off until the 60s show demanded to use him, and the Dynamic Duo given superhero girlfriends. Some fans will even tell you that it’s responsible for setting the comic industry back by years for daring to consider children as a reading audience. It’s the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to comics!
How many of you have read it?
I haven’t. It was published in the 1954. I wasn’t even born until 1973 and it wouldn’t be until sometime in the 90s that would start reading this kind of non-fiction. I don’t even think the book is in print anymore. But I hear from other people (who probably also haven’t read it) what terrible things it has done to comics. So when I found a readable online posting of the book I figured it was high-time I read it, using the Chapter By Chapter format to go over the book and really examine what was actually said. So for this installment of Chapter By Chapter, the next 14 weeks plus a bonus wrap-up of my thoughts on a book as a whole (that for once will be here instead of The Clutter Reports) will be taking a look at……
by Dr. Fredric Wertham
That’s right! While not a fiction book (whatever joke you want to make aside), this is a book that I hear about constantly but have never read. Just out of curiosity I went looking for a virtual posting of the book and found a few, so I decided that once I finished the previous book I would turn the Chapter By Chapter format to examining this book as I did the Comics Code that came from it. But first a little history from Wikipedia:
Seduction of the Innocent is a book by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, published in 1954, that warned that comic books were a negative form of popular literature and a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. The book was taken seriously at the time, and was a minor bestseller that created alarm in parents and galvanized them to campaign for censorship. At the same time, a U.S. Congressional inquiry was launched into the comic book industry. Subsequent to the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code Authority was voluntarily established by publishers to self-censor their titles.
I have no problem with the basic premise of the Comics Code, although as you may remember from my review it was questionably enforced, had some odd requirements, was actually used to shut down a rival publisher, and was used to force some comics off of newsstands back in the day. I don’t mind establishing rules for what’s proper in a kids comic since parents can’t police everything kids read, listen to, and watch even in those days, never mind today. That doesn’t mean what we ended up with was very good, but the idea of having a set of guidelines isn’t such a bad thing.
The problem is that every time there’s a new form of media, or a ne
w genre that is even suggested kids have an interest in the parent groups and crusaders go into action. Just look at Joe Lieberman and Jack Thompson and what they did with video games. (Although at least a rating system is an improvement over “get this symbol or be shut down”.) It happened with movies. It happened to TV shows. It probably happened with radio shows and that’s just been lost to time. Books have and still do have a different censorship battle but parents complain about them too–while demanding kids should read more than their telephone screen. I’m 43 and I still don’t understand adults.
Before we go further there are a few things I want you all to keep in mind as you read my ramblings.
- I am not a psychiatrist. I do not claim any knowledge of it today much less in the 1950s. I can only judge what he writes based on what I know about comics, kids, and adults from my life perspective.
- I have not come here to bury Wertham or to praise him. If something he writes makes sense to me I am going to say so. If something he says sounds rock stupid to me, I will say so. This is not intended as an attack piece but an honest assessment of the perspectives put in this book.
- I have not read a lot of comics from this time period. I have read some thanks to reprints, while others I only know of via reviews of and general articles about comics from the time period. So if I get something wrong remember that I didn’t start collecting comics until the late 1970s at the earliest and anything I have before that are back issues or gifts. I don’t mind being corrected provided you aren’t a jerk about it, but I’m not claiming to be an expert here either.
- I am not simply going to judge the opinions stated in this book based on the world view of 2017 AD. I don’t think this is a fair judgement of the views and facts expressed in this thesis. Of course I won’t ignore today’s views, but I will also compare his theories based on the moral, political, social, and spiritual beliefs of the 1950s. I figure that if he’s dumb by yesterday’s standards he’s dumb by today’s standards, but he is speaking to people of the 1950s and you may not like it but it matters to the overall and fair examination of this book. This includes the views on homosexuality that will naturally come up, especially since the whole “Batman and Robin gay” thing and the changes National Comics (later DC) made were because of this book. I am not necessarily defending or trashing the positions held back then because this isn’t a social/political site; it’s a storytelling critique site. But this is what people thought and I will judge as much on those views as I will modern views and call Wertham out based on both.
- Yes, I still use “BC” and”AD” and not “BCE” or “CE”. I’m old, so get off my lawn! And Pluto’s still a planet!
- Usually in Chapter By Chapter I ask any of you who have read ahead in the book to not spoil anything. I want to judge the chapter when I come to it, much like I do the daily comic review or as the intro says an episode of a TV show. to see how the story evolves, and I don’t want anyone following along either at the time or after the fact in the archives spoiled. In other words don’t discuss events in chapter 8 until we reach chapter 8 or beyond. For this book however, I don’t mind if you’ve read ahead and want to point out a contradiction or clarification from later than where I’m reading, although I will still be reading one chapter at a time. Just remember to say what chapter you’re talking about and what section, so that I can remember to keep an eye out for that and rebut or confirm what you said.
Now the back of the book is already giving me pause for concern, thinking that parents only want kids to read books with cute talking animals. These are people who grew up with action and adventure stories for kids, and even ones meant to scare kids straight. I swear there are parents who would look at the Brothers Grimm and think they were too violent even after being toned down as much as possible without losing the point. (Something like the wolf being axed open to rescue a swallowed-whole Red Riding Hood and Grandma. replaced with Granny in the closet and the woodcutter simply scaring the wolf off.) Among the comments made include comics being an “invitation to illiteracy” even though you need to read in order to follow the story. Heck, some comics may even lead kids to read the full version of Treasure Island either by adapting it when they’re too young to read a book that long or referencing it to the point that curiosity wins out.
Supposedly Wertham conducted seven years of research and had “wide experience” that contributed to this thesis on why comics are evil. So it looks from the start like this book is going to come off bad. Apparently parts of this book also appeared in the Ladies Home Journal, in an article entitled “What Parents Don’t Know About Comic Books”. According to the publisher’s note, after going on about Wertham’s accomplishments, his focus was on “crime comics”, basically Westerns, sci-fi, jungle comics (and there were a lot of Tarzan wanna-bes in comics), “adventure or the realm of supermen”, and horror comics. So I’m guessing Archie and romance comics are not going to be discussed? Wertham also takes time to thank the various clinics that helped in the research and (at least in the second printing) those who wrote to him without saying how many of them were praise and how many were scorn. There’s also a cute note: “Only the comic-book characters in this book are fictitious. All the others are real.” So I’m guessing there will be interviews or quotes from others.
Next week we begin our examination of the thoughts expressed by Fredrick Wertham, MD, as we dive into his first thoughts on the subject of comics. Join me, won’t you?
Next time: Such Trivia As Comic Books
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