Normally, Chapter By Chapter is me reading a fictional book one chapter at a time to study each part of the story. In this special review series however we are looking at Seduction Of The Innocent, a non-fiction book as the writer, Dr. Fredric Wertham, tries to make the case that comics were a bad thing for kids in the 1950s. The book had a huge impact on the comic industry and fans. We will examine what he is saying not exclusively by today’s standards, but the time in which the book was made to see where Wertham was right, and where he was horribly wrong.
Introducing the Subject
“And I verily do suppose that in the braines and hertes of children, which be membres spirituall, whiles they be tender, and the little slippes of reason begynne in them to bud, ther may happe by evil custome some pestiferous dewe of vice to perse the sayde membres, and infecte and corrupt the soft and tender buddes.”
– Sir Thomas Eliot (1531)
Like the last book we looked at, there is an opening–then an image, now a quote, to set people up for what the chapter will discuss. In 1950s leaving something in the King’s English, which by the way is giving Firefox’s spellcheck a headache, wasn’t as pretentious as it comes off today. I think. I grew up a few decades later. And this chapter is the set up to a thesis on how comic books are warping kids’ minds. Don’t worry Fredric. One day comics will do everything they can to exclude children as much as possible until they remember then need the next generation or see that an indie creator that isn’t abandoning children is making money. Or someone rightfully complains that girls aren’t being properly represented, which will be “fixed” in the most unhelpful way they can get away with. Just be patient.
I considered trying to fix the words or spelling to something more modern, but if we’re judging this book for what it is and what it was, I’ll leave it and let you play musical words. In this opening chapter Wertham seems to be explaining events that led him to create the study that led to this book, and the odd thing is there are times Wertham and I both shake our heads…but for entirely different reasons.
Wertham opens with a metaphor, comparing raising kids to raising a garden, which is not the first or last time this has happened. We cultivate flowers, and we cultivate young minds. I get it.
If a plant fails to grow properly because attacked by a pest, only a poor gardener would look for the cause in that plant alone. The good gardener will think immediately in terms of general precaution and spray the whole field. But with children we act like the bad gardener. We often fail to carry out elementary preventive measures, and we look for the causes in the individual child. A whole high-sounding terminology has been put to use for that purpose, bristling with “deep emotional disorders,” “profound psychogenic features” and “hidden motives baffling in their complexity.” And children are arbitrarily classified – usually after the event – as “abnormal,” “unstable” or “predisposed,” words that often fit their environment better than they fit the children. The question is, Can we help the plant without attending to the garden?
He almost sounds like he does understand, if one believes in nurture over nature as to why a child acts out, especially violently which is his whole concern. From there he begins a tale about a lawyer friend who asked him to visit a reformatory and see how it could be improved. After some hassle Wertham finally manages to talk to some kids alone with a lawyer (either his friend or the child’s advocate) and find out what the kids really wanted. Not surprisingly it was go home.
The children’s logic was simple and realistic. The adults said this was not a jail because it was so beautiful. But the children knew that the doors were locked – so it was a jail. The lawyer (who heard some of this himself) was crestfallen. He had never spoken to any of the inmates alone before. “What a story!” he said. “They all want to get out!”
This is a story to you? Kids treat being grounded as being in jail, and you think a reform school, even one with a groundskeeper, where the kids live in cottages without their parents and with a bunch of strangers without all the benefits of summer camp–like only being there a few weeks at most–isn’t going to be seen as a jail? Note that The Prisoner, a TV series about an agent who wants to retire being sent to a wacked-out village, wouldn’t air for over a decade and that was in the UK. I’m assuming this lawyer never had kids of his own. Oddly, this isn’t the correction Wertham gives, but that the real story is how they got in. In a sense I agree with him (although we’ll see the flaws in his logic pretty soon). Children, and by extension the adults they will become, are products of their environment. I will agree to a point that what a kids sees in media isn’t entirely without influence.
Disagree with that and hear two words: Sesame Street. They teach early reading and number skills, and is it really that hard to believe they might pick up other things. Sesame Street is one of those shows that does it right, unless they’ve fallen apart since the last time I tried to watch it. They speak at kids’ level rather than talking down to them or treating them like little adults who need to start hating life early. The problem is media alone isn’t to blame. It’s only one factor of a child’s environment even if, as Wertham says about comics of the time, that kids spend 2-3 hours with it. That’s only a small part of the day. What about their home lives? What about their interactions with other kids. or adults they meet going down the street to get those comics? Out of 24 hours a day we only sleep 7-9 hours, depending on what’s being pushed at the time, leaving about 12 hours to be influenced by everything else besides comics. It’s lazy to point to one thing that is throwaway entertainment and say “this is the cause!” if there is no counterpoint in their lives.
For example I’ll jump ahead a bit and go to a story about a civic leader he was talking to, a woman who agreed with him on every point except comics. He frames a previous event earlier that day.
It happened that on that very morning I had been overruled by the Children’s Court. I had examined a boy who had threatened a woman teacher with a switchblade knife. Ten years before, that would have been a most unusual case, but now I had seen quite a number of similar ones. This particular boy seemed to me a very good subject for treatment. He was not really a “bad boy,” and I do not believe in the philosophy that children have instinctive urges to commit such acts.
Ordinarily I do agree that pulling a switchblade on a teacher is instinctive, unless his mom was beating the daylights out of him. That’s a recurring problem in this chapter and one I suspect will happen again. Only once do we learn any history on the kids he’s interviewed, and only because he personally knew the boy in question, but we’ll come back to that. Wertham learns the kid read comics and that was what he tried to blame the kids’ aggressive behavior on, mentioning violent stories and ads for guns and knives earlier in the article. The thing is people do collect knives without actually using them, and the same for guns, although you often use those to shoot things other than people not invading your home or stalking you in the parking garage. The civic leader tells a story of her own, an incident that isn’t baffling for what the kids did, but the response of her neighborhood. I swear if anyone is making this up, it isn’t me.
“I have a daughter of eleven,” she said. “She reads comic books. Of course only the animal comics. I have heard that there are others, but I have never seen them. Of course I would never let them come into my home and she would never read them. As for what you said about crime comics, Doctor, they are only read by adults. Even so, these crime comics probably aren’t any worse than what children have read all along. You know, dime novels and all that.” She looked at me then with a satisfied look, pleased that there was one subject she could really enlighten me about.
I’m trying to figure out what “crime comics” means. Do they mean Detective Comics, the various titles that were about recreating actual police stories…I mean Detective Comics was surprisingly tame. Yeah, people got murdered a lot, but the only thing really gruesome was the narrator explaining how the person was killed, and even then it was at most targeting older kids, the ten-year-olds who outgrew the animal comics. Sorry, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Oh, but prepare your face, because here comes the palm. Emphasis mine, by the way.
I asked her, “In the group that I am to speak to, do you think some of the children of these women have gotten into trouble with stealing or any other delinquency?”
She bent forward confidentially. “You’ve guessed it,” she said. “That’s really why we want these lectures. You’d be astonished at what these children from these good middle-class homes do nowadays. You know, you won’t believe it, but they break into apartments, and a group of young boys molested several small girls in our neighborhood! Not to speak of the mugging that goes on after dark.”
“What happens to these boys?” I asked her.
“You know how it is,” she said. “One has to hush these things up as much as possible, but when it got too bad, of course, they were put away.”
Seriously? Seriously? You’re really serious here? Your kids are molesting girls, stealing and mugging people, and your response as a good parent is “hush these things up as much as possible”? This is the 1950s. I understand based on the ethics of the time you “hushing up” your teenage daughter getting pregnant by the James Dean type that took advantage of her, if that’s even the full story. HOW THE MONDAY-TO-FRIDAY HOCKEYSTICKS DO YOU “HUSH UP” SEXUAL ASSAULT, THEFT, AND POSSIBLY MURDER! HOW? And Wertham is blaming Captain America for this? If your son is molesting little Susie (presumably without her permission and not just kids playfully playing Doctor unaware of what they’re doing) and mugging Mr. McReedy next door, you don’t “hush these things up”, you at the very least discipline your dang child! Heck I can find a “time out” parent today who would hand you the paddle and say “go at it” for this! You’re in the 1950s! Yell at your kid not only that he or she (for the muggings and break-ins) did something wrong but WHY it was wrong! (“Because I said so” only works in emergency situations, not because you want to talk to your friend about who Mrs. Jackson down the street is cheating on her husband with. By the way, the milkman isn’t Bobby’s real father. It’s your husband. Sorry to be the one to tell you that. Maybe if you showered once a week and actually combed your hair instead of leaving it in curlers 24/7 and compared him to that man you almost married in college at every opportunity…sorry, where was I?)
To jump back, Wertham also discusses a kid in his care at one point named Willie. He starts the story by talking about a man who brought a young friend with him to a polo match. (It was the 1950s, folks.) They were sitting there watching the event when suddenly the man was shot dead, nobody realizing what had happened. (Of course Wertham connects it to the comic imagery the boy might have seen.) After an investigation that sounds like “Oh, the black kid had access to guns? Good enough. lock him up even though the gun he admitted to knowing how to use wasn’t found among the bunch of weapons we won’t bother learning about how they got on the roof because detective work is hard. Who do you think we are, Batman?”, Willie, a black kid with bad eyesight (wearing glasses that may not be the right prescription) who grew up with his loving great-aunt after his parents split up (no explanation as to why he wasn’t with one of the parents), loved his aunt and vice versa, at least according to Wertham. The only thing about him is that he loved comics. And yet as I read the case it doesn’t even sound like the kid was guilty. His great-aunt was also arrested until he confessed to the aforementioned missing gun under Sullivan’s Law.
And then another killing like this happened later, but at least they got that Negro with the bad eyesight who somehow pulled a sniper act with an invisible 45 millimeter pistol, right? He won’t be reading about Plastic Man anytime soon and killing more people. Wertham tries to recreate in prose one of the books Willie liked to read. Don’t expect this to be spectacular reading.
Here is the lecherous-looking bandit overpowering the attractive girl who is dressed (if that is the word) for very hot weather (“She could come in handy, then! Pretty little spitfire, eh!”) in the typical pre-rape position. Later he threatens to kill her:
“Yeah, it’s us, you monkeys, and we got an old friend of yours here… Now unless you want to see somp’n FATAL happen to here, u’re gonna kiss that gold goodbye and lam out of here!”
Here is violence galore, violence in the beginning, in the middle, at the end:
ZIP! CRASH! SOCK! SPLAT! BAM! SMASH!
(This is an actual sequence of six pictures illustrating brutal fighting, until in the seventh picture: “He’s out cold!”)
Here, too, is the customary close-up of the surprised and frightened-looking policeman with his hands half-raised saying:
NO – NO! DON’T SHOOT
as he is threatened by a huge fist holding a gun to his face! This is followed by mild disapproval (“You’ve gone too far! This is murder!”) as the uniformed man lies dead on the ground. This comic book is endorsed by child specialists who are connected with important institutions. No wonder Willie’s aunt did not trust her own judgment sufficiently.
“Customary”? Did cops get murdered in every crime comic? See, that’s the problem here, and I don’t know if it’s just that now we can look up almost any comic nowadays or what, but Wertham doesn’t give sources. At least not in this chapter. He seems to lump all comics in two piles: ones with talking animals and crime comics. The talking animals are for kids (oh, the modern comics I could show you today) and everything else is also for kids that adults think are only for adults because in Wertham’s mind the entire format is for kids, like cartoons or video games. I wonder what he thought of radio dramas and serials? The big problem here is another one I expect to pop up over and over: context.
Point that at parents groups who restricted Saturday morning cartoons as well, and only because networks are easier to bully than syndicated distributors. Just the appearance of violence sent them into a frenzy of worry kids were going to emulate it. You know what I tried to emulate? THE HEROES WHO TRIED TO STOP THE CRIMINALS FROM STEALING AND KILLING! (And world domination, but little Tommy wasn’t growing up to conquer the world. Just the sandbox.) It’s not just the depiction of violence but how that violence is treated in context, like that it’s a bad thing and only evil people do it? There’s that episode of Bravestarr I like to bring up where Marshal Bravestarr’s mentor goes ape droppings and kills someone…and we see the murder happen! With a whole ton of witnesses. (We don’t see the body hit the floor or his limbs go flying but we see him aim, the victim panic, and Jingles fires. Kids can guess what happens.) This is treated as horrible, as a terrible thing, and we see the effect it has on Bravestarr, plus the fact that Jingles is now on New Texas, the planet Bravestarr protects, and he has to bring his mentor in.
There’s also an episode of He-Man & The Masters Of The Universe where we meet a man who got cocky with a blaster, ending up dropping a mountain on him and his squad while shooting at an enemy during a war. His legs are paralyzed, which is still better than the rest of his unit. They’re dead. The point was to show that guns aren’t toys and fighting isn’t always glamorous, even on Eternia. There was also an episode of Static Shock where a bullied kid brings a gun to school to protect himself and Richie ends up getting shot accidentally. (He survives of course.) It’s all in the context. If the comic shows that these people are evil and gets what’s coming to them for killing the cop and knocking that guy out, or raping that girl (if it actually happened and it’s not what the artist intended), then in context it’s telling kids NOT to do those things and how it hurts others when they do. But we don’t know for sure because we don’t know what comic he’s looking at. At least name your source!
At no time, up to the present time, has a single child ever told me as an excuse for delinquency or for misbehavior that comic books were to blame. Nor do I nor my associates ever question a child in such a way as to suggest that to him. If I find a child with a fever I do not ask him, “What is the cause of your fever? Do you have measles?” I examine him and make my own diagnosis. It is our clinical judgment, in all kinds of behavior disorders and personality difficulties of children, that comic books do play a part. Of course they are not in the textbooks. But once alerted to the possibility, we unexpectedly found, in case after case, that comic books were a contributing factor not to be neglected.
I asked psychiatric colleagues, child psychologists and social workers. They knew nothing about comic books. They knew there were such little books; they may even have had them in their waiting rooms. And they knew about funny animal stories that children liked to read. Comic books, they assumed, were just reprints of comic strips from newspapers or Sunday supplements – “like ‘Bringing Up Father,’ you know” – or other such humorous sequences. Why, they felt, should any physician take a serious interest in them? No one had any idea of the enormous number of such books. The industry had not given out any figures, nor had a magazine or newspaper published any. When I made public the result of my own estimates and computations, namely that there were (then) some sixty million comic books a month, my statement was met with absolute incredulity. Some people thought that it was a misprint, and that sixty million must be the yearly figure. But shortly afterwards authoratative magazines and newspapers (such as Business Week) repeated my figure as an accurate one.
Comic books started as reprints of comic strips. Comic strips like The Phantom or Prince Valiant or…was Tarzan a newspaper comic by this time? There was violence and death in these and other action comics as well. Are kids not allowed to read anything other than comedies? I think that’s what Wertham is saying. That only silly and slapstick comedy is okay for kids. Boy wait until Looney Tunes comes out! Or Tom & Jerry. I’m sure parents complained about Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges as well.
Join us next week as Wertham tries to explain what he considers “crime comics”. At least I think that’s what he’s going to do. I would like to know where he’s coming from so I can judge his perspective on these issues better.
Next time: “You Always Have To Slug ‘Em”