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.
“And children grow up where the shadows falling
From wall and window have the light exiled,
And know not that without the flowers are calling
Unto a day of distance, wind and wild.”
– Rainer Maria Wilke
Well, here’s the answer to a question I had in last week’s post. What does Fredric Wertham consider “crime comics”? The answer is probably a bit too open depending on how you interpret his interpretation. I don’t think Wertham cares about the classic genre types. He lumps Superman in with reenactments or actual crime stories. And I have to be honest with you. There are times in which Wertham has a good point but his solutions are off, times where he’s actually quite right and where are the parents, and times when he is just so far off the mark that it is kind of sad, or funny, or somehow both. Make sure the metal bar is locked because this roller coaster is going all over the place.
Chapter 2: “You Always Have to Slug ’em”
Read along, won’t you?
“Every boy has his idol! He may be a star athlete, a two-fisted Hollywood Western actor or a famous general. But some boys veer away from such heroes, and admire the bad men.”
This is the beginning of a comic-book story in which a ‘hood’ teaches two little boys: “If you kids wanna learn to be like me, you gotta be tough! Never give the other guy an even break!” He shows them a well-dressed young boy. They proceed to threaten this boy and he hands over his money to them. But that does not satisfy the tough teacher. He bangs their heads together and exclaims: “You always have to slug ’em! Remember that!” This is the elementary lesson of crime comics.
Here we see the recurring problem in refuting his examples: the lack of sources. Later on he talks about comic titles changing their names because Wertham talked about it, which is the only explanation I’ve ever heard for why some titles change their names outside of some confusing mailing rules or something. Still, I think Wertham is thinking a little highly of himself at this point.
Many adults think that they know all about crime comic books because they know mystery and detective novels, comic strips in newspapers and have cast an occasional glance at a comic book at a newsstand or in a child’s hands. But the Lafargue group of researchers has often convinced itself that most adults have really no idea of the details and content of the majority of crime comic books. I have heard public discussions where only the publishers and their representatives knew what was being talked about; the parents, teachers and doctors who asked discussion questions spoke of comic books as if they were fairy tales or stories of folklore.
Okay, so parents need to pay attention to what their kids are reading. It’s a problem that isn’t solved by banning these comics, which the Comics Code basically led to. Parents weren’t taking the time to see what was in the comics they were reading, which is bad parenting (probably not the worst example we’ll be seeing before this is all over). However, did anyone try to keep these comics from kids? I disagree with Wertham’s statement that the harder crime stories are meant for kids. Nobody expects a kid to be interested in Law & Order but you can find it on during the day in reruns. He mentions that “crime comics” are mixed in with other titles on the newsstands and wherever else you bought comics in the days before comic stores limited comics to a few places. Well, that’s a problem with the newsstand owners not paying attention to how they promote product on their stands, not the industry. I know they don’t have time when setting up to read each comic, but (and here’s where the industry or at least the distributor gets off his lazy butt) why not have on the list of what came in that day “this is for kids” or “this is for teens” or “this is for adults”, or some letter that notes that. You don’t put Highlights next to Playboy, right?
The wording of advertisements for toys in many of the worst crime comics make it apparent that the books carrying these advertisements are intended for children, and some of the most irresponsible crime comic books have approving letters from child readers.
Publishers, whether comics or magazines (which they treated comics as in order to not pay more to publish and distribute them) don’t pay that much attention, and the advertisers are not going to write a different ad for every group. And note that he’s talking about toys, not real guns as he will later. Do you really expect the advertisers buying ad space in Field & Stream is going to spend more money to come up with a different ad to get parents to buy a toy for their kids as they would to sell it to a kid in their own mags? Or that the publisher would risk an extra chance to print the wrong ad in a comic and get angry letters?
At this point Wertham is only talking about what I would call a “crime comic”, a comic about the police or some detective (private or amateur) dealing with bad guys. We’ll see later he has a broader definition. He’s going on about the titles and usual hype for these things. The examples he gives are:
- LAWBREAKERS Always Lose
- There Is No Escape For PUBLIC ENEMIES
- The West Thunders with the Roar of GUNS
- CRIME Can’t Win
- Western OUTLAWS and Sheriffs
- CRIMINALS on the Run
These were blurbs on the cover where the bigger letters promoted the “crime does not pay” mantra. Note the words he’s highlighting versus the words intended to be focused on. He’s focused on “criminals” instead of “on the run”, “lawbreakers” instead of “lose”, and “outlaw” instead of “sheriff”; naturally trying to show what he thinks is drawing the kids eye…in smaller letters I may add. Here’s another story example, and the Web Archive posting linked above includes something the book (whether due to limitations or on purpose) is missing: visual examples.
“Late one night, in the suburbs of a large city, the moon looks down on the figure of a lone girl as she walks along a block of slumbering homes…. Anything can happen at this hour!”
Forthwith it does.
Of course it does because that’s how narration works. It’s building suspense to whatever is about to happen to this woman.
1) The girl walking along with a dark figure, his arm stretched out toward her, lurking behind.
2) The girl falling over, her breast prominent, her skirt thrown up to reveal black net panties, the “attacker” a black, shadowed figure leaning over her.
3) He “drags her into the gloom,” holding his hand over her mouth and tearing off her coat.
4) He has her on the ground behind some bushes.
5) A girl, murdered, and presumably raped, is shown on the ground with her clothes disordered and torn.
6) Another girl being choked from behind. Screams: “AI – EEEK!!”
7) “The Strangler” locks her in a warehouse, saying: “I’ll kill you just like I did the others – Then I’ll crawl down the trap door and get away under the dock – HA! HA!”
Whether or not this image comes from that story I couldn’t say. Wertham is suggesting that this is instruction on how to to rape and murder. First of all, how many warehouses do you have near you? Heck, fictional stories always seem to have a whole district designated for abandoned warehouses and half of them have a trap door leading to the water. He seems to think that just because he’s seen a kid reading this comic that they’re marketing for kids. It’s kind of lame. As I read this chapter, and we have a “blink and you’ll miss it” example coming up, I’m also reminded that Wertham is talking to kids who are already kind of disturbed and blaming that on comics, but when you actually read the histories and living situations of these children you see a whole other pattern that Fredrick seems to be ignoring.
And then we finally get our answer of what they consider a “crime book”
When Mr. E.D. Fulton, member of the Canadian House of Commons, introduced his anti-crime-comic-book bill before that House, he characterized them as “the kind of magazine, forty or fifty pages of which portray nothing but scenes illustrating the commission of crimes of violence with every kind of horror that the mind of man can conceive.”
In our clinical research on crime comic books we came to the conclusion that crime comic books are comic books that depict crime, whether the setting is urban, Western, science-fiction, jungle, adventure or the realm of supermen, “horror” or supernatural beings. We found that to study the effect of comic books on children it is necessary to study the comic books themselves, too. To read them like an adult is not enough. One must read them in the light of how children read them. The comic book as a whole has a number of features which children single out habitually and which reinforce one another.
Yes, crime comics are “comic books that depict crime”, emphasis again his in the printed text, although not in the Web Archive version. While that seems like a no-brainer, note that he’s talking about any comic that depicts any crime. Or at least the big ones; I don’t know if he includes jaywalking and littering. There is one line I do agree with. “To read them like an adult is not enough. One must read them in the light of how children read them.” The question is whether Wertham is reading these like a child or like an insulting vision of what a child is. It is true that children can handle only so much before they’re either scarred for life or given a corrupted view of being human, but it is also true that kids can handle more than some adults give them credit. Granted that latter point is way too often used by my fellow geeks to try to get kids media to act more “grown up”, which I’ll get more into later this week in a completely different topic.
First of all there is the cover. It is always printed on much better paper than the rest of the book, and of course has much larger print and the colors stand out more glaringly and forcefully. The title also counts for a lot. The scene depicted on the cover is usually violent. It is intended to catch the child’s attention and whet his appetite.
Covers are printed on better stock (at least back then: today all the pages are high-quality, which is one of the reasons comics are so expensive) to protect the insides better, just like regular books. Note that even with softcover books the “paperback” is stronger than the paper inside. And all of his other comments are the same as well. They have larger print (except for “large print” books for people with bad eyes or dyslexia), and the colors only stand out because the paper is better and the printing process different. And of course the logo is meant to catch your eye. Did Wertham do any research as to how printing and covers work? Instead he just wants to assume the worst.
For example, in a comic-book reprint of a newspaper comic strip – the cover shows a scene which does not occur at all in the strip. In transforming this comic strip, intended chiefly for adults, to a comic book for children, this scene is added: A young woman with prominent breasts and nude legs is lying on a cot. Her lips are rouged, her hair falls loosely in masses over her bare shoulders and her face has a coquettish expression.
This is supposed to be the scene of a surgical operation! There are two white-gowned and white-capped men beside her, one about to put a chloroform mask over her face, the other holding scissors in his right hand and in his left a knife whose sharp blade is surrounded with a yellow zigzag halo (used in comic books as a rule to designate the effects of cutting or shooting). The whole scene has nothing to do with medicine and is unmistakably sadistic.
Web Archive suggests it’s this cover. I don’t know what from but it appears to be Brenda Starr: Reporter about to be sliced up by an evil doctor, which apparently is a bad cover because it doesn’t happen in the story. He doesn’t say if the story is about an evil doctor though, so I don’t know if this falls into my pet peeve. It’s not meant to be “sadistic” and most seven-year-old boys don’t care to see a woman naked. Plus one tends to be naked during surgery. I wasn’t wearing clothes when they cut out and reconnected my colon last year. (There’s your nightmare fuel, ladies.) The scene is meant to show our heroine in danger, as the reader is now drawn to this to see how she’s going to get out of it. That’s storytelling. That’s actually good storytelling for a comic cover if the story does involve Starr dealing with an evil doctor, but still bad if this doesn’t happen at some point in the adventure.
Another important feature of a crime comic book is the first page of the first story, which often gives the child the clue to the thrill of violence that is to be its chief attraction. This is a psychological fact that all sorts of children have pointed out to me.
Macbeth in comic book form is an example. On the first page the statement is made: “Amazing as the tale may seem, the author gathered it from true accounts” – the typical crime comic book formula, of course. The first balloon has the words spoken by a young woman (Lady Macbeth): “Smear the sleeping servants with BLOOD!”
Well who the hell is giving an eight year old a copy of Macbeth in any format? I didn’t even read Romeo & Juliet until I was in high school (not willingly as Shakespeare may be a great writer but his stuff isn’t to my taste). Disney’s Gargoyles was intended for teenagers at least but as we’ll see Wertham is one of those adults who treats teenagers as children instead of teenagers, a transition between child and adult. Apparently he thinks there’s some magic switch in the brain once you turn twenty. I haven’t read Macbeth and even I know not to give it to a child. Again, easily solved by having a kids-only and adults-only (plus an all-ages/family friendly) spinner rack with a notation in the shipping list noting which goes where. But that’s too easy and would leave something he doesn’t like on the shelves.
Speaking of which, later on Wertham takes a shot at Classics Illustrated:
Comic books adapted from classical literature are reportedly used in 25,000 schools in the United States. If this is true, then I have never heard a more serious indictment of American education, for they emasculate the classics, condense them (leaving out everything that makes the book great), are just as badly printed and inartistically drawn as other comic books and, as I have often found, do not reveal to children the world of good literature which has at all times been the mainstay of liberal and humanistic education. They conceal it. The folklorist, G. Legman, writes of comic books based on classics, “After being processed in this way, no classic, no matter who wrote it, is in any way distinguishable from the floppity- rabbit and crime comics it is supposed to replace.”
A writer of children’s books, Eleanor Estes, has said of these [Classics Illustrated] comics (in the Wilson Library Bulletin), “I think that worse than the comic books that stick to their own fields are the ones that try to rehash the classics. They really are pernicious, for it seems to me that they ruin for a child the fine books which they are trying to popularize.”
David Dempsey, writing in the New York Times Book Review, has said of the comic book Julius Caesar that it has “a Brutus that looks astonishingly like Superman. ‘Our course will seem too bloody to cut the head off and then hack the limbs…’ says Brutus, in language that sounds like Captain Marvel…” and he notes that “Julius Caesar is followed by a story called ‘Tippy, the Terrier.'”
If Brutus looks like Superman and talks like Captain Marvel, he can’t be Brutus. And I’m assuming Tippy The Terrier” is supposed to be something lighthearted to go with a story of betrayal and murder, but even I’m wondering what the target audience is on this one. Wertham complains about an adaptation of Tom Sawyer showing two kids fighting. It’s okay to read about it but not see it? Better burn all the copies of the movie and stop any stage adaptations then.
We are not past the 3000 word count but we’re not done. Wertham also talks about superhero comics, an anti-drug comic I really want to look at, and romance comics for some reason. This is going long as it is so join us tomorrow as I finish going over the problems with this chapter. My eyes are getting tired and I have other things to do.