Yesterday we looked at the first part of this chapter, as Wertham described crime comics as any comic depicting crime, and if you think it was limited to police and detective stories you’re going to be surprised. I’m hoping that this won’t take a third part, as Wertham also puts superhero comics, jungle comics, and Westerns under the “crime comic” banner. That does kind of make sense…but how do romance comics fit in? Well let’s just right in to where we left off and find out. Follow along if you can.
Oh, here’s something I forgot to bring up in Wertham’s discussion of Classics Illustrated and similar comics.
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.”
You only have so much space in the comic and you have so much to adapt. It’s not like movies adapt a novel completely, and I watch at least three different book-to-movie adaptation review shows that prove that. At best what you have is a “primer” or “teaser” for the full book. If you like this try reading the actual book. At the very least they should have some understanding of a classic tale to understand the cultural and pop cultural references, and we’re probably talking about kids who otherwise wouldn’t read Treasure Island or Moby Dick unless forced to in schools. Not every person is going to read a book because it’s classic literature even if they read other classics. Fact of life, guys, and I’m talking adults, not kids.
But what gets me as a cartoonist and media critic is the part about Classics Illustrated of all graphic novel franchises getting chastised for being “as badly printed and inartistically drawn as other comic books”. Seriously? This has some of the best illustrations in comics. And because it looks like a comic book you’re going to come down on it? What are you expecting, Leonardo da Vinci level artwork? Have you seen the illustrations in the actual books? They’re nice but they’re barely above sketch-level artwork. It’s just there to give your eyes a break from all the text. This just reeks of art snobbery that comics have suffered with for a long time, and I have to wonder if a bit of literature snobbery is going on as well. “If it isn’t in the format or style I like….” oh, no, it’s the everything for meeeeeeeeeee crowd, isn’t it? Wertham doesn’t like comics so he’s willing to blame what he thinks he understands out of snobbery? I’m sure that’s at least part of it. Let me jump around a bit to something I teased yesterday, one of the many stories of children he talked to who were influenced by these evil comic books.
Many children read all varieties of crime comics and even poor children get hold of them in astonishingly large numbers. A thirteen-year-old girl, in trouble for habitual truancy, said “I like jungle books. But I read the others, too. My sister buys romance books, Diary of Real Life, True Romance, Sheena, Jo-Jo, Jungle Jim – they are exciting! I like to see the way they jump up and kick men down and kill them! I like Penalty, Crime Does Not Pay. I don’t like them because the crook gets caught. I’d like him to get away with it. They show how you steal. A woman walked in a store and took a dress and walked right out and a woman caught her. [Wertham actually mentions this story a few paragraphs earlier – SWT] I like to see women catch them. Sheena got a big jungle she lives in and people down there likes her and would do anything for her. When I get ready go to bed I read them – about four comic books. We don’t all the time have enough to eat, because my mother hasn’t got enough money to buy any.”
It’s that last sentence that gives me the impression that there is something else we’re not being told, like last week with the kids who were breaking into homes and molesting girls (although Wertham seems to think teenagers are still children and not transitioning from children to adults) and in passing we’re told that the parents in the neighborhood were just trying to hide things because gosh darn it parenting is hard work! This is a girl we at least know is growing up in poverty because her mom (notice no mention of a father) doesn’t always have the money to buy food. What else is going on in that household? Or even not going on but should be?
And who lets kids read the “jungle comics”? I don’t think any jungle comic was made with kids in mind. Not even the comic strips or the non-comic novels. Heck, I’d question the movies as well, or the serials if I had seen any of them from this time period. Which I want to because I love classic serials.
And look at some of the things she says. She likes Sheena because “people down there likes her and would do anything for her” and she likes to see crooks get away with stealing (although unless there’s an editing error she likes to see women catch shoplifters or that’s how I read it). You have to wonder if she stole the comics, but more importantly you have to wonder if she’s stealing food to have something in her belly. Couldn’t it be the case of kids growing up in bad situations and being drawn to bad things rather than some story pushing them to commit these acts? Remember the black kid from last week (who still may not have actually been the shooter) was growing up with divorced parents who apparently dumped him on a great aunt who adopted him, plus he was a black kid in the 1950s who was locked up and victory declared only to have someone else still out there in the same area shooting people. I think more emphasis should be put on their lifestyle and how much or little control they have versus some story. Why not also complain about pulp novels. Or is Romeo stabbing Tybalt after Mercutio is stabbed by him only good for kids when you don’t see it? Better not go to the play, kids. Seriously, is this more snobbery against the “funny books”?
Hell, Treasure Island starts with a pirate dying, and the story is about a boy who basically becomes a pirate. Moby Dick is about a man’s obsession with killing a whale to the detriment of his crew. If anything Classics Illustrated and Classic Comics may just be reducing the level of violence to make it more kid-friendly. Did you think about that? Wertham talks about other stories, like one kid who liked the book where some guy gets stabbed in the eye with a needle, but again, we are not told anything about this child’s living standards, lifestyle, or any other detail. Wertham wants to make sure you know that the comic was the only reason these kids were doing horrible things, skipping classes, and not listening to their parents and teachers. There is no indication of any other factor. Was I somehow spared because my comics came out after the Comics Code? My first comic books included a homeless woman being killed in the name of “mercy”, a mutation trying to create other mutations, and a living corpse trying to send a superhero to the grave because his creator was obsessed with his college student and somehow started cloning people despite being a college professor. Guess what three things I have never considered doing in my life.
And on that note we should get on to Wertham’s early issues with superheroes. In this chapter he specifically calls out Superman, Wonder Woman, and some character called Super Duck that earlier he actually lumped in with those comedic talking animal comics he’s been telling us are the only comics we should be letting our kids read. The highlights:
The Superman group of comic books is superendorsed. A random sample shows on the inside cover the endorsement of two psychiatrists, one educator, one English professor and a child-study consultant. On the page facing this array is depicted a man dressed as a boy shooting a policeman in the mouth (with a toy pistol). This is a prank – “Prankster’s second childhood.” In the story there is a variant of the comic-book theme of a girl being thrown into the fire: “Her dress will be afire in one split second! She’ll need Superman’s help!”
CONTEXT! CONTEXT! CONTEXT! Around this time there was a supervillain called The Prankster, whose gimmick was that he pulled mean pranks on people and even managed to outsmart Superman (superpowers aren’t everything kids) on a few occasions before being caught. To be honest he was kind of lame and there’s a reason we haven’t seen him since the Silver Age. I’ve read at least one of these stories and this is not treated as a good thing. People hate him and Superman has to stop him. Because he’s the hero of the story. Speaking of which:
In another story a tenement building is set afire – also to be taken care of by Superman after it is afire. Until near the end of the book, attempts to kill people are not looked upon askance, and are not to be prevented apparently by humans but only by a superman. Then the lesson that after all you should not kill is expressed like this: “You conniving unscrupulous cad! Try to murder Carol, will you!” This is scarcely a moral condemnation. The lawyer who does not share in a million-dollar swindle is praised by Superman because he “remained honest.” In fact this honesty is rewarded with a million dollars! A gun advertisement with four pictures of guns completes the impression that even if you can’t become Superman, at least you can rise above the average by using force.
Oh but it does get worse. Like Bill Maher worse.
This Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman group is a special form of crime comics. The gun advertisements are elaborate and realistic. In one story a foreign-looking scientist starts a green-shirt movement. Several boys told me that they thought he looked like Einstein. No person and no democratic agency can stop him. It requires the female superman, Wonder Woman. One picture shows the scientist addressing a public meeting: “So, my fellow Americans, it is time to give America back to Americans! Don’t let foreigners take your jobs!” Member of the audience: “He’s right!” Another, applauding: “YEAHHHH!”
Yes, some of you are making Donald Trump jokes. Let’s leave that out of the comments, okay? If you want to discuss comics and politics, try The Four Color Media Monitor in the RSS feed. Besides, save your finger for quite possibly the dumbest thing you will read all day.
The Superman type of comic books tends to force and super-force. Dr. Paul A. Witty, professor of education at Northwestern University, has well described these comics when he said that they “present our world in a kind of Fascist setting of violence and hate and destruction. I think it is bad for children,” he goes on, “to get that kind of recurring diet … [they] place too much emphasis on a Fascist society. Therefore the democratic ideals that we should seek are likely to be overlooked.”
Actually, Superman (with the big S on his uniform – we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and “foreign- looking” people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasy themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them – by force.
First of all, Fred……
SUPERMAN IS THE CREATION OF TWO JEWISH MEN POSSIBLY AFTER ONE OF THEIR FATHERS WAS SHOT FOR THE SECOND TIME!!!!!!!! YOU STUPID DUMBASS!!!!!
I know there wasn’t an internet back then to research this and their names weren’t in the credits until the 1980s but this just shows how little Wertham actually knew about Superman. If anything Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were taking the Nazi image of a “superman” (after having done a story of an evil “superman”) and turning him into an All-American Hero even before “truth, justice and the American way” were part of his official description. And second of all, Doc, if you actually read the comics instead of looking at the pretty pictures…oh, right, you hate comic art because it’s not in the Louvre…you would know, especially around this time, that Superman didn’t look down on humans and never did. He was raised by humans to be a good person, he grew up as a human, he fought crime in service to humanity, and still does to this day. He considered himself human and his secret identity is one of the most human people ever to be human. You don’t know what you’re talking about because you came from this specifically out of a bias.
Superman not only defies the laws of gravity, which his great strength makes conceivable; in addition he gives children a completely wrong idea of other basic physical laws. Not even Superman, for example, should be able to lift up a building while not standing on the ground, or to stop an airplane in mid air while flying himself.
Oh goody, he’s also part of the “realistic” crowd on top of the everything for meeeeeeeee crowd. This also comes up with Superboy a few paragraphs on.
There are also super-children, like Superboy. Superboy can slice a tree like a cake; can melt glass by looking at it (“with his amazing X-ray eyes, Superboy proves the scientific law that focussed concentrated X-rays can melt glass!”), defeats “a certain gang chief and his hirelings.” Superboy rewrites American history, too. In one story he helps George Washington’s campaign and saves his life by hitting a Hessian with a snowball. George Washington reports to the Continental Congress: “And sirs, this remarkable boy, a Superboy, helped our boys win a great victory.”
One third of a page of this book is a picture of Washington crossing the Delaware – with Superboy guiding the boat through the ice floes. It is really Superboy who is crossing the Delaware, with George Washington in the boat. All this travesty is endorsed by the impressive board of experts in psychiatry, education and English literature.
So you hate science fiction as well? Because the only times science fiction has matched actual science is on a basic level lost in the specifics or when actual scientists were inspired to make it into science fact. Like Star Trek or H.G. Wells’ “atomic bomb”. I think kids are smart enough to know that Superboy wasn’t responsible for the colonists winning the Revolutionary War. Most kids know fiction when they see it. But even Wonder Woman wasn’t spared Wertham’s wrath. Brace yourselves, ladies.
Superwoman (Wonder Woman) is always a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, “phallic” woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.
I’ll let you guys figure out what’s dumb about this because if you know anything about Wonder Woman I shouldn’t have to tell you. Except during the New 52 when we were told the Amazons survived by murdering sailors after boarding their ships to have sex with them. I hope that was retconned out somehow for Rebirth.
One Lafargue researcher asked a little six-year-old girl what comic books she liked and was told “corpsies.” This baffled the researcher (that name would fit so many!). It finally developed when she produced the book that she meant “kewpies.” It was one of the very few artistic comic books and had on its inside back cover a charming “Map of Kewpieville” showing Kewpie Square, Willow Wood, Mischief Grounds, Welcome Bridge, a Goblin Glen, Forsaken Lake, Blue Lake and a Snifflebrook. What was impressed on this child’s mind, however, were the “corpsies” she had seen in the crime comic books of her friends.
Or she didn’t know how to say Kewpie because she was six and hadn’t heard the word spoken before and may not have remembered the name correctly?
Okay, we’re close to the mark again and I don’t want to do a part three so let’s go over the romance problems really quick. He starts to say that the romance comics had started taking over which he gave credit to himself and other ralliers against crime comics and not because public tastes come and go depending on how sick they are of the same old thing. But then he starts pointing out depictions of crime in these stories of women who make the kinds of decisions that make them look stupid while the comic tried to fit a romance novel or two into 30 or so pages. But then he talks about the comics teaching boys how to “seduce” girls and gives us this”
The youthful reader can also acquire the technique of how to seduce a girl. First you get her boy friend away on a fictitious errand, “knowing it would keep him for most of the night.” After a dance you invite the girl for “a little bite” at “a road house just over the state line”:
NICKY: Here we are, Gale! A nice little private booth! Like it?
GALE: Yes’ – (I wouldn’t for the world let Nicky think I wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate it!)
Then you make love to her.
GALE: Nicky! Let me go! All these people!
NICKY: You’re right, honey! What do we want all these people for? Let’s go upstairs to the terrace!
“Upstairs was a long, narrow hall with five or six doors! Nicky opened the nearest one and I found myself in a small, shoddy- looking room!”
NICKY: I think we’ll be much more comfortable in here, don’t you, honey?
GALE: Nicky! I want to go home! Please let me go!
NICKY: Home was never like this, baby! Come on, give papa a kiss!
That’s not “making love” even in the days when the term wasn’t exclusively used for sex. That’s sexual assault, man. Call it what it is. And again, without context we don’t know if Nicky gets his comeuppance for this, reforms, or what happens. Also a lot of these stories had women involved with one guy but wanting another guy and then going back…it was a soap opera. Kids aren’t going to read this, but remember that Wertham thinks teenagers are kids. Did romance comics of the time send a bad message? Probably, but so did the romance novels for adults that did the same thing.
Eventually crime comics got popular again, and even horror. Again I want to look at what Wertham ended this chapter with:
Another story, a “scientific Suspenstory” (sic!), illustrates how many crime comic stories cannot be described as giving any “emotional release” because apart from their other inadequacies they do not come to any end. The taste for violence is aroused – and maintained. The story begins with “a hideous thing” and ends:
“The doctor is dead! But where is the THING? WHERE?? WHERE IS IT RIGHT NOW?”
That’s not a taste for violence. That’s a taste for people being scared. Horror/thriller radio dramas of the time did the exact same thing. So did some horror movies. And the Werthams of those days spoke out against them as well. I’m not into horror or thriller movies but I understand why some people are. Does Wertham? I don’t think so. He looked into what they’re into but I’m seeing few whys, outside of that one girl from earlier, and even then he didn’t dig deep enough.
Once in the waiting room of the Clinic I saw a little boy crouched over a comic book, oblivious to everything around him. In passing I could see the title of the story he was reading. Big capitals spelled out T A R Z A N. Surely, I thought, the adventures of Tarzan are harmless enough for juveniles of any age.
Tarzan was only for kids in movies and cartoons that wouldn’t exist for decades. (I grew up with one series and of course there’s the Disney version.) Even the comic strips featured the kinds of death and violence Wertham’s been complaining about.
But I was misled, as many parents no doubt are. When I looked at this comic later I found on the inside cover the picture of a man tied up in an agonizing position – a man “found dead in a Dallas park, his hands tied behind him and two bullets in his worthless carcass”; another man shot in the back as he is thrown out of a car (“Get out, ya stinking rat!”) – and more of the same. Tarzan was not the whole title of the story I had seen the boy in the waiting room reading. There was a subtitle “The Wyoming Killer” and two other headings, “From Police Files” and “A True Crime Story.” The story was not about Tarzan, but about a hero who robbed a bank’ and shot five men to death.
So what comic did he see the cover of that made him think it was Tarzan? Or was it one of those anthologies and the cover story was a Tarzan tale? Or perhaps like the Phantom comics I reviewed recently where the midpoint stories had nothing to do with The Phantom? Again I wonder if Wertham actually sat down to read these stories or asked these kids what it was about these comics that interested them so much? And I still say keeping the kids comics separate from the adult comics and parents doing their job should be enough. When I went to the barber he had a bunch of old comics, war comic and superheroes and science fiction, and none of them were that bad. But that was the days of the Comics Code.
Oh by the way, if you read the chapter and wondered what comics code he was talking about there was an earlier, unenforced code by the Association Of Comics Magazine Publishers. Check that out, and join us next week for the next chapter, which I hope to complete in one article.
Next Time: The Road To The Child