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.
Methods of Examination
“And then one should search… for connections, conditions and situations that have acted at once or slowly, and with which perhaps the origin of the abnormal deviation may be justifiably linked… Moreover, it is necessary to understand why these conditions and situations have brought about such results in the patient, when in another person they would occur without the slighest effect; and furthermore, why they all lead in the case of one person to just such an abnormal complex, while in another to a totally different one.”
A little perspective here. I am not naive enough to say that media has zero effect on people, especially on young minds just learning the world. I’ve heard of criminals getting ideas from movies like Money Train and here in Connecticut there was a big story about some kid setting himself on fire after watching MTV’s Jackass and apparently thinking heavy padding was all he needed. And this was someone in his late teens if memory serves. Positive or negative, intentional or otherwise, media does alter our kids’ perception of the world. If it didn’t “edutainment” shows and games would be worthless and PSA’s would be a waste of time.
My question while doing this however is asking whether or not Wertham is putting too much emphasis on comics as the sole source of these supposedly new aggressive behaviors. Comic books were still relatively new as a medium and like video games when they started telling stories and doing things adults didn’t grow up with, they were treated as dangerous. We saw last week how there was a bit of snobbery when it came to comics and we’ll be seeing more of that this week. The main focus however is on the series of experiments he performed to ascertain how dangerous comics are. He says he came from this in an unbiased way but if the previous chapters have told us anything is that he was already against comics from the start.
Read tonight’s chapter with the above link and do your own research before looking into his comments.
The problem of what comic books do to children, or rather what they have already done to a whole generation, is three-fold. Its solution requires a knowledge of comic books, of the minds of children, and of the processes, the mechanisms, by which comic-book reading influences children.
When, for example, a young child hangs himself and beneath the dead child is found an open comic book luridly describing and depicting a hanging (as has happened in a number of cases), the mechanics of the relationship between the two have to be investigated, e.g. the processes of imitation and experimentation in childhood.
And we start on the morbid level. Personally I’d ask why we aren’t starting with “why did he commit suicide”? Or was he curious about how it felt to hang there and yet lacked the common sense to say “wait, these people died doing that…maybe I should rethink this rather odd bit of scientific curiosity and go to the library to look into this”?
To study the psychological effects of comics on children one must first have more than a superficial and scanty knowledge of what is in them. For if in children’s nightmares or in their play or in their productions in psychological tests, any association or reference occurs to the “Venusians” or “Voltamen,” to a “syntho-shade” or to the precise instructions on how to case wealthy homes” for burglaries, you will not understand the response if you do not know the stimulus.
Wondering what a “syntho-shade” is? You’ve got me. All I could find was “syntho glass” and other listings and quotes of this chapter. Venusians could be from any science fiction story. Voltamen are the enemies in the “Lost World” stories of Planet Comics. Anyone can look up words in comics though. Wertham talks about how kids trade comics between each other, buy comics, and apparently steal comics or steal money for comics from their parents. Of course this is blamed on comics rather than bad parenting or just troubles in the home, although he does try to acknowledge such things. Naturally it’s so downplayed that you’d forget that.
The same is true for superintendents of institutions for delinquents who have stated their opinion that there is no connection between the behavior of juveniles and crime comic book reading. How would they have found out, sitting at their desks far removed both physically and psychologically from the lives of the inmates, to whom for years in these institutions crime comic books have been fed as a steady diet? One Lafargue psychiatrist who worked for a time in a big state reformatory for boys has vividly described how many hours these confined children spend on crime comic books (with which the reformatory is filled to the brim) and his dismay at seeing how children who had got into trouble while reading many crime comics were sentenced to years of incarceration to read even more of them.
Who else is thinking about Burgess Meredith’s line from The Twilight Zone: “there was time now”. What are you expecting kids in a reformatory to do with their time? Beat each other up? Because I’ve heard that was an option. I think his point is that they’ll reinforce what the kids thought and try not to get caught next time. But aren’t there books that will do the exact same thing? Granted he has a point that the superintendents aren’t even trying to reform the kids. They just handle the day-to-day operations and let the therapists handle things. At least I assume that’s what is going on or what is the point? Run a kiddie jail?
That is one of the paradoxes of the social problem of crime comic books: that those with authority over children have for years neglected to pay any attention to this literature, which for many children is practically their only reading, have prescribed it for children in their charge as remedy and recreation, have paid no attention to the consequences, and now state as their professional opinion that comic books do not do any harm. Those are not the ways of science.
The problem here being that Wertham has shown little knowledge of comics. Look at the comic we looked at last week that he’s namedropped as a bad comic, the Teen-Age Dope Slaves story. When I read it I saw a story in which Bruce was going crazy from withdrawal and falling apart because his pusher was a sadistic bastard. And he thought this made drugs look glamorous and would encourage drug use. I don’t think HE actually read the book but looked at the pictures. I think he’s trying to defend that with this sequence, though from one of the kids at a group for truants affectionately called the Hookey Club. Blue emphasis comes from the Web Archive posting linked to above by the way.
I don’t read the comic books. I just look at the pictures. I can read, but I just don’t take the time out. Sometimes, when it is a good story, I read it. You would be surprised how much you can learn just by looking at the pictures. If you have a good mind, you can figure things out for yourself. I like the horror science-fiction ones. I just look at the pictures.
There was another kid from the discussion of the Rorschach tests who also didn’t actually read the stories but looked at the pictures. You know, as if kids never did that with non-comic picture books before.
A boy of ten came to the [Lafargue] Clinic with the main complaint that he won’t concentrate on his schoolwork. He had previously had a psychiatric examination through a public social agency where he received the customary cliche diagnosis of deep emotional disorder and where it was noted that his mother is seductive and stimulating to him. A Rorschach report stressed his underlying feelings of hostility and destructiveness and stated that the boy is attempting to repress his hostile and destructive tendencies at the expense of spontaneity.
When we studied this boy carefully, we found that he had a difficult father, but the imagery of his destructiveness came mainly from the fact that he was an inveterate reader of “murder comics.” His real life difficulty was that he could not read. (“I don’t read comic books. I only look at pictures.”) Thus the correct interpretation of the Rorschach Test responses needs a knowledge of the whole picture and of the period in which the child lives. Circumstances in the United States today are different from those in the Switzerland of decades ago when Dr. Rorschach devised and worked out his test.
Wait, I want to know more about this “difficult father”. If the boy is turning to “murder comics” (comics that actually depict murder instead of just the other crimes that fit Wertham’s definition of “crime comics”) for catharsis because of something his daddy does or doesn’t do, maybe there’s more to it. Again, I’m not versed in psychology or psychiatry but there has to be a reason the kids Wertham sees are interested in these stories, and that’s barely touched upon so far in this book. Anything outside of comics are briefly mentioned at best and the blame is square on comics. Yes, being hot for your mom is weird but is it comics alone doing that? It seems to me the kids isn’t connecting with his mother as a mother but as a woman. Are comics causing his “underlying feelings of hostility and destructiveness” or is there something more to it? Wertham isn’t looking into why the kids are drawn to this kind of medium is acting like the comic has some weird hypnotic power on young minds as if all kids are drawn to sexy women even before they hit puberty.
When TIME magazine, at one stage of my investigations, reported my statement that the violence of crime comic books is a contributing factor to the increasing violence in juvenile delinquency, the father of a boy of four wrote a critical letter to the magazine in which he said, “It occurs to me that Dr. Wertham takes a child’s mind too seriously.” Is it possible to take a child’s mind “too seriously”? Is anything to be gained by the current cheap generalization that healthy normal children are not affected by bad things and that for unhealthy abnormal children bad things do not make much difference either, because the children are bad anyhow? It is my growing conviction that this view is a wonderful excuse for adults to do whatever they choose. They can conceal their disregard for social responsibility behind a scientific-sounding abstraction which is not even true and can proceed either to exploit children’s immaturity or permit it to be exploited by whole industries.
I admit I’m on Dr. Wertham’s side here. Sort of. There are plenty of sane people in the mob, who just turn off their conscience to push people around and kill people. As much as I would like to blame a lack of conscience on insanity that isn’t the case. Some kids are born bad but others are convinced that doing bad things is how you get ahead in life. And I don’t care that 21 hours a week in a comic is going to do that, when Wertham acts like the same hours reading a book won’t. But I’ll get to that a little later as we get into the Hookey Club. First I want to look at some of the tests being discussed. One is the “questionnaire” style test, and Wertham casts doubt on that test.
Child psychologists often publish results of studies based on the questionnaire method. They take a group of children and ask them: “Do you do this (or that)? How often do you do it? Do you read this (or that)? What do you like better (this or that) ?” – and so on. This questionnaire method is inadequate. To ask children a series of simple questions and expect real enlightenment from their answers is even more misleading than to carry out the same procedure with adults. The younger the child, the more erroneous are the conclusions likely to be drawn. Children love to express themselves, but giving hard and fast answers to hard and fast questions is neither their favorite nor their natural method. Even if they do their best, the procedure is crude and leaves out all the finer shades of the dynamics of childhood thinking. On this premise we decided from the very beginning not to rely on any single method, but to use all the methods of modern child psychiatry which were suitable and
Yes, he actually gets this part. Children do like to express themselves, to find out for themselves who they are and how the world works. Play is one way of doing that. Reading, listening to, or watching stories that happen to interest them is another. Wertham is at least trying to tackle the subject from as many angles as possible. But when you do so already expecting a result or pushing a result for an agenda, whatever it may be, you’re looking to demonstrate you’re right instead of looking for the truth even if you don’t plan to. Wertham has shown a bias against comics in favor of literature he “approves of” like books. At one point he’s said that he thinks comics turn kids off of books. As a kid and today I loved books. I love comics. I could read both depending on the mood I was in at the time, sometimes in the same day. Promoting one doesn’t mean denouncing the others.
It’s like kids today being accused of not reading anymore. They read all the time. They read text messages and social media, sure, but they do read articles about things they’re interested in. And if they didn’t read books then how did Harry Potter become a household name even before the first movie was announced? Or Bella and Edward? There may not be enough kids reading the classics, and promoting those to kids should be looked into beyond a teacher forcing them to read the books without even trying to encourage the kid positively towards it. The teachers who got me to read books outside my comfort zone did so by choosing a book that ended up interesting me and did so without belittling me for not reading a book they preferred. Even then I ended up reading something I hated, like The Old Man & The Sea, but still found books I didn’t think I would enjoy, like To Kill A Mockingbird, Great Expectations (which I wouldn’t read again but didn’t hate reading), or Treasure Island, the latter being something that some teens would very much enjoy. You can’t force a kid to read a book; you can only encourage them to do so by finding a book you think they might enjoy and surprise them.
A social acquaintance asked me about his nephew: “My sister has a little boy. He reads comic books all the time. And I’ve seen him – it is all the time! He lives in one of those dream worlds. He’s always interested in these books. All his concentration goes to that. All his excitement comes from these comic books. He doesn’t even go out to play ball.” I have never heard such a complaint about harmless animal comics.
Yeah, we’ll be talking about one of those “harmless animal comics” later this week. But did you notice something else? Replace “comic books” with “video games” and it’s the same complaint, isn’t it? And now with mobile gaming and on the go consoles like Nintendo’s DS and Switch, you can even do it while outside, so it’s basically exactly like comic books. The thing is I read comics. I also watched television, played with toys, and played video games. And since my allergy problem didn’t start until I was in my late twenties I went outside, played in the yard, rode my bike, and walked to the nearby arcade we used to have or a few feet further to visit my dad at his job (and on occasion sneak in to the photo studio next door to his job, so I’m surprised I chose writing over photography at times).
I didn’t stay in my “dream world” but used it to come up with games and even story ideas. Maybe your acquaintance’s nephew just needed better encouragement. I wonder how long it took before kids started folding paper and trying their own comics? One of Wertham’s experiments involved kids drawing, but they were drawing a panel from a comic, and not surprisingly they chose something visually interesting to drawn, like any artist. Then he gave the drawings to another therapist who concluded that something was up with the kids. This was not correct, but for reasons Wertham didn’t expect. The kids chose the panel because it was visually interesting, and all you gave them were crime comics intended for adults. Of course they’re going to end up with the biggest action (or violent if you prefer) scene and you let your colleague assume the kids was violent to “prove” it was because the panels were too violent for kids who were below the target age group. So biased.
And once again we’re over the 3000 word count, although some of it was quotes. So it looks like we’ve got to split the article again or you guys are going to get bored. Tomorrow we’ll look more into the tests and be formally introduced to the Hookey Club, a good idea that isn’t without a few odd statements.