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.
The Effects of Comic Books on Children
“A man who gives a wrong twist to your mind, meddles with you just as truly as if he hit you in the eye; the mark may be less painful, but it’s more lasting.
And lately “horribly wrong” has been the order of the day. Even when he gets something right, it’s followed by something wrong. In this week’s examination we have treatment of women, Wertham continuing to misunderstand Superman, the treatment of other races, notably blacks and Asians, and nightmares because I do not understand what convinces Wertham to group things together in a chapter. I will say this, though. There is something in that list that I almost entirely agree with him on, and it’s one that’s still debated to this day with good reason even though comics in the 2010s are better at it than they were in the 1950s. Meanwhile there is something that he is clearly a product of his time about as well.
This should be fun, but it won’t be.
Unlike Wertham I believe in context so read the chapter first.
A typical comic-book drawing shows a blonde young girl lying in bed. She says: Then I was dreaming, of murder and morphine. This is a crime-comic-book dream. Murder, crime and drug traffic are offered to children in a literature which the defenders of comic books call the modern version of the stories of the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Mother Goose. But are there heroin addicts in Grimm, marihuana smokers in Andersen or dope peddlers in Mother Goose? And are there advertisements for guns and knives?
Actually, some of the early Grimm fairy tales got quite dark and ended with death because they were also stories not originally intended for children. You got the censored versions, Doctor. The heroine of The Little Mermaid dies because she refuses to kill the man she loves when he falls for someone else, despite the wishes of her friends, while The Snow Queen puts the heroine through all sorts of horrors just to get her boyfriend back from a jealous witch. As for Mother Goose, Georgie Porgie would be accused of sexual harassment today who runs off when their boyfriends show up, the history of numerous nursery rhymes are based on political popshots and horrific tragedies, and Peter shoves his wife in a pumpkin shell so he can go back to gorging himself on pumpkins, only loving his second wife after learning to read (somebody tell me how that works?). It’s not neat and clean simply because you grew up on it.
The thing about comics at this time is that it was still a growing medium. Books were originally reserved for upper class adults because they weren’t easy to print. Comics had the advantage of more advanced printing processes that made them cheaper than book even in the 1950s, or even today with the rise in comic prices. For reasons I have trouble understanding, adults always see a new medium as for kids and the industry and their adult fans have to put up with the “you like kids stuff” banner until they either prove them wrong (animation is winning that fight–slowly) or pulling it away from kids (superhero comics and video games, although video games puts up more of a fight). If this was about Wertham warning parents that not all comics were meant for kids I’d be more on board with this book but so much of it is born of a misunderstanding of comics, if not a form of snobbery against something that isn’t books. You CAN love books and comics. I do, and did when I was a kid.
He goes into another book about girl supposedly remembering happy times, but the story is about a Nazi concentration camp. I only know of one book about a girl hanging with Nazis and I thought that one ended with her reforming but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the review. Point is with the history I’ve already seen, and we’ll see again this chapter, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wertham didn’t read the whole thing. Like some of the kids have admitted to, so I guess he’s in line with them.
I undertook and continued the study of the effects of crime comics on the minds of children in the face of an extraordinary complacency on the part of adults. Typical of this attitude is the Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books, which has existed now for several years. It uses methods which are amateurish and superficial and, from the point of view of the mental hygiene of children, its classification is most lenient and unscientific. It divides comic books arbitrarily into four classes:
a) no objection,
b) some objection,
d) very objectionable.
At one time the Committee reported that it found “only” thirty-nine comic books “very objectionable.” This committee distinguishes fifteen categories of comic books, failing to realize that for most of them the harmful ingredients are the same, whatever the locale. Of “undesirable effects” the committee in question mentions only three: bad dreams, fright, and general emotional upset. How they know that one comic book causes that and not another, and why they fail to mention the really serious harmful effects is not explained. No wonder that these evaluations lend themselves to gross misstatements in which those not rated “very objectionable” have been lumped together with other categories as if they were all right. What has made the committee’s evaluations even more confusing to the public is the fact that the Children’s Bureau of the Federal Security Agency has given its findings as the only statistics in an official statement about comic books.
This is what happens when you let some other group police your media instead of parents who should know what their kids can or can’t handle and take time to sit with them to discuss what they’ve read, using it as an opportunity to further educate them on proper values. You know, part of a parent’s job.
Some time ago the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene issued a press release. It spoke of “the much-maligned comic book” and said “the universal appeal of the comic book stems from its color, action and drama.” Modern psychopathology, however, teaches that it is not the form but the content that is dynamically important.
The problem is I’m not convinced Wertham has always taken the time to study the form. On the few occasions I know what he’s referencing he’s gotten it wrong or only partially correct, while others have no context so I can’t read these stories myself and confirm or denounce his claim, and usually it’s a comic that a kid shouldn’t be reading anyway. But he’s pushing to stop having comics read so far and not “watch what your kids are reading” or “put these comics where the kids won’t see them with a proper rating system”. Thus the response of those influenced by this book were one of a war against all comic books.
This release reminds one of the old story of the boy called into conference by his father to receive sexual enlightenment. After listening to a tedious discourse about the flowers, the birds and the bees for some time, the little boy interrupts his father impatiently, “And there is no intercourse at all?” So one might ask about crime comic books: And nobody gets shot? Or stabbed or tortured? And no girls are beaten or choked or almost raped?
If it happens in the comics I read it was shown as being a horrible person and their either arrested or burning in Hell. At one point in this chapter Wertham goes on a rant against the expression “crime does not pay”, saying that the comics do show the crimes paying. Maybe in the beginning but at the end they are arrested or killed, which they wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t gone on a crime spree…ducking cops, hiding in shadows, constantly in fear. Can we stop acting like not being arrested or having the loot qualifies as “paying”? Not according to this chapter.
A young mother came to see me about her ten-year-old son. “He has wild imaginations,” she complained. “when he plays with the children on the block, all younger than he, he takes a knife and says, I’ll take your eyes out! He slashed a girl’s doll carriage with the knife. I caught him with a three-year-old boy. He was saying to him, Now I must gouge your eyes out! Then he said to the boy, I must hang you! Then he said, I must rope you up!“
I hope you’re actually reading this chapter because the quoting is what takes up so much space in these articles so I want to cut them down a bit this time, but I do want to focus on this story. Because there’s something stupid responsewise with this.
This boy was an inveterate reader of comics. This fact came out accidentally when he saw comic books on my desk and asked me, “Doctor, why do you read comic books?”
“I read crime comics,” he went on. “In some they tie up the girls. They tie their hands behind their backs because they want to do something to them later.
“Once I saw in a science comic where this beast comes from Mars. It showed a man’s hand over his eyes and streams of blood coming down. I play a little rough with the kids some times. I don’t mean to hurt them. In a game I said I would gouge a child’s eyes out. I was playing that I was walking around and I jumped out at him. I scratched his face. Then I caught him and sucked the blood out of his throat. In another game I said, I’ll scratch your eyes out!“
So it appears this 10-year-old is acting out stories he’s seen in a comic. Like kids do with movies, radio plays, television, and yes–even books! Do you think kids never acted out Mark Twain stories or Robert Louis Stevenson? Who gets to be Long John Silver? My point in bringing this up so much is that Wertham acts like there are no people in literature he approves of who act like people in comics. It just takes longer than a comic story and has you imagine the action rather than seeing it. If comics cause more of the nightmares we’ll see later or the games like this one it’s because back then you have more stories per issue, readable in a shorter amount of time, and by kids who only read book for the pictures anyway. Like every picture book ever.
In one of our later sessions this boy told me that younger children should not read comic books. “If I had a younger brother,” he explained, “I wouldn’t want him to read the horror comic books, like Weird Science, because he might get scared. I don’t think they should read Captain Marvel. Look at this one with all the pictures of the man without his head! The boy downstairs is six years old. Whenever he sees any monsters he always starts crying. He thinks it’s real. It is bad for children because after they read that they keep on thinking about it. When they buy the comic books they start thinking all sorts of things, playing games. I played such games because I got them from the comic books. That’s why I think younger children shouldn’t have them.”
Yes, a “later session” after Wertham told him that comics were bad rather than he wasn’t interpreting what happens in the comics or what the writer and artist are trying to show correctly. Which Wertham himself is guilty of. And I wouldn’t give this six year old a copy of Weird Science either…because that’s not the right age group for a science fiction horror comic! As for Captain Marvel, I’ve read some of the stories around this time (I don’t know which one has a man without his head or why he doesn’t have a head…for all I know it was just how it came out in the artwork) and I’m not entirely sure your average six-year-old should be reading it, but unlike Weird Science I don’t have a problem with the ten-year-old reading it. I did ask my Reviewers Unknown colleague and huge Captain Marvel fan Writrzblok about it.
We’ll get to the Blue Beetle later this week. You know what is never asked in this section though? WHY ARE YOU PLAYING BLOODY HORROR GAMES WITH THREE YEAR OLDS! This kid is never called out for that, or for calling out what he’s going to do to these kids, in play or not, like he’s Liam Neeson! I might have played these games with my friends when I was 10 but not with a 3-year-old. I wasn’t a horrible person! If this was ever brought up with the kid who doesn’t think his six-year-old neighbor should be reading Captain Marvel, that was a mistake!
To overlook the comic-book factor often means great unfairness to children – and of course to their parents, whom it is so easy to blame. Taking money away from younger children by threats or use of force is nowadays a frequent delinquency which often does not come to the attention of the authorities.
Because the authorities solve everything involving kid crimes by hiding them or sending them to people like Dr. Wertham, who blame comics rather than correct false interpretations (because he shares those interpretations to a point).
A girl of eleven hit a six-year-old girl, pushed her and took her money out of her pocket. An official psychiatrist, after a routine examination, made the drastic and, under the circumstances, cruel recommendation that she be sent to a psychiatric hospital first, then be taken from home and placed in an institution. He wrote the usual cliché that she had “deep-seated problems” (which he did not specify) and remarked that she had “very little awareness of the consequences and implications of her action.”
I find it funny that Wertham is complaining here about not specifying the “deep-seated problems” when it is so rare for Wertham to specify family situations when he even acknowledges them.
But on closer study we found that she had very definite ideas about these “consequences and implications.” She and her friends were imbued with the superman ideology: the stronger dominates the smaller and weaker. She told us a comic-book story of a bank robbery which ends in a Superman rescue. She laughed because she knew that the bank robbery was real while the Superman rescue was not. The man-hating comic-book figure, Sheena, was her favorite. And no other vista of life except the ideal of being stronger than the next one was presented to her.
We’ll be getting back to Sheena too. I’m a bit confused here though. What’s the difference between the “superman ideology” and the “Superman rescue” besides a capital letter? Superman would actually stop the bad guy, like he did here. Basically this kid decided that because there was no “Superman” to stop her she could do what she wants. Imagine if someone stronger than her, say an older child or the same kind of adults that already caught and punished her, were to come along? She apparently doesn’t care. And if you think Superman has stopped every crime in Metropolis that has ever happened, Superman today couldn’t pull that off and he’s a lot more powerful than he was in the 1950s, depending on the writer.
“I read more than ten comic books a day,” she said. “There was a girl who stole in a department store and nobody saw her. So she is going out of the store, so this man he grabbed her. When she got to her home she thought nobody was following her. Then they took her to the police station and said if she did it any more they’d have to put her away. That shows if you steal anything you never know who follows you or whoever is watching you. If she was more clever maybe it could have been different.”
In other words, this girl was well aware of consequences and implications as demonstrated to children in comic books. The “consequences” are that you may be caught. The “implications” are that you should be clever and not get caught.
He does make a good case around this part, though. The stories he talks about (although how many of them he actually reads are up to debate) allegedly focus more on the crime than the punishment. From a storytelling perspective that makes sense. You want to give the hero a good challenge or the story will be boring and the hero comes off as too good, limiting the drama. (And no, I don’t buy that Superman is too powerful to have a decent threat. I’ve noted this in one of my Art Soundoff v-logs.) However, maybe focusing more on the hunt for the villain isn’t such a bad thing at times, unless we’re talking some multi-part scheme for world conquest.
But we’ll get more into this in tomorrow’s installment on this chapter. We still have entertainment, race and women treatment, and nightmares to go. I’m going to try to finish the whole thing tonight for Patreon subscribers but the rest of you will see more during the week. Suffer with me, won’t you?