Yesterday we looked at more of Dr. Fredric Wertham trying to blame comics that kids shouldn’t be reading for the actions of kids. Not kids being kids, mind you, but kids doing questionable things. Today we learn that comics are the enemy of a good education, even comics created to be educational. Prepare for more “books are better than comics” snobbery. Read along with us, folks.
I have found the effect of comic books to be first of all anti- educational. They interfere with education in the larger sense. For a child, education is not merely a question of learning, but is a part of mental health. They do not “learn” only in school; they learn also during play, from entertainment and in social life with adults and with other children. To take large chunks of time out of a child’s life – time during which he is not positively, that is, educationally, occupied – means to interfere with his healthful mental growth.
Tell that to today’s parent groups and politicians. Kindergarten has gone all-day, we have pre-K, pre-pre-K, tons of educational programs (and yet we somehow get dumber) while funding for non-school events like sports and the arts are constantly cut and attempts are made to extend the school year so we can pound more data into kids’ heads without any time to process and use that information. Kids do need other avenues of learning, such as play and entertainment. This is how kids grow as something more than databases who can’t use the information.
By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art.
Then your imagination is weak or at least narrow-minded. Merriam-Webster’s definition of literature includes:
a(1): writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest (literature stands related to man as science stands to nature — J. H. Newman)
(2): an example of such writings (what came out, though rarely literature, was always a roaring good story — Peopleb): the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age French literature Renaissance literaturec: the body of writings on a particular subject scientific literatured: printed matter (such as leaflets or circulars) campaign literature
Comics fits in there somewhere. There are times when Wertham really seems to be anti-comic because he thinks only books should be read, ignoring that (a)there are kids who aren’t even reading the dialog in the comics because they just don’t like to read, so what makes you think Oliver Twist is going to grab their attention, and (b)comics can lead people to read books as a starter. That’s what Classics Illustrated and similar titles were going for. That’s one of the things that makes it hard to take what he says seriously. I know comics aren’t the boogeymen Wertham thinks they are, although certain kids shouldn’t read certain comics…or certain books if Wertham were being honest with his readers. The hero in Les Miserables from what I hear is a criminal who ultimately escapes justice while pursued by an obsessed policeman. Isn’t that the message you’re trying to avoid with “crime comics”?
Considering the enormous amount of time spent by children on crime comic books, their gain is nil. They do not learn how to read a serious book or magazine. They do not gain a true picture of the West from the “Westerns.” They do not learn about any normal aspects of sex, love or life.
So what about Western novels? Pulp novels? Harlequin romance novels? These existed in your time and were also lies about the Old West. And they’re books. Look, I love books and kids should learn to read books, but my Dad isn’t a heavy reader. I got my love of reading from my Mom, libraries, the school book fair, and just loving to read. I want to be a writer now to bring reading to others as well as free the stories in my head…stories that came from books, but also comics and various other forms of media.
I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult nor adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these “books” for any sentimental or other reason.
Really? Because I have. From storylines like “Demon In A Bottle” to miniseries like Watchmen I can easily find a ton of comic fans who have a favorite storyline, favorite author run, favorite series or miniseries…comics were still new even in 1954. Books were still new at one point and it grew as a medium. He’s like an old fogey who can’t get these newfangled media and just assumes it’s bad because it’s not what he grew up with. Granted, the sellers and even creators needed to do a better job separating what is or isn’t good for kids but comics were still in its growing pains and Wertham, those influenced by this book, and various other groups, wanted to suppress this new medium so that it was restricted to the kiddies or destroyed before it had time to grow, which has happened to every medium and genre that ever started regardless of the creator’s intent. And the Comics Code would be taken over by someone with a personal agenda against one publisher rival because of it and (while I defend the spirit of the code) stifled those who wanted to write stories for a non-kid audience. You know, like every other medium out there like movies and, yes, books.
Since murder is the mainstay of crime comics, you might expect – provided you think education about murder is educational – that children would learn something positive about that. They do not. Here is a typical statement made by a fourteen-year-old boy: First degree is when you kill for no reason at all. Second degree is when you kill for a lame excuse – like when you think somebody talked about you. Third degree – you have a reason, but it still isn’t very good…. Manslaughter is when you kill a person with a knife or any weapon except a gun.
Sounds like he learned something. At least it’s a start, and he can be corrected by an adult who can better explain it, but he has a starting point to what the various degrees of murder are. That’s more than I knew because the nightly news wasn’t telling you anything and the entire first segment is about crime or someone’s house or business burning down. And kids either have to listen to it when eating dinner or in the only room besides the bedroom there is to play. It’s not like today where some houses have a separate playroom for kids. I never had a separate playroom. The guest room, which is now my studio because we don’t have guests anymore and became a TV room before then, was off-limits. It was either play in my room or play downstairs, since it gets surprisingly dark at night.
Where crime comics pay a hypocritical obeisance to educational demands they show their true colors even more clearly. For example, under the lame pretext of self-defense, they show pictures of Vulnerable Areas in the human body with such notations as:
EYES: finger jab Or thumb gouge
BRIDGE OF NOSE: edge of hand blow
Well, time to cancel all the self-defense courses. Don’t worry, ladies. As soon as comics are gone you won’t be assaulted and raped anymore. But if you do, have this whistle. lame pretext my foot! Does Dr. Wertham not want people to defend themselves in case of being attacked? It is a risk since the bad guys will see this and use this info as well, but the other answer is “keep people ignorant and defenseless”, which is not a good answer. The comics are reflecting current crimes committed by current adults.
To put it more concretely, it [I think he’s talking about subtle influences – SWT] consists chiefly in a blunting of the finer feelings of conscience, of mercy, of sympathy for other people’s suffering and of respect for women as women and not merely as sex objects to be bandied around or as luxury prizes to be fought over.
Doc, I’ve seen advertisements from the 1950s. Comics were just more blunt about it because these were adult-targeted comics. Then again, this is a man who thinks Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel were bad influences.
Crime comics are such highly flavored fare that they affect children’s taste for the finer influences of education, for art, for literature and for the decent and constructive relationships between human beings and especially between the sexes.
Or they’re people who didn’t like art and the strict definition of literature you subscribe to and found entertainment they can enjoy. Or they may be interested in checking out the full novels or learn about art when they get older because they saw the Mona Lisa in the pages of a comic or read the abridged version of Huckleberry Finn, a book that nowadays is attacked for its treatment of black people because of one story in the book and the use of the N word.
A boy of eleven who reads his own crime comics and his sister’s love comics has this conception of girls: In the love comics the girls have dresses and wearing apparel. The girls in the crime stories are always on the gangsters’ side. The gangsters pick them up, like. They just roam around with the gangsters. They are always dressed up in new clothes; practically every day they buy new clothes. The dresses have a V-shape in the front. The girls are in the room. They do something bad or something, and then a man slaps them and beats them up.
BECAUSE GANGSTERS ARE EVIL! If you’re learning how to treat women by watching gangsters instead of the hero of the story, you’re doing it WRONG!
When children confide in you, they will tell you that younger children should not read comic books. Here are notes of a typical dialogue with a boy of thirteen:
Q: Why do you say that younger children shouldn’t read them?
Q: Can’t you explain it?
Q: Tell me your reasons.
A: It gives them ideas.
Q: What kind of ideas?
A: Things they shouldn’t do.
Q: But a very young child couldn’t do these things that are in comic books anyhow.
A: Maybe. But when they read these books they don’t think right.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: I mean they don’t know what is right.
How is that so darn hard? Maybe the writers should change their approach. Maybe the newsstand shouldn’t be putting comics for adults alongside comics for kids. Maybe this should be what Wertham advocates instead of just getting rid of comics, which he seems to trying to do. Maybe something in the book will show he isn’t out to destroy the comic industry but I kind of doubt it at this point.
Then he goes into some psychological conversations that I think were meant for other doctors. Gee, maybe I’m not the target audience, but apparently that doesn’t matter. Then we get back to things I can comment on.
The cultural background of millions of American children comes from the teaching of the home, the teaching of the school (and church), the teaching of the street and from crime comic books. For many children the last is the most exciting. It arouses their interest, their mental participation, their passions and their sympathies, but almost entirely in the wrong direction. The atmosphere of crime comic books is unparalleled in the history of children’s literature of any time or any nation. It is a distillation of viciousness. The world of the comic book is the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shrewd deceiver, the torturer and the thief.
Or fighting against that. You can’t confront evil if you aren’t aware of what evil does. Again, context is important and if the kids you see aren’t getting the right context it’s not the comic’s fault.
All the emphasis is on exploits where somebody takes advantage of somebody else, violently, sexually or threateningly. It is no more the world of braves and squaws, but one of punks and molls. Force and violence in any conceivable form are romanticized. Constructive and creative forces in children are channeled by comic hooks into destructive avenues. Trust, loyalty, confidence, solidarity, sympathy, charity, compassion are ridiculed. Hostility and hate set the pace of almost every story. A natural scientist who had looked over comic books expressed this to me tersely, In comic books life is worth nothing; there is no dignity of a human being.
Really? That anti-drug comic you rallied against chapters ago was all about how the addict meant something. One adult has to learn the kid’s life has meaning, two are trying to save him as well as his girlfriend, and the ones who are out to destroy him are punished for it. There was plenty of dignity there.
In one comic an old man is killed during the hold-up of his jewelry store. He had not obeyed the order to back up against the wall quickly enough. After other crimes and murders the captured criminal says: “It was not right to kill him…. That man couldn’t have obeyed me!… That old man was STONE DEAF!”
The moral principle is clear. If you hold up a man and he does not obey quickly enough because he is deaf, you are not supposed to shoot him. But if he is not deaf, shooting him is all right.
Again, no sources I can look up (maybe I lack Writrzblok’s Google-fu) but what’s clear is he got mad at someone for no reason and killed him out of anger. Perhaps the character in the story would have shot him for disobeying him during the robbery, perhaps not. Without knowing the full story I don’t know the reasons for the other murders, and yes it does matter. Context ALWAYS matters, regardless of what Twitter tries to tell you.
In one comic story called “Mother Knows Best,” the mother advises her children: “I brought you kids up right – rub out those coppers like I taught you!”
One son answers: “Don’t worry, ma! We’ll give those flatfeet a bellyful of lead!”
Several boys have shown me this story. They themselves condemned and at the same time were fascinated by this anti-maternal story.
Ma Parker? She and her family were the template for evil mob families, including the Beagle Boys in Uncle Scrooge comics (the comics that inspired the original and upcoming new version of Ducktales). You know, one of those talking animal comics Wertham thinks are okay for kids. Which I’m also sure Wertham has not read and just looked at the pictures, thus learning NOTHING about comics. Again, comics are not just a visual medium, it’s a visual and written medium, while books are pure prose and movies pure…no, that’s visual and audio. I guess drawings, paintings, and statues are the only true visual medium but good luck with a long story on that alone.
What in a few words is the essential ethical teaching of crime comics for children? I find it well and accurately summarized in this brief quotation: It is not a question of right, but of winning. Close your heart against compassion. Brutality does it. The stronger is in the right. Greatest hardness. Follow your opponent till he is crushed.
You and I have gotten completely different things out of comics. I learned the opposite, even from comics of your time period, not just the Silver and Bronze Ages.
In many subtle and not so subtle forms the lynch spirit is taught as a moral lesson. Many children have told me that lynching is all right and have shown me examples from their comic books. In one such story the townspeople get together, hunt the criminal and he is finally shot and killed. The lesson is in the last sentence: “The story of Lee Gillon proves that fearless people banded together will always see that justice triumphs.”
In the same book, a man slaps a girl’s face and says: “Give me trouble and you’ll have a board full of spikes smashed into your kisser!”
I found the comic, but not a scan of it: Famous Comics #19. If someone finds that one, let me know. I wonder if acknowledging lynchings took place automatically equals condoning it. I guess it does in Wertham’s mind. Also condoned simply because it’s shown? Risking the lives of good sailors because you have insane revenge rage against a whale.
I have a little more space to go before hitting the 3000 word mark, but this seems like a good place to stop. Wertham starts a new topic next, daydreams and nightmares. Join us tomorrow to see how the Sandman NOT created by Neil Gaiman still gives you nightmare. (No, Sandman and Sandy aren’t mentioned. Critics like Wertham or Jack Thompson only go after the popular titles unless the publisher can trick them into getting them exposure.)