As kids we all dream of being larger than life heroes, especially our favorite heroes, or at least sharing their abilities and talents. This is true no matter what medium your heroes come from. Unless you’re Fredric Wertham, M.D., then it only makes sense if it comes from a book. One of the reasons I bring some of the villains of books is because Wertham doesn’t understand, or care to understand, comics as a medium. He didn’t grow up with them so they are wrong, even though books give you the same characters and alleged lessons that comics do. They just take longer to read so you have more exposure to the likes of Captain Ahab, Long John Silver, or Count Dracula.
It’s Wertham’s inability to accept and work with this new medium that is troubling, but if the kids are only reading bits and pieces while looking at the pictures they are reading the comics wrong. And if Wertham were honest about this he would try to see what the stories are actually trying to show and convince these troubled kids they are taking the lesson wrong, which can happen with everything from books to the nightly news. He is not honest about comics because he is biased against them not only as a therapist but as a reader who holds his favored medium in such a high regard that he will not allow anything else to even have a spot. I have read books since I was a kid. I have read comics since I was a kid, and I love both. Wertham doesn’t believe that’s possible, which makes them a good scapegoat for kids doing bad things. Influence is one thing but there is a read we are drawn to different stories or images while others, including other kids as we’ve seen, are repulsed by them. So how does this affect the heroes these kids seek to emulate?
Don’t forget to read this section yourself first if you haven’t already. After all, we’re all about reading here.
Analyzing children’s fantasies and daydreams, I have often found in them a wish for overwhelming physical strength, domination, power, ruthlessness, emancipation from the morals of the community. It may show in various half-repressed ways or openly as admiration for these traits.
Spontaneously children connect this with crime comic books of the Superman, Batman, Superboy, Wonder Woman type. In the individual case this superman ideology is psychologically most unhygienic. The would-be supermen compensate for some kind of inferiority, real or imagined, by the fantasy of the superior being who is a law unto himself. I have had cases where children would have had a good chance to overcome feelings of inferiority in constructive ways at their disposal if they had not been sidetracked by the fancied short-cuts of superman prowess.
Superman and other heroes had nothing to do with feelings of inferiority. Being constantly dumped on by my peers with few standing up for me, including teachers and principals plus whatever caused my initial shyness and poor social skills BEFORE the teasing became bullying gave me feelings of inferiority. Comics, as well as the other books, shows, and movies I was drawn to, showed me a world where bullies and worse were dealt with according to their sins (you don’t treat a middle school bully the same way you do a mob boss or a supervillain), and made me wish I lived in that world, where bullies either reformed or were punished for hurting people.
The thing is Wertham is only being exposed to the kids who see the bully as someone to emulate, not the kids who saw the hero as someone to emulate. Wanting to be Superman isn’t a bad thing when Superman is such a good person, or Wonder Woman someone who stands up for what is right and shows little girls they can be anything they want just like boys. And we will be coming back to that.
The superman conceit gives boys and girls the feeling that ruthless go-getting based on physical strength or the power of weapons or machines is the desirable way to behave.
Then they are getting Superman wrong! Superman is not ruthless. Superman uses his physical strength (Superman rarely needs weapons, so Batman here) or use weapons to hurt others. They save lives, avenge murders, recover stolen property, and save people in danger. What kids should be taking from this–I know I did–is “I may not have superpowers but I should try to be a good person and help others who need it”. If your patients are not getting that, they are doing it wrong, and rather than correct their assessment you are agreeing with them and treating comics as the enemy.
The very children for whose unruly behavior I would want to prescribe psychotherapy in an anti-superman direction, have been nourished (or rather poisoned) by the endless repetition of Superman stories. How can they respect the hard-working mother, father or teacher who is so pedestrian, trying to teach common rules of conduct, wanting you to keep your feet on the ground and unable even figuratively speaking to fly through the air?
Because that’s how Superman operates? Superboy was very tied to his parents, the same parents who taught young Clark Kent to use his powers to help other. And so Clark became Superboy (pre-Crisis) to use his abilities to help others alongside his superdog Krypto and hone the skills he would need to handle bigger threats in Metropolis than the penny-ante criminals he dealt with in Smallville. Superman loved and respected his parents, was kind to them and everybody else and continued that when he grew up to become Superman. But you wouldn’t know that because you never actually bothered to read any of these stories or ask non-troubled kids about Superman and Superboy.
I talked about the “crime does not pay” slogan already so I was going to move on. And then I saw this:
In the midst of bloody scenes in another book are two full-page announcements, one advocating “better schools” and the other with an oversized headline in capitals: WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE! advocating “a new way of prayer.” If one tried to set out deliberately to create ethical confusion in children, better ways could hardly be devised. No wonder that a minister heard his young son exclaim: “Hands up, in the name of the Lord!”
As a minister AND father, he should see this as a teaching moment and undo the confusion. Maybe this is a comic he shouldn’t have been reading. I don’t know because I don’t know what comic this is from. For that matter I don’t know if the story of the minister’s son is allegorical or if it actually happened. Context!
The detrimental effect on character is if anything worse on girls than on boys. Their ego-ideal formation is interfered with by the fascination of the sadistic female comic-book heroines. Comic books do not permit these children even in their imagination to view a non-violent life. A girl of eleven examined be cause of stealing showed in her Thematic Apperception Test a profusion of stories with murder and hostility. Her drawing of a woman showed a masculine type with violent aggressivity. Of average intelligence, she had a reading retardation undoubtedly caused by constant reading of comics. She had incorporated the comic-book morale into her character.
Here’s one of the two sections I’ve been waiting for. The emphasis comes from the version I’m copy/pasting from but notice he’s blaming a loss of interest in reading on comics. It comes off as a “well, of course it’s comics” rather than presenting us evidence beyond “books are better”.
Without rationalization and without an ideal image of oneself one cannot learn to exert self-discipline. That is why good reading is such a character-building influence. Comic books work in the opposite direction. A thirteen-year-old girl examined because of “truancy and disobedience” said about her reading, “I used to buy a love comic every day. I like to read Sheena because I like the way she fights. She fights like a man, swings on the vines and kicks people in the face.”
What Wertham doesn’t know (for reasons we’ve gone over numerous times by now) is that Sheena is protecting the jungle from evil men. Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and other jungle girl comics came out of the Tarzan wanna-be male comics of the time, the girl protecting the jungle (of course always white, and more on that in a moment) from invaders to her home, just as the Tarzanian males were. I grew up, as longtime readers know, with Jana Of The Jungle, a TV show of that formula, and Sheena herself got a movie in the 1980s. Not bad for a medium nobody remembers or cares about, right Doctor?
This is something else I’ve noticed about from this chapter. The idea of women being sex objects alone he is thankfully against, but any story where a woman like Sheena or Wonder Woman dares to fight bad guys is being seen as women beating up men. I have to wonder what he would feel about women wanting to be police officers, private detectives, bounty hunters, or soldiers? Yes, Sheena looks sexy, but if you’re going to run around a stereotyped African jungle as viewed in the 1950s saving lives and punishing wrongdoers you better be in good shape regardless of gender or skin color.
Speaking of skin color I mentioned in part one there was something he was almost completely right about, and that would be how people of color, especially blacks and Asians (they used the term “Oriental” back then, but not all Asians come from the Orient…Japan and Korea don’t qualify for example). And he’s right. In the 1950s even “good guy” black people (few in number as they were) like Whitewash Jones of the Young Allies or The Spirit’s driver, Ebony White, were written as uneducated and goofy. I mean you put Jones against another comedic sidekick like the original Green Lantern’s pal Doiby Dickles and Doiby still comes off looking better by comparison. At least they were actually fighting crime though (although from what I’ve seen Jones was often forced into it as he was a coward who was still loyal to his friends), because most people of color were treated as criminals.
If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, “ape men,” Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features. In some crime comics the first class sometimes wears some kind of superman uniform, while the second class is in mufti. The brunt of this imputed inferiority in whole groups of people is directed against colored people and “foreign born.”
Actually there weren’t as many blond crimefighters as Wertham thinks. Flash Gordon and I think Doc Savage, from the aforementioned pulp novels, are the only ones even coming to mind by 1954. And I don’t remember Jews being written as Wertham says, in part because plenty of Jewish men were doing the writing. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster (the creators of Superman), Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon (creators of Captain America) are four of the biggest names in comics at the time, and all Jewish. I’m kind of surprised the Kents and Steve Rogers weren’t Jewish, but their fathers were.
But blacks, Native Americans, and Asians were certainly depicted as horrible stereotypes. The Chinese were Communists and we didn’t like the Commies so I understand that, but by 1954 we were long since done with fighting the Japanese, so anything there can only be blamed on remaining hatred, lacking the internet, Godzilla movies, and anime to understand Japanese culture, and just being used to it. That doesn’t defend it much but I understand it. To a point! There were plenty of Asians in America by birth if not by immigration to fend off some of that. As far as Native Americans, in the Old West they may not all know perfect English (you try learning a new language and getting the grammar 100% right) but I saw “modern” stories where the Native America still talked like he was in the Old West which is just stupid. As far as blacks…well, that’s an article in and of itself.
Of course my biggest problem, as it is today, is that while I understand having the bad guys outnumber the heroes, there weren’t enough heroes of color to offset it, and when there were they were goofy stereotypes like Whitewash Jones. It wasn’t until the 1960s, long after this book stopped being relevant, that we got a black hero in the form of the cowboy Lobo (not to be confused with the DC comics character), the first black character to headline a comic. If there had been more, better written character of color and more heroes of color maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad to see so many bad depictions since there were and are people like that. There were uneducated white characters as well, but plenty of educated white heroes and allies to look at alongside them. Wertham also brings this up:
Some children take for granted these comics standards about races, with more or less awareness of their implications. For others they constitute a serious traumatic experience. For example, a twelve-year-old colored girl said at the Lafargue Clinic: “I read a lot of comic books, sometimes about seven or eight a day. Love Comics, and Wonder Woman, Sheena, Superman, Archie. I don’t like the jungle. She don’t have no peace. Every time she turn around, she’d be fighting. I don’t think they make the colored people right. The way they make them I never seen before – their hair and big nose and the English they use. They never have an English like we have. They put them so dark – for real I’ve never seen anybody before like that. White kids would think all colored people look like that, and really they aren’t. Some of those children in my school don’t like no white people. One girl’s face was scratched up. I seen the girl, but not the fight.”
I do agree that white kids weren’t getting a full picture of blacks while blacks were seeing noting like themselves. If you think the racial balance is off today, look at the 1950s. Then there’s this comment:
One of the most significant and deeply resented manifestations of race prejudice in the mores of the United States is the fact that in books, movies and magazines photographs of white women with bared breasts are taboo, while the same pictures of colored girls are permitted. Comic books for children make this same distinction. One such specimen had half-nude girls in all kinds of suggestive positions. Other pictures show typical whipping and flagellation scenes such as are found, outside of this children’s literature, only in pornographic books. When the girls are white, there is always some covering of the breasts. Only colored girls have their breasts fully exposed.
This happened in magazines, too. How many of you are old enough (or watched enough episodes of M*A*S*H*) to remember the old joke about naked women in National Geographic when they would visit African villages that for whatever reason didn’t modernize? The women walk around bare-breasted and nobody censored that before putting it into the magazine. If this really was going on in the comics, I would hope it would lead to more interracial romances but even I know what it really does: dehumanize the black women, and thus black people in general. They aren’t worth of the same dignity to these artists and editors as the white women (at least the men have loincloths), nor the people behind the original comics code who were letting this go by. I don’t think even the CCA would have let that nonsense go on. And I am not okay with that.
War comics, in which war is just another setting for comic-book violence, are widely read by soldiers at the front and by children at home. It seems dubious whether this is good for the morale of soldiers; it certainly is not good for the morality of children. Against the background of regular-featured blonde Americans, the people of Asia are depicted in comic books as cruelly grimacing and toothy creatures, often of an unnatural yellow color.
If it was bad for soldier morale, why were soldiers asking for them? And again, not every soldier was blonde in these comics. (I wonder what Dr. Wertham thinks of “dumb blonde jokes”?) The Asians in war comics, however, are being depicted as the enemy. The Korean War had just ended, with North Korea and China being among the enemy, so I totally believe they would be depicted in the worse light possible. It’s typical war propaganda. It happened with both Japan AND Germany (I have German ancestry for those of you who haven’t seen me use my last name previously). Maybe it was easier to let go with Germany because European cultures are closer to ours than the various Asian cultures considering where the colonists came from, but that’s how war works. Now if SOUTH Koreans were depicted the same way that would be wrong. It’s what people today are worried about when it comes to Muslims in light of dealing with two separate Muslim extremist groups, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and their sympathizers hiding among the Muslim community around the world along with countries like Iran. That all Muslims would be treated like all Japanese and Asians during World War II is something I don’t want to see. Just that we aren’t afraid to call the enemy what he is and depower their image with the good Muslims of the world. But I’m getting off-track.
And I’m also done with this part since we’re past the 3000 word mark again. The final part tomorrow may actually be kind of short. We’ve already gone over daydreams, but next time it’s nightmares, probably more daydreams, and Wertham not knowing who the Blue Beetle is. Way to do research, doctor!