Okay, let’s do this. We’re starting this one with nightmares, daydreams, and what not. It’s kind of going full-circle since we started on fantasies. I want to see Wertham blame comics for daydreams considering ANY good story regardless of medium can make kids (and some adult) fantasize about being the hero of the story. They may want to be Superman, or Sheena, or Robin Hood…wait, Robin Hood stole from people and in some tellings isn’t the purehearted hero he is in others. Did you ever see that show When Things Were Rotten?
Well in at least one version those expenses including parties for themselves, and they even invited a rich guy to one of those parties in order to rob him. So one of literature’s heroes isn’t always a hero. But he’s from a book so he’s okay. You can fantasize about being Long Jo…I mean Jim Hawkins because he’s a book character. You can’t fantasize about being Superman because he’s from a comic. Do you see what I mean about the snobbery?
In addition to their effect on children’s ethical growth, their character development and their social maturation, comic books are a factor in a host of negative behavior manifestations: dreams and daydreams; games; nightmares; general attitudes; reactions to women, to teachers, to younger children; and so on.
Comic books and only comic books. I know comics are the focus of this thesis but wording does matter. It does come off as him blaming comics alone for nightmares. What if the kid saw The Thing From Another World just before bed? They do have late-night showings at movie theaters in those pre-movies on television days and kids did sneak into to see them.
Comic books act clearly as a trauma or the precipitating circumstance in nightmares and other sleep disorders. I have observed this in many cases. Nightmares occur in children under very different circumstances, of course. Often they are more or less harmless; sometimes they are premonitory signs of more serious developments. A seven and a half year old boy was brought to the clinic with a complaint of nightmares. He told his parents he could not remember what had frightened him. Psychological examinations had uncovered nothing. Later, routine questions about comic books elicited merely that he read Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and liked them. When I saw him alone I told him a little about what nightmares are, and that grownups have them too. And that if one remembers what they are about one has more chance not to have them any more.
Kids Wertham talk to see to know which comics parents are ignorant enough about to claim to have read. I’ve seen Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck deal with adventures similar to those “crime comics”, but the violence was cartoonish, like regular cartoons. I recently looked through an online posting of Super Duck, one of the other comics Wertham praised. It featured a kid playing dirty and in the real world dangerous practical jokes on his brother (who is only super after taking a drug…I mean vitamin), a “joke” page that included a dead body being propped up against the judge’s podium while the horrible black stereotype claims he needed a place to hide his knife from the cops, (I considered posting it but I’m not sure I want to have that in my media library unless I’m discussing it) and abuse towards a hypnotized town mayor at the expense of the hero being cross-eyed. Also his girlfriend is a duck that would inspire the wrong kind of furry. (Not all furries are perverts, folks.)
“Don’t you remember the least little bit of any of them?” I asked him.
“You know,” the boy said, “what I really like is the Blue Beetle [a figure in a very violent crime comic book]. I read that many times. That’s what I dreamed about. I don’t have it at home; I get it at another boy’s house.”
“Who is the Blue Beetle?”
“He is like Superman. He is a beetle, but he changes into Superman and afterwards he changes into a beetle again. When he’s Superman he knocks them out. Superman knocks them out with his fist. They fall down on the floor.”
“If you say it is like Superman, how do you know it is?”
“I read the Superman stories. He catches them. Superman knocks the guys out.”
It is not difficult to understand that a child stimulated to fantasies about violent and sadistic adventures and about a man who changes into an insect gets frightened. Kafka for the kiddies!
The original Blue Beetle did not look like an insect. Wertham totally misunderstood what the kid was saying because he is terrible at research when it questions his theory. Dan Garret’s powers (also gotten from “vitamins”) and even his costume design wasn’t always consistent but he was a rookie cop who went after bad guys the cops couldn’t get as the Blue Beetle. He was even a government agent in World War II. At no point did was he the killing monster Wertham probably assumes he is.
Also note the kid is comparing him to Superman, even though he was probably closer to Batman, with various gadgets and no flying powers except when he did. (Like I said, his powers were inconsistent.) According to Wikipedia his stories only got darker during the period when superheroes had fallen out of style in comics, and he also lost his powers. He didn’t transform into a bug like some horror comic, as Wertham seems to think, but changed into his costume. When I do more research on a cheap blog than Wertham did on a whole thesis that ended up altering the course of comics and was read by a lot more people, and more important people, you know how badly he failed!
The recent output of horror comic books, a refined or rather debased form of crime comics, is especially apt to interfere with children’s sleep. In a typical specimen a man-eating shark changes into a girl. You are shown the gruesome picture of an arm bitten off by the shark with blood flowing from the severed stump. And the moral ending?
“No one would ever believe . . . that the ghost of a lovely girl could inhabit a shark’s body…”
Wertham needs to learn what genres are. We have someone who knows nothing about media condemning one form of media still in its infancy. It’s kind of sad. Horror is not crime, although some horror stories are about criminals getting punished by some unnamed supernatural horror, as if karma has a perverse sense of humor.
All kinds of monstrous creatures inhabit these comic books. They have in common that their chief pastime seems to be to kill people, eat them or drink their blood. A boy of eight read many comics during the day without any ill effect being apparent to his family. But after a while he demanded that after dark his comic books be securely locked away. He insisted on this every night because, he said, “I am afraid that these horrible creatures would come out and attack me in the night.”
Never happened with a Frankenstein book. Maybe if the illustrated pages or the cover art was better? All kidding aside, little kids shouldn’t read horror comics. If that’s what Wertham was saying I’d agree with that. Nowadays we’ve created more “kid-friendly horror” like Goosebumps or Are You Afraid Of The Dark? but they didn’t think about that back then. Wertham is trying to connect horror comics with comics about crimes and comics about superheroes and say they’re all bad because they aren’t books and all he knows are kids having troubles because he’s never talked to kids who aren’t negatively affected by comics.
Sleep disorders also occur of course in children who say they do not read comics, though they know what is in them. Sometimes this is their method of telling you that they read those books, too, but either feel spontaneously guilty about it or know that their parents do not want them to do it.
He then proceeds to tell the story of an eight year old girl who doesn’t read those comics.
When I was alone with the girl, without her mother, she said, “Sometimes I dream that something happens to me. I read comic books, but only funny ones, not mystery ones. Some of my friends read mystery ones.” When I asked her what “mystery ones” are, she answered eagerly, “When somebody shoots somebody! Sometimes they try to shoot the hero and they shoot people who have money when they want their money. They shoot anybody they want to. Sometimes there are girls in the mystery comic books. The girls, sometimes they shoot and sometimes they get shot. Sometimes the girls have a lot of money. They are dressed in pretty clothes, fancy clothes, diamonds, sequins, pearls. Sometimes a lady works with a killer and when the lady is going to tell the police, the men will shoot her. Sometimes they do bad things to girls. Sometimes they shoot them, sometimes they strangle them. I don’t know what they do, I don’t read those comic books.” In the ordinary statistics based on the primitive questionnaire method such a girl would appear as reading only harmless funny animal comics, and the sleep disorder would be ascribed to some other cause.
You know what isn’t said in this section? That she was having nightmares about the stories her friends were talking about. Oh, he claims that this happens, connected to his earlier commentary in this chapter about how comics can affect kids who don’t read comics because the kid who does is still being slowly corrupted to evil, but all he says here is that her sleep was “disturbed” and that sedatives, for an eight year old I remind you, weren’t helping. He does make a good point in the next paragraph that kids go to sleep, sometimes staying up late, reading these comics and thus having them affect their dreams. I’ve heard of kids who stayed up late reading a good book if they enjoyed books, or reading trading cards or other things before smart devices were locked to the internet 24/7. However, what you go to bed with can impact what you dream…for those of us who remember our dreams. Therapists today claim we have more dreams during the night than we can ever remember.
Pardon me for digressing but there’s something I just realized. Compare the price of the literature Wertham would promote versus the price of a pulp novel or comic. Could you get Treasure Island for a dime? In comic form maybe. Apparently all the great literature is sold so expensive that unless you have a library near you there was no way you could read it. Comics were cheap and easy to find for kids so of course they’re going to go more towards that. Today you can find websites that have any of the classics that are in public domain, like Project Guttenberg, but you didn’t have the internet in 1954, or at least not as it is today.
Many children are so sheltered that they have not come into contact with real brutality. They learn it from comic books. Many others have had some contact with brutality, but not to a comic-book degree. If they have a revulsion against it, crime comics turn this revulsion into indifference. If they have a subconscious liking for it, comic books will reinforce it, give it form by teaching appropriate methods and furnish the rationalization that it is what every “big shot” does.
Once again I and many others I know are proof that is not the case. The same theory was put out with video games. One video game commentator disproved this by showing a video of a real person really being shot in the head. It was a famous video if memory serves, but it was a horrible thing to watch and nothing like a video game. In the same vein, I have never seen real brutality except in the news. My bullies preferred psychological bullying. I left the club before the drunken fights started, although I do remember seeing one on the dance, which I avoided for my own safety so never really saw. I have never seen brutality but I don’t think I’d be indifferent towards it, just smart enough not to get involved unless I thought I could stop it. For the record I couldn’t stop a model train, so I’d call the police if I didn’t know they were already aware of it.
The variety of different kinds of brutality described and depicted in detail is enormous. Children have told me graphically about daydreams induced by them. Brutality in fantasy creates brutality in fact. Children’s games have become more brutal in recent years and there is no doubt that one factor involved in this is the brutalizing effect of children’s comics.
Well at least he said “one factor”. I think boxing was on television at the time. There is a difference between fantasy and reality and more kids realize that than Wertham realizes. When the big complaints about kids acting out moves from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers came from the parent groups reporter John Stossel interviewed a group of kids who confirmed they knew the show wasn’t real, but they liked the action and cheered on the heroes against the monsters. (It’s a show where the two bullies were goofballs by comparison and the Rangers in their civilian identities didn’t use the same actions to beat them as they did the monsters.) And how different were children’s games from Cowboys and Indians or Cops & Robbers before comics were invented?
An eight-year-old boy was examined and treated because he “wakes up at night scared.” His Rorschach Test showed that he was concerned with Superman kind of things and with supernatural things. A good bit of blood in the pictures. “The kids around the block,” he told us, “have millions of comic books. In school there is a gang, they are littler than me. Once I was walking to school. They sneaked behind me and they held my hands behind my back.”
Once the whole gang knocked a girl’s head against the wall. They jabbed a needle into her lip. They kept jabbing it in. Once a boy played sticking a penknife into my back.”
To an adult at the time when Superman wasn’t the cultural icon he is today but still widely known since he had appeared in serials and radio dramas well before this book) what qualified as “Superman kind of things”? One common trend thus far is all the bashing of Superman in this book (and all we hear about is the Batman & Robin thing) and yet Wertham doesn’t understand Superman, or any other superhero. It’s this lack of real knowledge about the comics I know about that make me question his take on the comics I don’t. It also sounds like he’s trying to, in the reader’s mind, state that the gang is the one reading the comics, which would mean all the kids around his block are gang members. The context I take though is that there are a lot of comic readers on his block and a gang in school. What was being done about the gang?
Realistic games about torture, unknown fifteen years ago, are now common among children. To indicate the blood which they see so often in crime comics they use catchup or lipstick. A boy of four and a girl of five were playing with a three-year-old boy. With a vicious look on her face the girl took hold of the younger boy and said, “Let’s torture him!” Then she pushed him against the wall and marked him up with lipstick and said, “That is all blood!” One must know children’s games to understand their minds, and one must know comic books to understand the games.
Okay, I admit this one is totally messed up. However, I understand comics and I don’t understand this game. Out of nowhere the five and four-year just decide to torture the three-year old? Luckily they didn’t use real blood but I don’t understand this game and Wertham’s lone explanation is “comics”.
In another comic book the murderer says to his victim: “I think I’ll give it to yuh in the belly! Yuh get more time to enjoy it!”
Is shooting in the stomach to inflict more pain really a natural tendency of children?
No, it’s the natural tendency of sadistic criminals. Were kids doing this? Just before this he mentions a story about a woman who is being initiated and is numbed to the violence against her and others. Perhaps because she experienced it in person so much. Real life rarely matches the simulation if the simulation is for entertainment. I can play Microsoft Flight Simulator and never be able to fly a real airplane. Is Wertham really understanding the moral of the story, or is he keeping us from learning it?
In many comics stories there is nothing but violence. It is violence for violence’s sake. The plot: killing. The motive: to kill. The characterization: killer. The end: killed. In one comic book the scientist (“mad,” of course), Dr. Simon Lorch, after experimenting on himself with an elixir, has the instinct to “kill and kill again.” He “flails” to death two young men whom he sees changing a tire on the road. He murders two boys he finds out camping. And so on for a week. Finally he is killed himself.
I’m all against violence for violence sake because it’s sick and poor storytelling, but given previous missteps….wait, this story sounds familiar. A mad scientist who is turned into a killer after drinking an elixir…that’s Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde, one of those classic books Wertham says kids should read instead. Writers mine classic stories for ideas for their own stories, you know.
We’re past the 3000 word mark again, but luckily anything I said here would just be rehashing the same points I’ve made before with more disturbing “examples” from the good doctor, so let’s end here. Don’t worry, though. There will be more “fun” next week.
Next time: Retooling For Illiteracy
Speaking of rehashing the same points. Wertham is terrible at grouping these complaints. He may be a good therapist but he’s a bad researcher and not a good writer either.