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 Influence of Comic Books on Reading
Reading maketh a full man
Well for once Wertham chose a single topic for a chapter. This whole chapter is about comics as a source of illiteracy. I didn’t say it was a GOOD topic, but considering how he’s gone multiple topics that barely link together previously it’s a step up. Oh, he still sneaks in a bit about comics turning kids into criminals of course, and his bias against a relatively new medium as literature is still painfully obvious but at least they all go together, discussing comics as reading material or the lack thereof. At this point I’ll take what I can get because Wertham isn’t the best writer out there, and I’ve read enough non-fiction commentary books to know it can be written well.
I want to remind people going into this that I love comics but I also love books. This article series is usually one article per chapter, but also about non-fiction books, maybe even ones Wertham would approve of. I am all in favor of convincing kids to read books, but unlike Wertham I am also aware that not every kid wants to read, and not just because of the reading disabilities we’ll be discussing before this week is out. My dad can read just fine. He reads articles in newspapers and online, posts on Facebook, instruction manuals, and TV guides (although now just the grid on the TV) without any problem. When it comes to reading books for entertainment however, that was more my mother’s domain and most likely where I got it from. Wertham is highly biased to his own childhood reading experiences. Before this week is up we won’t just be going over Wertham’s comments but just how the comic reading experience differs from other mediums like books and magazine and why Wertham should be teaching how to read a comic versus writing them off…as well as a few good points he actually makes in this chapter. This is his least frustrating chapter thus far…but it’s not without facepalm moments I’m afraid. Click the link below and follow along because reading is fundamental.
One interesting new development was that whole comic books and comic-book stories appeared in other publications that did not look like comic books from outside. Sometimes a comic book would be sold as a comic as usual, but would also appear, without its cover, in an ordinary magazine. Thus the reader is relieved of the trouble of tackling connected text and can peruse at least some of the stories in the magazine by the simple picture-gazing method appropriate to the comic book format. Or maybe the idea is that the young adult readers of such a magazine have barely graduated from comic books and find regular reading too hard. A regular twenty-five-cent pulp magazine, for example, has in the middle of it a whole sexy science-fiction comic book, which alone and under a different title sells for ten cents. When the enticing blonde heroine says: Keep those paws to yourself, space-rat! the magazine reader can save himself the effort of reading. It is clear from the picture what is meant. The magazine prints some enthusiastic responses from readers to the comic-book section innovation.
“Your comic section is wonderful,” writes one. “Being only 16 years old,” writes another, “I just love your illustrated section. Please make it longer.”
This undercover extension of the comic book format has also spread to what on the outside appear to be regular magazines in the children’s field. Children’s Digest, published by Parents’ Magazine at the stiff price of thirty-five cents, contains sections in typical comic-book form with bad colors and crowded balloons. The text has the comic-book flavor, too.
Note that he appears to be treating comics as a plague, infecting other media. In truth the magazine companies saw that comics were popular with their audience and tried to use it to draw them into buying the magazine. To be honest, the only reason a publisher or some other company attempts to make a quality product is the hope that you will buy it again, in this case the next issue. The writers may care if you actually read it but once it’s bought most publishers are done with their job.
A similar children’s magazine, Tween Age Digest, at twenty-five cents, also looks like a regular magazine, but has comic-book sections. One of these is a supercondensed comic-book version of Don Quixote. You see him lying on the ground: “The servants beat Don Quixote mercilessly and although he swore vengeance he was helpless as a beetle on his back.”
When a publisher was asked recently about this spreading of the comic-book style to regular publications he answered: That is simple. We are retooling for illiteracy.
I post this because it’s rather important to the topic at hand and things that will be commented on during this chapter. Wertham’s commentary is that comics not only don’t promote literacy but promotes illiteracy. There are points in this chapter where it’s hard to argue, were I not me, someone who loves comics and books and can easily point out solutions that are quite easy to someone not biased against a medium he didn’t grow up with.
The dawn of civilization was marked by the invention of writing. Reading, therefore, is not only one of the cornerstones of civilized life, it is also one of the main foundations of a child’s adjustment to it.
This is quite true. While we have symbols for the reading impaired as well as foreign visitors and immigrants who may not yet be well-versed in English, reading is still very important just to find out where you are and how to get where you’re going. I can give voice commands to the GPS on my phone or tablet but for the most part I still need to read the street signs both on the GPS and on the road. And writing, even in this day of the internet, is still a strong method of conveying information when you don’t have the opportunity to speak to each other. You’re reading right this very minute!
When we indulge in huge generalizations in discussing such questions as why people act this way or that, why they believe or tolerate this or that, or the other, we usually forget the simple question of why it is that so many people cannot read properly. Statistics on illiteracy indicate not only that many people do not read books, but also that many cannot read well enough to absorb a book or an average magazine article. According to Ruth McCoy Harris, in an article on reading, one out of twenty five Ainericans cannot read at all, and three out of five adults “do not read well. Millions read nothing but the comics.”
Wertham makes a point in this article that some kids act out of frustration because they can’t read or read very well, and are accused of being lazy at school because the problem of not being able to read is surprisingly easy to hide. Senior citizens who never learned to read were able to find ways to fool people for most of their lives and some were probably never found out. And there are plenty of reading disabilities for the mind to choose from (dyslexia being the more commonly known nowadays), or it could be someone needs glasses to read and chooses not to out of pride.
Reading troubles in children are on the increase. An important cause of this increase is the comic book. A very large proportion of children who cannot read well habitually read comic books. They are not really readers, but gaze mostly at the pictures, picking up a word here and there. Among the worst readers is a very high percentage of comic-book addicts who spend very much time “reading” comic books. They are book worms without books.
If they were “bookworms” they’d probably be picked on by kids for having their nose in a book. In fact, until and even after the popularity of the comic you could see kids more interested in books, either to study a subject or for entertainment, than they were in taking part in life activities like play or learning how to do something via practical experience. Comics just allow kids who don’t read as well to still get some entertainment since TV wasn’t available day or night, or at least their favorite shows and movies weren’t, like they would be with the introduction of the VHS tape, or streaming services and “on demand” cable channels like today. Instead of spending hours on one story, they’d get to read three or four in the same span of time.
Parents and other adults are often deceived into believing the children can read because they “read so many comics.” In teaching children to read, the schools have to compete with the pictures of comic books. Low-grade literacy is the long-range result. One of the Lafargue researchers, a physician, visited the library of a public school. There were about thirty boys there. Two of them were reading newspapers and eleven of them were reading comic books.
What were the other 17 kids doing? And how much do you want to bet at least one of those two kids were checking out a horrific newsstory or the comics page? They could also have been looking at sports scores, but we don’t know.
Reading is not a circumscribed, isolated function of the brain, but a highly complex performance. Visual comprehension contains many more abstract elements than, for example, motor behavior. Psychologically speaking, reading is a very high performance. To see a real apple and try to grasp it is much simpler than to read the word apple, which is on the one hand an abstraction and yet has potentially many associations not only visually but also in the sphere of hearing, touch, smell and taste.
One of the great things about books is the ability to form the image of, say that apple, into people’s heads. Every person will have their own idea of what the apple looks like beyond the description given and we’ll never fully know what the other person’s perspective was unless they’re a really good artist, but a good writer can form a close enough image for everyone.
Reading disorders are much more frequent in some countries than in others – in the United States and England, for example, rather than in Germany. In a study of 51,000 children in the schools of Munich, contrary to expectation, only ten were found (ages ten to fourteen) with serious reading disorders. So it is not accidental that most of the research in this field has been done in England and the United States. The difference in frequency may have little to do with the methods of examination or the methods used in teaching reading, or with any differences between German and English and American children. It is the result of differences in the language itself. In the English language, spelling is much more difficult because the spelling and the sound may be so different. The child has to learn to pronounce a word differently from what it seems to be according to its spelling. The letter a, for instance, has to be pronounced differently in different words, while for the child learning to read in German the letter a has only one visual vocal association. In English, the letter u may represent twenty-four different sounds.
So isn’t the problem the English language as opposed to German or some other languages? I think our written language is easier than some other languages but the grammar and spelling is often confusing. Throw in changes in slang that become regular terms (“gay” used to mean something different and “dog” can mean one of three different insults and a couple positive attributes depending on how it’s used and the person using it) and whomever came up with this language really wanted to confuse us. Then we pull in words from other countries and adopt them in both subcultures and in our proper language (how many words are traced back to Latin or French?) and confuse things further. No wonder the early Native Americans had trouble with the white man’s grammar and “Engrish” is all over Japan.
Many children whose trouble lies in the field of reading are wrongly diagnosed. This is due primarily to the fact that the frustration from the reading failure leads to all kinds of other emotional troubles. There is in fact a vicious circle. Emotional factors may lead to reading difficulties and chronic reading failure may cause emotional disturbances. Often behavior disorders clear up when the reading disorder is cured, and reading improves when emotional problems are straightened out. In my routine work over many years in mental hygiene clinics I have found children with reading disability wrongly committed to institutions for mental defectives, regarded as psychopathic or incorrigible without any regard for their reading disability, or given the facile and so often false diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia. These erroneous diagnoses, as well as the prevalent neglect of children’s reading difficulties, are the more deplorable because most of these children could be helped.
I think we’re better about it today but pride is what makes it hard to diagnose. We put, understandably, a lot of importance on reading and not being able to read may be embarrassing or child and adult alike and thus will not always admit it. It’s worse on children and teenagers because their peers are sure to tease them about it.
There is a high correlation between intelligence, vocabulary and reading. Comic-book readers are handicapped in vocabulary building because in comics all the emphasis is on the visual image and not on the proper word.
There is a way around this. We’ll be getting into how to read a comic and how to create a comic that needs to keep in mind that comics, as I’ve said before, not just a visual medium. The written part is also important. It’s like the days of silent movies. The dialog and sound effects have to be filled in by the written word. Wertham often lists things his patients say and in this and previous chapters we’ve had kids admit they don’t read the words most of the time. Wertham blames the comic rather than the reader and while comic creators were still learning how to properly present a page (in the early years the captions told more than the images–it was like an illustrated book fuses with Cliff Notes) the early layouts of comics as we know them still required both reading and pictures to properly tell their story.
Lack of interest in reading is often a reaction to failure in reading, a symptom indicating that other causal factors are operating in the creation of a reading problem. It may be a reaction to dislike or fear of school, pointing to more serious underlying difficulties
Or it could be a lack of interest in reading. I’m not saying he’s wrong, I’m saying he’s not fully correct.
This is precisely one of the points where comic books are so harmful. They retard or even interfere with reading readiness. In this they may act as a prime causal factor or merely as an aggravating influence. Comic-book reading is an inadequate experience. The child fastens on one experience at the expense of others. If he is given these wrong or harmful experiences, he loses out on constructive experiences.
The problem isn’t that comics are interfering with reading, it’s that the kids he’s talked to don’t know how to read a comic. Wertham is willing to teach kids how to read a book because it’s easy. Trying to take in all the written and visual stimuli together is required to read a comic. If your kids are treating it as a picture book, it’s because they’re doing it wrong, and of course Wertham doesn’t care to educate on the right way to read a comic because he doesn’t know himself. He kind of does.
An important area where comic books do specific harm is the acquisition of fluent left-to-right eye movements, which is so indispensable for good reading. The eyes have to form the habit of going from left to right on the printed line, then returning quickly to the left at a point slightly lower. Reversal tendencies and confusions are common among children at the age of six. As better reading habits are acquired, including the all-important left-to-right movements, reversals and other errors gradually diminish and may automatically disappear. It is different with the comic-book reader who acquires the habit of reading irregular bits of printing here and there in balloons instead of complete lines from left to right.
Some of this may be on the artists and letterers of the time. I’ve heard from letterers nowadays who discuss how artists often don’t give them the room to properly letter or writers who give them too much to write. Or both. Knowing how to design a comic panel that allows for all the necessary text is not as easy as it looks. Comic strips, or at least talking head comics like my own Jake & Leon have it easier since I map out the top and bottom inch of a panel for lettering. Captain Yuletide I have to put a bit more effort into marking out where the word balloons and captions need to go and how to best integrate the sound effects. You have to think about the lettering when you design a panel before you even do the heavy penciling.
It’s also important that the art and letters work together to create a proper flow, leading the reader’s eye to the text and to the important parts of the image so that you know who is saying what when and how it fits into the character interaction. I see this brought up a lot in the web series Strip Panel Naked where the host goes over the creative teams who get this right. But I’ve read comics from this time period and I can follow along pretty well. Maybe it’s because over the years of comic reading and the fact that I love to read I’ve learned how to do this. But comics were twenty years old by this point. Maybe Wertham was just getting all the bad readers?
We’ll find out tomorrow. This is pretty much where I wanted to stop. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at actual discussions with kids where we get a glimpse of both their home lives and how well they read comics, or pretty much anything. This should be interesting in debunking this book while acknowledging when he does make a good point.