Yesterday we looked at the notion that comic books breed illiteracy because kids were only looking at the pictures. What does he think of Dr. Seuss I wonder? The problem I saw was that kids weren’t reading the comics correctly but rather than show them how to read a comic, something second nature to us today, he declared the comic evil because he thinks only books are something kids should obsess over. Maybe comics improved by the time I was a kid but I learned big words from comics. Early comic ideas came from stories, including superheroes. Comics owe a lot to books and to say that the two are mortal enemies is to fail to understand how to read a comic. Then again he thinks the Blue Beetle actually turned into a giant beetle…which come to think of it would have been a really cool superpower.

Read along as we continue into this book:

Reading disorders existed, of course, long before comic books. We know that they are due to a great variety of factors, but among these factors for the present-day child comic books have a definite place. Moreover reading difficulties among children have increased and are continuing to increase with the rise of the comic book.

Or more kids. This is just after World War II where it seemed like almost everybody thought they needed to repopulate the planet after so many were killed, thus the “baby boom” happened. So is this rising number in line with the rising number of kids at the time or just rising? Are the odds still in place?

The comic-book industry has successfully spread the fantastic idea that comic books are actually good for children’s reading. So the fundamental question arises, How many children suffering from reading disorders are comic-book readers? ‘The answer is simple. Most of them are. Comic books, especially crime comics, are a significant part of these children’s lives. If anything, they read them earlier and in greater numbers than other children.

Didn’t he say something in this chapter about not generalizing?

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.

Cover scan of Mystery Men Comics, No. 16, Fox ...

Dan Garrett had a lot of costumes, but none of them a true beetle.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yet that’s all he’s been doing in this book. Every book is either a crime comic, a love comic (which is still a crime comic with more romance in it), or a funny talking animal book (which he doesn’t realize can contain some of the elements that he usually claims makes it a crime comic). Horror, superhero, Western…all crime comics. I also wonder where those statistics come from?

He starts talking about Kenneth, one of the kids at a reading center he helped create. “Oh, yes! I can read some words! I can read guns, police, Donald Duck and horse. That’s all. when I’m on the subway I can read Times Square. But when I had to go to Floral Park once I couldn’t read it so I missed the stop.” I grant you that the boy has a problem. But to blame it on comics is a bit harsh. There are similar stories of other kids including one who cries himself to sleep because he can’t read but he does enjoy comics. Maybe these kids who can’t read are turning to comics because they can
follow the story, and are ashamed to tell anyone they can’t read. It’s a
crutch, but it’s not the comic’s fault. Rather than shame these kids
society should be trying to help them.

From there he goes into a chart of other kids in the clinic, and of course the teachers blame the comics because taking the easy way out is the way to go. I want to look at each of the cases listed in this survey, broken down by “AGE/HIGHEST GRADE REACHED/I.Q./READING GRADE/COMMENTS”, basically a comment about the child’s home life and his or her connection to comics. Let’s look at them one by one.

Tommy/11 yrs./3rd grade/IQ: 72/reading level: 0

House where family lives is in a very deteriorated condition. Boy sleeps in same bed with brothers aged 6 and 12. He is considered “very wise in the ways of the street.”

Comic hooks: “I like ghost stories and murder comics. They teach you not to curse nobody.”

Well that’s a positive message. We should encourage our kids not to place a curse on others. It’s sad just how many of these cases involved someone rooming with more than one relative, and not just siblings.

Ralph/11 years old/5th grade/IQ: 69/reading level: 1.5

Took money from children in the lower grades. Family lives in basement apartment with large rat-holes, broken floor boards, flies and leaking over head pipes; furniture worn past recognition. Father unemployed; mother in poor health. Sleeps in one bed with two brothers aged 6 and 13.

Comic books: “In crime comics they murder people with guns and knife and strangle them. They stick up banks and stagecoach. My sister looks at murder comics and at night screams that she sees a man over there. Some men kill girls ’cause the ladies be rich. Men see lady walking down street and push them in front of train, sometimes tie them up. Some boys try to do like what’s in the comic books. They take ladies’ pocketbooks and beat them up and run off. Women kill the men, knife ’em, sometimes take men to dance and while dancing jook [sic] them in the back with a knife.”

Note that he seems to only be talking about what happens in those comics, not what side he takes, which has been the case more than once in previous chapters. Although we do know he stole money from other kids. However, look at his home life. His mom is sick, the apartment sounds like it should be condemned, and his father is looking for work to feed everybody. I’m not saying this breeds a lack of a conscience but I can understand why he would try to escape into a comic. It’s easier to get (back then it didn’t cost almost as much as a short novel) and it’s not an environment that normally encourages reading.

Harry/9 years/3rd grade/IQ: 73/reading level 1.3

Good home conditions. Spends a lot of time with television.

Comic books: “I like Gangbusters, Crime Does Not Pay, Batman and Superman. They do murders, like shooting. The girls do things to the men. Catch bad men and take them to the law. Bullets bounce off girls in Super Girl. She can fly and swing on ropes.

“I’m on a mission to re-merge my name!”

Actually, Supergirl should be one word, but this is a man who doesn’t research his enemy like he thinks he does. Look at his home life. Good home, and he watches a lot of television. Nothing about reading books (well, obviously–this is a center in Queens, NY meant to help kids with reading problems), and yet he’s getting the message. At least I think he is. He’s writing more about the heroes stopping the bad guys and Supergirl’s powers. Of course he also writes less in his survey than the previous kids.

George/10 years old/3rd grade/IQ: 74/reading level: 1.3

Very tough little boy who will fight anyone of whatever size or age. Sleeps in one bed with three brothers aged 2, 5 and 11.

Comic books: “I don’t remember the names of the comic books. They hold up coffee store and when girl reach for gun shoot them. Man make girls hold up stores. Other people learn about killing and taking ladies’ pocketbooks. They learn about murders, but not me. I learn good stuff. Don’t take nothing from no kid’s house when you go up their house.”

I’d like to think George is going after bad kids. Note the part near the end: “They learn about murders, but not me. I learn good stuff.” Does this mean he’s learning positive messages like not stealing? That’s why I think George is fighting bad kids. Maybe he grew up to be a cop? Obviously we’ll never know.

Henry/10 years old/2nd grade/IQ: 65/reading level: 1.2

Lives with foster parents who do not speak English. Basement apartment consists of kitchen and bedroom.

Comic books: “I like Superman. I forget the bad things. I forget all that’s in the crime books. I forget about how they robbed the bank. The men want to kill the girls. Maybe because they have jewels.”

Yes we should all be concerned if “grade reached” means in school. Second grade before…what? He couldn’t drop out. Second grade would be about seven or eight years old, which would mean repeating more than once. He lives with foster parents who don’t speak English in a basement apartment with one bedroom, probably sharing a bathroom with the rest of the floor or building (I think they had those back then) and yet he forgets the bad things in comics but likes Superman. I’m noticing the worse the situation the more likely they are to discuss the criminals. I wonder how many they see in their own neighborhoods?

John/12 years old/4th grade/IQ: 67/reading level: 2.1

Sleeps with 13-year-old sister in one bedroom. Parents separated.

Comic books: “Captain Marvel was fighting ants and the ants grow big. Had a lady and was going to kill her and he escaped and fought ants and saved the lady. An ant helped him. In mysteries and crime comics they poison each other, dynamite caves and blow people up. Girls play men for fools and when men rob banks they give money to the women and they buy mink coats and when men don’t like it they kill them. Superman ladies hardly do anything.”

I really want to read the story where Captain Marvel teams with an ant to stop evil ants. That sounds so fun! I wonder what he means by the ladies in Superman not doing anything? That they aren’t as bad as they are in Crime Does Not Pay or something?

Dick/12 years/4th grade/IQ: 54/reading level: 1.4

Father left family when boy was very young.

Comic books: “I like the way they fight and when they kill people. The books tells about murder, killing and shooting and some love.”

If that’s the kinds of stories he prefers I wonder if lacking a good male role model is more his problem? I grant you I’m only going by the survey information we’re given, so maybe an uncle or neighbor stepped into that role for him, but I still hold to my theory that kids are being drawn to these stories because they speak to the kids, not because they’re warping kids minds. We’ve already seen decent kids getting a more wholesome message into their answers.

Peter/11 years/3rd grade/IQ: 72/reading level: 0

Mother is dead.

Comic books: “In murder books men steal and throw the cop off the roof and kill about five men. Some make you scared at night. You dream about it and think somebody’s coming to kill you. Some tells about stealing, killing people, some stick with knives, shoot with guns, beat them over their heads with sticks and stick them in the eyes, hit ’em over the head with a poker and string them up with ropes. I can read them now ’cause I know what’s right and wrong. My aunt teaches me not to do bad things.”

I don’t know when Peter lost his mother. It could be anywhere from childbirth to a week before the survey was taken. Note that he says he can “read them now ’cause I know what’s right and wrong”, meaning he isn’t seeing the bad guys as the heroes of the story, in other words how the writer intended rather than how Wertham interprets.

Jack/12 years/2nd grade/IQ: 61/reading level: 1.5

Very neglected child. Has to get up early in the morning and prepare his own meals. Grandmother, this boy, his brother, aged 4, and sister, aged 3, sleep in the same room.

Comic books: Knows many comic books. “Cowboys are bad. They steal money out of the express office. The boys beat the girls up and Superman comes to help the girls. The boys are bad because they do things they shouldn’t. They set houses on fire. The comics teach boys how to rob and join up in gangs.

So here’s a child with no supervision. I don’t know if the Grandmother is the exclusive guardian, but considering he is neglected, sleeps with his four and three-year-old siblings along with Grandma, and has to make his own meals, he still talks about Superman saving the girls, and the boys being bad for committing crimes and beating up girls (also a crime). I hope he grew up to be like Superman.

Sam/12 years/5th grade/IQ: 66/reading level: 1.5

Frequent family assistance from Department of Welfare.

Comic hooks: “I read all kinds of comics except love. I don’t like them. The only time I read them is when I’ve seen all the rest of the comics.”

Again we learn nothing except he doesn’t like romance comics. Few boys do.

Paul/10 years/4th grade/IQ: 64/reading level: .7

Mother deserted family; father works nights.

Comic books: Knows the names of many comics and says they are all his favorites. “The Indians shot a man in the eye with an arrow. The soldier took his sword and stuck it in him. The Indian took the soldier’s rifle, killed everyone in the fort and the boy was shot right in the back and a baby was shot with a bullet and then the troopers came and they warred. I don’t like mystery comics any more ’cause I dream about them and I can’t sleep.”

So if he doesn’t read mystery comics anymore because they give him bad dreams (or night dreams–they’re like daydreams but at night, and a lot more annoying), what comics are his favorites? And wouldn’t this be one of those stories? Perhaps he was talking about the kind of story he stopped reading but he can still find plenty of good comics to read? See, doctor, they exist!

Marvin/9 years/3rd grade/IQ: 65/reading level: 1.1

Brother also in ungraded class.

Comic books: “Cops and robbers fight. Robbers don’t have money. They buy a cheap gun or little guns and go rob a bank.”

I put this one here for completeness. I don’t know about you but I learned absolutely nothing.

Jimmy/9 years/ungraded/IQ: 72/reading level: 1.5

Father in tuberculosis sanitarium. Children neglected. Truant.

Comic books: “I have no comics. I read my sister’s. I like cowboy stories. They kill too much in the mystery comics. I don’t like it because I dream about it. I dream ghost stories.”

Young Romance No 11 1949

“Forget Sgt. Rock, I need to see if this chick gets back with Bill!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia tuberculosis didn’t need a sanitarium in the 1950s because antibiotics were doing the job. When was this survey taken? Here we have another neglected child who prefers Westerns because they kill too much in mystery comics, both of which he has to get from his sister. We don’t know how old his sister is. What we do know is that a 9-year-old has a better grasp of genre than Wertham does. And if I had this kid’s life I’d have nightmares about ghosts and killing too. I have yet to see a survey answer that shows that comics are the evil here rather than the escape, or that kids with badder homes are being drawn to badder comics. They’re already forced to grow up way too fast.

Bob/12 years/3rd grade/IQ: 56/reading level: 0

One of 11 siblings. The boys sleep in one room in bunk beds, 4 brothers in the upper bed, 4 in the lower bed. The sisters have a bunk bed in another room.

Comic books: “I like Superman. A man be laying down in bed and the door be locked and the lady run outside for help and hollers. The man comes through the window. Girls are always getting hurt in comic books. Every time the girl goes with a man there is murder and the girl screams.”

This kid’s going to be afraid to date. And yes, it seems like the women are usually the victim in the stories being read here. Of course if they try to defend themselves like Wonder Woman and Sheena do they’re bad role models according to Dr. Wertham, as noted last week.

Even though there’s some wiggle room here this seems like a good place to stop. From here Wertham goes into learning disorders and a judge who is pro-reading (meaning on his side) and other portions of this topic, which we will get into tomorrow.


About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

One response »

  1. Sean says:

    It’s sad to see that even in the 1950s, there were many kids living in bad circumstances. The stereotype is that the 50s were a rosy time, but this makes me realize that in some ways that decade was very similar to our own.


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