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 Contribution of Crime Comic Books to Juvenile Delinquency
“‘We do not know the cause.’ Is it not absurd to think of ‘the’ cause? Should we, over that, neglect the facts we have?”
– Adolf Meyer, M.D.
I am not so stupid as to think media has no influence on people, but I am smart enough to know the limits. I know plenty of horror fans who aren’t swearing allegiance to darker forces, or locking people into death traps meant to test their morality versus their survival instincts. I know plenty of first-person shooter players who DON’T shoot up places, and mistaking a “simulator” for a “training simulator” is a topic I’ve gone over before. Violent media is a topic that never goes away and the newer the media the more likely it will be credited not simply with influencing the idea of how to do evil but of being evil in the first place. This is what Wertham has been trying to prove to us in his rants against comics.
The problem is that Dr. Wertham has lumped so many comics together under the banner of “causing kids to do evil” that it’s hard to take him seriously. Any comic with any level of violence is lumped into “crime comics”, although apparently slapstick violence goes under his notice and some of his targets are not as bad as he says, meaning that if he is right about any of them it’s hard to see it. I have an idea about that but I’ll keep that under wraps currently until I’m sure I can pull it off.
This chapter is all about how comics push children to commit unspeakable acts of crime…although let’s be honest. Even last week’s chapter on illiteracy was about comics turning your kids into Al Capone (who was often celebrated by non-comics by the way). Wertham does not compartmentalize anything and want to beat this lesson into you. I’m betting even the chapter on sex will include acts of violent crime. The only standout here is that Dr. Wertham goes through the trouble of spotlighting crimes so violent I am loath to copy/paste them to a PG site, although I will link to the chapter because you need to read it for the proper context. So let’s get right to it:
Usually I start off with a quote to get us going. However, the chapter starts off with some really violent stories of kids committing horrific acts, and whenever possible either points to all the comics the kid reads or refers to it as “crime comic violence” as if nobody has ever done these things before crime comics. There are a lot of cultures out there who did far worse to people and a few that still do. And a number of these crimes are crimes you hear about today, where comics have been supplanted by video games as the source of kids doing bad things. I’ve heard call-in shows take callers after a shooting and someone insists we’ll learn he’s a gamer, only to find out it was a politically motivated action or the work of someone who was insane.
He also mentions crimes going on in schools where even teachers are the subject of horrific violence, which of course Wertham insists were inspired by a comic, as if a comic could erode someone’s morals. This is my problem with this chapter. Dr. Wertham in previous chapters but especially here keeps trying to insist that the comics are responsible for the immorality itself. Could they have gotten the idea from a comic? In some cases (perhaps not as many as Wertham tries to make his readers think, but certainly some) most likely to definitely. But then explain how I can read the same books (since he lumps Superman and Wonder Woman with these comics) and not turn to a life of crime? The difference is I was brought up with strong moral values and were not drawn to the more horrific stories. We even saw a little of that last chapter, with kids who didn’t like the more violent comics. But Wertham thinks Wonder Woman convinces girls to assault people and as we’ll see later, Superman makes boys beat good people up.
I have seen many children who drifted into delinquency through no fault or personal disorder of their own. When they wanted to extricate themselves they either had no adults to appeal to or those who were available had no help to offer.
This is how Wertham begins the discussion of a boy who came into his office seeking help in creating a truce between his gang and a rival gang. Not mentioned is how this situation started or even how it turned out. Was a truce made or did they end up blowing each other’s brains out? Or maybe they had a dance off West Side Story style?
One evening at the Lafargue Clinic a thirteen-year-old boy came to see me. He was the head of a gang and, as a matter of fact, it was one that had lately been involved in a fight with a fatal shooting. I found out later that while he was in the Clinic he had two much bigger boys stationed in the corridor and at the street entrance to function as bodyguards in case a rival gang might appear. He was much concerned: “I want to stop the bloodshed,” he said. There had been some friction between his boys and some boys of another gang. At this particular moment, he told me, ‘~the school is the most dangerous place,” for that is where the boys would meet. “I am afraid they will fight with knives. We have our own meeting-place – nobody can find it. It is in an abandoned house.” He wanted some of his boys to stay away from school for a while and during that period wanted to arrange a real peace. “But,” he said, “it can’t be done because the truant officer gets you and, of course, you can’t explain it to him, and you can’t tell it to the teacher, and you can’t tell it to the police, and you can’t tell it to your parents.”
I’m not surprised at this given how simple bullying was treated until recently by teachers, and that woman from an earlier chapter who swept juvenile crimes in her neighborhood under the rug because “people don’t talk about these things”. It is easier to ignore a problem rather than confront it. The problem is Wertham is focused on the wrong problem.
When we checked the situation later we found that what he said was precisely true. Had any adult in authority been as earnestly concerned about these gangfights as this boy was, they could have been stopped. The secret meeting-house, incidentally, was stacked full of textbooks for violent fighting- crime comics.
Right, because there were never gang fights or other violent fighting before comics. Doc, where do you think writers get their stories from? Reports of just such crimes or from having grown up with such fighting and not hearing that they’ve gone away. Art (which Wertham would never admit comics are) reflects life, or at least a certain point of view based on how cynical or naive the writer is, or perhaps the world the way the writer wishes it was.
Delinquent children are children in trouble. Times have changed since the famous Colorado juvenile-court law of 1903. Now delinquency is different both in quantity and quality. By virtue of these changes it has become a virtually new social phenomenon. It has been reported that juvenile delinquency has increased about 20 per cent since I first spoke about crime comics in 1947. It is, however, not their number but the kind of juvenile delinquency that is the salient point. Younger and younger children commit more and more serious and violent acts. Even psychotic children did not act like this fifteen years ago.
And the only change Wertham sees are comic books. Not that so many kids grew up without a father or lost siblings to the most bloody war even today. Not that the nation wasn’t recovered fully from the Great Depression or the necessities of war on a nation still in financial crisis. Not that these kids had no positive role models. No, it’s strictly the new medium that he can’t read because it requires a different way of reading. Again, he’s not asking for some comics to be banned from kids like an R movie or M game (and he claims that wouldn’t stop these kids anyway), but for all comics to be seen as evil that even adult-targeted comics be sanitized for kids. He should see the backlash nowadays when comic fans are so obsessed with proving comics aren’t just for kids that they’ve taken some comics away from kids, and only a handful of creators, mostly independent self-publishers, are even trying to target or at least factor in younger readers. Even finding an all-ages webcomic has been a chore.
3) A boy of eleven killed a woman in a holdup. When arrested, he was found surrounded by comic books. His twenty-year-old brother said, “If you want the cause of all this, here it is: It’s those rotten comic books. Cut them out, and things like this wouldn’t happen.” (Of course, this brother was not an “expert”; he just knew the facts.)
One of the second set of examples, posted to show Wertham isn’t above pop shots. Most of those examples are not fit for this website. And don’t get me wrong, there are some horrible crimes marked here. Did they get the idea from a comic? Maybe, but where did the comic get the idea? And was the comic showing these people to be evil? Wertham tries to claim they’re treated as heroes. From here we get into longer examples of crimes happening at schools, which again happen in schools today. I’ve heard stories of teachers afraid of their students, and some of my teacher friends who may be reading this probably have stories of their own. In fact I know two of those teacher friends do because they’ve mentioned them to me personally or on their blog.
A thirteen-year-old boy stabbed an attractive young woman teacher eight times in the back and again in the face when she had fallen to the floor. Authorities were bewildered by the behavior of this boy, who came from a good home background.
As far as you know. The 1950s liked to pretend they were all Leave It To Beaver remember. And while there may be misdiagnosed cases of mental illness as Wertham stated in previous chapters it does still exist. We know more about it now than we did back then, including chemical imbalances that play havoc with the brain. For a slightly off-topic example this led to Robin Williams killing himself despite a major career and loving family. Yet people blamed George Reeves’s death on murder because they couldn’t believe he’d commit suicide because his life appeared to be going so well. Based on what we know today couldn’t it be possible that the same issues that plagued Williams also affected Reeves? We didn’t know about that back then.
These young criminals Wertham keeps bringing up are lacking in moral fiber, either due to lack of supervision or proper parental care (either due to lacking one or both parents, which we also saw last chapter) or possibly some mental issue. Comics would not cause them to lose their morals, but lacking morals would mean doing what the villains of the story would do instead of the heroes.
I could continue this list almost indefinitely. There is nothing in these “juvenile delinquencies” that is not described or told about in comic books. These are comic-book plots. In comic books, usually these crimes remain unpunished until the criminal has committed many more of them.
Well, yeah, you have to pad out a story and real-world criminals can commit numerous crimes before being caught. How many times has Sherlock Holmes hunted a suspect responsible for numerous crimes? By the way, Holmes is one of those literary characters Wertham talks about…and a drug user. This is pretty much ignored by most if not all adaptations of the franchise…who also believe Moriarty is responsible for every crime Holmes investigates somehow.
Children are not so lucky. They face severe punishments whenever they are caught. Educated on comic books, they go on to a long postgraduate course in jails (with the same reading-matter). To every one of these acts correspond dozens of lesser ones, hundreds of minor ones and thousands of fantasies.
Art may imitate life but it rarely replicates it, even with stories based on actual events. Patch Adams’ girlfriend in the Robin Williams movie was actually a platonic male friend. I’ve linked to articles where villains were created in stories adapting real events where there were no villains, even turning real-life decent people into villains for the sake of the story. Comics shouldn’t be their sole education, or should at least include education on how to read them and spot the villain. Where is their moral compass, and why are some kids totally turned away or not turning to crime after reading these books while others are? Too hard an answer?
We’ll stop here for now, but tomorrow we’ll learn why Superman creates criminal kids. Just to remind you how little Dr. Wertham understands this character as if declaring Supes a fascist Nazi a few chapters back wasn’t enough of a hint.