No matter what subject Dr. Wertham tackles he will always find a way to turn it to the problem of violent kids. You could ask him what he wants on his salad and he would have a 10 minute rant about how comics teach kids to kill with a salad fork. It should be no surprise then that the subject of advertisements turned to weaponry. As late as the 1970s there were ads for knives and BB guns. And Wertham’s specialty were the type of kids who shouldn’t have either.
We’ve seen a few biases from the good doctor previously: biased against comics for pulling kids away from books as if they would read great literature if it wasn’t for those darn comics, bias against superheroes based on questionable research, and bias towards delinquents over normal kids who for the obvious reason he rarely if ever had contact with. We’re going to see one more I hadn’t realized until this part of the chapter, bias via location. Understanding why Fredric Wertham was wrong about comics makes it easier to write him off, although we have also seen things he is at least partially right about. You know the old saying about the broken clock, right?
And we all know how reactionary the internet can get without the full facts.
For all these artificially created or aggravated inferiority feelings, the comic-book ads offer one emotional outlet: over compensation in brutality. Under the thin disguise of self-defense, full-page ads are permitted to tell millions of children:
I BROKE HIS HAND LIKE A MATCH!
It was easy! He was helpless. He howled with pain!
Method of Offensive Defense, based on natural, instinctive impulse-action . . . Smashing, crashing, bone-shattering, nerve-paralyzing method . . . 70 BONE-BREAKING SECRETS . . . ($1.00 – formerly sold at $5.00)
Oversold maybe, but ask anyone who was attacked by bullies physically (mine preferred psychological…perhaps knowing I wouldn’t fight back as hard) and they may want that self-defense. Then again, Wertham believes only the bullies read comics. Kids should only have heroes like Huckleberry Finn and Long John Silver, but not if they came from the comic adaptation.
Besides all these “health,” body building, complexion, “bumps-and-bulges,” he-man and brutality advertisements there is a stupendous amount of advertising which deserves to be called a childhood armament program. Comic-book advertisements use any device known to advertising writers to fascinate children with weapons.
Children do not need comics to be fascinated with guns, especially the loud ones that shatter pumpkins. It’s part of the fascination with watching stuff explode…provided that stuff isn’t theirs or anyone who still wants it in one piece. And the verdict is questionable on both.
Children have been supplied with arms through these comic-book ads or have learned from them how to make their own weapons, some of them deadly. In one radio discussion about comic books the time-worn argument was raised that Grimm’s fairy tales are violent, too. John K.M. McCaffery, newscaster and literary critic, interposed that he had seen lots of weapons advertised in comic books, but had yet to see an edition of Grimm’s fairy tales with advertisements of crossbows.
Most Grimm fairy tales (not published in a comic or magazine) have no advertisements for anything. When was the last time you saw an ad in a book that wasn’t for another book or something based on that book (radio series back then, audiobook or video game today)? And trust me, plenty of kids wouldn’t mind playing with a crossbow. They just cost more to ship.
In millions of comic books, ads make all kinds of weapons attractive to children. There are premiums for boys and girls “consisting of genuine .22 cal. rifles” (of course, with an illustration of the rifle). This is a deadly weapon and only the other day a fourteen-year-old boy killed an eighteen-year-old with one of them.
So you’re saying don’t sell .22 caliber rifles to 14-year-olds? I’d agree but that’s not what they’re saying. Note that back then proof of age was hard to do over the mail, but in most cases (I’ll get back to that) I wouldn’t sell an actual rifle to a kid, either. In that episode of The Fugitive I posted a while back (currently unavailable) the kids bought a gun through a mail-order offer and try to use it to capture a bad guy for the reward. They weren’t doing good, they just wanted the money. They probably grew up to become bounty hunters. Or vigilantes. Those kids were a bunch of brats but Wertham is convinced they will only do evil because that’s the only kind of kid he ever meets in his line of work.
Other guns can be transformed into dangerous weapons. An eleven-year-old boy who knew his way around told me about one of them: “They can make it snap faster with an elastic. They shoot little round pebbles. You get the pebbles from puzzles they sell in stores. They fall in little holes when the puzzles are jiggled around.”
That’s hardly the fault of comics or the toy gun sellers. Fun fact: the “blame gun deaths on manufacturer/ads” thing isn’t new! It just started “for the children”, and we all know how that turns out. This comes up again a few paragraphs down (because Wertham is terrible at grouping, as noted in previous chapters) when a police officer is talking about homemade and modified toys found during an investigation after a teen was killed in a fight.
We collected a veritable arsenal of home-made weapons, switchblade knives, milk can handles converted into brass knuckles, and so forth. We found out pretty much of their ideas were obtained from comic books. For instance, in one book a lad showed us how to change a converted cap gun into a lethal weapon. And these lads also purchased a number of guns as a result of the advertisements contained in these crime comic books. Many times they will say that comic books are for adult consumption, whereas actually the advertisements would never appeal to an adult.”
Bullfeathers! You really think some adult isn’t out there making homemade and modified weaponry? Should the kids have been reading these books? No. Should the comic, even toward adults, be showing how the criminals created this stuff? Probably not, although they were probably showing methodology without thinking it would be replicated. I’m not defending the book here, I’m saying don’t underestimate someone’s creativity in creating these things. Remember that they are following the lead of someone else. The comic is just adapting those techniques to tell a story or re-enact the events for a cynical audience. And they didn’t even have Mythbusters back then.
A great role in the advertising is played by B.B. and air guns. Some shoot B.B.’s, some, steel darts. They are considered harmless by some people-but not by children who have been injured or by those who have lost an eye when shot by them.
You know what I have to do, right? If I don’t post this the internet will get mad at me.
Part of this actually goes into my counterpoint to Wertham’s following rant against BB guns as well as the knives after this, making this the first video gag this chapter that actually matters to the commentary. So keep this in mind for later; I’ll be coming back to it.
Take a 1953 endorsed comic book which contains the story of “Superman when he was Superboy.” It has a full-page colored advertisement for an air rifle in which a newspaper editor says about an air rifle program: “The police like the idea – so does the school superintendent – so do the ministers.” The ophthalmologists do not!
I swear Wertham’s hero would be Lex Luthor because he was a super smart guy back then. Of course he was also a mad scientist back then who committed crimes strictly for bragging rights. But they both loathe Superman with a passion. So we have in order of Wertham’s running complaints:
In his defense I’m trying to figure out how police, the school superintendent, and ministers like the idea of kids with air rifles? Maybe in certain areas…I’m getting ahead of myself but we’re close to it. Now we switch gears from guns to knives, and closer to my counterpoints to everything Wertham has said to these arguments.
Knives of different kinds are advertised in comic books, too. How far has the armament program for children progressed in the knife category? A search of a single school yielded 141 knives! The attitude of the authorities towards knives in the hands of children seems to be this: Let’s permit adults to advertise and sell to juveniles as many knives as possible; then, when they buy and use them let’s punish the juveniles as severely as possible. In some neighborhoods detectives and policemen have been instructed to bring to the station house any youth who carries weapons. Weekly checks for dangerous weapons in places where children are apt to meet have been announced.
Keep this in mind as well.
A national magazine had an article about the dangers of switchblade knives sold to and used by children, with the rather cynical comment that the toll up to now was “relatively small – a few dozen children killed, somewhat more wounded.” This article concluded: “Don’t let your son be smart-alecky about a knife. De-glamorize knife-carrying to him.” What possible good can such suggestions do when at the same time enticing comic-book advertisements offer these very switchblade knives for sale to even the youngest child? And while the ads supply the knives, the stories describe their use for skilled violence. You see the young boy, with his hand in his pocket where the switchblade knife is carried, talking to a grown-up. Suddenly he whips out the knife (and you see the exact way to hold it, with your thumb on the button): “Make a move and I’ll whittle you down to half my size!”
Juvenile gangs sometimes spring up quickly. Gang leaders have told me about the problem of arming them. Here comic book advertising has proved a great help. A full-page advertisement offers a 10-PIECE KNIFE SET
The question of the kitchen-set knife ads came up several times in Hookey Club sessions. Once a thirteen-year-old boy said, “This knife set in the comic books is disguised as a kitchen set, but of course the kids immediately know what to use them for. They buy them and split them up. In the schools where I was, the boys use them. They have straps and strap them to their legs. See the point there? They specify the point so that you know how you can use it. But they make out it is for meat! Naturally the boys are not going to buy them for cutting meat and so forth!”
We own a cutting knife set. Do you know what we don’t use it for? KILLING PEOPLE! Adults do read these comics, even the ones for kids. Heck, I’ve talked about three different shows that I enjoy but are out of my age group. That last one is for girls. I still read comics today and many of them were created for kids. I bought some of them as a kid and still enjoy them as an adult. So because a bunch of kids misuse a product we should stop advertising it? Guess we should stop advertising cars. What should we advertise in a kids comic? Probably nothing because he’s part of that same mindset that ended most cereal commercials and wants to eliminate mascots.
That actually happened, people. And from what he calls “arsenal ads” comes the one cheap gimmick toy he decided to mention, the telescope/binoculars you could buy.
Comic books have other dubious advertisements of miscellaneous character. I have examined and treated a number of youths after they had been arrested for prowling about trying to look in windows to see women undressing. Most of them were rather harmless and responded readily to common-sense forms of psychotherapy and guidance. One of them told me about “peeping Tom ads” in comics and other boys confirmed their suggestive significance.
He’s talking about an ad for one of those mini-telescopes that mentions peeking into windows. I have a pair of binoculars, and one of those mini-telescopes. Did I use them to peep at girls? Once as a joke to some friends who totally knew I was there and one I got rightly scolded for and never did again because I’m a good person. Comics had nothing to do with that decision. Oh right, we learned earlier that comics leave a thought in your mind, whispering to you like a demonic force to do bad things.
Another advertisement, for binoculars:
You’ll get the thrill of a lifetime when you take your first look through these powerful binoculars. It’s positively amazing how well you can see . . . You’ll be able to see people and wild life from a distance and watch what they’re doing when they can’t see you. Enjoy front row seats from way back!
Boys in New York, Boston or Chicago who buy these binoculars are well aware that there is no “wild life” on city streets. They also know what else these optical instruments can be used for.
There it is. The last bias and now we can start the rant. “City streets”. (By the way, I also used those binoculars when we went places where you can see wildlife or at least some beautiful views that weren’t women.) Wertham primarily deals with delinquents and more of them can be found in the cities than in other areas. That’s kind of the problem, but there’s more to it. Why does what happen in New York have to affect the kids in Oregon?
Look, I’m not oblivious to the problem of dangerous kids with dangerous things. The problem is Wertham is saying that because inner city kids supposedly have no need for BB guns and binoculars they shouldn’t advertise them to anyone. What about kids who live in areas where there are places to go to see wildlife and interesting views? What about kids who live in areas where they need to hunt to survive and learn with those guns and knives, like parts of Alaska or Oklahoma?
And remember the clips I posted? One of the reasons Ralph almost shot his eye out, and I’m betting a lot of those real kids did, is lack of instruction (as well as what not to shoot at). Ralphie’s dad didn’t teach him how to use it. Even a BB or air rifle needs some supervision, at least until the kid learns to use it. Like Ralphie, these kids were probably not given any instruction in how to properly use the gun, or possibly the thing was defective. (I’m thinking Ralphie’s was defective. I don’t know a lot about guns but I can’t see what he was doing wrong. Lucky he wears glasses.) Otherwise EVERY kid who bought a BB gun or air rifle would have shot their eye out. It’s user error, but as usual the parents seem to be absent from the picture.
Wetham ends talking about books about talking to people or dating advice, but we all know those are rubbish, so we can end here. So we can talk about something else tomorrow. But come back next week because there’s more of this craziness to go over.