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 Scientific Promotion of Comic Books
“But when you notice the intent,
You are dismayed by what is meant.”
Of course we would reach a chapter where Dr. Wertham would go after the defenders of comics but frankly I expected it to be a bit later on. I wonder what else he has to say, although the title for the next chapter would imply he’s going after the comic creators next. That should be “fun”. But now the so-called “defenders” of comics. I was going into this thinking that Wertham may misstate something a “defender” said, in part because I live in a time where this happens a lot. Take someone whose opinion you disagree with, especially on a social/political belief, make statements out of context that doesn’t showcase their actual thoughts, and make them look as bad as possible. That’s what we call “debating” nowadays because heaven forbid you think of someone of the opposite opinion as anything other than the most horrible person who ever lived. Even official news networks and blogs are guilty of this.
Having read through this chapter I don’t have to worry about that. Most of what Wertham said is easily countered by a bit of logic, and what he has a point on is still hampered by his solution. This is not a man who knows as much about comics as he thinks. We’ve also chronicled his numerous biases so it’s not like he’s gone into this as honestly as he claims or at least thinks. And that is ultimately the problem with this chapter: complaints about bias from a biased perspective.
Read what he says at the link above, and then read what I have to say about what he had to say about what they had to say.
The comics industry took hold of the minds of children unobserved. Those whose function it would have been to watch what happens to children took no notice of comic books, or if they did, regarded them as trivial; at any rate, did not read them. When through sporadic cases it came out that comic books had harmed children, the conquest of American childhood by the industry was already an accomplished fact. The children, many of them despite guilt feelings, accepted the comic books, and the adults, many of them against their better judgment, accepted the opinions of the experts.
I never accept the opinion of an “expert” unless they can win me over. I’ve enjoyed things “experts” hated and vice versa. Experts are just smart guys with opinions. They have to prove that they’re right. Wertham considers himself an expert on comics but we’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary.
The experts for the defense function primarily on two fronts:
first, to counteract the healthy reaction of parents against crime comics in all their disguises;
secondly, to combat the criticism voiced by professional people once they begin to look at samplings of comic books children have been reading for years.
Because there is a question as what samplings critics have used and how they went into them. This is a man who thinks Superman is a Nazi and that comics are bad because they aren’t read like books. It makes me question his expertise.
The activity of these experts for the defense came in two waves. One, in the early forties, followed the disclosure of what comic books really are by the literary critic, Sterling North.
The only Sterling North I found was an author of fiction. If it’s the same guy, he has his own bias, the same that causes TV reporters to make fun of YouTube celebrities and take swipes at video games or anything else that challenges their particular medium. Or the kind that put Hollywood actors into a fit when an animated movie (Beauty And The Beast I believe) was nominated Best Picture, leading to animated features being shoved into their own category away from the “real” movies. People famous in one medium hates to see a new medium come in and challenge their status as the baby of the entertainment family. I’m sure if they come up with something new the video game creators will attack that.
The second, in 1948, came after I first presented the results of my studies of comic books in Washington and demonstrated their actual sadistic marrow. These two peaks are well documented by the two special comic-book issues of the Journal of Educational Sociology, both edited by Professor Harvey Zorbaugh of New York University’s School of Education.
In case you wondered where the second one came from. That name will come up again later in this chapter.
In their actual effect the experts for the defense represent a team. This, of course, does not mean that they work as a team. They work individually. But their way of reasoning, their apologetic attitude for the industry and its products, their conclusions – and even their way of stating them – are much alike. So it is possible to do full justice to them by discussing them as a team rather than individually. There is little danger of quoting them out of context, for what they have to say is so cut and dried that one quotation from the writing of one expert fits just as well into that of another.
Go back to my comments on today’s political discourse. Taking people out of context on purpose is a great way to make your opposition look terrible. Now I don’t know that Wertham even attempts this here but most of the time it doesn’t help.
Of course they contradict one another occasionally, or contradict themselves between one paper and another. That is not really their fault, but part of the impossible thesis they defend.
And this is a different problem with grouping them all together; we don’t know who is saying what but it doesn’t help. Wertham’s further comments in this paragraph are easy to counter.
One expert who has endorsed an enormous number of crime comics, for example, will point out the great vital appeal they have for children, while another proclaims that “crime comics are read mostly by adults.”
How is this contradictory? Kids being drawn to them doesn’t mean they’re the primary audience. To go in reverse, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was designed for little girls and represents the primary audience, but college-aged males also enjoy the show because they were well-made characters. Plus since even today there are adults who treat comics as the sole domain of children those kids will believe it as well even though it wasn’t the case. Like cartoons but most of the adult-oriented cartoons either come from Japan or act as subversive homages to kids shows and sitcoms. I don’t think there’s been an action cartoon strictly American created since Invasion America, and that was back in 1998! The CW was still The WB (who aired the show) and UPN back then.
One writes: “Comic-book readers like their comics in large doses,” while another is proclaiming that “an excess of this reading suggests a need for deeper study, not of the reading, but of the child.”
Going only by the partial quotes here…what’s you’re point? Some people enjoy binge watching a full season while other people, even in the current generation, prefer to watch an episode a day or even a week. One theme that pops up again is acting like kids have this groupthink where all kids act the same way and think the same way, and approach things the same way. I haven’t been around a large group of kids outside of family events in years and I still know that’s bogus. That’s why there are different kinds of toys and TV shows and not every kid enjoys the same thing or acts the same way. Kids are individuals as far back as when they were babies. They’re just more dependent on others than most adults.
Or one will say that comic-book stories are only fantasy and the children know it, while another is saying of comic-book characters, “To their readers they are real flesh and blood people.”
Speaking as a reader of both books and comics, as well as a watcher of television shows and movies, if the character is written and performed like a real person they will be seen as a real person, at least until the story is over. It’s how you get invested in his or her adventure. That’s good drama, even if it’s a more comedic drama. Children know it’s fantasy (I mentioned reporter John Stossel talking with kids who enjoy Power Rangers in an earlier chapter who knew that wasn’t real but still enjoyed their stories and played their own adventures) but a good writer makes their characters feel like actual people during the story. That’s not contradictory. That’s good storytelling. It’s when they actually think Superman will come to visit them that you get concerned.
Or, to take an example of self-contradiction from a rather sketchy article by another of the experts: He writes that only 36 per cent of adults unqualifiedly approve of comic books as reading for children and that the objections refer to the most serious areas a parent can be concerned about, the “danger to character and mental health.” Despite this, he draws the contradictory conclusion that “on the whole American adults approve the comics as a medium of entertainment for children.”
You mean like saying Felix The Cat is fine but Fritz The Cat isn’t? This is another groupthink perspective, that all comics are the same (except when he needs to defend himself by talking about Mickey Mouse…which has Mickey beating the tar out of people) and are lumped together. It may be the cause of some things we’ll get into later and next week about the creation side.
It also goes back to what I said earlier in this post about cartoons. Thinking all comics are for kids is as limiting and a mistake as saying all cartoons are for kids when even kids back in the day wouldn’t get some of the jokes in the old Merry Melodies/Looney Tunes shorts (not to mention Rocky & Bullwinkle). You don’t hear that all books are for kids or that all movies or radio shows are for kids. For some reason, whenever live actors are removed from the formula (despite how many live-action productions are also produced for kids, or for all age groups to enjoy together), it’s suddenly just for kids unless it’s being subversive like Avenue Q or most of the Adult Swim originals, or underground comics. Cartoons, puppets, and comics (and now video games) are looked at as strictly kids fare…probably by adults who want the easiest way to set up a baby sitter while they work on adult things.
While puppeteers like Jeff Dunham doing non-kids fare are rare (ooh, I rhymed), cartoons and comics have been trying to show they’re more than works for kids and families, to prove they’re just as varied a medium as books, movies, and TV. You wouldn’t call Dracula a good kids book but you’ll call Creepshow a children’s comic? You really aren’t paying attention.
One expert writes about the fact that children, while they may neglect their other possessions, “hardly ever deface or lose a comic book. These books are treasured, they are objects of barter, they become collector’s items.”
I literally broke out in laughter when I read that part. There are comics in my collection, even a few I owned, that have markings to the contrary. One comic I appropriated from the back issue bin had this one character drawn with facial hair in every panel, but not by the comic artist. Even mine weren’t spared some defacing. To think that no comic back then were treated as well as comics today (with backing boards, acid-free bags, and longboxes created with comics in mind) is a farce. Sure they traded stories with their friends, and re-read their favorites the same way they traded sports cards (nowadays even sports cards aren’t traded that way and comics certainly aren’t because they cost more than a weekly allowance…if kids still get that) but to act like they were treated like museum pieces by the masses of kids is a bit of a joke. Comics back then weren’t as disposable as newspapers and have more re-readability than most magazines. But I don’t see the contradiction here, either. Oh, I should post the other half of that.
Another expert writes that the fact that comic books are “cheap publications which may be destroyed or bartered without compunction makes the comics comparable to stories told by storytellers of old.” In other words, facts do not make much difference to these experts; comic books are good anyhow.
Nope, still don’t see it.
Comic books, one expert writes, “may be used as an introduction to reading of the originals – particularly of the Bible.” Another team-expert will inadvertently admit the opposite, that one of the most unfortunate things about comic books is that children are not so apt to read better books which might of course influence them to higher ideals.”
Again, kids are not a hivemind. Some kids will check out the original. Others may check them out when their older, while still others may not check them at all. There is no one answer because there is not one shared thought. Just in my household my dad doesn’t do a lot of fiction reading while mom was a huge reader and I took after her. I did start on normal books for my reading group but when comics came along I didn’t stop reading books and I still read both to this day.
Wertham will name some of his rivals and get into other problems he had with them, but I’m coming close to press time and a self-imposed word limit. We’ll talk more tomorrow.