Let’s see if we can finish this in one shot, shall we? I stand by what I said yesterday about why I’m doing this but this has eaten up so much of my time that I’ve decided that next week I’m going to take some time off to go through other things I’ve been wanting to discuss. Additionally we’ll be doing this every two weeks instead of every week just because I’m getting burned out on this. Usually this series covers one chapter a week, but apparently fiction is easier to summarize.
Besides, there comes a point where you get tired of seeing someone who clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about act like they’re an expert. I admit there may be smarter people than me out there, but because Wertham has seen a lot of bad kids reading the wrong kinds of comics he’s decided comics are the problem. I wonder how much timing has to do with things. The US was recovering from two big hits, the Great Depression and World War II, and suddenly there were comics. But we’re starting off this chapter with more questionable views on women, but at the same time he actually raises some good critiques. Too bad it’s still surrounded by so many bad ones.
Read up if you haven’t already and let’s get on with it.
In vain does one look in comic books for seeds of constructive work or of ordinary home life. I have never seen in any of the crime, superman, adventure, space, horror, etc., comic books a normal family sitting down at a meal. I have seen an elaborate, charming breakfast scene, but it was between Batman and his boy, complete with checkered tablecloth, milk, cereal, fruit juice, dressing-gown and newspaper. And I have seen a parallel scene with the same implications when Wonder Woman had breakfast with an admiring young girl, with checkered tablecloth, cereal, milk, toast and the kitchen sink filled with dishes draining in the background.
Forget the Ambiguously Gay Duo stuff, he does raise an interesting point. I know the comics we’re talking about are action stories, but just from a dramatic perspective why not include a scene of characters sitting down to breakfast? I know Superman couldn’t do it because the Kents were already deceased but Superboy could. My mom used to watch Blue Bloods, a cop drama about a family of police officers and lawyers, and every episode I caught or caught parts of featured a scene where the family would sit down to dinner and discuss current events. It was good exposition for those who came late and gave you a look into the personality of each of the main characters. Maybe there weren’t that many married superheroes but they could spend more time with family and friends in their civilian identity and some good stories did this. It’s how we learn to relate to the characters. It’s just good writing, and if there were more constructive critiques in this book things wouldn’t be so bad when he goes off the rails. This does not happen often enough.
Mastery of reality is based on a normal and not an abnormal set of human values. What the comic books give children to “experiment with” is either the reality of the sordid or what Stephen Spender calls glamorized unreality. What the experts are telling us is that children have to learn to accept violence as a part of life, not only violence in the name of a cause, but violence for violence’s sake.
Depending on the context the experts (for the defense…these are the enemy to Wertham) have a point. While they shouldn’t be reading the more graphic stories, a good action story does have some level of violence. You can even see it in those classic books Wertham kept pushing over comics. Treasure Island starts with a man dropping dead after seeing a black dot on a piece of paper, which starts Jim Hawkins on a trip into the world of cutthroat pirates (emphasis on “cut throat”). Moby Dick is about a crazed captain seeking revenge on a white whale without any concern for his crew. And other stories have their fair share of various ne’er-do-wells committing all kinds of crime from pickpocketing to murder. It’s like the change in format negates the same complaints. That’s the mark of a hypocrite.
There are children who suffer from frustration. One team expert’s advice is: “Superman symbolizes the modern attempt in dealing with these problems (of frustration). . . . If not Superman himself, some one of the many other characters such as the Batman, The Flash, Captain Marvel, and the Green Lantern.” Is that the best we can do for children, that we teach them the Green Lantern will help?
If you’re an idiot. Perhaps it teaches to never give up, or serves as a bit of catharsis seeing bad people be stopped while in the real world you’re elderly mother/grandmother was just mugged (though hopefully not killed). I’ve seen Superman stories that were about NOT having someone else do it for you but follow his example and help other people in need. Heroes are people we both cheer and emulate. Yes, doctor, kids can emulate the heroes as well as the guy stabbing people in the eye for fun.
This passage by one expert is often quoted by the others: “Much of what children find in the comics deals with their own unconscious fantasies. It is possible . . . that they need this material as a pattern for their dreams to give them content with which to dream out their problems.” This is the most derogatory statement about normal children that I have ever read. It confuses what a child needs with what he can be seduced to desire. Some comic books depict necrophilia. Does that supply a need in the child? Many comic books describe every conceivable method of disposing of corpses. Do children need that for their daydreaming? It is a fallacy to regard the aberrations of adults as the needs of children.
Those stories, no. However, you’re still lumping everything together. Stories that clearly show these things are wrong and showing a criminal get what he or she deserves are something kids need. Seeing that monsters (like the one under the bed) can be defeated or destroyed kids need. We could use more of those and if it was the lack of those or not enough that was the “problem”, we wouldn’t be here right now.
Do we really know so little about children’s needs as these experts imply? Children need friendliness, they need a feeling of identification with a group, they need cheer and beauty. And they want and need honest and disinterested guidance, because it gives them a feeling of security. It is precisely here that the comic book industry and its experts stab them in the back.
I’m not a huge Simpsons fans but I’m thinking of that one episode where Tom & Jerry analogs Itchy and Scratchy were put into a cartoon that was just them going on about what good friends they are, and it was boring. I grant you there are ways to give kids that friendliness (someone call the Care Bears), although it would take years for TV creators to figure it out without being boring, condescending, and/or poorly made. It’s not a “this or that” situation though. He’s not asking to include things, he’s asking to replace things and there is our problem. Do this wrong and you have the Buddy Bears.
And nobody wants that.
Closely related to the argument that comic books supply children’s needs is the further one that the child has his own choice about comic books. He can select what he wants and the responsibility is therefore his. This claim goes so far that the children are held responsible even for the unsavory development of the comic book industry: “It is their [the children’s] selectivity and their standards which must in turn influence the comics, whose content and standards of quality and taste are shaped to meet the customer’s demand.”
How much choice does a child with ten or twenty cents in his pocket have? There are many stores in town and country which have only comic books and no other printed matter except perhaps newspapers and magazines of no interest to the child. With only comic books to choose from, children really have no choice.
Well, there’s what comic he or she picks up. Wertham follows this with a good-ish point.
But even if they did have a choice, the principle of leaving it entirely to them which is so vociferously promulgated by the Child Study Association of America is wrong. It is our duty to teach the child to make choices.
The lack of parenting has been a running problem, and one Wertham fails to address in order to scapegoat the comic book. The problem also is that Wertham is so narrow-minded that the only choice he sees is “don’t buy comics”. Remember, he thinks Superman is a Nazi and Batman & Robin are a gay couple. What he should be asking for is a better way to identify what is a good comic for kids and what isn’t, but in his mind no comic is unless it’s a comedy with talking animals. No action drama stories for kids unless it’s written by Charles Dickens.
A pretty piece often played by the symphonette of comic-book experts is on the theme that it was always so. Children always have had these psychological needs to escape from reality and to give vent to feelings of hostility and resentment, and they used to be satisfied by fairy tales, by dime novels–even by Shakespeare. All these, the experts tell us, are just as cruel and just as violent as comic books, so why pick on comics?
This is the argument Wertham has been ducking, that the classic books he claims are superior to comics have many of the same “problems”. And kids, as well as adults, do need to escape reality for a time and have a place to vent. If they hold it in and are surrounded by nothing but chaos and depression, they’re going to go mad, or at least into a deep funk they’ll never get out of. And I still say that comics only negate fairy tales and Shakespeare to those who wouldn’t read them in the first place.
Only those who do not know what is in the comic books have fallen for this, for there never has been a literature for children so enormously widespread, appealing mostly through pictures and expressing, as Dr. Richmond Barbour put it, “savagery, murder, lust and death.”
No, we save that for the opera. Have you read Romeo And Juliet? It’s about two dumb teenagers who get married in a time when divorce was not allowed, didn’t use this to end the feud (“if you want to meet your future grandkids, stop this now”), and because they kept it secret one of Juliet’s brothers is murdered, Romeo runs off, Juliet fakes suicide, Romeo kills himself for real because the note that she wasn’t dead didn’t reach him in time, and she kills herself for real. The dime novels had their share, too. Superheroes are an evolution from the old pulp heroes like Doc Savage, Zorro, and the Shadow. And there’s plenty of death and wickedness in those stories. Were comics worse? I don’t know, I haven’t read those old pulp novels but I’m not convinced Wertham did more than skim the comics.
He also quotes Sterling North, the author mentioned earlier in this chapter who is also critical of comics because they aren’t books.
To those who insist that we older Americans also read trash in our youth, I say go back and read Horatio Alger and even the dime novels, if you wish. Edward Strate Meyer’s Rover Boys may have seemed a trifle too pure to be credible. But the effect that had on impressionable readers was to heap scorn on the cheat and honor on the boy who played to win but played fairly and modestly. Frank Merriwell, hero of countless tales of pluck and luck, may have been both too virtuous and too successful to be considered a probable characterization, but his influence on millions of young Americans was never such that it burdened the juvenile courts.
Someone who gets those references can comment (and please do) but I’m sure we can find books with just as much violence, just spread out more through the book. Also, those were different times, before dead or missing fathers en mass as the economy was struggling to get out of the toilet.
The trash of today is of an entirely different sort. It is even less well-written than the interminable tales of derring-do and virtuous adventure that filled my boyhood.
Comics were still learning how to tell a story. There are plenty of stories by this time period in comics that can stand up with those greats. Watchmen was on the New York Times Best Seller list, which is why DC keeps screwing over Alan Moore over the characters.
As for fairy tales, have the most cruel of them, including some of those by Grimm, been so good for children? Dr. Wilhelm Stekel wrote: “I really consider fairy-tales unsuitable for children, at least in the form which Grimm, for instance, has given them. New editions for the various age levels should be printed, in which will be eliminated, or at least modified, all that is cruel. It is not absolutely necessary for the ogre to devour his own seven children, for torture and murder to occur wholesale.”
Wertham even admits that uncensored fairy tales aren’t good for kids.
So some fairy tales are not a very good alibi. But even if they were, comic books have nothing in common with them. Fairy tales have a magic of their own which is completely absent from comic books. In comics the solution is simple, direct, mechanical and violent. Fairy tales contain emotional conflicts; they cannot be reduced to who catches whom, who knocks Out whom, who kills whom and how and who is going to torture whom.
And if this was about improving comics as a storytelling medium he may have another good point. However, he seems to think comics can’t do this, and later comic tales show this to not be the case.
Dr. J. G. Auerbach, psychoanalyst at the Lafargue Clinic, who made comparative studies of the effect of fairy-tale and comic-book reading on children, concluded:
Why does the picture of Hansel and Gretel pushing the witch into the oven create no desire in the child for vindictive action against those who boss him? How does the bloody cutting open of the wolf’s belly to let out Red Riding Hood’s grandma differ from the knife attacks depicted in the comic books? . . . I believe the answer lies in the fantastic element of the fairy tale, which depicts a world far removed from reality. The child may identify himself with the persons or animals in this fantasy world, which he makes his own. There he may allow his fantasy to soar as he wishes: it is his private empire in which he reigns. He knows the difference between the real and the imaginary; there is no attempt to bridge the gap.
What’s wrong with a modern-day fairy tale? Movies were doing it all the time around this period and so were some books. A Christmas Carol has been translated into every possible time period, even the future.
Another helpful characteristic of fairy tales is their poetic form, even in prose, which also tends to remove tragedy or mischief from everyday life. The less fairy tales obey these two laws, the more they are apt to instill in the child anxiety, or a desire to translate fantasy into reality.
Allow me to introduce you to LARPers and “role-playing games”.3
Children who play fairy tales would have a hard time having someone actually eat Red Riding Hood. But they can and do try to bind, gag, and stick each other with sharp instruments as they see it so realistically depicted in comic books. Comic books are not dreamlike and not symbolic. If symbolism occurs it is coarsely sexual. In comic books no one lives happily ever after, as they did in fairy tales; in comic books some characters get eliminated by force, others go on killing. “The comics may be said to offer the same type of mental catharsis to its readers that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama,” says one of the experts. But comic books have nothing to do with drama, with art or literature.
That’s media snobbery talking. Look, I don’t know what he qualifies as “art” or “literature” (the latter we already debunked earlier in this series) but Michelangelo would be just as terrible at comics as Jack Kirby would be painting the Sistine Chapel. Although if Kirby did it, God would have some weird headpiece on and I’m not sure I would favor that.
The experts claim that comic books are no worse than dime novels were. True, dime novels were subliterary; but they were earthy and indigenous and had overtones of literature. They had echoes of James Fenimore Cooper. They taught conventional values. Their vocabulary did not even contain swear words. The hero would say “something which sounded very much like an oath.” No lousy, stinking coppers,” “dirty squealers,” “fat sluts,” “filthy bilge-rats” or “dirty rotten scum!” They did not have psychiatrists endorsing them. It was not necessary.
Yet more snobbery. “Be more cultured like me!”
Richard B. Gehman, novelist and magazine writer, had this to say in his essay “From Deadwood Dick to Superman”: “[Dime novels] never glamorize the robber nor the desperado. The hero’s morals were impeccable. . . . The hero pulled himself up from poverty by hard work. . . . He honored and respected his parents.”
Batman may have started rich, but Bruce Wayne worked hard to become a detective, forensic scientist, and stealthy adventurer. Superboy was always shows to respect and honor his parents and those good values followed him to Superman. Again Wertham proves his lack of research.
And there is still more to go over with this. Luckily we just got word that Friday Night Fights is preempted by life events so I don’t have to give up Saturday Night Showcase this week (as originally planned) to explain storytelling to a man biased against the new medium. Do you see why I’m moving this to a bi-weekly schedule so I can discuss other things? See you tomorrow.