Five parts. It took me five parts just to get through Wertham’s comments about people who defend comics, whom of course to Dr. Wertham are the most horrible people ever to walk the face of the earth, despite the war they were in last decade! With the Friday Night Fights preempted this week I have an opening to finish this chapter off, and then in two weeks we’ll get through the next one because I need a break from this book.
I’m not going to say he didn’t make a good point or two, but he made more than two points, so the rest of them have shown not only his ignorance of comics but in this chapter specifically he’s proven a snobbery against the comic medium. If he was trying to bring more balance to the stories or noting that there are comics kids shouldn’t be reading while the adults can, that would be okay and the problems would come from him being in the 1950s. Instead we have a man who is targeting comics as a scapegoat because he doesn’t see the changing landscape of a post-war, post-depression United States. Rather than attempt to improve comics he opts to destroy comics because they are not books. And that’s where most of these problems stem from. Although as we’ll see not all of the problems. Again…1950s.
A favorite argument of the comics experts goes like this: Children’s troubles or delinquencies are complicated phenomena. How can you pick out only one single factor and even mention comic books? Aren’t you guilty of oversimplification?
Whether Dr. Wertham is right or not (most of the time he’s not), that’s a rather stupid statement. Comics are not the cause of these kids turning evil, but they are influencing how they enact that evil, which is we have seen today where a criminal gets an idea from a movie what crime to commit. He’ll put his own spin on it, but it’s started the idea. Then there was that loon who shot up a movie theater dressed as the Joker (the Heath Ledger version if memory serves). He had major problems and I don’t blame the creators of The Dark Knight for his insanity. The problem is that “one single factor” is comics, and he at best pays lip service to the other issues. He’s not wrong for mentioning comics but he is still guilty of if not oversimplification then at least scapegoating something he knows so little about.
Nobody versed in clinical research would reason like that. You cannot put “factors” into a discussion of a child as you put eggs into a basket. The different factors that influence a child’s life may accentuate, activate, counteract or negate one another. Or they may run side by side. You cannot at the outset reject any factor because on the surface it seems trivial. Sometimes the causes are near at hand and are overlooked for just that reason.
Of course there are other factors beside comic books. There always are other factors. That is true of tuberculosis, of syphilis, of automobile accidents. When a child reacts to something, whether it be comic books or a dog that bites him, a good doctor takes up the whole situation and does not leave out any factor, including the possibility that either the comic books or the dog may be virulent.
It’s one thing to factor in the entertainment the child is absorbing, but he is still pinning too much on it, and coming back with a too harsh solution. Wertham uses an example of a sick tree where the blame is obviously the blight, like one that happened in 1904. Basically he’s calling comics a disease. I just had a thought. I was going to say “if he were around when books were invented would he complain because they aren’t word-of-mouth” but then I had a thought.
Before the printing press the book as we know it was really expensive, since it had to be copied by hand (and you had to hope the writer didn’t change anything or that what he was copying wasn’t already changed from the original), and that was long, time-consuming work. There was a point where NO child would have a book unless mom and dad were rich. Even by the 1950s most books were beyond the child’s allowance, as I’ve mentioned before, but there were comics and pulp novels both at around 10⊄at those prices, roughly 90⊄in 2017 dollars. (Puts the current $4.00 in perspective, doesn’t it?) But I go back to books being the privilege of the rich, or at least the financially well off, like I used to be when I bought many of my books, or my family used to be when I got books for birthdays and Christmas or because we saw something good in the store. (Right now even my dad is hurting.) Wertham surely makes enough money to purchase any book he wants but the kids don’t. I don’t see Wertham advocating releasing the classics at 10 cents a pop, but he has come down against the pulps, which he considers an alternative to comics because they’re still books. Wertham is basically deciding your reading material and unless you can get to a library, which his patients can because they live in a big city, you aren’t allowed to read.
In trying to deny the harm done by comic books the experts make it appear that comic books have no influence at all and represent merely “casual contact with ideas on a printed page. But when they pronounce on the effects of “good” comic books they suddenly forget that and write that comic books “exert tremendous influence.”
This is I grant you hypocritical. Comics, like any other medium be it fiction or non-fiction (in fact you can do more harm with non-fiction if it has a false perspective on a subject…say, comics), have the potential of great harm and great good depending on the reader and what is shown. However, Wertham is trying to leave the reader completely blameless and pound in the supposed influence of comics. Note that he has not once supported the idea of any possible good effect, making him a hypocrite of sorts as well.
If a child has any trouble that can be traced to comic books, the experts maintain that this child was “predisposed” or “unstable” beforehand. Of course this is a diagnosis made only after the child got into trouble. It amounts to no more than saying that the comic books are good and the children bad. I believe it is the other way around – that the children are good and the comics bad.
How do you make the diagnosis BEFORE the child gets into trouble. Serial killers can go for years without being found out. We still don’t know, and probably never will, who Jack The Ripper is, and despite a lot of talk about suspects based on recent happenings we know it may be someone who they didn’t suspect because he didn’t come off as a likely murder. Evil knows how to hide itself well until it’s properly nurtured.
And you’re both wrong, by the way. There are good and bad children and there are good and bad comics. Both are redeemable.
Children of three or four have been seen poring over the worst. Freud would not have considered that too late for harm to be done.
How do you invoke Freud like this and write this in the very next paragraph, which is also the next sentence?
The idea that all children’s difficulties begin and end with their very early family relationships has placed an enormous emotional burden on mothers.
The running gag about Freud involves the burden he place on the relationship with the mother! That had to start somewhere! And what about the father’s part in all this? A lot of our problem kids today can be traced to a lack of any fatherly influence, even if it’s an uncle or something. It’s why groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters exists, to give kids the maternal and paternal connection they may not have otherwise.
The most insidious thesis of the experts is that comic books “serve as a release for children’s feelings of aggression.” Children, so the stereotyped argument runs, need vicarious violence to overcome frustration through aggression. If comic books make people get rid of their aggressions, why are millions of them given to young soldiers at the front whom we want to be aggressive? Comic books help people to get rid not of their aggressions, but of their inhibitions.
I’m not sure I agree with either assessment. Do we want our soldiers aggressive 24/7? We want them ready to fight at a moment’s notice, especially if they’re attacked, but it’s called downtime for a reason. On the other hand, and I question Wertham’s wording of the argument but let’s assume he’s saying it right, kids NEEDING violence to overcome frustration isn’t accurate either. A properly done story can act as a sort of catharsis considering an inability to overcome their own problems (bullies, poverty, external aggressors they have no control over–that’s how it worked for me) but one done wrong, or written for an older audience who already knows better in the hands of one just learning how to act around others, could give the wrong impression on what being an adult is or how to properly function in a civilized society.
The experts not only justify sadism but advise it. One of them, a child psychiatrist, writes: “In general we have offered to the strip writer the following advice: ‘Actual mutilation . . . should not occur . . . unless the situation can be morally justified. . . . If such an act is committed by some fanciful primitive or by some enemy character it can be more readily accepted and used by the child.”‘ In its long and tortuous history, psychiatry has never reached a lower point of morality than this “advice” by a psychiatric defender of comic books.
If you’re trying to convince the kid that violence is the last resort, and some acts are still deplorable, a case can be made. Or if the story was written for an adult most adults readers wouldn’t want to see the hero commit malicious acts. Arnold Schwarzenegger can shoot up a whole camp filled with bad guys or shove the baddie off of a cliff, but there is usually a good reason he is doing so and will attempt to return to a peaceful life once his daughter is rescued. Heroes fight because they have to, not because they want to, and they fight so we don’t have to. Just like soldiers and police officers.
We seem to have made a fetish of violence. A pamphlet distributed by the Child Study Association of America contains this outlandish statement: “Actually, hitting is one of the ways in which children learn to get along together.” At a meeting of the National Conference of Social Work, the statement was made: “Brutality has always been a part of children’s literature and life. . . . If your child destroys your furniture while imitating Superman or Captain Marvel, he’s being motivated by impulses we shall need more of, if the world is to survive – the impulse to annihilate an evil.” The speaker did not explain what was so evil about the furniture.
Do we really want another Ottoman Empire? (Congratulations to any who got the reference beyond historical. Spoooooon!) As written, the statement is admittedly stupid. Properly channeled, aggression can make one a better athlete or solider, or can be turned into a passion for something non-aggressive that benefits yourself or humanity, like construction/demolition, or something. You know the old joke about powering a major city just off a child’s energy. This statement, as transposed by Dr. Wertham, doesn’t sound all that positively channeled.
I’m going to end this chapter (FINALLY PRAISE GOD!) not with Wertham’s final strike on consultants but on a statement I missed earlier, and I knew I wanted to talk about it so I’m surprised I missed it. It’s about how Wertham’s restrictive views on women is part of his problem with Wonder Woman, but he also accidentally (because his comic history research skills deserve an F, a D at best) gets something right about her creator.
The prototype of the super-she with “advanced femininity” is Wonder Woman, also endorsed by this same expert. Wonder Woman is not the natural daughter of a natural mother, nor was she born like Athena from the head of Zeus. She was concocted on a sales formula.
She’s born from Zeus now. 😀 The original origin was that she was made from clay and given life by members of the Greek Pantheon. While modern DC writers want to be as close to the legend as possible (and Zeus not only can’t keep it in his toga but has done so as an animal…for those of you anti-furries out there) Wonder Woman has always had a tie to Greek mythology. And it’s possible when they got older some of those kids looked into Greek myths to see how they really went down, and that may be partially why Wonder Woman is not even more tied to the Amazons of legend rather than the Amazons of the DC Universe as depicted for long before the New 52.
Her originator, a psychologist retained by the industry…
Actually, he wasn’t “retained by the industry” so much as hired while buying his creation so long as the comic is forever printed (renumbering notwithstanding) and he is credited as her creator, which continued to TV and the recent movie. He’s not a “consultant”, he’s the creator and at the time writer.
…has described it: “Who wants to be a girl? And that’s the point. Not even girls want to be girls. . . The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman. . . . Give (men) an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves.” Neither folklore nor normal sexuality, nor books for children, come about this way. If it were possible to translate a cardboard figure like Wonder Woman into life, every normal-minded young man would know there is something wrong with her.
I will grant you that Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who by the way passed away in 1947 so he wasn’t even writing the book at the time…being dead and all…had some issues about his own gender versus the “superiority” of womanhood, no doubt shared by his wife and their barely legal lover who had a few issues of her own. Wait until you get to the “baby parties”. Yeesh! But Wonder Woman has evolved to become a strong showing that women can do whatever they want. While this does include being a homemaker and stay-at-home mom, and anyone who says otherwise can kiss off like the restrictive hypocrites they are (“you can be whatever you want, as long as it’s something men are doing”), if a woman wants to be a cop, or a businesswoman, or a plumber, or whatever she should have that right as long as she is able to perform all the tasks required, the same rule as applied to men. Once Marston’s bondage obsession and woman worshipping (not like Frank Miller, this was less perverted) was out of the picture Wonder Woman actually became a good role model for girls. Not that Wertham cares because he’s waiting for his sandwich.
And this chapter is finally out of my hair! In two weeks we’ll move on to chapter 10, but next week I want to talk about anything other than this book and make sure what little sanity I have left is still there.
Next time: The Upas Tree
Which somehow is the title of a chapter going after the creators and publishers of comics. By the way, any of you reading this comic creators? Get in touch with me. If this turns out to be what I think it is I want to get us all together for something.