Here we go again, kids.
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.
Making and Makers of Comic Books
“Through its bark the midday sun
Makes the fluid poison run,
And darkness of the nights conceals
When the poison pitch congeals.”
– Pushkin: “The Upas Tree”
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree.”
– Lord Byron
Apparently the Upas tree, or more precisely the Antiaris, has a variety of uses, some of them toxic and some beneficial. Of course Wertham would only see the former in a comic book. It has been used for arrow poison and in rituals, but has also been uses for wood veneer, clothing dyes, and Wikipedia also mentions potential medicinal uses. And yet one definition I found for upas was “a poisonous or harmful influence or institution”, which is most assuredly how Wertham is using it.
We are at the point where Wertham discusses the comic creators, but interestingly he tries to pull blame away from the writers and artists (while telling them their art sucks) and focuses all of his scorn against the publishers, and he may have some points here. Publishers can be rather ruthless to each other. Remember, the Comics Code was used to go after one particular publisher. And some of the practices we’ll be taking about here probably did happen back then and were horrible.
Also remember that Wertham is doing this “for the children”, which is usually a good way to protect yourself when forcing censorship on people. He joined the crowd who kept acting like comics were for kids, only acknowledging adults also read comics. Remember, I’m not necessarily complaining about the problems he saw. I’m complaining about the levels he saw them when it was obvious he rarely knew what he was talking about. When it comes to the behind-the-scenes stuff however, he is probably more right in this chapter than he has before. Granted that isn’t saying much but here me out. There’s still plenty to complain about here, especially in the beginning. This is still a man who doesn’t understand comics.
Read his thoughts before reading mine. Perspective is important.
Early in our investigation it became clear to me and my associates as we were analyzing the comic books themselves and their reflection in the minds of every type of child, that we should also have to study the making and the makers of crime comics. So for years we have taken every opportunity that offered, and created many opportunities ourselves. We have talked with publishers, writers, artists, middlemen between comic books and radio and television, publicity agents, lawyers whom manufacturers of crime comic books consulted, members of financially related industries such as the pulp paper industry or publishers of erotic magazines or books, technical and office employees. Some of them were very co-operative, especially when they talked about other firms than their own. And we noticed that the lower down we went on the financial-returns ladder of the industry, the more critical the employees were of the wares turned out. Most of them know very well what they are doing.
When I first read this part I was expecting a huge attack on the actual creative teams–the writers, artists, and letterers. (I think at this point the artists were also the colorists and rarely was there a separate artist between penciling and inking.) We will see later on that this isn’t the case. He’s going after the publishers specifically. I don’t know that making porn or adult novels necessarily means you can’t make good kids stuff. Plenty can’t, or at least don’t want to. When Jim Meddick was brought in to do the original Robotman comics he would say in a later interview that he wasn’t the best choice for a family-friendly comic, and eventually evolved it into Monty. I know that’s a comic strip but my point is during the family-friendly years of Robotman he didn’t do a bad job. He just preferred not to write that kind of comic and it changed to the point where his publisher asked the Robotman character be dropped.
Although if United Features Syndicate ever wanted to reboot the character they should call me. I can do family-friendly, and I’d bring back the other toys in the line as supporting characters, but that’s a discussion for another time.
And no, I’m not surprised that a publisher back then would point at another publisher and say “see, they are making the bad comics but we’re the good guys”. You think the current DC/Marvel feud is stupid and childish, and it is, but they have nothing on what was going on back in the 1950s.
One publisher stated publicly: “Criticize the comics as much as you wish. We like to have you talk about them.”
This mindset exists today. I’ve heard creators this time say that all press is good press, even when being negative. I don’t understand that perspective at all. Everyone hates you but at least they’re talking about you? That’s ego, and not the good kind.
Comic book publishers put out statements of their own or quoted statements of their hired experts with supreme disregard for the fact that the very excess of their wording or the very inconsistency of their arguments might be detected. They supplemented the mass appeal of their product with the mass appeal of their pseudoscientific demagogy. Here are three typical examples:
The studies of my group have shown us conclusively that children who read good books in their comic book deformation do not proceed to read them in the original; on the contrary, they are deterred from that. Librarians all over the country have borne that out. Yet a comic book publisher stated publicly that children who read classics in comic-book form “go on to read the complete story in its entirety.” The phrasing alone gives away the intent.
Does it? Is Dr. Wertham expecting them to go read A Tale Of Two Cities the next day after reading the comic version? More likely years down the road as an adult they’ll come across it and want to read the original, especially after being told the comic they read and may still have taken parts out for space and censoring for a younger demographic.
Or a publisher quotes publicly the statement of one of the experts for the defense that children read comic books because of “the satisfaction of some real innermost need of their own.” Again the wording is interesting. If it is really a need, why must it be a real need, and if it is a real need, why must it be an innermost need, and if it is an honest-to-goodness real innermost need, why the addition of their own?
As opposed to an outermost fake need of someone else? Maybe “want” or “desire” is better than “need” but at least you can ask what that want or desire is. Wertham of course would claim the comic forced that desire onto the child.
Another publisher repeats publicly that juvenile delinquency is “far too complex” for such a simple thing as crime comic books to play any part in it. At the same time, in complete disregard for the intelligence of his readers or listeners, he states that his own crime comic books are “responsible for lessening juvenile delinquency.”
Note that the emphases here come from the source I’m posting from, not me. This one I don’t get. The comics do play some part; I haven’t denied that, only that Wertham has put too much emphasis or not given a decent solution to the problem. At the very least they have inspired some bad ideas, if this book has any basis in fact at all. And we’ve seen conscience-impaired people (I am so worried that term will catch on in certain circles who only use “evil” for their social/political rivals) be inspired by other media unintended by the creators. So admittedly this one is a dumb statement.
The behavior of crime comic book publishers has some resemblance to the plots of their products: pious slogans and ruthless actions. After I had examined many comic books and their effect on many children I arrived at the formula which my further studies have confirmed, that crime comics represent an obscene glorification of violence, crime and sadism. This is not a characterization of some, but the formula of the bulk. It would therefore be incorrect and unjust to say that one crime comic book representative is more irresponsible than the other. Their common prayer seems to be: Suffer the little children to come unto me and I shall lead them into temptation.
Again, the problem is more these creators aren’t thinking of the children while you seem to think these products are only for children. You’re both wrong in your thinking.
If you want to compare this with what the child receives for his ten cents in economic terms, buy a copy of a pocket magazine for adults which also costs ten cents. They are printed on excellent paper, they have many good photographs well reproduced, good reporting, alert editing, a great variety of subject matter. And yet their circulation is small compared to that of comic books.
Having done both drawing and photography (I was in photo club in high school, where we worked in black and white photos because it was cheaper–this was a school) there is some difference here. For one thing these aren’t fictional stories, but while it costs more to produce photos financially when it comes to time it costs more to create more drawings. Not counting instant and digital cameras, doing photography is actually simple. (Doing it well and making it visually exciting still takes talent. I’m not taking anything away from you shutterbugs out there. I do other visual arts as well. I know it takes a good eye and a quick shutter. But the basic process is simple.)
First you take your picture. To develop the film, probably the most time-consuming, requires preparation since some of it is done in complete darkness so as not to ruin the film. You take the roll out of its protective case and into a special box, poor in the first of a series of chemicals and roughly a half-hour later you’re done. (Of course I have trouble keeping track of time without a clock or watch and color may take longer.) It has to dry overnight after washing it and the next day you cut it into strips that are easier to handle. (I still have most of my old negatives from those days actually.) Then the easy part starts unless you’re being creative. You know that room with red lighting? That’s where you create the pictures, since the photo paper can’t be exposed to normal light or you’ll ruin it all. The paper is put under a special projector that projects the negative onto the paper. Then you run that paper through a series of chemicals and hang it to dry. This is the quick stage. I could create a series of photos in a couple of hours, and with a full day I could probably do the whole roll of 24, but I had classes and couldn’t stay after school all night so I never tested that.
Compare that to making a comic. In both cases I’m a relative amateur, and many cartoonists and comic artists have their own style and tricks, but here’s how I go through a full-size comic page like Captain PSA. First you layout your panels, and possibly this is after thumbnailing the story. I use thumbnails as my scripting but usually the artist gets a full script from the writer even if he or she is the writer. After the layouts comes the rough penciling, getting an idea as to where the characters or set pieces are in a given panel, and hopefully making sure there is room for dialog while getting everything important you can into that panel. Then comes the tight penciling although I’ve seen artists having a second penciling stage. Then comes the inking with archival ink that keeps the page from fading away over time, and even if they didn’t have all the art nibs in the 1950s they do today that’s still a lengthy process. Actually, the entire page is a lengthy process. And you still have to color, shadow, and letter the page with dialog and sound effects (which also need coloring). This is a day’s work if you don’t separate the art into stages, like I do with Jake & Leon. I could do a decent photo set in two days. Doing a whole comic like Captain Yuletide, which is a mini-comic that has fewer panels than most full-sized comics takes longer than that. I can do maybe two or three pages if my hand was better used to drawing, but that’s like three to five panels. Again, I’m an amateur compared to other photogs and cartoonists out there. Of course Wertham doesn’t think comic art is good, but I don’t know what qualifies in his eyes.
It’s also a different process getting photos on the page than comics, and requires a different process. That’s the limits of my printing knowledge there (we didn’t have many photos in our school newspaper but we did have the occasional artwork–not by me) and in this modern age that is a different case. Point is while he may have a point about the quality of the paper, there is a difference between printing text and the occasional photo and a comic page, which was still a new process back then. Today they are similar quality, and neither even matches the inflation equivalent of ten cents. If comics are on cheaper paper, it’s because the production costs are higher and the artist has to be paid for his supplies as well as his time.
Moreover, the old or return copies of these magazines are valueless, whereas comic books continue to be sold, shipped abroad, traded secondhand, borrowed and studied, as long as they hold together.
Most magazines are outdated after a while as new information is learned. All of my old wrestling magazines and some of my anime magazines are outdated even without the internet. Comics can be read and re-read forever simply by saying this takes place in whatever year it was published or when the story takes place if it’s a period or future tale. It doesn’t have the same restrictions as magazines and shares more with, not surprisingly, other storytelling media at the time like radio plays, TV, movies, and books. I know Wertham would cringe at that last one.
We have found that the individual child spends much more money on crime comic books than adults familiar with their circumstances would assume.
I have seen many children who have spent over fifty dollars a year on crime comic books, more often than not without their parents’ knowledge. Occasionally parents realize it to some extent. One alert parent wrote me: “This form of literature drains my children’s pocket money.” In one of the most critical surveys, made on 450 pupils in grades 4 to 6, it was found that the average child read 14.5 comic books a week. Two children claimed that they read a hundred a week.
A hundred a week? You really have no life and I know you aren’t getting anything out of those books not because of Wertham’s bias but because like any story you need to really absorb it to really enjoy it. But Wertham only talks to kids who can’t read and just look at the pictures.
If I were asked what I have found to be the outstanding characteristic of the crime comic book publishers, I would say it is their anonymity, or semi-anonymity. This was an unexpected phenomenon. There are at present seventy-six major juvenile book publishers. Their children’s books bear the imprint of their firm. But with crime comic book publishers, mass purveyors of children’s literature, you can’t be sure who publishes what. A parent who would look casually over his child’s comic books would think that almost every book has its own publisher. Actually a very small number of firms puts out most of the comic books, but does so under various names. Different reasons are given for this concealment. Income-tax policy is one of them. The fear of compromising the name of a whole firm by objectionable products is another.
It’s not “unexpected” at all. Movie studios did this as well in the early days, along with hiding their actors and directors’ names for fear they’d be lured away by another studio. Video games did the same thing. One of the reasons Activision was formed was that Atari wouldn’t give the programmers credit for their work so they wouldn’t be wooed by Mattel for their Intellivision system or something. It’s a way for the money makers to keep the people responsible under thumb. Video games just managed to break out of that trap sooner thanks to the examples of media before it. You still rarely see creator credits on big-name board games.
Sometimes the publisher’s name on the comic book and the name and contents of the book show a ludicrous discrepancy. For instance, one of the 1952 crop has on its first page a horrible picture of a man shot in the stomach, with a face of agonized pain, and such dialogue as: “You know as well as I do that any water he’d drink’d pour right out of his gut! It’d be MURDER!” The name of the publisher is: Tiny Tots Comics, Inc.
Sorry, I have to side with Dr. Wertham on this one. There were a lot of problems with the publishers of those days. Wertham goes into the renaming of titles, which he took credit for in earlier chapters, but keeping the numbering citing some kind of rule by the post office or something. I’ve heard this one before and if true that’s a rather dumb rule. But it’s the government so I’m not ruling that out.
And we’ve passed the 3000 mark so we’ll stop here and come back tomorrow as Wertham continues his assault on the publishers, slowly moving his focus to the treatment of the actual creators.