For those coming in late we’re discussing Wertham’s problems with comic publishers, and this may be the more accurate section. There were some shady customers back then. However, that doesn’t mean Wertham isn’t going to get a lot of things wrong. It’s still Fredric Wertham, who has a nasty history of not understanding things. At least this will be more accurate than the rest of the chapters so far, and none of the usual examples of kids committing crimes because Superman allegedly told them to.

No I don’t know how that works, either.

Join in the reading so you can properly join us in the discussion.

The names of comic books and their numbering are sometimes also anything but informative. If one comic book is criticized, the publishers may stop the series and start the same thing again with another title. If a comic book is designated No.17 or No.60 or No.15 it may actually be No.1 of that title. This I am told has something to do with Post Office regulations according to which they may change the name but must keep the number, to keep some sort of connection with the former product. So Crime may become LoveOuter Space, the Jungle; Perfect Crime, War; Romance, Science Fiction; Young Love, Horror; while the numbers remain consecutive.

I’d question this since it also happened to cleaner comics, but if all the comic critics were as gung-ho as Wertham, where some of those cleaner comics were also under attack, he might not be wrong. It could also be the Post Office regulations (which were kind of silly even if the publishers weren’t more interested in their bottom lines) mixed with titles not selling well, the stories that were simply tagging along to the new name. I wasn’t around back then so I can only go with what I’ve heard from people who do more “backstage” researching than I do. I’m usually more interested in the final results than how they got there.

Wertham goes into a discussion about comic publishers’ ties to paper mills and larger publishers, as some magazine publishers, not always the kid-friendly kind (but I’m not sure about Wertham’s version of “kid-friendly”), also published comics on the cheap.

From the point of view of the scientific study of the crime comic book as a social phenomenon, these connections are not without significance. National magazines whose publishers also publish comic books do not as a rule print articles critical of comic books. Several times we had a chance to see how this works. A writer asked the Lafargue group to give him some background material for an article on violence in children. We gave him some of our conclusions, including some of the lessons in violence in comic books, which he incorporated in his article. When he told me which national magazine he was doing the article for, I told him that since its publisher also published comic books his article would not be published there. He did not believe that such censorship existed.

His article was never printed.

I’m not too surprised if this is true. Ignoring Wertham’s questionable perspective on comics books, would you print an article critical of one of your other money makers? Of course I haven’t read the article to see how fair and accurate he was but that hasn’t always stopped publishers before either. Unless you’re writing something negative about a rival publisher of course. That’s feature article material.

The type of cynicism that we found in the dialogue of comic books parallels some of the published statements that comic book publishers and their representatives have made off and on when confronted with public opinion. These are some examples:

Well this should be fun. How many times will I agree with Dr. Wertham and how many times will I have to explain something. Place your bets now.

“There are more morons than people, you know.”

And some of them were in publishing. Some of them sadly still are, although Dan DiDio appears to have learned his lesson (I’m still not convinced) while Axel Alanzo has his fingers in his ears despite their own movie making division showing how it’s done.

I also just noticed the alliteration here. DD. AA.

“I don’t think comics hurt children because they grow out of it.”

You have no idea where the mob comes from, do you? Some gang bangers turn to harder crimes. Then only grow out of it if they’re taught how to be better people and the lesson sinks in. That might not happen until they’re 50.

“Sure there is violence in comics. It’s all over English literature, too. Look at Hamlet. Look at Sir Walter Scott’s novels.”

I’ve been making this case the whole time. Dr. Wertham has been acting like any depiction of violence in comics, not just the really graphic stuff, is bad, but plenty of those classic books he talks about has violence as well. If you did a straight (or as straight as you can translating from book to TV or movie) adaptation of Treasure Island nobody would call it a family production. It wouldn’t be Game Of Thrones levels unless Jim walked in on Long John without his long johns but plenty of wenches…which I totally see HBO doing mind you, but it wouldn’t be kid-friendly to someone like Wertham.

“I don’t see a child getting sexual stimulation out of it. Looking at those enlarged mammary glands he’d remember that not long ago he was nursing at his mother’s breast.”

You sir are an idiot. I’ve heard of porn addiction cases that started at age 9 seeing his neighbor’s brother’s Playboys.

“We do it by formula, not malice. A cop, a killer, a gun and a girl.”

I don’t get the publisher or the doctor’s point here.

Utterances of the editors are no less cynical. Richard B. Gehman, in From Deadwood Dick to Superman, quoted one:

“Naturally after a kid has identified himself with the crook in the beginning, and after he’s followed him through various adventures, he’s going to be a little sorry when the crook gets shot. Sure he’ll resent the officer who does the shooting. Maybe he’ll resent all cops. But what the hell, they sell. Kids like them.”


Four Favorites #8. No idea who they are. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s a rather dumb attitude to have. If you KNOW kids are looking to the bad guy and hating the cops, then aren’t you writing the criminal wrong and maybe need to look at how the story is written to improve the chances they’d rather emulate the hero? You actually are proving Wertham right, and you’re not supposed to do that. You’re the target!

The editor of the comic book The Killers and other similar ones said with disarming frankness: “The so-called harmless books just don’t sell.”

He might be right, and the publisher is there do make money, so maybe Dr. Wertham should try to figure out why those books don’t sell, and find a way to help make them sell. He won’t of course because few in the industry itself take the time and most of the consultants and parent groups have a nasty habit of over-sanitizing.

Another editor: “We are not selling books on the basis of bosoms and blood. We are businessmen who can’t be expected to protect maladjusted children.”

He’s not completely wrong but I refer you to my previous statement. You can make a good book cleaner if you try. It has been done. Then kids might gravitate to those books and you can have the harsher books for the adults.

From my talks with editors and with those who work under them, it seems to me that they have three main tasks.

1) They call a writer for a story, and often give him a check even before he writes it.

2) They determine what are the “real innermost needs” of children.

3) They watch public reaction to the small extent that this is necessary. when the editor receives a copy after the pencil-man, the ink-man and the letterer have done their work, he – thinking of course of the “needs” of the child – “makes final corrections, changing a word of dialogue or indicating in the margin that a girl’s half-torn dress should show more of her left breast” (Gehman).

A bit one-sided and snarky but not completely wrong. Although I think nowadays more publishers want a story pitched first before messing with it. Editorial mandate is still an issue. It’s also why there were a number of writers on Superman in the New 52 days.

I learned that editors read some of my writings on comic books and discussed them at staff conferences. They reasoned that they did not have to worry too much and that public reaction against crime comic books would soon subside. I know of one company where the editor took my findings very seriously and tried to clean up his crime comic books – and finally gave them up altogether as the only way to do it. This company published an educational comic book which was a financial flop and was discontinued. That is not so hard to explain.

But apparently hard to explain correctly. Dr. Wertham uses an example of an alcoholic. The real problem is that a lot of educational comics were boring back then. Heck, I have some educational comics from the 80s that weren’t very exciting. You can do it right. Our pal Jerzy just finished one for First Second about rockets, but he used interesting characters and I’m assuming interesting scenarios to make the education fun. That’s how we ended up with edutainment, trying to make something that didn’t feel like a text-book with word balloons.

After an interesting comment about leftover comics being sent to other countries (I’d have to research that both in the 50s and today for accuracy) we get into how the vendors don’t really like selling these things and I kind of believe this practice went on and may still do so. Remember that there weren’t comic stores or comic distributors like Diamond back then, so the drug stores and newsstands got them through the magazine distributors and some of those magazine publishers also published the comics for a cheap buck, not caring about the medium but controlling the money-making medium. They learned a lot from Hollywood, who still does this stuff.

My associates and I have spoken to many vendors. And very many of them do not like to sell crime comic books. They know they are not good for children and they would rather not handle them. The president of the Atlantic Coast Independent Distributors Association has estimated that three-fourths of comic books are not “worthy of distribution” and the president of the National Association of Retail Druggists said at a convention: “It is a tragic fact that many retail druggists are peddlers of gutter muck. The charge can be held against them with justice; their only defense is that it has never occurred to them to check on the comic books. “When parents critical of comic books have realized how defenseless they are against them they have made two unreasonable demands of vendors in stands or stores. First they have asked them to read the comic books before they sell them! That is of course impossible, just as it is impossible for a busy housewife to read all her children’s comic books first, though that has been suggested by some experts.

The first place I saw comic en masse as a kid was the town pharmacy, which sadly was pushed out a larger pharmacy which itself was pushed out by a national chain. And that is a lot of comics to check not for quality–that’s up to the individual–but whether it was right to sell to kids. The Comics Code was supposed to make that easier, but I’ve already had that discussion.

The second demand is that the small vendor should reject the most bloody and sadistic comics. But is it fair to ask these economically hard-pressed people to eliminate those comic books that sell best, when nothing is done at their source?

Meanwhile you’re pushing for the source to be wiped out entirely and killing a medium in its infancy.

Comic books that don’t “move” are a great headache to the small vendor. If he doesn’t return them he has to pay for them. But returning them makes a lot of work bookkeeping, so sometimes he just keeps them and tries to sell them.

Now kids are going to want to be trapped in another dimension so they can play with a robot. Because who doesn’t want to play with a robot?

This is true with comic stores today. Some back issues are bought from people cleaning out their library for whatever reason but a lot of them, especially after the speculator bubble of the 90s and the publisher’s bad reactions to it, are comics they couldn’t sell.

From here Dr. Wertham goes into the problem of block purchases, something syndicated television does today. (For example “you want Judge Judy’s show, you better take Dr. Phil’s as well”.) It’s really a dirty trick. If you want these popular magazines you better take these comics as well. From a business perspective it inflates your purchasing numbers since the unbought comics are hard to return to the distributor or publisher. This sort of happens today. To reach a minimum order to sell sports cards, a store in my town had to buy comics so he ended up selling both. Which was good for me before I could drive, but annoying for him. It also meant that if the drug store wanted magazines on their shelves they better take the comics as well. I’m betting this was true for grocery stores as well, another place I used to get my comics from, although that seems to have fallen out of practice. Even bookstores only care graphic novels and trade collections.

On the one hand it does give a new title (or in this cane the whole medium) a chance to find an audience that might not if the stores refused to carry it. However, despite Wertham lumping all “crime comics” together there were title back then that were as vulgar and graphic as some of the independent titles today but lacking indie publishers’ creativity. (Do you think something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Stargazer would have been tried by anyone back then?) I’m not giving comic publisher a pass here just because Wertham is heavy-handed in his criticism. There were clearly problems, but it’s not too far off from how movies started. And look how that medium turned out.

This is a good place to stop, as Dr. Wertham turns his eye towards the comic creators themselves. Interestingly he kind of defends them. As only Dr. Wertham can mind you, but sometimes you take what you can get.


About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

One response »

  1. Sean says:

    These are some very interesting insights about the business of comic book distribution during the 1950s. Like anything, it’s a business, and business interests always come first over creative interests.


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