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 Comic Books Abroad
“Reputation abroad is contemporaneous posterity”
– French saying
Had this been titled “Comics Abroad” this chapter wouldn’t be a lie. Instead chapter 11 is titled “Murder In Dawson Creek”, a topic that is barely a quarter of the whole chapter. I link to the chapters anyway so if you want to read it go ahead. It doesn’t matter a whole lot to the topic. A brief recap.
Two boys. 11 & 13, decided to play “highwayman” and of course comics were to blame because they read them and highwaymen were never mentioned in any other media before, right? Except they weren’t playing. They tried to rob cars coming down the highway near Dawson Creek in British Columbia, where the Alaska Highway starts. When the car wouldn’t stop they shot at it, the second time killing a man with a young child (grandson? young son? Wertham doesn’t say) in his lap while his older son drove home from the Dew Drop Inn. (Yes, apparently that name is actually used outside of fiction.) This whole first case is barely a footnote in this story so why it’s the title of the chapter about how American “crime comics” are perceived in other countries is anyone’s guess. I have nothing to say during this recounting that I won’t already bring up elsewhere in this chapter so click the link below to read it and then follow along with my commentary.
Although the number of comic books in Canada is infinitely smaller than in the United States, the problem was recognized there with far more seriousness. Mrs. T. W. A. Gray, chairman of a special committee of the Victoria and District Parent-Teacher Council, was in the midst of an extensive investigation when the (victim: James) Watson comic-book murder was committed. To her it was another of many instances of the detrimental influence of comic books on children. She had collected cases, studied the literature, communicated with other parent-teacher organizations – eventually reaching the provincial and national level – looked into the industry and its experts, and last but not least had studied the comic books that children read. She reported these samples from one comic book:
As usual we don’t know what comics these came from so I can’t confirm or denounce any of these but let’s see these examples.
1) As the American army is returning home, and the flag is going by, an old gentleman asks three men to remove their hats. They reply: “If he’s so patriotic he might as well die for his country,” and one of them stabs the old man to death.
I don’t know if Canadians care about American patriotism but I have to ask if these guys were depicted as the heroes or villains. Or at least I would but Wertham believes any show of violence is condoning, which makes any crimefighting story hard to write.
2) An honest alderman tries to protect the public and is killed. The hero says: “Bullets are better than ballots!” And the commentator says: “Ah! That impulsive boy! He’s absolutely fearless! Why can’t everyone be like that!”
Is the commentator our “pal” Mr. Crime? You realize he’s supposed to be a voice of negative, evil impulses demonstrating that criminals eventually suffer for their crimes, right? It’s not a good representation and I did have a few concerns of my own with this book, but it’s not the textbook of evil I’ve been hearing about. Or maybe I just grabbed the “good” issue?
Mrs. Gray did not permit herself to be sidetracked by the industry or by those who wanted her to include all kinds of other reading and entertainment. She unflinchingly isolated one evil and pursued it.
In other words Mrs. Gray had a strong bias that she pursued without considering other factors, shooting them down until only comics were left. Because if she had comics would have instigated the crime at worst but not explained what drove these two boys, or the other punks, molesters, and killers to try them out. And that’s the point. I’m willing to question if these kids should have been reading this stuff, and if parents shouldn’t have been looking into the comics out there and finding the ones they don’t have a problem with, or sitting down with them and finding out what drew them to this comic so they could track down an alternative. Instead comics are the reason our kids are evil and only if we got rid of all comic books, except for the ones with funny talking animals who also shoot and stab and beat up each other, our kids would magically turn into little angels. At least that’s what would be inferred from this book.
Modern child psychiatry, mental hygiene and educational psychology are in a crisis. Far from being leaders, they are behind the times. Some of their literature is filled with vagaries and generalities. When confronted with a new phenomenon like comic books, they do everything except study the books. They make pronouncements without first learning the objective facts and, without bad intent, repeat the same old arguments which the crime-comic-book industry – aided by its experts – had culled from the psychological verbiage of the day.
I’ve been asked why I have wasted so much time even reading Seduction Of The Innocent, never mind reviewing and commenting on it. This is pretty much why. I didn’t want to parrot what I read on other sites or saw on NerdSync or other comic book web shows. I wanted to see for myself, to get past the “telephone game” passdowns of what was in the book. I still expected the book would be bad but I’ve since learned, as have you now, that the internet kind of downplayed how bad this book can be, oddly focusing on the “gay” aspect with some minor talk of crime, while ignoring just how severe crime was based on these comic books, calling Superman a Nazi (which will happen again in this chapter) and that Wonder Woman is a bad example to women alongside jungle girl comics.
The thing is we’ve seen Wertham himself hasn’t “studied the books”. If he had, he would see Superman’s more positive aspects, would know the Blue Beetle is a guy in a costume and not a man who turns into a bug, and may have seen the gag page in an issue of one of those “funny talking animal” comics that included a horrible black stereotype shoving a knife into a man to hide it from the cops. (And that was the most serious offense. Read it for yourself some time.) He doesn’t even understand how to read comics, ignoring the growing pains of a new medium, just like when the human race graduated from cave drawings and word-of-mouth retellings.
The medical director of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (Canada) told a convention: “A child may ascribe his behavior to a comic he has read or a movie he has seen. But such explanations cannot be considered scientific evidence of causation.” (Note that in Canada, as in the United States, it is not the children who “ascribe” their behavior to comic books, but those adults who really study the facts and the comic books.)
Except you don’t. In the next paragraph he brags about being so focused on comic books alone. He is specifically targeting this one medium and despite claims to the contrary previously isn’t looking at other elements, isn’t talking to good kids who read comics, or considering life outside of the inner cities, or the state of families after war and depression. It’s blamed solely on this new medium rather than looking at anything else and assuming if there were no comics every kid ever would read books. Comics keep kids from books and he doesn’t like it.
(A) newspaper evidently more in contact with life than the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (Canada) commented editorially: “This may not be considered ‘scientific evidence of causation.’ It is significant to note, however, that the Montreal Star and the Montreal Gazette, commenting on the unsuccessful attempt of a ten-year-old to hang himself, both state that the youngster was imitating a scene in a comic book open beside him.” And the editorial went on to mention another similar case with a fatal ending.
Considering we still hear tales of kids committing suicide, either due to bullying at school or neglectful (if not outright abusive) parents, couldn’t that have been happening back then as well? It’s not like the parent is going to admit to smacking little Timmy and Jenny around after they’re found hanging in their bedroom. But every case we saw in this book prior was blamed on curious kids who wanted to try it, like seeing if they can do that trick that looks like you’re pulling off your thumb.
The same medical director wrote to a parent-teacher group the usual generalizations favoring comic books, obviously without knowing anything about them or the real effects they have on children. He asserted that only “children who are deeply disturbed, unhappy, rejected and fearful, are attracted to comics of this type.” Make clear to yourself how far we have gone astray in relying on the official mental hygiene of the day if a leader makes a statement according to which tens of millions of children would have to be considered “deeply disturbed”! What an alibi for the corrupters of children! What a boon to private practice!
More of Wertham’s respect for his colleagues, or lack thereof. How many of those tens of millions are rooting against the bad guy? How many of them are children of 25 or 38?
His final pronouncement about comic books is “control by legislation is not the device of a truly democratic and mature society.” If the law is not the device of a democratic society, what is? The dogma of an expert who has not studied the subject fully?
Does he mean them or him? From there we go to the Canadian Congress and what they did about the “problem”. “The Parent-Teacher Association of Kamloops (B.C.) asked its representative in Parliament, Mr. Edmund Davie Fulton, to bring the matter to the attention of the House of Commons.” Mr. Fulton argued in favor of banning the comics rather than the proper response to age-restrict them at the selling point. Meaning that the sellers couldn’t sell the more graphic comics (which Wertham would include Superman) to younger customers without a parent present. Instead it was just outright banning, but…and maybe someone in Canada can answer this…did they ban all comic books or only certain comic books?
The member from Kamloops, who had accumulated a great deal of material (including some of mine) won the respect of everybody by making his points very definitely and precisely. He clearly separated comic books from newspaper comic strips; he concentrated on crime comic books and did not let himself get inveigled into talking about movies or other things; he did not include only the current crop but mentioned the harm already done and continuing to be done by the old ones.
So Mr. Fulton also focused on one thing and only one thing. Some kid gets inspired to act out a James Cagney character? Who cares, as long as he isn’t gay like Dick Grayson.
The man of violence is portrayed as acting directly, quickly and forcefully. In this way the sympathies of children are directed toward the wrong side.
These are comments from Mr. Fulton and I have to ask if every “man of violence” was the criminal? And how the violence was depicted. I’ve seen Wertham lump plenty of comics together despite the level of graphic imagery and he brags Fulton used his research as one of his “mentors”.
Even if there were only one case of a crime, the commission of which was influenced by crime comics, even if the enactment of the bill only prevented one murder, one crime of violence being committed by a juvenile, I would say that the act, if passed, would have served its purpose.
Note that in this chapter Wertham talks about all the bannings around the world, but not the results of it. So did this really do anything to stop crimes like the Walton case?
The debates on the Fulton bill were extensive. Among the speakers were judges, members of school boards and others who evidently had gone carefully into the subject. Mr. Hansell, from Macleod, held up one comic book: “On the cover is the word ‘CRIME’ in large letters. I think, Mr. Speaker, you can read that from where you are sitting; but I will bet a million dollars that you cannot read the type underneath which says ‘does not pay.’ It is so small it is almost negligible.”
I will grant you the logo could use some more work and just flashing the word “Crime”, especially when there was (I think) already a comic just called Crime, isn’t a proper representation of the title. What gets me with all of this is that they aren’t demanding changes and neither is the public. They’re demanding the complete elimination of banning of an entire medium just as it’s getting started. As a creative type who makes comics and would love to do so professionally this annoys me.
He gave statistics of the contents of one book:
punch or bludgeoning with a blackjack or something else: 11 times
burning or torturing: 8 times
blood running: 2 times
guns depicted: 14 times
corpses depicted: 4 times
drinking bouts: 5 times
somebody in the electric chair: 2 times
poisoning: 3 times
gassing: 1 time
“Guns depicted”. Not “guns used”, but just drawing a gun, holding a gun. or a gun in the shot. That has to include the cops’ guns too. And aren’t the criminals usually the ones in the electric chair? And apparently the criminals aren’t allowed to be shown committing a crime.
“I ask any reasonably minded man,” he went on, “is that the sort of thing our young people should be reading? The publishers circumvent the law by using the words ‘does not pay.’ You see, we all know that is only a way of getting around the law.”
I assume that’s some censorship law already in place in Canada at the time or otherwise I don’t understand this statement. This is also a law that doesn’t exist in the US so he’s as clueless as Wertham how publishing works.
Mr. Cavers (Lincoln) spoke of the influence of comic books on gangs: “I am told young people buy these comics, and then form voluntary circulating libraries, passing them from one to another, so no matter what supervision there may be in the home, it is difficult to stop such a practice.”
I wish I was in a gang that sat around and traded comics. It sounds better than the ones that fight other gangs and rob people while hanging around drugstores trying to look tough instead of silly.
Mr. Rodney Adamson (York West) took issue with the familiar argument that delinquency is often caused by family and home conditions and that “then the crime comic book got in and did its work.” “That,” he said, “reinforces the argument of my friend the honorable member for Kamloops [Mr. Fulton].”
Really? I thought it was more like saying “Mr. Fulton is blaming the media instead of the home life for the lack of morality when the real problem is influencing a certain action they only took because they lacked good parental guidance”. That’s what I’ve been saying.
The Minister of Justice, the Hon. Stuart S. Garson, summed up the debates: “When publishers and disseminators of various kinds of crime comics and obscene literature are heartened and emboldened by this concern of ours for the preservation of literary and artistic freedom, and become steadily more impudent in their degradation of that freedom so that they transform freedom into license, the time comes, and I think we all agree that it has come, when we must take further action to curtail their offenses.”
Banning an entire medium (because I’m not seeing any arguments that suggest any comic book would be allowed) is hardly a proper or fair solution.
No debate on such a high ethical plane, with proper regard for civil liberties but with equal regard for the rights and happiness of children, has ever taken place in the United States. Was the widening periphery of any investigation into the effects of comic books leading me to the problem of where and why the democratic process is being corrupted here, to the detriment of the most defenseless members of society, the children?
The three most dangerous words in politics: for the children. Because it rarely is.
The Fulton bill to outlaw crime comic books by an amendment to the criminal code was passed unanimously by the House of Commons. Then it had to come before the Canadian Senate. The Senate referred the bill to one of its ‘standing committees. At the committee hearing, two representatives of the comic-book trade gave evidence. They were eloquent and made their usual persuasive arguments. They said that far from having an adverse influence, crime comic books are highly moral and have a very good influence on children. They almost swayed the committee.
But they made one error. They handed around some free samples of comic books. Some of the Senators had been inclined to listen to the plausible arguments. But after taking a good look at the samples selected by the industry itself to show its worth, they were aghast. The Senate passed the Fulton bill by the overwhelming majority of 91 to 5.
I don’t know what they chose. If they chose some graphic horror, then that was dumb. If they showed Classics Illustrated or other adventure comics then I have to question.
After the Fulton bill became law, a committee representing publishers, distributors and printers decided that comic books affected by the definition of the new law should be discontinued. Twenty-five crime comics, every one of which had figured in my Lafargue and Queens Mental Hygiene Clinic investigations, disappeared from the Canadian newsstands. Canadian parents lost nothing in the way of freedom of speech. Their children were protected from one of the influences which had made it harder for them to grow up decently. Said Mr. Fulton: “The new law imposes an obligation of self-censorship on the publisher and makes certain that what he publishes is not harmful, and this is a perfectly fair duty to impose upon those who derive profit from literature for children.”
Literature for adults nobody cares about because watching what kids read is too hard. I’m over the word limit but I wanted to finish this story so tomorrow we can properly start the next one as we head overseas to see what the other countries think of us. Get your passports ready.