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 Struggle Against the Comic Book Industry
“Neutral men are the devil’s allies.”
– E.H. Chapin
So are extremist men ready to tear things down rather than build things up.
So here we go again with more of Dr. Wertham’s biased ranting on comics. This time we’re looking at…actually by this point I don’t know what the point is for him to continue. It feels like he’s said everything but he keeps finding more. He hates comics and he’s determined to make the reader hate them too. This chapter he pulls out all the stops. At least I think he does. We still have two more chapters after this. At this point I’m thinking this is more an endurance challenge than a review. If you haven’t been following this series thus far I’d point you back to the beginning because at this point I just want to get this over with. Maybe it’s because I’m already in a bad mood today. That’s not going to be helpful.
Read the chapter first for context. It’s more research than Wertham ever does on the target.
Suppose a child comes to me with a gastro-intestinal disorder. I examine him carefully and come to the conclusion that the cause of the trouble is an impure well. I give some medication for the child and tell him not to drink that water any more. A little while later another child comes to me with the same condition, and after that still another. In each case my clinical judgment traces the trouble to the same well. What under such circumstances is the doctor’s job? Should I wait until more and more children from this neighborhood come to me? Should I listen to those who say that after all there are children who have drunk water from this well and not got sick? Or to those who say it is good for children to get sick to the stomach occasionally, to “adjust them to reality”? Or should I listen to the owners of the well who claim first that children do not drink from their well, secondly that the well water is good for them and thirdly that interfering with the owners’ right to use the well in any way they please is against their constitutional liberties?
Well, if children are drinking the water and NOT getting sick, is there any other factor for the kids who are getting sick? Maybe they’re drinking from a cup they shouldn’t be while the other kids are using clean cups not made of lead. Otherwise, you’re analogy doesn’t quite work and I’m questioning the validity of what you say the defenders of comics are saying, mostly because I know how little you pay attention to anything positive about comics, including what we’re going to be seeing in this chapter.
I should certainly not be influenced by the child’s opinion that he likes this well, nor by the assertions of those in the pay of the well-owners who claim that this particular well satisfies a “need” in children. It seems to me that my duty as a doctor is to make sure in the first place that these children have been drinking from this well. And then to be guided by an expert determination whether this well is sufficiently contaminated to have caused the trouble.
That is exactly what I did with comic books.
No, it actually isn’t. You’ve only looked at the infected kids without looking into the kids who aren’t. You’ve lumped the clean plastic cups in with the dirty plastic cups and the dangerous lead cups. And your solution, rather than put the dirty cups away or insist they be washed, thus far has been to insinuate we would all be better if you blew up the well and started drinking only from the pure spring you think is the only source of water while telling us the cups can’t be cleaned so why should we try? In other words you’ve shown you’re writing off an entire medium because you don’t like it so you’ll demand it be gotten rid of for the sake of the children. I’d like to introduce you to a man named Jack Thompson. You’d get along famously.
My conclusion as to the harmfulness of crime comic books got an ever larger foundation as my case material increased over the years. In the Lafargue Clinic, in the psychiatric service and the mental hygiene clinic of Queens General Hospital, in the Quaker Emergency Service Readjustment Center, in practice and in consultation, some five hundred children a year came to my attention. In the clinics I built upon intimate relationship with the community so that I had frequent contact with practically every public and private agency in New York that deals with mental-hygiene problems of children and young people. My associates and I gained a survey of children of all classes and dealt both practically and scientifically with all factors known to influence children adversely, from physical to mental.
And again you’ve only talked to the sick children, and never the ones who aren’t committing crimes, love their parents, and don’t cut class.
I have testified six times under oath on the harmfulness of comic books. On only three of these occasions were comic books the original issue. On all six occasions comic books and/or photostats of comic-book pictures were received and filed as evidence by the court or the legislators. In all but one case (in which I testified in affidavit form), I was subject to searching cross-examination. In all six cases the issue was decided in accordance with my testimony, and for the side for which I testified. This sounds very optimistic, but that is not how it turned out in the long run.
At a Post Office hearing in Washington I had to give a psychiatric analysis of what constitutes obscenity. By way of comparison with nudity in art and photography, I introduced comic books which I called obscene. I pointed out that the picture of a nude girl per se may be the opposite of obscene, as compared to one of a girl in brassiere and panties about to be tied up, gagged, tortured, set on fire, sold as a slave, chained, whipped, choked, raped, thrown to wild animals or crocodiles, forced to her knees, strangled, torn apart and so on.
So nudity isn’t obscene as long as it’s done tastefully? Considering what we’ve learned about Europe and Greek’s past (the homes of “classic” art) I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that what he might call a “tasteful nude” today was porn back then. A lot of bare breasts and the infamous statue of David being anatomically correct does bring one to question. Porn can be done tastefully…depending on your definition of “taste” of course. I guess if you can pretend it’s “cultured” and “refined” it’s okay to call art. So he’s an art snob too. Oh wait, we already knew that by how he calls comic art “garbage”.
The people present evidently had not looked much at comic books, though they were bought by their children and on sale at stands within a stone’s throw of the building. I suggested that as a test I would go out to any of these stands, and most of the comic books on sale would have episodes like those I had enumerated. From those I had with me, three were picked at random and marked and received in evidence.
In other words he picked the most vulgar and none of the cleaner works, and biased the result.
The hearing was conducted with great fairness. Its result: “In view of the testimony adduced at the hearing,” the Post Office reversed its previous ruling according to which a magazine for adults had been barred from the mails.
So you basically showed them something that convinced the Post Office to allow adult material? Did I read that right?
It was on a similar problem that I testified about comic books next, but on this occasion I was not the one who introduced the subject. The first novel of a young writer, published by a respected firm, had been accused of being obscene according to the law. A quantity of copies of the book had been seized in a raid on the publishing house. I appeared as a witness for the defense at the trial and gave it as my opinion that the novel was not obscene and the ban should be lifted. While waiting to be called, I sat outside and analyzed the contents of comic books. When called to the stand, I thrust them hastily into my brief case.
Yeah, you know where this is headed. Wertham basically stated “if you want to see obscene, here’s this comic book” and they said “okay, the novel isn’t that bad”. Although he did try to defend his perspective. Have to protect the almighty prose against those evil word balloons.
In the first place, the novel is for adults, while this type of comic book (according to my studies and as shown by the advertisements) is read mostly by children.
Are they supposed to be? Like he cares.
Secondly, the accused passages in the novel had to do with normal erotic relationships while comic books glorify such perversions as sadism, and all kinds of violence in relation to sex.
“See, this is much worse.” To play Wertham’s analogy game “this sawblade wound is worse than this knife wound so the knife is fine and the saw should be dealt with.” I don’t agree with that perspective. Both wounds should be treated and in Wertham’s mind the wound is obscenity.
Thirdly, this novel belongs to the realm of literature and art and reaches a relatively small number of readers, while these comic books are mass produced and just trash.
Aren’t books mass produced, too? And it’s only “literature and art” if it reaches a small number of readers? I saw a review for a book that includes a “romantic” encounter between a woman who left her husband and her lover to live in the woods and be sexually assaulted by a gorilla and comparing the experience to the Garden Of Eden! Is that not obscene because it’s in a book for adults and is thus literature? Wertham’s bias against comics for not working like a regular prose story is quite obvious. If it isn’t yet let me jump ahead and get this story out of the way because it’s quite fascinating.
I had an opportunity to watch an experiment showing the hold of the crime-comic-book industry on the market and on public opinion. One day Wally, a five-year-old boy, went home to his parents in Mamaroneck (that’s in New York–SWT) with a comic book filled with half-dressed jungle queens and all kinds of sadistic exploits and cruelties. His parents, like millions of other parents, had thought he had been reading Donald Duck and other such animal comics. That experience gave Mr. Henry H. Stansbury the idea of combatting bad comic books with really good ones.
A GOOD comic? You mean create your own works your own way rather than just complaining about what’s out there? What a novel idea. But what would be a “good” comic to Dr. Wertham after spending a few chapters saying that even the comics that WERE actually created for kids were still bad comics?
With eleven other fathers – having altogether forty-nine children – who had had similar experiences, he started a small publishing venture. There was to be a series of good comic books. The first, which has been called the only good comic book in existence, was the beautiful story of The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. It is illustrated by the well-known water colorist Dong Kinuman and printed in beautiful colors. The paper is of much better quality than the usual comic book and the printing is good and clear. Although it cost ten cents The Nightingale was not a regular comic book because the dialogue was not in balloons. And it did not conform to the comic-book formula according to which a story is so abundantly illustrated that the action can be followed almost without reading any of the words.
THEN IT’S NOT A COMIC BOOK, YOU CLOD! IT’S AN ILLUSTRATED BOOK!
Let me show you the difference. Comic.
They both read differently, tells stories differently, and act differently. In other words, he wasn’t creating a comic, he was creating a book with pictures. In Wertham’s mind the only good comic is not being a comic. This shows just how bias his snobbery truly is, people. One of the other Art Soundoff contributors, Becca Hilburn, does an actual comic in watercolor, so it can be done.
My writing and speaking had had at least one effect: parents began to look at comic books. I received letters and inquiries from all over the country. Many had the refrain expressed by one mother: “We who care about such things feel so helpless.”
That crystallized for us a wider problem of comic books. It was no longer merely a question of what they do to children but what they were doing to the relationship between children and parents. Why in a democracy should parents feel “helpless?” Parents, I knew from many instances, had made all kinds of attempts to shield their children from comic books. Some had forbidden them. That did not prove to be a good method because it led children to the ubiquitous temptation to get or read them anyhow. Believe it or not, children do not like to lie. But we tempt them and almost force them to. That was very apparent from our studies.
It’s apparent you’ve never even talked to parents. I have. I’ve never been one, but good kids don’t like to lie, bad kids have no problem with it. And when kids who aren’t committing the acts you claim all comic-reading kids do they will hide what they’re doing so they can continue to see Superman stop all the bullies you can’t.
In the beginning children were all too eager to tell us all about the crime comic books they had read. They were proud to tell us all they knew about the crocs (crocodiles) and crooks, the stranglers and the supermen, the machine guns and gun molls. But as knowledge and therefore condemnation of comic books spread, children knew more clearly what they had only unconsciously sensed before, that reading crime comic books was a half-forbidden pleasure.
A situation you caused by condemning all comics rather than trying to actually figure out what comics were harmful and to which kids they were. Of course you think the superhero created by two Jewish men a decade before Hitler rose to power is a Nazi and women who save the day should be in the kitchen.
So they lied to their parents and became evasive with the many questioners who suddenly sprang up all over the country in the false belief that you can find out about a child by springing a lot of questions on him. Now, when questioned about comic books, children are apt to tell you how they read about floppety rabbits and Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck. But when their parents leave the room, or when you gain their confidence, they will take you wide-eyed into the “walls of horrors,” “chambers of misery or ambushes for massacres.
Wertham will later condemn the Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck comics in this chapter by the way. But are you really that surprised? You’ve shown zero understanding of comics as a medium, made a target out of heroes stopping bad guys because you assume ALL kids are admiring the criminal instead (my old Reviewers Unknown boss Ozzie Arcane is a fan of villain characters and to my knowledge he’s never committed a crime), and seen things that they don’t. Of course they’re going to hide them because the parents couldn’t take time to be parents and find out why the kids were so interested in these comics and pay attention to anything they’ve read. Today’s parents do that with TV, YouTube, and video games. It’s easier to ban things or turn people away from them altogether than to understand them, especially a new form of media you didn’t grow up with.
Some parents went over their children’s belongings and confiscated or destroyed hundreds of books at a time. That did not help either. Or they tried earnestly the advice handed out by numerous amateurish child experts: Why don’t you read the comic books first and select the good ones? Many children read so many comic books that a housewife could get little else done if she tried that.
So actually sit down a read a few. Then talk to your children to understand what draws them to these stories, try to figure out a better alternative, go WITH your kids to the store, and try some comics that aren’t as graphic. Is it more important to dust or raise a child? Order a pizza that night or make sandwiches. BE A DARN PARENT FOR ONCE! I know it’s hard with a grueling schedule but if you can’t take a hour to do things with your children you are doing life wrong. My cousin is a nurse at a hospital that could probably use a few more nurses and her husband is an IT guy at the same hospital, and they always make time for their three daughters. They are three of the happiest and adorable little girls I have ever met. Don’t tell me you don’t have time to be a parent. You’re a stay at home mom. You can leave the dust there long enough to read a comic, discuss it with your kid, go to the store and find better offerings, and give your child better reading material. Parents need to stop being afraid of kids’ media!
(Granted this comes from a man who watches Elena Of Avalor and knows the name of all eight Paw Patrol members, including the one just introduced, so I may not be the best example…considering I have no children.)
We’ll stop here for today and pick up tomorrow as Dr. Wertham continues his snobbery disguised as protecting children.