There’s a second part to the paragraph I ended on yesterday that I wanted to discuss real quick.
Besides, who was going to tell her that if Batman were in the State Department he would be dismissed, and that Superman does not belong in the nursery? Can we put on mothers the burden of determining how many murders a child should have a week, or the job of evaluating in each new comic book the ethics of the jungle?
No, but parents can see some good examples with an open mind, find out what draws the child to the comic beyond the superficial, and try to work with him or her to find a better alternative. Of course, Wertham doesn’t think there is an alternative because the only good comic is an illustrated book. Also, in the first serial Batman and Robin did work for the State Department or some government bureau to fight the Japanese and they fought Nazis in their own comic. (Not Superman, the actual Nazis, which Superman also fought.) And only think Superman has no place in a nursery, depending on how young the children in there actually are.
From here Dr. Wertham will continue to show proof that his message is “working” while condemning anyone who doesn’t see comics as the sole source of bad children. So let’s get back to it.
There was of course the possible remedy that the publishers would clear up the well. But I soon found that this was a naive belief. The very comic books that contained the ingredients that we found harmful were the most widely read. The publishers knew what they were doing and why. They had employed experts who justified the situation and fought off criticism.
If Wertham is telling the truth about the motivations of the publishers (and with this book I’m starting to think that’s quite the “if”) then it makes a kind of sense that they’re doing what makes them money and are afraid to try new things. Wertham claimed that the “comic” that contained nothing comic about it we discussed yesterday was essentially blocked by the comic industry, framing it as if they were worried his book would force them to change or something. If modern Hollywood and their unwillingness to try anything new (hence all the nostalgic properties and sequels/prequels they’ve been mining lately) has taught me anything it’s that in tight economies the media producers will not try anything new out of fear of wasting money on a failure.
This led to the rise of the independent creators even before the internet came along. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird gave the independent comics movement a jumpstart out of the underground and into more mainline storytelling. Imagine if they could have made a webcomic back then how many more people they would have reached, especially in the days where there weren’t as many. The same goes for movie and “TV” creators, musicians, game designers (just look at the success of Five Nights At Freddy’s) and even artists and writers. These are people spending their own money or crowdfunding projects that the mainstream studios and publishers would never touch, and plenty of them are amazingly successful. But this required (for our purposes) comic creating materials to be cheaper to obtain and for the media to find a strong enough audience to grow up and evolve the form and creation of comics. Comics advanced despite the actions of Dr. Wertham and his supporters.
I had been invited to speak about comic books at the 1948 Annual Congress of Correction of the American Prison Association in Boston, at a joint meeting of the National Conference of Juvenile Agencies and the National Probation and Parole Association. So I presented there an analysis of comic books and of clinical cases. I pointed out how harmful comic books were to the healthy development of normal children and how in some they produced anxiety and in others an obtuseness toward human feeling and suffering. Where one child commits a delinquent act, many are stimulated to undesirable and harmful thinking and fantasies.
Fantasies lack consequences. I don’t worry about fantasies. That’s between the individual and God.
Some of the worst, I said, are marked “Approved Reading,” “Wholesome Entertainment” and the like. The net effect of comic books, I stated, is anti-social: “Children who spend a lot of time and money on comic books have nothing to show for it afterwards. Many of them have gotten into trouble of one kind or another. The crimes they have read about in comic books are real; the people who supposedly triumph in the end are often very unreal superman types.
Superman types at this point were the ones fighting the criminals. The supervillain was rare if they ever showed up, outside of mad scientists. Otherwise you usually had mob bosses and crime bosses, most of who lacked superpowers.
How many more cases like the eleven-year-old comic-book addict who killed a forty-two-year-old woman in a holdup do we need before we act? The pure food and drug law, the ordinances against spitting in the subway and about clean drinking-cups protect bodies.
Here it comes, folks. The moment I’ve been expecting all through this book.
Surely the minds of children deserve as much protection. I do not advocate censorship, which is imposing the will of the few on the many, but just the opposite, a step to real democracy: the protection of the many against the few. That can only be done by law. Just as we have ordinances against the pollution of water, so now we need ordinances against the pollution of children’s minds.” I suggested a law that would forbid the display and sale of crime comic books to children under fifteen.
Okay, I was expecting “we must get rid of all comics”, but if Wertham had has his way I wouldn’t have grown up with Superman. National (later DC Comics) wouldn’t have agreed to the radio drama (which I remind you was used to get the word out on what the KKK actually is), serials, and cartoons is that he was popular with kids. Those kids grew up and got movies. Kids love Superman even if Batman is currently the most popular (thanks the cynics out there but I like Batman too). And we wouldn’t have Superman because Wertham labeled Superman and Action Comics as “crime comics” that had to be banned from minors reading. Kids may enjoy watching the action but outside of play most of them aren’t going to beat people up…or they’d be acting like the guys Superman beat up rather than Superman, so they weren’t getting the alleged pro-fascist part, were they?
The response to my proposal was widespread. Dozens of towns and cities – eventually over a hundred-passed ordinances against the very comic books whose harmfulness I had indicated. In a number of states anti-comic-book laws were introduced in legislatures, but the comics conquered the committees, and the laws did not come off.
Wertham then goes into an example in Los Angeles County that was fought by the comic industry and thus never happened. It’s not surprising. We saw that a few years ago where Wertham-esque Jack Thompson, a lawyer and anti-video game activist, was pushing to get rid of violent video games, and I think it was LA County that tried to ban them there as well. Instead we ended up with a rating system that I don’t hear about being as poorly rated as I did with the Comics Code and the Comics Code Authority. Some games may slip through (the ESRB rethought their rating for one of the Grand Theft Auto games after someone “found” the infamous Hot Coffee mod) but for the most part a rating system instead of the all-or-nothing approach the Comics Code took was the better solution. It worked for movies and TV has their own rating system. (Personally I think it would be easier to just give all media the MPAA ratings, even music–though the “explicit warning” labels seems to be working for now.)
And that’s why discussing this decades-old assault on comics is a worth topic. We did see everything that happened to comics happen to video games. Only the gaming companies had the experience of the war on comics to use as a guide as to how to approach the topic and keep the industry from being bogged down by the “kiddie” label. Granted it means finding kid-friendly game creators isn’t as easy to come by as I’d like because they’ve forgotten the kids just as comics has mostly done today, but it allowed the medium to grow and earn a spot as a storytelling medium. Non-video game RPGs are still working on that, and the whole Dungeons & Dragons situation–both in how it was treated by critics and how insular RPGs were in the formation of the gaming system–might have played a part in that. It took geek culture getting a spot in the mainstream to finally boost the RPG and pull D&D out of the basement.
The comic-book interests (from New York) challenged the law through local attorneys as violating the freedom of the press. It was first a civil suit. In that phase the Appellate Department of the Superior Court, sitting as a trial court, denied a preliminary injunction sought by the distributors. The reason for the request of the injunction was the constitutionality of the law, so this court in denying the injunction did not consider the law unconstitutional. Then through two arrests for violation of the county ordinance, the stage was shifted to a criminal court. The two defendants were represented by the same firm which brought the civil suit. They were guided by the New York lawyers and needed their approval for every step. The question of whether crime comic books were bad for children was never allowed to come up. The final ruling of the Appellate Department of the Superior Court, consisting of three judges, was against the ordinance. But the reasons for their decision are interesting:
JUDGE No.1: The wording of the ordinance is too vague for the federal constitution, but it does not conflict with freedom of the press as guaranteed under the state constitution.
JUDGE No. 2: The wording is not vague at all. But it deprives the publishers of their freedom of the press.
JUDGE No.3: The law is not too vague and does not deprive them of the freedom of the press.
Analyzed, what does this mean? On each of the two questions, namely whether the law was too vague and whether it was against the freedom of the press, the judges had given a favorable vote of 2 to 1 for the law. Yet the case as a whole was lost and the law could not stand.
Personally I take it as the concept of the law wasn’t unconstitutional but the way it was worded was. That’s what hurt other attempts to restrict a medium or producer in the past.
More important still, the appeal on behalf of the people to the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington which (County Councilman Harold W.) Kennedy had planned was prevented by a further technicality: Since no two judges thought that the ordinance violated any guarantee under the federal constitution, no such appeal could be made!
And of course looking into what the previous judges had taken issue with and fixing them was not considered. What were those problems? Wertham doesn’t go into it. He’d rather write the narrative that comics won the right to “poison kids minds” with books kids shouldn’t have been reading in the first place.
Despite the fact of these adverse court decisions and despite the fact that twenty-seven comic-book bills all over the country were killed in committee, the public – or rather, mothers – continued sporadic protests. The comic-book industry answered with a magic word, a “code.”
This is not the famous “comics code”. I don’t know if the original poster of the transcripts I’ve been linking to used the later or earlier edition but the Comics Code we all know didn’t come out until after this book. This was a first attempt to create a code, based on the Hayes Code that preceded the MPAA rating system for movies that in both cases was so poorly enforced that it faded from lack of bothering to use it. In this case of this first comics code it was from lack of use.
About a month after my views were summarized in a national magazine a new code was announced. Let us decode these codes. They are not spontaneous expressions of self-improvement or self-regulation. They are determined efforts at defense. They do not stand alone, but are part of an avalanche of arguments thrust successfully at the public by the comic-book industry.
You could also make the case for the Comics Code that stuck until the turn of the century that followed Wertham’s book. When I did my review of the now defunct Comics Code I did note that there were restrictions. On the other hand some of those restrictions also forced creators to come up with new things to get around that. Can’t use werewolves? Come up with a similar monster called the Wendigo and give it its own rules and backstory. Vampires not allowed? Just have beings that suck your life energy instead of your blood. Can’t show sex? Write some clever workarounds so the kids don’t know what the adults know…although that’s had a minor backfire in that adults today don’t think a man and a woman get together without sex even if they aren’t a couple anymore. Heck, certain slashficers don’t even think two guys or two girls aren’t hooking up even if the characters are both straight. Granted they were right with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy…
The arguments go like this. First, any specific criticism of comic books is “not true.” If proved true, it is only an exception, it slipped in and the man who drew the picture “has just been fired.” Moreover, comic books are for adults, and besides they are very good for children. And then there is a code.
My argument has been: “These comics weren’t for kids, but not every comic you attacked was bad for kids and you shouldn’t lump comics for adults in with comics for kids. Let’s keep the comics not good for kids somewhere only the adults will find it but allow kid and kid-friendly comics to be where kids can find and enjoy them. And the code wasn’t the solution it could have been.”
What do the codes all add up to? The one announced in direct response to my criticism said that sexiness, “glorification of crime,” “sadistic torture” and “race ridicule” would henceforth be left out. In other words, this is no longer just what I say. This is what the industry itself concedes. Why has all this gone on for over ten years? They indicted themselves by saying that now they would stop.
If Wertham were as accurate as he states (and we’ve seen enough comics in the Bonus articles to bring that up for debate) I would have to agree with him. Certainly there were more graphic titles than I’ve had the opportunity to look at, although I’d rather not anyway. However, considering the comics that Wertham has opposed for having people with superhuman powers or women getting into the war on crime, even as the crime FIGHTER, it’s tough to side with him most of the time. But why not learn what the kids liked about their stories and create more stories that are less graphic but still fall in with the concerns of honest critics (which Wertham was not)?
Here again the cynicism of the publishers breaks through. When I pointed out that a comic book had on its inside cover a code according to which blood was not to be shown anymore, and yet one page later shows a close-up with blood streaming from a man’s face, the publisher announced that he had not had time yet to put the code into practice. Suppose a candy factory sells lollypops and one batch of lollypops is bad. A respectable firm would immediately recall all those lollypops that had been distributed. And the lollypop factory would not get away with getting out a code saying, “No poisonous lollypops will be sold by this firm in the future,” – meanwhile letting the children vomit over the bad ones “until the code is in operation.” (Incidentally, I have seen children vomit over comic books.) I looked for the following number of this comic book, after the one that had the code on the inside cover. Did they leave out the blood? No, that was shown again in four consecutive pictures. They left out the code.
I wonder if the Hayes-inspired code had fallen apart by then. Comics do get created months before the copies go out. Look how far ahead solicits in Previews or on ComiXology are from when you get your comic. However, if you’re far enough in the process you can go back and redraw panels. It’s been done but there were also panels that it was too late to fix, like the infamous image of Ant Man slapping the Wasp that was more wifebeating that the writer had intended for it to be but was too late to fix. It’s still damaging Hank Pym as a character.
We already know what Wertham calls a good “comic” but what about the “good” comics to others? He goes to war on them as well in tomorrow’s analysis.