I’m going to bypass the short section on pornographic comics. Kids sneaking porn of any kind is nothing new, or at least the kinds of kids Dr Wertham knows about because he only treats bad kids and has apparently never had a lengthy discussion with good kids. He does make a good point that violence seems to be more tolerated than sex. I’ve seen review shows that have been filled with violence and gore but it’s only the nudity and sex scenes they have to censor, even when Blip was in existence as a hosting service. I don’t understand it either.
We’ll start off this section by going more into his legal solutions. He is bound and determined to destroy an entire medium because it reads differently from how books are read, so it’s easier to point at comics and say “this is why kids do bad things”, because building a conscience is too much work apparently.
I was invited to speak at an annual conference of the American Civil Liberties Union. I outlined there my clinical objections to crime comic books, described the present comic-book situation as an irresponsible anarchy and suggested legislation as a social remedy. A law that would forbid the display and sale of comic books to children under fifteen, I explained, would preserve the civil liberties of adults to buy the goriest crime comic books for their children if they wanted to. The official summary of the meeting was as follows: “The discussion of comic books brought out strong support for curbs upon the type of material directed toward adolescent minds unable to determine good from bad. The sense of the group was to oppose censorship by legislation, but to support pressure on the industry to establish standards prohibiting publication of objectionable material.” But how does one bring pressure on a hundred-million-dollar business without a law?
The same way they did after the second Comics Code was created. They forced newsstands and other businesses to not carry any comic that didn’t bear the CCA symbol. If it wasn’t for comic stores and businesses that only sold to adults in the first place like smoke shops there wouldn’t have been any comics created without it. That’s how the underground comic market got started. This is also how Saturday Morning shows became so sanitized that kids looked elsewhere. Kids like action and comedy that doesn’t make them feel stupid. Granted they enjoy fart jokes more, but it’s a funny sound.
Since the lawyers seemed so opposed to new laws, I studied the various laws that existed already pertaining in any way to comic books. And that led me to what seemed to me a startling discovery: As it stands, the law is heavily weighted against children, and in favor of adults, including of course the comic-book industry. This may appear unlikely, but is easily proved. I include in this statement existing laws that apply directly to this subject and others that apply more indirectly or whose application is more controversial, the whole judicial process with its appeals and lack of appeals, the administration of the law and even the penological aspects. Of the fact itself there can be no doubt. The law as it applies, or might apply, to crime comic books leaves the child unprotected, while it punctiliously safeguards the material interests of the adult.
Look, I’m all in favor of protecting kids, but Wertham’s solutions basically force an industry to not tell the stories they want because kids shouldn’t be reading it in the first place but do. Giving kids better choices rather than wiping out everybody’s choice is the better solution.
Although in many children’s lives comic books play a role, no adult court, no children’s court, has ever made or ordered a full inquiry in a child’s case. But when the publishers of the comic book Eerie sued the publisher of the comic book Eerie Adventures for using the word eerie on the cover, the New York Supreme Court gave a learned and comprehensive opinion bristling with details and citations. Justice Frank arrived at the truly Solomonic verdict that both publishers could use the word; but that the second publisher must print it “reduced in size.” If the psychological effects of children would receive the same meticulous concern as the financial interests of publishers, some court would have long since ordered that what has to be “reduced” is not the eerie title but the eerie contents!
And the heck with any of you who enjoy those stories. You can have them because a kid might see it. I mostly posted this because copyright law issues have been going on for longer than we thought. And continue to be just as stupid. Right now Hasbro is suing Mattel for the Bumblebee figure in the DC Super Hero Girls line because they own the right to the name for the Transformer (and my favorite Autobot) even though DC has been using the name for the superheroine for decades before. (And if we had gotten that DC-licensed Transformers run I wonder if they would have met and hilarity ensued with their names?)
It would be senseless to blame an individual or a court. Law, as Justice Benjamin Cardozo said, accepts as the pattern of its justice the morality of the community whose conduct it assumes to regulate. The defect of the law and of the community is shown up by its complete unpreparedness to deal with something entirely new like crime comic books. Through their unprecedented quantities, which dwarf all other present or past publishing figures, and through their literally endless repetition of the sex-crime-superman-horror formula, crime comic books are something entirely new.
I’ve been to bookstores and comic stores. Books have been around longer. There may be more comic titles than magazine titles (although nowadays there are magazines about comics as well as every niche possible from LEGO to electronics) but I’m still not convinced comics dwarf everything ever published on paper.
The example of the copyright laws is very instructive. They exist to safeguard the property rights of those who produce works that might be pirated without authorization. It surely is equitable that such rights be protected. But this law as it is being used in the case of comic books works entirely against the interests of children.
How does a publisher protecting one of his popular brands negatively affect children? Because it allows them to exist without killing each other I would imagine.
I began to realize that there is an important principle at work here. A good law, when applied to something new or to a new set of circumstances, can lend itself to grave abuse. The greatest prop of the crime-comic-book industry was the silence with which it took over the children’s market. When it was already established, and writers began to wish to inform the public of what was going on, the publishers forbade reproduction of drawings from comic books. That of course made it almost impossible to inform the public. Quite a number of national magazines wanted to print such illustrations, but were refused permission. This was the more misleading because the publishers’ full-page advertisements in magazines contained special drawings of a very different kind, totally misleading as to what crime comic books are like.
We have as official law something called “fair use“, protecting the use of passages and images for the purpose of criticism or parody. There are limits of course, and with the rise of the internet some studios have tried to violate that rule when it comes to negative reviews (or from Japan ANY reviews since fansubs and the like have them worried about any of their footage being used) but while this wasn’t set in stone until 1976 they could have argued for it sooner. Also note that in the original book Wertham (or the book’s editor/publisher) used images from comics and comic covers in the book, and of course they chose the worst offenders, possibly out of context. It wasn’t a problem for him.
Then Wertham goes into complaining how the Post Office mails these comics out to the stores and newsstands as if they were magazines, and he doesn’t note that the comic publishers do jump through hoops to do so. It’s what the indicia at the bottom of the page of most comics comes from. The Post Office has better things to do than investigate every advertisement in every comic that comes through. They have a lot of mail to sort and keep track of and sometimes that’s too much for them.
There are laws to control the sale and carrying of dangerous weapons such as guns and knives. One would expect that such laws would protect children. Just the opposite is the case. Children caught with guns – converted toy guns – or switchblade knives face the severest penalty, however young they may be. “Any boy,” a judge said recently, “who comes before me for having a gun will be treated as a gangster. . . . When we come face to face with gangsters this court will give no consideration.” But in millions of advertisements the possession and use of guns and switchblade knives is made as attractive as possible and the youngest child can buy them from these advertisers by mail. Is this not an instance where the law punishes the victim who falls for these advertisements while the instigator who advertises and sells them goes scot-free?
I don’t know what a switchblade’s intended use is outside of being able to put it in your pocket without stabbing yourself if you don’t have some kind of belt sheath for it. And toy guns are only bad when converted, which was not something you got in that state through the mail. (Now Wertham hates toys used for action games and now I have to question earlier accounts of kids at play.) Meanwhile there are parts of the country where a kid learning to use a rifle and knife are important for survival; not for killing people but for getting food or protecting livestock from wolves and foxes. Wertham only knows the inner cities and there is little to no reason for a city kid to own weapons except to protect themselves (although for most that isn’t the reason they have it) and even then I’m against a kid owning a real gun. But let’s not hamper those outside city limits. Wertham is very insular.
A special case consists in the laws about B.B. air rifles. The penal law of New York makes it a punishable offense to offer and sell these “to any child under the age of 16 years.” It also makes a child of sixteen and under “guilty of juvenile delinquency” if he merely possesses such a gun. Actually, official agencies have repeatedly warned against these weapons, because they have “resulted in many accidents causing loss of sight or serious eye injuries.” But in this respect also the superman purveyors of Superman and the other crime-comic-book publishers and the experts endorsing them are immune, although these comics bristle with the most glamorous ads for these forbidden weapons.
The law makes sense in New York. Not so much Oklahoma as kids may learn with a less deadly BB gun before moving onto actual rifles. But note that yet again Wertham is taking popshots at Superman even when it has nothing to do with Superman. Wertham just cannot commit to a topic. He has to keep pounding away his personal messages. He lacks focus.
The Federal Government has laws restricting interstate commerce under certain circumstances injurious to the people. Could not such laws be made to include the shipment of objectionable comic books? Assistant District Attorney John E. Cone, who has investigated teen-age gangs, has stated as a result of his findings that crime comic books should be “done away with because not only do they list advertisements through which guns can easily be purchased by juveniles, but they give a synthetic thrill which kids cannot fulfill in real life without actually committing crime.”
The majority of comics readers I know have never gone out to commit a crime, or even put on a costume to fight crime. I wonder how many of the “Real Life Superhero” community were inspired by comics and how many by TV shows and movies about superheroes? By the way there were also radio plays and serials about superheroes available around this time. Wertham isn’t complaining about them. The serials may have lacked the blood but that could have been special effects at the time. Also it wouldn’t have worked as well in black and white. How many adult productions at the time lacked blood of any kind?
The suggestion for Federal legislation to bar interstate advertisements and sale of knives and toy weapons that can be converted was made by Domestic Relations Justice Louis Lorence. Hundreds and hundreds of such illegal weapons have been confiscated by the police in New York. “For a number of years,” Judge Lorence stated, “all over the city boys have approached other students in schools and have demanded money for protection. If money is not given, beatings often ensue. In the past two months, particularly, there were many cases in my court where parents complained of this protection racket.”
You mean there was a time when bullies were considered a bad thing? You’re kidding!
There are laws according to which it is a punishable offense to “contribute to the delinquency of a minor.” Yet the text, pictures and advertisements in crime comic books do that constantly.
That’s debatable. Except to Wertham.
Similar laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor exist in other states. But although children have so often been softened up for juvenile delinquency and although there are cases where it can be demonstrated that the delinquent child bought his first switchblade knife through comic-book advertisements, and learned from comic-book text how to use it, no district attorney, no judge, no complainant, has ever had the courage to make a complaint against a comic-book publisher. Thus comic books make cowards of us all.
Even with Crime Does Not Pay I thought that was exaggerating and even I questioned if it was good for kids in my review.
There are also the “attractive nuisance” laws which have been on the books since 1873 and which have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court. If you have an attractive pool to which a child has access from the street, you can be held responsible if a child drowns in it.
What? People are supposed to have ugly pools in order to have them? I’ve had neighbors with pools that kept them in good shape and while there were days I wanted to jump into it I didn’t. I was raised better. Personal responsibility only exists against the person being sued, not the one filing the lawsuit.
Trial by jury and legal counsel are a right of adults. Children are being sent away to reformatories undefended and sometimes without even having their guilt properly established. I know of cases of children sent to reformatories when I was convinced that they were not guilty. In some cases familiar to me the police, needing a solution, have obtained confessions from innocent children by tricky and unfair methods. They include serious crimes, even homicide.
This is a horrible thing. However you’re doing the same thing to comics as a medium. It isn’t fair to those children that the legal system was willing to kangaroo court them to make things easier on themselves and those judges should be ashamed of themselves, if not removed. Wertham notes that even when the Children’s Court got things right they got them wrong. (Sound familiar, Doctor?) The rules that protected children also made it hard to know the full statistics on child crime, but I don’t think Wertham would know how to deal with them properly.
Even the libel laws can be and are used against the interests of children. Writers and editors are really frightened that the powerful comic-book industry will use these laws against its critics. I had two experiences of my own. I had written that in the “good” comic book The Mysteries of Paris blood shows beneath the bandage of a man whose eyes have been gouged out. The publisher demanded a retraction. But I stood my ground, because the blood was there.
Media critics still deal with that nonsense. He told a much longer story about a comic called Tom Mix and how he had written an article that including pointing out the violence in that book.
After this article appeared I received a long-distance call from the editor in Chicago. She had been visited by a representative of the industry and also by their lawyer. She also received several letters. “They persist in threatening me with a libel action. They said that on account of the article they were losing a million a year.” Later she sent me their letters. They objected to the one sentence in my article, calling it a “libelous reference,” “untrue,” “untruthful” and inaccurate.” They said the story was all about a “dummy.” They demanded “a public retraction and correction,” and threatened to turn the matter over to their attorney for libel action.
Naturally the editor was alarmed. So I wrote her describing the comic-book-story sequence in detail:
Early in the story “Hands Off” in Tom Mix Western there are three pictures showing a box in which are the hacked-off hands of a real man (not a dummy). One little boy, looking into this box, says: “GULP! IT’S A PAIR OF HUMAN HANDS CUT OFF AT THE WRIST!”
The sheriff says: “JUMPIN’ RATTLESNAKES! SOME LOW-DOWN MURDERIN VARMINT CUT OFF A PORE FELLOW’S HANDS!”
In four pictures you see the human corpse (not a dummy), the hands of which were in the box. The insane killer knocks out Tom Mix (in person, not a dummy) by socking him on the head (CONK in large yellow letters and a big splash of color) with a gun, hangs him (in person, not a dummy) by the wrists from a tree and holding in his hand a big ax red with blood says: “. . . I’M AGONNA CUT YORE HANDS JEST LIKE I DID FRISCO FRANK’S!”
In the next picture you see a further close-up of this hanging-by-the-wrists man (not dummy), a bloody ax swinging, and all.
After some more struggle and fighting and kicking, with more talk about cutting off the (real) man’s hands, Tom Mix gets free. He constructs a dummy – which in the pictures is of course indistinguishable from a real man – and you see two close-ups with the insane killer and his ax, in two of which the hand is actually cut off. In two of them again the ax is red-stained, presumably with blood. And the dialogue reads: “HA! HA! THAR GOES ONE OF YORE HANDS, MIX! AND NOW TUR CUT OFF THE OTHER!”
It’s only in the fourth picture before the end, in one balloon, that it is stated: “YOU JUST CHOPPED THE HANDS OFF OF A STUFFED FIGURE!” (Of course this is lost on the many children who just study the pictures and do not read the text.)
I ended my letter: “Far from retracting what I have written, I reaffirm that this Tom Mix story is a bloody crime story disguised as a ‘Western’ totally unfit for immature minds. And I hope that this example will help parents to see the methods by which the comic-book industry continues the corruption of children’s minds. In a democratic society there is no other way to cope with such an evil than a law – even if in one story, one of two handless corpses is a dummy.”
This letter was not published in the Parent-Teacher. The editor told me later that she telephoned to the publisher, telling him what it said, and told him that “if you people persist in threatening us, we will publish Dr. Wertham’s letter in full.”
Later she received a letter from the publishers which ran true to form for comic-book stories and comics publishers: “It [the Tom Mix story] is not a representative story and was purchased several years ago.” The letter also conceded that some of the comic books on the newsstands “are shocking, a disgrace and probably harmful to children.”
The trouble is that all this, except for my original article, is unknown to the public. There is another point, too. Supposing it had been true that an insane killer had only hacked off the hands of a dummy, would that be suitable for children?
I don’t know what issue that was so I don’t have time to look into it, but assuming he’s right, then he was in his right to say people were getting their hands cut off. And yes, had it been a dummy it would have been fine for older kids.
That full quoting put me way over my limit so I am going to use Friday’s lack of Friday Night Fights to get more into this. And hope I don’t have to give up Saturday Night Showcase this week to finish. What is with this chapter?