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.

I couldn’t find a link to the last two chapters, but according to my stats nobody’s been using them anyway. I appreciate your faith in my accuracy. However there are ways to read it online if you search. I’m using a PDF file but I can’t remember where I downloaded it from.

Television and the Child

“They dare not devise good for man’s estate.
And yet they know not that they do not dare.”
– Shelley

Your guess on what that means is as good as mine. But as you can tell Dr. Wertham is about to target the other new medium of the time, television. He is about to tell you that TV is bad for kids…but unlike those evil comics that pervert the wonderful prose, TV is just an extension of movies and is thus salvageable. Wertham sees in TV what he refuses to see in comics because TV at least resembles something he grew up with, or so goes my theory. And if you’ve been questioning Wertham up to this point, you are both right and ready for what’s about to come. His bias is just as obvious as ever, but he’s using a defense of TV’s potential to prove his point that all comics are evil. You’ll see what I mean as we slog through this. And of course he takes time to take another shot at Superman. Does he have an inferiority complex or something to keep targeting Superman like this?

Chapter 13: Homicide At Home

To lump all mass media of entertainment together as if they were equal is often both erroneous and misleading. Of course they have many similarities, but they also have fundamental differences.

Which is usually one of the points I make around here by covering numerous media formats. Every media type has its strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to comics he only see weaknesses and will point out as many problems with TV he has as possible.

A commodity like crime comics which is not a legitimate medium of entertainment for children can only profit if it is discussed not for what it is, but under the general name of mass media. It is true that some crime movies are as brutal as comic books, but these movies are not specifically merchandised for children. You can almost recognize a comic-book publicist by the frequency with which he speaks of mass media, mass media of communication,” etc., when he is really just defending comic books. To class comic books in terms of mass media is to class starlings as songbirds. Of course songbirds and starlings are all birds.

What does Wertham have against starlings? I know nothing about birds so this doesn’t help me at all. But back on topic. Yes, comic books are part of mass media, and it has its own strengths. Like comics, TV was just starting to learn how to tell its story. The difference is that TV can borrow its presentation from media that came before–movies and radio dramas–and often did. Comics were something different, much as video games were when they found they could tell a story as well as take cues from board games, toys, and sports.

As for the “not specifically merchandised for children” part, you do know kids will watch stuff not merchandised to them, right? I mean Wertham doesn’t, but I hope you do. Heck, the reverse is true. Just ask any Brony.

A committee of the National Education Association, after studying “The Effects of Mass Media upon Children and the School Program,” reported that “mass media including radio, television, motion pictures, comic books, current periodicals, and other communication means which have become an integral part of modern life affect human behavior to such an extent that it is the responsibility not only of the  teacher and the parent, but also of all other community agencies to build a higher level of what we might call ‘taste’ on the part of the consumer.”

English: An icon denoting that a TV show is ra...

Does not stand for “Ma, can I watch this?”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why is it your job to “build a higher level of taste”? Yes, kids should be exposed to classic literature and other storytelling, but in the end it is the individual who decides what their taste will be. I developed my preferences in high school, much to the lament of my English teacher, while my middle school English teacher exposed us to different kinds of stories and let us decide what we liked. She didn’t demand I like Shakespeare, which I never developed a taste for despite acknowledging his talent as a storyteller. That’s the thing about taste. It is decided solely on the quality of the work. I have a few works in my multimedia library that would be considered “lower quality” but I still enjoy. There are things of “high quality” that aren’t the kind of story I want to read, watch, or listen to. And the reverse is true as well, but not because of their quality of creation but whether or not I want to sit here and watch unlikable people doing horrible things (based on that world’s own viewpoints) for two hours. Come to think of it, that’s why I’m not into Game Of Thrones either.

This is much too general and superficial to be of any use. Lumping all the media together has done some of them an injustice, while  serving as a protective screen for crime comics.

He’s only saying that because he wants to get rid of comics because they aren’t books.

Legitimate methods of control of one may not apply to the other.

“Methods of control”? Weren’t you just stating a few chapters back that comics were restricting creators from what they really wanted to be working on? Or do you believe what they wanted to work on was prose with images in oil paint?

What does happen is that if the crime comics industry continues to lead a charmed life, the other media will be more exposed to the very censorship which they want to avoid. Pocket books are facing the danger of this creeping censorship right now. It is not censorship of children’s crime comics, but its complete absence that threatens other media with unwanted controls.

Wait, so if comics are censored then other media won’t be? How does that work?

Quite apart from the fear of censorship, the defense of comic books stems from the inverted snobbishness of some who defend the right of what they consider the lower orders to read any trash sold to them.

Look who’s talking about snobbishness? Most of your problem with comics comes from being a media snob, somehow believing that kids not reading comics will automatically mean kids will read classic literature. Remember, he’s primarily associated with kids dealing with poverty or whose parents (if they’re lucky enough to have both parents) are just getting by.

In our studies we found marked differences between the media in their effect on children. The passivity is greatest in reading comic books, perhaps a little less with television, if only because often other people are present in the audience. In both, the entertainment flows over the child. Passivity is least in going to movies, where others are always present.

Keep this in mind because we’ll be coming back to this later. I’m realizing Wertham seems to be giving the synopsis of the chapter, then coming back later for the extended explanation. You have to read further into the chapter to see his nonsense in full display. This is where the holes in what he just wrote also become quite clear.

Comic books have the greatest hold on many children. Once in the Hookey Club when crime shows on television were discussed, an eleven-year-old boy said: “Television is bad, but it doesn’t stay with you like a comic book.” The mother of an eight-year-old girl said to me: “Television is not half so bad. It is the comic books. They are handy. They are ten cents. They are always around. They don’t just read them once, they read and re-read them, from the bathroom to the kitchen and back.” Children literally live with comic books.

So nobody re-reads books? I do. Chapter By Chapter is usually about re-reading books I’ve already read to see if I want to read them again at some point, only occasionally reading something new if it enters my library. And I do have to books I haven’t read yet that we’ll be seeing in the future, barring something happening to me or this site.

What is said of one medium may be totally untrue of another. I know many people, children and adults, who have turned to read the original book after seeing an adaptation in the movies.

I also know many people who don’t. I also know people who went to see the movie adaptation because they liked the book, which is what the studio was hoping for. We wouldn’t have had a Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings movie franchise if the original book franchise wasn’t already so beloved.

In all these years we have not found a single child who turned from a comic-book adaptation to the original. And yet experts for the defense of comic books, mixing together the media whenever possible, make this one of their chief claims.

They might years later, when they’re more interested in reading a longer book without being called a bookworm or nerd or whatever the 1950s version of either was by their peers. And if they like a certain comic or TV/movie adaptation, why wouldn’t the English teacher use that opportunity to explore the source material and use it as a discussion topic, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of both versions? Oh right, he doesn’t think comics have any strengths unless it’s bad guys strong-arming someone.

Radio, movies and television are considered worthy of regular serious critiques in newspapers. Nothing like this exists for comic books. Nor is it even possible, for the few critics who have written about them find them subjects for toxicology rather than criticism.

Or people like you were part of the critic circle of the time, and still exist today. I doubt even Watchmen was properly reviewed outside of comic circles and that was on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Yet the different media are not mutually exclusive.

Make up your mind! Either they have everything in common or have nothing in common. Or you could try the real answer but that would mean giving comics credit and he refuses to do that.

Some of them blend very well; when they blend with comic books it is always in their worst aspects. There are radio, comic books, TV comic books and movie comic books. But the great inroads that television was expected to make – and for a short time seemed to have made – have not materialized. The movies killed the dime novel, but television did not even wound the comic-book industry. The low order of literacy of television fitted in well with the almost total illiteracy of crime comics.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Fun fact: our English textbook had images from a Frankenstein comic adaptation along with samples from the book. I didn’t read the full book because I don’t like horror stories, not because I read the comic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note his wording here. Wertham wants something to kill comics the way he thinks dime novels (which he considers crude…the only good stories are too expensive for average people STILL GETTING OVER A COUNTRY-WIDE FINANCIAL CRISIS FOLLOWED BY A MAJOR WAR!!!!) but TV’s job isn’t to “kill” another medium. And why does he assume movies killed the dime novel?

One can often learn about one medium from observation of another. My conclusion that children reading crime comic books often identify themselves with the powerful villain has often been challenged by wishful thinkers. It was borne out by a brilliant review of the television show Senate Crime Investigation by Fern Marja. This review was some of the best reporting of that memorable performance…

“My” side in reporting on media does this too, saying that a review is only good when it matches their point of view. A good critique can still be made when the critic has a differing opinion, so long as he or she acknowledges their bias and still tries to be unbiased enough to find the good and bad of what is being reviewed. It’s why I’ve found nice things to say about stories I thought were garbage or something negative in a story I really liked, including my favorites. I can find flaws in The NeverEnding Story, my all-time favorite movie. Nothing is perfect and even bad media can get something right.

…when for the first time organized crime was made a drawing card in a show with the criminals themselves and their prosecutors as the chief stars. “It is difficult to tell,” she wrote, “whether the secret of the legislators’ popularity is their identification with good or their necessary contact with evil. And Frank Costello is beginning to threaten the supremacy of Hopalong Cassidy as a TV attraction. . . . Is the racketeering boss hero or villain to the general public?”

Funny then that I can’t tell you who Frank Costello is without looking it up but I at least know Hopalong Cassidy was a cowboy series. It’s funny what time does.

And later when the district attorneys were testifying she noted: “Imperceptibly, at first, the mood of the chamber changes. Here and there a yawn is visible. Mr. X and Mr. Y [the district attorneys] are men of good will, but they lack Costello’s drawing power. It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion that honesty bores the gallery. . . . A spectator stirs restlessly. ‘Listen,’ he says to an attendant, ‘when’s Costello coming back? That’s what I want to see!'” If true of adults, why not of children? Others made similar observations. John Crosby, the New York Herald Tribune’s radio and television critic, reported that it had been noted that “large segments of the population showed a tendency to sympathize with the witnesses, no matter how shady their past.”

Right, because people weren’t fawning over Al Capone at the time? Even I know better. Again, I don’t know who Frank Costello is nor have I see or heard of the show they’re talking about, so I don’t know what made him compelling or maybe he was just compelling to TV. Real-life trials are usually rather boring. Someone like Judge Judy can punch things up with her personality, or you can have a media circus like the OJ Simpson murder trial (which was a mockery of the judicial process), but usually it’s not very exciting. That’s why Court TV isn’t around anymore, or at least not broadcasting all the court cases it can, but ficton like Law & Order or Matlock are still popular.

The mass media have power for good or ill, on society and on the individual. No amount of facile theorizing can explain that away. They present a new ethical problem.

The sentence as written he does have a point on, but this is someone who thinks comics can only do ill. And what he considers “good” and “ill” are up for debate based on what we’ve already seen on his media target of choice.

This became especially clear to me when I heard a high television-executive say that if all violence and horror were removed from comic books and television everything in the world would remain the same. That unethical type of argument has been made at every step of progress mankind has ever made, be it aseptics, vaccination or meat inspection.

If you’re new here, comparing comics to horrible diseases is one of Wertham’s favorite analogs. What Wertham doesn’t understand is that media often reflects what (it thinks) is the world opinion. This is often colored by their own social, political, or spiritual (or lack of) beliefs. It’s why I don’t call for the end of X but the return of Y for those of us who either enjoy both or prefer Y to X. X-fans get what they want, and so do Y-fans. Z-fans, however, are horrible people and get nothing because they suck!

Tomorrow we’ll get into media influence on children, the shared problem of racial prejudice in all media, and more of Wertham’s elitist perspective. Won’t that be fun?

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. :)

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