Here we are at long last. There were times I didn’t think I’d make it but this should be the last time I have to read through and discuss this book outside of the wrap-up. It’s been a long, disappointing journey, hasn’t it? It hasn’t been easy but it’s a series I’m not sorry I did and it was very important to do so. Because what we saw in the days of comics still happens every time a new way to tell a story is created. It happened with comics, it happened with video games. Even a medium that is simply another form of an already established medium, like TV, isn’t born without scrutiny. It’s easy to write something off, but more rewarding to push not the limits of good taste but the limits of what a media format can do in order to tell a good story.
This is Doctor Wertham’s final chance to convince the reader that comic books are inherently bad for kids, but we’ve seen a lot of that is based on bias. Bias based on a certain locale. Bias based on preferred reading or artistic style and tastes. I don’t doubt Wertham wanted to do good, but he came from such a bad place that he just got so much wrong. The road to hell IS often paved with good intentions and Wertham knows how to spread that asphalt. So let’s finish this book already!
I had asked for a law, a simple sanitary law to protect children under fifteen. The children needed it, the parents wanted it, the legislators drafted it, the intellectuals opposed it, the pillars of the community slapped it down. What, I asked myself, happened in the past? How did the protection of children progress historically? I went to the library.
Notice that he writes this as if ALL parents wanted this law, or at least the parents smart enough to share his loathing of comics. We’re assuming that none of the intellectuals and pillars of the community were parents who looked at these comics like I did and said “this isn’t turning my kids evil” or didn’t see Superman as a fascist symbol of delusion while assured Batman and Robin have to be gay simply because one of them shares the nickname of a certain part of male anatomy and they slept in the same bed so they can get up at a moment’s notice to get the drop on a murderous comedian.
In ancient times children were sacrificed bodily. Henry Bailey Stevens writes in his book The Recovery of Culture: “The success of the blood sacrifice [of infants] was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was sponsored by the thinkers, the leaders. They could argue from evidence which they could claim to be scientific. . . .Instinctively no doubt many wholesome people recoiled from the practice. But the intellectuals could talk them down scornfully. Let us imagine ourselves in Carthage when the priests of Moloch are demanding the sacrifice of infants. Suppose that you object. . . . Your associates will suspect you of sentimentality and irreverence. All the political; the social, the educational and the religious world will be arrayed against you. You will be a part of a society that has become infected.”
I’m sure you can guess the connection Wertham is trying to make here, that comics are the current altar of sacrifice, only their supposed childhoods instead of blood. Considering how much of my childhood benefited from my love of comics as well as books I find that depressing. And insulting to anyone who doesn’t see comics as the Mumm-Ra of storytelling, an ever-living source of evil.
A century ago’ boys and girls of five and up had to work as chimney sweepers. They got skin diseases from the soot. The proposal was made that the practice of sending children up chimneys be stopped. You can well imagine what their employers would have answered if they had had the benefit of the type of experts the comic-book industry has now. They would have said that only those children who are predisposed get skin diseases, that it is the children’s fault if they want to satisfy their need of motility by going up chimneys, that children who don’t go up chimneys get skin diseases, too, and besides what better outlet for aggressive instincts is there than to climb up chimneys and do battle with soot? There being no such experts then, the Earl of Lauderdale stated that if something were done for the children by law through an Act of Parliament, private initiative for being benevolent and helping children would be affected and would disappear. And the Religious Tract Society joined in the anti-reform movement and urged these stunted and sick children to wash well on Saturdays, attend Sunday School and read the Bible: “Thus you will be happy little sweeps.” It took the British Parliament ninety years to control this legally.
The term “strawman argument” has lost all meaning thanks to internet “debaters” breaking it out any time they can’t follow an analogy to the opposing opinion, especially if said analogy is a harsher situation than the one being discussed. These are however very stupid statements. However, they’re statements born of Wertham’s inability to understand comic books and assume the worst. Getting rid of comics would not have changed all the circumstances that caused these kids to grow up without morals or struggling to the point where they thought they had to steal or that it was right to steal because anybody who had more money than they did was “bad” and only got that way by being corrupt. You would still have fathers either dead or dealing with PTSD and not teaching their children right from wrong or being able to provide for his family either due to the aforementioned or not getting a proper advanced education because they were drafted right out of high school. Comics are a nice scapegoat because they’re new but they had a lot of older problems they had to deal with and didn’t want to touch.
In 1892 children as young as six, and even five and four, had to work in coal mines in England. The parliamentary report about these conditions was illustrated with pictures showing children and nude adults doing their back-breaking work in narrow, low, mine passages. John W. Dodds, in his book The Age of Paradox, records how Lord Londonderry, a coal magnate, was indignant – not at the facts, but at the pictures. He was afraid they might fall into the hands of refined young ladies. So, as Professor Dodds writes, “change came slowly.”
Shirtless perhaps, but I don’t think you want your manhood hanging out when people are swinging pickaxes around in a cave full of hard black rocks and the occasional diamond. As for four to six-year-olds working in a coal mine…what the hell! I understand them working on a farm, but farm chores aren’t nearly as dangerous as working in a coal mine (we’re all thinking that song, I know).
The history of medicine records a controversy about whether young children who have to do industrial work at night need sunlight for their health. It is not yet a hundred years since a physician had to defend in detail that sunlight is good for the immature organism, and that at least part of the day children should have sunlight in order to remain healthy. He was in just such direct contradiction to the employers who made these children work long hours at night as I am to the comic-book publishers.
This whole section is a “woe is me, people won’t hate comics like I do” exercise but this is impossible to ignore. This is a man trying to equate his war on comics with trying to insure kids don’t work horrible hours in dangerous conditions! He is trying to equate his scapegoating of a brand new medium he can’t find any positives about because it requires learning a new way to understand that he is declaring fighting comics is on par with stopping kids from being chimney sweeps, coal miners, and late-shift industrial work with his war on comics! I tried giving him as much benefit of the doubt as I could, but my friend CFerra is right, he is a horrible person! I can’t defend this, and it doesn’t stop! He goes on and on about child labor laws, which were desperately needed to protect childhood, and a bunch of stories that he’s taken an extreme opinion on due to personal and societal biases! What is even the hell, Doc?
The flood of new and bad comic books continued to rise. The psychological erosion of children continued. There was no denying the victory of Superman and the triumph of Dr. Payn. Then an important event took place. As reported by Life in “Newsfronts of the World”: “The Pacific Fleet Command has banned the sale of most war comic books in ships’ stores on the grounds that they are too gory for the American sailor.”
Military authorities had questioned comic books before, on the grounds of avoiding sale of material that “goes beyond the line of decency.” There had been some question of control and some bickering with the industry. But this time there was a clear action, to protect adults. If these war comics which are widely read by children are too “gory” for sailors in an actual war, why is it permitted to display and sell them to boys and girls of six and seven?
These authorities must have been listening to you. And they’re still wrong. And apparently the sailors didn’t agree if they were buying them. Otherwise the ships’ stores wouldn’t have them.
At a conference of kindergarten and first year teachers in New York, under the auspices of the Board of Education, this official recommendation was given: “It is necessary to stress the normality of hostility; all children feel it and it is psychologically and biologically sound. Teachers must appreciate also the importance of accepting hostility without attaching moral values.”
Partly correct. Accepting hostility exists should be part of dealing with it. I’m all for competition and pushing to be your best; those are important life lessons. But hostility needs a positive purpose. The only time Jesus was seen acting “hostile” was the time he found people overcharging for offering exchanges right on temple grounds.
You cannot accept hostility without moral evaluation. For hostility in itself causes a moral conflict in the child. A society which itself adopts the standards and point of view of comic books is bound to arrive at false conclusions.
No, I learned that in part from superheroes and sci-fi war stories like the Transformers comics.
Thus my studies had almost completed a cycle. I had started from comic books, had gone on to study the needs and desires of children and had come to adults. I had learned that it is not a question of the comic books but of the mentality from which comic books spring, and that it was not the mentality of children but the mentality of adults. What I found was not an individual condition of children, but a social condition of adults.
“Adults like comics so they think comics are okay for children.” Look, I’d noted a lot over the years that something kids like doesn’t have to impress adults to be good. But to assume the only reason comics are allowed to continue is because grown-ups read them is ludicrous. There were comics written with kids in mind, and ones with adults in mind, and probably some intended for all age groups. That’s what good media does. I’m defending comics now as an adult because I enjoyed them as a kid and they gave me an escape from the crap I dealt with in school by treating me to a reality where good guys fought bad guys and won. Evil’s plan was stopped before reaching full completion or having the process reversed so they only “ruled the world” for maybe five minutes or destroyed by their own lust for “godhood”. Comics gave me a better world not because of all the destruction but because the villains paid for their action.
It’s why I maintain that fiction doesn’t have to represent the real world (or the cynic’s opinion of what the “real world” is) if it stays true to its own world. If you want a reality where the heroes are beloved and inspire others to do better, make or read/watch/play that reality. If you want something where the hero does what’s right regardless of society’s perspective, go for it, even if it is politically minded. Just prepare for the backlash if you politicize something not created to be. Escapist entertainment, by its very definition, is an escape from harsh realities, and it has as much right to exist alongside the analogs for the real world or the darker, deeper stories. Everyone has the right to the story they want, and the medium they want. If comics offer that, who is Dr. Wertham or anyone else to take that away from them? I love the same media that Wertham did but I also love the media he hated for the “crime” of not being the media he loved. A good story is where you find it.
The conflict that I came across occurs on different levels. There is first the conflict between the child and the comic book. This becomes an emotional conflict within the child himself. While there are parents who are delighted that comic books keep their children quiet, that is a short-range view because comic books have led to many conflicts between parents and children. There is further the conflict between the mothers’ good sense and the experts’ dogmas. On a wider scale a conflict developed between active local groups of women’s clubs, mothers’ clubs and parent-teacher organizations and their inactive national leadership. In 1949 the president of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers described comic books “as a chief influence of today on the minds of the young.” What have they done about it?
Not what they should have. Instead of trying to understand comics, why their kids were into the comics they were, and developing comics (not illustrated books, which Wertham thinks are comics) that have a more positive influence using what kids like–and no, I don’t believe they enjoyed the violence alone–their solution was to ban comics, treat them like pornography, and replace them with a media format they understood.
And this nonsense about a “conflict between the child and the comic book” is just silly. Wertham honestly believes that violence, gore, and cleavage are born from the word balloons and sound effects.
Underlying it all is the conflict between the surge of violence today, of which comic-book violence is just a reflection, and a new morality, as expressed in the dissenting opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Winters case, which wants to stem the tide of education for violence.
Wait, are comics the cause of violent behavior or just a reflection of what people are currently interested in after suffering through the Great Depression and World War II?
The way people reacted to comic books is how they often react to other things, too. First they did not know – but they thought they did; then when told, they did not believe it; then, when shown, they said that’s an exception; and when that was disproved, there was an endless stream of excuses: that things were getting better and better, that the evil would voluntarily improve itself, that singling out one evil was just looking for a “scapegoat.” Thus they can keep not only their physical comfort but their intellectual comfort as well.
As compared to Wertham’s reaction. He doesn’t know but thinks he does. Then when told he does not believe because it looks so different from what he knows, then when shown refuses to see any connection between the type of storytelling he knows and rejects it outright without seeing any future. He only accepts television has a future because it resembles movies, something he grew up with, but you can bet the same thing happened when movies came out, which is where the Hayes Code and later the MPAA came from. It’s the same mindset that led to both Comics Codes and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. You see this new medium you don’t understand and suddenly you’re grabbing the torches and pitchforks. (The torches are just for atmosphere…unless you live in the UK, in which case you call flashlights “torches” anyway and probably got confused for a second there.)
The MPAA, the ESRB, the current TV ratings system, and even the Comics Code in theory if not execution, are good ways to deal with the situation. Wertham’s solutions are not.
Whenever you hear a public discussion of comic books, you will hear sooner or later an advocate of the industry say with a triumphant smile, “Comic books are here to stay.” I do not believe it. Someday parents will realize that comic books are not a necessary evil “which, but their children’s end, naught can remove.” I am convinced that in some way or other the democratic process will assert itself and crime comic books will go, and with them all they stand for and all that sustains them.
Instead comics have stayed, improved, refined their “voice”, created their own literacy, and found a place in society, even if Wertham and his ilk restrained their full potential for the longest time.
But before they can tackle Superman, Dr.Payne, and all their myriad incarnations, people will have to learn that it is a distorted idea to think that democracy means giving good and evil an equal chance at expression. We must learn that freedom is not something that one can have, but is something that one must do.
And that’s why I focused so much time on this book. Wertham’s idea of “evil” was warped by his own biases and perspectives, creating a false view of what this new medium was. Had he been successful in his dream of wiping out comics rather than learn and use them for the betterment of society, we would have lost a medium that spoke to so many, and forged their identities.
At 10PM tonight (Eastern Time) I plan to go on to YouTube and do a stream about this book with my final thoughts, which will be posted here to the Spotlight tomorrow. If you want to ask me any questions live about this book or my thoughts on storytelling in general, please keep it friendly and join in. Otherwise it’s going to be a rather short stream. And then I can finally end this book’s influence on my life! I’m sure it will come up again, as these things tend to do, but the next Chapter By Chapter series will be a brand new book, adapting a movie I recently reviewed. That’s in two weeks as I clear my mind of this nonsense I’ve suffered through. Thanks for joining me on this ride and hopefully you’ll stay around for more, better book reviews, one chapter at a time.