I want to start today by thanking readers of this site for indulging me in this change in direction for the time being. It’s been nearly a week since Reggie’s passing… and, I feel as though taking the time to revisit and reflect upon our early days has helped me greatly with the coping process. It still doesn’t feel “real”… but, I suspect our residing on opposite coasts might have something to do with that. Distance is a weird thing…
Today, we’ll finally get into some of our notes regarding our deep-dive into the pages of Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Another “craft-heavy/emotion-light” piece… but one that is vital in the foundation of my and Reggie’s work.
Yesterday, we looked at some anti-comics crusaders who predated Wertham, and floated the theory that our “Boogeyman” might’ve used some leading questions in order to ride that trend. After publishing some thoughts on the subject in magazines and journals… Wertham wrote a book. You may have heard of it… but, you probably haven’t read it. To make our program as complete as possible – we did.
For brevity’s sake, I’m doing to refrain from going into full-on “essay mode”, and just try and deliver the more salient points.
According to Frederic Wertham…
- The comics format was an “invitation to illiteracy”
- Comics create an atmosphere of cruelty and deceit
- Comics create a “readiness for temptation”
- Comics stimulate unwholesome fantasies
- They suggest criminal or sexually abnormal ideas
- By furnishing a rationalization for them
- Comics suggest the forms a “delinquent impulse” may take… while supplying details
And, perhaps most importantly, for the purposes of everything to come:
- Comic books may “tip the scales” toward maladjustment or delinquency
Wertham made the assumption that “the conquest of the American childhood by the [comics] industry was already an accomplished fact.” Living in the 21st Century, as we do… we can make that sort of statement regarding most forms of entertainment. The television industry “conquered” the American child… the music industry… the video games industry… and, so on. This isn’t all that outlandish a statement… in and of itself. Comics were everywhere… kids read them. The words he chose to express that fact, however, suggest something far more sinister.
Perhaps taking a page out of Piaget or Vygotsky’s theories of early childhood development, Wertham claimed that comics facilitate the concept that “children see solutions to to all problems as ‘simple, direct, mechanical and violent’.” Children, who have not yet reached a particular stage of mental development may not yet be equipped with the ability to apply critical or abstract thinking. Which is to say, if a child sees Superman punch a guy… they may see that as a feasible (desirable) solution to a problem.
Ready for an even slipperier slope? “Comic books and life are connected. A bank robbery is easily translated to the rifling of a candy store.” Again, we’ve seen this and heard this, most recently with violent video games… despite evidence to the contrary. Like we say, perception is reality… and accepted narratives carry weight.
Wertham stated that comics led to what he called “moral disarmament”. These stories influenced how children defined concepts like “right” and “wrong”. Comics blunted the finer feelings of conscience, mercy, and sympathy. They skew the view of human relationships, and stifles the influence of art and literature. Again, nothing we haven’t heard applied to [insert hobby/form of entertainment here].
Seduction of the Innocent, as stated… is an awful book. It was written at a low-grade level in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. It was bogged down in anecdotes… and, blanket statements. This was 1954… there wasn’t an internet. There wasn’t an easy way for a member of the target audience of this book to contest anything Wertham posited. Wertham, for example, could say “All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic-book readers.”
See what he did there? He made a blanket statement… wrapped in an anecdote. All of these delinquents… that he had contact with… were comic book readers. Hard to argue that point without access to his personal files, isn’t it? Plus, we’ve spent the past several days here talking up Wertham’s credentials and legitimacy… who’d even think to contest this? In 2020, skepticism is part of the learning process… in 1954, however… fewer people were going to “do the work”. Heck, by simply reading Seduction, many thought they already were.
Some comic book trends Wertham described included…
- The “injury to the eye motif”
- Advertisements for “violent toys” in comic books
- Damsels in distress… in fire
- History being rewritten
- Classic literature being modernized
- Femme Fatales
We’ll delve deeper into a few of those…
The “injury to the eye” bit… is interesting, when you stop to think about it. It’s a pretty visceral thing… we theorized that this was a sort of pain that children and adults would both feel in a subconscious way when they see it. The great generational unifier when it comes to pain infliction. It doesn’t take much in the way of force or skill to poke an eye out. He uses this to further separate comic books from literature, by positing that there is no “literary counterpart” for eye-harm.
“Violent toys”. B.B. guns, knives… many of us have seen these sort of things advertised in old comics. Times were different.
Girls being tossed in fire. This is multi-layered… in that, not only does it depict a woman in danger, who must be rescued by a heroic male… it also had them tossed in a fire, where their clothes might burn off, leaving them… ya know, nakedish.
The rewriting of history is… kind of silly. Well, sillier. Wertham took issue with stories written to suggest that comic book characters were in some way vital to (American) history. Consider Superman going back in time to save Benjamin Franklin from… I dunno, a bear attack or something.
Wertham also criticized the actual logo design of many crime and horror comics. Remember DC Comics’ “go-go check” books? Those “checks” were a way to make DC’s books instantly recognizable from the newsstand. Crime books did something similar, in that a child could see exactly what the publishers wanted them to see from the newsstand peeking out over whatever book might be in front of it. Words like CRIME, LAWBREAKERS, GUNS, and CRIMINALS would be prominently placed toward the top of the cover… easily drawing the eye of a passerby.
These crime comics, Wertham states, claim to be in accordance with a “comics code”. Remember, Wertham wasn’t the first to criticize comic books… and, as we’re (eventually) going to discuss… he didn’t force or enforce the actual Comics Code Authority. This “code” was from the A.C.M.P. (Association of Comics Magazine Publishers)… an organization Wertham dismissed as being real, on account that he could not locate them in the phone book. Remember, times were different.
Crime comics are a bit of an easy target. They were sort of the Grand Theft Auto of the day. Let’s talk about superheroes for a bit. With many of these theories, today’s “narrative” makes them seem far more salacious and sensational than they actually were. The reality, as is often the case, isn’t all that interesting nor exciting.
- Batman: “Like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together”
This is one of those concepts that comic fans usually cite when discussing this book (that they never read). Something I see a lot when people discuss this theory, is “the Rainbow Batman”. Let’s take a step back though. The Rainbow Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #241 (March, 1957)… Seduction was written and published before that. Also, the rainbow flag as an LGBTQ symbol didn’t come into being until 1978. But remember… the narrative has power.
What Wertham suggests here is that the relationship between Batman and Robin is pedophilic in nature… and initiated by Robin. He felt that this relationship may embolden gay feelings. Not make straight children/people gay… but, strengthen thoughts and questions that may already be there. Wertham never stated outright that Batman was homosexual.
- Superman: “A disregard for democratic processes combined with the idealization of vigilantism.”
When it came to Superman, Wertham “Godwinned” before it was cool. He made the usual comparison to Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch… and suggested the “Big S” on his uniform may as well have been an “S.S.”
- Wonder Woman: “physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel ‘phallic’ woman.”
Is Wertham perhaps reading into things much? Maybe. Worth noting, Wonder Woman hung out with a group called the “Holliday Girls” (two L’s). Back in the 1930s, “Holiday Boys/Girls” (one L) were slang terms for gay and lesbian.
So, we’ve touched on Crime and Superhero comics… how ’bout Romance?
Wertham saw romance comics as setting false ideals for female readers, citing especially the concept of “love at first sight”. They were also viewed as problematic for male readers… in the more, uh, stimulatory way. They were referred to as “headlight comics”, for exactly the reason you suspect. This whole piece seems to be predicated by… an anecdote that was reported to Wertham by a Newsagent, who reported he’d sold “thirty love comics to a sailor in his mid-twenties”.
Wertham cited “love comics” as glamorizing and promoting misbehavior… in the name of romance. You could steal… so long as it led to romance. You could sock a dude in the mush… so long as it led to romance. He also viewed these as promoting greed and consumerism. That girl won’t give you a second glance? Go buy (or steal) something shiny for her!
With several genres covered… and with the realization that I’ve been writing this piece for over two hours at this point… let’s jump ahead to “Comic Book Syndrome”. More anecdotes!
Children Wertham spoke with/treated would state they felt guilty after reading violent comic books… and even guiltier by the fantasies they stirred up inside them. The child is made to feel guilty by those around them for indulging… something we “growed up” comic readers might get from time to time, when people raise an eyebrow in our direction and ask “You still read those things…?”. Usually right after they ask “They still make those things…?”. The children will often resort to hiding their collection of violent/superhero comics in shame. They also admit to spending money earmarked for other things on comics. Well, I tell ya… I got lunch money most every day… and very seldom ate at school.
I believe at this point in our research, we ran into Nights of Horror… fetish comics drawn by Joe Shuster… which depicted members of the Superman cast… though, not outright… in rather risque and “adult” situations. Nights was something we always planned on devoting an entire episode on… it was on our most recent to-do list as a Cosmic Treadmill After Dark (we’ll talk about CT:AD somewhere down the line), so we didn’t go too deep here. This led to our researching Jack Koslow and the Brooklyn Thrill Killers… another very interesting piece of this puzzle, and more fuel for Wertham’s fire.
In brief, the Thrill Killers were a gang of Jewish Neo-Nazis (yeah…) aged between 15 and 18, who killed and tortured several homeless people over the Summer of 1954. Jack Koslow, their leader, claimed he’d gotten most of their ideas for their rampage from… comic books. They’d even procured many of their tools of torture from the advertisements in those comics. Koslow was very keen to discuss this with Wertham… which, is and was a bit suspect.
In a case of the broken clock being right twice a day… Wertham, the Social-Justice Warrior – addressed social injustice. He cited women being used solely as “victims” in comics… and also, the minority characters always being depicted as inferior, wrong… and “bad”. Wertham said this informed the opinions and beliefs of impressionable youth… and would offer the following:
- Racial and ethnic stereotypes were given “nourishment” and “perpetuation” in comic books
- Children, when shown comics they haven’t yet read… and asked to pick out the “bad man” – they would often immediately choose based on ethnic or racial stereotypes
- Juvenile gangs at the time tended to attack “dark-skinned others”
- White women were always drawn with their breasts covered, while “colored girls have their breasts fully exposed”
- Heroes were “Nordic-looking strongmen”, which emboldened an impression of “human perfection”
- In this way, Wertham would compare comics to the Nazi magazine, Der Sturmer… which taught antisemitism
As we’d mentioned several times to this point, this book relies on anecdotes. We’ll wrap up today’s piece with some of those.
- To “pad” his numbers as they pertain to juvenile delinquency, Wertham classified such things as daydreaming, restlessness, masturbation, and nightmares as being signs of maladaptive behaviors… and therefore acceptable cases for his study.
- Wertham would cite cases from Bellevue and Queens County Hospital… from children and adolescents with histories of mental imbalance and illness, skewing the data in his favor
- “I like the one where a man puts a needle in a woman’s eye” – a cherry-picked statement from a mentally disturbed girl, who had been admitted to Kings County Hospital for fantasizing about murdering her younger brother.
- More cherry-picked statements, this time regarding the Batman and Robin homosexual relationship claim:
- “I think I put myself in the position of Robin. I did want to have relations with Batman.” said a sixteen year old homosexual.
- “The only suggestion of homosexuality may be that they seemed to be close to one another.” said his seventeen year old partner
- Wertham chose to omit “… like my friend and I.” from that last statement.
There are plenty more “lies of omission” in this portion of the episode… and it gets rather dark. A real sign of data manipulation… and how far a respected member of the psychological community may go in order to build his case. Confounding variables are not addressed… things like socioeconomic status, living in abusive homes, living with alcoholism, other mental illness… all left out. They don’t serve the narrative… they don’t make the case, and so… they don’t make the cut.
Like we said… Seduction of the Innocent isn’t a good book. It’s hardly worth a read, unless you’re looking to discuss it deeply. This second episode of Weird Comics History, focusing on the formation and foundation of Comics Code Authority… was a learning experience for both Reggie and I. Many misconceptions and bits of “conventional/accepted wisdom” were challenged… as were our own perceptions. This was such an experience we shared… and I humbly thank you all for allowing me to share it with you here. This little reflection “project” is really helping me to process things.
Tomorrow, we’ll go into some of the “behind the scenes” on the next chapter. We’ll meet Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tennessee) and go through the 1954 Senate Hearing on Juvenile Delinquency… which, in actuality, was more of a root-cause of the Code than Seduction or Wertham… and yet, isn’t cited or mentioned nearly as much.