It's a bird, it's a crane....

>> Friday, August 30, 2013

Hat tip to Forrest Wickman at Slate for this one.  Colin Solal Cardo shot this music video for Phoenix's "Entertainment" in a single take using a drone, and it's pretty goddamn badass (the song is pretty decent, too): the camera swoops in, the kind of shot you used to have to rent a helicopter for, then hovers in front of the band, swoops up into the air, comes down for the kind of tracking shot Adrien Maben used so effectively in Live At Pompeii (for instance) except Maben had to lay down yards of track to orbit the band like that.

It makes you want to see what a feature director could do with something like that.  No doubt if Stanley Kubrick had a flying robot camera for The Shining, that famous opening with the family driving up into the mountains would have been one superlong take.  I'm sure Christopher Nolan could have a helluva lot of fun with a drone and shiny new toys are all in James Cameron's wheelhouse (not that I'm saying that Nolan and Cameron, both of whom I love dearly, necessarily belong in the same paragraph as Kubrick).  Hell, this kind of shot is exactly the kind of thing Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock kind of screwed up because they had the idea but not the tools (especially with Welles, I'm thinking that famous opening tracking shot in Touch Of Evil or several of the trick shots in Citizen Kane where Welles had to sneak splices between model shots and crane shots, e.g. the Xanadu gates shot at the beginning of the film or that wonderful swoop and dive through the skylight when we meet Susan Alexander and find out what she's been up to lately).

Beautiful stuff.  See--drones ain't all bad....


The last post about Seduction Of The Innocent: seriously

>> Monday, August 26, 2013

I understand why Dr. Fredric Wertham became obsessed with the comics industry: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, they say.  It's a damn shame he's gone down in history as the comics guy as a result of that obsession, instead of going down in history as an enemy of racism and a healer to the marginalized.

But what about that crusade against comics, itself?  What do we say about Fredric Wertham on the terms history will judge him by?

When I read Seduction Of The Innocent, the flaws in Wertham's arguments were apparent to start with, even without considering Professor Carol Tilley's fine work in punching holes in the accuracy and veracity of the anecdotes Wertham proffered as evidence of the harm comics could do.  An example of Wertham's evidence for comics-related psychic harm:

In the frequently hackneyed routine of the examination of children, ingrained tendencies or the narrower family situation are usually held responsible. But careful examination of factors shows usually a combination of the first and third groups. An eleven- year- old boy of superior intelligence showed in the Rorschach Test (and in his drawings) strife, hostility and threatening images. He lived with parents who for years had gone from battle to battle, and from court to court. In addition, he was steeped in crime-comics lore:

"My mother doesn't like me to read crime comic books, but I see them anyhow. I like Superman, Penalty. I like the Jumbo books. They have a lot of girls in them. There is a lot of fighting in them. There are men and women fighting. Sometimes they kill the girls, they strangle them, shoot them. Sometimes they poison them. In that magazine Jumbo they often stab them. The girl doesn't do the stabbing very often, she gets stabbed more often. Sometimes the girls stab the men, sometimes shoot them. I read one comic book where they tie people to the trees, tie them in front of stampeding herds. They tie them to the trees, then cut the trees and the sap runs over that person and the bugs are drawn to that sap, then they eat the people. Sometimes they torture girls the same way, by stabbing and beating them. They throw them in rivers and make them swim where alligators come. Sometimes they hit them with weapons on the back. They don't have much on when they hit them with weapons. It excites me a little bit."

Is it not natural that the Rorschach of the boy shows hostility and aggression?

Is it not natural?  Taking this anecdote at face value (noting that Tilley's work suggests we shouldn't), and taking the use of Rorschach tests at face value (noting that the Rorschach has come under fire over the passing decades), you have a kid who has "lived with parents who for years had gone from battle to battle, and from court to court": one wonders if that might cause the child to be hostile and aggressive apart from the comics.  Perhaps he reads violent comics precisely because they reflect the kind of hostile environment he's enveloped in.  Perhaps the comics have nothing to do with anything at all.

Not only does Wertham fail to ever provide any kind of causal correlation, but as you read his accounts, you have to wonder how much confirmation bias is occurring, to what extent are his young patients manipulating their psychiatrist, to what extent are the parties creating a feedback loop?  Are Wertham and his patients discussing comic books because the kids brought them up, or because Wertham asked?  Did they talk about other things, only to have Wertham focus primarily upon the one thing he'd decided was most significant?  Did children ever learn, consciously or unconsciously, that a reliable way to make "progress" in their treatment or to receive positive feedback in their therapy was to tell Dr. Quarter about the comics they'd been reading?  One has the sneaking suspicion, reading Wertham's accounts, that the answers to these questions may be various shades and degrees of "yes".  (Indeed, it occurs to me as I write this that if some or all of Wertham's case studies are fabrications, it may indeed be that children he actually treated had more positive therapeutic experiences and outcomes than they might have had if all their sessions inevitably degenerated into, "Show me where the bad book touched you.")  You also have to wonder about selection bias, something Wertham couldn't acknowledge (if he even noticed it at all): the patients he was seeing were troubled by definition, as that's how they came to be seeing a psychiatrist specializing in troubled kids in the first place; so any correlation could possibly be causal, including the mere fact that all of his patients were seeing Dr. Fredric Wertham.  (Could that be a causal correlation?  Seeing Dr. Fredric Wertham causes you to be violent and hostile?  Hrrrrm...?)

But there's an underlying irony in all of this that I think absolutely has to be mentioned, and it's something we ought to give some thought to when considering media generally, and not just the comics: the weirdest thing about Wertham's obsession and his taking almost for granted that comics were having this insidious effect on his juvenile patients might be that he was taking comic books far more seriously than most of the publishers probably were.  In accusing comics of having a pernicious effect, he was acknowledging that the medium possesses power and is capable of influencing a reader's thoughts and feelings, whereas a common retort from contemporary publishers was that the comic books were just ephemera, read once and thrown or traded away and forgotten.

In other words, when you strip Wertham's contentions down to the bone, he was essentially conceding that comic books have the potential to be art, even as he was explicitly denouncing them as junk and denying they could have any positive effects at all, while many of his opponents were arguing their own products were beneath notice in the first place.  Which is a little upside-down and surreal.

The core problem with this conflict ends up being Wertham's obduracy in claiming comics could only have a negative effect on anyone reading them.  If you're going to claim that, I think you have to either concede that a medium can also have positive effects, or in the alternative be prepared to offer some kind of mechanic by which that street runs only one way (which Wertham wasn't prepared to do, unprepared as he was to offer a mechanism by which comics had a negative effect in the first place, his work consisting entirely of demonstrating alleged correlations).  The power to inspire wickedness is also the power to inspire goodness.

This leads me to rethink some things I, myself, have taken for granted in cultural debates over sex and violence in movies and videogames.  The research on whether these media have any negative effects is all over the map, with (I think) some leaning towards these media having little or no effect on aggression, promiscuity, etc..  And yet I find myself obligated to consider that if I'm going to claim one movie has a positive inspirational influence, another might have a detrimental impact.  If I want to believe that videogames can be art, I think I have to admit they could also be propaganda (or worse).  And if I feel, as I do feel, that a comic by Cathy Malkasian can make me feel sweetly melancholic, and that a superhero book by Jeff Smith can have me rolling around on the floor roaring in delight, and that the capacity of these books and others to create such strong emotional and intellectual responses is a symptom of art, then I think I'm obligated to admit that there might be books that could make me feel angry or irritable or mean or frightened, because art can awaken angels and ogres alike.  I think I have the intellectual tools an educated 41-year-old ought to have to evaluate those varied emotions soberly and analytically, but this begs the question of whether an eleven-year-old does, and should anything be done about it if they don't have that toolset and if anything, what.

I tend to be one of those who feels this is the kind of thing that should be left to parents and not to industry boards whose voluntary nature is laughable given the economic clout they wield, much less to governments.  I think I was ready, at a young age, for a lost Hobbit facing ginormous spiders in the hopeless wilds of Mirkwood, and my somewhat-inadvertent exposure just a few years after that to John Hurt being face-raped by a much smaller spider and then giving birth to a double-jawed penis (probably) didn't have too negative an effect on me (::twitch::), aside from imbuing me with or deepening my interests in fantasy, science-fiction and horror, but that doesn't mean I'd slip Alien into the DVD player to entertain my pre-teen if I had one (a preteen, that is: I own a copy of that deluxe two-disc edition of Alien that came out several years ago).  (And I'd probably read The Hobbit to my child, if I had one, when they were very, very young, but again, I think this is a personal parenting choice.)

But having written all of that, a big part of Wertham's thing was that comics were being marketed directly to kids, bypassing parents entirely and without any tools at all being offered for parents to even ignore.  (I'm baffled by parents who take their children to PG, PG-13 and even R-rated movies and then complain about violence or language or whatever: did you not bother to observe the large letters in the corner of the poster telling you this movie wasn't really suitable for your precious little angels, spin-off line of toys notwithstanding?)  Wertham was never really advocating for comics to cease existing, although that would have been a natural consequence of brown-bagging them on the top shelf and prohibiting sales to anyone under whatever age.  He was trying to educate and empower parents, although it's not hard to guess what he would have thought of a parent carefully examining an issue of Shock SuspenStories, considering a hypothetical warning label, and then, even so, buying it for his or her nine-year-old anyway because Junior was pretty mature for his age and the Universal Monsters, etc., were a family thing.

I think all of this gets us to another sort of ironic thing about Wertham's crusade, which is that he was basically right about how awful the comics generally were.  Ironic, because I think we all tend to look at old issues of Detective Comics and think Wertham was an ass to be obsessed with homoerotic overtones in Batman features.  (We also have a much different attitude towards homosexuality these days: if we haven't quite made it to the point of real, universal equality, at least most of us outside the religious right have shed the midcentury belief it's a mental illness, probably caused by unresolved issues with one's opposite-sexed parent.)  But there's more to it than that.

The tricky (and unfortunate) thing here is that comic books were hitting a turning point when Wertham went nuts over them: superhero stories had about run their course and publishers, writers, and artists were branching out into other kinds of stories--science fiction, westerns, horror, gangster/true crime, romance, war.  And they were trying to expand to reach different kinds of audiences, push the boundaries of what kind of stories could be told (not just in terms of genre, already mentioned, but in terms of narrative), and different visual approaches to story, and different kinds of character.  Sadly, all Wertham really managed to do in attacking the most inventive comics was to throw things back to the publishers with a strong stake in superhero comics--especially National/DC--and render it so-difficult-as-to-be-nearly-impossible to get away with anything challenging or transformative; juvenile superhero stories quickly reasserted a dominant sales position and the really novel stuff would find itself pushed back into the counterculture ("alternative" comics) or would have to find a niche by abandoning the standard comic format (e.g. EC Comics quickly pared itself down to one title--MAD--formatted as and distributed as an 8 3/8" x 10 7/8", black & white, glossy cover title, and then in the late 1960s Warren and other publishers launched several horror and war titles in a similar format).

But here's the tricky part: while so many titles could be lauded for trying to push the boundaries of the medium, the easiest, laziest and most-reliable way to do this was to resort to juvenile attempts at "maturity": that is, if you wanted (say f'r'instance) to push the boundaries of what kind of horror story you could present in a comic book, the hard way to do that (which some writers and artists did attempt) might be a psychological approach, using drawings intended to instill unease through shading and perspective, but an easier way to do it might be to merely fill a panel with gorp and goo, splashing blood, dangling eyeballs and cascades of guts.  The difference between something like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and one of the Hostel movies, if you will.  Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with the crude approach, it just doesn't have anything much to commend, either (and combined with a fairly banal story--as Hostel is--and, say f'r'instance, questionable cultural stereotypes--as Hostel does--you end up with something that's gross, offensive (and not just for the grossness) and pointless).

And the fact is that the current debates over sexism in comics are largely debates because sexism is ingrained in so many ancient tropes that current comics creators and fans take the tropes for granted and fail to follow through to the implications of what they're drawing, writing and reading.  These fans wonder why people "suddenly" have a problem with comicbook women having enormous breasts spilling out of their costumes, are consistently drawn in painful eroticized postures, are treated as objects, etc.--well, for whatever it's worth, Fredric Wertham had a problem with all this in the 1950s, and found himself replying to some of the same puerile defenses.  I don't think it can be said that Wertham was a feminist or that his objections were feminist objections: but for his own reasons, he recognized the same problems and raised objections.  He wasn't happy that comic book portrayals of women treated them as objects, as targets for violence, were overly sexualized, and that the comics were generally misogynistic, and he was concerned about the impact these portrayals would have on girls' self-images and on boys' attitudes towards females.  For instance:

The act most characteristic of the brutal attitude portrayed by comic books is to smack a girl in the face with your hand. Whatever else may happen, afterwards, no man is ever blamed for this. On the contrary, such behavior is glamorized as big-shot stuff in the context, and enhances the strength and prestige of the boy or man who does it.

Unfortunately, it isn't hard to find examples of this, or worse.  So much of Wertham's critique of comics was so off-the-rails one hesitates to score one for him, but the fact is there are entire websites still dealing with this issue, and it's probably the most heated friction point in all of comics culture today.

One of Wertham's issues that I personally found most shocking was his critique of advertising in comics--not because Wertham was obviously wrong, but because much of Wertham's argument could have been made by a cultural studies professor or women's studies professor any time in the past twenty or thirty years:

Biologically these variations in physical development in boys and girls usually have little significance. They become worries and plague the children in their social context. Unsuitable reading, chance remarks by adults, kidding by other children, over-concern of parents, incautious remarks by doctors and so on are apt to set off worry and unhappiness over being "different" or "abnormal." Sexual maturation, mental and physical, may add associations, guilt feelings and fantasies. It is usually the same areas of the body that are involved in these worries. In boys it is the face (complexion and hair), the body build in general (muscular strength, height and weight) and the primary sexual characteristics. In girls it is the face, the general body build (fat distribution and weight) and the area of greatest psychological sensitivity, the breasts.


No better method could be evolved to cause such worries or to aggravate them than the advertising in childrens' comic books. I understand that there are advertising associations or advertising councils interested in keeping products advertised, as well as the manner of their advertising, on an ethical level. If that is true, they must have looked the other way with regard to the stupendous amount of advertising in comic books. In any case, they "raised no cry." Advertising is, or could be - quite apart from its selling aspect - a wholesome educational influence. That in comic books is not only anti-educational, but has done untold harm to children from the point of view of public health and mental hygiene, not to speak of common human decency.

Wertham goes on to assail advertising that promises breast enhancement or reduction, advertising for weight-reduction gimmicks and muscle-building, ads for underwear to make one appear more or less than one is (depending on whether one is insecure about being too small or too large in whatever capacity), ads instilling self-image issues with regards to complexion, body odor, etc..  Wertham faults ads in comic books for conveying unrealistic expectations about what constitutes an ideal appearance and advocates compassion towards adolescents and blind rage against those who would exploit a child's insecurity for financial (or any other kind of) gain.  (Being Wertham, and it being the '50s, he indulges in less-noble, headshake-provoking gay panic, faulting weightlifting ads for not only instilling unrealistic body-images in young boys, but also for featuring pictures that might inspire homoerotic thoughts.  And just when he was doing so well and getting so far ahead of his time....)

Change a few words here and there, strike through some of the sillier bits of Freudian mythology, and you wouldn't have Fredric Wertham with all his faults, quirks and blind spots: and yet you'd also have a devastating cultural studies critique of mass media that could have been published in almost any respectable academic journal these days.  I think you have to give him some credit for that.

And I think you have to give Wertham some credit for taking comics to task for racism, another issue that's still, regrettably, something that we're talking about in contemporary comics.  Wertham accused the comics of fomenting race-hatred: how extreme or apt that critique appears probably depends on how you feel about 1950s comics depicting Asians with squints and buck teeth, or portrayals of wide-lipped and wide-eyed Africans.1
While we may not see too many comics anymore that look like WWII propaganda, nevertheless you still have people getting angry about things like whether a biracial alternate-universe Spider-Man should be the Spider-Man.  (I would like to tell you it was only idiots like Glenn Beck getting wacky, but it's also a thing amongst comics fans; and it may seem unfair to blame idiot comics fans' reactions on the industry, but part of the reason this is a thing is because there's grounds to wonder why there are so few African-American and Hispanic superheroes in the first place, and whether those relatively few characters are actually being portrayed in respectful and non-stereotyping ways.)  I think the point I'm making here is that, as with sexism and misogyny, Wertham's critiques remain more relevant and less-marginal than we might like to think.

In the end, Wertham made comics worse.  This might be the last tragedy and irony in all of it, the capstone: that in trying to rid children's lives of the pernicious influence of some genuinely bad comics, he created an environment where the best comics could no longer thrive (and see FN1, again), while the mediocre reascended and become dominant.  And because he went kinda crazy, and could easily be portrayed as kinda crazy, some of his levelheaded and legitimate critiques fell by the wayside, too.  One can only imagine what happened in some alternative universe where publishers and writers read Seduction Of The Innocent and instead of (understandably) getting defensive about it, said, "Y'know, he kinda has a point about the way women get beat up in our stories, maybe we oughta try some different kindsa motifs...."  Or, "Maybe we could sell different ads."  Or, "He could be right about some of this, maybe we do have a moral responsibility to think about the effects our stories have and who might be reading them."

One doesn't have to agree with everything Fredric Wertham wrote to think he had some good points and offered some things we should think about when we think about the media.  One shouldn't agree with everything Fredric Wertham wrote, because aside from some of it being dishonest and some of it being flat-out wrong2, quite a lot of it is silly and/or dumb and/or questionable on its face, and then there's stuff that maybe wasn't crazy then but sure reads as batshit nuts now (e.g. all the Freudian analysis of homoerotic subtext in superheroes and their boy sidekicks).3  Jeff Trexler compared Wertham to Marshall McLuhan; I think that's essentially a valid comparison (though a two-edged one: like Wertham, McLuhan has been known to make utterly insane claims with absolutely no rational support whatsoever to back them up).  It's not quite that "Wertham was right": but in addition to condemning a man who meant well and did well, when we reduce his entire life to its nadir, we also run the risk of congratulating ourselves for dumping the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; instead of writing Wertham off, maybe we should engage him, and not merely on the simplistic level of simply gainsaying his unproven claims and facially-invalid conclusions.  Wertham was wrong... sometimes.  And the times he wasn't are worth thinking about if we are actually serious about comics.

1While Bill Gaines' EC is often used as the textbook example of a publisher damaged by Comics Code censorship, the whole story is actually much more than what is often assumed, that publisher Gaines and his artists were unwilling to comply with limitations on portrayals of sex and violence.

In fact, the straw that broke the camel's back and led directly to Gaines cancelling all of EC's titles except MAD was also an illustration of just how fundamental and endemic racism was in the comics industry at large: in 1953 Gaines wanted to publish an Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando SF allegory in Weird Fantasy, in which an Earth astronaut visits a planet where robots have a segregated existence, to evaluate the planet's readiness to be admitted to civilized space.  The astronaut's decision is that the alien world isn't ready, because it still practices a form of robot apartheid in which orange robots have more advantages and opportunities than blue robots--there being no actual difference between the robots themselves other than their outer coats.  Earth, he tells them, long ago abandoned the ridiculous belief that such superficial differences mattered.  And in the final panel, back on his ship, the astronaut removes his helmet and is finally revealed to be a black guy.  (No, not an especially subtle twist, but everyone's heart was in the right place and the point of the story still stands.  And this is a year before Brown v. Board Of Education gets decided and ends the myth of "separate but equal", remember.)

Gaines, to his credit (and did you ever doubt it?) was righteously pissed, refused to make the change, and immediately decided if that's how the Comics Code was going to operate he didn't want to be a part of it, and if not being able to properly distribute or sell non-Code titles wasn't an option, he'd rather not publish anything, thank-you-and-fuck-you-very-much.  MAD was reformatted as a snarky satire "magazine" and distributed on shelves instead of comics racks, and the rest of EC's titles passed into history.  And this, girls and boys, is why we still love Bill Gaines, by the way.

2An oft-cited example is Wertham's claim that Blue Beetle is a guy who turns into a bug, which is so wrong you can't actually tell if Wertham is lying or just talking out his ass.  But my personal favorite is actually in a Saturday Review article Wertham wrote in 1955 that begins, "Do you know what a necronomicon is?  Probably not.  But for thousands of children, this is part of their education.  They know that a necronomicon is a creature that, of course, drinks people's blood and eats their flesh."  Um.  Probably not: while I can't say categorically that there isn't a comic book story in which a "necronomicon" is a monster, I'm very aware that quite a few horror comics artists over the decades have properly referenced one of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous creations, depicting books with the title Necronomicon in wizards' and witches' libraries, on their evil pulpits to be read from in dark rituals, etc.

For what it's worth, however, I would pay a reasonable amount of hard cash money for a comic book in which a man who turns into a blue insect gets into a fight with a bloodsucking, flesheating book... heck, maybe I need to write that one myself.
3I also have to add a lot of it is just a pain in the ass to read, tendentious and repetitive.  It took me more than a week to slog through because I needed frequent breaks, and I got too eye-numbed by it to realize I'd be writing a half-dozen blog posts and ought to take notes so I could quote more often and liberally from it.  I feel like I have to add this caveat because when I'm saying, "Hey, this guy actually had some good points in with the crazy stuff," it sounds like it could be taken as a challenge to actually go and read Wertham, and I'm not actually sure it is worth the bother of it.  Maybe.


Seduction Of The Innocent: the whale, the stone, the comics industry

>> Friday, August 23, 2013

I think it's a bit tragic that Fredric Wertham will go down in history as the guy who hated the comics, instead of being a co-founder of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, providing mental health care to people regardless of race or class, or instead of being a vital player for the team that dealt the death-blow to legalized segregation in the United States.  But he did it to himself.  In the late 1940s, Wertham began writing essays about the influence of the mass-media upon juveniles, and in particular about the pernicious influence of comic books, a medium that bloomed and boomed in the 1940s following the creation of Superman in 1938.  In 1954, he published an epic rant, Seduction Of The Innocent, that would become his claim to infamy and completely eclipse the more laudable parts of his career and make his name synonymous with censorship.

Part of what makes this tragic is that it isn't hard at all to see what went wrong for Wertham: Seduction wasn't a detour, at least not at first, but rather represented Wertham's continued advocacy for troubled youth.  This wasn't a guy who just picked up a comic book one day and had his bluenose bruised, or a guy who looked at a popular medium and decided to make a name for himself by trolling it (as one suspects of a certain disbarred critic of videogames who we won't dignify by naming here); Wertham was spending an enormous amount of time at the Lafargue Clinic running group therapy sessions for troubled kids, consulting with attorneys for children and young adults charged with criminal acts, serving as an expert witness on juvenile delinquency in assorted legal and legislative proceedings, counseling people in jails and juvenile detention facilities, and in trying to find out more about the people he was trying to help, comic books came up as something they were interested in.  Which wasn't anything special at all, actually: comic books were extremely popular, were fairly inexpensive, had penetrated deeply into youth culture (older people, naturally stuck to the entertainments and/or vices of their own youth)--liking comics was no bigger a deal than liking movies previously or liking television or video games subsequently, no matter that Wertham couldn't see things that way.

The essence of Wertham's error when you get down to it is the difference between correlation and causation.  There might be a correlation between being younger and liking comic books, but it was only non-coincidental to the extent that someone born in the 1930s or 1940s grew up with comic books as a fact of life and a potential thing to be entertained by, while someone born in the 1920s or earlier might be more interested in the familiar media of film, or magazines, or tabloid newspapers, etc..  But as for a causal link between being a young criminal offender and liking comics, you would have to prove that, and you'd have to do better than merely being able to say that many young people, some of whom happen to be juvenile delinquents, happen to like comic books.  And you'd also have to be able to show which direction a causal correlation ran in: after all, while it might be hypothetically possible that reading a violent comic inspires a child, it might also be the case that the interests of children (reflected in their purchasing habits) inspires publishers to print violent comics (a possibility Wertham addressed but repeatedly dismissed summarily without any basis for the dismissal beyond his own implicit faith in the better natures of human beings).

Seduction Of The Innocent is as much a book about juvenile delinquency as it about the comics.  When Wertham writes about the things his juvenile therapy groups have to say about comic books, it's possible for a reader to miss the point that these groups are groups of juvenile delinquents, children who Wertham refers to in a blink-and-you-miss-it line as "predelinquent" juveniles, and truant or undisciplined juveniles (Wertham's "Hookey Group" consists of children referred to Wertham for chronic nonattendance).  When you pay attention to this fact, I think it's hard not to feel sympathetic for Wertham and his patients, notwithstanding the harm he managed to do to beloved (and fully-grown) artists and writers by all his barking up the wrong trees.  Here's this guy, see, who has spent an enormous chunk of his professional career trying to help young people, trying to help the poor, trying to keep young people (especially poor young people) out of Juvenile Hall or worse, and he's decided (wrongly) that comic books are one of the reasons these kids (who are basically good kids if you gave them a chance) keep messing up--if he were right about the comics, he'd be like whomever noticed lead paint was bad, or that a child car seat was poorly designed, he'd be lionized.  You can almost hardly blame him for getting shriller and shriller about his unheeded warnings as the years went on.  "Think of the children!" has become a mocking, snarky rejoinder to social panics and certain kinds of political grandstanding, but the shitty thing about how things played out for Fredric Wertham is that he really was thinking of the children, and specifically of the nameable individuals he'd go to work and talk to, nameable individuals he hopefully wouldn't read about in his morning newspapers (but probably did).1
There's another thing about all this that gets lost in the noise, too, which is that while comics and juvenile delinquency were the chief subjects of Seduction Of The Innocent, Wertham never said they were comics were the only cause of delinquency.  The way he kept coming back to them, it becomes easy to miss that, too; and this gets back to the problem of causation I mentioned earlier, because one of the nuttiest things that happens again and again in Seduction Of The Innocent is that Wertham will provide a laundry list of all the miserable and fucked-up things in a kid's life that might have factored into the kid being referred to a psychiatric specialist in troubled, delinquent children and then, basically, he'll add "Oh, and the child also read a comic book and did something kind of like something that happened in a comic book".  There's a double-whammy there, actually, because for a start Wertham doesn't rule out (and can't rule out) that maybe the kid had issues so far above and beyond any possible influence a comic book might have had, issues like being poor, hungry, physically and mentally abused, a victim of physical (including sexual) assaults, etc., and then because Wertham doesn't even manage to always connect the kinds of comics he hates with whatever comics this poor kid with all the horrific psychic baggage happened to be reading (so Wertham says Kid A read comics, and a lot of comics are really bad, but he never actually says Kid A ever read bad comics; well, then).
Maybe Wertham would have moved on from comic books to other problems facing America's troubled youth, but the comics industry bit back.  They had to, you can't fault them for that; they bit back not just because of wonderful principles like artists' creative rights and freedom of speech and all that great stuff, but because the publishers were trying to extract a lot of money out of what's always been a really volatile and frequently marginal industry, and the actual creative people involved (e.g. the writers, artists, editors, pencillers, inkers, et al.) were mostly in an even more marginal, trying to eke out a living essentially as freelancers for however little the publishers could justify paying them; understandably, these folks were even more snappish at having their livelihoods threatened, being in a far more precarious position than anyone.  Wertham criticized, the industry rejoined.  And, oftentimes, the comics industry employed the most readily-available weapons they had in their own defense: personal attacks on Wertham in the publishers' columns, satirical takedowns in the stories, snide remarks in the word bubbles and unsubtle caricatures in the panels.  Wertham shouldn't have taken it so personally, but it's pretty evident in Seduction that he did.  And as if the feedback loop of Wertham > industry > Wertham > industry didn't have enough amplification on its own, its always been true that people love a good fight, especially when they aren't in it or only have a hypothetical stake, and inevitably there are fight promoters who are happy to sell seats and popcorn: newspapers, magazines, politicians....  "Dr. Wertham says comic books are a scourge, care to respond, Mr. Gaines?"  "Mr. Gaines says you're an ignoramous, Dr. Wertham, would you like to comment?"  "Step right up, step right up, come see Fredric Wertham, the 'Terror Of Munich', the 'Harlem Headshrinker' as he goes toe-to-toe, mano-a-mano with the Brooklyn Battler, 'Maaaad' Billy Gaines.  Buy a program!  Peanuts and popcorn!  Beer at the concession stands!"  (This last an actual quote from The New York Times, or possibly Harper's.  Okay, not really but close enough.)

Wertham spends an unseemly amount of ink on his martyrdom at the quills of the comic book industry and their endless legion of hired lackeys, "professionals" and supposed "colleagues" who prostitute themselves out defending the industry, but while he revels in being perceived a threat, he doesn't seem to have quite grokked that he really was a threat.
Contrary to what some folks might think, Wertham was never pro-censorship, or not in the sense of outright banning of materials, and he sometimes expressed shock he'd be accused of any such thing.  He was, after all, a progressive intellectual who co-founded a psychiatric clinic named for a Marxist writer.  What he wanted was to prohibit comic sales to children, not a prohibition of their publication or sales to adults.  That this would have effectively buried an industry that depended upon children for a substantial number of sales is something I'm not sure he quite got his head around, in spite of the fact he did repeatedly accuse publishers of exploiting children and depending upon children for direct purchase revenues and depended upon advertising sold to businesses clearly marketing goods towards children.  It nevertheless seems Wertham thought the publishers were more powerful than they really were--he writes of publishers as if they were masters of the universe--and that if Congress used the Commerce Clause to restrict direct sales to children, the industry could retool itself without severe losses; when what would have really happened if Wertham had gotten his way, is that the publishers would have largely shut down.  (Not that Wertham would have felt this a loss.)

So they were fighting for their lives, and fought accordingly.  And Wertham was fighting for children's lives, and seemed simultaneously pleased to be a thorn in the industry's side and yet outraged they fought to draw blood.2  And this turned into a death-spiral that Wertham wasn't going to actually climb out of: the industry really was going to devote itself to doing what it could to survive, and Wertham was, in the end, just a well-intentioned cranky old guy in a Sisyphean struggle against not only the comics, but in fact (in reality, because comics weren't really the problem) against poverty, racism, hunger, ignorance, et al..  And what eventually consumed Wertham and ate him alive is that all the real problems he was pitted against are moving, ephemeral (yet paradoxically solid), relative, conceptual, abstract, they are things we know through all their secondary manifestations--we feel them directly and viscerally, yet all we can really lay our hands upon are the victims, we struggle with the symptoms but the causes flow away from us like we're chasing meltwater down an icy bank.  While the comics, or rather the comic book publishers, are fixed targets who engage and fire back.  In finally picking a responsive target, Wertham let himself get locked into a battle he couldn't and wouldn't let go of: he might despair of the way racism and poverty made the door to the basement of St. Philip's Church, where the Lafargue Clinic was housed, seem like a revolving door, but he could get results from his struggle with the comic book publishers.  Even if all the results were lousy ones.  At least it was something you could measure your progress by.

In the end, all he did was injure the comic book industry and fatally wound his own reputation.  Ahab speared the white whale, yes, but was caught in his own line and dragged down into the Abyss.

1As an assistant public defender who has represented a lot of kids in juvenile court, has this ever happened to me?  Yeah.  It has.  I can tell you it sucks to think you've played some kind of role in pointing a troubled kid in the right direction and then a week or a month after he's hit legal adulthood for criminal law purposes (that would be 16 here in North Carolina, 18 in more civilized states) he's in the news, quite possibly for something bad enough, even, to actually be worth making it into the news.  Or you just happen to see him in adult court just after you've wrapped up his juvenile matters, that's another good kick in the gut.  Does this influence my evolving views on Fredric Wertham?  What do you think?
2Ha!  Good one!  If I do say so, myself....


Aard Side Of The Moon

>> Thursday, August 22, 2013

I like Tom Stoppard, but I have to admit the idea of a radio drama based on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon sounds like kind of... well, dumb.  I mean, The Dark Side Of The Moon already is something of a radio drama, and while derivative works are an engine of culture and the fact a great playwright wants to do something inspired by Dark Side shows just how much vitality that iconic record still has after four decades and all that, there's part of me that thinks, "Well, why not save everyone some time and trouble and just pop the CD in the player and listen to that?"

On the other hand, the promo trailer Aardman Animation did for the radio drama, posted above, is fucking badass.  Okay, so first of all, it's one of my all-time-favorite animation houses, famous for launching Nick Park and the music video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer".  And, second of all, it's one of my favorite records of all time.  And, third, director Darren Dubicki wisely references much of the original artwork Hipgnosis and the late great Storm Thorgerson did (along with some of the visuals Ian Emes created for the Floyd's live shows).  And, fourth, I do like Tom Stoppard a lot, and whatever reservations I may have about this project, the lines spoken over the promo trailer (which I assume are from the upcoming radio drama) are pretty good.

So: win.

You might be interested to know, too, that the promo is only partly CGI: it's actually a mixed-media piece featuring practical effects and other "hand crafted elements".  Which is worth mentioning because so much of everything is CGI these days, and while I understand Aardman's recent shift from being primarily a stop-motion house to doing quite a lot (if not a majority) of their work in CGI, it's nice they're keeping lots of different kinds of things in their toolbox; matter-of-fact, that flexibility is one of the reasons I adore Aardman.

Watch the clip.  As often as necessary.  It rules, totally.


And maybe that's all for the best?

>> Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Speaking in Providence, R.I. on Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan admitted that she and her fellow justices are basically clueless when it comes to technology, the Associated Press reports.


For her part, the 53-year-old Kagan said she uses personal email, goes online, and reads blogs. But she suggested that isn’t true of all of her older colleagues. And newfangled services like Facebook and Twitter are “a challenge for us,” she added.


Seduction Of The Innocent: The expert witness

Establishing the Lafargue Clinic was the second-greatest thing Fredric Wertham accomplished.  The greatest thing he ever did was to play a role in Gebhart v. Belton (32 Del. Ch. 343; 87 A.2d 862 (1952)), testifying as an expert witness on behalf of the plaintiffs. 

Gebhart is a case you know about even though I think you've probably never heard of it: when the Chancery Court of Delaware found for the plaintiffs, the Attorney General of Delaware appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who granted certiorari and bundled the case with several others from across the country addressing the same issues the Delaware plaintiffs raised.  Gebhart v. Belton, a similar Virginia case (Davis v. County School Board), and the related South Carolina case (Briggs v. Elliott) were all decided alongside a case out of Kansas, under which all the cases were captioned: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483 (1954)).

The issue before the Supreme Court, as the reader doubtlessly knows, was whether segregated schools could be maintained as "separate but equal" institutions, an expression from the Court's infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537 (1896)) to uphold the Constitutionality of legally-enforced, state-mandated segregation; in Brown, the Court effectively reversed Plessy in a unanimous decision delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Chief Justice Warren wrote:

In Sweatt v. Painter, supra, in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities, this Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, supra, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession."  Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:
"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."
Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority.  Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected. [citations and notes omitted]

One of the footnotes to this:

A similar finding was made in the Delaware case: "I conclude from the testimony that in our Delaware society, State-imposed segregation in education itself results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated." 

The Delaware Court didn't rely on that finding, but nevertheless put a great deal of weight upon it; from the Gebhart opinion:

Plaintiffs produced many expert witnesses in the fields of education, sociology, psychology, psychiatry and anthropology. Their qualifications were fully established. No witnesses in opposition were produced. One of America's foremost psychiatrists testified that State-imposed school segregation produces in Negro children an unsolvable conflict which seriously interferes with the mental health of such children.  He conceded that the form, or combination of forms of hardship, vary in different cases and he further conceded that the results are not caused by school segregation alone. However, he pointed out that State enforced segregation is important, because it is "clear cut" and gives legal sanction to the differences, and is of continuous duration. He also pointed out other factors which viewed against the social background of the Delaware community, necessarily have the effect of causing the Negro child to feel that he is inferior because, in an indirect fashion, the State has said so. The other experts sustained the general proposition as to the harmful over-all effect of legally enforced segregation in education upon Negro children generally. It is no answer to this finding to point to numerous Negroes who apparently have not been so harmed. It leads to lack of interest, extensive absenteeism, mental disturbances, etc. Indeed, the harm may often show up in ways not connected with their "formal" educational progress. The fact is that such practice creates a mental health problem in many Negro children with a resulting impediment to their educational progress.

Care to guess who "one of America's foremost psychiatrists" was?  James E. Reibman writes:

Wertham's research and testimony in the Delaware cases became part of the legal argument used in the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.  Thurgood Marshall, chief attorney for the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, wrote to Wertham on May 25, 1954, pointing out the critical nature of Wertham's work and thanking him

for the important assistance which you gave us in the school segregation cases which were recently decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. It is unfortunate that the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States could not, in so many words, give recognition to all of those who were of assistance to us. However, I hope that you and the members of your clinic will have satisfaction in knowing that your great efforts contributed significantly to the end result. Not only was your testimony in the Delaware case before the Court in the printed record of testimony, but the Chancellor in Delaware came to his conclusions concerning the effects of segregation largely upon the basis of your testimony and the work done in your clinic. [citations omitted]

I'm not sure the full import of Brown hasn't been lost upon the generations who have grown up since then with it as a fact of life.  The critical thing about Brown wasn't so much that it decided "separate but equal" wouldn't work, but that it was meaningless: the problem with segregation wasn't merely that some people might not have access to the same utilities as others solely on the basis of their skin color, but, more fundamentally, that simply causing the separation in the first place caused an injury in and by itself no matter how even you tried to make things.  Facilities could, in fact, be equal, and still cause psychological damage and impair education because they were separate.

I think you could get waylaid there if you aren't careful, attempting to spin that into a whole 'nother argument over whether attempts to correct for the evils of segregation and racism by affirmative action programs has some kind of insidious effect; I think that's terribly complicated and beside the point, which is that Brown was a threshold moment in the United States' coming to terms with the terrible moral and societal consequences of our particular form of apartheid, merely because it recognized and admitted that there were terrible moral and social consequences.

Brown is the kind of thing that makes you proud, if you're an American, to be one.  It wasn't the end of anything, but a beginning, but it was one hell of a beginning.  The first step is admitting you have a problem, and what Chief Justice Earl Warren and eight Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States took upon themselves was admitting that we had an enormous problem, and going as far as to say we had a scientifically definable problem, that segregation was inherently a failure that hurt everybody it touched (which, you know, was literally everybody in the U.S.), and here were the experts to prove it.

In all of this, Frederic Wertham was a footsoldier.  When I say his part of all this was the most important thing he did, and ought to be remembered that way instead of the way his name has gone down in history as That Guy Who Really Hated Comic Books, I don't want to steal an iota of credit from the generals who planned and fought this war, Thurgood Marshall chief amongst them.  The legal team at the NAACP coordinated a national legal strategy and local attorneys in Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware litigated it, and Frederic Wertham wasn't the only expert witness who testified at any of these trials.  And the children and parents who actually stuck themselves out there and literally risked their lives in an era when churches were bombed, students assaulted, activists murdered, etc., were simply heroes (it would have been so easy to go home, go to those separate schools, internalize the awful lessons of segregation, to surrender and survive and make a terrible peace, and tolerate evils, accepting their children and children's children would be next).  But if you'll forgive the extended military metaphor, Frederic Wertham was a soldier with an infantry mortar, or leading a team with his colleagues at the Lafargue Clinic loading and firing a heavier artillery piece, and providing heavy support without which the war would have been lost; you don't win just with generals, not even if one of them is the great Thurgood Marshall.

All of this leaves one with a sinking feeling when you consider the reason Wertham was back in the news this year:

A couple of weeks ago, researcher Carol Tilley proved to the world what many already suspected: anti-comics crusader Frederic Wertham lacked supporting scientific evidence for his conclusions and even fabricated some of his data. 


...Tilley’s work has cast a light on Wertham, whose crusade against comics led to decades of self-censorship that nearly destroyed the industry (and certainly destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of comics creators and publishers). While few were surprised that Wertham used faulty science to support his arguments and Wertham’s views may even seem quaint by today’s standards, they’re no less dangerous. [links omitted]

When that news hit this past March, a lot of comics fans took a certain vindictive glee in the headlines.  The fact is that Wertham's evidence didn't necessarily support his conclusions even if you took it at face value, and there's an argument to be made that, while Wertham's methodology wouldn't begin to pass muster today, they were (for better or, mostly, for worse) consistent with the work of other mid-century psychiatrists and psychologists.  Regardless, the pleasure so many of us took in Wertham's final posthumous humiliation was terribly parochial: what seems like a triumphant dance on an enemy's grave in the small world of comic books is in fact a bullet dodged by the entire United States.

What I mean is, do you have any idea what Carol Tilley's discovery would have meant in 1954?

I have no idea whether the problems that have been discovered with Wertham's anti-comics represent problems with his work on the consequences of segregation.  I'm afraid I suspect that Wertham's work, much like the research done by Sigmund Freud (who Wikipedia cites as a powerful influence on young Wertham), much like the work done by Freud's protégé , Carl Jung, much like the works of so many early psychiatrists, in fact, was probably often anecdotal in nature, with anecdotes massaged for general consumption by the public when it seemed sinless to do so.  Wertham came up in an era when psychiatry didn't appear to have much use for the scientific method or any of its usual accoutrements such as control groups and double-blind studies.  But even if my gut is wrong about that, can you imagine what the racists would have done with Professor Tilley's revelations?  (I'm not accusing her of anything, by the way: if Professor Tilley has an agenda, it's an earnest passion for comics.  But if the Devil can quote scripture, I'm sure a segregationist could abuse the good professor's work just as easily.)

I have to admit, whatever gratitude I feel towards Professor Tilley for letting a little more truth and light into the world is actually overwhelmed by my gratitude that she didn't let it in until more than half a century had passed since it really would have been a bombshell in the nation's culture wars.  Her discoveries would have been great for all those artists and writers and editors and publishers whose lives Wertham made difficult or impossible, would have been great for comics as an evolving artform, would have meant that maybe comics would be a whole helluva lot better now.  But gods only know, would that be worth the price we would have paid for everything else?

True, Wertham, again, wasn't the only one fighting the long, hard war against racism and segregation.  But undermining him in '54 would have gone some way in undermining his colleagues, would have tainted the whole project with guilt by association.  The Warren Court was likely ready to do something about Plessy, which had been a long and deep stain on the nation, and much of the country was primed for progress--desegregation had been a pet issue of Eleanor Roosevelt, who had her husband's ear on so many things, and FDR's successor, Harry Truman, ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948; maybe toxic revelations re: Wertham wouldn't have mattered.  Or maybe these revelations would have left a bad enough taste in everyone's mouth for the Court to spit it out for a time.  If nothing else, it all would have been an embarrassment, undermining a watershed moment in American civil rights history.

No, we don't know, and maybe it all would have gone down the right way, anyway: but I'm glad it's far too late to find out.

As it is, it leaves a tremor, a ghost of a queasy feeling: was one of the most moral and just decisions in the history of American law predicated, even a little, on lies?  Does it matter?  Should the joy we take from the Supreme Court's burial of Plessy be tainted in any way by the well-intentioned mistakes (or even malfeasance) of a minor player in the great drama?  It's troubling enough just to feel obligated to ask.

It's a regret to contemplate it at all.  You almost wish it had stayed buried.


Seduction Of The Innocent: The Adventures of Doctor Quarter

>> Tuesday, August 20, 2013

If you like comic books, you know Fredric Wertham as the guy who tried to destroy the industry in the 1950s.  He went around complaining about how violent and awful they were until Estes Kefauver, United States Senator from Tennessee, convened Congressional hearings that humiliated EC Comics publisher William Gaines and led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, a censoring body that caused Batman to be totally lame and ended the Golden Age of "pre-Code" comics.

A lot of that preceding paragraph is a little wrong or misleading.  I write with complete affection and respect for the ever-lovable Bill Gaines that he mostly humiliated himself (nevertheless, if there's a Valhalla for rebels and heroes of American counterculture, may he be swilling the best beer at the best table in the joint).  The Comics Code Authority was an industry project, not something imposed by the government; indeed, it's the acme of Fredric Wertham not getting what he wanted out of the whole thing, seeing as how he was trying to get Congress to use the Commerce Clause to ban comics sales to kids, and what the CCA mostly did was slap approvals on titles from the biggest publishers (National, basically) almost regardless of content while making life impossible for smaller, scrappier publishers.  Congress didn't do much.  And Batman, by the way, was already well on his way to becoming kind of lame (the long slide would continue until the early 1970s, when Denny O'Neil would basically reinvent the character nearly-from-scratch, basically keeping only his backstory).

But the worst part of all of that is that Fredric Wertham became famous--or infamous--for the wrong thing.  And this was something I only realized right before I made a point of finally reading Seduction Of The Innocent, having spent decades thinking Wertham was a schmuck.  The truth was that he should have been a hero.  Could have been a hero.  Would have been a hero, if he hadn't stumbled into a monomaniacal obsession with a burgeoning industry he decided was killing the community he'd made a commitment to.

Wertham was born in Germany in 1895.  He studied medicine and decided to become a psychiatrist.  In 1922, he came to the United States, settling in New York City, and within a few years he was proffering expert testimony in criminal cases, frequently on behalf of the defense.  This is one of the first things you need to know about Dr. Fredric Wertham: that from nearly the beginning of his professional career, he was concerned with trying to figure out why people did bad things that brought them into conflict with the law.  He came to a general conclusion about that, too, and it runs through Seduction Of The Innocent as a primary theme and seems to have influenced much of his other work: Wertham was committed to a sense that there weren't really any bad people at all, only basically good people who couldn't live up to that potentiality, whether because of some neurological defect or, very frequently, because of the ways their environment molded them so that they couldn't comply with the expectations of society, or perhaps, even, society had sent such mixed signals about what was expected that they couldn't be wholly faulted for their failure to comprehend what the right thing was supposed to be in the first place.

There's something else I find noble and tragic about that last bit, something that is probably the second essential thing you need to know about Fredric Wertham: as far as I can tell, he applied that sense that everybody was basically decent, but that decency could be stymied or thwarted or shorted out by mixed signals, to everybody.  And that's not tautological, that he applied this belief he had about everybody to everybody.  Fredric Wertham, remember, was living and practicing in the United States.  In the middle of the 20th Century.

And the United States was, and is, an extremely racist nation.  But in the 20th Century, the United States was something more and worse: it was a racist and segregated nation, with separation of the races a matter not just of convention (de facto segregation) but of law (de jure segregation).

Fredric Wertham's crusade on comics, the thing he's most famous for, shouldn't even be the second most famous thing about him.  The second most famous thing about Fredric Wertham should be what he did in 1946.  No, wait--that's the year his efforts bore fruit.  It actually started about ten years before that.

A long and well-known consequence of America's racial issues is that minorities end up being disproportionately charged, convicted of, and punished for crimes.  Wertham was cognizant of this, and he was also aware that there were no mental health services whatsoever available for minorities, perhaps aside from prison hospitals, which isn't a solution to anything at all.  Wertham couldn't do much about institutionalized racism, but psychiatry was something he was becoming a nationally-recognized expert in, and through the 1930s he tried to garner funding and support for more widespread mental health care.  He didn't have much success.

There's an old district in New York City called Harlem, which eventually became a center of African-American resettlement during the diaspora that occurred during the second half of the 19th Century after the American Civil War, when thousands and thousands of African Americans, understandably not wanting to be anywhere near the men and women who formerly abused them, moved north during Reconstruction.  For several decades, reaching a pinnacle in the 1920s, Harlem was a pretty amazing place, ground zero for African American culture, and by extension an engine of American culture--deeply-engrained racism and various forms of segregation didn't keep white Americans from borrowing art, most famously jazz.  But the Great Depression devastated the neighborhood and Harlem never really recovered, becoming a notorious slum.

In New York City, Harlem produced a disproportionate percentage of NYC's juvenile delinquency cases, and so it was to Harlem Wertham went when he gave up on establishment funding to set up a volunteer-run psychiatric clinic with support from neighborhood churches (including donated space to work in), advice and assistance from African-American community leaders such as Paul Robeson and Ralph Ellison, and help from non-profits like Planned Parenthood.  The Lafargue Clinic, named for Paul Lafargue, was open to anyone (regardless of ethnicity or class), but the location made the clinic most accessible to African-Americans and Puerto Ricans living in Harlem and the vicinity; psychiatric services were offered for free if need be, but patients were generally charged twenty-five cents (around three bucks today, according to inflation calculators I checked) as a matter of maintaining dignity, to remove any embarrassment or sense of stigma that might be felt over receiving charity (hence, Wertham evidently found himself being nicknamed "Doctor Quarter" by locals).

I don't think there's any way to overstate just how revolutionary and groundbreaking this was: nobody was offering psychiatric help to the poor, and especially to poor African-Americans, and especially to poor African-American kids, at all.  Radical thing number one.  And radical thing number two, Wertham's belief that anyone and anybody ought to have access to what folks 'round the middle of the 20th Century were often calling "mental hygiene", as opposed to rich people being able to faddishly pursue psychoanalysis.  And radical thing number three, Wertham's belief that people ought to be able to receive mental health services when they needed them, as opposed to locking them up after it was too late to offer preventative health care.  And radical thing number four, that in an era where euegnics had been made unpalatable by the actions of the Nazi regime in Europe but quite a lot of people (including intellectuals and public leaders) still harbored beliefs in racial superiority, Wertham's belief that people were just people, that the difference between a juvenile delinquent in Harlem and some posh rich white kid somewhere wasn't a matter of inherent qualities but merely one of opportunities and influences.  Speaking of which, kind-of-radical thing number five, Wertham's belief that positive influences should be offered to everyone, i.e. his optimism in the human potential of every individual, which (judging by quite a lot of comments threads on political opinion websites) remains a pretty wild and controversial assertion.

And this should have been only Wertham's second claim to fame.

I'm very indebted to several sources for this, including Bart Beaty's Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture and James E. Reibman's "Ralph Ellison, Fredric Wertham, M.D., and the Lafargue Clinic: Civil Rights and Psychiatric Services in Harlem" (full text of Reibman's law review article isn't available at that link, I'm afraid, though I have access to it; the citation, if you need it, is 26 Okla. City U.L. Rev. 1041).  Other sources are linked to in the main text of the post, including Wikipedia for general biographical information, dates, etc..


Prologue: an innocent seduced

>> Monday, August 19, 2013

When I was a little kid, I read nothing but comics.  Or that's how it seems to me now.  I remember my parents disappointing me one day when I wanted an issue of Ghost Rider by insisting I read something else--C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.  And that's when I became a reader.  There's much irony in that.  First, because I cracked open that little paperback edition of Lion bitterly, angrily--I basically hate-read that book, or at least that's what I meant to to when I started, but I couldn't help getting caught up in the whole tale of Lucy and that damn lion.  And second, because my parents didn't realize what kind of Christian apologetic they were giving their son--my Dad remembered it simply as being a fantasy story he'd read as a kid, and had missed the allegory altogether--and then I ended up an atheist by the time I started high school (which perhaps says something about how effective an allegorist and apologist C.S. Lewis was).

But this isn't about C.S. Lewis.  This is about the comics.  When the pendulum swung, I'm embarrassed now to say it swung too far one way: when I started reading short stories and novels, I gradually ceased reading comics; not at once, but over the next few years until eventually I was embarrassed to be seen with them.  And this was unfortunate because, though I didn't know it at the time, comics were about to undergo an amazing renaissance under the pens of British imports Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and American iconoclasts like Frank Miller.  That's not meant to be an exhaustive list at all (it doesn't even include personal favorites like writer Steve Gerber).  I wasn't wholly unaware of all of this, because one of my best friends was a massive comics collector (and still is), but I was too stiff-necked and tight-assed to really get down into and enjoy it.

My loss.

But one of the pleasures of reaching middle age turns out to be that you can go back and revisit the lost or missed pleasures of your wayward youth.  The past several years, I've finally gone back and visited missed pleasures, be it Moore's and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, or Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, or Dark Horse's hardbound reprints of the Warren Publications' B&W horror comics of the late '60s and '70s, specifically Eerie and Creepy (Vampirella's intellectual property has ended up somewhere else, but I hope to maybe track down those anthologies eventually).  I've caught up a little on Mike Mignolla's Hellboy, unfashionably late to that party, and embraced Eric Powell's The Goon like it's something to love and squeeze and call George.  And I've been reading newer stuff like Joe Hill's and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke And Key and even sporadically checking into a few of DC's New 52 titles (Batman and Detective Comics manage to be both desultory and glacial; Animal Man is surprisingly wonderful).

I am making up for some lost time.

I like comics, though.  That doesn't seem like much of a statement.  It is, though.  I am one of those troubled nerds who spent much of his youth impossibly embarrassed by himself, only to grow up feeling irrepressibly proud of being part of that great and vast family of geekdom.  Well--maybe not "irrepressibly": in the public privacy of a blog post I can go on and on about Star Trek or Dungeons And Dragons, but in the private public of a restaurant where I am in the presence of non-geeks, geeky subjects can still make me bashful.  This is a fault I am confessing to, but I am a work in progress.  Geeks and nerds have essentially taken over the world: everyone plays videogames now, all the hit movies are based on comic books; it has even gotten to the point where there's such an embarrassment of riches for a nerd that one finds oneself actually eschewing superhero movies because they somehow seem unnecessary (I still haven't seen Man Of Steel and don't really see myself getting around to it; which feels weird to me, in a way, because I can remember when you'd go see a superhero movie in a theatre even if you could tell just from the poster that it would be totally shitty, because if you didn't see it there wouldn't be another one).  I have lived long enough for too many of my eccentricities to become mainstream.
To say that I like comics almost feels, then, like coming out of a closet, or maybe just a very small cupboard.  It's no secret at all, actually.  I think anyone reading this already knows the not-at-all-dark and not-at-all-secret confession being whispered here, today.  Lots of people who aren't reading it are aware of this.  Heck, I used to have a sidebar running here full of my latest reading, before some arbitrary Google update broke it (and, besides, keeping it had become tiresome, so it wasn't worth fixing if it was fixable), and there were plenty of comic book collections that appeared there.  I grew out of comics and then grew back into them, and that sad empty place between those points in time leaves me just a little shy and tender; I feel like something of a fraud to those friends and family who wisely never wavered in their affection for the medium, and feel defensive towards those whose opinions on the subject I shouldn't even bother with.

I think that last line reveals a bridge to what this is really about--
The ultimate naysayer on the subject of comics was a gent named Frederic Wertham, who probably did more to create the modern comics industry than any other individual in the history of the medium.  Which is ironic, because he hated comic books.  (One is tempted to describe the depths of his hatred, but it would be pointless and I'd only resort to clichés.  He hated them, okay?)  Wertham is famous for a book he wrote about comics, Seduction Of The Innocent, which is sad because he should have been famous for other things and might have been if he hadn't written Seduction Of The Innocent.  Which is a book I finally finished reading today during lunch, having made it a project to read the whole damn thing.
Being someone who admits, sometimes abashedly, to loving comic books, I frankly expected to hate-read the damn thing.  I suppose, now that I'm thinking about it, that there's a way in which this particular post I'm writing now comes full circle, because I started hate-reading The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe instead of a comic book, and my expectations were confounded; and I started hate-reading Seduction Of The Innocent, a book about comic books, expecting to be exasperated and outraged and amused, and my expectations were confounded.  Mostly.  It's an exasperating book.

I think I will have more to say....


My theory about the GOP, which I am about to relate, is mine, that is to say, ahem, my theory, which I have, which is mine, is mine...

>> Friday, August 09, 2013

I have had an epiphany about the Republican Party.  Especially the state chapters or franchises or whatever they're calling themselves, the Republicans of Wisconsin and North Carolina and also of Virginia and Texas and so many other states, mostly down here in the South.

I think.  I think I have figured something out, or have a hypothesis.  Well.  It's probably wrong.  Hanlon's Razor tells us, more or less, that mean and stupid is generally a better explanation for things than conspiracy.  Not that conspiracies don't happen; Hanlon's Razor is like Occam's, it doesn't tell you what's true, it just gives you a device for evaluating the probability of competing hypotheses.

But let me tell you about this hypothesis.  Which I haven't checked, by the way, to see if it's uniquely mine.  It wouldn't shock me if this notion had been floated before.  But I have arrived at it independently, for whatever that might be worth.

I've been reading The Handmaid's Tale.  We'll start there.  Just in explaining how I got where from whence.  I've adored Margaret Atwood for years now, but by way of short stories and Oryx And Crake and The Year Of The Flood; I remember when Handmaid's Tale was a big honking deal in the 1980s but I never got around to it at the time, and in perusing Atwood's back catelogue it's taken me a little while to get around to her most (in)famous work.  I suppose this is ironic, yes.  Or perhaps not, perhaps, I admit, the fact Handmaid's Tale is her best-known work is actually a reason it wasn't the first book of hers I picked up when I followed her short fiction with novels and one novel with another; everyone's read The Handmaid's Tale or at least had a copy in their possession sometime (it's one of those books, I suspect, that everyone buys because everyone's buying it, but nobody knows who's actually read it, though from one point-of-view it's all okay anyway because Ms. Atwood's royalty check cashes the same regardless), you almost don't want to be seen with a copy yourself out of some irrational worry people will think you're just reading The Handmaid's Tale.  "No," you'd want to say (for no sensible reason at all), "I actually really like Margaret Atwood, I kind of consider myself a fan, I read The Blind Assassin before I even thought about picking up a copy of this."  It's stupid, I know; it's like being embarrassed to be caught listening to Led Zeppelin IV and wanting everyone to know you'd rather be listening to Houses Of The Holy.

I've digressed.  Badly.

I've been reading The Handmaid's Tale, and I'm nearly finished but not completely finished, so tell me nothing of the final chapters.

I've been reading The Handmaid's Tale, anyway, and I was thinking about the likelihood of this particular kind of ultrareligious, fundamentalist Christian, misogynistic dystopia actually coming to pass.  Dystopias are really fantasies of a sort, you know: however carefully crafted and logically thought-through, the real point isn't necessarily the likelihood of most of Western Europe and America falling thrall to some kind of paranoid party-based oligarchy, say for instance, but rather to offer the reader some insight about the present--the awfulness of Stalinist Russia, for example.  I wouldn't say there's ever been that much likelihood of the United States becoming a puritanical theocracy, even with the Religious Right being such a vehement and vocal (and influential) part of contemporary American politics--at some point, those religious values come into direct conflict with the greediness of the libertarian commercial wing of the coalition, and things get fractious even if the GOP's managed to hold things together with duct tape and expressions of hatred towards the Left.

(Expressions of hatred, I say.  Interesting thing, that.  But I don't want to get ahead of myself.)

But so: I'm thinking about the plausibility of The Handmaid's Tale (as opposed to the narrative logic, which is a different kind of plausibility), and I'm thinking about all the GOP efforts to shut down abortion clinics in my home state, and in Texas and throughout the American South, and how this is ostensibly a blow against reproductive freedom.  Is a blow against reproductive freedom, make no mistake, but I write "ostensibly" there because, of course, what closing down abortion clinics in the South really accomplishes is to merely make abortion a wealthy woman's prerogative as it often was before Roe v. Wade: wealthy women will still have the option of making trips to New York and Massachusetts and other states that value a woman's right to control what goes on in her own uterus.  It's the poor who will find themselves without the means to drive a hundred miles to the nearest clinic that solely meets all the new regulatory standards intended to close even it down, much less will the poor be able to travel a thousand miles to some more-enlightened state.

Well, you know, that's when it hit me.  What's really going on here.  Well.  What might be going on.  Probably isn't going on, because Hanlon's Razor, etc..  But maybe could be possibly going on.

What's the consequence of making abortion unavailable to the poor, after all?  Or reproductive care and choice altogether, for that matter?  (After all, these "conservatives" are also opposed to providing access to birth control in general--to the poor, I mean, since here, too, the rich will be able to go on ordering prophylactics online, paying for birth control pills out of their own pockets, etc..)  The consequence, unless the poor take things into their own hands in back alleys and that kind of thing, will be a surge in their population: there will be more poor people.

But this isn't something that happens in a vacuum, you know!

For instance, these poor folks will be unemployable, thanks to the GOP's educational policies.

And those who do find jobs will be unable to make a living wage, thanks to the GOP's labor policies and their economic policies.

And they will all be disenfranchised, lacking the right to vote thanks to all the GOP's efforts at so-called "election reform" and some unprecedentedly egregious gerrymandering above and beyond what their predecessors in their own party or in their rivals' party ever assayed.

What these poor, disenfranchised proletarian masses will have, on the other hand, is a considerable arsenal ready at hand, thanks to the GOP's position on gun-control....

Odin's Beard!

The GOP has obviously been taken over by a sleeper cell of reconstructed Marxists!


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