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....


mattw Monday, August 19, 2013 at 4:19:00 PM EDT  

As a comics fan myself, and a soon to be librarian, the self-censorship imposed by comics creators due to Wertham is...I can't think of the right word. It's something like frustrating, angry, sad, disappointed, but it's more than that. While I haven't read Seduction of the Innocent, I do know a little bit about the witch hunt in comics that followed and a little bit about the Comics Code that was created from that.

But then to find out that a lot of what Wertham had to say may have been exaggerations and/or complete fabrications, it's even more sad. Scholar Finds Flaws in Work by Archenemy of Comics

Eric Monday, August 19, 2013 at 4:45:00 PM EDT  

There are a lot of ironies in the fallout from Wertham's efforts, and a lot has been misunderstood. And then the problems Tilley found also have an unfortunate wrinkle that may go beyond comics (let's just say I'm really happy it took sixty years for someone to discover the liberties he took).

I'd expound further, but I'm hoping this will be fodder for one or more posts....

John Healy Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 1:21:00 PM EDT  

When I finished first grade I was a dead average reader. Right in the middle of my class. I discovered comic books that summer, and in second grade I was the number two reader in my class; right behind the strange kid in the back who never said anything and constantly played with his school stuff. I devoured books from that point on. I seriously owe Batman.

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