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....




2 comments:

mattw Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 11:21:00 AM EDT  

Another great write up. I wonder how Wertham would react to something like Call of Duty or Halo. Sure there are restrictions on minors buying games rated M+, but that doesn't really stop minors from getting their hands on those games. The same could have been said of comic books if trade regulations would have been put in place regarding them.

Eric Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 12:13:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Matt. I suspect Wertham would have been appalled by modern videogames and would have had the same kinds of criticisms, and some of those criticisms would have been valid and others off-the-wall. He didn't buy into the notion that children are naturally aggressive and need outlets for their aggression; he also was very critical of the way women are portrayed in comics (similar concerns apply to the way women are treated in videogames) and was extremely concerned about the violence portrayed, and the way violence was idealized or romanticized. One of his concerns with advertising in comics was that it made deadly weapons available to children (you could purchase firearms by mail very easily until the 1960s, when Congress cracked down on mail-order firearms following Lee Harvey Oswald's use of a mail-order rifle to murder John F. Kennedy); while videogames don't have anything comparable, I imagine the attempts of games like Call Of Duty to model real weapons probably would have bothered the hell out of Wertham.

On the other hand, it's not impossible that he would have seen abstract and problem-solving games like Tetris or Osmos as having some kind of cognitive value. Wertham believed "reading" comics was largely a passive activity involving looking at pictures and possibly at very simple sentences like, "You rat! Take this!" (While I disagree with Wertham on this last point, I'll concede that bad comics may make few demands of their audiences, and that it's very possible some of Wertham's academically or cognitively challenged clients may have interacted with comics on a very minimalist level. This is assuming Wertham could have perceived videogames at this level of nuance, something he showed no signs whatsoever of being able to do with comics. (It seems worth noting that even the late, great Roger Ebert, whose entire reputation was based on his ability to take a nuanced approach to films, famously failed to express any similar kind of nuance when it came to videogames.)

I agree that the rating system on games has largely failed, and I'd say the rating system on movies has mostly failed, too. And one reason these systems have failed is similar to one reason a similar system for comics most likely would have failed: the industry has a conflict of interest wherein it recognizes that while a product's content may be aimed at adults, the receptive audience consists largely of kids. The ratings system is mostly there to cover their asses.

But I think it also has to be admitted it does a good job of that. It may be hypocritical of a game company or movie studio to market an adult product to kids and then sanctimoniously protest, "Where are the parents, this is rated M/R!" but where are the parents? One might roll his eyes at the ethics of the company, but they're absolutely right that it's ultimately the responsibility of adults to know what their kids are doing to the most practicable extent possible, and (more importantly) to instill in their kids the kinds of values that will allow the child to correctly process the experiences they sneak past their parents (e.g. to appreciate the differences between fantasy and reality, or to understand that in the real world actions have consequences).

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