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.


vince Monday, August 26, 2013 at 9:58:00 PM EDT  

These posts on Wertham have been very eye-opening. I knew who he was, superficially, as I knew of history of attacks on the comics industry. But I never knew the details, and certainly never knew how involved he was in what became Brown v. Board of Education.

Excellent analysis, as (in my opinion) usual. Thanks Eric!

Eric Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 9:16:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Vince! I'm pleased there's an interest.

mattw Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 12:29:00 PM EDT  

I agree, this has been a very enlightening series.

I wonder what the comics industry would be like if Wertham hadn't gone on the attack (which I believe you pondered in an earlier entry) as well as where we'd be if people took a more sensible approach to Seduction as you asked here. Perhaps alternate universe Matt will make contact one day and tell me how comics are perceived in Earth 616.

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