Monday, August 30, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Sedation of the Innocuous

It is funny how ideas spread through the common hive-mind between writers sometimes. Case in point; last week I got a letter from a researcher wondering where they could find a copy of “Seduction of the Innocent”. I had mentioned the infamous book in “The Young Punk’s Proposal" and they were seeking my advice on how to get a copy for a paper they were working on. They knew of the book only by reputation and wondered why the only copies they could find were rare copies being heavily bid on by collectors on ebay.

In doing the research to answer that question in e-mail, I decided to further answer it for everyone in a column. I planned to continue the theme of recent weeks and discuss the many arguments over appropriate content for children and censorship that were once again being raised by a number of recent comics (Particularly one that is reaching “crisis” levels). And so I wrote an entire column on Thursday about the content and effect of “Seduction of the Innocent”.

The problem is, come Friday I found out that fellow writer John Babos wrote in a recent column about the exact same issues and covered the effects of “Seduction of the Innocent”. While this wasn’t a huge problem, it did make a lot of the information at the end of my article redundant. At least, all the bits about how the book indirectly inspired the creation of The Comics Code Authority and how it caused the collapse of publishing houses, the end of careers and debatably, the rise of the superhero as the dominant theme in the comic books after 1955. Thankfully, I was more concerned with discussing the actual content of the book than documenting its’ historical effects. What follows is the salvaged remains of the article and a full explanation of “Seduction of the Innocent” as a book.


”Seduction of the Innocent”. A title familiar to most comics readers and yet read by very few of them. Famous for its’ effects upon the American comic industry and infamous for its actual content. Hard to believe that such a controversial book has been long out of print and that copies of it go for hefty sums at auctions and in rare book stores. In fact, the only way I’ve been able to read the book is thanks to the wonders of the Internet and an easily located .PDF which helpfully has the complete text and image scans of the original book.

So why is such an important book so hard to come by? Well, chalk it up to two things; a lack of interest and critical disapproval. As controversial and hard-hitting as it was in its’ day, most of the crusaders of righteousness rarely come after the comic book industry now. While there are many who believe in Wertham’s general thesis that violent media creates violent children, they are more concerned about the corrupting Satanic influence of Harry Potter, Doom 3 and the complete filmography of Adam Sandler than they are about Bruce Wayne being President of the Gotham City chapter of NAMBLA.

As for the latter problem, while Wertham did raise a number of excellent points and was one of the first psychologists to recognize the correlation between violent nature and a violent upbringing, most psychologists today consider his methods sloppy and his conclusions questionable. Having read the book and having taken more than a few psychology classes, I have to agree. For all his good intentions, Werthaam was a poor social scientist by today’s terms.

For one thing, Wertham’s evidence is based more on philosophical proofs than on psychological study. In fact, the entire basis of his writing against comic books comes down to a simple Aristotelian Syllogism. Or in more simple terms, an “If A = B” statement. For instance…

If A = B

And B = C

Then A = C

Wertham’s proof comes down to this syllogism…

All criminal children read comic books.

Comic books show criminal acts.

Comic books teach children criminal acts.

The problem is that such proofs are of limited usefulness as actual “proof”. To give another example…

All dogs have four legs.

All cats have four legs.

All dogs are cats.

Wertham also neglected to use a control group. That is, there was no testing done against groups besides that of his focus (i.e. juvenile delinquents). There was never any effort to see how many honors students, Eagle Scouts or other “good” kids were also avid comic book readers nor if exposure to comics might cause a good kid to go bad. Wertham also gave very few documented references in his works, preferring to fill his writings with anecdotes about the various patients he had treated and first-hand accounts of comics that mirrored the crimes his patients had committed. This makes “Seduction For The Innocent” a trial for the reader, as it is some pretty dull stuff, even for someone with a background in comics and psychology.

The one thing that redeems “Seduction” (or at the least, makes it somewhat tolerable) is the amusement value of some of Wertham’s wilder claims. Again, this is not to say that the Doctor didn’t have some good points. He writes at length, for instance, about the negative stereotypes of African Americans and how they are most often depicted as savages or criminals. Similarly, he has some harsh words about the treatment of female characters and notes the disproportionate amount of vile acts that occur to women. These points would not be out of place in a Spike Lee film or “Women in Refrigerators.”

But for every good point he makes, Wertham does make some equally ludicrous claims. While Superman’s treatment of Lois Lane and Lana Lang during the 50’s was a bit harsh considering the enlightened feminist attitude of the average male today, Wertham is a little harsh in, when discussing Kal-El, quoting Nietzsche's line from Man and Superman; “When you go to women, don't forget the whip." He goes to discuss the fascist implications of Superman…

Superman needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and "foreign- looking" people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasy themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them - by force.

Batman fares little better, being accused of encouraging children into dangerous imaginings by giving them an outlet into his world in the form of Robin, The Boy Wonder. More, Batman is accused of being a homosexual and in encouraging pedophilia.

“It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend's arm.”

This was, it might be noted, several decades before Joel Schumacher’s Batman films. Wertham goes on to say…

“In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick.”

Remeber, boys and girls. No villainess has a chance against Dick!

(I know, I know. I’m not helping the case that comics WON’T dirty your mind, am I?)

Despite his obvious concern for women, Wertham falls into sexism in calling Wonder Woman “the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.” Still, while his concern over the presentation of strong female figures frightening young boys does seem unfounded, he did raise some good points regarding the disturbingly heavy emphasis on bondage in the Wonder Woman books of the time. (This brings to mind several interesting facts upon the life of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston that are a historical column unto themselves).

Still, despite the eventual outcome of his work, we cannot doubt that Dr. Wertham had anything but the best of intentions. His career record before “Seduction” is that of a skilled man clearly concerned with social justice and the welfare of his fellow man. He held such distinguished posts as director of the famous Bellevue Hospital as well as Queens General Hospital and served as the senior psychiatrist for the New York City Department of Hospitals. Later, he became director of the Lafaruge Clinic in Harlem; one of the few clinics treating mental disorders that could be found in a mostly African section of the city. It was his work here that lead the publication of an article, "Psychological Effects of School Segregation," which was later submitted as evidence to the United States Supreme Court before they ruled racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional in 1954. He also achieves some recognition as an expert witness for the court system. And although no documented records can prove it, many suspect that his clinic for the courts was the first in the United States in which all convicted felons received a psychiatric examination before trial. Despite this, it is still his crusade against comic books which made Wertham famous and for which he is still most remembered. Today, the comic industry is just now recovering from the blows that Wertham’s book dealt.

When the publishers feared a loss of revenue or possible censorship from an outside body, they created The Comics Code Authority in an effort to censor themselves. Violence was severely curtailed and the amount of suggestive artwork decreased significantly. This led to the collapse of many a publisher and comics written for adults became rare indeed. The censorship caused certain genres began to die down. After all, romance comics couldn’t flourish without pretty (and often scantily clad) girls with buxom curves. It was hard to do war comics, Westerns or private eye stories without gunplay. In the end, only one genre managed to survive intact and indeed flourish in this new environment: the superhero.

Today, comics are once again becoming a multi-genre industry. While superheroes are the dominant form, a wider variety of genres are being published and more works written for adults only are being published than at anytime before “Seduction” was released. As the old saying says, “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.” And in these terms of variety, the comic industry right now is very strong indeed.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.

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