The horror!
February 11, 2010 7:43 PM   Subscribe

We found that comic-book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied.

Six years before publishing Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Fredric Wertham was featured in a 1948 Collier's article, "Horror in the Nursery," complete with staged depictions of what happens when the influence of comics goes too far. (Previously)
posted by starman (42 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wertham's story is a sad one, to me -- I believe he was absolutely well-meaning, but the stupidity of his conclusions vis a vis the causes of juvenile delinquency not only damaged the lives and careers of countless people, but also kept him from pursuing avenues that might actually have led somewhere productive w/r/t actually curtailing juvenile delinquency. Pretty much a lose-lose scenario all the way around.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:51 PM on February 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

Those look like some arty pictures for some edgy fashion house...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:55 PM on February 11, 2010

It's like Reefer Madness!... Comics Craziness!... Ink Insanity!...

Those poor kids were probably more traumatized by being forced to pose for those staged depictions than they would have been by reading comics.
posted by amyms at 7:56 PM on February 11, 2010

You'd think that the sizable influence a doctor could have writing for a major publication would be one he'd have considered himself obligated to use responsibly.

Some people never learn that lesson, I guess.
posted by mhoye at 7:56 PM on February 11, 2010

I would much rather my brother had tied me up than what he actually did, which was hold me down and fart and/or loogie on me.

/stupid brothers
posted by emjaybee at 8:17 PM on February 11, 2010

To be fair, I can't be the only person who got the idea that tying up women could be fun from Wonder Woman.
posted by planet at 8:19 PM on February 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

I used to think that Wertham was a putz, but then I found out that he was the psychiatrist assigned to examine Albert Fish when the latter was caught. (IMHO, Albert Fish makes Jeffrey Dahmer look like Mr. Rogers.)

I think anybody who's had that experience gets a pass on any fears of human evil they express for the rest of their life. If I had sat for days face to face talking to someone like Albert Fish, crime comics might terrify me too.
posted by edheil at 8:21 PM on February 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

Fascinating how even the fear-mongering was fundamentally misogynistic.
"For girls the results [of consuming violent and sexualized comics] are frequently a feeling of inferiority and insufficiency, simply because the adolescent girl does not have the full bosom and rounded hips of the comic book. Even more dangerous is the adolescent girl's fear of sex and her sometimes resultant frigidity."
Because, you know. The worst thing that could happen is that a girl not put out.
posted by verb at 8:24 PM on February 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

Jack Kirby is my co-pilot.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:25 PM on February 11, 2010

Kirby is dead. Not a a good quality in a co-pilot, just sayin'.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:29 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Those poor kids were probably more traumatized by being forced to pose for those staged depictions than they would have been by reading comics.

Those are professional actors!
posted by cjorgensen at 8:37 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, professionals. Trained 'n everything. Don't try this stuff at home, kids.... or at least refer to Zap Comix for detailed instructions....
posted by drhydro at 8:48 PM on February 11, 2010

Wertham has an undeservedly bad rep in the comics world. I agree that his assessment of crime and horror comics was probably overheated, but his fights against racism and segregation, and his support of Ethel Rosenberg are too often overlooked. His work on the effects of segregation on children were instrumental in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Just from my limited reading of him, it seems even "Seduction of the Innocent" was not simply a "think of the children" polemic, and certainly not a highbrow rejection of an aspect of pop culture, but an aspect of his work in anti-violence and his views on violence in our culture. His last work, about comic fanzines, was very favorable towards comic fandom in general, from my understanding, and he even spoke at the New York Comic Art Convention.

Wertham has a very interesting legacy that is unfortunately unjustly overshadowed by his writings on comics.
posted by Snyder at 8:55 PM on February 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

My grandmother likely read this articles, the timing is right. She railed against my mother's love of comic books, seizing and destroying them whenever she found them.

Yeah, mom-mom, Bugs Bunny was really going to turn your kid into a shiftless, delinquent, unmarriageable weirdo. Thanks for being wrong.
posted by desuetude at 9:02 PM on February 11, 2010

I'm kind of glad Johnny Ryan exists, if only because growing up hearing about the history of dangers of comics, I really wanted to read something as obscene as they were claiming the innocuous stuff was.
posted by griphus at 9:08 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

edheil: When you mentioned Fish, I actually suspected Wertham was one of the witnesses called for the prosecution who claimed that Fish's bizarre behaviour didn't mean he was insane. However, turns out Wertham worked for the defense, and wrote a huge report concluding that Fish was insane.

Didn't do much good, though, since other "expert" witnesses claimed he was perfectly sane, and he got the death penalty.

I don't think Wertham would have thought Fish to be evil, though. Fish did some horrible stuff, but he was also totally insane, suffering from all sorts of delusions, torturing and mutilating himself, and so on. Based on his conclusion in the report, it's more likely that Wertham thought Fish to be sick and worthy of pity and mercy than some sort of embodiment of absolute evil.

And he would have been right. Fish should have been hospitalized, not executed.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:15 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I believe he was absolutely well-meaning

I don't, really. Or, rather, I believe he really did believe he was doing good, but he threw professional standards of research and proof right out the window in pursuit of his cause (and book sales).

Wertham's colleagues were all but begging him for hard data so they could analyze his methodology and results -- data that he did not provide, because he could not provide it. He hadn't done anything resembling a hard scientific study. Wertham understood that parents would give him attention and, therefore, book sales, because parents tend to be scared when it comes to their children. They don't ask for inconvenient things like data or rigor. They'll get the message out.

If memory serves, there was a passage in his book in which he reports asking a young comics enthusiast what he wants to be when he grows up. The kid replies, cheerfully, "A sex maniac!"

posted by middleclasstool at 9:50 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I imagine a peace and reconciliation series for all those who said certain kinds of music, or role playing games, or movies, or comic books would cause a person harm. For me it was just kind of stupid and crummy to be told that growing up (and then see nothing be done when it turned out they were wrong). For so many there were 'interventions,' reform schools, 'therapy,' lost friendships, lost relationships and worse.

All those busybodies who made bank in the satanic panic of the 80s, especially, should be held accountable. Some of those falsely accused are still in prison, all-but forgotten even by the liars who put them there.

Sometimes I imagine those creeps who told those lies reading their statements on TV, asking for forgiveness, and the camera turning to the West Memphis Three for their reaction. Or Fran and Danny Keller.

When I have these thoughts I am thankful for my good luck, I remind myself to defend free speech no matter its content, and I renew my commitment to the outsiders in this world.
posted by eccnineten at 9:54 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I heard some idiot on NPR's Talk of the Nation making the same kind of argument against medical marijuana just yesterday.

Imagine someone today arguing that reading makes kids bad...
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:58 PM on February 11, 2010

I know someone who stabbed someone's arm with a fountain pen when she was little - but it wasn't a comic she was copying. Ah, the scourge of vaccination, leading our kids into evil ways!
posted by Phanx at 1:11 AM on February 12, 2010

I suppose there's always been a fear that works of culture, which inevitably depict bad things, and sometimes bad people having a good time, are corrupting. Even Plato, who you might have thought was sort of half-way to being a novelist himself, has the citizens of his Republic honouring poets but throwing them out (if I remember rightly).

I suppose this fear is held off to some degree by the 'educational' credentials of high art, but gets vented in the direction of whatever form is new and popular. Nowadays we don't need to worry about comics because we can blame the Internet.
posted by Phanx at 2:18 AM on February 12, 2010

I want a copy of HORRIBLE COMICS as depicted in the second picture. Oh my god, that one kid has his feet on the table!
posted by marxchivist at 4:07 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wertham has an undeservedly bad rep in the comics world.

He really doesn't. Whatever else he did, his book fanned hysteria over comic books and juvenile delinquency and led to the comics code, which is great if you love superhero comics that are constrained in their storytelling by arbitrary rules designed to placate scolds, but pretty much destroyed a number of outstanding genres, including crime and horror comics. His bad reputation is deserved, and Seduction of the Innocent is rightly pilloried.

He later went on to champion fanzines. Wonderful. Nothing against fan culture, but I'll take one Vault of Horror over 20,000 Star Trek fan stories.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:28 AM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everyone who's interested in Wertham and the history of comic book publishing ought to read David Hadju's The Ten Cent Plague.
posted by dortmunder at 6:16 AM on February 12, 2010

Oops, that Hajdu not Hadju.
posted by dortmunder at 6:16 AM on February 12, 2010

Wertham was well-meaning, maybe, but basically, Seduction of the Innocent was "These kids read comics; therefore, these comics made them bad." I understand he may have been trying to make a sensational argument, but it was really simplistic. (I've read Seduction of the Innocent -- it's pretty much fun, actually, to read, because it's so over-the-top a lot of times.)

I understand that Wertham did other things, and I think he genuinely loved the kids he worked with and wanted to help them. He was just misguided in the way he went about it.
posted by darksong at 7:17 AM on February 12, 2010

He really doesn't.

I don't think it's that simple. Yes, it sucks how comics were artificially constrained for a time, and it shouldn't have happened, and the CCA had terrible rules of conduct, but do we pillory Al Gore for the PMRC hearings and ignore everything else he does?

It's fair to say that Wertham was totally wrong about comics and had a bad influence on the industry, but the way he is sometimes depicted as a fun hating slavering monster is simply unfair.
posted by Snyder at 8:33 AM on February 12, 2010

we pillory Al Gore for the PMRC hearings and ignore everything else he does?

Well, no. When he's pilloried, it's for his work against global climate change.

At least Wertham is pilloried for something he really did that really was wrong.

But, yes, he shouldn't be treated as some sort of monster grouch, except where the subject of comics is concerned.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:41 AM on February 12, 2010

Everyone who's interested in Wertham and the history of comic book publishing ought to read David Hadju's The Ten Cent Plague.

Interestingly outside of the comics thing Hadju paints a fairly positive picture of Wertham - He was committed to working with minorities -- he ran a free clinic in Harlem -- and he genuinely cared about young people.".
posted by Artw at 8:53 AM on February 12, 2010

Wertham also claimed that Wonder Woman's strength and independence made her a lesbian.

To read that comic, I would put up with that stupid invisible plane.
Also what kind of lesbian spends all her time lassoing men? She's gotta at least be bi-curious.
posted by edbles at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2010

Also if you want a better idea of Ten Cent Plague (and are an auditory learner), TSOYA interviewed him a while back.
posted by edbles at 9:52 AM on February 12, 2010

do we pillory Al Gore for the PMRC hearings

No. We pillory Tipper Gore.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:53 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

She deserves it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:09 AM on February 12, 2010

From NPR on Tipper Gore and Family Values.

Gore recalls that she got mad when she tried to return Prince's Purple Rain to the store where she bought it. The retailer wouldn't take the record back because it had been opened and played.

Really? She got mad at Walmart and then decided to turn into the morality police?
posted by edbles at 11:19 AM on February 12, 2010

Also, unsuprising, but the creator of Wonder Woman was really into being tied up by women.
posted by electroboy at 11:23 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

That she does, AZ. That she does.

Jello Biafra's High Priest of Harmful Matter depicts the only significant legal action prompted by the PMRC from the viewpoint of one of the defendants. It's pretty good. Interestingly enough, NPR got in touch with Biafra and the prosecutor from that trial. Apparently they're on friendly terms nowadays.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:24 AM on February 12, 2010

I thought that, in stabbing the girl with the ink pen, the boy was trying to give her a proper prison-style tattoo ... which is so punk ... which is also harmful to the youth. Thanks, starman, for posting these articles. It's been forever since I read "Seduction of the Innocent" (in the Notre Dame library, while my sister was on a college visit there ... and I had to do something...) and I remember it being pretty laughable - but there's always going to be the anxiety of cultural influence arguments and, to an extent the creators of culture are in a lose/lose situation: arguing that a work can influence, but only positively, seems disingenuous - but you're not going to argue that culture is without effect (if so, then why do it?). You're basically left with "messed up people are going to do messed up things anyway" which insulates one from criticism, but seems ... frankly ... a little too insular.
posted by rattenweiler at 12:19 PM on February 12, 2010

I have no doubt in my mind that had Hilary Clinton been elected and then run into the same troubles that Obama has we would be seeing all kinds of distracting moral-panic based legislation flying around right now.
posted by Artw at 12:38 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Every juvenile deliquent we've studied started out life drinking milk. Whether obtained surreptiously from its mother's breast or merely purloined from the bottle in the refrigerator, this mind-bending substance inevitably leads to the moral depravity we see in these dangerous youth. All mothers should be on the lookout for milk-using behavior among their infants and report any they see to the proper authorities, so appropriate interventions, including a visit to the detention center, can be undertaken. Thank you." - The Management
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:49 PM on February 12, 2010

I think all these moral panics are a fundamental expression of some inferiority complex in the middle class. The middle class attempts to approximate the status of people smarter, more educated, and richer than themselves through formulaic methods. Comics are likely just re-implementing traditional parts of storytelling the middle class erased while trying to conform to their vision of the life style of the intelligencia.

An interesting example is the history of class conflict in classical music : Improvisation once played an important role in classical music, think drunk rich guy sitting on the piano, but the middle classes destroyed improvisation in classical music while attempting to climb the social ladder. People finally reinvented improvisation via jazz and rock, which middle class parents hated too.

Of course, few comics attain true respectability like the Watchman. Heck, the rock & roll establishment actively discriminates against incorporating deeper techniques, ala progressive rock. But all these artistic forms are still a completely legitimate rebellion against father stupid restrictions imposed by small minded people who are just compensating.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:51 PM on February 12, 2010

My ex libris copy of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT has the index cut out, you know, so that nobody tries to track down those filthy comics shown in the book.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 6:24 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

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