Why Comic Books Rock (Part 1)… A Bit of History

Posted: September 27, 2013 in Comics
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I am quite tired of people looking at me funny when I tell them I am an avid comic book reader. Some cases they are surprised and thinkDr. Fredric Wertham “You are a chick, you shouldn’t like comic books”. However, most of the time, it’s because- despite recent films and tv shows-comic books still get a bad reputation.

Why is that? Well thank you Dr. Fredric Wertham.

Who’s that?

Well, here’s a little history for you: Back in the early 1950’s Dr. Wertham printed a book called “Seduction of the Innocent“. Before this book came out, comics like “Superman” or “Captain America” would each sell a million copies a month. Comics were the coolest thing since sliced bread back then. Heck- they were even part of rations for soldiers back in World War One and World War Two.

Like that cover isn't going to make parents wonder...

Like that cover isn’t going to make parents wonder…

Then this book came out. I know recently you must have heard that “Oh, its violent video games that make kids shoot each other. Or Marilyn Manson. Or Eminem” *eyeroll* I hear this way too much being in Chicago. But it is not true. It’s just regurgitated bad thinking and bad “expertise” back from Wertham.

If you can find a copy of “Seduction..” (which is rare) read it. If you are a comic book fan, you will laugh your butt off.  But for those who have never read it (or can’t find it) I will boil the book down for you ( I have read it).  Wertham’s argument for the rise of juvenile delinquency back in the late 1940’s/ early 1950’s was because of….. comic books. There is an argument in his book that little boys that read ” Batman” will become homosexual.

I kid you not. I really wish i was joking about this. In his book, and later on in his testimony, if you look at the examples that he gives of how comic books ruin children, its twisted to his argument. His “examples” are parts of panels blown up- like (for a current example) a panel of Spider-man swinging through Manhattan that is is normal as could be- Well Wertham would have taken just the crotch shot of the picture and blown it up.

If you read the book, the “research” that Dr. Wertham did was questionable at the least. All the kids he had in his study grew up in Harlem. One neighborhood of a major city in the country. He did not do test groups all over the country- just the kids that came into his clinic in Harlem, New York.

Right there, that should have been questioned. But I digress- the one thing all these kids had in common besides being troublemakers was that they read comic books. So of course Dr. Wertham made the correlation if you are a bad kid that beats others up, it has to be from the comic books you are reading!  But… there were over a million copies of a single title sold in a month. It would have been easier to find kids who didn’t read comic books!

Can I make a side note- did anyone who lived during this time think that the reason there was a rise of juvenile delinquency was because of a number of broken families post two world wars? Or the fact that there was a HUGE shift in ideology (not once, but twice) when it comes to gender roles?

But back to Wertham. Magazines (primarily ones like Good Housekeeping) latched onto Wertham and did interviews and so forth where he

With his four children by the two different woman pictured.

William Moulton Marston With his four children by the two different woman pictured.

got to further go off on his soapbox about how “Wonder Woman” makes girls to be submissive in the bedroom. This tells you the lack of credibility of Wertham. If you actually do some research on the creator of “Wonder Woman”, William Moulton Marston, you would know that he he was in a *very* interesting family structure. He lived with his wife and their children… and his “girlfriend” submissive and their children.He is also the creator of the lie detector. On the first draft of this post, a friend didn’t see how this is related to Wertham. Well a) Writers write what they know and b) if you actually look at the early issues of WW, if anything it taught girls to NOT be submissive, but more dominate.

Wertham’s interviews and book led to such an outcry from frustrated mothers that it led to comic book burnings and also a Congressional Hearing in 1954.  Wertham brought the industry to its knees and nearly severed the head. If you really want to get the full scope of how damaging this hearing was, you can read the transcripts from each day here .

However, in my humble opinion this hearing was completely a waste of time. I am not saying this as a comic book fan, I am saying this because, from a legal perspective it was.  Look at this snippet of Wertham’s opening testimony:

My testimony will be in four parts. First, what is in comic books? How can one classify them clinically? Secondly, are there any bad effects of comic books.  I may say here on this subject there is practically no controversy. Anybody who has studied them and seen them knows that some of them have bad effects. The third problem is how farreaching are these bad effects? There is a good deal of controversy about that.  A fourth part is: Is there any remedy? And being merely a doctor, about that I shall say only a few words.”

Even someone with a basic sense of law from watching shows like Law and Order would have thrown an objection in there for speculation.

If you think that is bad.. read this next part:

“Delinquencies against property; delinquency associated with violence; offenses connected with sex, and then miscellaneous, consisting of fire setting, drug addiction, and childhood prostitution. I may say the latter is a very hushed-up subject. I am not referring to what young girls do with young boys, but I am referring to 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old girls prostituting themselves to adults.”

Really. Really? I mean, this is the biggest form of speculation… just reading this makes me sick. The previous sentence should be the textbook example of speculation. However, Wertham does, for the lack of a better word, redeem himself a bit.

” Now, nobody versed in any of this type of clinical research would claim that comic books alone are the cause of juvenile delinquency. It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt, and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.”

Wait, so no in front of Congress Wertham begins to backpedal on the ” research was a sober, painstaking, laborious clinical study, and in some cases, since it has been going on now for 7 years, ” 

I could spend a few good days continuing to nitpick his testimony to the Congressional hearing, but that may only interest the lawyer types.

But like most things, the industry evolved. It got past the romance books, the capes, the horror and has become what it is today- even with a burst in the 1990’s that almost collapsed the industry a second time (due to economic issues).

So when you hear the argument that it’s Grand Theft Auto to blame for a kid shooting someone, no its not. Remember Wertham. Do you want someone like him to manipulate not only pop culture but science to prove something inaccurate?

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