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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, M.D.

Seduction of the Innocent - Frederic Wertham

I like comic books. I like the idea of comic books even more than comic books themselves. I actually never was much of a collector or anything; I doubt I ever had even a hundred at one time. Of those, I have less than 30, I think, today.

But because I love the idea, I occasionally go out on the web looking for them, usually ending up thoroughly frustrated by confusing websites and high prices. I was doing that when I came across this book, available on the web. I started reading it and was immediately riveted.

Basically, Dr. Wertham is advocating taking comic books away from children under 15. He's writing in 1954 and since I don't really read comic books today I have no way of knowing whether anything has changed in their content. The early days of movies were very risqué, then they changed (whether they liked it or not), and now they've gone back again, exponentially more graphic. Maybe the same thing happened with comic books.

Dr. Wertham's particular focus is crime comic books, but in these he includes superhero comics. He mentions Superman and Batman specifically. Batman, I think, gets a little more attention, thanks to its homoerotic overtones. (Figures. Batman was always my favorite. Well, at least I've never asked my wife to dress up as Robin.) Mostly, though, it's the violence that interests Wertham, and the way it is marketed to young children and defended by some in the psychological community.

Sometimes the publisher's name on the comic book and the name and contents of the book show a ludicrous discrepancy. For instance, one of the 1952 crop has on its first page a horrible picture of a man shot in the stomach, with a face of agonized pain, and such dialogue as: "You know as well as I do that any water he'd drink'd pour right out of his gut! It'd be MURDER!" The name of the publisher is: Tiny Tots Comics, Inc.

He makes a good case. When I was (much) younger, I used to be in that group that says it is uninfluenced by media. The most common example given is advertisements. "Advertisements don't affect me." Yeah, well, I've learned since then. I've learned that (a) companies don't spend billions on "useless" advertisements and (b) I can be swayed in various ways by advertising. I know that even if an advertisement turns me off to a product that it has swayed me. And if it can have an affect at my age, what can the media do to young children? Maybe the better question is, What can't it do?

I believe in psychology (psychiatry, with its drugs, makes me a little nervous sometimes), and I always have. Again, though, my eyes have opened a little as time has passed. And this, appropriately enough, because of true crime. I'm referring to those creatures that crop up in courtrooms all over the country and who are called "expert witnesses." If there's one thing true crime teaches us, it is that one can find an "expert" to espouse any opinion. The comic book industry, as Wertham tells us, made effective use of such "witnesses," who became defenders of the status quo.

The experts not only justify sadism but advise it. One of them, a child psychiatrist, writes: "In general we have offered to the strip writer the following advice: 'Actual mutilation . . . should not occur . . . unless the situation can be morally justified. . . . If such an act is committed by some fanciful primitive or by some enemy character it can be more readily accepted and used by the child."' In its long and tortuous history, psychiatry has never reached a lower point of morality than this "advice" by a psychiatric defender of comic books.

One of the comic book industry's most cherished defenses was that it produced comic book versions of the classics. (At least one of the comic books I still retain is one of these, White Fang.) Here again, Wertham makes a good point (more than one, actually).

I have never seen any good effects from comic books that condense classics. Classic books are a child's companion, often for life. Comic-book versions deprive the child of these companions. They do active harm by blocking one of the child's avenues to the finer things of life. There is a comic book which has on its cover two struggling men, one manacled with chains locked around hands and feet, the other with upraised fist and a reddened, bloody bandage around his head; onlookers: a man with a heavy iron mallet on one side and a man with a rifle and a bayonet on the other. The first eight pictures of this comic book show an evil-looking man with a big knife held like a dagger threatening a child who says: "Oh, don't cut my throat, sir!" Am I correct in classifying this as a crime comic? Or should I accept it as what it pretends to be - Dickens' Great Expectations?

One of things I liked very much about this book is Wertham's reasonableness. He doesn't blame the kids and he doesn't blame the parents. I get so sick of the "parents are to blame" argument, an argument that I feel exists in a theoretical fairyland totally divorced from reality. The people to blame are the ones making money -- millions, billions of dollars -- who are not only clearly self-interested, but who also have the financial means to foist whatever they want on the rest of us. That's how Wertham sees it, too (at least, so far as the well-being of children is affected).

But this, of course, brings up questions of civil liberties and censorship. Wetham says:

There seems to be a widely held belief that democracy demands leaving the regulation of children's reading to the individual. Leaving everything to the individual is actually not democracy; it is anarchy. And it is a pity that children should suffer from the anarchistic trends in our society.

I can't tell you how much this statement speaks to me. I personally believe that America is on the road to anarchy, that its national identity is becoming noticeable by its absence, and that its best chance of survival in the next 200 years is the complete cultural conquest of the rest of the world. (Well, that, and its nuclear weaponry.) And what we do to our children, as well as what we don't do for them, is a prime example. If it isn't comic books these days, then it's video games and an internet where anything goes. Oh, but it's the parents' fault if their children get into any of the bad stuff. As if individual parents alone can fight society itself. It's almost as if we need a totalitarian family structure to combat an anarchistic society. It's crazy.

And yet...I like comic books. I read some of Wertham's descriptions of the horrible things in the comic books of his time (I grew up in the 60s and 70s) and what do I think? I think, Man, I'd like to see some of those comic books! They sound like fun.

But just because it's fun doesn't mean it's good or good for you. This book reminded me of that much at least.