(*Every time I say the word ‘Wertham’, I spit on the ground.)
In the late 1940s, a series of articles appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal about the menace of comic books. They were written by a respected psychologist named Dr. Frederic Wertham*. They were later collected and expanded upon and published as a book titled “SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT”. For a comic book fan such as myself, Wertham’s* odious tome is as perfidious as Mein Kampf.
Wertham* worked in the prison system and noticed that the vast majority of juvenile inmates were avid readers of comic books. An unsurprising observation, in and of itself. In the post-war period, super-heroes fell out of favour and the dominant genres were crime stories and horror tales. Charles Biro’s “CRIME DOES NOT PAY” was the much-imitated best-seller, featuring “true” tales of gangsters, bank robbers, outlaws and such. EC (Entertaining Comics) had a thriving line of horror titles like “CRYPT OF SHADOWS” and “VAULT OF HORROR”. (There were also : Western comics, Romance comics, a handful of super-hero comics, humour comics, funny animal comics, war comics and “Tijuana Bibles”, bootleg samizdat pornographic pamphlets featuring comic book characters in sexual situations.)
Wertham* lumped all these disparate genres together and came up with the fear-mongering notion that comic books were a den of wicked perversion that … well, seduced the innocent into a life a crime, sin and misery.
Crime comic books were literally “textbooks”, according to Wertham*, that taught young children how to commit crimes like the professionals do (even though EVERY SINGLE CRIME COMIC BOOK EVER PUBLISHED ends with the criminal being executed, by agents of the state or his erstwhile colleagues or by Fate itself. Hell, the best-selling title was called “CRIME DOES NOT PAY”).
Superman was a fascist overlord fantasy (even though he was created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland. He also once choked out Hitler).
Batman & Robin were “an idealized homosexual fantasy”, a pederast’s dream – riches, secret identities, a young boy cavorting in his underwear. (This is where all those “Batman & Robin are gay” jokes and jabs come from. For the record, Batman’s not gay, he’s asexual. He’s got way too much going on in his head to waste brain-space lustfully. Plus, he’s a Science-Ninja, pretending to be a play-boy, remember? He can give women SCIENCE-NINJA ORGASMS! In like, three seconds, so powerful, the women pass out from the bliss and then he slips out of the room and … goes and fights Mr. Freeze. Maybe he goes and punches a murder-clown in the rain ontop of a bridge or something. Robin, on the other hand, grew up into Nightwing and then slept with half the women in the DC Universe. Trust me, Dick ain’t gay, much to the chagrin of the gay community in the DC Universe. )
Wonder Woman encouraged lesbianism. Phantom Lady’s tits were too big. Everything was too violent – Westerns had gun fights galore, funny animal comics had anvils and steam rollers and rolling pins upside the head. Wertham* even looked into the line-work to find hidden, coded, subliminal “sexual” messages, in the inking of a shoulder or a background. (I am not kidding.)
Horror comics came under particular fire, for their depictions of horrendous (FICTIONAL) murders and the supernatural. Again, these comics were manuals that taught children to become axe-murderers or sociopathic poisoners or something. Again, the protagonist of any horror story invariably ended up dead themselves but Wertham* ignored that fact, in service of his thesis, that comic books perverted and sullied the pure imaginations of America’s youth.
The thing is : people ate this up with a spoon.
It was the 50s – McCarthyism was in full swing, there were Reds under every bed, potentially and who knows what other kinds of monsters to boot? Children were becoming unruly and disrespectful, listening to strange music and dressing like hooligans. Something, clearly, needed to be done. Or, failing that, to be seen to be done. And so, the sitting House Un-American Activities Committee hauled in comic book publishers to testify before them and stand to account. That’s right – the Government interrogated publishers of comic books to discover if Batman was undermining America.
The end result of this was the Comics Code, an agreed-upon set of “guidelines” that dictated what could be shown in a comic book. NO SUPERNATURAL STORIES – that ran horror comics out of business, almost immediately. CRIMINALS COULD NEVER BE GLORIFIED AND THE POLICE COULD NEVER BE SEEN AS LESS THAN PERFECT – bye-bye, Crime comics. Everything had to be WHOLESOME ENTERTAINMENT and not smutty indulgences – so long, Phantom Lady. A comic book about the (recent) Korean War was in BAD TASTE because America didn’t win that war outright so Harvey Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales bit the dust. And so on. Once you put “guidelines” in place, creativity suffers.
Comics went into the doldrums for a while but not for long. Guys like Jack Kirby created Science comics, like Challengers of the Unknown (a proto-Fantastic Four). Monster comics, tales of science gone wrong, were popular among the mental defectives and juvenile delinquents of the day, with the rational man’s triumph at the end of the story. Before long, super-heroes started to make a come-back. War comics (about WWII, the War We Won) came back, as Westerns went into decline and died off. By 1966, the release of Wertham’s* next book THE MARK OF CAIN, comic books were more popular than they had been in years (thanks to Batman, strangely enough) and they were a far different entity than the one Wertham* once defeated.
Wertham * almost recanted his insane accusations but not really, because he actually believed them – he’d worked with depraved individuals and struggled to understand them and how they got to be the way they were. He interviewed the infamous Albert Fish, a man more terrifying than every horror movie ever made put together (who, incidentally, never read a comic book in his miserable, misbegotten life. Google ‘Albert Fish’ and prepare yourself not to sleep for a few days).
Wertham* put one (comic books exist) and one (people in prison, particularly young offenders and the tentatively literate enjoy the distraction of magazines) and came up with MORAL PANIC! The infallible calculus of an idiot academic, massaging the data to a happy ending of his own choosing, with an axe to grind and a theory to prove. He’s the reason I don’t trust anyone who calls themselves a “doctor”. I thought doctors swore an oath to do no harm.
Nowadays, Dr. Wertham* would be spoilt for choice about pernicious influences on the youth. Video games, EDM, tight fitting clothing, you name it. He might be surprised, though, by the daily news of our time, two generations hence from his temporal location. If you go to a movie or school or church or work or pretty much anywhere, you might not come home because someone with a gun might just kill you, for reasons unknown(until they post their manifesto online, of course). Maybe they liked comic books, maybe they didn’t.
Anyway. I’m parched from all this spitting. I need a drink.