Monday, March 28, 2005

The Seduction of Wertham

I have a connection with Fredric Wertham.

In his The Seduction of the Innocent (1954), he uses an illustration to drive home the point that crime comics are violent and contagious. It shows a woman with a knife held to her eye. The knife point is a gasp away from the pupil. The woman's name is Mary Kennedy.

And since I'm engaged to Mary Kennedy, his point is well made.

His other points are less sharp. Here are a few excerpts:

Our researches have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime-comics reading and the more serious forma of juvenile delinquency. Many children read only few comics, read them for only a short time, read the better type (to the extent that there is a better type) and do not become imbued with the whole crime-comics atmosphere. Those children, on the other hand, who commit the more serious types of delinquency nowadays, read a lot of comic books, go in for the worst type of crime comics, read them for a long time and live in thought in the crime-comics world...

Many comic books describe how to set fires, by methods too various to enumerate. In some stories fire-setting is related just as a detail; in other stories such as "The Arson Racket" the lesson is more systematic. There are other sidelights, like how to break windows so you cannot be found out; all this highlighted by the philosophy of the character who says: "From now on I'm making dough the easy way -- with a gun! Only SAPS work!" That lesson, incidentally, is true of crime comics as a whole: glamour for crime, contempt for work...

Another comic book shows how a youngster can murder for profit. He gets a job as a caddy, loses the ball, then kills the player when he goes searching for it...

A fifteen-year-old boy was accused of having shot and killed a boy of fourteen (the authorities chose to consider this accidental), of having thrown a cat from a roof, of having thrown a knife through a boy's foot, of sadistic acts with younger children, of having shot at a younger girl with a B.B. gun. After a full study of the psychological and social background, we came to the conclusion that the fact that he was an inveterate reader| of comic books was an important contributing factor. His favorite comic book, read over and over, contained no less thank eighty-one violent acts, including nineteen murders...

I should point out that I have read many violent things in my 45 years, and so far have resisted the temptation to throw my cat off the roof.

Don Simpson has a good piece on the continuing villification of Werthram. And Dwight Decker reveals Wertham in his final years as someone who discovered -- with the publication of his final book, The World of Fanzines -- that those who read comics aren't as brutish as he'd imagined:

The World of Fanzines is a masterpiece of scholarship gone off the track. It's the only book you'll find about its subject in most libraries even though the author never quite understood what he was writing about. He never said as much - he couldn't admit it for the sake of professional pride, perhaps - but The World of Fanzines contradicts everything Dr. Wertham wrote about comic books and their readers in his previous books.
In the end, he decided, we'd turned out pretty much all right.