Category Archives: 2008/08

Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent”

In a recent post I showed that data suggested that the cause of the decline of comics in the mid 50’s could be attributed to the effects of Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent” (1954). This issue is of importance not only to the history of comics in general but also to the break up of the Simon and Kirby collaboration. I had also previously reviewed David Hajdu’s book “The Ten Cent Plague” which traced the history of the anti-comic campaign. Historical books are important but I also felt that a reading of the seminal “Seduction of the Innocent” itself was in order.

I really had no idea what to expect. Of course I knew about how down right silly some of his conclusions sounded such as that Batman and Robin projected a homosexual relationship. I had also understood from second hand sources that Wertham really did not have scientific evidence to backup his claim about the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. But the whole idea of reading this book was to allow Wertham to in effect plead his own case and so I tried to keep an open mind while I read it.

As I said I really did not know what to expect but I never thought I would find this book so poorly written. Wertham was a psychiatrist some of whose writings were included in medical and scholarly journals. I knew that “Seduction of the Innocent” was written for the general public but I still expected a well ordered and reasoned presentation. Instead I found it filled with histrionics and that Wertham’s train of thought seemed to wander erratically. There was an overall structure provided by the chapters but within a paragraph it could frequently seem like a stream of consciousness. Let me provide an example paragraph (pages 33 and 34):

This Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman group is a special form of crime comics. The gun advertisements are elaborate and realistic. In one story a foreign-looking scientist starts a green-shirt movement. Several boys told me that they thought he looked like Einstein. No person and no democratic agency can stop him. In requires the female superman, Wonder Woman. One picture shows the scientist addressing a public meeting:
“So my fellow Americans, it is time to give America back to Americans! Don’t let foreigners take your jobs!”

Admittedly this is a particularly egregious example in that each sentence seems to take the reader in a different direction. However disjointed paragraphs are found in great abundance throughout the book. As for the histrionics here is an example of the extremes he could go (pages 95 and 96):

What in a few words is the essential ethical teaching of crime comics for children? I find it well and accurately summarized in this brief quotation:

It is not a question of right, but of winning. Close your heart against compassion. Brutality does it. The stronger is in the right. Greatest hardness. Follow your opponent till he is crushed.

These words were the instructions given on August 22, 1939, by a superman in his home in Berchtesgaden to his generals, to serve as guiding lines for the treatment of the population in the impending war on Poland.

Literary criticism aside, what matters most is what points was Wertham trying to make, how well did he support his arguments and how creditable was he? My summary of the primary views found in “Seduction of the Innocent” would be:

  1. Comic books promote violence and crime in children.
  2. Comic books promote racism.
  3. Comic book can lead to impaired reading ability.
  4. Comic books desensitize their readers to good literature.

I am not saying these were the only issues but I feel they were the most important. For instance Wertham does raise the concern that romance comics may adversely affect sexual morals. But that occupies only a small portion of his writing and he seems much more concerned that the types of violence shown in comics toward women may lead readers to become sexually aberrant.

Undoubtedly for Wertham the most important criticism against comic books was the first, the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Wertham believed that crime comic books promoted the criminals as the real heroes of their stories. That in particular the violence portrayed in the stories influenced the behavior of many youngsters. Further that crime comics gave instructions on how to actually commit crimes. Also that advertisements found in comics even provided the source from which youngsters could obtain weapons. Wertham’s classification of comics was not the same as commonly used today. For Wertham the crime comics also included westerns and superheroes. Any story that included a crime would be classified as a crime comic. For other reasons Wertham also criticized romance and horror comics as well. “Seduction of the Innocent” was not just a critique of comic books it was also a call for legislation action to ban all objectionable comics. As far as I can tell no category of comics completely escaped Wertham’s wrath. He even had complaints about some from the funny animal genre.

Wertham’s charges against comics were serious and, if true, a justifiable cause for action. So where did Wertham get the evidence to support his claims? Wertham placed much emphasis on his clinical studies. Wertham was a psychiatrist who did work in various clinics and hospitals. He also worked with children caught and subjected to the legal system. Wertham felt that clinical studies were the best method to determine the underlying reasons for the problems suffered by children and he was very critical of other study techniques. Another much used source of evidence could be considered as part of his clinical studies. It was the Hookey Club. This was something akin to group therapy where various children were brought together to discuss the individual member’s problems and come up with suggestions to help. The Hookey club acted as a sort of judge and jury and so it might be considered distinct from a more typical therapy group. Wertham would be present as well but he makes it sound like his actual participation was limited. The final important source of evidence was a study of the comics themselves.

So how creditable was Wertham’s arguments and, most importantly, his evidence? Although Wertham spends some pages describing various means of testing children (such as Rorschach Test) he does not explain how they were used to address the supposed connection between comic books and juvenile crime. Nor does he explain precisely what he means by clinical studies. Perhaps this lack is understandable in a publication for the general public However he does not supply any references for papers on the subject that he had written for some technical journal. As far as I have been able to determine Wertham never published any articles on his study of the comic book and juvenile delinquency in any journal of psychiatry or psychology. This is troublesome because while I might not understand his research methods well enough, I am also unable to see how his peers felt about his methodology either. In the end Wertham only has his authority as an expert to support his claim that his clinic studies prove the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. It bothered me while I was reading this book that time and time again when writing about others who disagreed with his findings Wertham would call for the scientific evidence that supported his critic’s position. Yet Wertham never truly supplied the evidence to back up his own claims.

Now I am far from an expert in Wertham’s field but I am going to hazard some observations nonetheless. I believe that what Wertham calls clinical studies is the understandings that he gained while treating patients. Now this might not be a bad approach for studying physical illnesses but for me it poses serious issues when it comes to mental problems. Treatment of mental problems does not go in one direction. It is not the patient supplying all the information nor is it the doctor doing the treatment based on his examination alone. Both the patient and the doctor take part in the process. With such give and take between the patient and the doctor how is it possible to be certain what is learned from the patient and what comes from the doctor’s preconceived notions? This does not seem like an objective methodology to me.

This concerns me because the comments that he reports coming from young patients often sound suspiciously like Wertham’s own views. I find the following statement by a member of the Hookey Club particularly suspicious (page 71):

You don’t have to think of it, it is in the back of your mind, in your subconscious mind.

May be I am wrong, but talking about “subconscious mind” does not sound like the terms that a youngster would normally use to me. This suggests that Wertham was more then just an observer at the meetings of the Hookey Club. If Wertham had influenced the Hookey Club in this way what other statements by Hookey Club members might what have actually been influenced by Wertham? Here is another example (page 192):

Like many other homoerotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: “Sometimes I read them over and over again. They show off a lot. I don’t remember Batman’s name…”

How creditable is it that someone who really so wrapped up in Batman would not remember his secret identity? More probable is that this member really was not that much of a fan but was saying what he thought Wertham wanted to hear.

The other area of evidence that Wertham used was from the comics themselves. Wertham said he made a careful and detailed study of comics and berated his critics for not having done so. Unfortunately Wertham frequently cited information about comics without identifying what comics the information was based on. This makes verifying some of his statements difficult if not impossible. And I do wonder how careful his studies of comic books were. For instance (page 106):

“You know,” the boy said, “what I really like is the Blue Beetle [a figure in a very violent crime comic book]. I read that many times. That’s what I dreamed about. I don’t have it at home; I get it at another boy’s house.”

“Who is the Blue Beetle?”

“He is like Superman. He is a beetle, but he changes into Superman and afterwards he changes into a beetle again. When he’s Superman he knocks them out. Superman knocks them out with his fist. They fall down on the floor.”

“If you say it is like Superman, how do you know it is?”

“I read the Superman stories. He catches them. Superman knocks the guys out.”

It is not difficult to understand that a child stimulated to fantasies about violent and sadistic adventures and about a man who changes into an insect gets frightened. Kafka for the kiddies!

But the boy’s description of the Blue Beetle turning back into a real beetle is completely inaccurate. Sure it is a child’s mistake but Wertham acceptance of it indicates he really was not that familiar with the character and therefore casts doubt as to how thorough his study of the original comic books was. Here is another (page 257):

This I am told has something to do with the Post Office regulations according to which they may change the name but must keep the number, to keep some sort of connection with the former product. So Crime may become Love; Outer Space, the Jungle; Perfect Crime, War; Romance, Science Fiction; Young Love, Horror; while the numbers remain consecutive.

Wertham’s book was published his book in 1954 at which time Young Love was still a running comic and one that never changed its name to Horror as he claims. If Wertham is so loose with his facts when trying to make this unimportant point how can he be trusted about other claims he makes about the actual comic books?

Wertham repeatedly claims that comic books provide instructions to youngsters on how to commit crimes. Note how the above comic book image taken from his book is titled by Wertham “Diagram for housebreakers”. Is it really? A careful reading shows that without a doubt it is showing how to lock a window not how to break in. As usual Wertham does not supply what comic he got this from. However I am pretty certain that this panel was from a murder mystery. The story would have been about a dead victim that had been found in a locked room; a not too uncommon plot device and not just found in comic books. The diagram would have been used at the end of the story to explain how the murder managed exit the room while leaving it locked. This technique would have been of no help to anyone wanting to commit breaking and entry.

Having finished “Seduction of the Innocent” I cannot help but wonder about the postscript. The Comic Code Authority completely changed comics. Crime comics did not last long. Horror comics became so innocuous that it seems strange to apply that name to them. I wonder what Wertham felt about the Comic Code? I suspect he was not happy. I believe that he wanted the elimination of all violence from comics and would have not approved of even the mild form that remained. That Superman could continue would probably been enough for Wertham to condemn the Code. Wertham believed that characters like Superman advanced racism and supported an almost fascist like view.

I also wonder what he would have felt about television. At the end of “Seduction of the Innocent” he does discuss the then new media. After his complete condemnation of comic books, it is surprising to read his glowing opinion of TV. Not that he thought it did not problems, but like so many other things he blamed that on the influence of comic books. Wertham felt that if that comic book influence could be removed that television would have a great positive affect. It must have been a bitter disappointment that after the Comic Code television did not flower as he predicted.

In summary there is reason to question what Wertham wrote in “Seduction of the Innocent”. My reading of this book leads me to my own prognosis of Wertham himself. I have full confidence in the intelligence of my readers and so I have no doubt that all will understand the technical term that should be applied to Wertham. He was a quack. There is no question that “Seduction of the Innocent” had a great impact at the time it was released. I just do not understand why. It got lots of reviews but did anybody actually read it? This book is so seriously and obviously flawed I am amazed that people were taken in by it. I can only surmise that people were so impressed by Wertham’s credentials that they were willing to believe what he had to say based on his authority as an expert.

Fortunately Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” has become nothing more then a cautionary footnote in the pages of history. Wertham is fully discredited even by those who do not share my view that he was responsible for the decline of comic books. Or is he? Next on my reading list is “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” by Bart Beaty (2005). My understanding is that this book attempts to restore Wertham’s image. I am sure I will have something to write about when I have finished that book.

It’s A Crime, Chapter 3, Competing Against Themselves

(Clue Comics vol. 2 num. 1 – 3)

The same month that the first crime version of Prize Comic’s Headline was released, Simon and Kirby also appeared in Hillman’s Clue Comics (v. 2, n. 1, March 1947). Over the rest of the year Joe and Jack would do a wide variety of work for Hillman Publications; a Caniff style adventure (“The Flying Fool” in Airboy Comics), funny animals (“Lockjaw the Alligator” and “Earl the Rich Rabbit” in Punch and Judy Comics), teenage humor (My Date Comics) and crime (Clue Comics and Real Clue Crime Comics).

Clue Comics had started out in January 1943 as a hero genre anthology. The covers featured the costumed hero, the Boy King, and the interior included features such as Nightmare and Micro Face. It must not have been very successful because it began as a monthly, switched to a being a bimonthly with issue #4 and then quarterly with issue #8 before being put on hold after issue #9 (Winter 1944). Hillman rebooted Clue Comics after the war (cover date October 1946) and introduced Gun Master as the cover feature. Gun Master gave a more crime genre feel to Clue Comics but it remained as essentially a hero anthology with Nightmare and Micro Face continuing to be included. The revamped Clue must have been successful because it started as a bimonthly but switch to being a monthly with the March 1947 issue.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 2, April 1947), art by Dan Barry

Since the Gun Master did not wear a costume or have any super-powers, the covers for Clue very much had a crime genre feel to them. This can particularly be seen in the cover for the April issue shown above. This cover drew its inspiration from the more graphically brutal covers that some crime comics then used. The depiction of torture by electric iron certainly appeals to the more prurient tastes and goes way beyond what artists like Simon and Kirby would ever produce. The April cover is a bit exploitive and misleading as it does not represent the type of stories actually included in the comic book. Hillman would not repeat such a graphic depiction again for any cover of Clue Comics or the later Real Clue Crime Comics.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 1, March 1947) “Gun Master”

With the March and April issues, Gun Master played an even greater roll for Clue Comics as there were now two Gun Master stories in each issue. If Gun Master’s uncannily accurate ability with a pistol were not enough to convince one that he really belongs in the hero genre then perhaps the Council of Elders will. They were mysterious robed figures who directed the Gun Master. Not the sort of story device expected to be used in a typical crime story.

I do not know who the artist was for the above splash, but despite the complete lack of any real action he has managed in any case to make it interesting. Much of the effect of the splash is due to the low viewing angle and unnatural but effective perspective. From such a low view point the sides of the buildings and lamp post should converge towards the top but diverge instead, giving the scene an other-world appearance. The architectural details enhance the strangeness of the scene which I suspect is meant to be in Europe. Perhaps the weakest element of the splash is the upper of the two dead men. The way he is prompt up on his elbows seems unstable and unexpected for a corpse.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 1, March 1947) “Iron Lady”

A new feature, “Iron Lady”, was added to Clue Comics that both gave the comic a more crime comic feel while actually making the title untypical for that genre. “Iron Lady” was a feature about a female villain. Such an anti-hero theme had been used previously (such as The Claw) and female lead characters were also not that unusual but I am not sure if the combination had ever been done before. Her use of special gloves that gave her great strength shows once more that this really is not a crime story. Iron Lady’s appearance in Clue Comics is not her debut as I believe she appeared previously in Airboy Comics.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 2, April 1947) “Nightmare”

The revamped Clue Comic still retained some of its older features. Nightmare appeared in the March and April issues while Micro Face showed up in the May release. Judging solely by the covers of the early issues of Clue Comics, Nightmare originally had a young sidekick who somewhere along the line had been dropped. This hero appears from the smoke of a cigar which is reminiscent of the Flame from Fox Comics or Simon and Kirby’s Vision for Timely. Micro Face has a peculiar face gear that almost looks like a welder’s mask. These two costume heroes certainly work against the crime genre look that the revamped Clue seemed to be striving for.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 1, March 1947) “King of the Bank Robbers”, art by Jack Kirby

The Simon and Kirby’s contribution to the March 1947 issue of Clue was unabashedly crime genre. It was supposedly a true story and considering it was a period piece it probably was based on some real life criminal. No special powers here, just the career of a colorful criminal and his eventual downfall. Despite its short term attractions, in the end crime does not pay. The use of an oversized figure in the above splash is unusual for Jack Kirby particularly when doing crime comics. I tend to believe that when such oversized figures were used it was based in part on a Simon layout as oversized figures played a part in Joe’s art both before and after working with Jack.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 2, April 1947) “On Stage for Murder”, art by Jack Kirby

There was only a single Simon and Kirby piece in the March issue but their presence increased as they did two stories for the April issue and three for May. The art work done in the Clue Comics seems to be indistinguishable from that appearing concurrently in Prize’s Headline. This includes the type of inking done. In the previous chapters I have described this as part of the Sculptural style. Actually the use of style names is for convenience as inking used by Simon and Kirby was continually evolving and there really were no distinct breaks in the type of inking used. To lump it all together would mean to ignore the real changes that were made, but to divide the inking too finely into different periods would just confuse the issue. As I have been reviewing the art for this and the serial post “The Art of Romance” I have been coming to the realization that although during this period Simon and Kirby have not adopted all the characteristics of the coming Studio style of inking, they also were no longer working in quite the same manner as they had used during the war. In particular there was less emphasis on what I call form lines (see my Inking Glossary for explanation of my terms). These form lines were previously very dominantly used and were the reason I gave the name to the inking the Sculptural style. I am not going to try to answer this issue now but I am still interested in how the Studio style came into being. As with the art done for Headline, that for Clue Comics does not include the common use of picket fence crosshatching or shoulder blots. However as previously seen in Headline, abstract shadow arches, another technique of the Studio style, begins to appear more frequently. A good example is the splash shown above. Another Studio style technique is the use of drop strings and that mannerism also begins to become more common.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 3, May 1947) “Flowers for Roma”, art by Jack Kirby

Although the art used for Clue and Headline comics is pretty much the same the panel layouts are not. In my previous chapters on the crime art that Simon and Kirby produced for Prize Comics I noted that circular and semi-circular panels were used at just about the same level as previously in Stuntman and Boy Explorers. On an average this would work out to be about one round panel for every story page. The round panels are completely absent on any of the story pages that Joe and Jack did for Clue. There are two occurrences of circular panels in Clue and they both are restricted to the splash page. The circular panels on the splash page are truly story panels and so must still be considered, but even so there is a clear distinction between the panel layouts for Headline and Clue. I am just not sure what to make of that distinction.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 2, April 1947) “The Short, Dangerous Life of Packy Smith”, art by Jack Kirby

Simon and Kirby’s contribution to Clue Comics was not limited to “true” crime stories. They also had a chance to work on Gun Master as well. Because it was the key feature for Clue Comics it is not surprising that Joe and Jack did not make any serious changes to Gun Master. Gun Master remained an uncanny marksman who continued to receive his direction from the robed Council of Elders. However Simon and Kirby did make one innovation, they tried to provide the feature with a continuing story line while previously all the Gun Master stories had been stand alone units. What Simon and Kirby did was to introduce Packy Smith a man born with “element X” in his body and as the result doomed to an early death. If that were not bad enough it turns out that element X could be used to turn Packy into a human bomb. This results into a manhunt for Packy by not only Gun Master but by the criminal element as well. In the April issue the story ends with Packy Smith disappearance after haven taken a nose dive off a bridge. In the May issue Simon and Kirby continue the tale revealing that Packy had survived the plunge. Even the ending for the second tale was clearly not meant to be the finish as not only does Packy get away again but Gun Master has obtained the phone number to the criminal mastermind behind the manhunt. Unfortunately although Gun Master would make some further appearances, Simon and Kirby never returned to the feature to continue the story. Clearly Joe and Jack were not simply following someone else’s script.

Clue Comics (volume 2, number 2, April 1947) “The Finger Man”, art by Carmine Infantino and Bernard Sachs

As previously discussed there were a number of continuing features in Clue Comics. Simon and Kirby would produce most of the remaining “true” crime stories, but not all. “The Finger Man” is one such example. Fortunately it is signed otherwise I am not sure I would have recognized Infantino’s work. Besides his silver age comics I am most familiar with the Charlie Chan Comics that Carmine drew for Simon and Kirby in 1948 and early 1949. Despite the fact that Charlie Chan was done only a little over a year later, the style Carmine used was very different then the one shown here in “The Finger Man”. It would seem that Infantino adopted a Kirby influenced style just for the work on Charlie Chan. Carmine is an excellent artist and it would be interesting how his style evolved over the years. Unfortunately Infantino only worked for Simon and Kirby that once and so my knowledge of his art is otherwise limited to occasional pieces such as this. In “The Finger Man” Carmine is inked by Bernard Sachs. Sachs was a commonly used inker at Hillman at this time and he also did some pencil work.

Like the initial Headline art that Simon and Kirby did for Prize, the duo did not provide signatures on any of the work they did on Clue. The only work for Hillman that they signed was for My Date and a single cover for Western Fighters. As I mentioned in the last chapter it was very untypical for Simon and Kirby to leave out their signature on so much work. My Date was probably their idea and nothing like it was being produced at Prize so it is not surprising that they would sign work in that title. Otherwise Joe and Jack probably did not want to make it too obvious that they were providing work for two different publishers at the same time.

My conclusion after reviewing the material is that the drifting of Clue Comics into a more truly crime comic had little, if anything, to do with Simon and Kirby. But S&K’s influence on the title seemed to increase as time went on. The May issue of Clue Comics (v. 2, n 4) was the last before the title was renamed into Real Clue Crime Comics. This was more then just a name change but that will be covered in my next chapter.

Chapter 1, Promoting Crime
Chapter 2, A Revitalized Title

Chapter 4, Crime Gets Real
Chapter 5, Making a Commitment
Chapter 6, Forgotten Artists
Chapter 7, A Studio With Many Artists
Chapter 8, The Chinese Detective
Chapter 9, Not The Same
Chapter 10, The Master and His Protege
Chapter 11, The New Team