My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When I was younger—say in the late 1980s, early 1990s—the concept of free artistic expression was associated with the social and political left. The totalitarian states of international communism were discredited and second-wave feminism had clearly overreached in its anti-porn crusades; meanwhile, tirades against the objectionable character of both elite and popular culture were coming from the religious and racial right, with its crusades against alleged Satanism and against queer and black arts. I am thinking of the controversies over heavy metal, NEA funding, and “Cop Killer,” for example.
But when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to rap or heavy metal and I didn’t attend elite art exhibitions; instead I avidly read comic books. In those pre-Internet days, the folk memory of comic-book readers tended to elide the 1950s public outcry against comics—which led to their being tried in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency Hearings and to the self-imposition by the industry of the absurdly censorious comics code—with the ‘80s/‘90s posturing of the religious right (and of certain New Democrat or blue dog allies, such as Tipper Gore). I had certainly heard of Fredric Wertham by the time I was 11 or 12, but, lacking good information, I pictured him as a Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan or Bill Bennett type.
As comics have over the last generation come under increased academic jurisdiction, though, readers have noticed that Wertham was in fact far more like the type of person who would today profess comics studies: a leftist less enamored of free speech than prior generations. (See, for instance, Chris Bishop’s very engaging and informative lecture.) In the introduction to the most recent edition of Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, James E. Reibman sets the record straight: “Of course, the irony in all this is that Fredric Wertham, a traditional left-wing European intellectual and product of the Enlightenment tradition, continues to be both castigated and characterized as a reactionary.”
Seduction of the Innocent, then, is in a very different genre from the Chick-tract-type screed; it is, rather, a lament over the demise of high bourgeois culture sung by an impeccably cultured exile of that culture’s European calamity. (Wertham was brought up within the humanistic milieu of the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie.) It is more like Theodor Adorno than Jesse Helms.
When read with the above understanding, Seduction of the Innocent is an almost sympathetic book. The psychiatrist Wetham was a crusader for racial equality who opened a clinic in Harlem (named after Paul Lafargue) for indigent black youth; he collaborated with or earned the praise of Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison and Thurgood Marshall. That comics promote racial hatred was, not at all unreasonably, one of his chief complaints:
If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, “ape men,” Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features.
He also charged comics with misogyny and the promotion of sadism. While psychoanalytically informed, he rejected Freud’s pessimism about human nature; a devoted reader of Dickens, he was a Rousseauist who did not believe in innate human aggression. No death drives or wills-to-power for him. He is at his most attractive in Seduction of the Innocent when fighting the almost eugenic contempt with which the judicial system and society at large treated young criminal offenders and their parents. He saw ordinary children and their parents as preyed upon by much larger social forces, which made it difficult for them to negotiate normative social life. As aware as he was of such oppressive forces as poverty and racism, though, he became convinced that comic books—and the industry behind them, which he viewed as a rapacious and amoral capitalist force—were an autonomous vector for cultural damage. Hence, his long and rather unfocused polemic against them.
Besides racism, misogyny, and sadism, Wetham also charged comics with poor aesthetic standards in everything from printing materials to spelling; with the promotion of crime and violence; with inspiring children to undertake all sorts of dangerous acts (jumping off the roof to try to fly like Superman, etc.); with numbing children’s sensibilities so that they could not appreciate great literature and art; and with being produced by an industry that mistreated its creators, strong-armed its distributors, and bought off off “experts” and politicians (he never states outright, but carefully implies, what we now know to be true of the early comics’ mafia connections, as elaborated by Chris Bishop in the lecture linked above).
Despite Wertham’s left-wing credentials, he shared the midcentury left’s dim view of homosexuality, seeing it as a lamentable form of maladjustment brought about by a corrupt society. For this reason, he is perhaps best remembered for his actually rather perceptive, if undeniably homophobic, attack on Batman as homoerotic text (this is another reason, I believe, that he was misremembered as right-wing by the time of my adolescence):
In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship is depicted to children before they can even read. Batman and Robin, the “dynamic duo,” also known as the “daring duo,” go into action in their special uniforms. They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. They lurk not only under every bed but also behind every star in the sky. Either Batman or his young boy friend or both are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.
Unfortunately for his credibility, he was also convinced that there were subliminal images in comics art, finding women’s pudenda and the like in the cross-hatching on a well-muscled hero’s shoulder; this is bizarre, because Wertham’s perfectly correct assessment of comics’ wretched business practices should have told him that nobody got paid enough to bother with such minutia!
And Wertham, to be fair, was not much of a totalitarian censor. His proposal was to ban the sale of “crime comics” to children under 15 (though “crime” was a pretty all-encompassing generic designation to him; he thought Donald Duck was, for all practical purposes, a crime comic). He was not for any kind of outright ban—and he was at pains to emphasize that he did not advocate any restriction on what adults could purchase and read. In his defense, one might note that the comics of the time really were wild and that today we accept without objection things like rating systems, which inform consumers without much interfering with free expression. On a more personal note, I might add that I agree with his defense of the subtler pleasures and greater intellectual demands of high culture against sensationalist mass-produced pop culture—but this, for me, is on grounds of aesthetics, not ethics or politics.
It is well and good to re-assess Wertham’s book with a greater understanding of his not totally unsympathetic intellectual position, but Seduction of the Innocent is still the product of a faulty worldview. For one thing, Wertham was in a sense not socialist enough; even if we accept that cultural objects can do mental harm to vulnerable children (and this remains an “if,” as far as I know), why blame cultural objects themselves and not the structural forces that create vulnerability in the first place? Furthermore, his Rouseauist/Dickensian picture of the unsullied innocent coming into the world to be snatched from the virtuous hands of his mother by greedy capitalists peddling smut may have been a welcome correction to some elitist and racist opinions of the innate inferiority of the poor; but even so, I don’t believe it does anyone any good in the long run to deny some of the harder truths of existence. Throughout the book, Wertham complains of Superman’s Nietzschean lineage (and if he grasped the irony that superheroes were created not by Aryan fascists but by assimilationist Jewish working-class immigrants’ sons, he does not mention it):
As our work went on we established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books: violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche’s superman who said, “When you go to women, don’t forget the whip.” We also found that what seemed at first like a problem in child psychology had much wider implications. Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?
But Nietzsche is already in the nursery, as is Freud. I have no desire to let theory obliterate common sense: it is surely better not to rear children exclusively on texts and images that are poor in quality and utterly cynical about sex and violence. Still, we are born with the full panoply of human potential, including the potential for aggression, greed, hate, sadism, masochism, and all the rest; as these are ineradicable, they are best confronted. Wertham spends a lot of time attacking what I believe is, even now, a consensus position among educators and psychologists: that some fantasy violence is not terrible for children and can even be an inoculation against the real thing.
As for Nietzsche, while he certainly wrote some disturbing sentences and was obviously taken up by some worse-than-dubious admirers, one fails to learns the lessons of The Genealogy of Morals at one’s peril. Just as Wertham’s polemic against sensationalism is amazingly sensationalist (seduction! of the innocent!), so too is his moral crusade no less an exercise in power-seeking than the actions of his opponents.
While Nietzsche may slight some of our nobler drives, I accept his argument that no human pursuit, not the most artistic or the most holy or the most egalitarian, is totally free from the quest to dominate or from impulses of aggression. To deny this is to leave oneself open to dangerous delusions of righteousness. Such delusions, it seems to me, have done more damage than violent comic books or pornography. The books that have proved most corrupting have been books like the Bible, the Koran, and The Communist Manifesto; surely, more people have been slaughtered for the ideals of Rousseau than for the anti-ideals of Sade.
A final word against censorship—and censoriousness, which I also dislike. The imposition of the restrictive comics code was the end result of Wertham’s activism. And the end result of the comics code was to put EC Comics out of business. EC’s company of superb writers and artists—Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, among others—were making thoughtful, humane, literary, beautiful comics that went some way toward correcting the flaws of comics that Wertham was most reasonable in pointing out, such as their simplistic worldview, their illiteracy, their racism, their intellectual poverty, and their low artistic standards. It would take almost thirty years for the promise of EC to begin to be realized, as the code eased off, and mainstream American comics could again pursue the creation of serious artistic work.
In short, Wertham did more damage to the artists who might have been his allies than he did to the crass and mobbed-up money-men of the industry itself, who simply adjusted, as such people always do. Feel free to take this as a parable directed at the Werthamites of today.