#tbt or ThrowbackThursday is a weekly series where I write about things from history — primarily comic or film history. For the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about Frederic Wertham’s infamous book Seduction of the Innocent and going through the chapters with insightful and slightly snarky commentary. (Chunks of it will read like a research paper but then, those have always been my favorite things to write!)
Everyone that has even a drop of interest in comic books and comic book history has heard about Dr. Frederic Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. He’s the big bad of comics history, the reason why we had the Comics Code Authority, the reason why, to some, comics just aren’t as good as they could’ve been.
Wertham is referenced in nearly single paper, book, and documentary on comic book history. You can’t escape references to him or his crusade against comic books. However, many people that are interested in comic books haven’t actually read Seduction of the Innocent.
I don’t blame them.
Seduction of the Innocent is hard to get a hold of. There’s no kindle version available and all the copies amazon has on sale are just out of my price range. There was one copy at a library on the other side of the county from where I live and no bookstore in Florida seems to have a copy listed for sale. Finally, I found a copy on scribd.It is a testament to how much I wanted to read Seduction of the innocent that I actually went through the process of uploading documents and schoolwork so that I could get access to this one book.
Reading Seduction has not been easy. That’s another reason why many people haven’t read it. As I write this, I am on the fifth chapter. Five chapters out of fourteen. I’ve been reading this book since Tuesday night. Do you know what else I’ve read since Tuesday night? Eight novels in a series about fairies and two different works of novel-length pulp fiction from the early 30s. I read stuff that I normally wouldn’t read because Seduction is so dang hard to get into.
But I’m still reading it.
One of the things everyone talks about in the documentaries is how much he focused on Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman as the ultimate evil in terms of comic books and that’s true. What they don’t talk about, and what gave me the most trouble while reading the book, is how even though he’s biased as hell, you can tell how much he was genuinely worried for the minds of young children reading comics.
In between the eye-rolling and the sharply worded tweets I’ve been making while reading, I actually kind of get where he was coming from to an extent. Now I’ve done my homework and I know that it’s said that Wertham exaggerated or outright made up some of the examples that he gives in the book for children who were negatively influenced by comic books and “led” into committing crimes or misbehaving. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to seriously address that when I mention the case studies and examples he uses. I agree with many of the theories that he fudged the truth or embellished examples that other people gave him, but oh man there are so many other holes to poke at in this book, you know?
Chapter One: “Such Trivia as Comic Books”
Wertham first sets up his argument that comic books were detrimental to the minds of young children and essentially, society as a whole by opening the book with this ridiculously long-winded metaphor about gardens and growing. To be honest, I just sort of snorted at the page and moved on.
In Seduction, you see that Wertham actually references a lot of girls and black people (who he of course speaks of with period typical terms that I don’t feel comfortable writing here). He seems to have gravitated towards them as well as children who were believed to be mentally ill in some way and I have to think that he skewed his data by doing so. He worked primarily with people that would’ve read comic books and thought that acting them out would be logical to do. He didn’t work with average members of the population. Straight up, his data was just as biased as he was because he didn’t have a wide sample size.
Wertham saw himself as some kind of hero figure for his work, writing that:
Some of my psychiatric friends regarded my comics research as a Don Quixotic enterprise. But I gradually learned that the number of comic books is so enormous that the pulp paper industry is vitally interested in their mass production. If anything, I was fighting not windmills, but paper mills. Moreover, a most important part of our research consisted in the reading and analysis of hundreds of comic books. This task was not Quixotic but Herculean — reminiscent, in fact, of the job of trying to clean out the Augean stables. (15)
Notice the bolded?
How Wertham sees himself as a fighter for the children, a fighter figure up against the big paper mills he swears have stake in the corruption of children’s minds? Notice again, how he then compares himself to Hercules rather than Don Quixote because what he’s doing, to him, appears more noble?
(Never mind that Hercules wasn’t cleaning out those stables because he wanted to be a hero, but because he had to do penance for horrible things he had done. I mean, maybe Wertham didn’t know that, but it’s a weird connection to make because Hercules wasn’t exactly the sort of mythological figure that you’d want to be connected with if you’re trying to appear as a paragon of justice.)
To reinforce the image of Wertham as a heroic defender, the one man out to save children from the horrors of comic books, he even talks about some of the ways that the comic book companies are trying to discredit him and oppose him. I think that I really would like to see these comics that supposedly insult and defame him because really… that I won’t believe until I see it.
He talks about being the butt of jokes and the victim of fictionalized violence in crime magazine pages. Framing it as if he’s just as big a victim as the children that he’s trying to help. I… don’t agree with how he single-mindedly goes after comic books and their creators as the main source for mental and social issues in children. Oh he blames the courts, but he blames comic books more. And I really don’t agree with the picture he paints of these people as unreasonable for being angry about his attacks on their livelihood.
I’ve read books on comic history after Wertham happened to comics and I absolutely understand why comic book writers and artists would react with hostility towards him. In The Ten-Cent Plague:The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, you actually see how artists lost everything because comic books were seen as a disease infecting society and I mean… I get where Wertham was coming from (to an extent) but boy did he screw things up for a lot of people.
Chapter Two: “You always have to slug ’em”
This is the chapter where Wertham shows that he has no understanding whatsoever of the burgeoning comic book culture or the people creating them. Bless his heart and all, but the one thing I don’t enjoy is when I’m reading scholarly works that don’t even try to be subtle about their biases.
Look at this: His definition of a crime comic is so broad that it’s ridiculous!
In our clinical research on crime comic books we came to the conclusion that crime comic books are comic books that depict crime, whether the setting is urban, Western science fiction, jungle, adventure, or the realm of supermen, “horror” or supernatural beings. (20)
Do you know how broad that definition is? Any book where a crime was committed (and what constituted a crime to him could have probably started from something as mild as littering or jaywalking) was a crime book. Even if the crime was punished!
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wertham saw comic books as this industry rife with violent crime and supporting it when he redefined an entire genre to suit his purposes. Crime comics like crime pulps had their own genre. That’s how that works.
Anyway…halfway through the chapter is where we get to his major hate-on for superhero comics. He writes that. “the Superman group of comic books is superendorsed.” and that probably isn’t funny, but it made me crack up like something else the first time I read it.
He just hated Superman so much that he’s willing to nitpick at every single appearance that the character has to prove that he’s the worst of the worst. He complains that crime isn’t punished properly in comic books but also complains when crime is punished (because violence, ya know?).
Nothing works for him.
He’s mad about the weirdest things: from Superman flying to criminals not getting the “appropriate” punishment for their crimes.
Superman is too strong. Too gravity-defying. Too nice to people. Too accessible to children. I mean, Golden Age comics weren’t the best (like they were incredibly racist and sexist) but the Superman stories in Action Comics and Superman were far from the worst things out at the time and marketed to children even.
Wonder Woman only gets a brief mention in this chapter (Wertham calls her a “horror type” that is a “frightening figure for boys” and “an undesirable ideal for girls” near the bottom of page 34. I figure that he’ll rant about how awful she is later on in the book so I’ll save all of my lovely comic screencaps for another #tbt. I will however mention how the main issue that he has with WW as a character is that girls want to be like her (strong, powerful, clapping back at dudes that come for her). It’s the whole “women subverting the patriarchy”thing that scares him and it’s hilarious.
The rest of the chapter is… It’s intense.
It’s about love comics (which Wertham essentially says are really just crime comics with kissing in them), literature versus comics, and the young ages of children reading comic books. I mean… okay. As much as I want to go in on that, I might have to save it for a later #tbt where I can maybe talk about other genres apart from superhero comics (and you know… when my post isn’t pushing past 2000 words.)
One of the hardest things for me with this read through is coming to terms with how I don’t entirely disagree with what Frederic Wertham was saying. I was set to be like “I disagree with Wertham entirely and he is a huge butthole” and I kinda… don’t want to say that.
I’m sure that those exact words will come out of my mouth before the book is done, but right now I’m at a slow-simmering boil of grouchiness with regard to the book because I have so many questions that I can’t answer just yet.
What was the likelihood of really young children reading incredibly violent comic books between 1939 and 1954 (when my ed of the book was published)?
Is there a way to find out of pulp fiction received the same sort of call outs and book write ups?
Did Wertham leave behind any papers about comic books that would cast this book in a different light? (Related: did he continue to write about comic books into his old age that could help me chart a progression of his views?)
Coming next week: “The Road to the Child” and “The Wrong Twist”