I promised that I would mention where Dr. Fredric Wertham actually got things right, and Chapter Four, “The Wrong Twist: The Effects of Comic Books on Children,” is a place where he gets maybe a full page or two right. This is, however, out of thirty-five pages, and just as much of it is spent implying that Superman is a Nazi. It also includes the most astonishing piece of hypocrisy featured in the book so far. And, if you’re keeping track, no one is mentioned by name in this chapter, including a “former judge” who had become a member of the British House of Commons.
Let’s start with what he gets right, because it’s pretty important. And that is the fact that comic books in 1954 were pretty horribly racist. He mentions that the superhero comics, not that Wertham ever uses the term, all pretty much invariably have Americans of European descent—but not actual immigrants—as their heroes, and often, their villains were exclusively Other, thought that wasn’t true ten years earlier, when Nazis were popular villains. The first black superhero—he’s called “African-American” in a few places, but that’s wrong—would not appear for another fifteen years, when Marvel developed the Wakandan king T’Challa, the Black Panther.
And, yes, the drawings of blacks in the comics were appalling. Even Ebony White, the Spirit’s sidekick, was your standard racist stereotype, though apparently many groups of the time were supportive of a major character who was both black and on the side of the hero and therefore put up with his minstrel-show appearance and speech. Jungle comics tended to paint all natives as being savage, barely human; they were often shown attacking white women in sexualized fashion. It’s vile stuff, and he was right to be opposed.
On the other hand, you know, other nations didn’t need comic books to be aware of American racism in 1954. After all, this book came out at the same time as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, before sit-ins and school integrations and Freedom Summer. Even after the Comics Code, other nations would get a long education in American racism from just watching the news, which makes Wertham’s assertion that it was our comic books that gave the lie to our ideals bizarre at best.
“In other cases, distorted stereotypes acquired at home, on the street, in school, are given new nourishment and perpetuation by comic-book reading,” he says. But does that not imply that it’s perfectly possible for those stereotypes to perpetuate in people who never read a comic book in their lives? After all, crime comic books weren’t around when Jim Crow laws were first passed, now, were they?
So is this the worst of his hypocrisy in this chapter? Oh, not even a little! Nor is his complaint that because of comics, the fantasy world of children “is no more the world of braves and squaws, but one of punks and molls.” They do, however, neatly lead into it. Because this is what Wertham has to say about diagnosing problems.
Anyone wishing to study scientifically the psychological causes of human behavior must always be on guard against the error of assuming that something has causal significance just because it happened in the past. He must think in terms of psychological processes and developments which connect cause and effect. And he can hold a new factor responsible only if he has taken into account all other possible factors, physical, individual, psychological, and social. On the other hand, he should not be deterred if the same factor affects different people differently and some people seemingly not at all.
This is absolutely right, but coming from Wertham, it’s just hypocritical. After all, in this very chapter, he has also said that, while not all children suffering from sleep disorders read comics, they know what’s in them and might well just be lying about not reading them. He says that it’s only in comics that men can slap women without consequences and it’s treated like something normal. He’s assumed that the only possible reason for a group of kids to form a “Nazi stormtrooper club” is exposure to comics. And, of course, he gives no information about any of the children he’s talking about except their ages and that they read comics.
One child he brings up describes being attacked by a neighbourhood gang. The child says he doesn’t read comics much himself, but of course comics are still to blame for the night terrors the child suffers because the gang members apparently read them. He acknowledges that some children have more exposure to crime, violence, and brutality in their day-to-day lives than other children, but somehow, that’s never what’s to blame when children commit crimes.
Honestly, Wertham doesn’t even seem to know the contents of comics. He describes the Blue Beetle all wrong, saying the character is actually a bug who turns into a man—and then gives parallels with Kafka, suggesting he hasn’t read Kafka, either! He expresses shock that a comic book about a “Mother Mandelbaum” is published, but after all, as the comic says, it’s based on a true story. I can only assume that the same publisher produced stories about such all-American outlaws as Bonnie and Clyde as well.
I must admit that I’m assuming that the comic he describes in such horrified tones when he talks about a woman reminiscing about her days in a Nazi concentration camp is from EC, which published many comics about those particular atrocities. I could be wrong; not all comic publishers would have, as I assume this one did, detailed exactly how appalling and evil the woman must have been. However, since he gives his usual complete lack of details, I can’t know for sure. Maybe it is a terrible exploitation; those certainly did exist.
Still, same as it ever was. It doesn’t take much research to see how very wrong he is when he claims that the violence and brutality of comic books is unmatched in childhood literature up to that point.
Murder, crime and drug traffic are offered to children in a literature which the defenders of comic books call the modern version of the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Mother Goose. But are there heroin addicts in Grimm, marihuana smokers in Andersen or dope peddlers in Mother Goose? And are there advertisements for guns and knives?
And maybe not. On the other hand, a witch is made to dance in red-hot iron shoes. I believe there’s at least one story where a woman is put in a barrel with knives and things pointed inward and rolled down a hill. There’s certainly rape, since in at least one version of “Sleeping Beauty,” she bears children while still asleep. If the hero is named “Jack,” odds are quite good that he’ll commit a theft at least once, and probably three times. I’ve read some old folk tales, and they’re often extremely bloodthirsty.
Then, of course, there were dime novels. The popularity in culture of such outlaws as Billy the Kid and Jesse James really stems from dime novels, which were definitely bought and read by children every bit as much as crime comics were. Wertham says, “What you read in the usual books of child psychiatry or child guidance, or in Freud’s works, is just not adequate to explain such a case. This is a new kind of harm, a new kind of bacillus that the present-day child is exposed to.” However, his claim that the violence and so forth of comics is new just doesn’t hold up—and I’m pretty sure dime novels did tend to have advertisements for knives and guns, and the pulp novels I’ve read often still had cigarette coupons in them.
This is also where he starts talking about the problem of the motif of damage to the eyes and how it’s completely new and unheard of. Leaving aside things like, you know, the prince in Rapunzel or the sisters in Cinderella, there is also the epigraph of this very chapter, a quote from Santayana.
A man who gives a wrong twist to your mind, meddles with you just as truly as if he hit you in the eye; the mark may be less painful, but it’s more lasting.
Which actually goes quite a long way toward explaining the pervasiveness of this particular motif. The eye, as Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, is squishy. It’s an exceptionally vulnerable organ, being both on the outside and a direct link to the inside. It’s easy to imagine how it feels to have damage done to your eyes and also to damage others’ eyes. They are a serious vulnerability, and they’re a vulnerability everyone has in common at that.
There’s also the obvious horror of just being blinded; it’s a common fear, because it’s the sense with which we perceive most of our world. Losing your eyes cuts you off from quite a lot, and the fear of that is only natural. It’s natural to fear losing any of the other senses, too, but sight is the easiest to take. There’s also a certain extent to which the idea of blinding someone else indicates that you have more power than that person; you could have killed them, but you have merely damaged them irreparably, leaving them alive at your discretion.
This is all pretty basic stuff, honestly, and it goes back to my conviction that Wertham just wasn’t a very good psychiatrist. He expresses approval for the so-called Fernald Method, which even he admits was already basically discredited, but he thinks it’s valuable anyway. And, as a Freudian, there’s the part where he rejects any nature argument whatsoever.
If we carry out experiments on the brains of cats, aggression is a biological problem. If we study the minds of children it is predominantly a social and ethical problem.
And of course let’s ignore the fact that carrying out experiments on the brains of children is pretty much always considered immoral, whereas there are people who are okay with carrying them out on the brains of cats; that’s an unpleasant implication but one Wertham steers clear of. The point is clearly that only “lesser animals” experience aggressive tendencies because of things inside them; humans of course are too advanced to be controlled by the mere workings of their brains!
Wertham doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge any factors but the one he himself has chosen. He rejects biological causes. He ignores societal ones. He acts as though all aspects of comic books are brand new, even when he himself quotes something that proves they aren’t. It’s just not good enough that he’s right about the racism, especially not since this is another chapter that doubles down on his anti-spice rhetoric.