The center of chapter one, “Such Trivia as Comic Books: Introducing the Subject,” is the tragic story of one Bernard Doyle, who on the Fourth of July, 1950, took a friend’s son to the Polo Grounds. A quarter mile away, a fourteen-year-old boy by the name of Robert Mario Peebles fired a single shot from a gun he’d found in Central Park. Doyle was struck in the head and killed instantly.
Peebles is almost the only person mentioned by name in today’s chapter. Everyone else is “an attorney from a large industrial city” or “a civic leader in the community.” Even Doyle is “a middle-aged man” despite the fact that his name was in the public record well before that of Peebles. The only problem is that Wertham refers to the boy as “Willie.”
Now, you can’t prove by me that Wertham never met Peebles in his life. It’s entirely possible that he chose to use the name Willie in order to give the boy some privacy, though the boy’s name was actually printed in newspapers at the time. It’s also possible that his nickname actually was Willie for some reason. Stranger things have happened. However, there are several reasons to be suspicious of Wertham’s claims of familiarity with the boy.
For one thing, the picture he paints of “Willie” is mostly positive. He’s struggling in school, true, and he needs new glasses, but other than sleepwalking, he doesn’t seem to have any real problems. Yes, he has an interest in guns, and, yes, he fired a gun in celebration of Independence Day, but there is no description of any emotional problems beyond that. Peebles committed a reckless act, but how many people around New York City committed exactly the same reckless act that day? Even today, how many people fire guns into the air in celebration of things?
For another, the most damning thing he has to say seems difficult to substantiate. Possibly with better resources, I might have found something, but the scanty details of the case online do not include details that would support Wertham’s claim that police found “ammunition for all three guns, and a quantity of ammunition for a Luger pistol.” They did, it’s true, find a couple of .22 rifles and a .22 pistol, and it’s possible that they found ammunition for them—but even I know that that’s only one kind of ammunition. But the ammunition for a Luger pistol? I’ve found no documentation.
Frankly, I found the story a little suspicious, and I’m kind of surprised Wertham doesn’t. Did Peebles have a lawyer? Well, he was a poor black teenager in 1950, so I’m guessing not. There was no physical evidence to link him to the crime, since Peebles said he’d disposed of the gun after finding out someone had died from a random shot. Certainly the gun was never found. The only evidence seems to have been a confession, and we know that people confess to crimes they didn’t commit all the time. If Peebles was really disturbed, doesn’t that make it more likely that any confession was false?
There are several places in this chapter that seem to emphasize failings in Wertham’s awareness of the lives of the children he’s documenting. The aforementioned civic leader has described a boy to him that Wertham says “was so intelligent, frank and open that I considered him not an inferior child, but a superior one.” As if unaware that intelligence can mask a lot of conditions and that it’s possible to seem frank and open without actually being so.
Another quote that bothered me was this one.
Cruelty to children is not only what a drunken father does to his son, but what those in high estate, in courts and welfare agencies, do to straying youth
This is a claim that it’s essentially always best to leave children in their homes, no matter what. He calls it cruel to take a child away from their family. (Well, he says “his,” but never mind.) However, even in the ’50s, there were plenty of children who were better off being removed from their homes, better off in care of some kind. Surely the Lafargue Clinic had dealt with children who were abused in one way or another by their parents. Not just beaten, either. And I grant you that even today, diagnoses of mental illness in children are controversial, but at the time, developmentally disabled children were often institutionalized!
I’m not an expert in child psychology, and I don’t pretend to be. I’m also aware that the treatment of disturbed children has changed radically over the decades. However, it just feels as though the children described in this book are not getting treatment that would actually benefit them, possibly because Wertham felt certain that he had the cause of their downfall. Heck, he rejects outright in this chapter the very idea that there can be contributing factors to mental health problems that are not sufficient to be the cause of them.
Another issue that Wertham doesn’t really examine is the idea that crime was even on the rise. He claims it a lot, but there are no statistics to prove it. According to Wertham, a Colorado Juvenile Court law of “a half-century ago” held that a juvenile delinquent was one who “habitually wanders around any railroad yards or tracks, or jumps or hooks to any moving train, or enters any car or engine without lawful authority.”
Wertham calls this “streetcar hopping.” However, it seems clear to me that what’s being described is a bit beyond that—not so much the children Eddie Valiant encounters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit but rather Natty Gann and the children she encounters. Children, in fact, who are riding the rails. Not criminals but the indigent and nomadic. In that context, the court’s insistence that “the delinquent child shall be treated not as a criminal, but as misdirected and misguided, and needing aid, encouragement, help, and assistance” is frankly heartwarming. It means that children who were for whatever reason traveling the country on trains were not to be jailed. Now, some of the orphanages and so forth that the children would be put into instead were probably not great, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
Not to Wertham, who insists that the courts just weren’t seeing cases of violence in children. Now, this is frankly nonsense, and he doesn’t have the facts to back it up. He’s using ’50s terminology to examine cases from the turn of the last century, and it doesn’t work. Because of course it doesn’t.
A quote that bothered me on an entirely different level was this one.
This task was not Quixotic but Herculean—reminiscent, in fact, of the job of trying to clean up the Augean stables.
Now, I admit that Wertham wasn’t a native speaker. He was given, bluntly, to a certain pomposity in his writing at the best of times; earlier in the paragraph, he actually said “Don Quixotic,” which is just wrong. In fact, neither adjective is even capitalized. But seriously, what does he think the word “herculean” refers to? I get that he’s trying to emphasize that his job in cleaning up the world of comic books was washing out a lot of dung. I get that. But there are better ways of casting the sentence, and it just made me twitchy. Maybe that’s unfair.
This chapter also includes what I consider to be probably the most prominent example of how Wertham was quite capable of tooting his own horn at the same time as not providing sufficient documentation for his claims. He is discussing the number of comics printed in a month, something he says no one tended to believe him about.
But shortly afterwards authoritative magazines and newspapers (such as Business Week) repeated my figure as an authentic one.
Okay, fine. But should they have? He provides no evidence here that he’s right, just that they treated him as such. I mean, maybe he is; he is, at least, right that it’s hard to get clear numbers, not least because of all the trading and resales and so forth among kids. (A word I will be shocked if I encounter in this book.) And publishers went in and out of business, but that was at least as much because of how close they were to insolvency most of the time, something he doesn’t mention. Probably didn’t accept.
It is also worth noting that the only person other than “Willie” who gets mentioned by name in this chapter is one Virgilia Peterson—whom he quotes as agreeing with him.