Once again, in chapter six, “Design for Delinquency: The Contribution of Crime Comic Books to Juvenile Delinquency,” Dr. Fredric Wertham does manage to give us enough details in one story for us to determine who he’s talking about. Unfortunately, this is out of literally dozens of cases that he lists. One of the cases features a Vanderbilt, and I still wasn’t able to figure out at this date what he was talking about.
Wertham isn’t wrong that the case of Howard Lang was an appalling one. In 1947, twelve-year-old Howard Lang offered seven-year-old Lonnie Fellick a cigarette, then attacked the younger boy with a switchblade and a big rock in the presence of a third child, nine-year-old Gerald Michalek. Lang’s seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Anna Mae Evans, hid the bloody clothing. Lang was convicted, but the conviction was overturned on the grounds that Lang was too young to understand his actions.
Wertham says that both the trial judge and the appeals judge (though he does not mention that the verdict was overturned) blamed the whole thing on comic books. He says this was a shocking crime, and it certainly was. He doesn’t mention that Lang was at the time the youngest person ever tried for murder in the State of Illinois, but that’s true as well. However, as I was poking around for better details of the case than Wertham gives (he lists Lang as thirteen, for one thing), I found an editorial about the case from the Milwaukee Journal on April 27, 1949, that observes that, in Wisconsin, the boy wouldn’t have been put on trial. He would have been shut up for “delinquency” in a juvenile institution and freed on his eighteenth birthday, and was that necessarily better?
So there we are again. The fact is, Wertham cannot prove the contention on which he bases his entire premise, that not only were crime rates at the time rising (they basically weren’t), but that the specific crimes committed by children were unheard of not long before. Perhaps they were unknown to the courts, but it seems that part of the issue was that he was writing in the middle of the transition in how children who committed crimes were being treated. He’s right that no one was keeping statistics about how many children were committing crimes, but that was in the process of changing.
There is also the issue of how to define “children.” The following quotes are both from page 156 of my edition, and I’m not sure he’s aware of the contradiction.
Nobody knows exactly how many juveniles under twenty-one commit murder in the United States. But it is two or three a day.
How unprotected children are is shown by the glib use of the word teen-ager in talk about juvenile delinquency, putting into one category such different age groups as that of a boy of thirteen and that of a young man of nineteen.
I would point out, for example, that infamous killers Leopold and Loeb are by the former standard put in the same demographic as Howard Lang, and they were legal adults when they killed fourteen-year-old Robert Franks. As their crime was committed in May 1924, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that comic books had nothing to do with it. Now, of course, their situations were different on many levels; Lang’s crime appears to have been spur-of-the-moment, and Leopold and Loeb planned theirs for seven months. I don’t know much about Lang’s socioeconomic level, but since no one mentions it, he probably wasn’t as wealthy as they or poor, either.
And, of course, twelve is different than eighteen and nineteen. There are emotional and developmental differences that cannot be overestimated, which Wertham’s second point clearly agrees with, but he doesn’t even try to reconcile it with his first one. He has throughout the book conflated young children with near-adults and even adults full stop. He’s referred to “teenagers” repeatedly, in fact, and it seems as though either he’s hoping we won’t notice or else he’s forgotten himself.
Aside from Lang, Wertham lists page after page of horrific crimes committed by children—and most of them are legitimately children by any standard. However, he doesn’t even for the most part mention what part of the country they took place in. The only detail is the age of the children and observations that some comic book or another detailed a similar crime. We have reached the point where I’m just not willing to take his word for it, if I ever would have. There is no way to check.
And, yes, there’s a section where he goes on about the correlation between comic book-reading and criminality, but he never even acknowledges that correlation does not prove causation. He never shows that children who don’t read comic books are less likely to commit crimes than children who do; he even insists that those children who read comic books but don’t get into trouble are still seriously damaged by them. With, of course, no evidence, because when did Wertham ever provide evidence of something?
There is also the ever-popular failure to be aware of anything in culture outside the moment he’s in. He blames the appearance in comic books of a story about fixing sporting events for actual fixing of sporting events, but I suppose he wasn’t in the US yet for the Black Sox scandal. He expresses shock that children who read comic books fake being sick to get out of school (I told you he never read Tom Sawyer) and even more shock that they will forge their parents’ signatures, something they obviously never thought of doing without comic books. They never thought of keeping their report cards from their parents, either.
I am particularly fond of this disingenuous phrasing. “It has been reported that juvenile delinquency has increased about 20 per cent since I first spoke about crime comics in 1947,” he writes, but he doesn’t say who has reported it, where, or whether or not they were right to do so. He tells us that author James Michener denigrates comic books and their influence, but he never gets around to telling us why we should care what the author of The Bridges at Toko-ri thinks about comic books and crime. Oh, and the brother of one of the criminals he doesn’t name blames comic books, and we should believe him despite his total lack of qualifications and the possibility of bias.
So yeah, not much new here. He wants us to be so shocked and overwhelmed by his list of crimes that we get fired up for his cause, I guess, and that just isn’t working for me, because he just hasn’t given me any reason to believe the crimes even happened. The crime he opens the chapter with, an extortion attempt against the Vanderbilt family by a fifteen-year-old boy, is shocking, but he doesn’t even tell us which member of the family was the focus of the threat of violence, meaning I was unable to track down information about it now. Even then, it seemed as I was reading more likely to learn about than any case other than the Lang one.
Even if you could trust him completely, and there’s no reason to believe you can, he doesn’t show evidence that the kids’ crimes are new, and he doesn’t show evidence that the kids’ crimes were inspired by comic books, not the actions of people around them.
Surely in such a case one cannot disregard the social conditions, nor can one ascribe delinquency directly to them. One must search for the particular in the general, the individual in the social, and vice versa. There is no such thing as abstract frustration leading to abstract aggression.
But he’s still more likely to blame Wonder Woman than poverty, abuse, neglect, exposure to crime, or any other factor. He still won’t acknowledge that there’s something wrong with a twelve-year-old whose reaction to seeing a cat being kicked in a comic book is to kick a cat. Twelve is old enough to see things without emulating them, after all, and old enough to know that kicking cats is wrong.