“You Always Have to Slug ’em: What Are Crime Comic Books?” is the first chapter in which Dr. Fredric Wertham includes lengthy quotes supposedly from his child-patients. I have not read the evidence which proves that these quotes were at best combined from multiple patients and were seldom from children as young as he claimed they were from, so I won’t get too far into that. What I will say is that it’s uncanny how the children’s quotes are either really stilted or else a bad rendition of lower-class, probably black English. Even if you believed all the quotes were real, they’re still quite clearly paraphrases.
Once again, too, Wertham only lists by name people who agree with him, even though you have to figure, say, “the Minister of Justice for the Dominion of Canada” is a public enough person to warrant being named—and, come to that, the Minister of Justice agreed with him! It’s almost enough to make me suspect there’s some misquoting going on, and he’s hoping that it won’t come to the guy’s notice if he just doesn’t mention him by name.
There’s a lot going on in this chapter, which I therefore won’t tackle page-by-page but sort of lumped into category of issue. It’s a highly disorganized chapter; Wertham jumps back and forth from one argument to another, and there’s only one I don’t find obviously, fatally flawed. He and I will both go into more detail on that one in a later chapter, I believe.
Wertham’s definition of a “crime comic” is, naturally enough, “a comic where crimes are committed.” This includes many comics considered by other categorists to belong to different genres, including Western comics, superhero comics, “jungle” comics, and even “true romance” comics wherein crimes are committed as part of the story. I don’t disagree with him about this, at least not for his purposes. The other distinctions are certainly useful in other discussions, but for his basic premise, you might as well lump them all together.
The problems begin to arise when he starts explaining what, exactly, is wrong with crime comics. He’s right enough that they were fairly graphic, in those days. He’s also right that the needle from crime to true romance swung pretty radically, with the publishers producing experts willing to stake their reputations that this particular fad produced the psychiatric release children needed even though crime and true romance are in many ways opposites—though of course Wertham himself notes the crimes that occur in those comics.
He just can’t quite deal with correlation and causation, though. He describes an incident in a comic book wherein a cop is shot when he asks to see someone’s license at a traffic stop and informs us that he himself once served for the defense on a case wherein a teenager had done just that. But I’m willing to bet that had also happened a time or two before that comic was published. Didn’t Bonnie and Clyde kill at least one cop in just those circumstances?
Elsewhere in the chapter, he complains that police had once seized an arsenal from a group of teenagers that resembled the kinds of weapons advertised in comic books, and he doesn’t ever suggest that maybe it shouldn’t be possible for children—one of his unfortunate tendencies is to treat “teenager” as though it exclusively refers to thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds and ignore that it’s actually quite possible to be both a teenager and a legal adult—to order weapons by mail regardless of where they encounter the advertisement. In arguing that children are interacting with drug dealers, he references eight-year-olds working as messengers, and it doesn’t seem to occur to him that they might not want to do it.
Indeed, the idea that children, especially the inner-city children with whom he’d been working for years, might have a wee bit of exposure to crime that isn’t in comic books doesn’t seem to come in for a mention. If your father is a burglar and your mother is a drug addict, maybe comics aren’t why you don’t have a problem shoplifting from candy stores? Or even if you have two decent, hard-working parents, you’d certainly have encountered at least one person who was not so decent as all that. I mean, Henry Hill was born in 1943; he would have been on the younger end of the children with whom Wertham worked, but he was by his own account at this time already wanting to be a goodfella.
Yes, Henry Hill was an extraordinary case, I’m sure. So what? What reason does Wertham ever give us to believe that the majority of the children with whom he works and whom he quotes aren’t extraordinary in similar ways? There are no identifying details on the vast majority of the children he describes. By his own admission, they are already in trouble when he meets them. Yet he insists that their experiences are universal, even though it’s quite obvious that the entire United States had not devolved into Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
Another pervasive problem in this book, exemplified by Hill and his ilk, is that Wertham seems completely unaware of any social context. He refers to a fourteen-year-old boy as “the first child drug addict.” This literally cannot be true. Oh, I’m sure there weren’t a lot of teenagers in the ’50s making their own hypodermics and shooting smack, as the kid here is described as doing, but a hundred years earlier, their parents were liberally dosing them with narcotics. I mean, look into the idea of “soothing syrups” one of these days, you know?
He expresses what reads as disdain for a scientist who is described by children as looking like Einstein, which seems to miss the fact that, for decades by that point, scientists in pop culture as a whole had a tendency to look like Einstein. How long has “looks like Einstein” been visual shorthand for “is a scientist” anyway?
Oh, and twice in this chapter, he calls Superman a Nazi. Do I necessarily expect him to know that Siegel and Schuster were Jews? No. No, I don’t. But he quotes a Wonder Woman comic and is apparently shocked that it portrays an audience cheering at this speech.
So, my fellow Americans, it is time to give America back to Americans! Don’t let foreigners take your jobs!
Frankly, I can’t think of a time in American history when that wouldn’t get a cheer from certain audiences. What context Wertham supplies—not much; he never puts any of his comic excerpts in context—suggests that we are not supposed to sympathize with this, but ask yourself this. Is there an election since 1840, maybe earlier, where that wouldn’t be a possible quote from at least one Presidential candidate? I mean, maybe 1860 and 1864; the country was otherwise occupied at the time. Still. He rails against Superboy’s helping Washington cross the Delaware, but he also rails at portraying an America-first rally and talking about Aztec human sacrifice. Are children only to experience the wholesome bits of history and current events? You figure this definitely isn’t a guy who knows that Superman fought the Klan.
Possibly worse is that he accuses comic books of ruining Great Art without really understanding much about the Great Art. This chapter quotes Shakespeare twice and Mark Twain once. Or, more accurately, classic comic adaptations of Shakespeare and Mark Twain. I grant you, the Macbeth quote is a paraphrase, presumably on the grounds that children might not know that the word “groom” refers to a kind of servant. But he quotes David Dempsy and the New York Times Book Review angrily quoting an adaptation of Julius Caesar.
“Our course will seem too bloody to cut the head off and then hack the limbs . . . ” says Brutus, in language that sounds like Captain Marvel . . . .
Or Shakespeare, because that’s word-for-word from Act II, Scene 1. I looked it up. Similarly, a denigrated chunk of a Twain adaptation is from Tom Sawyer, though Wertham never mentions which novel is being adapted.
I’m sure he’s also unaware that Mark Twain and Shakespeare both were reviled by the crusaders of their time. I’m not going to reproduce the whole quote here, because it’s both long and arguably irrelevant, but the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts had some pretty surly things to say about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hell, people have been trying to take Huck out of the schools for one reason or another since he was first published. And as for Shakespeare, the Puritans always wanted to close the playhouses completely. All I’m saying is that Wertham was unfamiliar with Titus Andronicus. He details a story of a man teaching children how to commit crimes, which sounds pretty Oliver Twist from what he tells us.
The worst of his bile in this chapter, however, is reserved for comics aimed at women. He quotes a lengthy segment from a romance comic that he says describes how to seduce a woman, but to me, it reads like a woman about to be raped. Not that we’ll know, because he doesn’t cite his source again, and he cuts off before we find out what happens to her. He mocks the comics for failing to provide catharsis by having serials, but he acts as though endings don’t matter anyway.
Worse still is his summary of Wonder Woman, a figure specifically designed to lift young girls’ self-esteem. Does he criticize that the Justice Society of America wouldn’t let her in at first? No. Does he criticize that they made her the secretary when they did let her in? Don’t be silly. No, here’s what he has to say about Wonder Woman.
Superwoman (Wonder Woman) is always a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, “phallic” woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.
I mean, I’m not a Freudian, so I don’t even know what a “‘phallic’ woman” is supposed to be. A lesbian, I guess? I admit that Steve Trevor is a forgettable sort, but he does exist. Then again, she rescues him a lot, so clearly, that’s a problem. It seems she should be frail and helpless and wait around to be rescued herself.
But young girls aren’t supposed to be interested in true romance stories, either. It isn’t even just that they’re implausible—and this is another place he’s ignoring context, because it’s not as though fairy tales are built on typical human relationships, but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with them. It’s that little girls aren’t allowed to have any interest at all in sex. Yes, too much interest is often a sign of sexual abuse, but he seems fairly opposed to the idea that little girls might think about kissing little boys, and Heaven forfend they might be interested in kissing other little girls instead. And he doesn’t even seem to wonder if the girl he describes in detail might have been molested; she should instead be showing him on the doll where the comic book touched her.
But, yes, he’d like you to be horrified at the story of the six-year-old girl who informed people that she liked “corpsies” comics, meaning “kewpies.” This, he assures us, is because of how familiar she was with the crime comics read by older children she knew. In a clear intent to shock, he points out that “Very young children who supposedly read only harmless animal comic books often see others in the hands of their older siblings or in other places.” Therefore, because young children might see them, older children shouldn’t have them. Because children might get comics intended for adults, so there can’t be comics intended for adults. Everything must be completely sanitized for the youngest of children.
I’ve got a not-quite-three-year-old with a speech delay. Okay, so he echoed his dad tonight and said, “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” That’ll happen. But half the stuff he says, I have no idea where he got it. Kids pick things up everywhere; ask any parent. I wouldn’t have let my sister get my hands on my comics, if I’d had any, when she was six and I was ten—she would have torn them!
Oh, and the thing I will give him? He’s got a point about jungle comics. He starts with this.
In the jungle books the jungle is not really a place but a state of mind.
Which is pretty much true; the jungle of the jungle comics is no more the real jungle than the comic book portrayals of Venus at the time. And he’s further right that a lot of those stories were awfully racist. I’m just not sure that I would have preferred to have a kid reading Tarzan, the pulp novel, which itself is pretty chancy stuff. And that’s leaving aside the anti-pulp arguments of twenty years earlier.
Edit: I originally listed Wonder Woman as being able to get into the Justice League, not the Justice Society. Thanks to Burgundy Suit for catching the error!