Seduction of the Innocent
4. "The Wrong Twist"
The Effects of Comic Books on Children
"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.
A typical comic-book drawing shows a blonde young girl lying in bed. She says: Then I was dreaming, of murder and morphine. This is a crime-comic-book dream. Murder, crime and drug traffic are offered to children in a literature which the defenders of comic books call the modern version of the stories 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?
A counterpart to the girl who dreams about murder and morphine is the equally blonde girl in another comic book who muses over a cigarette: I like to remember the past!... It was so wonderful!
What was "so wonderful"? This girl was the young wife of a Nazi concentration-camp guard. You see him hit a half-nude prisoner with a truncheon while she says: Hit him again, Franz! Make him bleed more! Hit him!
Evidently the industry thinks that some children learn slowly, for the same scene is repeated in a close-up: Hit him some more, Franz! Hit him!... Make him bleed more, Franz! Make him bleed! And later she says: I like to remember the prisoners suffering, the beatings and the blood!
In one of the pictures of this story there are three balloons with the exclamation HEIL HITLER! This comic book appeared at about the time when a group of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys had a "Nazi stormtrooper club" in which every prospective member had to hit a Negro on the head with a brick.
I undertook and continued the study of the effects of crime comics on the minds of children in the face of an extraordinary complacency on the part of adults. Typical of this attitude is the Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books, which has existed now for several years. It uses methods which are amateurish and superficial and, from the point of view of the mental hygiene of children, its classification is most lenient and unscientific. It divides comic books arbitrarily into four classes:
At one time the Committee reported that it found "only" thirty-nine comic books "very objectionable." This committee distinguishes fifteen categories of comic books, failing to realize that for most of them the harmful ingredients are the same, whatever the locale. Of "undesirable effects" the committee in question mentions only three: bad dreams, fright, and general emotional upset. How they know that one comic book causes that and not another, and why they fail to mention the really serious harmful effects is not explained. No wonder that these evaluations lend themselves to gross misstatements in which those not rated "very objectionable" have been lumped together with other categories as if they were all right. What has made the committee's evaluations even more confusing to the public is the fact that the Children's Bureau of the Federal Security Agency has given its findings as the only statistics in an official statement about comic books.
Children's minds are at least as sensitive and vulnerable as a man's stomach. Supposing you divide eggs into such groups and say that to some you have some objections, others you find objectionable and still others very objectionable. You can grade good eggs. But what sense is there in grading bad eggs? Isn't a bad egg bad, especially if one child eats hundreds of them? Even with this questionable yardstick, this committee found at one time that almost half of the comic books were not satisfactory. Imagine that your neighborhood grocer would sell you eggs for your children, almost half of which were bad!
This leniency toward what adults sell to children is in marked contrast to the severity of adults when children commit minor moral infractions. If a comic book is classified as some objection it is called satisfactory and suitable for children. But let a child commit a delinquent or sexual act to which there is some objection and the enormous machinery of children's courts, police, social agencies, psychiatrists and child-guidance people goes into action and the child is crushed. I have observed that many times.
The distinction of a greater from a lesser evil is an old one. But the committee [on the Evaluation of Comic Books] inaugurated the practice of distinguishing between a greater, a medium and a lesser evil. The resultant confusion has done a lot of harm.
Some time ago the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene issued a press release. It spoke of "the much-maligned comic book" and said "the universal appeal of the comic book stems from its color, action and drama." Modern psychopathology, however, teaches that it is not the form but the content that is dynamically important. This release reminds one of the old story of the boy called into conference by his father to receive sexual enlightenment. After listening to a tedious discourse about the flowers, the birds and the bees for some time, the little boy interrupts his father impatiently, "And there is no intercourse at all?" So one might ask about crime comic books: And nobody gets shot? Or stabbed or tortured? And no girls are beaten or choked or almost raped?
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.
Improper food deserves attention not only because it may cause indigestion, but also because it may cause totally different mild or serious manifestations of malnutrition. The mind is not something that grows by itself; it is nourished. Some nourishment is good, some is bad. Before one knew about vitamins one could not make the diagnosis of avitaminosis. The same reasoning should apply to scientific psychiatry. In order to diagnose the operative cause of any disorder, two requirements are necessary: one must know the nature of the factor that may be a possible cause, and one must think of it when confronted with a case. That is the essence of clinical thinking.
A young mother came to see me about her ten-year-old son. "He has wild imaginations," she complained. "when he plays with the children on the block, all younger than he, he takes a knife and says, I'll take your eyes out! He slashed a girl's doll carriage with the knife. I caught him with a three-year-old boy. He was saying to him, Now I must gouge your eyes out! Then he said to the boy, I must hang you! Then he said, I must rope you up!"
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.
This boy was an inveterate reader of comics. This fact came out accidentally when he saw comic books on my desk and asked me, "Doctor, why do you read comic books?"
"I read crime comics," he went on. "In some they tie up the girls. They tie their hands behind their backs because they want to do something to them later.
"Once I saw in a science comic where this beast comes from Mars. It showed a man's hand over his eyes and streams of blood coming down. I play a little rough with the kids some times. I don't mean to hurt them. In a game I said I would gouge a child's eyes out. I was playing that I was walking around and I jumped out at him. I scratched his face. Then I caught him and sucked the blood out of his throat. In another game I said, I'll scratch your eyes out!"
In one of our later sessions this boy told me that younger children should not read comic books. "If I had a younger brother," he explained, "I wouldn't want him to read the horror comic books, like Weird Science, because he might get scared. I don't think they should read Captain Marvel. Look at this one with all the pictures of the man without his head! The boy downstairs is six years old. Whenever he sees any monsters he always starts crying. He thinks it's real. It is bad for children because after they read that they keep on thinking about it. When they buy the comic books they start thinking all sorts of things, playing games. I played such games because I got them from the comic books. That's why I think younger children shouldn't have them."
To overlook the comic-book factor often means great unfairness to children - and of course to their parents, whom it is so easy to blame. Taking money away from younger children by threats or use of force is nowadays a frequent delinquency which often does not come to the attention of the authorities. A girl of eleven hit a six-year-old girl, pushed her and took her money out of her pocket. An official psychiatrist, after a routine examination, made the drastic and, under the circumstances, cruel recommendation that she be sent to a psychiatric hospital first, then be taken from home and placed in an institution. He wrote the usual cliché that she had "deep-seated problems" (which he did not specify) and remarked that she had "very little awareness of the consequences and implications of her action."
But on closer study we found that she had very definite ideas about these "consequences and implications." She and her friends were imbued with the superman ideology: the stronger dominates the smaller and weaker. She told us a comic-book story of a bank robbery which ends in a Superman rescue. She laughed because she knew that the bank robbery was real while the Superman rescue was not. The man-hating comic-book figure, Sheena, was her favorite. And no other vista of life except the ideal of being stronger than the next one was presented to her.
"I read more than ten comic books a day," she said. "There was a girl who stole in a department store and nobody saw her. So she is going out of the store, so this man he grabbed her. When she got to her home she thought nobody was following her. Then they took her to the police station and said if she did it any more they'd have to put her away. That shows if you steal anything you never know who follows you or whoever is watching you. If she was more clever maybe it could have been different."
In other words, this girl was well aware of consequences and implications as demonstrated to children in comic books. The "consequences" are that you may be caught. The "implications" are that you should be clever and not get caught.
I have found the effect of comic books to be first of all anti- educational. They interfere with education in the larger sense. For a child, education is not merely a question of learning, but is a part of mental health. They do not "learn" only in school; they learn also during play, from entertainment and in social life with adults and with other children. To take large chunks of time out of a child's life - time during which he is not positively, that is, educationally, occupied - means to interfere with his healthful mental growth.
To make a sharp distinction between entertainment and learning is poor pedagogy, and even worse psychology. A great deal of learning comes in the form of entertainment, and a great deal of entertainment painlessly teaches important things. By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art. Considering the enormous amount of time spent by children on crime comic books, their gain is nil. They do not learn how to read a serious book or magazine. They do not gain a true picture of the West from the "Westerns." They do not learn about any normal aspects of sex, love or life. I have known many adults who have treasured throughout their lives some of the books they read as children. I have never come across any adult nor adolescent who had outgrown comic-book reading who would ever dream of keeping any of these "books" for any sentimental or other reason. In other words, children spend a large amount of their time and money on these publications and have nothing positive to show for it. And since almost all good children's reading has some educational value, crime comics by their very nature are not only non-educational; they are anti-educational. They fail to teach anything that might be useful to a child; they do suggest many things that are harmful.
Since murder is the mainstay of crime comics, you might expect - provided you think education about murder is educational - that children would learn something positive about that. They do not. Here is a typical statement made by a fourteen-year-old boy: First degree is when you kill for no reason at all. Second degree is when you kill for a lame excuse - like when you think somebody talked about you. Third degree - you have a reason, but it still isn't very good.... Manslaughter is when you kill a person with a knife or any weapon except a gun.
Where crime comics pay a hypocritical obeisance to educational demands they show their true colors even more clearly. For example, under the lame pretext of self-defense, they show pictures of Vulnerable Areas in the human body with such notations as:
EYES: finger jab Or thumb gouge
When I pointed out this anti-educational aspect of crime comics, the industry answered by inserting occasional educational pages of advertising for organizations advocating better schools or some health campaign.
Some of the worst crime comics contain notices about the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, or mention in the stories the Damon Runyon Fund or the Red Cross. This, of course, does these organizations no good; but it camouflages the comics. So the characteristics of crime comic books might be summed up as violence in content, ugliness in form and deception in presentation.
The most subtle and pervading effect of crime comics on children can be summarized in a single phrase: moral disarmament. I have studied this in children who do not commit overt acts of delinquency, who do not show any of the more conspicuous symptoms of emotional disorder and who may not have difficulty in school. The more subtle this influence is, the more detrimental it may be. It is an influence on character, on attitude, on the higher functions of social responsibility, on super ego formation and on the intuitive feeling for right and wrong. To put it more concretely, it consists chiefly in a blunting of the finer feelings of conscience, of mercy, of sympathy for other people's suffering and of respect for women as women and not merely as sex objects to be bandied around or as luxury prizes to be fought over. Crime comics are such highly flavored fare that they affect children's taste for the finer influences of education, for art, for literature and for the decent and constructive relationships between human beings and especially between the sexes.
A boy of eleven who reads his own crime comics and his sister's love comics has this conception of girls: In the love comics the girls have dresses and wearing apparel. The girls in the crime stories are always on the gangsters' side. The gangsters pick them up, like. They just roam around with the gangsters. They are always dressed up in new clothes; practically every day they buy new clothes. The dresses have a V-shape in the front. The girls are in the room. They do something bad or something, and then a man slaps them and beats them up.
When children confide in you, they will tell you that younger children should not read comic books. Here are notes of a typical dialogue with a boy of thirteen:
Q: Why do you say that younger children shouldn't read them?
That is precisely the point. Psychiatrists in court cases often have to answer questions about a person's ability to distinguish right from wrong in an individual act or in general. And yet it is astonishing how little concrete and systematic work has been done on the ethical equilibrium of the person as a whole. We know that every person has in his brain a picture of his body, the so-called body image. I believe that individuals also have a mental self-knowledge in a form that one may call an ethical image. It is this that makes possible a stable and yet not rigid ethical equilibrium. Speaking of the mildest disorders of the personality, of adults or children, this ethical image which a person has of himself unconsciously is a cornerstone of mental health.
Discussion of ethics is not popular in psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature. It smacks too much of a moralistic attitude and a lack of the objectivity of natural science. It is true that in a society like our own in which ethical norms are undergoing great changes, the psychiatrist or psychoanalyst inevitably introduces a personal, socially conditioned factor in this sphere. But that does not prevent his patient from having ethical problems. Many if not all sexual conflicts, for example, are fundamentally ethical difficulties. Such an acknowledgment may of course open the door to obscurantism and bigotry, but there is no reason why it should not also open the way to a socially oriented science.
Clinical psychiatrists used to pay very little attention to the examination of ethical feelings or ethical judgment. A new departure was the Fernald Method. This Ethical Discrimination Test consisted of rating ten misdeeds, such as throwing hot water on a cat or taking apples from another man's orchard, in the order of their gravity. The idea was to measure a supposed natural moral attitude independent of general intelligence, judgment and other mental faculties, and also independent of the environment. Both the method and these general assumptions have proved too primitive. But Fernald did achieve an extension of the previously more restricted schemes of personality examination. It was found that the results of his test are not so significant in themselves, but often led the person tested to fuller statements about his ethical and social views which are revealing for the psychiatric estimate of his personality.
This line of inquiry was later considered too old-fashioned and has been much neglected. I have found that in modified form, more adjusted to the individual's special life circumstances, his ethical judgment in comparing two or several acts can be used almost as a projective test.
The greatest impetus to the study of the ethical aspects of behavior came of course from psychoanalysis, especially from Freud's discovery of the influence of unconscious guilt feelings. But conservative psychoanalysis has not progressed much further. It seems to regard the glib distinction between normal feelings of guilt and neurotic feelings of guilt as the solution of a question, when actually it is merely the statement of the question. And it got into real logical complications when it attempted to regard the tendencies to aggression from a purely biological point of view. In reality the whole significance of aggressive attitudes for the organism becomes of less and less significance with social progress. If we carry out experiments on the brains of cats, aggression is a biological problem. If we study the minds of children it is preponderantly a social and ethical problem.
The cultural background of millions of American children comes from the teaching of the home, the teaching of the school (and church), the teaching of the street and from crime comic books. For many children the last is the most exciting. It arouses their interest, their mental participation, their passions and their sympathies, but almost entirely in the wrong direction. The atmosphere of crime comic books is unparalleled in the history of children's literature of any time or any nation. It is a distillation of viciousness. The world of the comic book is the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shrewd deceiver, the torturer and the thief. All the emphasis is on exploits where somebody takes advantage of somebody else, violently, sexually or threateningly. It is no more the world of braves and squaws, but one of punks and molls. Force and violence in any conceivable form are romanticized. Constructive and creative forces in children are channeled by comic hooks into destructive avenues. Trust, loyalty, confidence, solidarity, sympathy, charity, compassion are ridiculed. Hostility and hate set the pace of almost every story. A natural scientist who had looked over comic books expressed this to me tersely, In comic books life is worth nothing; there is no dignity of a human being.
Children seek a figure to emulate and follow. Crime comic books undermine this necessary ingredient of ethical development. They play up the good times had by those who do the wrong thing. Those who at the tail end of stories mete out punishment use the same violence and the same lingo as those whom they punish. Since everybody is selfish and force and violence are depicted as the most successful methods, the child is given a feeling of justification. They not only suggest the satisfaction of primitive impulses but supply the rationalization. In this soil children indulge in the stock fantasies supplied by the industry: murder, torture, burglary, threats, arson and rape. Into that area of the child's mind where right and wrong is evaluated, children incorporate such false standards that an ethical confusion results for which they are not to blame. They become emotionally handicapped and culturally underprivileged. And this affects their social balance.
Whatever may give a child some ethical orientation is dragged down to the crime-violence level. Inculcation of a distorted morality by endless repetition is not such an intangible factor if one studies its source in comic books and its effect in the lives of children. It is of course a question not of pious slogans like "Crime never pays" but of the emotional accents within the stories themselves.
In one comic an old man is killed during the hold-up of his jewelry store. He had not obeyed the order to back up against the wall quickly enough. After other crimes and murders the captured criminal says: "It was not right to kill him.... That man couldn't have obeyed me!... That old man was STONE DEAF!"
In one comic story called "Mother Knows Best," the mother advises her children: "I brought you kids up right - rub out those coppers like I taught you!"
What in a few words is the essential ethical teaching of crime comics for children? I find it well and accurately summarized in this brief quotation: It is not a question of right, but of winning. Close your heart against compassion. Brutality does it. The stronger is in the right. Greatest hardness. Follow your opponent till he is crushed.
These words were the instructions given on August 22, 1939, by a superman in his home in Berchtesgaden to his generals, to serve as guiding lines for the treatment of the population in the impending war on Poland.
In modification of the Fernald method of letting children judge the severity of offenses, I have often asked them about punishment. Why do people get punished, what is just punishment, how does it come about that people get punished? Frequently the reply is that it serves the criminal right, whatever the punishment may be: He got caught, didn't he?
My clinical findings leave no room for doubt that children learn from crime comics that the real guilt is getting caught. They have little faith in any ordinary public processes of having an offense evaluated and justly and humanely dealt with. The law enforcers are criminals in reverse. They use the same methods. If they are also stronger and there are more of them, they win; if not, they lose.
In many subtle and not so subtle forms the lynch spirit is taught as a moral lesson. Many children have told me that lynching is all right and have shown me examples from their comic books. In one such story the townspeople get to gether, hunt the criminal and he is finally shot and killed. The lesson is in the last sentence: "The story of Lee Gillon proves that fearless people banded together will always see that justice triumphs."
In the same book, a man slaps a girl's face and says: "Give me trouble and you'll have a board full of spikes smashed into your kisser!"
The form in which this distrust for democratic law and the morality of taking punishment - or rather vengeance - into one's own hands has done most harm to the ethical development of young people is the superman conceit.
Analyzing children's fantasies and daydreams, I have often found in them a wish for overwhelming physical strength, domination, power, ruthlessness, emancipation from the morals of the community. It may show in various half-repressed ways or openly as admiration for these traits.
Spontaneously children connect this with crime comic books of the Superman, Batman, Superboy, Wonder Woman type. In the individual case this superman ideology is psychologically most unhygienic. The would-be supermen compensate for some kind of inferiority, real or imagined, by the fantasy of the superior being who is a law unto himself. I have had cases where children would have had a good chance to overcome feelings of inferiority in constructive ways at their disposal if they had not been sidetracked by the fancied short-cuts of superman prowess.
The superman conceit gives boys and girls the feeling that ruthless go-getting based on physical strength or the power of weapons or machines is the desirable way to behave. When I have had to examine young adults at the Clinic off and on for driving recklessly, I was interested to find the same attitude. Particularly dangerous is the superman-speed-fancy in girls who in turn influence boys. One young girl told me that she would only go out with boys who would not let other cars pass them on the road. That was the idea of the proper male behavior that she had got from comics.
In these children there is an exact parallel to the blunting of sensibilities in the direction of cruelty that has characterized a whole generation of central European youth fed on the Nietzsche-Nazi myth of the exceptional man who is beyond good and evil. It is an ethical confusion. If such persons are analyzed psychiatrically, it is found that the trouble lies not so much with the impulse to do the wrong thing as with the false rationalization which permits the impulse to grow and to express itself in deeds.
The very children for whose unruly behavior I would want to prescribe psychotherapy in an anti-superman direction, have been nourished (or rather poisoned) by the endless repetition of Superman stories. How can they respect the hard-working mother, father or teacher who is so pedestrian, trying to teach common rules of conduct, wanting you to keep your feet on the ground and unable even figuratively speaking to fly through the air?
Psychologically Superman undermines the authority and the dignity of the ordinary man and woman in the minds of children.
When I described how children suffer in their ethical development through the reading of comic books, the industry countered by pointing with pride to the "moral" lesson imprinted on many crime comics, that crime does not pay. In the first place, this is not true. In comic books crime usually does pay, and pay very well, until the last picture or two. The crimes are glamorous; the end is dull. Frequently the ratio of crime to does not pay is as high as fifty to one. More important, the slogan Crime does not pay is not moral, but highly immoral. It is strange how responsible adults have accepted this slogan and refer to it on platforms, over the radio and in articles as admirable. Great harm has been done by teaching children that they should not play hookey, that they should not steal or lie, that they should not hit girls (as comic-book figures so often do) - because it doesn't pay!
I have seen many children who were confused by this vicious crime-comic-book morality. The reason why one does not hit girls, even if comics have made it so attractive, is that it is cowardly and that it hurts them; the reason why one does not steal or break into stores is that that is not how one lives in a civilized community; that whether crime pays or does not pay, it is not what a decent person wants to do. That should be the lesson for children.
When I pointed out the hypocrisy of the Crime does not pay slogan and its bad effect on children, the industry accused me of "unfairness" in attacking their highest endeavors and introduced some more slogan morality. In one comic book are two pages by a police captain attacking me: "Don't let reformers kid you!" He is "shocked by what I read today about the people who condemn crime comics. These people are the menace." He goes on: "Children don't like to be kicked around by reformers who want to decide what's good for them to read." And he extols "the strong moral force" that comics exert on children.
Frequently I have been in the position of having to defend children who have received harsh judgments in courts and on psychiatric wards and equally harsh treatment in places of detention and reformatories. There is no better illustration of the state of affairs where we first victimize children and then put all the responsibility on them, the victims, than this same comic book. It has a story where two policemen are killed - and a real police captain pointing out what a "strong moral force" such a book is!
In the midst of bloody scenes in another book are two full-page announcements, one advocating "better schools" and the other with an oversized headline in capitals: WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE! advocating "a new way of prayer." If one tried to set out deliberately to create ethical confusion in children, better ways could hardly be devised. No wonder that a minister heard his young son exclaim: "Hands up, in the name of the Lord!"
The detrimental effect on character is if anything worse on girls than on boys. Their ego-ideal formation is interfered with by the fascination of the sadistic female comic-book heroines. Comic books do not permit these children even in their imagination to view a non-violent life. A girl of eleven examined be cause of stealing showed in her Thematic Apperception Test a profusion of stories with murder and hostility. Her drawing of a woman showed a masculine type with violent aggressivity. Of average intelligence, she had a reading retardation undoubtedly caused by constant reading of comics. She had incorporated the comic-book morale into her character.
"I read about ten a day," she stated. "I like the stories when you get in trouble and everything. You learn like it does not pay if you kill a person for nothing that isn't right[!]. They have to go to prison for a certain length of time, then they come out and do it all over again. Then they go up the river again."
Without rationalization and without an ideal image of oneself one cannot learn to exert self-discipline. That is why good reading is such a character-building influence. Comic books work in the opposite direction. A thirteen-year-old girl examined because of "truancy and disobedience" said about her reading, "I used to buy a love comic every day. I like to read Sheena because I like the way she fights. She fights like a man, swings on the vines and kicks people in the face."
Ethical development of children, so intimately bound up with their mental development, has to do not only with relations with an individual but also with integration in groups. The development of the superego, of conscience or, more simply, the sense of decency, takes place not only on the basis of identification with parents but also with successive parent-substitutes who are at the same time representatives and symbols of group demands and group responsibilities. In this sphere, comic books are most pernicious. They expose children's minds to an endless stream of prejudice-producing images. This influence, subtle and pervasive but easily demonstrable by clinical psychological methods, has not only directly affected the individual child, but also constitutes an important factor for the whole nation. It is currently fashionable to speak of "inter-group tensions," "group adjustments" and so on. The old term race hatred (or race prejudice) is more honest and more to the point. What we call "minorities" constitute the majority of mankind. The United States is spending at present millions of dollars to persuade the world on the air and by other propaganda means that race hatred is not an integral part of American life. At the same time, millions of American comic books are exported all over the world which give the impression that the United States is instilling race hatred in young children.
If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, "ape men," Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features. In some crime comics the first class sometimes wears some kind of superman uniform, while the second class is in mufti. The brunt of this imputed inferiority in whole groups of people is directed against colored people and "foreign born."
When the seeds of prejudice against others first appear in a child, or when he first becomes aware of belonging to a group against which there is prejudice, depends on many diverse factors: family, education, community, social stratum. From my studies, the second apparently appears later. But in general both feelings appear much earlier than is commonly supposed. A four-year-old can imbibe prejudice from comic books, and six- or seven-year-olds are quite articulate about it. Sometimes their feeling of dislike for a group ("They are bad." "They are vicious." "They are criminals." "They are dirty." "You can't trust them.") is derived from crime comic books. In other cases, distorted stereotypes acquired at home, on the street, in school, are given new nourishment and perpetuation by comic-book reading. These conclusions are based entirely on what the children themselves say.
The pictures of these "inferior" types as criminals, gangsters, rapers, suitable victims for slaughter by either the lawless or the law, have made an indelible impression on children's minds. There can be no about the correctness of this conclusion.
For example, when a child is shown a comic book that he has not read and is asked to pick out the bad man, he will unhesitatingly pick out types according to the stereotyped conceptions of race prejudice, and tell you the reason for his choice, "Is he an American?" "No!"
Attacks by older children on younger ones, inspired or fortified by the race prejudice shown in comic books, are getting more frequent. I have seen such cases (which do not always come to the attention of the authorities) with victims belonging to various minorities. For the victims, this is frequently a serious traumatic emotional episode. Some juvenile gangs make it a practice to beat dark-skinned children, and they do it with comic-book brutality. So comic books provide both the methods and the vilification of the victims.
Comic books read with glee by many children, including very young ones, teach the props of anti-Semitism. There is the book with the story of the "itch-ray projector," with illustrations which might be taken directly from Nazi magazines like Streicher's Stuermer. One particularly popular comic book features the story of "Mother Mandelbaum, A True Story." Depicted as an unmistakable and repellent stereotype, she "aspires to be the biggest fence in New York." She finances bank robberies, starts a school for pickpockets, and also has a class for safecrackers and another to teach assorted kinds of violence. She personally orders and supervises the beating up of "slow payers."
When you see groups of children reading this and hear them chuckle and fill in the derogatory epithets and appellations, the result of the indoctrination is clear. It partially explains some recent episodes of vandalism and attacks on children.
As for counteracting prejudice, which some publishers claim to achieve through their heroes-who-fly-through-the-air, we have yet to see a single child who was even remotely influenced in this way by a comic book. Even the comic-book version of Uncle Tom's Cabin has been characterized by a pupil in a school magazine like this: The Classics Comics version of Uncle Tom's Cabin gives the impression that the Negro is still that stereotyped man who sings about "going to glory" all day. Mrs. Stowe's book shows the Negro to be a human being.
Some children take for granted these comics standards about races, with more or less awareness of their implications. For others they constitute a serious traumatic experience. For example, a twelve-year-old colored girl said at the Lafargue Clinic: "I read a lot of comic books, sometimes about seven or eight a day. Love Comics, and Wonder Woman, Sheena, Superman, Archie. I don't like the jungle. She don't have no peace. Every time she turn around, she'd be fighting. I don't think they make the colored people right. The way they make them I never seen before - their hair and big nose and the English they use. They never have an English like we have. They put them so dark - for real I've never seen anybody before like that. White kids would think all colored people look like that, and really they aren't. Some of those children in my school don't like no white people. One girl's face was scratched up. I seen the girl, but not the fight."
The depiction of racial stereotypes in sadistic actions makes a great impression on children. It is not difficult to find out why that is so if one bothers to analyze children's psychological processes in this sphere. One effect of this fomenting of race hatred is the fact that in many children's minds mankind is divided into two groups: regular men who have the right to live, and submen who deserve to be killed. But the deeper psychological effects are more subtle. A comic book has a picture of a white girl held with her arms seized from behind by a dark skinned man. A picture like this stands out in a child's mind quite independent of the story. The picture alone becomes the starting point for fantasy. Its sexual effect has been built up by previous pictures showing her, front and back. There is an other story showing a subhuman caveman grabbing a blonde heroine.
We know that the dreams of adults often contain images of forbidden acts in which one of the participants belongs to a group of people considered socially inferior by the dreamer. In this way the forbidden act itself can break through the psychic censorship. Through such psychological mechanisms comic books give children a feeling of justification for violence and sadism, frequently in fantasy and sometimes in acts. They supply a rationalization for these primitive impulses. A large part of the violence and sadism in comic books is practiced by individuals or on individuals who are depicted as inferior, sub human beings. In this way children can indulge in fantasies of violence as something permissible.
In many comic books dark-skinned people are depicted in rapelike situations with white girls. One picture, showing a girl nailed by her wrists to trees with blood flowing from the wounds, might be taken straight from an illustrated edition of the Marquis de Sade.
In another specimen the editorial viciousness is carried to the extreme of showing a white girl being overpowered by dark-skinned people who have tails. In another comic book the hero throws bombs and a Negro from his airplane. A picture shows the bombs and the Negro in mid-air while the hero calls out: BOMBS AND BUMS AWAY!
One of the most significant and deeply resented manifestations of race prejudice in the mores of the United States is the fact that in books, movies and magazines photographs of white women with bared breasts are taboo, while the same pictures of colored girls are permitted. Comic books for children make this same distinction. One such specimen had half-nude girls in all kinds of suggestive positions. Other pictures show typical whipping and flagellation scenes such as are found, outside of this children's literature, only in pornographic books. When the girls are white, there is always some covering of the breasts. Only colored girls have their breasts fully exposed.
This is a demonstration of race prejudice for children, driven home by the appeal to sexual instincts. It is probably one of the most sinister methods of suggesting that races are fundamentally different with regard to moral values, and that one is inferior to the other. This is where a psychiatric question becomes a social one.
War comics, in which war is just another setting for comic-book violence, are widely read by soldiers at the front and by children at home. It seems dubious whether this is good for the morale of soldiers; it certainly is not good for the morality of children. Against the background of regular-featured blonde Americans, the people of Asia are depicted in comic books as cruelly grimacing and toothy creatures, often of an unnatural yellow color.
False stereotypes of race prejudice exist also in the "love comics." Children can usually pick the unsatisfactory lover just by his looks.
In addition to their effect on children's ethical growth, their character development and their social maturation, comic books are a factor in a host of negative behavior manifestations: dreams and daydreams; games; nightmares; general attitudes; reactions to women, to teachers, to younger children; and so on.
Comic books act clearly as a trauma or the precipitating circumstance in nightmares and other sleep disorders. I have observed this in many cases. Nightmares occur in children under very different circumstances, of course. Often they are more or less harmless; sometimes they are premonitory signs of more serious developments. A seven and a half year old boy was brought to the clinic with a complaint of nightmares. He told his parents he could not remember what had frightened him. Psychological examinations had uncovered nothing. Later, routine questions about comic books elicited merely that he read Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and liked them. When I saw him alone I told him a little about what nightmares are, and that grownups have them too. And that if one remembers what they are about one has more chance not to have them any more.
"Don't you remember the least little bit of any of them?" I asked him.
It is not difficult to understand that a child stimulated to fantasies about violent and sadistic adventures and about a man who changes into an insect gets frightened. Kafka for the kiddies!
The recent output of horror comic books, a refined or rather debased form of crime comics, is especially apt to interfere with children's sleep. In a typical specimen a man-eating shark changes into a girl. You are shown the gruesome picture of an arm bitten off by the shark with blood flowing from the severed stump. And the moral ending?
"No one would ever believe . . . that the ghost of a lovely girl could inhabit a shark's body..."
All kinds of monstrous creatures inhabit these comic books. They have in common that their chief pastime seems to be to kill people, eat them or drink their blood. A boy of eight read many comics during the day without any ill effect being apparent to his family. But after a while he demanded that after dark his comic books be securely locked away. He insisted on this every night because, he said, "I am afraid that these horrible creatures would come out and attack me in the night."
A common clinical syndrome in comic-book readers is rough and blustering conduct during the day, associated with fear dreams at night.
Sleep disorders also occur of course in children who say they do not read comics, though they know what is in them. Sometimes this is their method of telling you that they read those books, too, but either feel spontaneously guilty about it or know that their parents do not want them to do it. A girl of eight had been taken by her mother to the family physician because her sleep was disturbed. The physician had prescribed a sedative, but that had not helped the situation.
When I was alone with the girl, without her mother, she said, "Sometimes I dream that something happens to me. I read comic books, but only funny ones, not mystery ones. Some of my friends read mystery ones." When I asked her what "mystery ones" are, she answered eagerly, "When somebody shoots somebody! Sometimes they try to shoot the hero and they shoot people who have money when they want their money. They shoot anybody they want to. Sometimes there are girls in the mystery comic books. The girls, sometimes they shoot and sometimes they get shot. Sometimes the girls have a lot of money. They are dressed in pretty clothes, fancy clothes, diamonds, sequins, pearls. Sometimes a lady works with a killer and when the lady is going to tell the police, the men will shoot her. Sometimes they do bad things to girls. Sometimes they shoot them, sometimes they strangle them. I don't know what they do, I don't read those comic books." In the ordinary statistics based on the primitive questionnaire method such a girl would appear as reading only harmless funny animal comics, and the sleep disorder would be ascribed to some other cause.
The time when children read comics has something to do with the causation of sleep disorders. Many children read them before they go to sleep, often unknown to their parents, until very late.
Some typical attitudes in children, particularly pre-adolescent children, are caused, stimulated, encouraged or rationalized by comic-book reading. For example, there is a kind of arrogance and bravado sometimes combined with a tendency to cruelty or to deceit and trickery. Such attitudes are by no means always either fixed personality traits or deeply ingrained characteristics caused by early childhood experiences, or the natural expressions of an abnormal temperament. I have often found that such attitudes, however serious they may seem, may be merely a facade, the psychological structure of which can not be understood without a full knowledge of the mass seduction by comic books.
An important aid in understanding these attitudes and their relation to comic books is our finding that frequently the influence of comic books is not exerted directly, but comes through other children. The influence of children on children is generally underestimated. Parents have sometimes told me that what I have said about comic books may be true, but that doesn't affect their children because they do not read such trash. One of my answers to this is generally, "Don't you think your child will later on, either in school or in other places, meet other children who have been steeped in comics and have absorbed their attitudes concerning sex, violence, women, money, races and other subjects that make up social life?"
In many cases where there is no question of a definite neurosis or of serious delinquency, comic books have exerted a tangible and harmful influence. This always takes place, of course, in the setting of other factors. It should be self-understood that the effect of a stimulus - any stimulus - on a child's' life is not so simple as the impact of one billiard ball against another. A child's life, unlike a billiard ball, stores many memories and the game of life is not played on a smooth, green, level surface.
An attitude which I have found most frequently engendered by crime comics is an attitude of brutality. Of course that is sometimes connected with sadism, with sado-masochistic tendencies, with cruelty, with sex, with hostility and aggressiveness. But we may not be seeing the forest for the trees if we start right off analyzing brutality into its supposed components.
Nor does it help to say that children have always been cruel - with the implication that they always will be cruel and that cruelty has no cause, but is a natural attribute of children.
Many children are so sheltered that they have not come into contact with real brutality. They learn it from comic books. Many others have had some contact with brutality, but not to a comic-book degree. If they have a revulsion against it, crime comics turn this revulsion into indifference. If they have a subconscious liking for it, comic books will reinforce it, give it form by teaching appropriate methods and furnish the rationalization that it is what every "big shot" does.
The variety of different kinds of brutality described and depicted in detail is enormous. Children have told me graphically about daydreams induced by them. Brutality in fantasy creates brutality in fact. Children's games have become more brutal in recent years and there is no doubt that one factor involved in this is the brutalizing effect of children's comics.
An eight-year-old boy was examined and treated because he "wakes up at night scared." His Rorschach Test showed that he was concerned with Superman kind of things and with supernatural things. A good bit of blood in the pictures. "The kids around the block," he told us, "have millions of comic books. In school there is a gang, they are littler than me. Once I was walking to school. They sneaked behind me and they held my hands behind my back."
Once the whole gang knocked a girl's head against the wall. They jabbed a needle into her lip. They kept jabbing it in. Once a boy played sticking a penknife into my back."
A Lafargue social worker investigated the case of an eleven-year-old boy who "played" with a boy several years younger. He put a rope around his neck, drawing it so tight that his neck became swollen, and the little boy almost strangled. His father happened to catch them and was able to prevent the incident from turning into a catastrophe. About a month later the eleven-year-old beat the younger child so that his mouth was all bloody. He did not know that one should not hit a younger and smaller boy. What he did know was that this sort of thing was done in innumerable comic-book stories about murders and robberies.
Realistic games about torture, unknown fifteen years ago, are now common among children. To indicate the blood which they see so often in crime comics they use catchup or lipstick. A boy of four and a girl of five were playing with a three-year-old boy. With a vicious look on her face the girl took hold of the younger boy and said, "Let's torture him!" Then she pushed him against the wall and marked him up with lipstick and said, "That is all blood!" One must know children's games to understand their minds, and one must know comic books to understand the games.
Violent games may be harmless enough, but only a hairline divides them from the acts of petty vandalism and destructiveness which have so increased in recent years. Camp counsellors have told me that with regard to some particularly destructive and ingenious schemes the inspiration came directly from comic books brought to the camp in plentiful numbers by the parents on Sundays.
The act most characteristic of the brutal attitude portrayed by comic books is to smack a girl in the face with your hand. Whatever else may happen, afterwards, no man is ever blamed for this. On the contrary, such behavior is glamorized as big-shot stuff in the context, and enhances the strength and prestige of the boy or man who does it.
In a comic book Authorized by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers this lesson is driven home. A young girl is being initiated as a confederate into the slot-machine protection racket. She sees how her friend beats up an old man, knocks off his glasses, etc. At first she does not like it. But later, after she had seen such brutal treatment repeated as routine in the racket, she says: "One gets accustomed to brutality after a while!" That is one instance where I agree with a comic-book character.
In another comic book the murderer says to his victim: "I think I'll give it to yuh in the belly! Yuh get more time to enjoy it!"
Is shooting in the stomach to inflict more pain really a natural tendency of children?
Often the ending of the stories, which is generally supposed to be moral, is an orgy of brutality like this ending of a horror comic-book story: "His body was torn to shreds, his face an unrecognizable mass of bloody and clawed flesh!"
In many comics stories there is nothing but violence. It is violence for violence's sake. The plot: killing. The motive: to kill. The characterization: killer. The end: killed. In one comic book the scientist ("mad," of course), Dr. Simon Lorch, after experimenting on himself with an elixir, has the instinct to "kill and kill again." He "flails" to death two young men whom he sees changing a tire on the road. He murders two boys he finds out camping. And so on for a week. Finally he is killed himself.
The injury-to-the-eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books-the threat or actual infliction of injury to the eyes of a victim, male or female. This detail, occurring in uncounted instances, shows perhaps the true color of crime comics better than anything else. It has no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or for adults.
According to our case material the brutalizing effect of this injury-to-the-eye motif is twofold. In the first place, it causes a blunting of the general sensibility. Children feel in a vague subconscious way that if this kind of thing is permitted then other acts are so much less serious that it cannot be so wrong to indulge in them either.
An eight-year-old girl said to her mother, "Let's play a game. Someone is coming to see us. I'll stamp on him, knock his eyes out and cut him up.
But it has also a direct effect. Children have done deliberate harm to the eyes of other children, an occurrence which before the advent of crime comics I had never encountered among the thousands of children I examined. On a number of occasions I have asked juveniles who used homemade zip guns what harm they could do with so little power. I received prompt reply: "You shoot in the eye. Then it works."
The children of the early forties pointed out the injury-to-the-eye to us as something horrible. The children of 1954 take it for granted. A generation is being desensitized by these literal horror images.
One comic shows a man slashing another man across the eye balls with a sword. The victim: "MY EYES! I cannot see!"
In a run-of-the-mill crime comic a man with brass knuckles hits another man (held fast by a third man) in the eyes, one after the other. Dialogue: "Now his other glimmer, Pete! Only sort of twist the knuckles this time!"
In a Western comic book the "Gouger" is threatening the hero's eye with his thumb, which has a very long and pointed nail. This is called the "killer's manicure." He says: "YORE EYES ARE GONNA POP LIKE GRAPES WHEN OL' GOUGER GETS HIS HANDS ON YOU!... HERE GO THE PEEPERS!"
In one comic book a gangster gains control over another man's racket and tapes his eyes "with gauze that has been smeared with an infectious substance!" He says: "When I get through with ya, ya'll never look at another case of beer again!"
When a policeman is blinded, the criminal says: "Well, he don't have to worry about them eyes no more!"
Girls are frequent victims of the eye motif, as in the typical: "My eyes! My eyes! Don't! PLEASE! I'll tell you anything you want to know, only don't blind me! PLEASE!"
It is a pity that such quotes are never mentioned in discussions by the expert defenders of comic books who "have never seen a child adversely affected by a comic book."
One of the best avenues to the unguarded minds of children, as of adults, is the study of their dreams. Investigation of children's dreams, especially in relation to various maladjustments and delinquencies, has been greatly neglected. From many years of study one definite statement can be made in connection with the eye motif. In children's dreams eyes often play a role, just as with adults. But injuries to the eye and gouging out of eyes in dreams used to be of extreme rarity. Even where it existed in nightmare dreams, it occurred in disguised form. Nowadays after years of comic-book indoctrination, such dreams in children or young people are not so rare.
There is an interplay between the stimuli from comic books and from life. A twelve-year-old girl was referred to the Clinic. She told us: "Me and some girls and boys were playing. A boy said he was going to hit me in the eye. He did it with an umbrella-spoke."
Her mother confirmed this. One might expect - if one did not know the comic-book atmosphere in which American children grow up - that such a child might shy away from violence. But she told me she liked to look at killing, especially "how men kill ladies."
In such a case it is hard to say where the tendency to female sado-masochism comes from - from the violent play in the streets or from crime comic books or from the temper of the times which breeds both and affects individual lives so deeply and so early.
In children who read a lot of comic books there is a typical comic-book syndrome. It has these features:
1) The child feels spontaneously guilty about reading the violent, sadistic and criminal stories, and about fantasies stimulated by them.
This comic-book syndrome occurs in children in all walks of life who are in no way psychologically predisposed. Of course in children in bad social circumstances it is apt to occur more frequently. Child psychologists who do not know that these children read crime comic books secretly and who do not gain a child's confidence fully cannot diagnose it.
Since comic books may have such diverse effects on children, from distortion of human values to nightmares and violent games, one must make clear to oneself what psychological mechanisms are involved. The influence consists in a continuation or repetition of the contents of the stories in life, either in thought or in action. The simplest mechanism is just plain imitation.
This factor of copying in action a detail from a comic book has been brought home by the cases where children hanged themselves.
It is in the youngest children that one can see the process of imitation most clearly at work. A four-year-old boy in Florida looked through his brother's comic books and his mother found him under a tree stark naked, with a long knife in his hands. Stunned, she asked him why he had undressed himself, and what he was doing. He replied, "The man in the comics did it." Later he showed her pictures where some Mongols" had a white man stripped naked and one of them had a long knife to cut out the American's tongue.
In California a very handsome six-year-old boy on his way home from school one day trudged to the top of a steep cliff. An ardent comic-book reader, he had translated his reading into practice and made for himself a flying cape or magic cloak. Taking a brisk run he jumped off the cliff to fly as his comic book heroes did. Seriously injured, he told his mother, "Mama, I almost did fly!" A few days later he died from the injuries he had received.
How the comic-book defenders can deny the role of imitation in good faith is hard to see. During one of the debates in the British House of Commons, where the defense of English children against American comics was discussed, one member, a former judge, mentioned a case he had tried. Some juveniles had attacked another child on Hampstead Heath in London. He summed up his Opinion: "Their crime was in fact imitative. They had seen the glorification of violence as illustrated in these comics; they had seen how the heroes used the rope, the dagger, the knife and the gun; they had seen how they were glorified, and they simply imitated the example of the heroes portrayed in these lurid publications."
Sometimes it is contended that imitation is far too simple a mechanism to explain anything in the behavior of children. Does not modern psychology know much more now about the complex behavior of human beings, about unconscious factors, infantile experiences and similar factors? This argument is pseudoerudite and utterly false. A similar misunderstanding is sometimes found in popular writings about modern physics. It is true that the general theory of relativity embraces complex happenings in the physical world. But that does not mean that for innumerable simple happenings the laws of gravitation are not adequate. If an apple falls from a table, Newton is enough for our understanding of how to keep the apples on the table next time. For that we do not need Einstein. Newtonian physics is a special case of Einstein's physics. Just as the laws of gravitation were not abolished by Einstein, so the psychological mechanism of imitation is not abolished in its field of application by the deeper psychology of Freud.
Conscious imitation is only a small part of the psychological processes initiated by comics reading. Beneath is a kind of subconscious imitation called identification. The bridge of associations that links a child in this way to a comic-book figure and causes identification may be very slight. Rational resemblance or logical comparison has relatively little to do with identification. What is important is the emotional part of the reaction. The child gets pleasure from poring over what a comic-book figure does, is emotionally stirred and identifies himself with the figure that is active, successful, dominates a situation and satisfies an instinct, even though the child may only half understand what that instinct means. He looks for the same sensation again and becomes conditioned to identify himself with the same type that stimulates him to seek and satisfy the same pleasure again.
In investigating the mechanism of identification in individual children with individual comic books, it became clear to me that comic books are conditioning children to identify themselves with the strong man, however evil he may be. The hero in crime comics is not the hero unless he acts like a criminal. And the criminal in comic books is not a criminal to the child because he acts like a hero. He lives like a hero until the very end, and even then he often dies like a hero, in a burst of gunfire and violence.
Identification, which is part of the conditioning process, is of course greatly influenced by a child's other or earlier experiences. So that even when one studies such a factor as comic books in relative isolation, one must take into account many other factors in a child's life. The mechanism of identification, therefore, is at the same time a cause and a result. Identification itself may or may not lead to imitative action. The reading of crime comics is not a release in action, but leads more to passivity and daydreams. Where it does result in activity, the actions are never constructive. The scenes of sadism, sex and crime in comic books arouse the child's emotions, but leave him only a limited scope of release in action. These actions can only be masturbatory or delinquent.
Since the heroes of crime comics invariably commit violent acts of one kind or another just as the criminals do, the child must identify himself with violent characters.
It has been claimed that if a child identifies himself with a violent character in a comic book it shows the individual child's psychological need to express his own aggression. But this reasoning is far too mechanical. Comic books are not a mirror of the individual child's mind; they are a mirror of the child's environment. They are a part of social reality. They not only have an effect, they also have a cause. When we level a constant barrage of crime and violence at young children, it leads them inevitably to preoccupation with these subjects. Subjective and objective factors are closely interwoven in a reciprocal relationship. In this preoccupation there is an element of projection of inner factors and an element of selection from the environment. The very fact that crime comics are socially tolerated shows how much expression of hostility we tolerate and even encourage. The more hostility there is in a child's home, the more threatening he finds his school and social environment, the more likely he is to show identifications with people who fight each other as they do in comic books.
I had occasion to follow the development of a girl from the age of two to nine. Before she had learned to read, she began to pore over comic books. Her favorites were Westerns. She got them from her older brothers who had stacks of all kinds of crime comics. There was considerable conflict in their home, which this little girl witnessed. In conversations with her, as well as on projective tests, it was noteworthy that she was mostly preoccupied with people and animals being "mad" at each other. You might say that this preoccupation with hostility could not come from the comic books because so many children who do not have it read comics. You could also say that her preoccupation could not come from the conflict at home because so many young children have a similar home environment and do not have such fantasies.
The correct interpretation is that both factors were operative, interacting with each other and reinforcing each other.
The general lesson we have deduced from our large case material is that the bad effects of crime comic books exist potentially for all children and may be exerted along these lines:
1) The comic-book format is an invitation to illiteracy.
Crime comics are an agent with harmful potentialities. They bring about a mass conditioning of children, with different effects in the individual case. A child is not a simple unit which exists outside of its living social ties. Comic books themselves may be the virus, or the cause of a lack of resistance to the social virus of a harmful environment.
Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham (Rinehart & Company, Inc. New York, Toronto 1953, 1954)