Seduction of the Innocent
9. The Experts for the Defense
The Scientific Promotion of Comic Books
"But when you notice the intent,
The direct effect of comic books on children through their pictures, text and advertisements is reinforced by an indirect influence: endorsements and writings of experts. They affect the child through parents, teachers, doctors, clergymen, adults in general and public opinion.
The comics industry took hold of the minds of children unobserved. Those whose function it would have been to watch what happens to children took no notice of comic books, or if they did, regarded them as trivial; at any rate, did not read them. When through sporadic cases it came out that comic books had harmed children, the conquest of American childhood by the industry was already an accomplished fact. The children, many of them despite guilt feelings, accepted the comic books, and the adults, many of them against their better judgment, accepted the opinions of the experts.
The experts for the defense function primarily on two fronts:
first, to counteract the healthy reaction of parents against crime comics in all their disguises;
secondly, to combat the criticism voiced by professional people once they begin to look at samplings of comic books children have been reading for years.
The activity of these experts for the defense came in two waves. One, in the early forties, followed the disclosure of what comic books really are by the literary critic, Sterling North. The second, in 1948, came after I first presented the results of my studies of comic books in Washington and demonstrated their actual sadistic marrow. These two peaks are well documented by the two special comic-book issues of the Journal of Educational Sociology, both edited by Professor Harvey Zorbaugh of New York University's School of Education. Their special pleading in the guise of "dispassionate scrutiny" represented an all-time low in American science. But as publicity for comic books these issues were well-timed and immensely successful.
From magazines, newspapers and the radio, and from the endorsements on so many comic books, one may get the wrong impression that there are many scientific experts defending comic books. Actually the brunt of the defense is borne by a mere handful of experts. Their names occur over and over again. They are connected with well-known institutions, such as universities, hospitals, child-study associations or clinics. That carries enormous weight with professional people and, of course, even more so with casual lay readers and parents all over the country.
In their actual effect the experts for the defense represent a team. This, of course, does not mean that they work as a team. They work individually. But their way of reasoning, their apologetic attitude for the industry and its products, their conclusions - and even their way of stating them - are much alike. So it is possible to do full justice to them by discussing them as a team rather than individually. There is little danger of quoting them out of context, for what they have to say is so cut and dried that one quotation from the writing of one expert fits just as well into that of another.
Of course they contradict one another occasionally, or contradict themselves between one paper and another. That is not really their fault, but part of the impossible thesis they defend. One expert who has endorsed an enormous number of crime comics, for example, will point out the great vital appeal they have for children, while another proclaims that "crime comics are read mostly by adults." One writes: "Comic-book readers like their comics in large doses," while another is proclaiming that "an excess of this reading suggests a need for deeper study, not of the reading, but of the child." Or one will say that comic-book stories are only fantasy and the children know it, while another is saying of comic-book characters, "To their readers they are real flesh and blood people." Or, to take an example of self-contradiction from a rather sketchy article by another of the experts: He writes that only 36 per cent of adults unqualifiedly approve of comic books as reading for children and that the objections refer to the most serious areas a parent can be concerned about, the "danger to character and mental health."
Despite this, he draws the contradictory conclusion that "on the whole American adults approve the comics as a medium of entertainment for children."
One expert writes about the fact that children, while they may neglect their other possessions, "hardly ever deface or lose a comic book. These books are treasured, they are objects of barter, they become collector's items." Another expert writes that the fact that comic books are "cheap publications which may be destroyed or bartered without compunction makes the comics comparable to stories told by storytellers of old." In other words, facts do not make much difference to these experts; comic books are good anyhow.
The question of why children become excessive crime-comics readers is also answered both ways by the experts. On the one hand they say that this excessive reading is, in each individual child, the sign of a separate disease. On the other hand, they state with equal confidence that it is part of the normal stages of childhood. Actually, of course, the stages of childhood do not unfold automatically, independent of social influences. Excessive comic book reading is an adult-induced condition, to which, for a number of reasons, some children are more susceptible than others, although none is immune.
Comic books, one expert writes, "may be used as an introduction to reading of the originals - particularly of the Bible." Another team-expert will inadvertently admit the opposite, that one of the most unfortunate things about comic books is that children are not so apt to read better books which might of course influence them to higher ideals."
The names of experts for the defense and of the institutions with which they are connected have been printed in millions of comic books and/or full-page comic-book advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post and the Saturday Review of Literature and/or in statements by the publishers or their spokesmen. The chairman of the Section of Criminal Law of the American Bar Association, commenting on the writers in the two special comic book issues of the Journal of Educational Sociology, found it "disappointing" that in a "purportedly objective study experts do not make a complete disclosure of their interests." He further mentions that when he wrote to one of the experts to enquire about this, "she did not respond."
According to the Kefauver Senate Crime Committee (Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce) the following persons, among others, who are thought of as independent critics by the public, have been or are employed by the comic book industry:
Dr. Jean A. Thompson, Acting Director, Bureau of Child Guidance, Board of Education, N.Y.C.;
The amounts paid range to $300 a month over a period of many years. One expert, Professor Zorbaugh, served as "research consultant" to Puck, the Comic Weekly." One comic book publisher alone spends $750 a month on four children's experts who endorse his products.
In quoting experts for the defense in this chapter I am referring to those specifically mentioned in the Kefauver Report as having or having had connections with the industry. There are, of course, sporadic experts who have defended comic books without any such connection. I do not consider them as members of the defense team.
Speaking in a very different connection of "impartial" studies made by experts economically connected with an industry, the Commissioner of Investigation of the City of New York has taken the view that such studies should be discounted: "You do not bite the hand that feeds you." The New York State Joint Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comics, in seeking the opinions on crime comics from a wide variety of experts, including psychiatrists, judges and educators, discounted testimony by any of these team-experts. This may well be a proper attitude to take in order to ascertain the true facts for judicial or legislative purposes. But since I was carrying out a scientific investigation I took a different course, and studied all the team-experts carefully as if their opinions had been expressed gratis. I cannot agree with some of the experts that the fact that comic books are so widely read proves them to be all right. To my mind it only shows that they are deserving of study. In the same way, I do not believe that because the opinions of the experts for the defense are so well circulated, they must be all right. To me that indicates that they, also, are a proper object of study.
As my inquiry proceeded, I wanted continuously to criticize my own conclusions in the light of the opposing views. So I took all the experts very seriously, at least until I had analyzed their arguments. The devil can quote scripture for his purpose. What would these experts quote? I found them mentioning Aristotle, Freud and the brothers Grimm. According to Newsweek's "Platform," "at least half of all comic books" in 1949 "were devoted entirely to crime or supermen, in their assorted guises." (In actual copies read, the number is much larger, and by 1954 the proportion was very much higher.) Can there be any scientific theories to justify that? Paid partisanship is not the complete answer. The influence of the experts for the defense is to be explained not only by the fact that the public is being misinformed about comic books, but that it is exposed to wrong ideas about children. On that soil both comic books and their experts flourish. So the little comic book, with its pictures, text and advertisements and expert endorsers is an indicator of a generalized reaction of society.
The writings and speeches of the experts for the defense have many features in common. They always shy away from telling what is actually in comic books, what the plots are, what the characters really say and do. They do not want to call attention to the books, they prefer to put all the blame on the child, or his mother. As one of them writes in one of those "neutral" articles in a national magazine: "We must look not at the comics but at the child." Why should I as a doctor look only at the child I and "not at the comics"? Why not look at both? This same expert notes, not without sarcasm, that comic books "grew to considerable dimensions before the 'guardians of our culture' were aroused by them." But should not the guardians of our children have been aroused first?
Here is an example to show how impossible it is to get any idea of what comic books really are from these writings by de fense experts. In an article on comic books widely circulated by the Child Study Association of America, purporting to be a "survey" of the whole comic book field, only the following titles of comic books are even mentioned:
1) Superman (whose publisher employs the writer of the pamphlet)
This is supposed to be a survey! One need only glance at any newsstand to discover that the most important part has been left out. This misrepresentation goes so far that the same expert writes, "There is a considerable amount of humor in the comics" (she means comic books) and she tries to make parents believe that the sexy wenches in the jungle books are just "fair maidens"!
The experts for the defense do not tell you what children get out of these stories, either, what they actually say, what is reflected from comic books in their minds. Instead they write about the good things that comic books are supposed to have done, be doing or will do in the future, about how educational they are or could be, and to what good uses they could be put. One states, for example,
Unquestionably it is fascinating to learn that George Washington needed the help of Superboy to cross the Delaware. But do you want to direct the child's attention to the personality of the father of American democracy or to the exploits of a uniformed superman-youth? Similarly, it must be admitted that a lesson about anthropoid apes is less "dull" when accompanied by a picture of the animal about to rape a girl.
Pooh-poohing their bad effects, one expert points out that he knows a hospital where "comic books are used specifically to calm down troublesome" juveniles. He does not mention that this is the only psychiatric hospital in the country where troublesome juveniles sent there for observation and treatment got so out of hand that the police had to be called to "calm them down."
The team-experts like the word deep. It occurs over and over again in their writings, e.g. "the appeal of comic books is deeply rooted in our emotional nature." They use this word as an answer to any objection that is raised. The reply that things are "deep" or "deeper" or "far deeper" is supposed to answer every thing. In one short paper the word occurs four times: "The motivation toward unsocial acts lies much deeper than any casual contact with ideas on a printed page"; the language habits of children "derive from deeply rooted home and school standards and not from any casual contact with any entertainment medium"; these "comic book characters are deeply human"; only if a child is "in deep emotional conflict he may be further burdened or disturbed by his comics reading."
One hopes to find in these writings at least one case where a comic-book addict seemed to be adversely influenced by comics in which it was proved that not comic books but something "deep" was the real cause. But in all the writings of the experts I found not a single case like this. Instead there are again and again flat statements like this: ". . . the roots of delinquency and crime are far deeper," or ". . . the roots of [the] difficulties lie in . . . his life . . . rather than in the storybooks that he reads." Who then has gone to the root of the problem? One expert tells us: "Superman strikes at the root of juvenile delinquency" and apparently this is "deep" enough.
Those who have studied comic books seriously know that comic books have to be differentiated from newspaper comic strips. Dr. Richmond Barbour, director of guidance of the city schools of San Diego, writes: "The easiest way to study abnormal psychology these days is to read the unfunny crime comic books. Don't mistake them for the comic strips your paper prints. Papers wouldn't dream of printing the stuff. . . ." Yet the experts in their writings speak unspecifically of "comics" and seem to be trying to mix comic books with newspaper comic strips, much to public confusion.
Without exception all these experts have in common one trait that is not in agreement with the best established usage of scientific writing. If a scientist wishes to prove that a special virus is not the cause of a virus disease, it is obligatory that he at least refer to the literature which says the opposite. But these comic book experts continuously quote each other and try to bury in complete silence some of the studies that have been made demonstrating the harmfulness of comic books. So it is necessary to get acquainted with samples of this literature which are never mentioned.
Dr. George E. Reed, director of a large psychiatric hospital affiliated with McGill University, in a paper read before the American Psychiatric Association, reported on a study of the effect of comic books on normal children from seven to fourteen. He proceeded in a strictly scientific manner, using among other procedures a "game technique." He determined the latent as well as manifest meaning of the pictures to the child. It is noteworthy that his observations were made before crime comics came to full bloom in the blood-and-bra formula. In contrast to the experts for the defense, Dr. Reed said what the comic books are about: "Violence is the continuous theme, not only violence to others but in the impossible accomplishments of the heroes, heroines and animals." He found undue stress on superdevelopment of hero and heroine: ". . . any variation from this 'norm' is the subject of suspicion, ridicule or pity." He noted that "distorted educational data are common"; that "direct action" by the hero is "superior to the dumb and incompetent police"; that race hatred is taught: ". . . foreigners are all criminals"; that "scantily clad females [are] man-handled or held in a position of opisthotonos [exaggerated intercourse-like position]." It was his opinion that juvenile delinquency is in part dependent on environment and that "comic books are of increasing importance as a part of children's environment." With regard to sexual development he drew this important conclusion: "The repeated visualization of women being treated violently by men can do nothing but instill an ambivalent emotional attitude in the child toward heterosexual contacts." In other words, he pointed to a profound disturbance of normal psycho-sexual development of children through the medium of comic books. As a result of his studies he regarded it as "fallacious" to consider comic books as a substitute for mythology or folklore, or to regard them as a normal emotional outlet for normal children. In vain will you look for any mention of this carefully weighed psychiatric report in any of the writings of the team-experts professing to express both sides and enlighten the public.
Sister Mary Clare, a trained and experienced teacher, published a study of the effect of comic books on children under eleven. She found that the innocuous comic books of the humorous and animal type that parents know about form "an insignificant minority." She found that comic books have "their greatest appeal during the years when the children's ideals are being formed, that is, from 3 or 4 to 12." She sums up the relation of comic books to delinquency: "Children want to put into action what they have learned in their 'comics,' thinking they can have the thrill that is theirs only vicariously as they read. Sometimes they set out to imitate the hero or heroine, sometimes it is the criminal type that appeals, and of course they are sure that they will not fail as the criminals did in the magazine story, for 'getting caught' is the only disgrace they recognize." She deplores particularly the harm comic books do to children's eyes. [EDITOR'S NOTE: What the hell???] Another effect of comics on young children is excessive daydreaming along unhealthy lines. One of her observations is that "scenes of crime, fighting and other acts of violence are among the items most noted and best remembered by even the youngest children." She relates this to her finding that in adventure comic books there is a "disproportionate emphasis on crime, sadism and violence."
One of her cases highlights what comic books do to the minds of many children. She asked a nine-year-old boy which comic book he liked best and he answered without hesitation: "Human Torture."
Dr. B. Liber, experienced psychiatrist and author of a textbook of psychiatry, states that "abnormal thinking and behavior may be due to other causes as well, but the comic books contribute their share." He cites the case of a nine-year-old boy:
"His gestures with arms and legs and his motions with his entire body illustrated the crimes which he feared and enjoyed at the same time - 'strangling is like this and like this. . . ."' This boy described his fears and thrills: "Then there is the natives. They tear a guy apart. In two halves . . . I like the Superman. . I like stabbing a tiger . . . I like Nero fiddling Rome with some fire."
Dr. Liber sums up his opinion like this: "The problem of the comic books has not been solved and will not be as long as somebody can make much money through their existence and popularity. Their source is fiendishness, viciousness, greed and stupidity. And their effect is foolishness, mental disturbance and cruelty."
A sociologist, Harold D. Eastman, carried out an analysis of some five hundred comic books and with the aid of his sociology students studied several hundred high school pupils from three high schools, thirty-five children at the fourth-grade level, pupils from a rural school and inmates of two institutions for the treatment of juvenile delinquents. In experiments with the fourth-grade children he found that over half of them wanted to play the part of the villain. As far as the relationship of comic book reading to delinquency is concerned, he found that crime comics and generally 'not acceptable' comics were "the most desired reading for the juvenile delinquents." Crime comic books were listed as first choice by more than 90 per cent of the inmates of both institutions for delinquents. With regard to the question of imitation he cited the case of a fourteen-year-old high school girl who stated that "she didn't like comic books because her boyfriend read them all the time and tried to make love to her as he imagined Superman would do it and she didn't like that at all."
He analyzed ten comic book heroes of the Superman type according to criteria worked out by the psychologist Gordon W. Allport and found that all of them "may well be designated as psychopathic deviates."
In another study, by Mary Louisa McKinney, who has studied comic books and lectured to PTA groups in Tennessee, the reactions to comic books of seventy-five children aged ten, eleven and twelve were studied. There were some who spent up to fifty hours a week on them. Her outstanding finding was that although children realized that comic books made their "pleasant dreams turn bad," they kept on reading them.
What do the experts for the defense have to say? We can disregard their remarks that there are comic books which are read only by adults. One expert herself admits that "wherever there are comic books you will most certainly find children."
The experts say children do not imitate what they see in comic books. As Governor Smith used to say, let us look at the record:
1) A boy of six wrapped himself in an old sheet and jumped from a rafter. He said he saw that in a comic book.
2) A twelve-year-old boy was found hanged by a clothes line tossed over a rafter. His mother told the jury that she thought he re-enacted a scene from comic books which he read incessantly. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and scored comic books.
3) A boy was found dead in the bathroom, wearing a Superman costume. He had accidentally strangled himself while trying to walk on the walls of the room like his hero.
4) A boy of ten accidentally hanged himself while playing "hanging."
5) A fourteen-year-old boy was found hanging from a clothesline fastened over a hot-water heating pipe on the ceiling. Beside him was a comic book open to a page showing the hanging of a man. The chief of police said, "I think the comic book problem can't be solved by just a local police ban. It will require something bigger."
6) A ten-year-old boy was found hanging from a door hook, suspended by his bathrobe cord. On the floor under his open hand lay a comic book with this cover: a girl on a horse with a noose around her neck, the rope tied to a tree. A man was leading the horse away, tightening the noose as he did so. The grief-stricken father said, "The boy was happy when I saw him last. So help me God, I'll be damned if I ever allow another comic book in the house for the kids to read!"
7) A boy of eleven was found hanged from a rope in the bathroom. He had the habit of acting out stories he had read in comic books.
8) A boy of thirteen was found hanged in the garage. On the floor was a comic book showing a hanging.
9) A boy of twelve was found hanging from a clothesline in a woodshed. On the floor was a stack of comic books.
10) A ten-year-old boy was found unconscious, hanging from a second story balcony. He got the idea from a comic book he had been reading.
11) A boy died after swinging in a noose from a tree. He had tried to show another boy "How people hang themselves." The City Council denounced the "mind-warping" influence of comic books.
12) An eight-year-old boy jumped from a second-floor fire escape "like Superman" and broke both his wrists.
One conclusion of the experts that has been widely accepted is that, as one of them puts it, comic books "are really the folklore of today," or that what is in them "is the folklore of the times, spontaneously given to and received by children."
This seems to be a disarming argument. But is it true?
What is folklore? The term was introduced over a hundred years ago by the British scientist W. G. Thoms. It is now used in many other languages. Authorities seem to agree on the definition of folklore as "the oral poetic creations of broad masses of people." Folklore has intimate connections with other arts, from dances to folk plays and songs. In the history of man kind folklore has played an important role. It is one of the fountains of wisdom and of literature. Many writers - among them the greatest, such as Shakespeare and Goethe - have drawn on it. It does not require much thought to realize that comic books are just the opposite. They are not poetic, not literary, have no relationship to any art, have as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin or marijuana, although many people take them, too. They are not authentic creations of the people, but are planned and concocted. They do not express the genuine conflicts and aspirations of the people, but are made according to a cheap formula. Can you imagine a future great writer looking for a figure like Prometheus, Helena or Dr. Faustus among the stock comic-book figures like Superman, Wonder Woman or Jo-Jo, the Congo King?
When children act out comics stories, the results are destructive. But children's real nature comes to the fore when they are given the chance to act out stories from genuine folklore and children's folk tales. Frances C. Bowen has shown this in her wonderful Children's Educational Theater at Johns Hopkins University. "Overly exuberant children," she found, "learn to be co-operative and find a wholesome outlet for their energies."
Another statement by a comic book expert that has gained wide currency is that comic books contain "a strikingly advanced concept of femininity and masculinity." In further explanation of this statement it is said: "Women in the stories are placed on an equal footing with men and indulge in the same type of activities. They are generally aggressive and have positions which carry responsibility. Male heroes predominate but to a large extent even these are essentially unsexed creatures. The men and women have secondary sexual mannerisms, but in their relationship to each other they are de-sexed."
If a normal person looks at comic books in the light of this statement he soon realizes that the "advanced concept of femininity and masculinity" is really a regressive formula of perversity. Let's compare this statement with the facts. One of the many comics endorsed by this child psychiatrist has the typical Batman story, the muscular superman who lives blissfully with an adolescent. Is it so advanced to suggest, stimulate or reinforce such fantasies? The normal concept for a boy is to wish to become a man, not a superman, and to live with a girl rather than with a superheroic he-man. One team-expert has himself admitted that among the three comic book characters "most widely disapproved" by adults are Superman and Batman - the prototypes of this "advanced concept of masculinity." Evidently the healthy normal adult rejects them.
As to the "advanced femininity," what are the activities in comic books which women "indulge in on an equal footing with men"? They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones. They are either superwomen flying through the air, scantily dressed or uniformed, outsmarting hostile natives, animals or wicked men, functioning like Wonder Woman in a fascistic-futurist setting, or they are molls or prizes to be pushed around and sadistically abused. In no other literature for children has the image of womanhood been so degraded. Where in any other childhood literature except children's comics do you find a woman called (and treated as) a "fat slut"? The activities which women share with men are mostly related to force and violence. I admit they often use language - "advanced," I suppose - which is not usually associated with women. Dr. Richmond Barbour mentions an example: "'Try this in ya belly, ya louse' the young lady says as she shoots the uniformed policeman in his midsection. Scantily dressed, thighs and breasts exposed, she is leading three similar gun-girls. One has been shot, and she is falling. Another girl shoots at the police with a revolver and mutters, 'Here's one fer luck!'"
The prototype of the super-she with "advanced femininity" is Wonder Woman, also endorsed by this same expert. Wonder Woman is not the natural daughter of a natural mother, nor was she born like Athena from the head of Zeus. She was concocted on a sales formula. Her originator, a psychologist retained by the industry, has described it: "Who wants to be a girl? And that's the point. Not even girls want to be girls. . . The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman. . . . Give (men) an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves." Neither folklore nor normal sexuality, nor books for children, come about this way. If it were possible to translate a cardboard figure like Wonder Woman into life, every normal-minded young man would know there is something wrong with her.
The experts claim that the theme of comic books is good conquering evil, law triumphing over crime. There are many more crimes in comic book stories than crimes that are punished. Moreover, punishment in comic books is not punishment; it usually takes the form of a violent end. Melodrama instead of morality. Comic books direct children's interest not toward the right, but toward the wrong. In many stories the criminal wins to the very end, and you see the man who has murdered his wife triumphantly pouring the rest of the poison into the sink in the last picture. There are whole comic books in which every story ends with evil triumphant.
If the forces of law do win in comic books, they do so not because they represent law or morality, but because at a special moment they are as strong and brutal as the evildoer. The real message of the comic books to children is the equation: physical force equals good. As, the author and critic, Marya Mannes wrote: "In twenty million comic books sold it would be hard to find a single instance where a character conquered only because he was kind, honest, generous or intelligent." Can there be a more serious indictment?
"Comic books," said Frances Clark Sayres of the children's department of the New York Public Library, "reduce everything to the lowest common denominator of violence, vulgarity and commonplace expression." That seems true also in the sphere of moral judgments. A comic book publisher's advertisement embellished with names of some of the experts says: "It is on record that Cain killed his brother. And Peter Rabbit stole a carrot, if we remember rightly!"
Murder as no more significant than taking a carrot! That is the ethics of the comic books, ethics with which the experts evidently have no quarrel.
The experts further claim that comic books are an aid for children in their general adaptation to life and, as one of them puts it, can serve as "mechanisms for personal experimentation with reality." It is not clear how children are supposed to do this. Are they supposed to play the hunters or the hunted? The torturers or the tortured? The rapers or the raped? Are they to fantasy that they stab wild animals or girls in the eye or that wild animals will come to their aid when they need help? Where does the reality of life come in? Adaptation to the reality of life consists in learning to use one's faculties for something constructive, to make an effort to apply oneself, to seek guidance from those who know better, to respect the rights and wishes of others, to learn self-discipline. The reality of life may consist in a struggle, but that does not mean a continual violent physical fight between those who are not allowed to kill and those who are permitted to kill.
In vain does one look in comic books for seeds of constructive work or of ordinary home life. I have never seen in any of the crime, superman, adventure, space, horror, etc., comic books a normal family sitting down at a meal. I have seen an elaborate, charming breakfast scene, but it was between Batman and his boy, complete with checkered tablecloth, milk, cereal, fruit juice, dressing-gown and newspaper. And I have seen a parallel scene with the same implications when Wonder Woman had breakfast with an admiring young girl, with checkered table cloth, cereal, milk, toast and the kitchen sink filled with dishes draining in the background.
Mastery of reality is based on a normal and not an abnormal set of human values. What the comic books give children to "experiment with" is either the reality of the sordid or what Stephen Spender calls glamorized unreality. What the experts are telling us is that children have to learn to accept violence as a part of life, not only violence in the name of a cause, but violence for violence's sake. Adaptation requires sustained effort. The only effort that comic books teach is to avoid errors if you don't want to be caught. That pervades even their slippery slogans: Forget one detail and there is no perfect crime!
There are children who suffer from frustration. One team expert's advice is: "Superman symbolizes the modern attempt in dealing with these problems (of frustration). . . . If not Superman himself, some one of the many other characters such as the Batman, The Flash, Captain Marvel, and the Green Lantern." Is that the best we can do for children, that we teach them the Green Lantern will help?
Another apologia brought forth by the experts is that "anything in which children show such absorbing interest must meet some emotional need in the child." But, if a child shows any trouble, he presents "special problems which call for careful consideration not in relation to his reading alone but to more fundamental emotional needs." In other words, comic books supply the needs of children only if nothing goes wrong. If anything goes wrong, we are told that they do not supply the needs of children and that we must leave out comic books entirely and search for ever deeper needs beneath needs. This talk of deeper and deeper needs is science fiction rather than science.
This passage by one expert is often quoted by the others: "Much of what children find in the comics deals with their own unconscious fantasies. It is possible . . . that they need this material as a pattern for their dreams to give them content with which to dream out their problems." This is the most derogatory statement about normal children that I have ever read. It confuses what a child needs with what he can be seduced to desire. Some comic books depict necrophilia. Does that supply a need in the child? Many comic books describe every conceivable method of disposing of corpses. Do children need that for their daydreaming? It is a fallacy to regard the aberrations of adults as the needs of children.
Children need action and comic books supply that, the experts say. But no instrumentality has ever been invented to keep children more inactive than comic books. Moreover action is not merely action. It has content, meaning and emotional interest. The kind of action depicted in comic books is not what children need, but what adults think will excite them and sell.
Do we really know so little about children's needs as these experts imply? Children need friendliness, they need a feeling of identification with a group, they need cheer and beauty. And they want and need honest and disinterested guidance, because it gives them a feeling of security. It is precisely here that the comic book industry and its experts stab them in the back.
Closely related to the argument that comic books supply children's needs is the further one that the child has his own choice about comic books. He can select what he wants and the responsibility is therefore his. This claim goes so far that the children are held responsible even for the unsavory development of the comic book industry: "It is their [the children's] selectivity and their standards which must in turn influence the comics, whose content and standards of quality and taste are shaped to meet the customer's demand."
How much choice does a child with ten or twenty cents in his pocket have? There are many stores in town and country which have only comic books and no other printed matter except perhaps newspapers and magazines of no interest to the child. With only comic books to choose from, children really have no choice. But even if they did have a choice, the principle of leaving it entirely to them which is so vociferously promulgated by the Child Study Association of America is wrong. It is our duty to teach the child to make choices. The librarian Mrs. Sayres points out that through comic-book reading the child "loses his ability to discriminate." Of course we should try to see things from a child's point of view, but as educators and doctors we must adopt a larger view, use our own judgment and not deliver children into the hands of those who exploit their inexperience.
A pretty piece often played by the symphonette of comic-book experts is on the theme that it was always so. Children always have had these psychological needs to escape from reality and to give vent to feelings of hostility and resentment, and they used to be safisfied by fairy tales, by dime novels- even by Shakespeare. All these, the experts tell us, are just as cruel and just as violent as comic books, so why pick on comics?
They formulate this in various ways. "Children have always sought this kind of vicarious adventure. . . . Through our own dime novels, big little books and comics," says one. "Comic books [are] in a way parallel to some of the fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, all of which could be pretty scary to children," says another. Or: ". . . psychologically the comics are the modern fairy tales." Only those who do not know what is in the comic books have fallen for this, for there never has been a literature for children so enormously widespread, appealing mostly through pictures and expressing, as Dr. Richmond Barbour put it, "savagery, murder, lust and death."
After his excellent and incontrovertible description in 1940, when he found that 70 per cent of comic books contained material which no newspaper would accept, Sterling North followed up the subject eight years later. He found that the average comic book had even lower ethical, artistic and literary standards than it had in 1940. Speaking of fantasy and crime comics, he commented that they were "almost without exception" guilty of what I, in the meantime, had called "obscene glorification of violence and sadism." As a literary critic he took up this question of whether it was always so and found:
To those who insist that we older Americans also read trash in our youth, I say go back and read Horatio Alger and even the dime novels, if you wish. Edward Strate meyer's Rover Boys may have seemed a trifle too pure to be crediMe. But the effect that had on impressionable readers was to heap scorn on the cheat and honor on the boy who played to win but played fairly and modestly. Frank Merriwell, hero of countless tales of pluck and luck, may have been both too virtuous and too successful to be considered a probable characterization, but his influence on millions of young Americans was never such that it burdened the juvenile courts.
The trash of today is of an entirely different sort. It is even less well-written than the interminable tales of der nng-do and virtuous adventure that filled my boyhood. And, unlike that earlier form of literature, it has added rivers of rape, arson, torture and hooded justice to youth's increasingly dim lexicon.
Marya Mannes has described how her eight-year-old son be came addicted to comic books despite an abundance of good books and other entertainment in their home. "Each story," she said, "is a catalogue of force, a metronomic repetition of violence that has in it the seeds of aberration." And she added: "The reasonable may talk all they please about the lurid literature our fathers used to read in their youth; let them find examples - books widely read by the young of other generations which can touch the comic books. . .
As for fairy tales, have the most cruel of them, including some of those by Grimm, been so good for children? Dr. Wilhelm Stekel wrote: "I really consider fairy-tales unsuitable for children, at least in the form which Grimm, for instance, has given them. New editions for the various age levels should be printed, in which will be eliminated, or at least modified, all that is cruel. It is not absolutely necessary for the ogre to devour his own seven children, for torture and murder to occur wholesale."
So some fairy tales are not a very good alibi. But even if they were, comic books have nothing in common with them. Fairy tales have a magic of their own which is completely absent from comic books. In comics the solution is simple, direct, mechanical and violent. Fairy tales contain emotional conflicts; they cannot be reduced to who catches whom, who knocks Out whom, who kills whom and how and who is going to torture whom. Dr. J. G. Auerbach, psychoanalyst at the Lafargue Clinic, who made comparative studies of the effect of fairy-tale and comic-book reading on children, concluded:
Why does the picture of Hansel and Gretel pushing the witch into the oven create no desire in the child for vindictive action against those who boss him? How does the bloody cutting open of the wolf's belly to let out Red Riding Hood's grandma differ from the knife attacks depicted in the comic books? . . . I believe the answer lies in the fantastic element of the fairy tale, which depicts a world far removed from reality. The child may identify himself with the persons or animals in this fantasy world, which he makes his own. There he may allow his fantasy to soar as he wishes: it is his private empire in which he reigns. He knows the difference between the real and the imaginary; there is no attempt to bridge the gap. Another helpful characteristic of fairy tales is their poetic form, even in prose, which also tends to remove tragedy or mischief from everyday life. The less fairy tales obey these two laws, the more they are apt to instil in the child anxiety, or a desire to translate fantasy into reality.
Children who play fairy tales would have a hard time having someone actually eat Red Riding Hood. But they can and do try to bind, gag, and stick each other with sharp instruments as they see itso realistically depicted in comic books. Comic books are not dreamlike and not symbolic. If symbolism occurs it is coarsely sexual. In comic books no one lives happily ever after, as they did in fairy tales; in comic books some characters get eliminated by force, others go on killing. "The comics may be said to offer the same type of mental catharsis to its readers that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama," says one of the experts. But comic books have nothing to do with drama, with art or literature. To invoke Aristotle in their defense is like invoking Beethoven in defense of street noises.
The experts claim that comic books are no worse than dime novels were. True, dime novels were subliterary; but they were earthy and indigenous and had overtones of literature. They had echoes of James Fenimore Cooper. They taught conventional values. Their vocabulary did not even contain swear words. The hero would say "something which sounded very much like an oath." No lousy, stinking coppers," "dirty squealers," "fat sluts," "filthy bilge-rats" or "dirty rotten scum!" They did not have psychiatrists endorsing them. It was not necessary.
Richard B. Gehman, novelist and magazine writer, had this to say in his essay "From Deadwood Dick to Superman": "[Dime novels] never glamorize the robber nor the desperado. The hero's morals were impeccable. . . . The hero pulled himself up from poverty by hard work. . . . He honored and respected his parents."
A favorite argument of the comics experts goes like this: Children's troubles or delinquencies are complicated phenomena. How can you pick out only one single factor and even mention comic books? Aren't you guilty of oversimplification?
Nobody versed in clinical research would reason like that. You cannot put "factors" into a discussion of a child as you put eggs into a basket. The different factors that influence a child's life may accentuate, activate, counteract or negate one another. Or they may run side by side. You cannot at the outset reject any factor because on the surface it seems trivial. Sometimes the causes are near at hand and are overlooked for just that reason.
Of course there are other factors beside comic books. There always are other factors. That is true of tuberculosis, of syphilis, of automobile accidents. When a child reacts to something, whether it be comic books or a dog that bites him, a good doctor takes up the whole situation and does not leave out any factor, including the possibility that either the comic books or the dog may be virulent.
When it comes to prevention, the let's-not-blame-it-on-any-one-factor argument is totally inadequate. Take a tree. Its health and growth depend on many factors: its age, the soil, the water, the weather, the pruning, the nearness of other trees and vegetation, absence of injury from animals such as deer and mice and pests. All these factors combined make up the health of a tree. But when you study the health and life of trees concretely you find that one single factor, Endothia parasitica, regardless of all the other factors, beginning in 1904 wiped out all the native chestnut trees in the United States. The agricultural experts know that. But the comics experts would call it an "oversimplification."
Study of one factor does not obliterate the importance of other factors. On the contrary, it may highlight them. What people really mean when they use the let's-not-blame-any-one- factor argument is that they do not like this particular factor. It is new to them and for years they have been overlooking it. If they were psychoanalysts, they were caught with their couches up. They do not object to specific factors if they are intrinsic and noncommittal and can be dated far enough back in a child's life. They do not object to social factors provided they are vaguely lumped together as "environment, our entire social fabric," "culture" or "socio-economic conditions." Comic books have been - and still are - considered beneath the dignity of scientific scrutiny and not a respectable causal factor. But science does not mean a closed system of respectable causes, it means a mind open to all potentialities.
One of the industry's experts writes: "The comic book situation acted merely as a precipitating factor in the production of symptoms by fitting the details of the child's psychic difficulties." Merely is the tip-off. Is it not important for us physicians if a condition which otherwise would not have broken out is precipitated" by a psychological influence such as comic books?
In trying to deny the harm done by comic books the experts make it appear that comic books have no influence at all and represent merely "casual contact with ideas on a printed page. But when they pronounce on the effects of "good" comic books they suddenly forget that and write that comic books "exert tremendous influence."
The experts say: "Making a scapegoat out of comic books will not solve our basic social problems." Naturally. Another says: "The comics are an outgrowth of the social unconscious. I do not believe that comic books - any more than slums - come from the "unconscious." Both are kept alive by the same social forces.
If a child has any trouble that can be traced to comic books, the experts maintain that this child was "predisposed" or "unstable" beforehand. Of course this is a diagnosis made only after the child got into trouble. It amounts to no more than saying that the comic books are good and the children bad. I believe it is the other way around - that the children are good and the comics bad.
To blame everything on "predisposition" or a supposedly preexisting "emotional disorder" means of course to deny the role of temptation and seduction. According to the experts, the trouble is always in the child, and not in the comic books. The fault is always in the child's mind, and not in the invasion of that child's mind from outside.
The experts say that only abnormal children are affected by comic books while normal children are supposed to be immune. If abnormality is defined with any degree of psychiatric accuracy, the opposite is true. Many severely abnormal children are not affected by comic books. They are wrapped up in their own morbid fantasies and imaginations.
The experts like to invoke early infanfile experiences and say that what is pontifically called the "character structure" of the child is laid down finally in the first few years of life and there fore cannot be deflected later by such trivial things as comic books. Yet in their writings I have not found a single case of comic book inspired nightmares, behavior disorders or delinquency where, by analysis, the comic books as etiological factor were disproved and causation by infantile experience was proved.
A child is not a stereotype of his own past. To blame everything on very early infantile experiences is not scientific but exorcistic thinking: Nothing could harm a child unless the devil was already in him. Comic books do their harm early enough. Children of three or four have been seen poring over the worst. Freud would not have considered that too late for harm to be done.
The idea that all children's difficulties begin and end with their very early family relationships has placed an enormous emotional burden on mothers. When children read comic books excessively, seduced by their ubiquity, their covers and their sex appeal, the experts tell us that it is also up to the parents. They are supposed to regard excessive comic book reading as a danger signal, a "symptom of disturbance," "not to control or limit his reading" but to look for causes in the child and even seek "psychiatric help." If only half of the excessive comic book readers were sent to mental hygiene clinics, some of which already have a waiting list for a year or more, these clinics would be occupied with only this for a century.
A star argument is that whatever a child does, he would have done anyhow, even if there were no comic books. With such an argument - if it is an argument - you can condone anything. It is true that many children read comic books and few become delinquent. But that proves nothing. Innumerable poor people never commit a crime and yet poverty is one of the causes of crime. Many children are exposed to the polio virus; few come down with the disease. Is that supposed to prove that the polio virus is innocuous and the children at fault?
Take the fourteen-year-old Chicago boy who strangled an eight-year-old girl. He left fifty crime comic books in the room with his dead victim. They depicted all kinds of ways of abusing girls and killing people, including strangling. The experts want us to assume that this is a mere coincidence, that the similarity between the details in the comics and the details of the deed committed have to be ignored, and that what we must look for instead are "far deeper" causes!
The causes of children's delinquencies are not like stones that fall into water. There is a delicate balance between im pulse, rationalization and inhibition; temptation, seduction and opportunity; imitation, morality and guilt feelings; fantasy, self- control and a final precipitating factor.
The most insidious thesis of the experts is that comic books "serve as a release for children's feelings of aggression." Children, so the stereotyped argument runs, need vicarious violence to overcome frustration through aggression. If comic books make people get rid of their aggressions, why are millions of them given to young soldiers at the front whom we want to be aggressive? Comic books help people to get rid not of their aggressions, but of their inhibitions.
The experts not only justify sadism but advise it. One of them, a child psychiatrist, writes: "In general we have offered to the strip writer the following advice: 'Actual mutilation . . . should not occur . . . unless the situation can be morally justified. . . . If such an act is committed by some fanciful primitive or by some enemy character it can be more readily accepted and used by the child."' In its long and tortuous history, psychiatry has never reached a lower point of morality than this "advice" by a psychiatric defender of comic books.
The getting-rid-of-aggression-by comic-books argument has no clinical basis. The children with the most aggressive or violent fantasies or behavior are usually the most habitual readers of violent comic books. Running away from home is one of the most typically aggressive acts of children. I have seen many children between the ages of eight and twelve who ran away and who were found "with a stack of comic books."
The crudity of the experts' reasoning corresponds to the crudity of the comic books. The concept of the release of aggression is applied far too mechanically. It would have to be shown in the individual case that aggressive tendencies are pent up or dammed up, thwarted or repressed. In young children one can sometimes determine that by the Duess Test. The next step is to find out whether blood, horror and violence are of any use in such a situation. We have found that they are not. Children do not need just an outlet, anyway; what they need is guidance to understanding, substitution and sublimation. Far from giving release, comic books make violence and brutality seem natural to children. Comic books give release to only one aggression - that of the comic-book industry.
A number of years ago I had to examine a young man in jail in order to give an expert opinion about his sanity. He was in serious trouble, being accused of attempted rape. He had enticed a girl to walk with him past a vacant lot, had suddenly pounced on her and struggled with her. The girl had stated that there was no actual rape and that she got away from him bruised and with her clothes torn. I told him that I wanted to know more about his life and he told me the story.
Since childhood he had had fantasies of taking a girl and tying her up, especially tying her hands behind her. It started when he was about eleven and saw pictures of that in comic books. Then he looked for comic books where that was especially depicted, for example, those with girls tied in chairs with their hands fastened behind their backs. He cut out pictures and also drew them. They gave him sexual fulfillment. He had no intention of raping the girl, an act of which he would have been less ashamed. What he wanted was just to tie her up. The struggle to do it had given him full sexual satisfaction. This was one of the cases that made me resolve to study the comic book question systematically.
We seem to have made a fetich of violence. A pamphlet distributed by the Child Study Association of America contains this outlandish statement: "Actually, hitting is one of the ways in which children learn to get along together." At a meeting of the National Conference of Social Work, the statement was made: "Brutality has always been a part of children's literature and life. . . . If your child destroys your furniture while imitating Superman or Captain Marvel, he's being motivated by impulses we shall need more of, if the world is to survive - the impulse to annihilate an evil." The speaker did not explain what was so evil about the furniture.
Almost a decade after his first study, Sterling North wrote: "I have yet to see a clear, convincing, logical proof of the harmlessness of comics from any psychiatrist or psychoanalyst - even those to be found on the payrolls of the comic magazines, where their true function is usually hidden under some such euphemism as 'consulting editor.'" One can sum up the scientific writings of the defense experts by saying that their relationship to real science is like the relationship of comic books to real literature. Since they think so highly of comic books, this comparison should be no offense to them.
We could learn from the specialists in agriculture. They teach you to let all plants and trees grow to their optimal development. They do not compromise with anything that might conceivably harm crops and they try to prevent harm by spraying trees early. They do not try to find something good in anything that interferes with growth; they do not say there must have been something wrong beforehand; they teach you how to cultivate the soil scientifically. They would know how to deal with the comic-book pest.
Psychiatry, I think, should be a science of the positive health of the mind. Its aim should be to help the individual to develop his true personality. It is not enough for a psychiatrist to say that he has not found that comic books cause nightmares, anxieties, morbid fantasies or violent acts, and that therefore they must be wholesome for children. Mental health has positive signs. A child needs positive factors: He needs ethical principles to live by, he needs the concept and experience of loyalty and solidarity, of beauty, constructiveness and productiveness, creative expression, the spirit of the family and love. If that is interfered with, his positive mental health has been harmed, whether he has symptoms or not. All these positive factors are absent from crime comics. If a rosebush should produce twelve buds and only one blossoms, the bush is not healthy and it is up to us to find out what is interfering with its growth. The chief content of a child's life is growth and learning. No positive science of mental health is possible if it permits such interference as the mass onslaught of comic books.
Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham (Rinehart & Company, Inc. New York, Toronto 1953, 1954)