Seduction of the Innocent
10. The Upas Tree
Making and Makers of Comic Books
"Through its bark the midday sun
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree."
Crime comic books are showered upon us in abundance. What is the tree on which this fruit grows? After the most careful study for many years I have come to the conclusion that it is not a tree which only occasionally bears poisonous fruit, but one whose very sap is poisonous.
Early in our investigation it became clear to me and my associates as we were analyzing the comic books themselves and their reflection in the minds of every type of child, that we should also have to study the making and the makers of crime comics. So for years we have taken every opportunity that offered, and created many opportunities ourselves. We have talked with publishers, writers, artists, middlemen between comic books and radio and television, publicity agents, lawyers whom manufacturers of crime comic books consulted, members of financially related industries such as the pulp paper industry or publishers of erotic magazines or books, technical and office employees. Some of them were very co-operative, especially when they talked about other firms than their own. And we noticed that the lower down we went on the financial-returns ladder of the industry, the more critical the employees were of the wares turned out. Most of them know very well what they are doing.
A penologist and writer, David Dressler, after making a survey of comic books and their makers, wrote: "At least this much ought to be accepted as fact: There are objectionable comic books. The publishers know it. The editors want it." He "questioned people who would be expected to take a view opposed to Dr. Wertham's - publishers and editors of comic books. Many insisted... that the publications of some other house definitely portrayed sex deviation." One of them told Dressler, "These other fellows, they know exactly what they're doing... I don't know how they can look at themselves in a mirror."
Some of those connected with the industry in one way or another were kind enough to write me long letters, giving data and their own deductions. Others permitted me to take notes, sometimes even with a stenographer.
Although I am a psychiatrist - or maybe just because I am a psychiatrist who recognizes a social, scientific problem when he sees one - I was not interested in personalities. In this story, there are no single villains whose character would explain the picture as a whole.
One of the experts for the defense has said aptly that comic books "came upon us silently." That is exactly what happened. Children were reading crime comic books for years, millions of them, while parents, teachers and mental hygienists thought they were occupied with humorous reading. When Sterling North, and later the Lafargue group, drew attention to their real content and meaning, parents were confronted with a phenomenon for which nothing in their experience had prepared them. It is precisely at this point that the comic book manufacturers did a magnificent job - in public relations. One publisher stated publicly: "Criticize the comics as much as you wish. We like to have you talk about them." And they proceeded to instill into mothers what they should think. Never before have child psychiatry, mental hygiene and child psychology been used with less substance and with more success in the interest of an industry. Comic book publishers put out statements of their own or quoted statements of their hired experts with supreme disregard for the fact that the very excess of their wording or the very inconsistency of their arguments might be detected. They supplemented the mass appeal of their product with the mass appeal of their pseudoscientific demagogy. Here are three typical examples:
The studies of my group have shown us conclusively that children who read good books in their comic book deformation do not proceed to read them in the original; on the contrary, they are deterred from that. Librarians all over the country have borne that out. Yet a comic book publisher stated publicly that children who read classics in comic-book form "go on to read the complete story in its entirety." The phrasing alone gives away the intent.
Or a publisher quotes publicly the statement of one of the experts for the defense that children read comic books because of "the satisfaction of some real innermost need of their own." Again the wording is interesting. If it is really a need, why must it be a real need, and if it is a real need, why must it be an innermost need, and if it is an honest-to-goodness real innermost need, why the addition of their own?
Another publisher repeats publicly that juvenile delinquency is "far too complex" for such a simple thing as crime comic books to play any part in it. At the same time, in complete disregard for the intelligence of his readers or listeners, he states that his own crime comic books are "responsible for lessening juvenile delinquency."
The behavior of crime comic book publishers has some resemblance to the plots of their products: pious slogans and ruthless actions. After I had examined many comic books and their effect on many children I arrived at the formula which my further studies have confirmed, that crime comics represent an obscene glorification of violence, crime and sadism. This is not a characterization of some, but the formula of the bulk. It would therefore be incorrect and unjust to say that one crime comic book representative is more irresponsible than the other. Their common prayer seems to be: Suffer the little children to come unto me and I shall lead them into temptation.
From innumerable talks with children I got this image. Picture to yourself a typical American boy of nine or ten walking along the street. In his pocket is his spending money, or his weekly allowance, or his lunch money, or his movie money or candy money, or some of his saved money, or part of his earnings from after-school work or from a birthday or Christmas gift. A very small group of men is lurking behind him intent on getting most of that money away from him. They want even more than the money he has. They tempt him, they lure him, they show him how to steal, how to break into houses through the windows and how to sell stolen goods. They even sell him the weapons - guns and knives. The profits from all this run into tens of millions of dollars. What do the children get in return? The Child Study Association of America says that they get "escape"; but what they really get is entrapment. They get no literary values they can take along into life, but merely temptation, corruption, and demoralization.
Men who guard a public building have to undergo a civil service examination, but anybody can become a crime comic book publisher and become part of an industry that at the present time has greater and more widespread influence on children in town and country than any other public or private agency. All he needs is enough capital to buy a special printing press, employ a good circulation manager, a shrewd editor, some hack writers, letterers and cartoonists and a few child experts to endorse his product. We have been told that he will get as much as 40 per cent return on his investment.
If you want to compare this with what the child receives for his ten cents in economic terms, buy a copy of a pocket magazine for adults which also costs ten cents. They are printed on excellent paper, they have many good photographs well reproduced, good reporting, alert editing, a great variety of subject matter. And yet their circulation is small compared to that of comic books. Moreover, the old or return copies of these magazines are valueless, whereas comic books continue to be sold, shipped abroad, traded secondhand, borrowed and studied, as long as they hold together. Old comic books never die; they just trade away. Just as children were taken advantage of in the field of physical labor, so now they are taken advantage of economically, as a market. In the matter of reading the adults get the best, the children the worst.
Against the child is concentrated the economic power of a large industry. It has been estimated that a third of all cheap pulp made in the United States and Canada is used by comic book publishers. Even granting that many adults read these comic books, the proportion of adult and child readers is such that over a million dollars a week is taken out of the pockets of children.
We have found that the individual child spends much more money on crime comic books than adults familiar with their circumstances would assume.
I have seen many children who have spent over fifty dollars a year on crime comic books, more often than not without their parents' knowledge. Occasionally parents realize it to some extent. One alert parent wrote me: "This form of literature drains my children's pocket money." In one of the most critical surveys, made on 450 pupils in grades 4 to 6, it was found that the average child read 14.5 comic books a week. Two children claimed that they read a hundred a week.
The actual cost of production varies. Some books have royalties attached to them. A small comic book, such as one that Columbia University Press got out for educational purposes, costs about one and one half cents, but if done less carefully could be done for three fourths of a cent. A sixteen-page comic book such as those used for advertising or in politics costs no more than two and one fourth cents for an average edition of 650,000. The profits from comic books and the revenue from advertising in them are staggering. Crime does not pay, but crime comics do.
If I were asked what I have found to be the outstanding characteristic of the crime comic book publishers, I would say it is their anonymity, or semi-anonymity. This was an unexpected phenomenon. There are at present seventy-six major juvenile book publishers. Their children's books bear the imprint of their firm. But with crime comic book publishers, mass purveyors of children's literature, you can't be sure who publishes what. A parent who would look casually over his child's comic books would think that almost every book has its own publisher. Actually a very small number of firms puts out most of the comic books, but does so under various names. Different reasons are given for this concealment. Income-tax policy is one of them. The fear of compromising the name of a whole firm by objectionable products is another. I like to think that some of the biggest publishers are ashamed to have their real trade names appear on such products.
Sometimes the publisher's name on the comic book and the name and contents of the book show a ludicrous discrepancy. For instance, one of the 1952 crop has on its first page a horrible picture of a man shot in the stomach, with a face of agonized pain, and such dialogue as: "You know as well as I do that any water he'd drink'd pour right out of his gut! It'd be MURDER!" The name of the publisher is: Tiny Tots Comics, Inc.
The names of comic books and their numbering are sometimes also anything but informative. If one comic book is criticized, the publishers may stop the series and start the same thing again with another title. If a comic book is designated No.17 or No.60 or No.15 it may actually be No.1 of that title. This I am told has something to do with Post Office regulations according to which they may change the name but must keep the number, to keep some sort of connection with the former product. So Crime may become Love; Outer Space, the Jungle; Perfect Crime, War; Romance, Science Fiction; Young Love, Horror; while the numbers remain consecutive.
After we had once penetrated the fog of "nameless horrors" (and equally nameless publishers) we arrived at a simple, irrefutable conclusion: some of the biggest crime comic book publishers get out the worst and the most widely read comics. The little fellows, far from being more irresponsible, make an effort once in a while to get out less objectionable comics. But they have to return to the formula or, as some have done, give up publishing crime comics entirely. This is of course just the opposite of what many sincere adults have been led to believe.
Some comic book firms are connected with related enterprises such as paper mills. Some firms of course publish other things beside comic books. A firm which published a family magazine published also what the New Yorker generously called "high-toned monthly comic books." Some firms published a national magazine on the one hand and some of the worst crime comics on the other, the readers of one part of this enterprise not knowing about the other.
From the point of view of the scientific study of the crime comic book as a social phenomenon, these connections are not without significance. National magazines whose publishers also publish comic books do not as a rule print articles critical of comic books. Several times we had a chance to see how this works. A writer asked the Lafargue group to give him some background material for an article on violence in children. We gave him some of our conclusions, including some of the lessons in violence in comic books, which he incorporated in his article. When he told me which national magazine he was doing the article for, I told him that since its publisher also published comic books his article would not be published there. He did not believe that such censorship existed.
His article was never printed.
As a psychiatrist I was interested in what some of these publishers did before they published comic books for children. Some of them published semipornographic literature for adults.
The type of cynicism that we found in the dialogue of comic books parallels some of the published statements that comic book publishers and their representatives have made off and on when confronted with public opinion. These are some examples:
"There are more morons than people, you know."
"I don't think comics hurt children because they grow out of it."
"Sure there is violence in comics. It's all over English literature, too. Look at Hamlet. Look at Sir Walter Scott's novels."
"I don't see a child getting sexual stimulation out of it. Looking at those enlarged mammary glands he'd remember that not long ago he was nursing at his mother's breast."
"We do it by formula, not malice. A cop, a killer, a gun and a girl."
Utterances of the editors are no less cynical. Richard B. Gehman, in "From Deadwood Dick to Superman," quoted one:
"Naturally after a kid has identified himself with the crook in the beginning, and after he's followed him through various adventures, he's going to be a little sorry when the crook gets shot. Sure he'll resent the officer who does the shooting. Maybe he'll resent all cops. But what the hell, they sell. Kids like them."
The editor of the comic book The Killers and other similar ones said with disarming frankness: "The so-called harmless books just don't sell."
Another editor: "We are not selling books on the basis of bosoms and blood. We are businessmen who can't be expected to protect maladjusted children."
From my talks with editors and with those who work under them, it seems to me that they have three main tasks.
1) They call a writer for a story, and often give him a check even before he writes it.
2) They determine what are the "real innermost needs" of children.
3) They watch public reaction to the small extent that this is necessary. when the editor receives a copy after the pencil-man, the ink-man and the letterer have done their work, he - thinking of course of the "needs" of the child - "makes final corrections, changing a word of dialogue or indicating in the margin that a girl's half-torn dress should show more of her left breast" (Gehman).
I learned that editors read some of my writings on comic books and discussed them at staff conferences. They reasoned that they did not have to worry too much and that public reaction against crime comic books would soon subside. I know of one company where the editor took my findings very seriously and tried to clean up his crime comic books - and finally gave them up altogether as the only way to do it. This company published an educational comic book which was a financial flop and was discontinued. That is not so hard to explain. Suppose you give a man a highball for breakfast, two highballs for lunch, three highballs for dinner and some strong brandy in between. All the while you keep telling those with whom he lives that this is being done to satisfy his "innermost needs," help him get rid of his "aggressions" and give him a chance to "escape from the humdrum of his life." Would you expect him to be a good prospect for buying regularly tomato juice, ginger ale or milk?
The distribution of comic books is an extended and efficient operation. The wholesale distributors furnish them to news stands, confectionery stores and many other places. Some newsstands receive shipments of from fifty to one hundred comic books every second day, others restock every two or three days with more than five hundred comic books. Millions of comic books are returned and their distribution is in itself a big industry. Their front covers are torn off, or they are otherwise marked, and they are sent to Europe or North Africa - everywhere except to countries which guard their children against them by bans on importation. That they are sold in countries where the children cannot read English shows that they do not need words and that children "read" them just from the pictures.
My associates and I have spoken to many vendors. And very many of them do not like to sell crime comic books. They know they are not good for children and they would rather not handle them. The president of the Atlantic Coast Independent Distributors Association has estimated that three fourths of comic books are not "worthy of distribution" and the president of the National Association of Retail Druggists said at a convention: "It is a tragic fact that many retail druggists are peddlers of gutter muck. The charge can be held against them with justice; their only defense is that it has never occurred to them to check on the comic books. "When parents critical of comic books have realized how defenseless they are against them they have made two unreasonable demands of vendors in stands or stores. First they have asked them to read the comic books before they sell them! That is of course impossible, just as it is impossible for a busy housewife to read all her children's comic books first, though that has been suggested by some experts.
The second demand is that the small vendor should reject the most bloody and sadistic comics. But is it fair to ask these economically hard-pressed people to eliminate those comic books that sell best, when nothing is done at their source?
Comic books that don't "move" are a great headache to the small vendor. If he doesn't return them he has to pay for them. But returning them makes a lot of work bookkeeping, so sometimes he just keeps them and tries to sell them.
A number of these small storekeepers who know a lot about children's comic book habits have given us valuable hints in the course of our studies. One man who owns a small stationery store told us that he sells many classic comic books. "The school is right next door. The kids come in and use them for their book reports." He also handles a lot of twenty-five-cent pocket books, but has no classics in those editions. "The children don't buy them as long as comic books exist." As for the business aspects, he makes five cents on each pocket book, a cent and three quarters on the classics comics and two and a half cents on a crime comic book.
I found a good opportunity to study what one might call the cultural role of comic books in small stores in very poor neighborhoods where immigrants or migrating minorities have moved into a section of the city. For example in a small candy store frequented almost entirely by Puerto Ricans who had moved into the district there is no other reading matter aside from comic books. But of them there is a large secondhand supply limited to the violent and gruesome and sexy kinds. There are always children around, including very young ones, and this is their first contact with American culture. They can not even speak English, so of course they only look at the pictures. They have not yet heard that the experts of the comic book industry have found that comic books teach literacy, so they don't learn to read from them. But here their little money is taken away from them. Late in the evening, and into the night, children collect at this store, which is also a place for that much hushed-up phenomenon child prostitution of the youngest and lowest-paid kind.
Many vendors objected to the block system of purchasing comic books. Again and again they have told me, "I have to sell comic books, although I don't want to. Otherwise I don't get any magazines." Or: "I have no choice. I am entirely dependent on block booking." The secretary of the Arizona Pharmaceutical Association has stated: "The druggists have not been selling these because of the profit. We have been compelled to take them to get the other magazines of the better class. Cases have been found wherein druggists who refused to accept certain comics found their supply of higher class popular magazines cut in half."
The proprietor of a small bookshop in New Jersey who had some good books on his shelves also carried a lot of crime comic books. When I asked him about it, he said, "I want to carry good pocket-size magazines for adults. The dealer said No, unless I took his comic books. I kept after him and then he reluctantly said I could have them, but I would have to fetch them myself. I would phone; then he would say, they are not in yet; then I would phone again and he would say they are all sold out. So - I sell comic books." When the comic-book industry raises the cry of civil liberties and freedom of speech in connection with guarding children against the worst of the crime comic books, I am always reminded of the plight of these small business people who are forced to do something wrong which they do not want to do. The comic book industry certainly does not give them freedom. Actually these small dealers live in fear and do not want their names revealed. For example, I received a petition signed by six people, sent to me in the mistaken belief that I had some influence. "We are taking the liberty of writing to you as my friends and I have a problem which we do not know how to attack. The subject matter of the problem is such that we can not take it to our ministers, as it is a delicate subject and one which we know has to be corrected at its source. . . . Our druggist says that he is dictated to in the matter of buying magazines for the reading public. He wished to dispose of some comic books, the tone of which he did not like, but was told that unless he bought all that the publishers offer he could not buy the magazines he wished. In a free country why does this have to be? Who is doing the dictating? . . . I would like to ask, what is happening? . . . We cannot stand by and see this happen. . . . Please don't use our names . . We don't want any libel trouble. . ."
The writers of comic books rarely want to be professional crime comic book writers. I have had letters from them and have spoken with a number of them. One firm may employ as many as twenty or thirty such writers. Their ambition is to write a "Profile" for the New Yorker, or articles or stories for national magazines, or to write the great American novel. The scripts or scenarios they write for comic books are not anything which they wish to express or anything they wish to convey to their child public. They want to get their ten dollars a page and pay the rent. They do not write comic book stories for artistic or emotional self-expression. On the contrary, they write them in the hope of finding eventually the chance for self-expression somewhere else.
The ideas for their stories they get from anywhere, from other comic books, from newspapers, movies, radio, even jokes. Believe it or not, some comic book writers are good writers. And the paradox or the tragedy is that when you read a comic book story that is a little better it does not mean that a bad writer has improved, but that a man who was a good writer had to debase himself. Crime comic book writers should not be blamed for comic books. They are not free men. They are told what to do and they do it - or else. They often are, I have found, very critical of comics. They are the ones who really know what goes into them. They know the degenerate talk that goes on in some editorial offices. But of course, like comic book vendors, they have to be afraid of the ruthless economic power of the comic book industry. In every letter I have received from a writer, stress is laid on requests to keep his identity secret. I have one letter from a man, evidently a very intelligent writer, who mentions this three times in one letter!
There has been a great critical outburst about the ex-comic book writer Mickey Spillane and his fictional hero. Spillane has sold some twenty million pocket-book copies. The critics object to his artless cynicism, his bloody sadism, his debasement of women. To me this criticism seems to be sheer hypocrisy. Mickey Spillane writes for adults and mostly for young adults who have been brought up on crime comic books. Why is Spillane with his paltry twenty million copies for adults more important than exactly the same thing - with colored illustrations - in hundreds of millions of comic books for children?
Malcolm Cowley has written an excellent analysis of Mickey Spillane. "Mike Hammer," he says," takes a particular delight in shooting women in the abdomen"; "the characters have no emotions except hatred, lust and fear"; "sometimes in the story the fierce joys of sadism give way to the subtler delights of masochism"; "soon he is back in the high-powered car, ready to visit another incredibly seductive woman and start and new episode"; "he has has strong homosexual tendencies." But all this is old stuff to American children. The abdomen is where you shoot a woman - if you don't shoot her in the back. You kick a man in the face, or shoot him in the eye. And there is always a new episode coming up. This is the freedom of speech that the industry invokes when parents try to protect their children from crime comics.
If I were asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children during the last decade I would know no better formula than to say that they were conquered by Superman. And if I were further asked what is the real moral of the Superman story, I would know no better answer than the fate of the creator of Superman himself.
John Kobler has written one of his magazine articles about the rise of Superman. It has a photograph of Jerry Siegal [sic], inventor of Superman, lying on an oversized, luxuriously accoutred bed with silken covers, in a room adorned with draperies. Here indeed is success. Kobler describes how Superman knocks out an endless procession of evildoers. "When a gangster rams Superman on the skull with a crowbar, the crowbar rebounds and shatters his own noggin." Kobler does not fail to point out that Superman comes to children highly recommended. A child psychiatrist declared that Superman provides an inexpensive form of therapy for unhappy children." So Superman and his inventor were well launched.
Since then, in the course of our studies, we have often seen troubled children, children in trouble and children crushed by society's punishments, with Superman and Superboy comic books sticking out of their pockets.
How did the Superman formula work for his creator? The success formula he developed did not work for him. Superman flies high in comic books and on TV; but his creator has long since been left behind.
I am told that if I were to visit the National Cartoonists Society my reception there would lack chumminess. In fact, collectively they consider me to be a devil with two horns. Actually, when we extended our studies to include artists who make drawings for crime comic books, far from blaming them we found that they are victims too. I doubt whether there are any artists doing this work whose life ambition was to draw for crime comic books. From interviews, telephone calls and letters we found out that they are afraid too. This is the kind of thing I was told: "Please don't mention that I even spoke to you! I'd be blackballed; I'd be ruined!" Here I found the comic book industry's conception of freedom of speech again. It is a strange part of the comic book industry that its vendors, writers and artists are so afraid. Maybe they should take the advice of the industry's experts and read horror or supermen comics to get rid of their fears.
Quite a few of the members of the National Cartoonists Society draw for comic books. By and large it pays well, but it is not their artistic ambition. As a rule they are highly critical of what is drawn, by themselves and by their colleagues, for crime comics. One famous comics artist told me, "Of course you have to keep my name confidential - but if I were you there are four hundred comic books I'd like to have taken off the stands." Bay Abel, an illustrator of children's books, is quoted by the Wilson Library Bulletin: "As for the comic book illustrator, I can speak for him, too, as I have done a few comic books in my time. There creative ability and imagination, the things that make an art form interesting, are completely blocked. The artist is a machine and his only aim is to attain a mechanical competence that will make him completely undistinguishable from the other 'machines' in the business. No, I can't say anything in favor of comic books."
The industry and defenders of comics like to mix up comic books and newspaper comic strips in the mind of the public. There are of course financial relationships. Some comic strips are made into comic books. A national weekly containing newspaper comic strips finances research on "comics" (which comes out favorable to crime comic books). Comic-book artists know that, as Stanley Baer ("The Toodles") expressed it in a radio forum at Northwestern University, "the syndicates as well as the feature editors of the various newspapers watch the strips very carefully. And it isn't the newspaper strips that are the ones that are severely criticized." E. Bushmiller ("Nancy") told the San Diego County Women's Clubs, "I wish you would differentiate between the newspaper comics and the comic books. Most newspaper comics are wholesome, but a large percentage of the comic books are cheap junk and just turned out for a quick sale."
It is in an artistic sense that these artists are victims. I know that quite a number of them are highly gifted; but they have to turn out an inartistic assembly-line product. That is what is essentially wrong with comic books: There are too many pictures. The mass effect of these stereotyped, standardized images is something totally different from and much inferior to the well-spaced illustrations in a good children's book. Instead of helping a child to develop his artistic imagination, they stifle it. Even if the drawings were good, which they are not, their numbers would kill their artistic effect.
Some artists have told me that they earn or did earn more money from crime comic books than from any other art work. But they realize very well that it does not help their artistic development. Aline B. Louchheim, reviewing an exhibition of the National Cartoonists Society, placed the political, gag and humorous cartoonists much higher than the comic-book artists. "Let us admit it," she wrote, "the general level of drawing is appallingly low. . . . Even the superb brickbat Krazy Kat tradition is gone.
Whenever the question of control of crime comics is raised, the industry starts to fuss about freedom of expression. It is only when one talks to artists and writers of comic books that one realizes fully the sham of this argument. Who wants to express what in this medium? The writers tell you frankly that what they want is to satisfy the editor - to get their check. If they want to express something, as many of them do, they want to do it in a "legitimate medium." Text and drawings of crime comics are concocted, not created. And there is no freedom of concoction. One comic-book artist told me: "I feel very much like you do about the crime stuff. I did most of my work on assignment. They tell me: 'We want blood.' I used to get very much disturbed about it. They criticized my drawings because they were not sexy enough. My instructions were to make these drawings as sexy as possible. They told me to show as much as possible. For example, I had to draw two women fighting showing as much of the thighs as possible, seductive poses, cruel faces, and one or both flailing the air with a long blunt club. Or two men wrestling, or a man and a gorilla. Thigh muscles must be emphasized and emphasis on all body proportions - you know what I mean."
He added that after these drawings were used in crime-comic books they were printed and catalogued according to sex and action and then sold to private customers who had strange erotic desires, for very personal reasons. Some wanted men, some wanted women, some wanted thighs, etc. All this was taken from drawings for comic books for children!
Experts for the defense are just as necessary for the industry as writers or artists. It could not possibly exist in its present form or extent without them. They are a commercial necessity. The many publishers of genuine children's books do not employ such experts. They do not need them. Neither do they need codes, codes forbidding - after years of publishing - blood, sadism, sex perversion, race hatred and so on. Nor do they need endorsements on their books. Were it not for the confusion spread so adroitly by the comics experts, the good sense of mothers would have swept away both the product and the pretense. The more we studied the industry, the more it was impressed upon us that it was mainly via the experts that the crime-comic-book industry has established such a firm hold on our social fabric. Nobody can understand the industry who does not understand that part of the problem.
I have sometimes indulged in the fantasy that I am at the gate of Heaven. St. Peter questions me about what good I have done on earth. I reply proudly that I have read and analyzed thousands of comic books - a horrible task and really a labor of love. "That counts for nothing," says St. Peter. "Millions of children read these comic books." "Well," I reply, "I have also read all the articles and speeches and press releases by the experts for the defense." "Okay," says St. Peter. "Come in! You deserve it."
Every medium of artistic and literary expression has developed professional critics: painting, sculpture, drama, the novel, the detective story, the seven lively arts, musical recordings, television, children's books. The fact that comic books have grown to some ninety millions a month without developing such critics is one more indication that this industry functions in a cultural vacuum. Literary critics evidently thought that these accumulations of bad pictures and bad drawing were beneath critical notice. I have convinced myself often that they were ignorant of the material itself unless it was brought home to them in their own families.
One literary critic had been very permissive about comic books and had not included them in his other excellent critiques of life and literature. He changed his mind one evening when after reprimanding his children, aged seven and five, he overheard the older saying to the younger: "Don't worry. In the morning I kill both of them!"
There have been other excellent critics, but they came later. Marya Mannes has expressed her opinion tersely: "Comic books kill dreams." She discerned the monopoly position comic books had obtained among the educationally less privileged: "In one out of three American homes, comic books are virtually the only reading matter." John Mason Brown had this to say: "The comic books as they are now perpetually on tap seem to me to be not only trash but the lowest, most despicable and most harmful and unethical form of trash." When heckled by a comic-book publisher about what his own children think of his opinion, he made the classical reply: "They have been so corrupted by you that they love them."
The closest critics of the poison tree should be the parents. Gilbert Seldes has correctly seen as a key problem of comic books "the paralysis of the parents." In his recent book The Great Audience he says: ". . unlike the other mass media, comics have almost no esthetic interest." (I would question his "almost.") After quoting testimony that connects comic books with delinquency and evidence of their brutality and unwholesomeness he goes on: "Most of these outcries represent the attitudes of parents searching for a way to cope with a powerful business enterprise which they consider positively evil. . . . The liberal-minded citizen dislikes coercive action, tries to escape from corruption privately, and discovers that his neighbor, his community, are affected. . . . Year after year Dr. Fredric Wertham brings forth panels showing new ugliness and sadistic atrocities; year after year his testimony is brushed aside as extravagant and out-of-date. The paralysis of the parent is almost complete."
What causes this paralysis of parents? I do not think it is a real paralysis; it is helplessness. The vast majority of mothers have been outraged when they read the crime comic books their children read. But the moment they raise their voices they are knocked out by the experts for the defense and by an avalanche of pseudo-Freudian lore. Freud himself never saw a comic book. And I am certain that he would have been horrified - and even more horrified to learn that his name is being used to defend them by some uncritical would-be followers.
The mothers are not complacent. They are put in a difficult position. They have been told not to worry about comic books, but to read them aloud with their children. Let's go along with Mrs. Jones as she tries to follow this advice. Her son is seven years old, so she selects a comic book which is obviously for children: it has full-page advertisements showing forty-four smiling and happy children's faces. This, she thinks, must be just the thing to read aloud to her child. So she starts with the cover, The Battle of the Monsters! She describes the cover to her son. It shows an enormous bestial colored human being who is brandishing a club and carrying off a scared blonde little boy in knee pants. Then she goes on to the first story:
"LOOK!! Their bodies are CRUMBLING AWAY!!"
Mamma has some difficulty in pronouncing these speeches. But her difficulties increase when in the course of the story a man encounters a big serpent: "WH-AWWGG-HH-H!.! YAAGH-H-H-H!"
She goes on, however, and comes to a picture where a yellow-haired man mugs the dark-hued monster from behind: "AARGH-H-H!!!"
Mrs. Jones thinks perhaps she had better switch to another story. So she turns a few pages and begins "Whip of Death!"
"AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!! [note to self: How many's E's was that?]
There is a picture of a boy tied to a mast with the captain lashing him so furiously that his bare body is criss-crossed with marks. The boy dies of this beating.
Mrs. Jones gives up. She realizes that she will never comprehend the new psychology which defends comic books and she decides that if the child-psychiatry and child-guidance experts say Bobby needs this to get rid of his "aggressions" he has to go through with it alone. She can't take it.
Suppose for a moment that a girl of nine is physically violated by an adult. Democratic justice demands the most rigorous determination: Did this violation occur? Is it established beyond a reasonable doubt that it was this adult who did it? But do we give this man the right to address the parents of the victim, expounding his view that from his investigations he has found that the girl liked it; that it satisfied a "real innermost need" of her own; that struggling against him helped her to get rid of her own "aggressions"; that in her "humdrum" home and school life this was a way of psychological "escape" for her; and that after all, in this modern world of ours girls may get raped and he was helping her to become acquainted with and adjust to "reality"; that she will laugh it off and grow out of it; that the basic character is formed in the first few years, anyhow, so that rape when she's a little older than that can have no real effect?
This simile is not far-fetched. This is precisely what we permit the comic-book industry to do when they violate children's minds.
Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham (Rinehart & Company, Inc. New York, Toronto 1953, 1954)