So it seems that our long national funnybook nightmare has ended. Early last week, DC Comics announced that it was pulling out of the Comics Code Authority, to be followed just a few days later by Archie, the Code’s only other remaining member. We can only assume this means that the Code itself is no more, bringing an end to more than 56 years of self-imposed censorship in the comics industry. The actual, practical effects of the Code’s demise will honestly be negligible, but it’s an historic event nonetheless, and one that’s made me want to take a moment to reflect upon the Code’s history, its affect on the comics industry, and where we go from here.
|Wertham is SHOCKED by SHOCK!|
Wertham never specifically endorsed these burnings, but he didn’t discourage them, either. Which is maybe the most despicable thing about him, in my eyes. That anyone of German descent would even passively endorse book burnings so close to the close of World War II is unbelievable to me. Of course, my knee jerks straight up when it comes to things like this, so maybe I’m biased.
- Batman and Robin are gay.
Actually, I believe he said that Robin’s costume might stir homosexual urges in young boys, and that the relationship implied an improper intimacy. Which is a pretty ridiculous claim, regardless of how many jokes I’ve made about it on this very blog. They never quite feel like father and son to me, but Batman definitely comes off as a responsible older brother raising his younger sibling. You’ve got to really stretch to find any actual homosexual overtones in the stories themselves.
|...or at least willfully read them in...|
- Wonder Woman is a lesbian bondage freak.
This one’s absolutely fascinating to me. Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, was also a psychologist, which makes this an EPIC HEADSHRINKER BATTLE! Of course, Marston's psychological theories were a long way from Wertham's, which may explain the points of contention.
First of all, the bondage stuff? That's totally true, so score one for Wertham on that front. Marston was, in fact, a sort of bondage evangelist. He saw it as a natural and healthy part of human nature, and the one true path to salvation. His theory was that it was only through submission that humanity could attain lasting peace, with everyone taking turns getting their way sometimes, and submitting to the desires of others sometimes, and taking pleasure in both. He enthusiastically admitted that these themes were the foundation of the Wonder Woman character. He intended her as a super hero who would win her battles not by punching the bad guy in the jaw, but through love. And love, of course, meant submission. She was supposed to be the sort of ideal strong woman to whom men would happily and willingly submit, but who was also okay with submitting herself when the time was right. Which is one hell of an idea for a super hero, and one that Wertham would have no doubt found perverse, if he’d bothered to find out about it. Which he didn’t; his research was horribly limited, as I’ll get to in a bit.
|Uhm... Whatever you say, WW...|
Whatever Marston's beliefs were, the idea that a strong woman is a bad role model for girls is ridiculous, so no cookie for Wertham!
(An aside: In addition to Wonder Woman, Marston also created the systolic blood pressure check, and the lie detector! Which has nothing to do with anything, but still... Pretty cool!)
- Superman is a fascist.
This one's particularly funny to me, considering the funnybook burnings, but still, let's grapple with it. The concept of the Superman was certainly one the Nazis embraced rather enthusiastically, and it’s maybe a little unfortunate that Siegel and Shuster chose to echo Nietzsche when they named the character. But, come on now! I suppose you could argue that any super hero represents a sort of “might makes right” paternalistic vigilante philosophy, but there’s a definite line between that and fascism.
|...a line he pretty much crosses every time he gets into the Red Kryptonite...|
On a connected note, Wertham claimed that the Superman fantasy was an unhealthy one that prevented children from coming to terms with their own shortcomings and the social inequalities life threw at them. Essentially, I think he was saying that they found the power fantasy more appealing than working to overcome their problems, which I suppose is true enough as far as it goes. But it presupposes that the child doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they can’t gain inspiration from watching Superman overcome his own problems, something that increasingly-neurotic character was very much engaged in by the late 40s.
Wertham also took Superman to task for inspiring one young boy to put on a cape and jump out his apartment window, thinking it would allow him to fly. Most critics have said that the story was an urban legend, but things like it did happen. My own uncle, for instance, actually did tie a towel around his neck and jump out my grandfather’s hayloft as a kid, landing hard and breaking his collarbone. So score another one for Wertham. But my uncle would tell you that Superman wasn’t to blame; he was just a little kid doing the kind of stupid crap little kids do sometimes.
- “The Injury to the Eye Motif”
Lots of horror and crime comics depicted people nearly (or entirely!) getting their eyes gouged out, evidently, and Wertham believed it made kids callous to human suffering. There really is a lot of evidence for this one, as you can see here:
Heh. The fact that I kind of chuckle at that probably proves Wertham’s point. But I’m chuckling more at the wild sensationalism of the picture than the impending danger. But again, this gets into being able to tell fantasy from reality. A funnybook character getting his eye gouged out is thrilling in an “oh dear god no!” kind of way. Gouging out the eye of a real person is just messed up, and I cringe at the very thought of it.
|That's right, folks: torture porn as |
popular entertainment is hardly a
On the whole, though, Wertham’s findings were ridiculous, and his thesis flawed from the outset. For one thing, he didn’t twig to something that’s pretty obvious in retrospect: the real audience for the more extreme crime and horror comics wasn’t children, but adults. Lots of soldiers in the second world war found escape and entertainment from comic books while they were overseas, and they kept reading them when they came home. Post-war, there’s a marked increase in what’s called “good girl art,” and a new emphasis on what people called “headlight” comics; that is, comics where every woman had massive, protruding breasts well-defined by bullet bras and tight sweaters. There was still a stigma attached to reading what was thought of as children’s literature, so most men didn’t admit to it. But the publishers knew, and catered to them. Of course, anything geared toward prurient adult interests is also going to be much sought-after by pubescent kids, so the audience wound up being mixed, and therein lay the trouble.
But even Wertham’s psychological study was shockingly unscientific. He looked only at the juvenile delinquents he worked with in his clinic, all of whom came from one underprivileged neighborhood in New York City. He didn’t talk to problem kids from anywhere else, and also didn’t take into account the millions of young people who read comics with no apparent ill effects. As I said at the outset, Wertham understood the social realities of juvenile delinquency. He understood that the vast majority of the delinquents came from backgrounds of poverty, abuse, and deprivation, and thus were more at risk for criminal behavior. But he believed that comics were further harming these kids who were already at risk, and his desire to help them by changing comics content overwhelmed everything else. He over-stated and over-simplified the problem, mobilizing parents by making it seem that even well-balanced children from loving homes might be turned into monsters.
Which is what we’ll be talking about in Part Two. So until then... Cheers!
The Wikipedia (of course!):
Comics Code Authority: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_Code_Authority
Frederic Wertham: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredric_Wertham
Seduction of the Innocent: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_of_the_Innocent
Seduction of the Innocent and the Attack on Comic Books http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk4cca.html
Panelology: Frederic Wertham’s Crusade Against Comic Books
Seduction of the Innocent Online