Monday, January 24, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part One: Seduction of the Innocent

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!

But any discussion of the Comics Code has to start with Dr. Frederic Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham was what we’d call a “celebrity witness” today, testifying in a number of criminal cases (including the trial of serial killer Albert Fish), writing helpful articles and books on the psychology of children, and making television appearances throughout his career. But he wasn’t just a glory hound. Much as he’s (justifiably) demonized in funnybook fan circles, Wertham was a humanitarian and genuinely-concerned social crusader. He abhorred violence, and wrote on the ills of racism; his opinions on race were even brought as evidence in the landmark Civil Rights case Brown vs. Board of Education. He also ran a psychiatric clinic for the underprivileged in the late 1940s, which is where he became interested in comic books.

He often dealt with juvenile delinquents in his clinic, and Wertham noticed that many of them talked about how much they liked comics. He had a deeper understanding of the socio-economic factors that lead these kids to crime, writing in 1954 that “to understand a delinquent child one has to know the social soil in which he developed and became delinquent or troubled.” And yet, most of his public rhetoric boiled the problem down to one simple concept: comics turn kids into criminals.

Wertham wasn’t alone in his criticism of the comics industry, but he became its most public face. His theories stirred up a genuine panic in Middle America, and lead to at least one mass funnybook burning in New York, as immortalized here by Time Magazine:

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.

The hysteria lead several publishers (including, somewhat ironically, later Code victim EC) to form the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers (ACMP), a precursor to the Comics Code Authority, in 1948. Their guidelines were based on the Hays Code that governed movie content, and things might have gone better for comics in general if the ACMP had worked. Because, bad as their rules were, they were much preferable to what was to come later. But at least two big companies (DC and Dell) didn’t join, so the ACMP guidelines were never truly enforced, and disagreements between the various publishers who did join crippled this nascent organization’s ability to regulate anything.

(An aside: In my head, these publishers are like gangsters meeting in a smoke-filled room, getting into shouting matches over territory and vowing revenge. “You ain’t heard the last of dis, Archie! Dis time next year, you’ll be sleepin’ wit da Sea Monkeys!” Of course, the inside of my head is often much more colorful than reality…)

At any rate. Wertham’s crusade against comics culminated in 1954, with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent (the full text of which can be read starting here: His findings can be quoted chapter and verse by most long-time comics fans, but here are a few of the greatest hits:

- 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. 

See? It's educational!
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.

As for the lesbianism… Well, maybe. Marston was involved in what’s been called a “polyamorous” relationship with his wife Elizabeth and a former student named Olive Byrne. The sense I get about their relationship is that it wasn’t one man with two wives, but a genuine three-way love affair: Elizabeth and Olive continued the relationship for the rest of their lives after Marston’s premature death in 1947. I'm just speculating now, of course, but since Marston said that Wonder Woman was sort of an amalgam of Elizabeth and Olive, I could see her being at least bisexual in his mind. So Wertham may have been partially right, but the idea that this makes Wonder Woman a bad role model just isn't something I can get behind. 

Wertham also asserted that the character’s forceful and energetic ways gave young girls the wrong idea about the proper role of women in society. Which is astoundingly sexist, and something that I don't think Marston would have agreed with at all. He was a staunch feminist who believed that women were strong, and generally more intelligent than men. Of course, he also believed that women were naturally submissive, so there's some mixed messages going on here. 

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
modern invention!

“Injury to the Eye” is just the tip of the ice-pick when it comes to Wertham’s opinions on the crime and horror comics, though. He took issue with those comics’ tales of moral turpitude, their horrifying violence, and their sexual content. Not that any of these books featured graphic sex acts, but they were full of women in a dizzying array of states of undress, from underwear and flimsy negligees to regular clothing ripped to shreds by violence and potential rapists.

Wertham was also very concerned about this trend in violence toward women, citing numerous examples of half-naked women being tied up, and “typical whipping and flagellation scenes such as are found, outside of this children's literature, only in pornographic books.”

But even going beyond all the torture dungeon stuff, Wertham takes issue with scenes of gangsters slapping their molls as a bad example to set for kids, and tracks a trend of women being thrown into fire (I‘m sure the many “Volcano God“ sacrifices of the jungle adventure comics upped the incidence of that quite handily).

Of course, Wertham paints all of this in only the worst possible light. There was some pretty risqué and violent stuff in these books, even by modern standards, but it wasn‘t as bad, or as wide-spread, as he made it seem. Though much of the art was obviously supposed to be titillating, there was no actual nudity, and any truly extreme acts of violence either happened off-camera or were prevented from happening at all. And the gangsters weren’t depicted as characters to be imitated; one of the most popular crime comics of the period (and one that Wertham draws from more than once) was even called “Crime Does Not Pay.” Though the bad guys might be the central characters in the stories, they never came to a good end. But Wertham wasn’t one to let a few facts get in the way of his crusade, as we’ll see in a minute. 

Scantily-clad white woman? Check!
Leering black witch doctor? Check!
Wertham's wet dream of wrongness,
right here in one drawing!
Not that everything he discussed was out of left field. He objected to much of the advertising in comics, which featured lots of guns and knives for sale to youngsters. Granted, I had a pocket knife and a Daisy BB gun as a kid, and I never killed anybody, but that’s still something a modern audience might take exception with.

On a much more valid note, though, Wertham also took the comics industry to task for racism. This was a blight on American society in general in that era, of course, and it was no worse in the comics than anywhere else. But the number of black men depicted as leering witch doctors and comedic slackers is pretty stomach-churning, so I have to commend Wertham for fighting against that particular tide.

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.

That didn’t stop Seduction of the Innocent from becoming a sensation, of course, but I have to wonder who was really being seduced here. Wertham’s claims were often as lurid as the comic book stories he was crusading against, and his position as a respected psychologist guaranteed that his opinions were going to be taken at face value by many. People like simple solutions to social ills, and parents are always vigilant for anything that might harm their kids. So the funnybook burnings continued, and the public outcry grew, until finally, in 1954 (the same year Wertham’s book saw print), the US Senate called for hearings on comics content.

Which is what we’ll be talking about in Part Two. So until then... Cheers!


The Wikipedia (of course!):
Comics Code Authority:
Frederic Wertham:
Seduction of the Innocent:

Seduction of the Innocent and the Attack on Comic Books

Panelology: Frederic Wertham’s Crusade Against Comic Books

Seduction of the Innocent Online


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