We’re likely to think, in fact, that Wertham and Kefauver were primitive, “hot” exponents of the powers of cultural reaction, and to find their outrage and alarm over comic books psychologically simplistic and politically opportunistic. But this is winner’s bias. Other people’s culture wars always look ridiculous. That’s partly because we frame cultural controversies as battles between the old and the new, and, given that the old is someone else’s status quo and we have no stake in it, we naturally favor the new. So one way to look at the comic-book inquisition is to see it as an effort to repress an edgy, provocative, satirical popular form and to dictate to people what books they should and should not read. In this view, a big, powerful, established social entity (consisting of psychiatrists and government officials) is squashing a bunch of little, powerless entities (consisting of individual comic-book artists and readers).
“Seduction of the Innocent” is a monomaniacal book, and its claims about the causal relation between comic books and juvenile delinquency are only notionally scientific. But it struck a chord, and not just with opportunistic politicians. “All parents should be grateful to Dr. Fredric Wertham for having written ‘Seduction of the Innocent,’ ” began the review in the Times. And it concluded, “Dr. Wertham’s cases, his careful observations and his sober reflections about the American child in a world of comic violence and unfunny filth, testify to a most commendable use of the professional mind in the service of the public.” The reviewer was the sociologist C. Wright Mills, no apologist for the Cold War status quo.
Shortly after the hearings, in June, 1954, Robert Warshow, whose essays on popular culture were unusual in the period for their nuance and appreciation, wrote a famous essay for Commentary on horror comics (it’s odd that Hajdu doesn’t mention it), in which he worries about their effect on his eleven-year-old son, Paul, a member of the EC Fan-Addict Club. Warshow did not much admire Wertham’s book, but he accepted its verdict. “I myself would not like to live surrounded by the kind of culture Dr. Wertham could thoroughly approve of,” he wrote, “and what I would not like for myself I would hardly desire for Paul. The children must take their chances like the rest of us. But when Dr. Wertham is dealing with the worst of the comic books he is on strong ground; some kind of regulation seems necessary.”
And that is all Wertham recommended. He was against the code. He did not want to censor comic books, only to restrict their sale so that kids could not buy them without a parent present. He wanted to give them the equivalent of an R rating. Bart Beaty’s “Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” ($22, paper; University Press of Mississippi) makes a strong case for the revisionist position. As Beaty points out, Wertham was not a philistine; he was a progressive intellectual. His Harlem clinic was named for Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law. He collected modern art, helped produce an anthology of modernist writers, and opposed censorship. He believed that people’s behavior was partly determined by their environment, in this respect dissenting from orthodox Freudianism, and some of his work, on the psychological effects of segregation on African-Americans, was used in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Wertham thought that representations make a difference—that how people see themselves and others reflected in the media affects the way they think and behave. As Beaty says, racist (particularly concerning Asians) and sexist images and remarks can be found on almost every page of crime and horror comics. What especially strikes a reader today is the fantastic proliferation of images of violence against women, almost always depicted in highly sexualized forms. If one believes that pervasive negative images of black people are harmful, why would one not believe the same thing about images of men beating, torturing, and killing women?
Líklega hefur ekkert mótað mína sýn á þennan Wertham frekar en The Dark Knight Returns, þar sem hann er paróderaður sem æsingamaður og tækifærissinni. Vitaskuld hefur maður aldrei lesið bókina hans. Hvað þarf maður að vita annað en að hann vildi banna myndasögur? En svo kemur uppúr dúrnum að það var kannske ekki heila málið.
Auðvitað hefur þetta með sjónvarpið verið reifað áður, og í öðru samhengi. Er ekki talað um það að Tómas Jónsson: Metsölubók hafi verið síðasta íslenska skáldsagan sem fólk reifst almennilega um? Síðan þá hafi enginn nennt að lesa. En það er auðvitað enn ein sagan sem ég hef einhverstaðar einhverstaðar frá.