If Good Comics Can Have Good Effects upon Their Readers,
Why Can’t Bad Comics Have Bad Effects?

OR, Wasn’t Wertham Right After All?


The name Fredric Wertham hangs like a pall over the history of comic books, clouding the horizon of the medium like the long gray day of winter’s overcast.  And it is passing strange that this single individual should be such a pervasive presence.  Wertham ranks with Jack Kirby and Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman and Gil Kane as one of a pantheon that shaped the history of the medium, changing its direction.  But Wertham, unlike these other gods, did not work in the medium; he neither drew nor wrote for comic books. 

            As every comics fan knows, Wertham did his best to destroy comic books.

            As every comics fan knows, Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, tolled the death knell for comic books as they then existed.  His book and his testimony before the infamous so-called Kefauver Committee focused public attention on comic books, which brought pressure on comics publishers, which resulted in the creation of the clean-up Comics Code Authority, and that eventually caused the untimely demise of the revered EC comics line and a few others.

            That’s what every comics fan knows.  Or thinks he knows.  Fact is, however, that other comic book publishers went under, too.  And Wertham was not the sole cause of their collapse.  Television, as a much more exciting entertainment alternative to comic books, played a large part.  The innocent were seduced, all right:  they were seduced away from comic books. 

            And the deterioration and interruption of the means of distributing comic books also played a role.

            But Wertham gets most of the credit in our collective consciousness about the abrupt change of course the comic book industry made in the mid-1950s.  He’s the bogeyman.  He was the scientific guru whose “expert opinion” condemned funnybooks.

            In his book and his testimony and in numerous magazine articles, Wertham brought in his indictment again and again.  Reading comic books is bad for children, he said.  It gives them unwholesome ideas, turning some kids into criminals and some into sex perverts.  But even if reading comic books doesn’t turn everyone into one or the other, the habit does no good for anyone.  We should ban comic books, Wertham urged; and if we can’t ban them, we should forbid their sale to anyone under fifteen.

            Many were alarmed by the ferocity of his attack and the seeming persuasiveness of his credentials.  Syndicated newspaper cartoonists were particularly edgy.  Although comic strips were not included in Wertham’s indictment, it took very little mental effort to imagine that his argument would eventually lead him to the funnies. 

            Milton Caniff mulled about Wertham’s crusade, and he once penned the following: click to enlarge

            “I sat before a television set and listened to the old familiar sound of an angry voice, heavy with middle-European accent, saying, ‘The medium should be abolished.’ The fact that the speaker was referring to comic books was incidental. He was advocating doing away with a method of expression in a country where freedom of the press is guaranteed. . . .

            “The howl about the comic books is rapidly becoming the quickest way to eminence in psychiatry as it is practiced on the American radio. I don't recall what caused juvenile delinquency in my day, but I am certain the ‘Young Wild West’ series would have confounded the mental medics if there had been such around in those less analyzed times. . . .  Someone in the field [of comic books] got away with showing more flank and more blood than the newspaper strips had dared display up to that point, and the readers lapped it up to the tune of plenty of dimes at the newsstands. The next (and quite natural) move of the retail dealers was to call for more brawn and bosom. The distributors got what they asked for, and the supply and demand war was on. . . .

            “[Returning to the complaint in my opening sentence,] the well-known psychiatrist reached into the mellow depths of his European background and offered as his solution to the comic book evil that they be  abolished as a medium. The old, old technique of the packed-in- tight countries: if you can't bend it, break it. To make his point, the man wanted to eliminate the device through which millions of kids see Mickey Mouse even if they don't get to the movies or read a newspaper. . . .

            “In his anger at what he claimed to be the contributing cause of the majority of juvenile delinquency in the United States today, the good doctor called for the destruction of the device chosen by the government during the War as the quickest and most effective means of educating recruits in all branches of the armed forces. The familiar comic book was utilized to teach everything from basic training in all phases of military life to the delicate business of interrogation and identification of prisoners of war. . . .

            “None of the [civilian] comic magazines have been shoved down the throats of readers. They have remained popular because they entertained. American kids read what they wish to. If they choose to spend earned or allowance money for comics, they do so. Lacking cash, they find a means of swapping to obtain the books they want. This pleasant and competitive world was denied Japanese and German children. They were told in positive terms what they should and should not read. Of course, this ukase prevented juvenile delinquency. But the adult delinquency that threw the world into war is seldom mentioned when the heavy-voiced Vienna- trained psychiatrist barks over the free American air that a medium of expression should be abolished.

            “As the doctor on the television show told of the horrible influence of these Yankee ‘blood hucksters’ on the children who come to his clinic, I heard a chuckle from a 20-year-old girl [next to me] watching the screen. This handsome young woman will be a junior at Bryn Mawr next year, but I recalled her as the same neighbor kid for whom I used to buy armfuls of comic books when she was house-bound with the sniffles or some other childhood ailment.

            “I asked her if her life had been ruined by those tools of the devil I had brought to her notice. She replied that she still retained her passion for Tarzan as portrayed in the cartoons, but that her instinct for crime had early been cooled by the obvious fact that in the freezer, the warden could cut off her supply of comic books at his pleasure.

            “That seems to be my point.”

            But Wertham was not, actually, a malevolent monster.  He was a concerned psychiatrist.  He, like scores of other Americans at the time, was concerned about a new phenomenon in our national life.  Juvenile delinquency.  The increasing criminal inclinations of America’s youth in the years after World War II alarmed everyone.  And everyone looked for causes.

            The obvious cause--the erosion of the influence of the nuclear family due to the absence from the home of fathers (who were in foreign climes serving in the military during WWII) and of mothers (who went to work in defense plants and other places to take the places of the absent male population)--was seldom remarked upon.  To blame juvenile delinquency on the failure of the family was like blaming yourself; and most of us are quicker to blame some other entity than ourselves.  It’s a human failing, but it’s a failing.

            Wertham’s motives in attacking comic books were entirely laudatory.  As Amy Kiste Nyberg points out in her book, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, Wertham’s “call for a ban on the sale of comic books to children was his way of trying to make a difference in a society that he saw as hostile to the healthy mental development of children.” 

            In her book (University Press of Mississippi, 1998; $18 in paper), Nyberg traces the events that led to the establishment of the Code.  To set the stage, she dips as far back into the past as Congress’s passing in 1873 of the “first comprehensive obscenity law”--known as the Comstock Act because of the influence of an early crusader for decency, the notoriously self-righteous Anthony Comstock.  She then points out that newspaper comics came in for criticism very early as being “vulgar” because they depicted uneducated immigrant children (like the Yellow Kid and his cohorts). 

            And criticism of comic books arrived so hard on the heels of the medium’s advent as to be nearly immediate.  Their precursors in the 19th century, dime novels retailing exotic adventure to American youth, had been roundly condemned, and comic books were seen as a continuation of the same tradition in lurid literature for the young.

            Nyberg provides a blow-by-blow history of New York’s attempts to install laws that outlawed comic books (mostly vetoed by Governor Thomas Dewey as unconstitutional), discusses the formation of and charge to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, rehearses key testimony before the subcommittee in the spring of 1954, outlines Wertham’s career both before and after the publication of Seduction, describes the inauguration of the Code and its consequences, and sketches the Code’s evolution over the last four decades.  The book concludes with appendices that give all three versions of the Code--1954, 1971, and 1989--and an extensive bibliography.

            For the most part, this is an objective, noninflammatory recitation of the history of comic book censorship.  Nyberg also makes several astute observations (observations doubtless made before but often overlooked in such histories as this).

            Perhaps the most insidious effect of the Code, she points out, is to define the audience for comic books as very nearly exclusively children.  This, of course, did more to stunt the possible evolution of the artform than any other single circumstance. 

            She also observes that the Code was almost always imagined by those who conceived it as mostly window-dressing, a public relations ploy that would allow the critics to think they’d won but would permit the comic book industry to make as few concessions to them as possible (which, ironically, supports Wertham’s contention about the venal motives of comic book publishers).

            But the plan did not work out quite the way the cynical publishers imagined it would.  The first administrator of the Code, Judge Charles E. Murphy, took his assignment much more seriously than the publishers thought he would.  He actually succeeded in forcing adherence to the Code. 

            As for EC Comics’ departure from the field--according to Nyberg, driving EC out of business was seen by most comic book publishers as good for the industry.  EC was the sacrificial lamb, proving that the industry was serious about cleaning up its act.  Moreover, EC’s exit (and that of a couple of other minor publishers) was also good business: it reduced the number of comic books on the stands and thereby improved the chances of survival for other publishers. 

            Nyberg also frames criticism of comic books in a larger context.  The issue, she says, was who was to control the education of children.  The conflict was between the cultural elite and popular culture. 

            In this struggle, the scientific accuracy of the allegations against comic books was beside the point.  Even though most research findings contemporary with Wertham’s so-called study suggested that the critics greatly exaggerated the ill effects of reading comics--that, in fact, most of the assumptions held about the negative influence of comics were not valid--that didn’t matter.  Nor did it matter that reading comic books actually had some value in an educational mode.

            Nyberg admits that Wertham’s book was not a very scientific indictment of comic books.  Social scientists today, she says, fault the book for its lack of scientific methodology. 

            “They conclude that Wertham’s book proposed a simplistic model of ‘direct and immediate relation between cause and effect. . .’” and that “his criticism was a ‘crude social learning theory model which either implicitly or explicitly assumed unmediated modeling effects, often accompanied by an equally simple Freudian interpretation of comic content.’”

            But these critics miss the point, Nyberg says.  Wertham never intended his book to be a scholarly report on research.  Although based upon his research, the book was conceived as a propaganda vehicle, a sensational screed by which he hoped to mobilize public opinion against comic books.  In short, the book was concocted out of political not scientific motives.  And by linking juvenile delinquency to comic book reading, Wertham provoked action.

            Although we may believe that he succeeded in his purpose, Wertham himself thought he had failed.  He correctly saw that the Code was merely a ruse and that it could not accomplish what outlawing comics altogether would accomplish--purifying the environment in which children were growing up.

            Wertham was one of the first (or, at least, one of the most conspicuous of the social science pioneers) to assert that environment shaped personality.  And he was also among the first to assert that violence in mass media, whether as news or as entertainment, conditions us to accept violence.  And as we become more tolerant of it, more of it occurs.

            Nyberg applauds Wertham’s motives--at times, almost as if she supposes that good intentions are sufficient justification for faulty science.  The clinical method of Wertham’s science may, in fact, be valid in certain situations (as many today assert), but the sample from which conclusions are drawn must be broader and more varied than Wertham’s interviews with children who, for one reason or another, found themselves in a psychiatric clinic in Harlem.

            Although Nyberg diligently (and rightly) aims to destroy the malevolent bogeyman version of Wertham by rehearsing his professional achievements, the fact that his criticism of comic books belongs within his larger concern about the effects of media is not evidence that his scientific method was not naive. 

            Even if Wertham were a better scientist than the content of the book suggests, the book itself exists as a tract purporting to be scientific and as such is an example of deeply flawed attitudes about the scientific method.

            Seduction of the Innocent is a bubbling stew of accusation and innuendo, a grab-bag of isolated instances, fragmentary case histories, insinuating near-facts, and innumerable anecdotes that retail as cause-and-effect relationships a host of happenings whose only connection with each other is sequential.  More forensic than scientific, the book attains a modest stature only as literary criticism.

            The scientific foundation upon which Wertham builds his indictment seems a trifle shaky if judged by present-day research standards.  He presents no statistical analysis of his data, for instance--nothing that reports how many subjects he interviewed and what percentage of them became juvenile delinquents because of their comic book reading.  There is no precise analysis of the population he studied: how many were juvenile delinquents, how many were not?  None of Wertham’s conclusions were ever subjected to experimental validation.  Although such an experiment would doubtless prove impossible to implement, his findings might acquire greater validity if he had studied a “normal” comic book reading population and compared the results to those that emerged from his study of children who had come to his mental hygiene clinic in Harlem for consultation or treatment of some behavioral problem.

            As an example of the sort of rhetoric Wertham employs, consider this assessment of children’s “violent games”--games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians.

            Wertham allows that “violent games may be harmless enough, but only a hairline divides them from the acts of petty vandalism and destructiveness which have so increased in recent years.”

            What he says may be true: “only a hairline divides . . . .”  They are, indeed, separate acts.  But notice how he implies a cause-and-effect relationship between two sets of facts without actually saying one causes the other. 

            Assuming for the nonce that he has successfully demonstrated a causal relationship between comic book reading and violent games, he pairs this “fact” with another--an increase in petty vandalism--implying that playing violent games leads directly to committing petty vandalism. 

            Wertham frequently employs this kind of rhetoric, and its sloppy logic that slyly indicts by association only weakens his argument over-all by making him appear less that straight-forward in the presentation of his case.

            The good doctor was driven to this sort of verbal and intellectual gymnastics because he was unable to prove the truth of his allegations.  He failed to find in a cause-and-effect relationship a connection between reading comic books and criminal or aberrant behavior in young readers. 

            Ironically, he actually cites an instance that contradicts his thesis--without apparently realizing it.  It is one of the few instances of his drawing upon a case not originating in a clinical setting.

            In a study conducted with 355 children of better-than-average-income families who were enrolled in a parochial school “where ethical teaching played a large part” in lessons, children read both comics of the “better sort” and “bad” (i.e., crime) comics.  Astonishingly, the children recognize the flaws in the comic book stories.  Superman is “bad” because he is portrayed as a god.  Some comic books are bad but fun to read.  Some will lead readers into sinning. 

            The kids found examples of “impure thoughts,” “indecency,” and the like.

            Anyone concerned about the corrupting influence of comic books should derive some comfort from such remarks.  They reveal that the ethical teaching of the school “took”: it shaped children’s responses to the world around them.  The kids recognized that some comics were “bad.” 

            These kids were scarcely “seduced.”  They are, in fact, doing precisely what their teachers and parents presumably hoped they would do: they are rejecting the immoral blandishments they encounter.

            But Wertham, in failing to remark upon this circumstance, seems curiously blind to a study that contradicts his message.

            If the book fails in its science, it almost succeeds as literary criticism.

            Crime comic books of the time told stories about criminals.  Typically, the stories traced the careers of gangsters, beginning with their rise to power in the underworld and continuing with accounts of their exercise of power and concluding, eventually, in their downfall.  By way of characterizing the demented personalities of the criminals, most crooks were portrayed as wholly unsavory villains--cruel, thoughtless, and treacherous, given to acts of merciless brutality and, often, of craven cowardice.

            But the choice of narrative focus was unfortunate.  Concentrating on the criminal’s career made the criminal the center of the action.  The criminal became the protagonist of the stories and the police the antagonists.  In our usual engagement with fiction, protagonists are the “heroes” of the tale.  The narrative configuration of the stories in crime comics, then, had the rhetorical effect of making heroes of the crooks.  Heroes are usually admirable, worthy of emulation.  Thus, criminals become role models.

            Even if the crook is caught or killed in the end, most of the story is devoted to his success rather than his failure.  Only the last two or three panels in the story depict the criminal’s undoing.  Given this rhetorical weighting, the lesson a young reader might absorb is not that “crime does not pay.”  To suppose, Wertham says, that the final defeat of the villain cancels out his previous triumphs and achievements is “psychologically naive.” 

            The lesson, he goes on, “is not that the villain should have been a better person but that he should have been shrewder.”  His dessert was just because he was stupid enough to get caught--not because he was evil.  The real crime is in getting caught.

            Crime comic books (and other mass media), Wertham says, “make children confuse violence with strength, sadism with sex, low necklines with femininity, racial prejudice with patriotism, and crime with heroism.”

            To complete the indictment, Wertham asserts that all comic books are crime comic books.  In effect, any comic book in which a story contains some sort of conflict is a crime comic book.

            Not everyone agreed with Wertham that comic books could cause criminal behavior or that comic books should be banned.

            Bill Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, for instance.  In testimony before the infamous so-called Kefauver Committee investigating comic books, he said that he thought comic books were mostly harmless juvenile entertainment.

            Others who defended comic books often cited what they termed the “educational value” of comics.  In the much maligned crime comics, the criminals were always caught and punished. The lesson was that “crime doesn’t pay.”  Thus, comics taught moral values: good triumphs over evil, law and order over lawlessness, and so on.  The lesson was particularly evident in superhero comic books, the apologists might say: in those, there was absolutely no question that the bad guys were bad and the good guys were good.  The good guys wore tights and fought crime.  The formula emphasized the equation: the values of the good guys were good values.

            But this argument is hoist with its own petard.  If comics can teach, then they can teach both good and bad lessons.  If “good comics” teach good behavior, we must assume that “bad comics” teach bad behavior.  If the first proposition is true, then so is the second.

            Or so it would seem.

            Those who pooh-poohed Wertham’s thesis back in the 1950s when it burst fresh upon the horizon steered clear of this pitfall by using the Predisposition Argument.  Crime comics would not lead youthful readers into a life of crime, the argument went, unless those readers were already somehow predisposed to commit crimes.  Normal kids, the reasoning ran, would not be affected by tales of criminality or ghoulish horror.  And that, I think, is exactly the case although there is scarcely any replicable scientific experimental data upon which to base this conclusion.

            There is, however, a logical basis--the logic of literary criticism.

            The issues surrounding Wertham’s contention have become more insistent over the years, and the social crisis more urgent.  We now have teenagers who turn their high schools into battlefields and blast away at each other with arsenals of sophisticated weaponry.  Are these young monsters trained by television and movies just as their grandfathers might be presumed to have gone to crime school in comic books? 

            Wertham’s book, as Nyberg has demonstrated, was but the tip of the iceberg of his thinking on the subject.  In its largest context, Wertham’s theorizing embraced precisely the concerns that this country has been wrestling with ever since.  He believed that personality was shaped by environment.  Consequently, violence in society makes violent members of that society.  Even more insidiously, violence in our entertainments conditions us to accept violence everywhere.

            Most of us would agree, I believe, that violence in our entertainments is not altogether healthy.  But most of us would also be suspicious of any theory that suggests that violence on television is the only cause of violence on the streets and in the schools.  There are other contributing factors (as even Wertham admitted, providing himself with a hedge against the charge that his book made the cause-and-effect linkage too directly for accurate science).  We can find some inkling of what those other factors might be, I submit, by examining the Predisposition Argument in terms of literary criticism.

            One of the tenets of literary theory is that readers participate vicariously in the lives of those they read about.  The characters in a novel may be fictional, but if they are convincingly drawn, readers will emphathize with them and share their dreams and their fears, their agonies and their victories. 

            If we didn’t somehow enter emotionally into these fictional lives, then there would be no suspense in any work of fiction.  We might be curious about an outcome in the same way that we might be interested in the solution to a puzzle.  The engagement is largely intellectual rather than emotional. 

            If the engagement is emotional as well as intellectual, then we care about the fictional people in somewhat the same way as we care about our real acquaintances, family, and friends.  And only if we care about these make-believe personages do we care about what happens to them.  Only if we care about their well being can the authors of these fictions keep us in suspense, dangling the question of how it will end before us throughout the work. 

            If we feel suspense, then, we may safely assume we are emotionally engaged with a work of fiction.

            Our vicarious involvement with fictional personages that we regard as real is a humanizing experience: it is broadening.  Reading fiction broadens us as people because we get to know and understand and sympathize with these other “people” we encounter in fiction.  It works the same as knowing real people does: the experience widens our internal horizon of understanding.  We are better for it, more humane, because we are no longer just single, individual, self-centered egos but, to the degree that we have absorbed the aspirations and heartaches of others, we have become them, incorporated them within us.  By so doing, we become more than just ourselves: we become them, too.  And so we are better members of humankind because we understand our commonalities.  “Them” becomes “us,” and we are sympathetic rather than antagonistic. 

            It is possible to know well more people through fiction than we can ever know well in real life.  It is possible to understand their motives and emotions better than we can understand real people of our acquaintance.  Between most of us in real life hangs an opaque veil of self-preserving privacy, and we seldom get entirely beyond that veil.  But we can--and do--pierce through the opacity in works of fiction, and we get to know more people and to know them better.  And so reading widely in fiction is a good thing to do if we want to understand the human condition and embrace the family of humankind.

            If something like this isn’t a reasonable description of what happens between a reader and the work of fiction he or she is reading, then literature--belle lettres, the entire edifice of storytelling--cannot function and would not exist.

            By what means, then, does an author create the “emotional engagement” of readers that is at the heart of the literary experience?  The key phrase several paragraphs ago is “convincingly drawn.”  Readers must be persuaded that the fictional folk they encounter are, for whatever purpose, “real.”  In the famous phrase, we then “willingly suspend disbelief.”  We know the work is make-believe, but we pretend to ourselves that it is real.  We do it in order to be entertained, and we are entertained by being engaged, involved, in the lives of these fictions. 

            To the extent that a fictional character seems in various crucial ways to be like us, that character will seem real to us.  If these characters are not like us, we won’t believe in them--we won’t think they are real.  If a character seems to laugh and cry and aspire for reasons we recognize as similar to our own reasons for laughing or crying or aspiring, then that character will seem like us and therefore real to us.  If this character lives in a milieu that is familiar to us--or similar to our own--populated by other characters whose emotional and mental make-ups are recognizably human, the implicit argument for believing in the character and the rest of the cast is enhanced. 

            On the other hand, if fictional characters do not seem to react in the ways our lives have taught us that people react--emotionally, intellectually--to the stimuli of their environment, then we won’t believe they are real.  If their milieu is peculiar or wholly unfamiliar to us--unrecognizable as a human milieu--then our willingness to suspend disbelief is further undermined.

            If we do not believe in the characters, we will not enter vicariously into their lives.  And if we are not living vicariously in the pages of that fiction, we will not be affected much by what we encounter there.

            And so to a young comic book reader of the 1950s who lives among the well-tended lawns of American suburbia, the milieu in crime comic books will seem exotic and fascinating--but not very familiar.  The characters may have recognizable emotional reactions, but they still live differently and operate strangely in a strange environment.  And they do things wholly foreign to someone living in the material and emotional comfort of Eisenhower’s suburbia.

            Comparatively speaking.

            Compared to comic book readers who live on the mean streets in large metropolitan areas, that is.  Youths who are not secure in either material or emotional comforts.  Young readers for whom life is a much more desperate struggle to survive than it is for those who live the well-tended lawn life.  For kids in the inner city, no doubt the fictional world in crime comic books is not foreign but familiar.  These readers willingly suspend disbelief and live vicariously the lives played out in four-color fiction before them.  And these readers--as Wertham discovered by interviewing so many of them in the Lafarge Clinic in New York’s Harlem--might well imitate the actions portrayed in crime comic books.

            Yes, this is the old Predisposition Argument.  And I realize that I’m simplifying a complex situation, but I do so to dramatize the point:  these young readers are not so much “predisposed” as they are emotionally engaged by fictions that seem, to them, convincingly accurate portrayals of life as the readers know it.  Living vicariously the criminal lives played out in comics, these readers might well start living real lives of crime because comic books and their own real milieu have demonstrated persuasively that criminal activity is the way to survive.

            Here, then, is at least one of the “contributing factors” that Wertham doubtless knew existed--the real environment of comic book readers.  When the actual parallels the fiction, then there is little difference between vicarious experience and real experience.  And so the former impinges upon, affects, the latter.

            For those young readers in Eisenhower’s suburbia, however, the lives they saw depicted in crime comic book fictions did not seem real enough, not actual reality at all.  And so these readers did not enter into those fictional experiences as deeply as did their youthful counterparts in the inner cities.  The influence of crime comics under these circumstances is likely to be entirely negligible.  “Harmless,” as Bill Gaines said.

            Consider that classic tableau outside a movie theater after a cops-and-robbers movie has ended and the audience is leaving:  imagine in the crowd a group of youngsters who swagger out in imitation of one of the more impressive of the crooks they’ve just seen on the screen.  A commonplace scenario.  We’ve all seen it.  Or enacted it ourselves.  Swept up in the ambiance of the flick, we “act out” the part of our favorite on-screen character.

            My contention is that if those kids are suburban juveniles, they’ll quickly begin laughing at their own imitations.  They do so because those counterfeit personages are not real to the youths.  They are therefore comical.

            But if that scene takes place outside a movie theater in a less manicured neighborhood of an inner city, I can’t imagine much laughter.  Here, that bullying swagger is not comical.  The kids here see that swagger everyday on the streets, and the movie has simply provided them with another model to imitate. 

            In the first instance, the laughter persuades the youths to give up the imitation; in the second instance, where there is no derisive laughter, the youths continue the imitation and enlarge, perhaps, upon it in their actual lives.

            And in a similar fashion, “bad comics” might, under certain circumstances, have a bad influence on their readers.  By the same token, “good comics” might not have the desired effect.

            For readers on the mean streets, the moral values in “good comics” have comparatively little reality.  Those values animate no one these readers know.  Or, more likely, too few of their acquaintance.  And so these comics do not effect behavior on the mean streets.  They are as unrecognizable and foreign and completely strange as crime comics seem to suburb dwellers.  And if “bad comics” have no effect on suburban juveniles, “good comics,” for the same reasons, have no effect on urban juveniles.

            But “good comics” do affect those readers whose milieu and values are reflected in the fictions.  To suburban readers, these values are recognizable.  And they seem to have validity: they appear to be working in the readers’ surroundings.  And so these readers have their values reinforced by their comic book reading--just as inner city readers have their values reinforced by reading “bad comics.”

            And that, it seems to me, is why “good comics” can have good effects and “bad comics” may have no effect at all.  By the same token, “bad comics” can have bad effects and “good comics” no effect at all.  It depends upon the extent to which readers are drawn into the fictions and live vicariously there.  It depends, in other words, upon whether a reader recognizes “his” world in the fiction; if he does, he will be affected by what he reads.  If he doesn’t, he will not.

            Again, I recognize that I’m oversimplifying.  But I do it to clarify the issues in the argument.  And if this argument--the argument of literary criticism--is valid, then it can apply to other entertainments.  Comic books are no longer as pervasive in the lives of American youth as they were in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  They no longer constitute the threat to social stability that they were once imagined to be.  Other entertainments have taken their place.

            But just as comic books by themselves “in isolation” could not affect behavior then--just as there are “contributing” factors present--so are there contributing factors today.  Only when there are certain other contributing factors present can violence in entertainments influence actual behavior.  Alas, we don’t know, exactly, what those other contributing factors might be.  Not with certainty. 

            But we may be reasonably secure in supposing that environment--the actual milieu of American youth--has something to do with it.  Family, school, neighborhood.  These are the elements of milieu.  And how are these different today from what they may have been in, say, the 1930s?--when there was, so we suppose, less of the kind of violent behavior that we have today.

            Families had mothers at home.  Daily behavior was therefore under constant scrutiny.  Schools were smaller.  Kids felt less anonymous, less lost in huge crowds.  Neighborhoods were more likely stable: people didn’t come and go as much, so you were a known personage growing up: the neighbors knew you--and, more importantly, they knew your mother and father and could report your misbehaviors, if any, to them. 

            I’m not suggesting that we must return to yesteryear.  I’m not advocating that mothers must stay in the home.  I’m not saying we should reduce the size of educational plants, giving up the economies that size engenders, the varieties of educational opportunities ditto.  But we haven’t yet found authentic substitutes for these factors in American life. 

            Nothing has yet taken the place of mothers in the home when kids are growing up; nothing has taken the place of the smaller school which nurtures a sense of self.  Nothing has taken the place of the interconnectedness of neighborhoods in which residents are more or less permanent.

            Nothing but television.

            Not only is American life different by reason of changes in family, school, and neighborhood.  We also have television.  It’s the new kid on the block.  (See how quaint that expression sounds?  How unaccustomed we are to thinking about “our block” in the neighborhood?) 

            TV cannot take the place of family, school, and neighborhood, but it does fill the void created by changes in those areas.  And it fills that void with ambiguity.  The sensations retailed on trash talk TV in the late afternoon paint a distorted picture of real life for young latch-key viewers who absorb impressions undiluted by contradictory counsel from companionable adults.

            Wertham’s over-arching theme--that environment influences behavior--is surely worth considering.  Indeed, it cannot be discounted. 

            Environmental factors today include the actual worlds that young people operate in as well as the fictional ones they encounter in their entertainments.  And in those actual worlds, young people are often left too much to their own devices.  Their values are reinforced by the values of other young people, all living in the moral ambiguity that is created in the new milieu. 

            Into the vacuum sweep the schools, but only for a few disjointed hours a day, leapfrogging from science and math to English and phys ed.  In such a fragmented environment, where can we find moral constancy?  Where is the moral guidance when various elements of the environment contradict each other?  The violence of movies contradicts the lectures of teachers and the sermons of preachers.  Who is right?

            Wertham’s science was lousy, but he was asking the right questions.  And the questions persist.  They nag us today.  If we are very lucky, we’ll find answers untainted by the rhetorical frenzy that animated Wertham’s infamous tract.

            If Wertham taught us anything, he taught us that political maneuvers inspire only political solutions as shallow as the politics that motivate them. The politics of appearances affect only appearances.  His book was a political screed, a pubic relations campaign; the solution to the problems he pronounced--the Comics Code--was a political solution, another piece of p.r.  It changed comic books--a little and for a while--but it didn’t change any of the other “contributing factors.” 

            Let’s hope we don’t make the same mistake again.

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