Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Reader's Diary #1935- Frederic Wertham: Seduction of the Innocent

I've been a student of comics for some time now and as any such student could tell you, Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, a 1954 diatribe about comics and their negative impact on youth, is legendary and notorious. It's been credited/blamed for altering the course of comic books, especially in the U.S. market, with horror and crime comic sales plummeting to the point where they were never again dominant genres; an increase in censorship and book burnings; a stigma on comic books as juvenile, trashy, and inferior that still lasts to this day;  a self-imposed "comic-code" approval guide that lasted, into the 21st century (Archie comics were one of the last adherents and when they finally dropped the "comics code approved" logos from their covers hardly anyone even noticed).

Since then much of Wertham's scientific methods and approaches have been debunked. He's been accused of small, biased samples, and jumping to conclusions that were not merited. And, in most of the literature I've seen, he's been presented as a bit of a goody-two-shoes crack pot, an anti-comic/pro-censorship zealot, and in my head, akin to the Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy and her cries for someone to "please, think of the children!"

Still, because of its reputation, I've wanted to read Seduction of the Innocent myself. I am so glad I did and feel now that I have a much more accurate and complex picture of the man and his motives.

Some of the critiques about Wertham and this book were obviously justified. He had a hate on that sometimes ventured into the bizarre, and more often into elitism, as if the medium itself is somehow as evil as the content and would not allow for any argument that "good" comics could ever exist or would appeal to young people. (I'm not a fan of many "educational" comics myself, but there are some stellar comic books out there that qualify as first class literature!) He criticized, for instance, the cheap newspaper and colours that were then used without any imagination that this could, should, or would improve. He criticized, rightfully so, comic book ads for guns and switchblades but recommended throwing out the baby with the dishwater. And speaking of babies and dishwater, he had a particularly annoying penchant for analogies that just didn't work to prove the points he was trying to make.

And yet, he's one of the earliest examples I've read of someone criticizing comics for sexism and misogyny (calling out the ubiquitous rape or threatened rape tropes) and for sub-humanizing people of colour. Wertham's bad science aside, we (and yes, I include myself here), are still calling out comics creators for such shit and if we didn't genuinely believe that such images and story lines were harmful, why would we bother speaking up?

I found myself pondering censorship a lot during the reading of Seduction of the Innocent. I think right and left camps have equally advocated for and abused censorship and it almost always backfires or sets dangerous precedents. However, I think people need to call out bullshit including racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. Have you seen some of the comics from Wertham's day? Holy cow, those some of the most overtly racist stuff out there. While such stuff still exists in comics, I think things have improved a great deal and not due to censorship, but rather due to writers, artists, and readers who believe in respect and who call out those who don't, demanding better rather than simply for the absence of worse.

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