Learning From History: How One Lying Liar Almost Screwed The Comic Book Industry

from the the-stories-they-tell dept

One thing that will never cease to make me smirk out of frustration is how often the purveyors of the moral panic du jour seem to cast aside the morality of telling the damned truth when making their panicked arguments. Today it’s all video games and ghost stories, with names like Jack Thompson cemented in our minds as bullshit artists fairly easily cast aside as the crackpots that they are. That said, these people are simply the latest iteration in a long and glorious history of people trying to make a buck or a reputation off of the fears of parents and it’s useful to remind people we’ve all been here before and history hasn’t judged these fear-peddlers all too kindly.

Over at io9, they have a fascinating writeup discussing the history of Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who waged his own personal war against the comic book industry in the fifties. His weapons of choice were lies, half-truths, omission of facts, and a level of bullshit not typically seen outside of farm country. There’s a ton of detail in the post to dig through, but the skinny is that Wertham wrote a bestelling book in 1954 called The Seduction of the Innocent, which, despite it’s porno-sounding name, was essentially a screed against comic books. Wertham’s assertion that comics drove children to violence, drug use, and homosexuality was one of the inspirations for the editorial code used by the comics industry assocation CMAA. Basically the movement that still ripples against kids reading comics today all started because of The Seduction of the Innocent. The problem is that the book was mostly bullshit, as discovered and covered by the University of Illinois’ Carol Tilley.

Tilley’s work is based on unprecedented access to 200 cartons of Wertham’s private papers at the Library of Congress, which were under seal until 2010. Over a period of roughly two weeks, Tilley pored over everything from Wertham’s correspondence with colleagues to the extremely detailed notes he kept on interviews and sessions with the teens he worked with throughout most of his life. It was when she started reading these notes that Tilley realized that there were some pretty big discrepancies between what Wertham recorded in them, and what he wrote in Seduction of the Innocent.

What she uncovered was an almost pathological practice by Wertham of altering the stories of his patients, splintering his patient’s stories and attributing them to multiple people to build a case of mass effect, repurposing second-hand accounts as his own and attributing them to made-up patients, or else taking true patient information and leaving out anything that would point the finger anywhere besides a comic book. Seriously, some of the examples cited are downright insane. Take the case of Dorothy, a teen described in Wertham’s book as being obsessed with the comic book heroine Sheena.

In the case notes, Wertham commented that the images of strong women reinforced “violent revenge fantasies against men and possibly creates these violent anti-men (therefore homosexual) fantasies. . . . Sheena and the other comic book women such as Wonder Woman are very bad ideals for them.” Yet Wertham omits from Seduction—and seemingly from his analysis—a revealing story about Dorothy’s everyday reality. In the case notes, she related an incident in which her aunt was accosted by gang members, taken to a rooftop, and robbed of less than one dollar. Wertham also declined to mention in Seduction that Dorothy—in addition to being habitually truant—was a runaway and a gang member, was sexually active, and had both a reading disability and low normal intelligence. On the ?nal page of Dorothy’s case notes, Wertham instead wrote: “She would be good and non-aggressive if society would let her—Comic Books are part of society.”

Got that? Strong women in comics make women man-hating violent offenders, but, hey, don’t look at all this patient history of trauma and disability over here. The last sentence of those notes is such a leap — “Comic Books are part of society”, therefore they’re to blame for her violence — it sort of takes your breath away. I mean, crappy lying psychiatrists fudging their data are also a part of society, so…you know.

The fudging gets worse when Wertham looks to blame homosexuality on Batman & Robin, taking the jokes we all made as ignorant children and building an entire psychiatric claim around them. Too bad he built his own strawman composite to do so.

As part of his evidence for this identi?cation, Wertham shared the insights of a young homosexual man who stated, “I think I put myself in the position of Robin. I did want to have relations with Batman.”

The young man from the anecdote was actually two men, ages sixteen and seventeen, who had been in a sexual relationship with one another for several years and had realized they were homosexual by the age of ten. Wertham combined their statements, failing to indicate that the seventeen-year-old is the one who noted, “The only suggestion of homosexuality may be that they seemed to be so close to each other,” and omitting the phrase that followed, “like my friend and I.” Further, Wertham did not make any mention that the two teens had found the Submariner and Tarzan to be better subjects than Batman and Robin for their early erotic fantasies.

When he wasn’t putting the words of one patient into the mouths of several fictional patients, Wertham would just, you know, pretend he’d experienced things he never had actually experienced.

Tilley also found evidence in the Library of Congress papers that Wertham’s observation that he’d seen children “vomit over comic books” was actually taken from a report from the psychiatrist’s friend, the folklorist Gershon Legman. Wertham also claims in Seduction that he’d seen comics for sale to children in stores where prostitutes peddled their wares. This was actually from a report given to him by his colleague Hilde Mosse; Wertham never witnessed any prostitutes at comic book stores.

To be fair, bullshitting is, like, at least three times easier than science. The point of all this isn’t to suggest that parents shouldn’t pay attention to the gaming their children do, or the comics they read, for that matter. No, the point is that anytime you hear something that has the ring of moral panic to it, chances are overwhelmingly good that it’s nonsense being peddled so that somebody somewhere can make a name or a buck. The sooner we can become more skeptical of that kind of thing, the sooner the flavor of bullshit peddled by Wertham, Thompson, and all the rest will fail to find purchase in our culture.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Learning From History: How One Lying Liar Almost Screwed The Comic Book Industry”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Ninja (profile) says:

For me these people are the ones that have serious psychiatric issues. It’s not normal trying to force your own opinion into everybody to the point of blatantly lying and pulling shady antics to ‘prove your point’.

Every time one of those moral crusaders step up and scream about the evils of [insert hot topic here] without factual evidence I just see them as fundamentalist sociopaths. Good thing they have less and less influence nowadays.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This has been my conclusion for a while.

All the people who say that you can’t be moral if you don’t share their moral standards are indicating that they wouldn’t themselves attempt or purport to be moral if they didn’t have their particular moral standards to rely on. Therefore, they’re immoral and maybe just aren’t acting on their immorality, much like a recovering alcoholic might be sober for years or decades. Not everyone needs their particular moral standards to be moral.

The conservative Christians who spun tales of witches and satanists trying to corrupt everyone in society, but especially children, in the 70’s and 80’s through role-playing games and video games, were themselves indoctrinating children with these paranoid persecution complexes.

fgoodwin (profile) says:

Comix and reading

Kids today read so little, I support their reading of comix because in some cases, without the comix, they’d probably read nothing at all.

I read comix as a kid. I was partial to Sgt. Rock, Johnny Cloud, and the JEB Stuart tank comix of the early ’60s. I wasn’t really into super heroes, although I was marginally more of a DC-fan than Marvel.

Today my older son reads Mangia graphic novels. I would prefer that he read more substantive books, but I’m glad that he at least reads those.

Rabbit80 (profile) says:

OK – many may disagree with my viewpoint, but here it is..

Violence, sexual assaults and the like appear to have been on the increase since at least the last century. Why this is I have no idea – however, media – be it games, comics, video – may well have played a part in it.

I don’t see the fears as unfounded, although I also do not see these things as a direct causation of the problems we face.

Violent video games, comics. books, movies may have an effect on people who have already got tendencies towards unbefitting behaviour, but are unlikely to be the cause – however, as the standards of what is acceptable to view are relaxed the underlying behaviour is normalised.

As this process is gradual, such tendencies cannot be attributed directly to the behaviour of the individuals, however as a society these behaviours become more frequent until they are the norm.

I know I might attract people clicking the ‘report’ button, but I feel it is a discussion worth having – why do we see more delinquents and serious crime today than we did 50 years ago?

jjmsan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

When you make a statement that this your view point you are not making a scientific argument. For example:
“Violence, sexual assaults and the like appear to have been on the increase since at least the last century.” Ordinarily you would source this and we could discuss the findings. Since you do not I would be arguing with your viewpoint which is a waste of time.
“Why this is I have no idea -” Use a search engine of your choice and find out. Once you have a factually based idea then we could have a worthwhile discussion

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wasn’t that the era when the police homicide case-files were so impacted that people had to rely on eccentric gumshoes, old ladies and curly-moustachioed Frenchmen to determine whodunit?

If I recall my literature, everyone had a motivation for killing somebody, usually due to greed or the potential exposure of a past scandal. Close people off in the same house for a week and only one will walk out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I cannot cite evidence and this is just a viewpoint.

If you cannot cite evidence, it’s not a viewpoint, it’s a load of shit you pulled out of your ass.

To answer the question you should have asked before you posted this article shows that violent crime has been dropping for the past few hundred years:


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Violent crime rates have reportedly been going down for the last 20 years: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/24/violent-crime-rising-in-united-states/3180309/.

It’s likely that it seems like there’s more because you’re exposed to more reports of it due to the increase in availability of such reports. On the internet and social media, you hear about all the violence that happens in other parts of the country that 20 years ago, you might only hear about a small percentage that was considered worthy of a national news program.

There’s also an incentive for the media to emphasize violent stories because “if it bleeds, it leads.” And the law enforcement agencies and district attorneys have an incentive to overemphasize their value in fighting crime by making sure the public is well aware of the horrors of violent crime that they might face more of if taxes aren’t increased to pay for new SWAT team uniforms or a tank or if the DA isn’t re-elected.

Many other people have an incentive to push the narrative of how violent we are as a society. The NRA certainly wants you to think there’s a gun-toting “bad guy” around every corner.

Also, the internet makes it more difficult for people to cover up incidents that before widespread internet access would have been easy to hide. Unless you had a reporter at the courthouse when something went down, you might not have it reported at all. Now, we have mugshots being posted by law enforcement agencies on Facebook.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…why do we see more delinquents and serious crime today than we did 50 years ago?

Do we? If you have some data to back up this claim, I’d really love to see it and correlate it with population studies to see if the percentages really are relative.

Also, in the last 50 years we’ve also experienced an information explosion. Is there really more incidents of violence now or is that we now hear about them more regularly? Fifty years ago a sexual assault in Podunk would not have made it past the local papers. 300 years ago no one but those involved would have know about it. Today the whole world know in minutes.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: There's also the leaded gas thing.

Not to long ago a TD forum discussed a strong correlation between crime-rate drops and mandatory switches to unleaded gasoline (by strong, I mean consistent from county to county). I don’t have the sources in my face, but I would have much preferred causation to be related to the internet and the availability of porn for all.

Still, there’s much less crime, and the police departments seems to be beside themselves looking for ways to make themselves useful.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Violence, sexual assaults and the like appear to have been on the increase since at least the last century. Why this is I have no idea – however, media – be it games, comics, video – may well have played a part in it.”

Then explain why Japan, with far more violent content in its’ manga (comics), video games, and movies (Ever see “Battle Royale”?) has a far lower violent crime and murder rate than America.
It ain’t the media.
It’s the parents.
In Japan, they take responsibility for their children.

DCL says:

Re: Re:

Don’t forget that “Violence, sexual assaults and the like” have ALWAYS been prevalent in human history. In the the last 100 years communication has become easier, faster, more diverse and directed then it ever has been and there fore makes it easier to be aware of of the less desirable portions of humanity.

Because it is easier to “ignore the elephant* in the room” things that highlight or infer the negative side of society are often made out as demons for being the messenger. Comic books are one example of that happening.

To say that media X causes society to crumble or degrade is to ignore most of human history and individualism. I am not saying media is not influential, but maybe society has more influence on media then media does on socitiy, the cycle has to start somewhere!

*although if it a ninja/stealth elephant you may not even notice it.

Rabbit80 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You have a fair point, and my view is most likely obscured by the media – however my impression of say the early 1900’s (aside from the wars) are not ones of teenagers threateninbg OAPs on street corners or breaking in and murdering them and robbing them so they could score some smack. These days, it seems almost daily!

This may simply be a result of ‘rose tinted specs’ from the media and the OAPs I interact with daily!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You’re statement regarding violence today is:

“These days, it seems almost daily!”

Yeah, that’s because violence has been a huge part of our species since the first human had something another wanted.

Today, we are not just living in a country more peaceful than in the entirety of our existence, but in our species existence.

What you have today is a world in which anyone who has access to any form of telecommunication equipment (which is expanding exponentially each year), can transmit their personal experience and share it with the world in the less time than it takes to make a cup of coffee.

What you have to do is stop viewing the entirety of the world through your experiences and begin to view them through the lens of history. Otherwise you make yourself sound like some sort of braying jackass.

You want some idea about how the world is today compared to the days of yore, just pick up a history book and look at how people used to treat each other. Ask a black man from 1900’s Oklahoma how racism is today compared to his era, or a strong minded woman in the Middle Ages who rails against Christendom, or any non-Roman in Rome 2000 years ago. If you study history, you will find that the roots of our barbarism are being dislodged with each passing year. You will hear many reasons for this occurring. For my money though, this mostly relates to the ease by which modern life allows us to meet our most basic needs, in terms of food, shelter, and comfort. The most peaceful of today’s societies (at least within the confines of those societies, external conflicts not withstanding) have more to do with resources, either in their creation or acquirement. The details are not important to this topic, so I will leave it for now.

However, if you want to do some reading regarding the unprecedented level of peace we have in the world today, I recommend you check out a few of these resources:

Violence Vanquished
By Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s accompanying TedTalk:

The Decline of Violence
By Michael Shermer

World Becoming Less Violent: Despite Global Conflict, Statistics Show Violence In Steady Decline
By Seth Borenstein

Also, if you think that perhaps there is less reporting of violence going on today, think about what the mechanisms for reporting violence would have been 50, 100, 500, 1000 years ago.

UriGagarin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Reported cases are on the up – Over here in the UK we’re going through a whole epoch of childhood heroes being taken to court for sexual abuses done to children and adults.

All that says is that is it easier to report these things now and will be taken more seriously than before.

More reports to the police NOW does not mean that there were any less ACTS happening in the past.

coward (anon) says:

Re: Re:

I disagree with your basic premise that violence and assaults are on the increase. I would argue that your knowledge of violence and assaults has increased due to the easy of finding about these things via the web. 30 years ago if you lived on the west coast of the US you odds of knowing about violence or assaults that happen on the east coast were just about nil unless it involved well-known individuals or large numbers of people. Now we know about violence in countries we can’t even locate on a map or spell.

bhull242 says:

Re: Re: Re:

@madasahatter: Any evidence to support any of the points you made? As stated in articles linked to by others on this page, violence has declined, but news coverage of violence has increased dramatically. Also, it is likely that, before mass media, fewer of the crimes committed were actually reported to authorities than today. While it’s possible that teens and young adults are the most violent, that doesn’t seem relevant here, since that isn’t necessarily the group most exposed to violence in video games or comics, nor is it the ones “moral police” concern themselves most with. I’m also unclear on what you mean by local norms.
As for the last point, I have never heard that, and it doesn’t seem to be relevant. I’m not even entirely sure what you mean by aging countries, since any aging I can think of that might be relevant would either be contradicted by known statistics, or be too outdated to apply to recent trends.

SirAston says:

Re: "why do we see more delinquents and serious crime today than we did 50 years ago?"

Most likely because coverage of crimes has become better, therefore we are exposed to reports about crime more often. This can give the illusion of an increase in crime, but I’d bet that the quantity of large-scale crimes (in relation to the number of law-abiding citizens) has been relatively stable.
In other words: There aren’t more felonies, we just hear about more felonies than in the past.

I agree with media being a possible catalyst for already-existing negative behaviour, though. But really, everything can be used as a catalyst (just for fun: “It’s not guns that kill people. It’s money that enables people to buy guns and ammunition, therefore money is evil.” See what I did there?)

bhull242 says:

Re: Re:

While I agree with most of this post, I’d like to point out that just because violence, sexual assaults, etc. appear to be on the rise doesn’t mean they are actually occurring more often. In fact, violence has declined in recent decades, while media coverage of violence has increased sevenfold over the same period. That said, the crux of your argument, which is essentially that correlation does not equal causation, is completely true.

Dave Cortright says:

People > media by an order of magnitude

Here’s the elephant in the room. No form of media is going to have anywhere close to the amount of influence over people that actual people having a face to face conversation does.

We read articles here on TechDirt about the FBI setting up fake “terrorism plots” to entrap people who otherwise would not have the wherewithal to carry out the plan. You don’t see the FBI creating video games, comic books, or other “dangerous” media and getting results. It’s never going to happen.

We are social creatures, and words and images on a page/screen are a weak substitute for true social interactions.

Bradley Johnston (profile) says:

re: "why do we see more delinquents and serious crime today than we did 50 years ago?"

>> “why do we see more delinquents and serious crime today than we did 50 years ago?”

Actually violent crime statistics have been dropping of since we got rid of leaded gas.

But here is another thought… I turned on a radio (remember those?) in the middle of a news story about a violent incident at some high school.

Wow it had me worried.

But it was not until near the end of the story that I realized that the incident had happened half way around the world in Korea.

I remember thinking that 25 years ago you would never have heard about it. I also remmeber thinking that the news media had to go a long way for the headline that day.

Anonymous Coward says:

It has been over 10 years since Marvel had abandoned the CCA, though DC, Archie and Bongo quit in 2011, according to Wikipedia. Still though the CMAA did a lot of damage to the comics industry from which it is still recovering. Sure there were great stories and art being done during those years, but the major publishers were severely restrained on what they could publish.

As someone who read comics as a kid, and having gotten back into them, now is a great time to be reading again. Jim Starlin is still doing amazing work with Adam Worlock and Thanos, and the teams working on the Avengers and Fantastic Four are amazing as well.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...