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 ﬁnal 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 identiﬁcation, 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."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.
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.
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.